Blessings for Hire
Our mini-van pulls into a parking lot that was separated from the street by a chain-link fence. Thin young men stand in small clusters in the few open spaces. I peer out my window and see Bollywood movie posters, incongruously bright amidst the growing evening shadows.
“Katrina Kaif,” Rajeev said, noticing my gaze. “She is half British. She does some wonderful acting.” He speaks deliberately, his cadence a hybrid born of the clipped, inquiring Indian tone mellowed by years spent escorting Brits and Americans to monuments and temples. He is a large man by most standards, over six feet tall and rotund, but in India he is massive. His wide hazel eyes are framed by curled lashes, a decadent gift wasted on men.
I nod and reach for the door handle, but he is out of the shotgun seat and standing beside my open door before I can gather my camera and notepad. “I think maybe you will not need your little notebook. It is too dark for you to see what you are writing, I think? You can write all your notes in the morning, and then you will take them back with you so you can tell your friends, and they will come and visit India?”
After a few moments of negotiation with a group of nearby loiterers, Rajeev motions for me to follow one of the young men, who strides purposefully ahead of us. The three of us leave the relatively calm enclave and jostle into the Holy Market of Varanasi.
Varanasi is a city of endings. It is the guardian of the Ganges and a haven for the old and infirm. It is an auspicious place to die. Even the goats led through the streets by a leash of frayed rope seem resigned to their inevitable fate. The pampered and ever-present cows, however, cast uninterested looks at passersby.
We pass shops selling bolts of beaded silk and stacks of glittering bangles. Men with scarves wrapped around their faces against the dampness stand by a tea stall and wait for their chai. Donkey-pulled carts lumber through the crowd, which parts and shifts and shuffles to make way. Shrill horn blasts warn of auto rickshaws, open-sided three-wheeled cars that hold hunched passengers in a cramped back seat. Oil pops in a cast-iron wok tended by a man squatting beside it, bony knees close to his sunken chest.
“Don’t let the beggars approach you,” Rajeev says, leaning in to break my reverie. “They have leprosy. They won’t touch you. They cover their bodies, but I know who they are.”
“Not getting leprosy would be a good goal,” I say, straining to sound nonchalant.
“Don’t worry.” He smiles. “I will protect you.” He puts out a warning hand to stop a rusty compact car, and we continue through a roundabout choked with rumbling buses, mangy stray dogs with limp teats dragging the ground, and a patient crowd slouching towards the River Ganges.
The young man we have been following leads us down one of the ghats, or steps, to the river’s edge, where at least twenty flat-bottom boats nudge each other in the gentle current. The young man calls out to a boy, who leaps from boat to boat to untie one for our journey. Hindu priests set up for the evening Aarti ceremony nearby, and pilgrims fill the seats. Every evening they toss bread into the river for her evening meal, recite chants to sing her to sleep, and burn incense to soothe her.
As the boy carries a plastic chair and a stack of musty blankets to the boat, a young girl with matted hair approaches us. She holds out a basket filled with small paper bowls, each one containing a marigold and a tea light candle. Rajeev takes one from the basket and hands her a discreetly folded rupee note, and we step from the muddy bank into our Indian gondola.
“I have bought this for you,” Rajeev says as the boy pulls on the bamboo oars, tugging us away from shore. “It is like a prayer to the mother goddess. We are thanking her for allowing us to be here, to be on her.” He hands me the bowl, the tiny flame wavering a bit. I look across the water and see other specks of light floating unattended. I put on a solemn face and lean over to drop the paper prayer while Rajeev takes a photograph. I drop the bowl from too far away and the contents fall out, extinguishing the candle. The marigold and empty bowl join the flow of flotsam on the Ganges.
The boy rows towards one of the cremation sites. Mounds of dirt and wood smolder while family members and priests stand nearby, waiting to collect the ashes. One man in each group, responsible for lighting the flame, is dressed in white with a clean-shaven head. A human bundle, covered in saffron silk, is carried down the steps to an empty platform. The families all stand separate, by their respective pyres, yet to my Protestant eyes they seem united in this beautiful and dignified farewell.
We return early the next morning to see the bathers. It is winter in India, and the creeping cold settles in my joints. Rajeev buys me a coffee. The vendor makes it from instant coffee and milk poured from a metal pail, a smaller version of the containers strapped to bicycles ridden into the city from the surrounding countryside. It is sweet and scalding hot, and I let the steam moisten my face. We step into another boat to watch the bathers from the water. The pilgrims’ bare feet ease down the ghats into the river’s slow and murky waters. Their bodies are clothed in a drape of thin cloth and obscured by thick, smoky fog. A bare-chested man scoops handfuls of the water and lets them trickle over his shoulders, droplets snaking paths down his back and arms. He tips his head back and sprinkles water into his mouth.
“Now if you will look over there, you will see some people, some pilgrims, who are carrying plastic jugs.” Rajeev points to a woman holding a half-submerged bottle. “They will fill those with water from the river and bring them back to their homes. They say that nothing will grow in the holy water. No matter how long you have it in your home, you will not have algae or things like that. And some people, those people who live in the villages, think that the first water a baby drinks should be Ganges water.”
I think about the dust of so many lives, mingling with flower petals and soggy paper and soap suds, poured into the opaque water in search of salvation.
“Don’t they get sick?” I ask. Rajeev shrugs and half closes his eyes.
“They don’t get sick. It is holy.”
As we row back to shore, the fog begins to lessen. A cow ambles by. A priest offers his blessing for hire from under a large canvas umbrella. A little girl gasps at the approach of a stray dog. She grabs her sister’s arm and kicks at the intruder.
Jessica Dixon is a writer and curious soul currently living in Denver and exploring the Rocky Mountains. You can read about her adventures at her personal site.