It is easy to get lost in the mucky dung-strewn back alleyways in Varanasi’s Holy City, but finding the Burning Ghat is never a problem. You just follow the corpses.
Some dead bodies, wrapped round and round in snow-white gauze, sit upright like solitary commuters in the backseat of slowly pedaled bicycle rickshaws. Others, swathed in bright orange, lie on garland-decked pallets that are borne high by crowds of weeping relatives. They all will lead you to the river, the Holy River Ganges. Failing that, you can follow your nose, pick up the smell of incense or, if the wind is right, charring flesh.
So there we were, the world travelers, watching dead people on fire.
It was a rare chance to stand at a sacred crossroads of existence, I told the children. The Infinite Round of Being was playing out before us. A billion believing Hindus dreamed of coming to this very place, to die and be cremated.
To have one’s body burned here, the ashes tossed into the Holy River, was to assure a good burial, a release from the endless karmic cycle of birth and rebirth. Here, it was possible for souls to attain nirvana, which was the goal of all souls.
In deference to these vast, humbling forces, we should be quiet and respectful at the Burning Ghat, I said.
Not that the locals appeared to be observing such decorum. An argument had broken out near one of the three ten-foot-high pyres. A family was screaming at a fat middle-aged man in a deeply soiled dhoti. Pointing at a clipboard, the man screamed back.
It was a fight over money. After all, it takes more than three tons of wood, cut into one hundred-pound railroad tie–size pieces, to properly burn a body. Lumber is not cheap. With the deforestation crisis throughout the Gangetic Plain, it was getting more expensive all the time. The lumber has to be lorried in from the south, or floated down the river from Himalayan foothills in ominous, black-hulled boats. Aware of this ever-rising cost, Hindu pilgrims save for years for their funeral pyres. Apparently the particular pilgrim currently on the fire had not saved enough. Head and torso blackened but still intact, the fuel for his trip to heaven had run out.
If the cremation was to continue, the man with the clipboard, who identified himself as “the captain of the Burning Ghat,” said he would require further payment. Otherwise, he told the deceased’s weeping, railing relatives, he would have no choice but to remove the half-incinerated body and replace it with another, of which there was no shortage, corpses being stacked up in several places on the steps leading to the river. The dead man’s sons and daughters were claiming extortion, screaming they had already paid the agreed amount.
So it was a negotiation, still another subcontinental bargaining session. Here, even the transmigration of souls did not have a fixed price. Ah, India. Just when you feel you’ve weathered today’s onslaught of the bizarre, things ratchet up one more notch. What a country! They didn’t have this back in Brooklyn.
Still, I could tell, the Burning Ghat was not making it as a family fun destination.
The kids were not digging it. It was only a few weeks ago that they’d visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the one-time high school where Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge tortured and killed twenty thousand people. At the great temples of Angkor, they’d walked by the armless, legless beggars. In Thailand there was that bus at the bottom of the ravine, dried blood on the broken windows, little boys in rags prying off the tires with their bare hands. But now, a month and a half into our circumnavigation of the globe, the Burning Ghat was the last draw.
“This is horrible! Disgusting!” critiqued the then-sixteen-year-old, Rae.
“Bad,” chimed in twelve-year-old Rosalie.
‘really bad,” assented Billy, nine at the time.
The three of them were united on this point. They were all going to throw up if we didn’t get out of there immediately.
The really dumb thing was: I wasn’t positive about Tuol Sleng, but I really thought they were going to like the Burning Ghat.
Nattering like some ninny Chevy Chase, I’d told my wife: you’ll see, the Burning Ghat is going to be a pick hit. Knock their unchanged socks right off. As it turned out, of all the places the children professed to hate in our three-month spin about the planet, the Burning Ghat, and India in general, was the most hated.
It wasn’t just the heat and filth. Back in New York, Rae had no compunction about lying around on the cruddy sidewalks of the East Village with her skin-pierced, semi-no-account friends. Indeed, all three of our children were born while we lived in a fourth-floor walkup on St. Marks Place, the East Village’s famously disreputable bohemian promenade. They had more than a passing acquaintance with the phantasmagoric, not to mention stench.
But this was different. True, in New York they might have subway leerers and backpack snatchers, but they didn’t clutch at you all the time. In New York you didn’t have to stay at places where whirring fans crashed from the ceiling like downed helicopters in the middle of the night. In New York you didn’t have to eat mutter paneer every other meal and brush your teeth with orange soda lest giant parasites burrow into your bone marrow. In New York, they didn’t bargain over whether or not to throw half-burned dead people into the river, not every day anyway. And if they did, you didn’t have to watch it with your parents.
“I’m breathing through my mouth, Dad,” hissed Rosalie, gagging on the thick black smoke from the funeral pyre. “I’ve been breathing through my mouth for days. . . .”
On a global jaunt, the whine was equally global. They didn’t simply want to go back to the Vishnu Guest House, the two-dollar “traveler’s’ hotel we’d spent an epic hour trying to find soon after our arrival from Kathmandu, dodging massive piles of cow dung up and down the rabbit warren maze of blind alleys in Varanasi’s Old City. Certainly there was some fun to be had sitting on the Vishnu balcony above the Holy River watching surly French backpackers study their Lonely Planet guides while attempting to ignore incursions of monkeys that swept down from the hotel roof to steal banana pancakes from their greasy dinner plates. It was even more fun, especially from the point of view of Billy, the scampish World Wide Wrestling Federation fan, to shoot pebbles at those same monkeys with slingshots provided by the harried but ever-amused hotel staff.
Wham. Right in the red-colored butt, you see that shot? Fun. But the kind of fun that only went so far.
No, the children wanted greater distance from the Burning Ghat than simply returning to the humid rooms of the Vishnu Guest House and their squat toilets. A one-way ticket out of India, and Asia itself, would not even suffice. What was called for was a little teleportation. A zap back to that nice little spot on the couch in our current Brooklyn abode, a bowl of Cocoa Puffs on the table, the cordless phone at the ready and a third rerun of some particularly moving episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on the box. That sounded like the proper degree of separation from the Burning Ghat.
We’d come all this way to escape the enveloping ersatz of the fetid American cultural experience, traveled long and hard to be at one with The Real. And we were going to partake of that real, goddammit. The world was a bigger place than what the anti-Christ popular culture said it was. The world was bigger even than some foul, smoky club on Houston Street where everyone dressed in black. Bigger than Michael Jordan and Behind the Music. If it took the Burning Ghat to prove it, well, tough.
It was for their own good.
In the context of the Great Round of Existence, the Burning Ghat connoted a specific familial symmetry. The Burning Ghat spoke of The Eternal Return.
It was here that my wife and I spent our honeymoon. There wasn’t any choice. Niagara Falls was all booked up. Or at least that was my standard reply when asked why, twenty years before the current journey, we decided to drop out, mid-career so to speak, and travel around the world for a year with knapsacks on our backs, val-da-ree, val-da-rah.
Originally we had what Pan American Airways, then still struggling to present air travel as the 1939 World’s Fair equivalent of a stately Cunard passage across the Atlantic, referred to as an “Eighty Days Around the World” ticket. It was the forerunner of the exotic multicountry deals they sell nowadays under modernist rubrics NY–LA–TKY–HK–BKK–DEL–BAH–ATH–LON–NY, with perhaps a MAD or JOH substituted for a DEL or BAH. Except nowadays they throw in a free web page so you can spam unsuspecting surfers with tedious accounts of your run-ins with Russian customs.
In the path of Jules Verne and David Niven, we took our eighty days and traveled west, making Bali by the seventieth day, which is less than halfway around and was not going to work out math-wise. We sold our tickets to some Germans and went overland, which is how the hippies used to do it, before the Ayatollah and sundry Taliban loosed fundamentalism and bad water upon all the good dope cities. Back then, an extra nine months on the road didn’t seem excessive, especially with time off for a few bouts of dengue fever. Somewhere in the middle we pulled into Varanasi, and, following the bodies, found our way to the Burning Ghat where, suddenly, we found our future on the line.
Taking pictures of the Burning Ghat is forbidden. Everyone knows this. Liberal ethnographical pluralist/internationalists then as now, we respected that. At least that’s what we tried to tell those boys, some preteen Fagin’s army, who came out of nowhere to surround us, claiming unforgivable sacrilege.
“No pictures of the Burning Ghat,” they bum-rushed, demanding that my wife hand over the unused camera sticking out of her bag.
We’d been warned about this, in the ‘scams and cons’ section of one guidebook or another. The “offended” parties demand the film, then run off with the camera: a fairly standard shakedown, nothing to get pent-up about. But these kids got too close. Voices were raised, a crowd began to gather and a moment later, rocks were flying. A nice little entry for the honeymoon scrapbook: stoned to death, at the place of death.
But then, conveniently, a policeman appeared. He hit the kid who had thrown the first stone with his bobby’s baton, opening a cut on the young hooligan’s head. The kid shouted and the cop knocked him down and kicked him in the ribs. Shocked by such brutality, we, being respectful pluralist/internationalists, attempted to intercede on behalf of our erstwhile attacker. Heeding these pleas for mercy, the cop got in one more good shot to the gut, then stopped. The kid got up, spit at us through bloodied lips, and hobbled away.
“This man has helped you,” said a man in the crowd, indicating the mustachioed cop, a strong and silent type in his nifty brown and red uniform. “Without this man you could have been seriously hurt, even killed. Those boys are evil. Maximum bandits. He has saved your future for you.”
There was no mistaking the next bit of business. Baksheesh was a way of life upon the subcontinent, we well knew. But how much? How much was the future worth to two honeymooning Americans traveling God’s great hippie highway?
“I would say fifty rupees,” the onlooker suggested.
About six bucks in 1980. Then, it seemed like a deal.
So now we were back at the Burning Ghat, with The Future in tow, the three of them.
What more accurate accounting of the future could there be? What else has really happened in the twenty years between then and now?
For my part, there were a few books written, none immortal. Some movies written and rewritten. The range of experience was wide, often very rewarding, in a city-boy journalist sort of way: there were games of one-on-one with Dr. J., a joint with Bob Marley, two-mile descents beneath the ground with South African gold miners, midnight sails with caviar poachers in the Caspian Sea, a playful swat in the arm from John Gotti, a kiss on the cheek from the Dalai Lama.
But what, in the end, are these things worth? What is the DNA of experience? How do you package it, send it along? How many times can you tell those same moldy stories?
No, when I look at my particular life, all that I have accomplished and not accomplished, when I draw a bottom line beneath the debits and credits, the most tangible, irrefutable sum is: them.
The three of them.
“You are wise to have brought your children to the Burning Ghat,” said Mr. Sen, who had appointed himself our guide, elbowing aside any number of other unsolicited dispensers of spiritual and logistical information. In Varanasi, we had steered clear of such individuals, making exceptions only for “Goldie people” i.e., those who claimed to be close friends of Goldie Hawn, of which Varanasi offered a surprisingly large contingent. Indeed, upon hearing that we were Americans, many people assumed that we “knew Goldie,” who apparently is something of a collector of “Benares silks,” the spectacular brocades for which the Holy City is famous. As “friends of Goldie,” we were asked back to several houses to drink tea in rooms displaying large, autographed pictures of the former star of the seventies comedy show, Laugh-in.
The dark-eyed Mr. Sen was no Goldie person. With his wooly-haired coif and frumpy, frayed sport jacket he suggested a former student radical, an embassy-occupier perhaps, gradually gone to seed and blurred apocalyptic vision. He was determined to extend cultural enlightenment to the naive and hopelessly self-satisfied Americans in his midst.
“Burning is learning,” Mr. Sen declared.
“Burning is learning. Cremation is education.” This was Mr. Sen’s most effectively rhymed tourist mantra. One didn’t have to be a Hindu, or even an Indian, to come away from Varanasi a changed person, Mr. Sen made clear. “You can be a Christian, or any manner of pagan. . . .”
Originally from a small village outside the industrial city of Kanpur one hundred miles east, where his health was “ruined by terrible pollution and the amorality of money,” Mr. Sen came to Varanasi three years ago because, as “a follower of Lord Shiva . . . there was nowhere else to go.”
Varanasi has always been Shiva’s city, Mr. Sen said, ever since the God decapitated Brahma and wandered through all of India with the bloody head stuck to his palm. In Varanasi, the skull finally came loose, rolling from Shiva’s hand. The god decided he liked Varanasi and decided to make it his home. To this day he hasn’t left, which is the reason the city is referred to as Avimutka, or “the unabandoned.”
Indeed, without Lord Shiva, whom Mr. Sen described as “the one thousand-eyed creator and destroyer of the universe, Lord of Dance, keeper of the cosmic time upon his drum,” there would be no Holy City, nor Holy River.
To buttress this contention, Mr. Sen directed us to the Puranas, Hindu scripture, where it says the Ganges once flowed through heaven, its waters as clear as white light. It was the desperate prayers of a million saints that brought the river to earth. The baleful gaze of sage Kapila had set fire to the sixty thousand sons of King Sagara. The saints hoped the celestial waters of the Ganges would purify the ashes.
The Ganges, however, was not happy to leave heaven. Angry at its fall, the river sought to drown the earth on impact. It was only Lord Shiva who prevented the disaster. Craning his neck, the god caught the plummeting Ganges amid the furrows of his infinite brow. Even now, uncounted eons later, the riverbed of the Ganges conforms to those contorted curves that guide the now silty, turbid waters along its 1,560-mile course from the Himalayan glaciers, across the broad plains of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, to the Bay of Bengal.
It was in this way that Shiva, who set the boundaries of things, separated the water from the land, just as he divided the night from the day, Mr. Sen told us. It was in these transitional places where any conscious being must pay special heed, Mr. Sen said, “because there is no simple line between things.” There was always “a zone of change,” a threshold “like the twilight” where whatever was became something else. These in-between places, called tirthas, were Shiva’s realm, his and his alone.
As world travelers, journeying through foreign lands, “where life is different from one place to another,” our little family should pay extra attention to tirthas, Mr. Sen implored. “You will go past many borders, and you should pray for Shiva’s aid in crossing them.” Safe passage was never assured, for Shiva was a willful god, a trickster. Humanity had no choice but to suffer his capricious whims.
This appeared to be the case at the Burning Ghat. The Burning Ghat was paramount among tirthas, Mr. Sen said, for it was here that “life became death and life again.” As it was, the transitional journey of the pilgrim currently on pyre was not progressing smoothly. As the dead man’s relatives continued to protest, several workers were removing the body from the cremation pile with long sticks, in preparation for tossing the partially charred remains into the river. Nothing was left but a blackened torso, a skull and the stump of a single arm. The pilgrim’s eyes had been dissolved in their sockets, a sight I attempted to shield from the kids’ view.
In search of The Real, it was important to screen out the Too Real.
“This is terrible. Can’t we just give them the money?” exclaimed Rae, horrified at the proceedings.
The other kids took up the cry. Only moments before, they expressed no other desire than to get away. If Hindus wanted to throw their dead mothers and fathers on the fire like a Memphis barbeque, that was their business. Now, the tune had changed.
“It’s their father! We can’t stand here and allow that to happen to their father! How much money do they need? Why can’t we just give it to them?”
Mr. Sen looked surprised. He said he was unsure whether the course of a burial could be changed at this late juncture, especially due to the intervention of a stranger, a non-Hindu. ‘do you have money?” he asked the children.
“He does!” the kids exclaimed, pointing at me. Kids. They’re always putting the touch on you for something.
Regardless, it was too late now. The body was thrown into the river. Splash. The pilgrim’s relatives stood stock-still and mute, watching the ripples in the water. Already attendants were bringing down another stiff, wrapped in white gauze.
This about concluded our sight-seeing expedition to the Burning Ghat. We’d already turned to go when Mr. Sen grabbed my arm.
“You are a lucky man,” he said softly. “Your wife is a lucky woman. To have these children . . . they are very generous. They wish to help. That is very lucky.”
It was the presence of children that, more than anything, brought human beings into close contact with the Divine, Mr. Sen said. As each death opened a tirtha, so did every birth. Each time a child came into the world, the boundaries of reality were pierced, the status quo irretrievably altered. It was something to celebrate, since it was by this process that existence was furthered, Mr. Sen said, suddenly looking very sad. For a moment it appeared as if he would begin weeping.
“I have no children, my wife and I could not. . . . It was a great disappointment to us. Because of this we are no longer together. . . . So I am alone, marooned here in this brutal world. I have come here to wait to die. To escape this place, since there is nothing for me here.”
Back in Brooklyn, even in the so-called “breeding grounds’ of our Park Slope neighborhood, it was not unusual to hear couples bemoan their inability to conceive. There were many tales of drugs ingested, operations undertaken, and then, eventually, journeys to far-off lands where children would be adopted, gathered up from poverty and despair, given loving homes. It seemed a function of the modern world, the barrenness and the adoptions both.
It was another matter altogether to hear of infertility here, amid the multitudes of The World’s Largest Democracy. Just that week the Hindustani Times was reporting the birth of the billionth Indian. My heart went out to Mr. Sen, follower of Shiva, spirit of the reproductive principle, in whose puissant honor men constructed Shiva lingas, wood and stone phalluses, some as much as fifty feet tall.
Beside the Burning Ghat, the family stared at the river where what was left of the pilgrim’s body had disappeared. There was nothing there now, just a swirl of muddy water. It was starting to rain, the cremation pyres sizzling under the falling droplets.
“It is good to have children,” Mr. Sen commented as we made our way from the Burning Ghat. “That way, when you die, there will always be someone to pay for your funeral.”
* * *
Then we were on the river, the Holy River.
It was shortly after dawn, and we were going downstream, thinking of Huck and Jim, stars of one of our favorite books. Years before, on one of our many car trips, we had started reading the great Finn up in Minnesota, at the source of the Mississippi, the Father of Waters, near a little town of about one hundred people called Jacobson. Jacobson, Minnesota–a Jewish Jacobson with an o, not even a Swedish Jacobsen, with an e.
Excited by this marvelous synchronicity, we entered a bait and tackle shop, announcing our namesake. When the man in the Valvoline cap finally looked up, he said his name was Demming, and once he happened to drive through Demming, New Mexico, “a little dump full of railroad bums,” so he knew exactly how we felt.
We kept reading Mark Twain all the way down the great river to New Orleans, always a favorite travel destination, owing to the shabby sexual allure of the French Quarter, which the girls, despite our constant assertions that the place was nothing but a frat boy tourist trap, found irresistible.
If I’d had the presence of mind, I’d have brought a copy of Huck Finn to intone as we plied the Ganges, thereby consecrating Shiva’s river in some typically solipsistic Brooklyn manner. Twain had been this way himself, 140 years ago, following the equator on his own round-the-world journey. Even then, he said, Varanasi was “as old as tradition, as old as history and looks older than both of them put together.”
Our boatman wasn’t exactly recent issue, either. Ochre-toothed and hollow-cheeked, his turban unraveling like the frayed dressing from a festering battle wound, we’d seen him standing on the ghat outside the Vishnu Guest House.
“Boat . . . boat . . . cheap price,” he said over and over, his voice barely audible. There were other boatmen, offering similar cheap prices, but we appreciated the historical dialetic represented by this particular mariner’s craft. This owed to the fact that despite the age and decrepitude of most of the Ganges rowboats, the majority of them sported freshly painted ads for Coca-Cola on their otherwise weathered sides. It was a fairly recent advent. When my wife and I came here, Coca-Cola was not sold in India. The Indira Gandhi government was following a protectionist economic course, and Coke, which had refused to turn over the details of their so-called secret formula to local bottlers, was banned from the country. Instead, everyone drank bicuspid-dissolving sugar solutions like Thumbs Up and Campa-Cola, which sported a logo remarkably similar to the ‘real thing.” But times had changed. Indira was dead, a deal was made. Now Coke was guzzled in India, just like everywhere else.
Therein lay the uniqueness of our boatman’s craft. While the right flank of his boat was decorated with the ubiquitous Coke logo, the left retained a faded but still discernable ad for Campa-Cola. Whether this was due to oversight, sloth or design mattered little. The fact that this particular boatman alone among so many others (the rest of the boats had Coke on both sides) had chosen a mid-course between long cherished singularity of the nation-state and the inevitabilities of global capital struck us a fitting straddle of past and present.
The rain that had started at the Burning Ghat was coming down harder now. Winds pushed against the thick, claustrophobic humidity. Flat and placid only a few moments before, the Ganges grew choppy, turbid brown water smacking against the boat’s rutted gunwales. A storm was coming in, thick black clouds scudding across the wide plains from the west.
It was the monsoon, and about time, too. According to reports, the previous weeks had been unbearable in the Holy City. Few could remember a hot season quite so hot, so filled with dust and sweat. The afternoon temperature rarely dipped below forty degrees Celsius. The evenings were little better. To simply sleep for more than an hour at a time was impossible. The heat was such that the cows lay down on the stone streets, refusing to move sometimes for days, tempting harried taxi and rickshaw drivers to kick them out of sheer frustration, which would have been a sin.
The monsoon brought relief. Every year, as the heat built along the plains, people waited for the monsoon. Sometimes it came sooner than other times. Now, finally, it was here.
But the monsoon would not be an unmixed blessing. The downpour, which would banish the heat and replenish the haggard land, eventually would also saturate the ground. The swelling Ganges, held in place by Shiva’s dreadlocks no more, would breach its banks. By August everything would be flooded, the grand Moghul-style buildings along the ghats inundated, water filling the lower rooms to the ceilings. After this would be the months of stench and mildew, along with the leeches and inevitable outbreaks of disease, which had only grown worse due to the close quarters. Almost two million people lived in the Varanasi now, more than double the number here twenty years ago.
But what was the use of complaining? Every year it was the same; it was the cycle of things. The wet always followed the heat, just as night preceded day. This was the way of things, the form to the world, more evidence of the immutable Great Round of Being. Besides, no one came to Varanasi for the weather.
The boatman squinted upstream, into the oncoming storm. The dark clouds were closer now, looming up beyond the railway bridge. Was it auspicious to be upon the Ganges at the exact moment when the dry shifted to the wet, to find oneself and one’s family present at the moment of change, smack inside one of Mr. Sen’s tirthas? It wouldn’t do any good to ask the boatman. He was as silent as Charon, steadily rowing.
In fact, no one in the boat had said a word since pushing off from the Burning Ghat. An accusatory quiet had come over us. The girls were mad, again. They had told us they didn’t want to go to the Burning Ghat, we’d made them go, and what did they get out of it beyond another nightmare? Ostensibly desperate to get home to curl up with their gloomy suicide CDs, from Joy Division on down, they were teenagers, content to play footsie with the angel of death. They wanted it like an Anne Rice vampire book, full of spike-haired bloodsuckers melted on the floor like ice cream in the sun, but still a way cool-looking puddle. As for the actual shear of loin and limb, the corruption and cankering of bodies, they wanted no part of that, and who could blame them?
They were a long way from compulsively scanning The Times obit pages like me. In the Great Round of Being, with its twin tirthas of birth and death, they were a lot closer to the former than the latter. Or at least this was the hope. Who needed all this mortality, this endless reminder of the perishability of the Now?
Their own unremitting distaste for this whole circumnavigatory journey only served to depress them further. All the complaining, the bleats about homesickness, the tantrums over food and dirt, made them feel like ungrateful wretches. They were embarrassed by the shock of their own provinciality. They were supposed to be the hip kids from New York City, minds as open as the ocean.
Yet here they were in The World, and it was driving them crazy. It was a degree of self-hatred they deftly repackaged and shipped back our way, a vicious little circularity, proving yet again that families don’t need to be holed up in some Eastern European hovel or rambling about like less financially advantaged Cheever characters in a Connecticut split-level to turn in on themselves, rip each other to shreds.
The storm was coming quick now, a deep thrum of thunder and cascades of rain. Muddy slog no more, the river was alive, churning up from underneath. Holy water arched high, drenching our REI miracle-fiber travel shirts, soaking the kids’ daypacks. Wind lifted the sand on the opposite river bank. Unlike the town side, with its dense buildings and thousands of death cult pilgrims, the other shore was undeveloped, seemingly devoid of activity. It appeared as a bone-white stretch of desert, empty except for the occasional apparitional figure bouncing along on the back of a camel. But now, in the throes of the gale, the entire sandy slope appeared to be rising. Up it went, hovering for an instant above the river like a giant white cowl, or a diaphanous spacecraft.
The smell of ozone filled the air, followed by lightning, electric daggers serrating the sky. Then the wind shifted, scattering the hovering sand. The shoreline disappeared. In the blowing rain, we couldn’t see more than five feet. Suddenly, it was as if we were there by ourselves; us and the impassive, unspeaking boatman, on the river fallen from heaven.
For once, no parental prattle about the beautiful danger of “nature” or some such other idiocy filled the space between us. We reached out for each other, the five of us, holding hands. It wasn’t the first time on this trip that disaster seemed close. In the previous month and a half we’d been on nearly a dozen airplanes, some big, others small and coughing. Every time one of these off-brand planes left the ground we chanced massacre, total destruction, the end of our line. All five of us, gone, in one screaming descent, only to reappear one more time in that dreaded, dead passenger manifest.
Our names, one on top of another.
Alone on the Holy River, there was a kind of intimate, inexorable fatalism to it. It all seemed out of our hands.
It is one of the magic attractions of the Ganges, and rivers in general–the Jordan, the Mississippi, the Rubicon and a hundred streams from mythologies known and long forgotten. Unlike lakes and oceans and other bodies of water imagined to be holy, unlike the peaks of mountains that ascend beyond the layer of obscuring clouds, no river is so wide that whatever lies beyond is not within reach. The other side is always visible. Here, in the reasonable imagination, it is possible to cross over. Except now, in the draping onrush of the monsoon, we could not see the river’s edges. Both shores were obscured.
The random flashes of lightning brought a high relief to our faces. For the millionth time, I could study the physical features of my children, puzzle who had gotten what from whom, the way Rae’s eyes came from my mother, and Rosalie’s skin coloring so closely matched my wife’s. How come Billy had blue eyes and blond hair and he looked like me, anyway? The mix and match of Mendel’s tic-tac-toe board never ceased to turn up one more permutation, a roll of dots on dice. The collective genome was filled with chute and ladder helixes that predated places called Russia, Romania, Spain and Newfoundland, a mess of Jews and Catholics, too. Double, toil and trouble, our batch was poured from an unknown mash of biology, volition and lust. Who knew which buttons my wife and I pushed to produce the trio of children in this boat. Three big bangs. First inside my wife’s body, then too big for that, then too big for cribs and baby clothes, then too big for coloring books, then too big for first grade, the second and the third, too big for our all-consuming care. Eventually, too big for our conception of who and what they are: the ever-expanding universe of them.
We were lucky that way, as the somber, childless Mr. Sen pointed out. Linking hands in a leaky boat on a holy river, we were each other’s tirtha, a boatload of multidirectional, many vectored tirthas. We, the older generation, looked at them, the youthful offspring, and tried to make sense of what was to come, at least most immediately. Likewise, they looked at us, when they could bear to look at us, and groped toward a vision of where they came from.
The world that came before us was back home in the good ol” U.S. of A., locked up inside the frames of a few fading, scratchy photographs, images of other, vanished worlds–the Cardozos thrown out of Spain in 1492, the assorted Jacobsons, traveling steerage from Russia and Romania. These pictures, gathering dust in basements, pressed flat between old atlases full of countries swept away by vicious history, would soon fade to imperceptibility, as unknown as the future beyond them.
What remained was us. Little us, nuclear us. For the moment, the entropy that inevitably flings things and people apart was suspended. The force field of our own making ruled the day, a most favorable kind of gravity. We were together. The will by which we created life in our family, this fleeting passage during which we lived under the same Brooklyn roof, rode in the same Toyota Camry station wagon, and got on the same airplane to go on this trip that had landed us, currently, in the city of the Hindu dead, remained in control. That’s really what this trip was, a grand, somewhat nutty gesture, a tribute to the ephemera of our lives together. Even if everything went perfectly, in the middle class way of thinking of things–them doing well, going off to college, getting really swell jobs, et cetera–we’d never be as close as we’d been over the sixteen years since Rae came on the scene, followed by her sister and brother. Arrows on the dartboard; for now we’d landed here.
It was like those rare times, in the red-floored kitchen of our often indifferently regarded home in Brooklyn, when, for no particular reason, someone called “family hug” and we grabbed each other, just because we were in the same room and we could. You had to get it while you could, put aside a million mixed feelings, because those moments were irretrievable. It had been a big juicy chapter, this time of us being together, this invention of us. In no small way, we were all just passing through, tipping our hats like any Lone Ranger, here today and gone tomorrow. It was hard to say where we would go next. With the next lightning strike, it could be over. Sometimes things just fell apart.
The deal was to horde the here and now. What was known only to us. The shared knowledge, the inside jokes. And so our eyes went to the flying purple shirt.
Long sleeves flapping, it came out of the enveloping mist like a brightly dyed kite, skimmed the roiling surface of the river and soared directly overhead. Only moments before, almost certainly, the shirt had been nothing more than a humble piece of washing, jumbled in a pile, ready to be beaten senseless against a flat rock by one of a hundred laundry wallahs working along Mir Ghat or Gai Ghat.
Twack. Twack. Twack. The sound of wet cotton against flat stone was just another bit of ambient noise in the Holy City. The purple shirt likely blew away in the storm, too bad for the laundry wallah, but good for us, since now we could raise our collective eyes and see it cartwheel upward into the low-hanging clouds: one more memory held in common by us and us alone, one more tiny distinction that set us off from all the other families in the world, some smarter and more loving than us, some white-trash sons of bitches smacking each other in the supermarket. Eight thousand miles might be a long way to see a shirt fly across a river, but considering the stakes, it was worth it.
The shirt had barely disappeared when we heard a thump against the side of the boat.
We’d run into something. It was a body. We could see an unmistakably human form barely below the murky surface of the river. We knew, from Mr. Sen, that certain individuals could not be cremated at the Burning Ghat. Mr. Sen had given us a handy mnemonic, B-A-C-T-M-L, pronounced “backmelt,” so we might easily remember those–the Beggars, Ascetics, Children, Thieves, Men bitten by snakes and Lepers–whose karmic fate was to be banned from cremation on the Burning Ghat. Many of these unburned bodies later washed up on sandbars, where they were sometimes eaten by Varanasi’s roving packs of wild dogs. It was a good reason to keep moving. If you stayed too still, the dogs thought you were food.
“Oh, no,” said Rosalie, when the body thumped against the side of the boat once more. She had a nasty thought: the body in the water might be the half-burned corpse of the dad we’d seen removed from the pyre for nonpayment.
But it wasn’t. It wasn’t a dead body at all. It was some kid, very much alive, just fooling around. We’d seen him earlier, walking along the ghat, selling garlands. He was about ten, tall and thin, with a big smile. Now he stuck his head out of the river, smiled, spit some holy water against the Campa-Cola side of the boat and dove beneath the surface again.
A few minutes later we were back onshore, climbing up the steps of the ghat to the Vishnu Guest House once more. The rain had come through the windows and our mattresses were soaked. No problem, the hotel people said after congratulating us as if our arrival had been instrumental in the onset of the quenching monsoon. If our mattresses were wet we should turn them over to the dry side and put on the fan. It was more of the usual cycle, more than a bit of the Great Round of Being here in the Holy City. They always flipped the mattresses over when one side got wet.
We did this and went out onto the balcony. Despite the rain, the French backpackers still sat at their tables. They appeared not to have moved. They were still seated on the porch smoking their sooty cigarettes, thumbing through their Lonely Planet guides. Monkeys were jumping down from the roof, sticking their paws into cups of tea. Whether the French people condoned this monkey behavior or simply didn’t notice, we never found out. They never looked up.
©2003 by Mark Jacobson. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.