It’s not easy to find out how someone died in India. You invariably receive the most meager explanation. Sometimes simply a body part. “Stomach,” or “Heart” or “Liver.” So, when I asked Sunil how Rakesh’s father died, he didn’t feel the need to say anything more than, “Alcohol.”
Two months before, Sunil had called with the news. When Rakesh came on the phone his twelve-year-old voice was strained, and an octave higher than usual from the strain of hiding it. I had met Rakesh two years back when I first came to Varanasi. He was the youngest boatman on the Ganges. At first I felt it was sending the wrong message to hire him, and I could tell that other tourists were not hiring him for the same reason. But our trips on the river soon became more than business as usual. He was an impish thing, who seemed as yet unsmeared by the coarse and careless varnish expected of Indian men. His heart was still tender and bursting for human affection. Rakesh often got distracted on the boat while practicing his broken English. We would swirl around in slow-moving circles for a few minutes before he noticed, and grabbing the oars with his tough skinny arms, struggle to straighten us up. He never asked me for anything above and beyond his fare. And though small for his age, he had the biggest smile I’ve ever seen.
He lived in a one hundred square foot room with his mother, father, elder brother and younger sister. He had pointed it out to me once; a dull glow from a tiny window a stone’s throw from the ghat where the fair and privileged silk clad Brahmins perform their evening services. But he never invited me there. He preferred to sleep on his father’s boat. I suspected that in the arms of Mother Ganga, Rakesh found some solace that was absent from his family home.
“It’s either the eldest or youngest son who leads the funeral. The family chose Rakesh.”
Sunil and I were sitting on a narrow balcony sipping at bottles of beer. A mounted wall fan whirred noisily above us, the relief it offered hardly worth the investment made for its existence.
“How did he do?”
“It was very hard for him. You know I did this too, a few years before. But I was much older.”
I remembered that Sunil’s father had also died from ‘alcohol.’
Sunil had been the one to persuade Rakesh’s father to allow him to go to school. He’d agreed on the condition that Rakesh worked the boats in the mornings and evenings. Rakesh never complained. For him school was a privilege, not a right. I had tried to teach him the days of the week in English, but he could never get through all seven. I worried he had some kind of learning disability. Two weeks after he joined the local school, he had called me up to shout “Monday! Tuesday! Wednesday!” etc. down the phone. Getting all the way through the week for the very first time.
“So you helped him.”
“Yes. I told him everything. I helped him to shave his head and cut his nails.”
The electricity had cut out while Sunil was talking, and his gentle face was now wrapped in shadow. The performers of the evening puja continued to blast messages to the gods without missing a beat, for the gods live off the grid, and so, at heart, does everyone who abides here. Beneath us the watery flanks of India’s great matriarch glimmered in the ancestral light from the ceremonial and funeral fires. Those flames transporting the souls of the dead and the ones transporting the supplications of the living. Varanasi has a habit of stepping out of time, but when it’s face is lit only by fire, the city relapses to its natural state where time is only the changing face of water as it moves towards the sea.
“So tell me. What happens when someone dies here?”
“We call all family members to the house.
Everyone bring one piece of cloth. Gold with red border. Each one puts the cloth on the body. The women stay near the body for some time and they cry a lot. Women are not allowed to go to the funeral at the burning ghat.”
“Because they cry too much, Rebecca-ji and it disturb the spirit that is trying to….trying to…”
“Leave the body?”
“Yes. Yes, that’s right. So then the people they bring the body to ghat. But only close family members can carry the body.”
I thought of all the times I’d met this procession of four heavy-hearted men bearing a bamboo stretcher, ferrying a shimmery red and gold-draped mound, with the solemn chant of Ram Nam Satya Hai–the name of God is truth. The usual shoving bustling crowds momentarily humbled to hush and stand aside as it passed solemnly through the clogged arteries of the old city.
“They take the dead person straight to the steps of the Ganga and give them a last bath. Then they arrange the wood and all the special herbs and everything.”
“What did Rakesh have to do?”
“He got fire from the dom.” (Dom is the collective name for the people who tend the funeral pyres. Their caste is the absolute bottom rung, and no one dares to even touch them.) “Then he helps them make a bed from wood and put the body on top.”
I found the use of ‘bed’ both jarring and touching.
“Rakesh put five pieces of wood on top of his father body.”
“For the elements. Earth, water, air, fire and space. Then he walks around the body five times, the opposite way of clock. Then he lights the wood.”
Sunil kept flitting between tenses. Now in the present, it was as if he was reliving his own experience of five years ago, when he was twenty-one.
“After half the body burns Rakesh broke the skull with a big piece of bamboo.”
“He had to break the skull? Why?”
“To let out the soul so it can move on,” Sunil said, as if this was all a matter of fact.
It hurt to imagine Rakesh, his little head shaved and bright in the fiery glow, having to crush his dead father’s skull with a force that must have felt like violence. It seemed so brutal. I never did understand why Rakesh’s brother wasn’t the one to do all this.
“It’s not that hard,” said Sunil, as if hearing my thoughts. “The fire makes the bone quite soft.” His words were strong, but his voice was smaller and thick with emotion.
With the buzz of electricity and the spluttering fan stilled, the city’s sounds were now full-throated with the river as a natural amplifier. A shout from the burning ghats was startling in its clarity. “Kapal kriya!”
“That’s the sound, Rebecca-ji. That’s what we shout. Someone’s skull has just been broken.”
If the story had made Rakesh’s and Sunil’s father one and the same, Rakesh and Sunil were now the same son.
That afternoon we had all bought cokes and snacks and taken a boat on the river. Rakesh had kept looking downstream, not catching my eye. He didn’t smile so easily nowadays, and when he did, it didn’t stretch as wide. Immersed in such thoughts it was some time before I noticed that Sunil had gone quiet. I decided not to ask anything else. But he told me the rest, as if his story, like the funeral, needed to be completed.
He told me that it takes an hour and a half for a body to burn. That afterwards, Rakesh and his family threw water on the fire. That Rakesh made an offering of black Amba seed to Mother Ganga, that he was given a handful of ashes, that he walked to the edge of the river and crouched down so that the water lapped over his small hands, and carried the remains of his father downstream.
“After that,” said Sunil. “He is not allowed to look back. Ever.”
The lights of the city spluttered on again, but Sunil’s face stayed dark and he said it again.
“He’s never allowed to look back.”