Two tuk-tuks dropped us off where the streets got too narrow for anything but motorcycles and bikes. The streets were actually walkways, accommodating a seemingly impossible amount of activity – motorcycles, vendors, children playing, cows, dogs, and small temples the size of a walk-in closet. The smell of feces and smoke from distant funeral pyres was overwhelming.
Each parent grabbed a child’s hand and followed Keir who dodged the human, livestock, and motorcycle traffic skillfully. He had been to Varanasi a couple of times before. There were no discernable sides of the walkways for traffic and in a width that would often only accommodate three of us abreast, I was stunned that none of us got injured.
Varanasi is over three thousand years old and is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. This was easy for me to believe, as I hurried past homes no bigger than my kitchen, groups of six or so people chanting in tiny temples, and bulls with painted blue horns picking through the garbage that was everywhere.
From their former visits, Keir and Robyn had a general idea of where Hotel Alka was. But honing in on it specifically required asking several people repeatedly until we finally stepped into a modest courtyard that seemed huge in comparison to the walkways. We dropped our backpacks on a table and walked to a railing overlooking the Ganges.
Robyn says that there are parts of the Ganges that run clear, but in Varanasi the water is brown and polluted by funeral pyre ashes, charred cadavers, sewage, and livestock waste. When we walked onto a balcony, we saw our first view of the ghats -- steep tall steps, where many Hindus come to bathe in the holy water and to cremate their loved ones. We could spot several fires from the balcony.
I had told the children rather matter-of-factly that there would be public cremations in Varanasi and they had listened somberly. But at this moment, they were positively jubilant about the availability of finger chips (French fries) and mango juice on the patio. One of the things I was to notice in the first couple of days of our trip was our children’s ability to bounce back from any inconvenience or momentary sadness. I don’t think that this is exclusive to my kids and I wondered when they would lose that capacity and become more like me, hanging onto sorrows and grievances as if the length of time I mourned or stewed gave them legitimacy. It seemed a perfect thought to contemplate in light of the cremations we were seeing from a distance. According to Robyn, the atmosphere around Hindu cremations is respectful but not soaked with grief and loss.
The hotel had one room ready but not the two that we had reserved. Keir said that this was typical of budget traveling in India. If we couldn’t scare up another room, they would find one in another hotel.
“We never go without a room,” Robyn said cheerfully.
I have been known to weep when the flight attendants tell me they’ve run out of snacks, so I was suitably impressed by Robyn’s breezy acceptance of being rommless for the afternoon. After loading up on some finger chips ourselves, we loaded everyone’s packs into our room for the time being.
Hotel Alka is popular with backpackers and is about as budget as budget can be at twelve dollars a room. The room was dark with cement walls, cement floors, two thin threadbare towels hanging on a hook, and no attempt at decoration of any kind. The bathroom was the sort that did not invite lingering. A faucet, which served as a shower, dripped over two plastic buckets on the floor. There was no demarcation between the shower and the rest of the bathroom floor. Spencer looked around and announced, “Huh, just like Joshua Tree” – referring to a sketchy motel we had stayed in a couple of years ago.
Obviously we hadn’t come to Varanasi to sit in a hotel room anyway, so we bolted the door with a padlock and took several stairways that led to the ghats. These steep, high steps that lead down to the Ganges are teeming with people. Some are vendors, but most have come to bathe or cremate their dead. Bodies of the dead, covered in brightly colored cotton cloths are borne down to the shore on the men’s shoulders. Families sit in groups away from the actual cremations. When we looked away from the Ganges we saw abandoned temples and palaces, decayed but retaining the silhouettes of a time when they must have been resplendent. Keir pointed out a couple of palaces as we walked. Children seemed curious about us as we walked, asking us where we were from and our kids answered them. Boys played games and flew kites and many people strolled as we did from one end of the ghats to the other.
Spencer and Murphy were very taken with all of the livestock that roamed freely – dogs, goats, bulls, and water buffalo. When we stopped to sit, two goats butted against the children who giggled and named them. Murphy and his younger cousin, Zoe, seemed largely oblivious to the cremations that happened one after the other, in fairly quick succession, perhaps three to four fires going at a time. Spencer was more aware, I was sure. But I thought that I would let him choose how much he wanted to see or hear. For the most part, he kept himself occupied with the goats. Though at one point, I asked him what he found the most interesting about the scene. He answered that he liked all of the animals everywhere but it made him sad that they seemed so skinny and hungry. I told him that it was OK to feel sad. With Spencer feeling a bit tender, the adults eyeballed each other and we decided to break for lunch.
In almost every spot that caters to tourists here, there are pizzerias, and we were to discover that this was the safest option for keeping the children happy. Many of them are outside (this one looked over the ghats) with a few tables and restrooms that I couldn’t bring myself to use. Robyn and I talked about the unique and surprising beauty of the cremations. I couldn’t quite put into words, why I still find it so moving. But I do know that it has something to do with the inclusive and public nature of them. In the United States, I’ve found funerals so distancing, sterilized, mournful. I imagine that this all swirls around very different cultural attitudes about death. I know that I will be thinking about this for a long time. Varanasi has given these thoughts physical and visual context.
After lunch, we made our way down the ghats to the Ganges. We had to walk around a herd of water buffalo to find and negotiate a price for a boat ride. We found one easily and loaded ourselves onto the worn, wooden rowboat.
From the water, we could take in the larger scene – tons of color, fires, bathers, men doing yoga, and animals. The children sat on the bow of the boat and chatted. We spotted monkeys on the roofs of the palaces. Spencer had been quiet through the ride, but loved the monkeys. Keir told us that the rheusus monkeys can be quite aggressive and are a nuisance on the embassy compound. A monkey got into a new teacher’s apartment and out of fear she locked him in her bedroom, and listened to him tear apart her matress while she called for help. Keir said that when the monkeys get too prolific, the school pays to bring in a male monkey who then pees all over the compound, marking the territory as his and discouraging more monkey visits. Spencer burst into gut level guffaws at the notion of paying for a monkey to pee all over the place. My heart lifted.
At nightfall, we returned to the ghats for Aarti. In the dark, Hindus light candles and float them down the river. A white-robed man chanted on a stage over a microphone, while hundreds of small flames illuminated the Ganges and the bustling crowd. Spencer doesn’t like crowds and he stayed close to my side. Keir bought three candles for the children to float down the river and Murphy and Zoe eagerly followed him to the water’s edge. I stayed back with Spencer who didn’t want to move further into the throng. I sat with my arm around him for a couple of minutes before I realized that he was crying. My throat tightened – this had all been too much for him and it was all my fault for bringing him here.
“What is it, Buddy?” I asked. “Do you want me to take you back to the room?”
“No,” he said. “I really want to float my candle.”
“I bet Keir still has yours. Do you want to come with me to light it?”
“Yes,” he said, looking up to me, his eyes glistening.
With a firm grip on his hand, I pulled him through the crowd and we found Keir with the young ones setting their lit candles down in the water. Keir had kept Spencer’s. He lit it and handed it to my son, who leaned over the river and set it down.
That night, we practically carried the children to a restaurant that looked like the inside of a home. We sat cross-legged around a square table and ate almost silently, the two youngest dozing on our laps.
We returned to our rooms and laid sheets that we had brought in our packs, over three beds that were pushed together. The children fell asleep instantly. Pat wanted to revisit the ghats with Keir. I bolted the door from the inside and settled in with the children and dozed.
When Pat returned an hour later, he told me that the activity on the ghats did not seem to slow at nighttime. Keir and he had been standing on a ghat when a funeral party laid down a body at their feet. They watched as the workers prepared for cremation.
Pat crawled into bed next to me and we turned out the light. Some hours later I awoke in pitch blackness, the slow breathing of my men surrounding me. I reached over Pat’s body and fumbled for a headlamp and a notebook, pulled the lamp around my forehead, switched it on, and began to write.
|Boys on the ghats|
|Boys with Uncle Keir and Zoe overlooking the ghats|
|Spencer laughing at the Monkey story|
|The ghats from the boat|
|Spencer at Aarti|
|Boys leaving Varansi|