Twice I’ve tried to write about Varanasi. The first time my notebook mysteriously disappeared from my hotel room in Pahar Ganj, New Delhi. The next time, I dropped it in the Ganges. Varanasi is like that. Resists anything that tries to hold on. The burning ghats are burning, whether you see them or not.
The first time I was there was in the winter of 2010. It was cold, with a damp fog that hung over the Ganga like a flattened ghost. I was permanently wrapped in a white woolen shawl. I wasn’t into talking much at the time. And I wasn’t interested in ticking off the local sights. I didn’t even have a camera. My boatman, Sunil, seemed to sense my mood, and he rowed in silence. I had asked him to take me on the river, and that’s what he did. We went first to Assi Ghat. I don’t remember why, exactly, perhaps a bookshop I had heard of. When we moored the boat, a puja began clanging away from a nearby temple. Pujas are the soundtrack of Varanasi.
“This city is constantly at prayer,” I said, half to myself.
“Yes, madam,” said my boatman. “We never let God sleep. In fact, we don’t even let him take a nap.”
It was such a charming remark, and it brought my attention to him properly for the first time. His name, I found out, was Sunil. After some hours, when the sun had set, we ended up at the burning ghats. We stayed bobbing a few hundred yards from the bank, further out than the other tourist boats. I’m sure he was used to foreigners wanting to get up close, but this was close enough for me. Not for any fear of death, but for respect for the living.
I stared into the pyres, that people say have kept burning for millennia. The way the river carries sound, the crackling of wood and bone mixed with the soft lapping of water against the hull. I stared into those fires, like a soul transfixed. And I envied them. The burning ones. Being so nobly and mindfully sent on their way from this world.
“We have a saying around here,” said Sunil.
I looked at him, one eyebrow raised.
“Burning is learning. Cremation is education.”
He lit a cigarette and offered it to me.
We were friends after that.