We entered Benares in the scorching noon of summer. In our grief we should have hardly noticed the cruelty of the sun, but it seemed that instead of dulling our senses, the grief had heightened them. I was painfully aware of the noise of that city, the blaring honks, the dust, and the burning heat. At once, the world seemed ugly, detestable, unfair, and not worth being in.
We got out of the car, and I looked around puzzled. This definitely was not the place where people went for a peaceful last journey. There was no peace here. As a way of introducing itself, one of the very early sights Benares offered was people carrying their dead on their shoulders. The processions seemed perfunctory to the city, a part of life. The chaotic, blearing traffic merely circumvented the procession as if it was avoiding a manhole. One dead did not look different from the other, wrapped in the same orange, ornamented by golden threads from the same shop. The shops around seemed to be geared to facilitate annihilation. It was a different world. I felt like I was in a port city, so full of action, ugly, loud and in constant frenzy about the many ships leaving the harbour.
After saying a painful goodbye, we women were sent to the hotel. Our place was not on the ghaats where we could stay longer with the one leaving and get closure. It was as if we were banished from the holiness of the ritual – considered too weak in the face of those flames. And yet, it is women who spend most time grappling with the flames. She, the wife, wasn’t she the one who was supposed to stay with him till his ship sailed – she who had spent a life with him?
As the day drew to a close, we got our closure – even if we heard of it over a phone. Suddenly, the peace and calm in the voice of men made us feel relieved too. They came back to tell us how comforting it had been at the ghaat – that after the last rites they could actually look out to the setting sun and laugh. Laugh. I felt jealous.
We spent four more days in the ancient city of Benares. Over those days, I continued to have strong reactions to the city. The first morning I stepped out to watch a sunrise on the ghaats, I was jolted by the putrid smell. It was, as if, the dead before going, left all their gracelessness back in this place. There was defecation everywhere, and open sewers, and rotting vegetables at 6 am in the morning. The ghaats were filled with people wanting to wash away their infractions in the holy river. The river itself looked burdened and muted with sins. Never before have I seen such a placid Ganga. I remember her violent and frolicking in Gangotri, deceptively fickle in Harshil, and reckless in Rishikesh. Never so quiet.
And yet, as I sat down on the ghats, the burdened river gave such a sense of calm. It seemed to assure that it will bear all the chaos, the filth, and still keep the ancient city afloat. It offered such a contrast to the city, that you wanted to go out into it, and go away to some Lothlorien forest.
One evening, we went for a boat ride – all of the close family who were left in Benares. I wanted to see the Ganga aarti, something which I find so alluring in both Rishikesh and Haridwar. Here too, watching the aarti from the boat was beautiful. The cacophony of two competing aartis seemed to settle right into the character of Varanasi. Many boats had come and parked themselves in front of the ghaat. There were little girls selling flowers, who were jumping from one boat to the other effortlessly. Between those boats lay a very deep and a very dark river, but that did not seem to concern them.
Once the aarti was over, our boatman took us along the ghaats, softly reciting the name of each ghaat as we crossed it. The city seemed set ablaze in lights – those from the temples, from the ghaats, from the markets. And then there were all the lamps people had left in the river – they kept floating in one direction, and seemed like a lighted pathway.
But suddenly, the lights went off. There was a power cut in the city. We softly rode along, but now the old city seemed so different. Here or there, one or two street lamps threw some ancient buildings under a spotlight. It was as if the river was taking us on a journey through time. We were all silent, perhaps waiting to hear the river’s story, or just tired from the last few days. I remember feeling very much at peace in those moments. The darkness of the river did not look disturbing – the small lamps, which now seemed scattered everywhere, made it look like a night sky.
In the distance, I could see some funeral pyres – these torches were what defined Varanasi, the city of death. And here, death seemed to be in its element, not hiding in shame, but showing off in its full glory. It was a city which made death easier to bear, and for that, I will be grateful to it.