The bodies burned day and night along the riverside, watched through the eyes of their lineage, seven generations in both directions.
I had arrived in India on the day of Diwali. A forty hour flight that included a layover in Finland had left me weary and worn. Arriving to find my guesthouse was not aware of my arrival, and not a place I wanted to call home, left me some efforts before really arriving for a month in India.
I slept til 10 pm and began to walk along the ghats. I was in the north near Assi Ghat and walked along the riverbank. The steps descend from the town of Varanasi into the river, accommodating the swelling of monsoon season, which last year, never came.
Diwali, the festival of Light, had me turned around in town a few times, trapped in the smoke of fireworks and the percussive sounds that associated with them: the way the locals like to celebrate. I choose to stay near the river because I’d heard so much about the Ganges.
The water was dark and flowed fast. Refuse floated in its current, mostly trapped near the banks in former muddy footprints.
Small groups of men huddled in the lack of light this night. Threes and fives up to a dozen, they entertained one another with stories, affectionately touching, arms thrown around one another’s shoulders.
Different steps were named with every passive hundred yards. The smell of mold and urine and feces married to melting plastic and the ash of exploded ordinance; cordite smells a particular way.
I turned away from the river, after a kilometer and wandered the maze of streets. Low lit with electricity at long intervals, I found a central courtyard full of mopeds and motorbikes. A wide avenue ran away from the river and after a brief exploration, I returned to the river.
Along the way, wood was stacked double the height of my human head, resting in an orderly fashion at the top of the stairs.
I followed them down. A larger group of men were drinking around a small cafe. One spoke with me a time, leading to an invitation to join, which I declined. During this time I watched smoke rising from the river side.
A shrine rested elevated at the rivers side. To get there I had to walk down many steps through the merriment.
A fire drew me to it.
A dozen men sat in circle, in ceremony, around the fire. One man led the prayers and with a rhythm easy to follow, the others would throw handfuls of particulate into the fire and chant ‘swaha.’
I was intimidated and turned further down the river where a smaller flame revealed itself. Balancing across one of the steps, the logs allowed air to flow in, keeping the fire bright. A man tended the flame with a mixture he poured into the heat, tactically encouraging the light to roar.
I stayed for some minutes, transfixed in the way that flame has done for human since the dawn of knowledge about such things.
Around one a.m. I began to walk home with the requisite selfie when three men stopped me to talk. They made a claim about blessings and indicated their forehead and mine. In the gaps between translation, I inferred the encouragement to return to the fireside and to ascend the platform to make an offering.
The smaller fire drew me back. The men continued to chant as I walked past them.
I sat for a half an hour near the smaller fire; signs often happen to direct me and I have had the fortune many times over to listen to their wisdom.
I watched the men in the family tend the fire with their eyes: their ancestor was burning. It is considered auspicious to be cremated beside the river Ganges and Varanasi is the holiest of such transition sites.
That was when I saw the foot in the flame.
Its flesh was dark and from the ankle down, fully formed. The tibia held fast to the fire and balanced amidst the fire’s center. I had been looking at it for many minutes before recognizing its shape.
My head and my heart began to pulse. I was a stranger here and watching a ceremony that recognized one human life. I offered a prayer, one old and one new for the blessing of that life and all the lives it had touched. I brought my hand to my heart and turned to the platform.
I left my shoes and then collected them into my backpack before ascending the stairs. I was invited deep into the platform and sat next to the mouth of the Sri Lingam. I rested in contemplation. Shortly after, many men joined me.
One began to open assorted bags and unfolding the contents from local newsprint, collected them in front of him. He drew three symbols on the lingam with his thumb, two of which were the same. Spices, fruit, and herbs were a part of the offering. I offered cardamom seeds and some water from my bottle across the top. Throughout this process, men would come up the stairs and quickly offer rupee, liquor, garlands and incense. One man maintained the space and would collect the mixture flowing from the yoni and pour it into the seekers mouth.
I saw only one woman. She attempted to ascend the platform and a wall sent her to stillness. She stood a long time before one man and then another spoke up for her allowance. She never raised her voice. She made her offering and went away. I spotted her later on the steps with three other men, speaking quietly, enjoying the open space that lined the river banks, in front of the crematorium.
I write this from a heated home that looks out on recently fallen snow and think about the month since returning from India.
This time of year has always been one of numbing. I’ve smoked and suppressed and chosen to turn off the phone for most of the last dozen years. Holiday associations aren’t great ones around here.
I know I’m not alone. Choosing to forego all the vices I’ve conditioned to be normal, I’m aware of new ones like movies and sugar, book trilogies and overworking. I ask myself if they are better and don’t know the answer.
Castaneda said that we either make ourselves miserable or we make ourselves strong. The work is the same.
I choose to see this day as a movement towards the latter, based on something India reminded me of: those three wise men had directed me to the flame of light with a reminder that we all end up here, burning, transitioning from this life to the next one.
Their encouragement ripples in my heart even now as I look to the next thirty years and decide what I will make of them.
One day or day one.