"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?’”
“Yes, of course, they said. The one and only Dr. Patel! He was well known in these parts. Susan looked away as if she didn’t know what to say, except a muted, ‘I’m Dr. Patel’s wife.’ They bowed low to the ground before this woman, whose hair was now covered in ash, and assured her that they had taken good care of her husband.”
“Oh? What did that mean?”
“Well, according to our guide, many bodies are tossed into the river partially cremated or not at all, why? Because not every family can afford the cost of even the cheapest wood for the funeral pyre. Not so in the case of Dr. Patel.”
“Because his family was rich enough?”
“No, that wasn’t it. When his picture had appeared in the Varanasi Hindi Newspaper, everyone had been horrified to see him, in that blurry print, lying dead in the gutter. Families from villages near and far had contributed what they could to buy the necessary timber. Young and old had come to the funeral pyre to pay their respects. They had set their little gifts—herbs, oils, flowers, and trinkets—all around the corpse. He had been sent on his final voyage with great love.”
“Wait! Let me understand one thing,” I say. “Whoever it was, a picture of him had appeared in the papers? So, did Susan ask for it?”
Karishma nods. “Yes, she did, but none of the workers kept the Varanasi Hindi Newspaper for that day, or knew of any friends or relatives who did.”
“Did they know the cause of death?”
“Not really, and it didn’t really matter to them. These men, who dealt with death all day long, accepted the manner by which it came without ever questioning it.”
I shake my head in amazement.
Karishma goes on. “On the way back to the hotel, the guide apologized to Susan for not having kept the picture of the body in that gutter. At the time, there was no reason to keep it, and he’s sorry, so sorry for her husband’s untimely death.”
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