The ghats of Varanasi are the arms of the Ganges, supporting the devout as they wash away their sins or burn the bodies of those past sinning. Of all these sets of stone steps that lead to the water’s edge, Meer Ghat is my favourite, not least because it reminds me of my favourite mammal, the Meerkat. It is one of around 100 ghats (no one seems to know the exact number) that stretch along the riverside, and unlike Lalita Ghat or Raj Ghat it has little historical significance and no famous temples. But it has all kinds of stories to tell, if you lend it your ears…
Sunil knows everyone on Meer Ghat. To him their movements are the cogs and wheels of a giant time piece that he can read like we might read the hands of a clock. Each dip in the Ganga is like another chime from this clock, ringing out from an invisible bell.
That night as we sat on the balcony, I watched in amazement as Sunil predicted every move as if it were written.
It was just past three in the morning when he said, “Hear that?”
“What am I supposed to be hearing?”
“Can’t you hear an old man walking down to the river?”
When I leaned over the railing, I could hear nothing. All I could see were the stone steps leading to the waters edge, a dozen boats swaying almost imperceptibly in the current, and a black and white goat curled up on a platform the size of a breadbox. But then it came. The tap, tap, tap of wood on stone. A bow-legged man in his eighties was making his way down to the river with the help of a long staff, a large orange dhoti wrapped around his groin. He negotiated each step one at a time, careful as bone china.
Sunil was looking at me.
“Can you see the other one now?”
“There’s another man coming. An older one.”
And there he was, arthritic legs arching wildly as he moved down the steps one at a time.
“He came later, but he’ll reach before the first one,” said Sunil, yawning.
And sure enough, the other man overtook the one with the stick. At the water’s edge, he waded in up to his skinny thighs and began chanting softly, dipping his hand in the river, and lifting it to his forehead, with the tenderness of a long-awaited reunion.
I was hooked. It was better than any movie script, the commentary to this mysterious time mandala.
“What happens next?” I asked.
“Now we go to bed.”