I’d been aimlessly wandering the back streets behind the ghats of Varanasi, and had accidentally turned up a log’s throw from the funeral pyres at the Burning Ghats.
“No,” I replied truthfully.
He looked surprised and then instantly dubious. Apparently, everyone wants to photograph other people’s funerals in Varanasi.
“Actually, I just want to go back to my guest house.”
I felt uncomfortable being this close to the pyres. Not uncomfortable with the in-your-face deathness, but with invading the privacy of the mourners.
I began to move away and was immediately blocked by a short stocky man who told me I could make a donation for those too poor to afford wood for their relative’s funerals.
“It’s a scam,” said the other man, and lobbed a glob of brownish spittle onto the ground.
I began to walk away, experienced enough to know the following:
1. I basically have no idea what is going on
2. Almost everyone sees me as a walking wallet
3. best to move on…
I’d heard about the wood scam from some other tourists. What a way to make a buck. I imagined the “And what do you do?” conversation going something like this.
“Oh, I trick tourists into thinking they’re helping people who are so dirt poor they can’t afford funerals for their mothers.”
“Is that a good business to be in?”
“Oh, fantastic. You see, the high death rate among the poor and the kindness of stupid people combine for a 110 per cent no-lose success guarantee.”
“Come with me,” an old sadhhu-type whispered. His head was wrapped in ash-coloured cloth, legs of dry kindling beneath an ash-coloured dhoti. Three more guys were honing in on me.
“I can tell you the best place to take photos,” said one.
“I don’t have a camera,” I repeated.
Eye-narrowing looks all round. No tourist, it seems, goes to the Burning Ghats without a camera.
I slipped past them, and followed the ash-coloured saddhu, figuring that even if he was planning to scam me too, at least I could take him. He took me up an ancient mould-racked building with a large open balustrade. He introduced me to his eighteen-year-old son, who was dressed exactly like him. The boy bowed courteously, both hands folded.
“What a sight,” said the saddhu, gazing out over the funeral pyres.
It was. Seventeen bodies burning amidst a production-line efficiency of wood and prayer.
“I burned my dead wife here ten years ago. We had been together for thirty-seven years. It changed my life.”
The heat from the fires created mirage-like puddles in the air as he spoke.
“I used to be a policeman. I even protected Indira Gandhi for a while. I was on my way to a good career. But then…everything changed.”
He turned towards me for the first time.
“It always does.”
He went quiet for a while. The smoke was beginning to get in my eyes.
“Now, I help those preparing for death at the hospice here. Look deeply into the fire. All the teaching you could ever want is there. What is important? That’s what you need to ask. What is really important?”
I gave him 200 rupees, thanked him, and left. Later someone told me that he was operating a scam. That the money he collected ostensibly for the hospice just went into his pocket.
I would have paid him double for his time.