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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.

Categories
India Travel Varanasi

Day 10 – Varanasi Sunrise, Buddhas and Silks…

Our only full day in Varanasi began early. We were up before the sun and making our way to the Ganges by tuktuk once again. The morning is when pilgrims bathe and swim in the river. It’s a spiritual cleanse. Hindus come from all over India to partake. From all over the world, for that matter. All Hindus are to visit the Ganges at least once in their lifetime.

 

Ranny arranged for us to take a boat out onto the river again. We did the same route as the previous evening, visiting both the crematorium and the Dasawamedh Ghat. On the way from the crematorium to the Ghat, I saw what at first looked like some kind of effigy in the water. It was sort of wrapped around the anchor line of a boat. It turned out to be a partially clothed bloated body of a deceased pilgrim.

Nobody moved it, nobody really even acknowledged it. Ranny told us it would stay in the river and that it would eventually disentangle itself from the anchor line. He also said it would be improper to move it. It was a bit startling to witness.

After we returned to our departure ghat and made our way up it’s steps, we said our goodbyes to the mighty Ganges. And mighty it is. I had no idea it was as big as it is. And it has a mighty current too. Seeing the swirling eddies on the water’s surface reminded me of the Buddha dipping his begging bowl in the river and having it float UPSTREAM against the powerful current. Now I can no longer remember if that was something said to have happened or a dream. They are each the same, I suppose.

Ranny took us to a tiny local restaurant next for breakfast.Some would call it a hole in the wall, but there are enough of us who know these kinds of places are quite often the best. Luckily we have Ranny to bring us to these gems. The owner was such a lovely man. I had French pancakes (crepes) with rock sugar and lemon wedges. Sooooooo good. I talked to the owner about his baked goods at the counter when we were leaving. An American had taught him to bake and he loves doing it. It showed. His breads and brownies were picture perfect. I took a three pack of chocolate chip cookies for tomorrow’s train ride to the Nepalese border.

Back in the tuktuk! We were off to see Buddha gardens and a temple, as well as an ancient stupa. The streets of Varanasi are a blur of commotion, just like everywhere else in India. I love the traffic here so much! It’s a thrill to be inside the chaos. One knows one is alive when one is tearing through streets narrowly avoiding cows and babies and fruit carts and transports and bicycles. The traffic itself is beautiful music, punctuated by the ever constant and persistent HERE-I-AM call of the horn!

 

Dhamek Stupa was only one of the many sights we visited next. It seemed like a sort of complex. Ranny arranged for a guide to take us through all of it. We also saw the standing Buddha statue and the Tibetan temple. The deer park, where Buddha gave his first dharma teachings, is just behind this temple. Sarnath has much to offer and it’s worth the tuktuk ride to the area.

 

After Sarnath, we returned to the restaurant where we had dinner the night before. Delicious food! The owner came and chatted with us. When he found out we were from Canada he proudly tested his French on us. He even spoke German on our way out, ever ready to impress us with his mastery of so many languages.

Next, SILK. We had a quick tour of a silk factory after returning to the heart of Varanasi. Of course I bought a scarf. I don’t need my arm to be twisted to do so.

 

That was that. Another day over. Time races by so quickly here. We had supper at the hotel restaurant and quickly hit the sheets. Our wake up time for day eleven is 3:45am, as we are to meet in the lobby at 4:15am to make our way to the train station. Leaving Varanasi in the morning for Nepal! Can’t wait! Lumbini will be a highlight. The birthplace of Siddhartha Buddha.

I will be sad to leave Varanasi and I will be sad to leave India. I’m breathless from the beauty I’ve experienced so far. India just keeps giving, keeps opening up. Such a festival of humanity!

Categories
India Travel Varanasi

India – Day 9 – The Holy City of Varanasi and the Ganga River

Gangaji! Tonight we took tuktuks through the streets of Varanasi to the most famous holy river on the planet. The Ganges. Coming upon the Ganges for the first time was, for me, comparable to coming upon the spires of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela for the first time. Only, slightly more spectacular. The cathedral I walked toward for days and days. The Ganges? I feel as though I have always been walking towards it.

 

Ranny arranged for a boat to take us out on the river and we cruised the shoreline to view the cremations taking place outside the crematorium on the riverbank. Hindus believe cremation on the banks of the Ganges releases the soul from the cycle of death and birth.

 

This reminds me so much of the Heart Sutra from Buddhism. There’s a place in the sutra that states, “no birth, no death, no being, no non-being, no defilement no purity, no increasing no decreasing.”

Buddha, who was originally from Lumbini (which was once a part of India but now resides in Nepal), also considered the Ganges sacred. He made pilgrimage to its sacred shores.

“Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!
Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!
Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!”

After stopping at the fires of the crematorium, we made our way back up the river to the Dasawamedh Ghat to see the nightly Ganga Aarti Ceremony… which involved chanting, incense, fire, singing. It was quite beautiful. We all released little bowls with flowers and lit candles into the Ganges while we were there. The banks of the river quickly filled up with boats, so many that people could walk from one to another. Many came through from boat to boat selling masala chai, flowers, candles, and bowls. The sunset and the darkness that followed were filled with pomp and ceremony.

 

Overall it was not a very busy day, as we had travelled overnight from Orchha to Varanasi on the train and we were pretty wiped out. After the sunset ceremony we went out for supper—tuktuks barreling through the darkened city streets protected from utter destruction by some unseen miracle of happenstance—at a local restaurant. The food was delicious, as usual. The blackouts/brownouts throughout our meal reminded me fondly of my time in Nairobi. All calmness and chill awaiting the return from darkness to light.

We then reached our limit for the day. Varanasi is glorious! And we were knackered. Only by knowing the city would still be there in the morning, waiting to entice us back into its swarm of colour and light and mayhem, were we able to return to our hotel and fall soundly into our beds.

We have seen the Ganges! We have dipped our feet in its sacred waters.