“Have you also learned that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time?” That the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past nor the shadow of the future.” (Hermann Hesse/Siddhartha)
Twenty-four hours a day, except for brief forays out into the intensity that is Varanasi, I have most of one wall open to the ebb and flow of life on the Ganges River of India. Yeah, that Ganges, of purification and rejuvenation and cremation. There are many ordinary small boats on the river, some carrying families who’ve come from all over India for the cremation rites of a loved one; or newlyweds holding hands, just the two of them and the boatman; others with visitors packed in—as in locals and Indians of the diaspora, and the quiet sort of travelers who are attracted to difficult places with deep significance. I saw a boatload of white-robed men—wonder who they were; and there is always a plethora of one/two/three sailors like me. It’s quiet, few motors, just the Ganges rowers in their shabby-bright little conveyances. Everything is old along this waterfront. The hotels, restaurants, boats, crematorium, me; I am extraordinarily comfortable here.
This is my last evening in Varanasi. My friend Natasha commented on how much she loved it here. I’ve been thinking about that today because these days next to the river may somehow come to be the most important of the trip. But I’m not sure why and I’m not sure I love Varanasi wholeheartedly. I’ll know soon…for now it’s only the Ganges I love without reservations.
This waterfront/riverside is still a place of grandeur but of a subdued variety. It’s the grandeur of a place as yet unglitzed and ungilded by the developers of today; of faded colors and muted sounds (both out of the ordinary in this country where every niche glares with red and gold and shiny and where the sounds of horns and shouts drown out talk and thought).
But it’s all about the river. That slow-flowing muddy brown water carrying the impurities of our bodies, cleansed in life and death by ritual bathing in the Ganges, on down to the Bay of Bengal. Around the crematorium the water appears literally and figuratively to be thick with ashes and one looks for other death debris. I always thought this must be a grisly place but it turns out not to be. In fact I am deeply moved by everything about this death/cremation process—a subject to which I’ll return.
Right now it’s 6:30pm, dark outside. There are only a couple of spotlights, and no flashing lights, neon signs, or big noises along here. There’s a stage down the waterfront a ways where Bollywoodish crooners can be heard in the evening. I was rowed down there my first evening and immediately left; faux-rituals and shiny and show-bizy, but it’s only in one spot and not so loud as to cheapen the whole area.
It’s warm and damp and dusty all at once all of the time but without the burn of the day’s sun it is most pleasant. My fan whirs gently, the crooner can be barely heard and voices drift up from on the walkway and the water. Bells tinkle and there’s the obligatory dog quarrel but that’s another story too.
“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
I am haunted by waters.” (Norman Maclean)