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Hopping off the life cycle in Varanasi

Two corpses are slowly brought and placed on the bank of River Ganges in Varanasi, India.

They are wrapped like Christmas gifts in shiny golden paper and adorned with orange marigold garlands around their necks.

‘Only the “untouchables” in India can handle the bodies,’ Ganesh, the 30-year-old hotel manager explains, as he invites me to walk down from the hotel to the Hrichandra Ghat, one of the perhaps more than 100 ghats of Varanasi, to take a boat trip on the river around sunrise.

The sun slowly raises its head from the opposite bank of the river where there seems to be no buildings but only greenery. It washes its sins away too in the waters of Ganges with many others in sarees and paijama kurtas.

‘It’s pure and clean, the sin cleanser,’ says Ganesh about the Ganges while we are walking by old garlands, cow dung, colorful garbage, pieces of wood and wheat-colored hay choking the skirts of Ganges.

‘If you die in Varanasi and are cremated next to the Ganges, the agony of rebirth ceases,’ continues Ganesh pointing at a sâdhu – the Hindu holy man – who makes his way through the ‘greasy’ waters of Ganges, resembling a witch soup, and washes himself with a small golden goblet, facing the orange head of the sun. Hindus believe that they are born again and again, but once they have gained sufficient knowledge, they are liberated and escape the cycle of rebirth.

As the flames embrace one of the corpses by the Ganges, smoke is spit out of the slender chimney of the electric crematorium which forms the background to the ‘burning ghat’ by the river. For those who can afford, bodies are cremated on wood at the ‘burning ghats’, and those who cannot are sent to the eternal abode electrically.

‘There is always a 24-hour burning party at the burning ghats,’ Ganesh says with a broad smile on his face. Two eagles and several swallows dive into the smoke now coming out of the chimney of the electric crematorium, taking me momentarily to Auschwitz Nazi death camps in Poland and plunging a pin into my heart.

Our boatman rows us slowly for two and a half hours on the river naming each ghat, temple and maharajah’s palace that hang on to the holy waters of Ganges. From time to time, I cannot help look at the muddy water under us and wonder how the river dolphins have been able to survive to this day with all the sins left behind by the pilgrims and people living in Varanasi. I think about the witch soup as I watch people washing themselves and their clothes. Do the dolphins and other fish like the taste of the soap people use or do they prefer those corpses which are not cremated but dropped into the middle of Ganges, I ponder.

Ganesh explains which corpses are not cremated but instead given to the bosom of Ganges. As I watch the fishermen pulling up their catch, I visualize the five types of corpses under our boat: pregnant women, lepers, sâdhus, people bitten by a cobra and children under 7-years-old.

At the end of our boat ride, the same corpse, now almost in ashes, continue to rest by the river. Even though the corpse handlers leave him behind to wash another ‘packaged’ corpse in water, he is not alone. A stray dog holds his hand, slowly and lovingly biting into it. The family of the deceased, up on a ‘viewing area’ by the river, watch solemnly, certain that their loved one has escaped the agony of cycle of rebirth.

Agony of other types are also tightly woven into the lives of people in India, at least from a western point of view. It takes different shapes. I witness one through the window of a train taking me to Varanasi from Rajasthan. Mountains, hills, trees, towns, meadows form my view most of the time. This is usually expected to be seen when staring out of the window of a train. There is, however, more to this scenery which might be difficult to see in some other countries, especially in the early hours of the morning.

I witness the unexpected view at 5:30 am while my train is zooming through the desert of Rajasthan with the first rays of the sun slowly crawling in through the iron grill windows, waking us all up – the passengers to Varanasi. I sit by one of the windows trying to absorb the beauty of the Rajasthani desert in red, a color only broken by sweet light green thorn trees, small towns and occasionally by the dazzling pink, orange, yellow and green of Rajasthani women’s sarees. I enjoy the view and suck in the sweet aroma and pulp of a green mango, one of several varieties found in India, presented to me for breakfast by my companions, a Rajasthani family. However, as each molecule of the sweet mango tickles my tongue, one of my other senses is ‘teased’ by what I witness through the train window. The first, the second and the third time what my sense of sight witnesses is normal, my reasoning faculty tells me. It is something we all do, especially when we are out in nature – for example, while camping or hiking in remote areas where there are no facilities. It is a God given, it is a natural process and when we have to do it, we just do it – without giving it a second thought to our only witnesses – mostly plants and trees in nature. Sometimes it might even feel good to do it in nature, feeling yourself again a part of nature and giving back what you have taken from it. But when you start seeing it out in towns, in front of houses and by railway tracks in India every 50 meters or so, the reaction is – well, it might be shocking to some but it is, how shall I put it, different in terms of scenery I am usually used to facing when traveling on a train.

‘It is a unique experience itself, much different from anywhere else in the world – squatting,’ explains Nitish, my Indian friend from Calcutta, about a week later to respond to my observations through a train window in India. He confirms them to be ‘110%’ accurate.

One important and foremost reason why some people in India chose here and there as their WC in a town and the vicinity of railway tracks, Nitish further explains, is simply because they do not have the facilities in their house.

Is this their fault in one of the most crowded and still developing countries of the world? Perhaps no, perhaps yes, but the reality is what you see with your own eyes – someone squatting, oblivious to anyone around them, with a paint can turned-into-a-small-water bucket besides or in front of him/her.

‘Apparently the act has been seen by us Indians so many times so we are now indifferent to it,’ Nitish concludes his views on the subject.

What is more interesting about this particular scenery which might paralyze your sense of sight is that it takes many different forms. It is sometimes a social event. For example, two girls in their beautiful sarees are squatting right next to each other with their water ‘cans’ in front of them and chatting or perhaps gossiping, with a smile on their faces. Sometimes, it is children in groups of three doing the same thing but perhaps conversing about a different topic. At other times, the event of squatting is in the form of a solitary activity. But we all know how solitary activities might sometimes bore us so we do it by combining it with another activity – e.g. exercising on a treadmill while watching TV. The solitary activity of squatting in India, especially by the railway tracks, is coupled with the activity of watching a train zooming by. With full concentration, not wanting to miss one single car of the train or the heads visible through each train window, those who squat perform both activities at the same time – watching a train and performing the early morning chore of the day. However, some want their solitary activity to remain ‘solitary’ so they turn their backs to the train, giving you the illusion that you are being mocked for being on the train or more precisely, you are being ‘mooned’ like you have never been before or at least, not so frequently in a day.

What is more to the show outside of my train window is that it is not only the process of squatting itself that is broadcast to us, the passengers on the train. We can also follow the activities pre- and post-process. Dropping a paijama kurta or pulling up a saree might not be out of the ordinary as might not be the activity that follows the process – the use of water in a can instead of toilet paper.

Even though the pre- and post-process and the end result of the process itself are all natural, I have doubts as how natural the water used to clean oneself after the process is. In remote areas of India, where the government might have forgotten to provide the people with the right infrastructure, I am not sure about the cleanliness of any kind of water especially in the desert where there are no visible running or still bodies of water which might not be as polluted as the water the Indian government might supply its citizens with. Perhaps, I ponder, it is rain water people use to fill their toilet cans, and I do hope that it is. More easily and naturally does rain water wash and clean – usually anything, I believe.

‘No other kind of water cleans more easily and naturally than the water of Ganges,’ Ganesh’s voice suddenly interrupts my thoughts.

Before we return to the hotel, we stop at a pan wallah (betel leaf vendor) to watch him stuff light green betel leaves with lime, nutmeg, cinnamon, tiny grains of tobacco, cloves and pieces of coconut.

‘This is as effective and a natural cleanser like Ganges water,’ winks Ganesh encouraging me to stuff one of the pockets into my mouth as it were a fat dolma and chew it till it turns into bright red saliva. When my mouth can no longer carry the new saliva, I spit it out on the road just like anyone else.

‘It’s good for my teeth, I know,’ I tell Ganesh, and I suck in the Listern smell of the betel leaves on my tongue.

The smell of the life-time residents of the alleys I walk through with Ganesh back to my hotel in the back streets of Varanasi is not as pleasant. The piles of cow dung here and there on the road almost choke my sensitive sense of smell.

It is puzzling to think how the Ganges River itself does not have a similar smell under such heavy burden of garbage and sins.

‘After all,’ I think, ‘the river might indeed be pure and clean.’ And perhaps, none is able to pollute the mighty and holy Ganges.

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