Around the corner came two men. A bamboo stretcher was wedged in between them. I could see the strain on their faces. The physical and emotional weight on their load. The dead weight. I then saw the orange and gold tapestry. A common sight in the city where Hindus travel to to die. I knew that I had come across a funeral procession. I looked behind me to move out of the way, but there was nowhere to go. I had wandered too far astray into the thinning labyrinth of Varanasi, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world.
The man leading the body to the Ganges with a trail of incense was already next to me in the thin alley pushing the procession forward with an indelible thrust as if directed by death itself. I squeezed into a pocket and hugged the wall, between a doorstep and a city cow.
The men carrying the body looked stoic, either as if they were trying to hide their emotions behind a curtain of masculine strength or because they were struggling underneath the weight of the corpse
I pushed my left ear, my spine, and my heels against the brick wall trying to make myself, already too big for the infrastructure of India, as small as possible. With my ear against the wall, my right ear was brushed by the tapestry covering the newly deceased next to me. We were nose to nose. I was closer to this body, this person that was no longer, than I have been to many other humans throughout this year. Any closer and I would have been kissed.
It turned out that the body had just been brought out of the house moments before I arrived. After it passed, a young boy carrying a terracotta vase of water tripped out of the house, took a few shuffle steps as an attempt to try to balance the ceremonial water jug, then dropped it right at my feet. The water splashed over my ankles.
I passed the door of the house, where the women, who aren’t allowed to leave to go to the cremation ghats were sitting. A few were wailing in mourning, the rest comforting those who were suffering most.
Completely by accident, I felt as though I stumbled into the personal life and trod over the emotions of strangers.
In Varanasi, it seems like everybody is dying. But perhaps that’s just because the culture is so much more open about it. I wondered how often I walked by an apartment building in Buenos Aires, Rotterdam, or Mumbai where there were corpses waiting to be disposed of. It must have been occurred, it’s just hidden.
Varanasi is an auspicious place to die in the Hindu tradition. Dying here breaks the soul out of it’s continuing cycle of rebirth. There are hospices set up along the riverbank where elderly come and wait to die. The fires at the burning ghats never go out.
I’ve started a section in my notebook titled ‘Along the Ganges’ where I keep notes about things I think about, people I meet, or situations I stumble into.
Here are two worth sharing with you:
I was walking along the river with Tayla from Colorado. Tayla had pet snakes as a kid so saw this tout making music for his cobras and went and stuck her face in the wicker basket. She picked up a baby anaconda and started cuddling it.
We both knew that nothing comes free, especially in India. But since I was staying a yard-sticks distance from the cobras, it was on her. But still, from a distance I had a great sign-language conversation with the snake man. We hit it off. He’s a really friendly looking guy with a rockstar beard.
Tayla the snake charmer left for Agra and the rest of her India tour, but I’ve kept on running into snakeman. I’ve seen this guy every single time I’ve been out walking along the river. We give each other a head nod, smile, and a look of recognition. He’s always sitting down, each time in a different spot, with his snakes in front of him. After the fourth or fifth encounter, I thought to myself, “alright, we’re becoming friends.”
Today, I saw him walking along the river in the other direction. I was surpised to see him up and moving and gave him the ‘oh hey!’ look. He was happy to see me to. As he blessed me by touching the top of my head, I thought, “Awesome, I’ve got a buddy.”
He gave me a friendly hand-shake, then stuck out his hand and asked for money.
No fast friends in Varanasi. There’s only one thing people want from me.
This fella, is 6 or 7. He looks taller because I bent over to take his portrait, but he stood at about my hip level. He was a truly remarkable young entrepreneur. This morning, he decided to make some money, so rallied two of his cronies and piled up debris left over from a festival to build a roadblock and gate to control the traffic along the public riverfront way by the ghats.
Whenever a westerner would come by he’d put the gate down and ‘you shall not pass’ until they coughed up change.
I encountered him for the first time with Petra, the German gallery manager here at Kriti who speaks elementary Hindi. We started chatting with him and he, like all Indians, loved to argue. In a country where remarkably few people are fully conversational in english. He entertained us in argument filled with laughs and wit. We ended up giving him 5 rupees, but I thought he deserved an award for coming up with money-making tactics that were more successful than every other person along the river.
As Shawn Carter says, you can’t knock the hustle.