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India Memoir Non-Fiction Varanasi

My Mother and The Body in the Ganges

Looking Back – My Mother and the Body in the Ganges

I can’t stop thinking about that body. Two years later, I still close my eyes and see it—him—bobbing in the river’s brisk current, entangled in the anchor rope of a small wooden boat anchored just off the shoreline of the Ganges in Varanasi, India. Directly in front of the Dashashwamedh Ghat, the city’s busiest steps leading down to the sacred river.

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The Dashashwamedh Ghat, Varanasi, India (Sept2018)

They don’t warn you about the strength of the Ganges’s current before you actually see its power. The moment it came into view, I recalled how Gautama tossed his wooden bowl onto its surface and declared that he would become a Buddha if only the bowl could manage to flow upstream. Only upon seeing the flow of the Ganges did I realize how brazen his declaration had been.

The body floated there, bloated, half-naked and ignored. Who was he? Where were his people? Were they desperately seeking him? Did they place his body there or did he slip into the river’s murky current by himself? Did he ask to have his body dropped into the river? Could he not afford the crematorium further down the shoreline with its billowing clouds of thick grey smoke?

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The Riverside Crematorium, Varanasi, India (Sept2018)

My head swarmed with questions, even as our guide Ranvijay told us to do nothing. To touch it or move it, or even to draw attention to it, would have been disrespectful. It could have set off a mob of protesters defending the body’s right to be there. A body in the Ganges stayed in the Ganges.

After travelling across India, I had naively considered myself acclimatized to the fascinating beauty of the country. I even found harmony in the dissonance of the traffic in its congested roadways. I thrived in being thrown into the mix of tuk-tuks, rickshaws, cows, goats, pigs, dogs, cars, trucks, bicycles, motorbikes and pedestrians. All life can be found inside the cacophony of that chaos. I loved being swallowed in the current of its beauty. But that body? It disrupted my equilibrium. It threw me off course.

It’s one thing to see shrouded bodies on makeshift pallets awaiting their turn in the fires of the shore-side crematorium. It’s quite another to see a body abandoned and falling prey to the elements. The bodies on the shore, modestly wrapped in colourful cloth and hidden from prying eyes, afforded a dignity to the people they once were. The body in the water, with its skin becoming translucent as it filled with gases and expanded to an obscene grotesque caricature of its former self? It seemed like an insult to the dignity of the soul who had once resided within it.

I felt angry with the people who ignored the corpse. But why be angry when their intention in ignoring the body was, in fact, their method of honouring it? In ignoring the vessel, those around us were giving it the reverence it deserved. Surely it was we visitors who had it wrong.

I’m back home in Toronto now, our trip to India now two years behind us. It’s a cold February day as I await the second of several pans of peanut butter cookies being baked to a golden brown in the oven. I sip my coffee and absently bite into a warm cookie as the body in the Ganges rises back to the surface of my thoughts.

Ever since I began to mix the ingredients for these cookies, I’ve been thinking about my mother. She passed away almost four years ago now. Though we had not spoken for a while prior to her passing, we had managed to reconcile in her last couple of days in this world.

After she passed, I asked my father only for one thing. I had to have Mom’s beat up old recipe box filled with decades of haphazardly jotted down family recipes, magazine clippings, and the like. It was the one thing of all her possessions that offered a solid link to the bond we shared in the time before our estrangement.

As I allow the cookie to melt away on my tongue, childhood memories of baking with my mother come flooding back to me. They hit with a force much greater than the current of the mighty Ganges. I’m in tears, caught between the body in Varanasi and my own complicated memories. The two things converge in a swirl like bodies caught in a river’s relentless eddies.

My mother told me to never look back on things as they baked. Something about it being bad luck to look back at the baking before it was time to take it out of the oven. “Stop gawking at them,” she’d say. “A watched pot never boils. They know what they’re doing. Follow the rules and it works out in the end. Baking is a science.”

She made sure I followed those rules too. The measuring, the mixing, the oven temperature, and everything else that went into getting it just right. To veer away from the recipe was sacrosanct.

I stop stuffing my face with peanut butter-y goodness long enough to gawk in at the tray in the oven. Two minutes left on the timer. Sure enough, the cookies are fine. I chuckle to myself, wondering if I would have gotten a dirty look from my mother for not trusting the almighty science of baking. Some things never change, even as the world around you changes in a thousand different ways whenever you glance away. I never quite trusted my mother’s exact science of baking theory. I always gawk in the oven.

As the timer on the second batch goes off and I dry my dampened eyes, I consider the body in the Ganges once again. What if it were my mother entangled in that anchor rope and struggling against the current? Would I be able to leave her there? Would I be able to reconcile myself to the sacredness of the river, or to the fact she had left her body long before entering its current?

It seems ghastly to even speculate. Perhaps I’m not meant to reconcile any of this. I go about the motions of getting another tray of cookies ready for the oven and I set the timer. Placing the baking sheet in the oven, I already know I’ll look back on them before the timer goes off. I’ll disobey my mother once again.

There was no mob of protesters that day on the Ganges. Our little group of tourists became solemn and quiet, but we let the body be. We each did what we had to do to pack the memory away for later. We slipped away on the current and tried our best not to look back, knowing full well we always would.

When it comes right down to it, there’s not much difference between resurrecting that body and conjuring happy baking memories with my mother from the time before everything went wrong. Both things are mists of memory now, there for the plucking for as long as I’m capable of holding onto them.

As right as my mother was about the science of baking, though, she was wrong about one thing. She miscalculated my obstinance—or maybe she didn’t, maybe she knew—because I’ll always look back. It’s who I am. Whether it be a body ending its journey in the mighty current of the Ganges, or a tray of cookies adhering to the laws of science my mother always swore by, I’ll look back. I’ll remember.

Maybe it’s the looking back that makes memories of my mother, and of the body of a stranger floating in the Ganges, so sacred. I bore witness. I was there. I carry them with me.