The muttering begins long before you reach Harish Chandra Ghat. As the electric crematorium for vagrants, the homeless and the otherwise unclaimed comes into view, the usual refrain of “Madam, where you from?” gives way to “Madam, burning ceremony is beginning soon. Do you want to see the burning, madam?”
Yes, you want to see the burning, but you don’t need any guide. Varanasi is a holy city, and the sick and the old travel here by their thousands to die and be cremated on the Ganges, where the fires burn twenty four hours a day. The dead are everywhere. It’s not unusual to see a respectfully wrapped corpse strapped to the roof of a taxi, en route to its journey’s end in midday traffic.
You’ve come a long way to see the burning, because a weary, queasy part of you wants to see what happens, what really happens, when somebody dies. So here you are alone on a winter afternoon, irresistibly drawn to watch your first cremation.
The slick-haired local boys in their killingly pressed shirts slip back into the crowd, taking their patter with them, as a body is borne down the steps from the street to a platform at the edge of the Ganges. Swaddled in cheap, glittering fabrics and held aloft on a bamboo stretcher, it passes directly in front of you as you stand in the path. You’ve learned since arriving in Varanasi that bodies have a strangely flat appearance, as though they’ve collapsed in on themselves since their owners left. This package being delivered by a group of men in casual clothes, face covered and shimmering weakly in the sunlight, is no exception. It could be anyone.
The bearers dip the body in the river several times, then remove its garlands and shawls and place them on the ground near an already smouldering wood pile. Tall stacks of firewood surround the ghat, with goats scrambling over them like miniature alps. A gang of finely plumed roosters crow and strut in the pathway, and a cow stands in the water a few feet from the body, serenely chewing on a marigold garland. A few thin, dirty dogs lie stretched and sleeping on the footpath, universally ignored. There are no mourners present.
Positioning yourself among a small crowd of spectators, your attention is snagged by what you realise is another body, wrapped in white sacking and already embedded in a large stack of logs on a neighbouring outcropping. It looks lonely out there. A young monk in pale robes, head shaved but for a few long wisps, emerges from temple behind you carrying a smouldering ember on a sheaf of reeds. On the impatient instructions of an older man in business slacks he touches off the pyre on the outcropping and soon dark grey smoke is billowing skyward.
Bodies cremated in this manner are smeared in clarified butter beforehand to help them burn; the head in particular must be thoroughly coated in ghee. You learned these things and many more from a lifetime of books, which have left you convinced there is profundity to be found at the rivers edge in the city of the dead. Ask not what you can do for India, but what India can do for your precious, Western self.
A middle-aged local man watching beside you asks “Where you from?’’
“Australia” you reply without a smile, ready to rebuff whatever he is offering. He isn’t part of your program of improvement.
“They’re doing like this in Australia, or more…” he makes a folding gesture, as though making a bed “….burying?”
You nod and repeat the folding gesture. “Burying”.
Later when you turn to look he is teasing a small child, pretending to wipe the colour off a vivid yellow handbill and smear it on the boy’s forehead. The boy is startled, then pleased; finally he totters off with the paper in his chubby fist, a magical gift that spreads colour.
A thicker, paler plume emerges from the centre of the pyre and you find yourself trying to distinguish the smell of burning flesh from the scent of woodsmoke. Strangely – fortunately – you find you’re not able to. As the wood is consumed a foot becomes visible, skin blackened and curling off in flakes, revealing the pale fat beneath. The first body, stripped of its gaudy finery and swathed only in white, has since been concealed in its own lightly puffing pyre, and now a third body in chintzy silver, red and gold is borne down from the street on another bamboo stretcher. The ghat being occupied, there is some confusion about what to do with it. Eventually it is brought back from the river’s edge and placed on the ground alongside the main thoroughfare. Another will be along soon, then another, then another, and the boats will keep coming piled high with firewood to meet them until the end of time or the end of death or the end of Varanasi. Grave clothes pile up all day long beside the heavily tarnished silver of the Ganges.
Watching the ashes of strangers spiral off into the sky, you will yourself toward gratitude for your life and all the good things in it. But you just can’t make yourself feel a thing, even when you know it’s true. Much later you’ll realise that the single lesson of your first cremation was this; that death punches a small hole in the fabric of ordinary life, though whether it lets solemnity in or frivolity out is uncertain. Maybe the traffic goes both ways, like the boats on the river and the people on the ghat and the cars on the road above. But the complex, incalculable, meaningless rush of the world goes on, poorer and richer and better and worse than you’ll ever really understand. And the complexity of the world is multiplied by the number of people in it, each one the centre of the universe, every life an epic novel, and every one of us coming to rest as a nameless form on its back, mourned by a few but unnoticed by the slick-haired hustlers and plump little children with yellow handbills in their fists and families taking photographs of Baba with the foreigner and sleeping dogs and wet-eyed cows and even the indifferent monk with his burning brand.
So you turn to leave the ghat and are swallowed back into the world of commerce and hustle. Thin smoke wafts overhead as the river moves on, dragging ashes and garbage, marigolds and foam to the sea.
First published in Going Down Swinging, issue 33.