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Thursday, 28 February 2013

Body of the Ganges, Varanasi - Page 3

Written by Adrienne Rose Block
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When the river is low, Steve told me, it’s possible to walk its length uninterrupted. But after a month of monsoon rains, the Ganges flowed high along the ghats, washing out the most low-lying areas. At certain spots, we had to choose between wading through the water or climbing up the ghats, wandering through alleys and trying to find our way back down. Steve assured me no harm would come if we waded in a little, but I couldn’t imagine dipping even one toe. I recoiled when droplets splashed in my direction. 

 “I thought you said you might want to go in,” Steve said with disappointment. He hadn’t gone into the river when he came to Varanasi before, and wanted to this time.

He was right. I had wanted to go in, but that was when it was hypothetical.

 “I don’t think so,” I said. “It looks disgusting. Look at all the garbage floating in it, all the ashes.”

“Maybe we could just go in for a minute,” he said. “Afterwards we could run right into the shower.” 

I looked at him with exasperation. This had been a theme since we’d arrived in India, Steve pressing me to do things I didn’t feel comfortable with: day-long treks to remote monasteries that were only supposed to take an hour or two, drinking water out of streams and taps when I would have preferred bottled, sleeping outside on freezing nights with only one sleeping bag between us. 

“I just don’t want to do it, okay?”

We’d been in Varanasi for several days when we woke to the roar of monsoon winds and the spray of rain blowing into our guestroom at the Hanuman temple. We’d gone to sleep with the window latched as always—a measure to keep out mosquitoes. But during the night, fierce gales had blown it open and its metal shutters screeched and clanged against the stucco wall outside. Steve went to the window and pulled the shutters in, then re-latched them as securely as he could. He tried the electrical switch near the window, hoping to spin the ceiling fan back to life, but, as we knew would be the case, nothing happened. It was 10:15 in the morning. The energy crisis in Varanasi and the rest of Uttar Pradesh meant that the power went out every day from 10:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m. Even though the rain brought relief from the stifling humidity, we quickly felt the heat spreading back into the center of our room from the corners where the whirring fan had kept it pinned. 

“Breakfast and walk?” Steve asked.

Our daily routine. We woke up with the heat of the power outage or spray of the rain, ate breakfast at a nearby restaurant and then went down to the river to spend hours walking along its shore. Whether it rained or not didn’t change our plans. In heat like this, with no obligations, it didn’t matter if we got soaked.

That day, we went to a restaurant at the top of a four-story hotel. The rain stopped by the time we arrived and we sat down at a table by an open window to enjoy the cool breeze. We were the only people there except for an Indian man who sat on a pallet near the wall playing tabla drums. It felt luxurious to sit there high above the city, to enjoy a private concert and feel the breeze on our skin. 

It wasn’t until after we ordered our food that I noticed little white specks blowing onto our table. We went to the window and looked down to discover that one of the cremation grounds was directly below. I watched as a knot of men huddled near the flames, shawls thrown over their noses and mouths to keep out the ash. 

We finished our meal to the rhythms of tabla and the burning smells from the cremation grounds. Strangely, the fire smelled almost the same as any other fire. Nothing about it suggested a burning corpse. If anything, its scent was slightly sweet, probably from the incense used in the cremation ceremony. As I breathed in, I thought about the life and death mixing together inside me, the tiny white ashes vibrating in my lungs to the tabla’s intricate beats. 

After breakfast we walked down to the river. It had been raining for several days and the water level had risen along the ghats. Many were washed out and impossible to navigate without coming into contact with the river. In certain spots, a deep layer of mud had accumulated on the concrete. The constant rain had turned everything into a slippery sludge. But we decided not to climb the staircases like we usually did to avoid wading through the river. With the water so high, we would have had to interrupt our walk countless times to avoid it, and it didn’t seem worth it. 

So I stepped carefully into the water, gripping my sandals with my toes to keep the mud from stealing them. I let the water cover the top of my feet and creep toward my ankles; I didn’t cringe when I felt it lick my calves. My sandaled toes sank into the warm, smooth mud beneath the surface, and I didn’t think about the pathogens lurking in the water, waiting to enter through an imagined cut in the flesh of my foot.

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(Page 3 of 4)
Last modified on Friday, 01 March 2013

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