“Submit to Mother India,” a veteran traveler advised me before I left New York, and I intended to take her advice to heart. I steeled myself for nothing to go according to plan. I was prepared to get gruesomely ill at some point. I was prepared to let India have its way with me. “You can’t prepare yourself for India,” my well-traveled friend had also said. So I tried to prepare myself not to be prepared. Intellectually I knew what was coming: a full-on visceral assault of chaos and color and excrement; a teeming, pressing madness of too much humanity. But emotionally all I could do was get ready not to be ready for it.
India asked for my submission before I’d even arrived. While my Mumbai-bound Air India flight was still on the tarmac in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a large Indian woman didn’t sit down next to me so much as on me. I scooted aside in surprise and good-naturedly began to point out this unfortunate violation of my personal space, but she just nodded hello and busied herself with the items in the pouch in front of her. Meanwhile her not-insubstantial ass extended halfway into my seat and gave no sign of moving. My ticket clearly said 23A; her ticket, I have to believe, said just as clearly 23B, but in her mind 23B was a rough approximation, a frontier space with fluid boundaries. Already I was in a kind of cultural awe — not just at her rudeness but at the casualness, the naturalness of it.
After a few weeks in India I would realize what she’d expected of me: to oh-so-pleasantly slam my own ass into hers. She wouldn’t have thought it rude at all. It was just business as usual, and I was just another of the 1 billion souls — and asses — with whom she had to share the subcontinent.
Mumbai, India’s “Maximum City,” has 14 million people and maybe four traffic lights. Cows ambled through intersections as rickshaws, motorbikes, taxis, and double-decker buses vied for position, all laying on their horns at once. The streets smelled like urine baked in the sun; they were dirty, stained red with betel-nut spit, and crammed with people. Destitute mothers and their hollow-eyed children huddled along the edges of the city squares. I passed three men lying on the ground, missing seven limbs among them. They were begging and singing — that crazy, broken, joyous kind of singing that comes only from those who’ve lost everything. The downtown railway station was a melee of bodies. Thousands pressed their way onto cars, some leaping on or being forced off as the trains pulled away. (A handful of deaths occur on the rails each day, I was told.) The city was at once run-down and rabid with life. The public buildings were crumbling, their Victorian bricks streaked with soot, and we’d flown in over slums that seemed never to end. Yet here was a flashy modern theater, there a humming office complex. And always the riotous assault of smells: sweat, garbage, fried pakoras from sidewalk carts, the after-shave of street-side barbers, and the sickly sweet scents of the ubiquitous dessert shops.
My nose was battered. My spirit, too. Rickshaw wallahs and street vendors came at me from all directions. Barefoot children tugged at my pant legs saying, “Rupee? Rupee?” in voices that made me want to melt and scream at the same time. The assault of unwanted attention and human misery was inescapable. If I’d had a room in a guesthouse, I might have crawled back to it and not come out. Fortunately instead of bunking in a guesthouse I was staying with the Indian side of my family. This came as a great surprise to me, as there was no Indian side of my family. I did have an Indian friend, however, and she had a family, and thus, by the transitive property of Indian hospitality, I had an Indian family too. Payal, my friend, had insisted I stay in her ancestral apartment, which at one time had housed fourteen of her relations and was now home to two grandparents and an aunt. It was both a refuge from Indian life and an education in it: Payal’s grandmother taught me to make chapatis. The recycling man arrived with a hand-held scale, weighed the home’s bundle of newspapers, and paid accordingly. Our dirty clothes were picked up by a young boy in the morning and dropped off later that afternoon, clean and perfectly pressed. (On my last day in Mumbai, Payal took me to see what happened in between: the washerpeople at work, fifteen thousand strong, an entire neighborhood of them.)
From Mumbai, Payal and I took an overnight train north to Ahmedabad to visit her cousins Surya and Jaai, a married couple in their thirties. Ahmedabad, like many regions in India, had been torn recently by communal violence. Mobs of Hindus and Muslims had burned each other’s homes and hacked their neighbors to pieces. Gandhi was the father of the country; he was on stamps, billboards, money, even key chains (of which I bought quite a few). He was the Mahatma, or “great-souled one.” But it seems to be the fate of all saints to be ignored in practice as much as they are revered in principle; in this respect India was no different.
Sabarmati Ashram, Gandhi’s headquarters during the long struggle for India’s independence, was in Ahmedabad, and Surya took me there. In the humble, barrackslike buildings Gandhi’s words were framed on yellowing plaques. “Truth is God,” read one, reversing the usual equation “God is Truth” — a nontrivial distinction for a skeptical seeker such as myself. Another said, “I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.” A better tribute to contemporary cultural relativism would be hard to find. For me Gandhi had always hovered above all religions — a hero to humanity in general, a transreligious sage. “I am a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian, a Zoroastrian, a Jew,” read another plaque. I knew from my reading that Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League, had cynically replied: “Only a Hindu could say that.” Nice comeback, but from my postreligious perch, still score one point for Hinduism.
At the home of Payal’s cousins, I was beyond well taken care of: Please, eat this fantastic food. No, don’t help clean up; the servant will take care of it. Interested in Hinduism? Please, come do puja with me. Need ticket reservations on a sold-out train? Uncle’s travel agent will take care of it. Need a ride to the train station? One of my employees will pick you up and motorbike you over. Need Internet? Come to my office. Architectural tour of the city? No problem, I’m an architect. Need a haircut? I’ve got just the man.
About the haircut I wasn’t so sure. I’d seen Indian barbers in action and knew the results of their work. It wasn’t that they weren’t competent. Far from it. It was simply that in spite of India’s bewildering diversity — 1,500 languages and 300,000 gods — every man on the subcontinent seemed to have the exact same haircut: close-cropped with lots of room around the ears. It worked pretty well for the 500 million Indian men who had it, but they had wiry black hair that spiked out from the scalp. I had soft, wavy, nonspiking hair.
“Don’t worry. We’ll take care of you,” Surya assured me. “And bring that photo of you, very nice.” He meant the author photo from my last book.
The barber was a long-faced but handsome man in his thirties. I admired the great care he took in giving the customer before me the exact same haircut every other guy in India had. When my turn came, Payal and Jaai reassured me while Surya spoke to the barber in Gujarati. The two men pointed at the photo and drew imaginary lines on my scalp. The barber nodded his head. In the West a nod indicates understanding or agreement. In India a nod — actually, it’s more of a sideways bobbing of the head, like you’d expect from a well-jointed puppet — has a more elusive meaning. Depending on social context and accompanying eyebrow movement, it can indicate anything from “Yes” to “No” and much in between, including “Maybe,” “Whatever you say,” and, “It is all in the hands of Hanuman, the monkey god.” Ultimately I think what people are trying to say is “The world is much too beautiful for such a small question.” I think the barber, who shot me a sidewise glance during all this negotiating, was trying to say something closer to “This American, very crazy.”
Surya appeared pleased, however, and left for a work meeting. Payal and her cousin took off as well, leaving me in the hands of the monkey god. I got into the chair and snapped a mental “before” photo of myself in the mirror. The barber draped a smock over my front, tucked it into my collar, and lathered me up like Santa. It was then that I recalled the Lonely Planet guidebook’s counsel to make sure your Indian barber uses a new, clean blade: a dirty blade could lead to infection and, ultimately, death. But Surya was gone, and the barber, with whom I shared no common language, was coming at me with one of those long straight razors you associate with Sweeney Todd or your senile grandfather.
“New blade? Clean blade?” I pleaded through my Santa beard.
After reluctantly changing the blade (This American, very crazy), the barber gave me the closest shave one man can give another — so close that for weeks afterward my unborn facial hairs were scared to come out. Then he lathered me up and shaved me again. Payal and Jaai came back and took pictures while the barber cut my hair. We got “before,” “after,” and several dozen “during” shots. It was probably the most photographed haircut since Elvis joined the army — and it turned out miraculously like my author photo.
After that I got a finger-pinching face massage and a scalp rubdown. I was wondering what else the barber could possibly do — henna-tattoo my arms with scenes from the Mahabharata? soak my feet in water from the Ganges? — when he brought out a mechanical head massager: think belt sander crossed with one of those cardiac electric-shock devices. When plugged in, it made a pleasant humming sound not unlike an industrial floor waxer. The barber held it up and looked at me with raised eyebrows. Submit to Mother India? they seemed to ask. My right eyebrow signaled acquiescence while my left furiously twitched, Mayday! Mayday!
As he placed the pneumatic head massager on my scalp, my eyeballs rolled back into their sockets. Every pore above my Adam’s apple gasped in midsentence, as if surprised in the middle of a sales meeting by an alien orgasm. My entire body sat bolt upright; my other entire body slumped into nameless surrender. I don’t believe in reincarnation, but my scalp was channeling the spirit of my long-lost foreskin soaked in ten doses of Ecstasy.
Normal orgasms peak and crash, but this skull-gasm just stayed there, an endless plateau of excruciating pleasure that lasted until the barber kindly lifted the machine off my head, which he did after about five minutes. Or eternity. I can’t remember which. Three separate applications of after-shave followed, each a different color, each tingling my skin and nostrils in a different way. Finally he removed the towel. I half expected him to lean over and sign his name behind my ear, as any great artist would, but instead he helped me out of the chair, and we stood there for a moment, looking at each other: me blissfully postcoital; him with an expectant smile. Uh-oh, I thought. What next?
When traveling, we sometimes absorb gestures the way we might pick up an accent. Unable to speak the man’s language, I found myself sideways-bobbing my head in reply, as if my neck had evolved a new semantic capacity in this foreign land.
The barber, to make himself perfectly clear, put out his hand.
Ah. I owed him money. I was more than happy to oblige.
“Every trip to a foreign country,” says writer Pico Iyer, “can be a love affair, where you’re left puzzling over who you are and whom you’ve fallen in love with.” By the time I walked out of the barber shop in Ahmedabad, it’s fair to say that I’d fallen in love with India. Not just with the pneumatic head massager and the extraordinary hospitality Payal and her family had shown me, but also with the madness of the traffic, the sensuous chaos of the street, the feeling that almost anything could happen at any moment. It was exhausting, at times overwhelming, but I thrilled to it. I swooned.
As I left Ahmedabad and headed east on my own, toward the sacred city of Varanasi, the love affair continued. I fell hard for India’s trains: the iron, the soot, and the clanging; the cramped, conversational compartments; the chai passed through the windows at station stops; the waking up at dawn to watch the dry countryside rattle by. I also fell madly in love with the architecture: the forts, the mosques, the strange observatories, the Mughal mausoleums. In the smaller towns I’d wander alone among the ramparts and ruins — just me and the sun and the odd goatherd — my footfalls echoing about a palace courtyard, its fountain dry, its tiles cracked. I clambered to the top of one battlement, as monkeys scampered away, and looked out upon the town’s blue and ocher houses and, in the distance, a throng of young boys washing elephants in a muddy river.
In fits and starts I also came to love the people of India. How could I not love the man who drove up alongside me on his motorbike in Bundi and asked me to dinner with his family, shouting his invitation over his engine’s sputter? Or the frustrated, virginal young men who’d approach me at tourist spots and, with desperate cluelessness, ask me about sex and marriage and American women? Or the leader of a “laughter-yoga” circle in a park in Delhi, clutching his ample belly and forcing out enthusiastic ha-ha-ha’s till everyone else in the circle was laughing too?
Hinduism, in spite of my skepticism, began to work its way into my heart as well. In one locale I entered what from the front looked like a Coney Island sideshow but inside turned out to be a temple to Vishnu. In the dim interior, light from a small window fell on rough-cut shrines. A multicolored Dr. Seussian contraption was bolted to a wall, its knobs and arms periodically springing to life to beat ritual drums. Water ran down a marble floor through the temple, carrying with it orange marigold flowers, purple petals, gum wrappers, and plastic bags. I walked barefoot through the water and debris. Everything felt primordial, inscrutable, and magical; lawless yet sacred.
Hinduism seemed as thrown together and anything-goes as India itself. I wanted to better understand this foreign faith, but I was in over my head. The religion stretched back three millennia; I was here for three weeks. The Mahabharata, just one of Hinduism’s sacred books, is longer than twenty Bibles. In the culminating moment of the text, Arjuna, the hero, begs his charioteer, the god Krishna, for a reason why he should go into battle against his loved ones. Krishna answers: “Because you are bound to act. Only action will save you from the bondage of action.” This is the kind of dizzyingly sublime statement that an entire civilization’s cosmology and ethics could turn on. If only I understood how.
In the evenings I’d fall back to whatever guesthouse I was staying in and read. Among my books was Karma Cola, Gita Mehta’s biting account of the West’s spiritual fascination with India. She calls out the naive Western spiritual seekers looking for a quick mystical fix, as well as the Indian gurus all too happy to offer it. Her take on dharma, the law beneath the seeming lawlessness of Hinduism: “No distinction between chaos and order, accepting good and evil as indivisible, witnessing simultaneous continuity as the moral order, being as a process of endless becoming. And yet to act. It means you cannot follow the Law. You are the Law.” I read this passage over and over until it hurt. It hurt ontologically. It hurt the way it hurts when you’re reading something you know is profound, but it’s all a bit beyond you, like when I read Nietzsche and Derrida and Hofstadter for the first time. Categories needed to shift, neurons to rewire. The Eastern mind, says Mehta, has learned “to see in a plethora of contradictions a literally mind-blowing affirmation.” For the Western mind this was a lot to absorb. “Like a sex change,” Mehta commiserates.
And yet the day-to-day Hinduism I ran into on the street didn’t seem to care whether I was pre-op or post-op, inviting me in like a dear friend who’d simply arrived late to the party. “Come, come, you break coconut for Ganesh,” said a man outside a Hindu temple. He and a hundred or so others were throwing and breaking and stomping on coconuts in honor of the beloved elephant-headed god. I joined in.
Hinduism manages to abound in ceremony without being too ceremonious. It has no founder, no central authority, no central hierarchy. And, mercifully, it’s not a proselytizing religion — just enthusiastically inclusive. When Payal’s grandmother invited me to do puja — make an offering — at her household shrine in Mumbai, she didn’t try to convince me of anything; she was just keen for me to participate. The same principle seemed to be in play in Holi, a carnivalesque festival in which revelers throw buckets of colored water at each other all day long. Why? Because it’s fun — a sight more fun than dipping Easter eggs (no offense to Christians) — but also because somewhere in the infinite cycles of Vedic time a goddess tried to torture her brother.
After joining in with the Holi mayhem on the streets of Orchha, I fell in with a local family of seven, who absorbed me into their brood for the rest of the day. The mother happily let me drag her children by their ankles through the puddles of colored water that had accumulated on their front steps. And then they happily dragged me by mine. All of us now looking like Jackson Pollock paintings that had been caught in a rainstorm, we headed down to the local temple, rang the bell to summon the gods, and made our devotions. The fact that I made mine up on the spot — miming a few ritual dance moves and bowing in the general direction of Shiva — seemed to bother no one. In fact, it fit perfectly with Hinduism’s decentralized eclecticism.
Orchha, Bundi, and the other smaller cities I visited along the way were not served by the train, so from Jaipur onward I traveled by bus. No other backpackers were on these routes, and few of the in-between towns were even on my guidebook’s maps. More than once I wasn’t sure I was on the right bus until hours into the ride.
As the bus took me deep into India, I sat in the back, one eye on my pack in the overhead luggage rack, the other looking out the window. We rode past parched riverbeds, women with saris wrapped tight against the wind-borne dust, houses with roofs covered in dried cow dung. Trucks hand-painted in blues, greens, and reds blasted by us, horns blaring. And always the animals in the road: dogs, camels, cows, pigs, goats, chickens. I felt lost, beautifully lost, in the way I’d long wanted to be: charged with the mild thrill of not knowing quite where you are. It reminded me of the freight jumping I’d done when I was young: no signposts or markers, just the sun to tell you that you were still headed west and the surrounding desert to indicate you’d passed from Colorado to Nevada. Now, as then, there was contentment in just letting the mysterious miles go by.
The rules of the bus, like most rules in India, were also mysterious. Every few stops the driver would wade into the throng of passengers to collect fares. The villagers would fork over a few coins or maybe show some kind of bus pass. The driver might shake his head, and they would argue back and forth, the passenger head-bobbing dismissively and both of them spitting out what I can only imagine were curses. Eventually the passenger would pull out a few folded-up bills from some secret pocket and reluctantly hand them over as if some great injustice had been done. None of this made the bus go any faster.
My seatmates came and went as the trip wore on. With the exception of the man who introduced himself by saying, in a fit of Muslim pride, “I am the Taj Mahal. I am the Pakistani muscleman,” few spoke any English. Many passengers stared silently at me over the backs of their seats: long, wordless stares. It was unnerving until I got used to it. A man with a leathery neck wanted my seat by the window: he was chewing betel nut and needed to spit. Unmoved by his plight, I refused. So he leaned over me and spat. For three hours.
A young mother came on board and sat down across the aisle. Bundled in her sari was a listless infant. He seemed deformed, perhaps prematurely born. His body was shrunken, his legs shriveled like chicken feet. Flies hung at the edges of his mouth, just crawling about. I was no stranger to the Third World, but I’d never before been three seats away from famine. I thought of Gandhi. I thought of Mother Teresa in the Calcutta slums. I thought of the wandering, dreadlocked sadhus who’d given up all their worldly possessions to realize nonexistence. I imagined standing up, right there in the bus, handing out all my money, and throwing off my clothes. I’d empty myself, relinquish everything, not just my bank account but my past and future, my hopes and regrets. Either that or I’d surely grow numb and blackhearted, become a failed soul. But I did nothing. The Indians on the bus did nothing, too. The leather-necked man leaned over me and spat out the window. Every few minutes the mother waved the flies off her child. A few villages later she got off and walked away.
The betel-nut spitter left shortly after her, and an older man sat down next to me. His gray hair was wild and unkempt, his pinstriped shirt starched and buttoned to the neck. There was a serenity about him as well as a fierceness. A photographer once described India as “bad for landscapes, unparalleled for faces.” This man was one reason why. He stared at me in that guileless way Indians have. I nodded hello. “Babu,” he said, pressing his hand to his chest.
He was Babu from the village of Para. That’s all I could gather, and I might have gotten that wrong, too. Though no other words passed between us, we developed a strange intimacy. It may sound foolish, but over those next few hours I fell in love with this man: With his face and the sadness in his gaze. With his wiry mustache, his chunk of a nose, his weathered mahogany skin. I could see all six of his decades in the wrinkles about his brow and all of India, it seemed to me, in the kindness and sorrow that pooled in his black eyes.
A thousand more miles passed until finally: Varanasi, a city described by Mark Twain as “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend.” If traveling in India is a lesson in surrender, then Varanasi — where reverent Hindus come to die and have their bodies burned and their ashes cast into the Ganges — is the traveler’s final point of arrival. When I entered its narrow alleyways, a strange thrill took hold of me. Incense and sitar music floated from open temple doors, rickshaws swerved to avoid cows, and pilgrims, devotees, and street vendors crowded each other. Whole markets were dedicated to the paraphernalia of death: marigold petals, shrouds, incense, tinsel garlands. I was half lost in this maze when the alley opened onto the Ganges River and the sacred steps, called “ghats,” built along its banks. Beside a still-smoking funeral pyre, adolescents played cricket. Three dogs nosed a sleeping beggar. A group of pilgrims, perhaps just arrived after a thousand-mile journey, their foreheads daubed in vermilion, piled into the river to wash away their sins in its septic waters.
The following morning I woke at 5 A.M., keen to see the dawn from a boat on the river. It was still dark. A fluorescent light sputtered above the guesthouse door. Two rats scampered along the river’s edge as I bargained with a boatman in whispers. For a few rupees more than seemed reasonable, I hired him.
Out on the water, but for the creaking of timbers and the faint slap of the oars, all was quiet. The dawn light glimmered: eternity spooning the silence of morning. Imperceptibly the outline of Varanasi took form: ocher steps rising out of the river, the shoulders of ornate palaces silhouetted against the sky. The opposite bank — sandy, green, and strangely unpopulated — was like a faraway watercolor. I’d never felt quite this way about a place. The light touched you in Varanasi; it enveloped you in an elusive beneficence. The light was endless. And the city — with three funeral pyres already blossoming into orange flame — seemed hopelessly, helplessly sacred.
“A magical city,” says the Lonely Planet guidebook of Varanasi. On the boat that morning such a description seemed neither cliché nor hype but straight-up travel reportage. “Magical” was less an opinion about Varanasi than it was an objective fact, as much a part of the city’s infrastructure as the post office or the train station.
For countless centuries corpses have been burned along the Ganges in the open air. Vikings sent their dead off in a burning boat. Parsis leave theirs in Towers of Silence for the vultures to feed on. Poet André Breton arranged for his body to show up at his Paris grave site in a white moving van. Why not public cremations on the banks of a sacred river? As a tourist I’d come to watch, but not without some anxiety. This was death, after all — not just another postcard view. And no one wants to drop in uninvited on a funeral. Here in Varanasi, however, everyone was invited to the funeral.
“India,” Mehta observes, “is probably the only country in the world that allows the tourist to treat death as a spectator sport.” I’d half expected this tourism to have corrupted the rituals, but this was not the case. India’s strange knack for unceremonious ceremony seemed more than a match for the tourist’s gaze. “Go,” a local man told me. “Go, look at death. But remember: no photos.”
Along the ghats life went on side by side with the funerals. Smiling vendors sold tea in front of burning pyres. Old men chatted on the steps. Untouchables immersed shroud-draped corpses in the river’s waters. Suddenly a throng of men emerged shouting and singing from an alleyway, a corpse decked in marigold wreaths held above their heads on a bamboo bier. As their loved one burned, the men circled the fire, banging drums, ringing bells, and singing. Dying on the banks of the Ganges is believed to speed the departed through the cycle of rebirths toward moksha, liberation of the soul. Outward signs of lamentation would only delay this journey. So the men danced and shouted to encourage the deceased’s soul to be free.
I’d seen a corpse up close only once before: my father’s, in his deathbed at our home. So I felt a certain kinship when I came upon two sons preparing to burn their father. The corpse, wrapped in a white shroud, legs sticking out naked at the bottom, lay beside stacked sandalwood. A well-dressed member of the priestly Brahman caste directed the purification rites, which were lengthy and at times confusing — not just to me, it seemed, but to the sons as well. When I arrived they were shaving each other’s heads, catching the hair in a ceramic bowl and mixing it with rice. Once shaved, they changed out of their street clothes into large bolts of white cloth, wrapped tight at the waist, and waded into the river to bathe. In a river filled with cow shit, human remains, and barely filtered sewage, they washed away their spiritual impurities.
Stepping out of the water, the younger son threw his dirty garment disdainfully at a nearby laundryman, hitting him on the shoulder. The surreal scene imprinted itself in my mind: Man removes toxic undergarment, throws it at houseboy. In the middle of a funeral. Then the sons lifted their father’s corpse onto their shoulders — nearly dropping it in the process — and walked it awkwardly across the garbage-strewn riverbank to the pyre.
There was something precise yet haphazard about the whole proceeding: More logs were added to the pyre, then some removed. One of the Brahman’s helpers changed the placement of the corpse’s arms, then changed them back again. One son was obviously unsure where he should put the outer shroud now that he had removed it and bundled it up. It was as if they were following a set of instructions that kept changing. At times the actions felt tightly scripted; at other moments, ad hoc; at yet others, hotly negotiated — a microcosm of India itself.
A balding, middle-aged man cheerily struck up a conversation with me as I watched: Did I know Varanasi hosted more than fifty thousand funerals a year? No, I didn’t. Did I know that it took 360 kilograms of sandalwood to burn a body? Or that the wood came from a forest thirty miles away? No and no. The man’s enthusiasm, if a touch morbid, seemed genuine. Did I know that widows were not allowed near their burning husbands for fear their cries would prevent the soul from being properly released? Did I know that, after the ashes were cast into the river, teams of men panned through the sludge at the foot of the ghats for silver rings and gold fillings, and any valuables they found were sold back to the ghat owners to subsidize the family’s funeral costs? No, I didn’t know any of this. Finally, did I know that his unsolicited information was worth fifty rupees? I gave him fifteen.
I wasn’t the only one haggling during the funeral. At more than one juncture the two sons and the Brahman squabbled over prices: How much for the sandalwood? For the ghee (a type of liquid butter)? For each of the holy Sanskrit verses that would be read aloud over the corpse as it burned? All the while, an accountant scribbled down figures in a notebook. In the middle of a funeral. Once the various arguments had been settled (the majority in the Brahman’s favor, it seemed), the sons made seven circlings of the pyre, holding burning bundles of straw. Dogs wandered by, sniffing at spilled ghee. Then the sons set torch to the pyre and smashed the ceramic bowl to the ground, leaving the broken pieces there: more garbage for the next bereaved family to step through when they came to burn their own loved ones.
The flames leapt up, spitting sparks into the sky. A shirtless man with a long bamboo stick tended the fire. As the father’s corpse burned, its arms — frail, spindly, grandfatherly arms — slowly rose up as if in agony: a withered mummy reaching from its crypt. One hand dangled from the wrist by a smoking tendon. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with my own hands. There was no camera to busy them with, and I didn’t want to put them in my pockets. I let them fall to my sides. More than once, however, as if moved by emotions of their own, I found them cupping my cheek or pressed to my lips.
“Thou art that,” I whispered. “Thou art that,” as the man’s large intestine fingered its way out of his abdomen, cooking like sausage. I was transfixed. For Hindus death is the arrival of a long-awaited guest, the end of one earthly existence and the beginning of something new. For me this was simply death: Spirit extinguished. Flesh turned to charcoal. Game over. I didn’t believe in reincarnation; the best afterlife I could imagine was something more akin to recycling, each human life dissolving back into nature’s great matrix. But I knew I was in the presence of something sublime and momentous. The bell had tolled for this man, and somewhere — close by or far away — it was tolling for me. But death, so evident to my eyes, remained boxed off in abstraction, deferred in time.
The man’s legs slowly burned away, reduced to sinew and bone. His swollen feet stuck out at the ends of drumstick shins not unlike Charlie Chaplin’s fork-skewered dinner rolls. The shirtless pyre keeper circled with his bamboo stick, and when the first of the bloated feet fell off, he pushed it into the bottom of the pyre, then circled back to poke the man’s head more directly into the flames. In the distance kids were jumping into the river. The Brahman stuffed a wad of bills into his shirt, and the sons posed in front of the burning pyre to have their picture taken. In the middle of a funeral. Even busloads of the worst kind of tourists could not have made this ritual any less itself.
“Submit to Mother India,” my New York friend had cautioned me. By the time I’d reached Varanasi, what had seemed practical travel advice had evolved into something closer to a spiritual principle, a commandment, the inevitable fate of all travelers to the subcontinent. We arrive with certain expectations, checklists, and vanities — all the trappings of our little Western tourist egos — and whether it happens suddenly or more gradually, it must all be surrendered.
In the West we hide death in hospitals, morgues, funeral homes, cemeteries. We spend a lifetime avoiding it, refusing to look upon its face for fear we’ll see our own. But the banks of the Ganges were no silent necropolis, bodies tucked away behind cold stones. This was death in the open, under the sun; death amid the chaos and colors of life. The shrouds are pulled from the corpses’ eyes so they can look skyward as they burn. Here death was met not just with terror but also with joy and celebration. Death wasn’t dour and morbid and gray. It was on fire.