Karisma sighs. “Shortly after that ended, out we went. The sky was still inky black. Even so, Susan put on her sunglasses. Perhaps she wanted to hide her puffy eyes.”
“The guide ushered Martha, Susan, and me into a wooden boat, and we floated off down the Ganges to the shores of the oldest of India’s cities. We were told that the public ritual we were about to witness runs twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, consuming hundreds of bodies a day in plain sight.”
By her slumped outline, Karishma has relaxed into her seat. In the dim light, I can barely decipher her expression. Her voice, soft and melodious, has a barely noticeable Indian accent as she conjures these visions from her homeland.
“The sight of the fires, rippling in the air and in reflection, was spectacular from afar. We started feeling the clang, the metronome clang of distant bells. The closer we came, the louder it vibrated inside our bodies. We reached the bottom of the cremation ghat, where a wave of furnace-like heat swallowed us. Around us were funeral pyres—burning, hissing, spitting embers into the air—just downstream from where people were bathing.”
Around us, the darkness seems to deepen. It is void of distractions, so what she describes comes to life more vividly than it would, had I seen it with my own eyes.
“Within moments of our arrival,” she says, “sweat poured down our faces. We struggled to breathe and could barely see through the blasting hot air. Here was one body, shrouded in white cloth and immersed in leaping flames. Over there was another, draped in flowers and surrounded by relatives and friends. They offered prayers to help the departed on her final passage. And on the deck opposite us, workers took a tea break as another body was prepared for cremation.”
“The guide greeted the workers and asked if we had any questions for them. By now, we were somewhat in shock. Maybe the Indian sun, rising to a blaze, got to us. I asked if getting so close to death was stressful to them. They said no. Martha asked how hard it was to work in these furnace-like conditions. They just shrugged. Meanwhile, Susan looked searchingly all around the burning deck, as if she had lost something. Finally, she asked, ‘Did you know a Dr. Patel?’”
Excerpt from Overdose