Finally finished this rather long short story that I had originally posted in parts. Here all four parts in one. The whole story pizza. Enjoy.
Vijay Chaudary was worried about his carbuncle. Three pedicures in the past week alone, and there it remained—an obstinate red bump blistering under the nail of his left little toe. He grimaced at the way it interrupted the symmetry of his feet. Balanced scale of toe-size had always been a point of pride with him. He had never been a handsome man—unfairly short of stature, prematurely bald and a head unnecessarily square—but he possessed, like everyone, a few features of distinction. For Vijay Chaudary, it was the evenness of his toes.
Taking a steaming glass of masala chai from the hands of his timorous kitchen boy, he reclined in a white woolen shawl on a plum and azure silk-cushioned charpoy. The balcony of his mansion, presiding as it did over the Ganges River, was flanked by two life size stone tigers. So realistic, their muscled stripes seemed ready to leap from the pedestals and dive headlong into the waters below. In the centre a small shrine to Shiva played host to Vijay Chaudary’s sins every morning at seven o’clock sharp. But these days he was struggling to think of a single one. And surely his worldly success was proof that he had done his penance well, and that karma was now firmly in his corner.
He gazed beyond the curves of his toes like a man might stretch his sights across a mountain range, and out into the rosy stone flourishes of Kashi. No city in the world could claim a higher dominion. Paris and Rome ruled over romance. London and New York over finance. But Kashi made the collective spines of all the world’s cities shudder. For Kashi’s dominion was death. And while love and money are always a gamble, death is certain. Left of Vijay’s carbuncle, the city slid into a gentle curve around the river banks and began a graceful measured turn to the north east. It was now well into January, and the morning had draped a shroud of fog over the waters. Even the weather was a metaphor for death.
Once proud and glorious palaces and temples now faded from perfect neglect, rubbed down with the iron feather of passing days. It has been said that Kashi is the oldest inhabited city in the world. True or not, Kashi and time seem to have a special arrangement, as if the city were held in the palm of the Gods, a couple of degrees removed the shuffling changes of history. To Vijay’s right, Prayaghat was writhing with pilgrims. Their sudden orange clothing marking the uniform of the Shiva yatri, adding another hue to a city never starved of color. As a gust of wind whipped at the oiled strands of hair that had been so carefully arranged around his balding head, his attention turned northwards towards Manikarnika Ghat, where the smoke of the funeral pyres disappeared into the cloud bed without any perceptible change of colour.
The bereaved look at the burning ghats with mournful eyes, pilgrims with a sober respect, foreign tourists with an existential disquiet. Vijay Chaudhary looked at the smoke of the pyres as a brick maker might look at the smoke from his kiln, with an expression of calculated interest. For he was custodian of the ‘eternal fire’ from which all the funeral pyres were lit. Lord Shiva himself had offered the fire to his ancestors some immeasurable time ago—some said three and a half millennia—and it had passed on ever since, from countless torch to countless corpse. The fire’s sacred ancestry ensured the soul’s final purification for the atman to achieve moksha through reunion with Brahma. How many bodies the eternal fire had consumed, Vijay had once tried to calculate. But it was an inconceivable arithmetic, and his sparse square head had ached in the attempt. The fire was tended by Brahmins, the highest of the high, who passed it on to the Doms, the lowest of the low. And the Doms all worked for Vijay, the highest of the lowest.. The King of the Doms. The Dom Raja.
Long ago, he had learned that life at the bottom had its advantages. For the those on the lower end, the only solace of being forced to live out one’s days in a narrow box of existence is to ensure that no one else escapes from their own. So the restaurant owner will slap the manager, who will slap the head waiter, who will slap the bus boy, who will slap the janitor, who will slap the ones who clean toilets and sweep animal manure from the streets. But when the Doms turn around, there is no one to slap. And so it would seem that they are powerless. But being brokers in a trade that slapped everyone in the end, the Doms received a strange kind of respect—a potent cocktail of revulsion and fear. And after all the rituals were complete, the biggest power mongers in the land could not be paid enough to tempt the inauspicious by touching a corpse. Only the Doms did that. They took charge of the service end of death; managing the wood and ritual substances, preparing and stoking the pyres, and ensuring security and decorum at the cremation grounds, in case over eager tourists poked their cameras too close or a woman sullied the purity of moksha with her tears.
A mile south on the eastern bank, an electric ghat was busy pumping out the smoky effluent of skin and bone from a tall brick chimney. To be cremated there was more efficient and far less expensive. The electric ghats required none of the services that Vijay and his vast extended family catered to the relatives of the deceased; the offerings for the priests, the substantial supplies of wood with their attendant accessories of ghee, tulsi and sandalwood. But this simplicity was the very reason they were so unpopular. Only the poorest of the poor were burned there. To be cremated at Manikarnika cost over ten times the price, but people usually found the money somehow; all so that the Antim Sanskar could be properly observed in a city where tradition was imperial. With the city’s regular power cuts (to Vijay’s mind the invisible hand of Shiva himself at work), and at an average of two funerals a day, the electric ghats posed no threat to his plutocracy. Manikarnika’s stubbornly timeless methods could process five bodies an hour. Through the snakelike alleyways of the galis, the repetitive monotone chants of nam ram satya hey that heralded the procession of the newly dead, was to Vijay’s ears soothing as a mother’s lullabye to a sleepless child. And the pop and hiss of an exploding skull after the brains had boiled, like a pressure cooker reaching its limit, signaled that Kashi’s vast machinery of death was ticking along like clockwork.
As Vijay Choudary climbed onto his rowing machine for his morning exercise, Sunil’s father was being prepared for liberation. Sunil walked anti-clockwise around the body, sprinkled holy water from the cardinal directions, and lit a wick inside his father’s ghee-filled mouth, the mukh-aagni that stirred the lingering soul towards its final exit. Sunil would never forget the sound that the thick club made as he brought it down onto his father’s skull. Three days it took for the atman to find its way out of the ruins of its temporary home. And not all go willingly into the ocean of divine oneness. Some souls will linger in the ruins of death as some may linger among the ruins of life. The terrible force of the divine fire sets the doors of the senses aflame, and ensures not a mote of solace remains in this house of flesh. The soft place at the peak of the skull, where the soul once breathed life into the womb, becomes in death the only escape hatch to the next world.
Sunil liked to believe that when he did his duty as the eldest son and smashed the top of that blaze-crusted skull, his father’s drunken soul had stumbled towards some final peace. His body certainly burned with a brightness that outmatched his fellow travelers in luminosity, as if that daily half bottle of rum was providing a boost of fuel. Before Sunil had a chance to return to the ghat from his family home that evening to collect the urn of his father’s ashes and set them in the arms of Mother Ganga, the text had arrived. It was from the Dom Raja’s personal assistant, Sandeep. Come immediately.
How many generations of boatmen flowed in his family history, Sunil wasn’t sure. But the river flowed through the city like the blood in his own veins. He was doing better than his father, although like him, Sunil had never seen a single day of school. He had determined to learn English at the age of nine. He practiced by drinking chai with the forengi and trying to sell them postcards. He was more successful at the first than the latter, but his easy-going charm and natural curiosity made him popular. He had acquired his first boat by the age of fourteen. Now, twenty-six, he had four boats to his name, and five men under him. But life was a daily tussle between good luck and bad. He supported his mother who suffered from severe depression after years of abuse from his alcohol-fueled father; two out of his three brothers were alcoholics, one of which regularly tried to steal from him so that he was beginning to run out of places to hide his earnings. The third had left long ago, rejecting his family and lineage altogether, to work as a travel agent in New Delhi.
Sunil could never imagine leaving Kashi. Especially now. He had finally saved enough money to afford a boat with an outboard motor. Most foreigners, looking for the ‘authentic’ India, preferred the rowboats, but Sunil could make as much in one hour with a motorboat full of pilgrims from the South than he could in a week of ferrying Germans (who knew nothing of the karmic merit to be gained from tipping the ferryman) in their crisp khaki shorts to watch the sunrise through their iphones. Lately, Sunil had taken to supplying wood to the cremation grounds from the far bank. Anandvan—the Forest of Bliss—once offered a shady respite for a nap in the eastern moorings, but was now ungraciously hacked into continual retreat, a sandy wasteland in its wake.
Sunil felt like a pillager, ferrying the corpses of this sacred forest across the river. But he needed to make a living like everyone else. One funeral took forty kilos of wood, and these days there was an unusually high demand. At first, it was a rumour, roundly debated over chai, but now it was undeniable. In a city built on rhythms rather than stones—the ebb and flow of the river, the ritual percussion of the Gods, where every sunrise a divine greeting, and every death a divine dispatch, even the dullest among the inhabitants could sense the change. More and more people were dying, from every disease imaginable. What no one knew, was why. The called it simply, the roga. The illness. It always began with a fever, and then could turn into almost anything, seeking out the person’s weak spot. For some it was the kidneys, others diarrhea or chest infections that descended into pneumonia. For Sunil’s father it had been liver failure. The roga took some time to slay its victims, but it was always thorough. No one had yet survived.
Sunil waited on the Dom Raja’s balcony, while the two stone tigers eyed him suspiciously in the muted light of the wall sconces. He had never dealt with the Dom Raja directly. Sandeep had been circumspect. Even though technically Sunil was from a marginally higher caste, he was, as he had carefully been told the day he was hired “in the Dom Raja’s service”. Sunil relieved his discomfort with the view. At night, with her windows and terraces lit, and the Ganges snaking like a giant Mamba, Kashi came into her own as the “city of lights”. The ghats had fallen quiet. Since a police ordinance following the recent drowning of a young Brazilian student, few now ventured into the river after dark.
“I’m sorry about your father.”
The Dom Raja appeared before him. He was dressed in a maroon silk kurta.
“Thank you, ji.”
Vijay made himself comfortable on the charpoy, leaving Sunil to stand awkwardly before him.
“You must be wondering why I asked you to come. I’ll get straight to it. You’ve been very dependable, Sunil. You’re the kind of man, when asked to do something, you do it. And you do it well. I notice these things. It is quite rare. To find anything dependable in this this….fragile world.”
Sunil nodded thoughtfully.
“It is sad, no doubt, for many that the Gods seem insatiable for mortal souls these days. But you and I Sunil, we who know the ways of Shiva, know also that those who seek liberation in this life, can find it here.”
He offered a limp-wristed wave in the direction of the burning ghats.
“You and I know the ways of this saṃskāra, Sunil, and we know this because none of our homes are haunted. There are no ghosts in Varanasi, Sunil. Only gods.”
Sunil wondered when he was going to get “straight to it”. He was exhausted from the interminable rituals of death, from his confused drunken brothers and the pathetic tears of his mother. He wanted to take his first and oldest boat across the river and smoke the charris he was fingering in his pocket. Sunil had two favourite times on the river. The hour before dawn and the hour after sunset.
“I want you to run the wood business for the smashan, Sunil.”
The Dom Raja was suddenly “straight to it” and Sunil was stunned.
“But what about Parvan?”
Parvan had been supervising this side of the cremation business for the past seven years. A man with a body like old driftwood and black mongoose eyes. He was quick-tempered and known to drink too much, but he got the job done. Sunil didn’t know what to say. He was about to ask if he could give it some thought, when out of the shadows a well-oiled servant appeared and gestured that it was time to leave.
“You’ve just lost your father. Your family will now be looking to you for support. But don’t worry about all this tonight. Tonight you grieve for your father. Give me an answer tomorrow.”
Sunil skipped across his boats. His young nephew, Rakesh, waved hopefully at him from the top step of Meer Ghat. He waved back, hoping in his turn to be left alone. Pulling out a tiffin where he’d stashed the fish he’d caught earlier, he lit the coals inside a shallow metal bowl. He added some chili powder and stirred the fish with a long wooden stick. His mother always complained that he never cooked in the house, but Sunil preferred to do almost everything on the boat. He increasingly felt uneasy on surfaces that didn’t move. He ate fast, a habit from years of being the object of sudden commands and from the world crawling on his back. But these days, he stood a little taller. He threw the stick into the pan and picked up the oars.
As he rowed to the far bank everywhere he looked he saw his father’s face, twisted in anger. He struggled to recall a good memory between them. He was more than half way across when his mobile buzzed. It was Deepak in Delhi. He held it tightly but let it ring. If his elder brother had come to the funeral, he would have led rituals and smashed their father’s skull. But Deepak had been gone so long he seemed almost like forengi now. It was easier for Sunil to imagine leaving his own shadow than leaving Kashi. Just as a single plank makes a boat whole, Kashi was not complete without Sunil. And just as the plank needs the boat to be a part, Sunil was not a part without Kashi. Not being complete, not being a part, neither could truly exist. Sunil was Kashi, and Kashi was Sunil. And in this way they were intrinsically involved with and dependent upon one another. The young boatman and the ancient city.
The city’s babble hushed and Sunil’s flickering mind stilled like a tipped over flower candle as the waters closed in around him. It was in that very moment he decided to take the job with the Dom Raja. If he could trust Parvan’s rum-flavoured boasts, it paid almost twice as much as he was earning now on a good day. A fat 20,000 rupees a month. And his trade was precariously balanced on the whims of foreign tourists who could be scared off with a single case of giardia. He was reluctant to get more involved with the Dom. When he had first seen him walking the ghats with a pack of hefty dark-suited bodyguards, he had written him off as a man of much pride and little substance. But his landlord was not a patient man, and the rent was already one month late. He’d actually stuffed the entire amount, all 1700 rupees, into his back pocket early one morning the previous week, and had set out to give his over-sleeping landlord a wake up surprise. But less than a hundred yards from his door, there was the exhausted widow whose late husband had worked for him. She was picking up trash to burn for now she could not afford to buy fuel to cook. The rent could wait, he thought.
His mother berated him continually for his generosity, which she viewed as a form of pride.
“Everyone else bends the rules to get ahead. What makes you so special that you think you can be better than them?”
Sunil knew that he couldn’t really afford his ethics. But he also knew that the choices he made were the only thing that made his life worth living.
The Ganga pressed her hands against his ears until all he heard was the blood churning in his veins. Listen to this! she seemed to be saying. Listen to your life! Bursting through the surface he took a deep breath and rubbed the water from his eyes, as the sun began to draw its golden ladder across the rippling surface. A broad-chested forengi in a cowboy hat was standing on the ghat, fiddling with his camera. Sunil hadn’t even begun to fish for customers and the Gods were already sending blessings his way. As the man lumbered up the steps his camera cover fell to the ground. Sunil jumped up onto the ghat and scooped it up.
The man didn’t turn around, so Sunil shouted louder.
“Excuse me! Sir!”
The man kept on walking up the steps. Had he not heard him? Perhaps he was deaf?
“Sir, excuse me!”
“What is it?” the man swung around, his mouth pursed in irritation.
Sunil held out the camera case.
The man rubbed his hand over his trimmed grey-flecked beard and shook his head apologetically.
“Oh, thank you. I’m sorry. That’s kind of you.”
“Is everything okay?”
“No. Not really. I was robbed last night. I lost a lot of things. Valuable things.”
“What kind of equipment?”
“You’re a scientist?”
“Yes. A bacteriologist actually.”
“Ahhh,” Sunil ran his hand through is thick black curls. “Well, I don’t know what that is but it sounds important.”
“I study bacteria.”
“What is that?”
“Very small creatures; the smallest in fact. I study how they cause disease in humans.”
Sunil had heard of bacteria, but he often pretended to know less than he did. He was more interested in learning what he didn’t know than in proving what he did.
“Where are they, these small creatures?”
“Everywhere. But the ones I’m studying are in there,” he replied, pointing to the river. “The Ganga. She has an amazing ability to clean herself. But of course, you would know this better than I.”
There was something appealing about this fat grumpy forengi, thought Sunil. And he liked how he’d said ‘Ganga’ instead of Ganges. And ‘she’ instead of ‘it’.
“So, does science explain this thing, the way Ganga cleans herself?”
“I think it can, eventually. It may be connected to a virus that eats the bacteria. This is what I’m studying.”
“But viruses are not good things.”
“This one is. A very good thing. It’s called bacteriophage. It means bacteria eater.”
The man raised his eyebrows.
“We all call it that. Ganga disinfectant. Ask anyone around here.”
The man smiled and rubbed his beard again.
“Ganga disinfectant. I like that.”
Sunil extended his hand and the man took it firmly.
“My name is Sunil.”
“You’re from Russia?”
Sunil could recognize most accents, but this one was harder to place.
“I’m from Georgia. It’s near Turkey. We don’t like being called Russians and the Russians hate being called Georgians even more.”
“Is it a country?”
“Most definitely it is. Why, you’re not convinced?”
“What is the capital?”
As a kid, Sunil had memorized a long list of world capitals. Had proudly repeated them to impressive the forengi and have an excuse to start up a conversation. Paris. London. Washington. Berlin. Tokyo. At least twenty more. But this was a new one.
“Tblisi, Tblisi,” he repeated softly.
“We have a river that runs through it. The Mtkvari. It means “good water”.
A black paper kite bumped down the steps next to them. A small boy appeared, tucked it under one arm and ran off singing;
Meethe Gug me mil gaya Til
Udi Patang aur khil gaye Dil
Jeevan me bani rahe Sukh aur Shanti…
“What is he singing?”
“Sesame seeds and Jaggery, Kites fly, my heart soars with them. May our lives always be peaceful and happy…Tomorrow is Kichdi. There will be a kite festival here. The kids all are excited.”
The boy flung the kite into the air and kept it firmly in his sights while he unraveled the string. It rose fast in the cool morning air.
Mubarak ho aapko Makar-Sankranti!
“What did your equipment look like?”
“I can try to get it back.”
“How could you do that?”
“I can try. Is all.”
Archil looked at Sunil carefully, then sat down on the step and turned on his camera.
“I can show you. I have photos.”
Sunil crouched over his shoulder while Archil flicked through his photos until he found the one he was looking for. He held it up for Sunil to see. A silver metal case lined with dark grey foam containing about forty bottles and tubes of different sizes. And something like a large toy mobile phone connected to what looked like a very fat pen. Sunil pointed to a narrow balcony where some sleepy-eyed Italians were drinking nescafé and wishing it was Americano.
“I’ll meet you at that café at 6 o’clock.”
And he was gone.
By 7:30 that evening, Archil had stopped looking at his watch. He was on his third Kingfisher Strong and half way through a pack of Goldflake. Indian cigarettes reminded him of Markhams that had made a brief appearance on the Georgian market in the mid 2000’s. That was right around the time he started smoking again, which was also right around the time that Maria left him. For six years he’d worked as a Research Fellow at Tblisi’s Institute of Bacteriophage, Microbiology and Virology, but the facility fell victim to the Georgian Civil War in the early 90s. Decades of research literally down the drain, as power outages thawed out and damaged the thousands of refrigerated samples.
The human war machine has a way of interrupting science; the science of life at least. It was the First World War that interrupted the work of the man who first discovered bacteriophages, the earnest British bacteriologist, Frederick Twort. Twort wasn’t sure exactly what he had discovered, and it was left to the French-Canadian, Félix d’Hérelle to properly identify bacteriophages as a parasitic virus. Hérelle came to Georgia and worked for some years with the Institute’s founder—Archil’s hero, Georgi Eliava. Under Stalin, Eliava was labeled an “enemy of the people” and executed by firing squad (though his fatal crime was more likely to have been sleeping with fellow scientist, Nina Gegechkori, the beautiful aristocratic wife of Stalin’s ruthless Chief of Secret Police).
Six years after the Georgian war, a BBC report stirred up interest to the Institute and with it came investors, intrigued by the promise of a new medical breakthrough. Invitations began to pour in from Western scientists, eager for collaborations. A number of his colleagues left for Britain and America. But not Archil. He was determined to stay in Georgia.
“American science is fickle,” he would argue to anyone who tried to convince him otherwise. “We’ve survived the purges, a World War and a Civil War. But American scientific research? It can’t even survive from one president to the next.”
After his own funding dried up, Archil had reluctantly accepted a position on an international water contamination team. He had applied for the Ganges not just because of the issue with water pollution, but because of the phages. Endzela, his wife, never forgave him for not taking the opportunity to move to New Jersey. He would been a tenured research professor by now, she grumbled, and they would have a decent salary to live on. “Phages! Bloody phages! That’s all you care about!” she had shouted over dinner one particularly painful evening.
Archil waved hurriedly at the waiter and pointed to his empty bottle. Only in India, he thought would you find the same company running an airline and a beer. Though there was little that was Indian about Kingfisher, since all the ingredients were imported from America. The last rituals of the Ganga Aarti, the elaborate fire puja that the handsome light-skinned Brahmin priests performed every evening at Dashashwamedh Ghat, had finished, and the mostly South Indian tourists were returning by the boatload, their hearts brimming with the blessings of Shiva.
Something clunked onto the plastic table. It was Archil’s silver case. Standing over it was Sunil.
“That’s all I could get. I’m sorry.”
Archil opened the case. It was empty.
Sunil shook his head and shouted down over the short balcony to a grey-haired man mooring up one of his boats fresh from the Ganga Aarti. Sunil had three men in his employ, all of which he’d worked alongside for years. But this man Guarav was new. He’d been out of work since his only daughter died and had started drinking heavily. He had made a solemn oath to Sunil that he would never drink on the job. Another ‘ethics’ problem as his mother saw it, throwing up her hands as if appealing to the Gods to knock some sin into him.
“You can never believe a drunk,” she argued.
And she should know.
But it wasn’t that Sunil believed Ramesh. It was just that in that moment when Ramesh made his promise, Sunil believed that Ramesh believed it. And even a seed of sincerity, he thought, deserved a chance to sprout.
Sunil shouted down to him to pull the boat closer to the bank while a mango-shaped woman trying to disembark struggled for balance. Ramesh gave a toothless wave to show he’d understood. A strong hand took hold of one of his shoulders, and Archil pressed an open bottle into his ribs. Sunil took a swig of beer and wiped his mouth with his shirt sleeve. The last of the evening’s flower candles melted into the water.
“Where did you find the case?”
“Someone was trying to sell it.”
“For how much?”
“Two thousand rupees.”
Archil nodded thoughtfully, as if he thought it a fair price.
“Can you take me out?”
After his failed mission to reclaim the stolen equipment, Sunil was happy to provide something he could guarantee.
“It will be my pleasure ji.”
He called down again to Guarav to prepare the boat to leave once more.
“You don’t have to come. I can hire one of your men.”
“No. I’ll take you.”
Sunil slid the boat downstream and pulled up the oars at a respectful distance from the burning ghat. To his left lay the phar, silent black of the once-lush Forest of Bliss, to his right the pyres of Manikharnika poured a palette of fire onto the rippling waters between. Archil pulled out two more beers from his backpack and handed one to Sunil. He was still fishing around in one of his pockets for a Swiss Army Knife, when Sunil handed him back the open bottle. Archil studied Sunil while he cranked the top off the next bottle from a chink in the gunwhale. Flipflops, lilac shirt carefully re-stitched, skin like burnt aubergine.
Other men might have asked for a reward for getting back the case. It wouldn’t have been outlandish. But Sunil seemed to be operating from a different script. Whether he actually had less ulterior motives than the average young man trying to make a living in this unforgiving place, or was better at disguising them, Archil wasn’t yet sure. But somehow the conversation flowed easily between them.
“Why did you go to all that trouble to try get back my stuff?”
Sunil pursed his lips and gestured around him.
“I believe Archil ji, what happens in this city, it is my business.”
“How is that?”
“It is difficult to say.”
“That sounds heavy. To feel responsible for all of this.”
“Not responsible.” Sunil replied. “A part of.”
Archil raised his beer.
“Do you have anything stronger than this?”
“I have charris.”
“Ah ji, Finally, something you don’t know.”
Archil laughed and scratched his beard.
“Sunil ji. There are many things that I don’t know.”
He watched with curiosity as Sunil brought out a tobacco tin from under his seat and took out a rolled cigarette. His green plastic lighter lit the end with the built in standard reluctance. Archil could tell it was a joint from the way he wrapped his lips around it. He had been thinking more along the lines of whiskey or rum.
“You don’t like, Archil ji?”
“No. no. It’s fine. You go ahead.”
Archil was trying to remember the last time he’d smoked hash. Scratched memories of a hill over Kabul somewhere in the late 70s. A bright-eyed Afghani guide, not much younger than Sunil, who seemed convinced Archil was an American action movie star.
“Tell me, Archil ji. I want to learn what you know about our disinfectant.”
Archil began like a man sitting down to his favourite dish.
“We really don’t know how the Ganges cleans itself. It’s a mystery. In most rivers, organic material like sewage…” he caught himself in Sunil’s quizzical face. “Food, shit, anything made up of something once alive, it uses up the oxygen in the water, and it rots, goes bad, you know.”
Sunil nodded to show he was keeping up.
“But in the Ganges, this doesn’t happen. All this is broken down quickly, before it rots, so disease doesn’t spread. Your river has oxygen levels twenty-five times higher than any river in the world. Many people now think it has something to do with that special kind of virus I spoke about before—the bacteriophage. In Tblisi we studied the ability of this virus to cure disease. The trials were encouraging, better than antibiotics before we ran out of funding.
“But if this works better, then why could you not get money for it?”
“When people make a lot of money from something everyone needs, then money gets stuck to that thing. Oil. Antibiotics. It’s hard to move money to something else once it gets stuck somewhere.”
Sunil believed there was nothing about this river he could not understand. This man was using another language, but Mother Ganga spoke them all. Sunil had seen men and women from every country on earth understand her. Surely, she knew the language of science as well.
“If the bacteria just built up without anything stopping it, this whole river would be one giant sewer. And all this….half burned bodies, people’s shit, all of it would cause terrible disease of epidemic proportions.”
“It means when many many people get very sick at the same time. But millions of people wash and shit and rot in this river. How is it possible that they don’t get sick?”
“The virus eats the bacteria.”
“Yes, or kills it rather,” said Archil, impressed both by Sunil’s memory and his rapid grasp of the facts.
Sunil would often put the same question to his customers. As their high kicked in from the bhang lassis, and they giggled up their liberation from the NASA space mission level pressures of academia, Korean students would get a new education about the Mughal emperor Akbar the Great’s refusal to travel without his supply of Ganga jaal “the water of immortality”. The English forengi would hear how the British East India Company used only water from the Ganges on its ships during the ninety-day voyage back home because only Ganga water would stay fresh that long. “How is it possible,” he would ask the long-limbed German lovers, with matching lean and serious faces, “that we burden her with so much, and yet she manages it all?”
Now he had met someone who knew more about it than he did. And a forengi at that!
“Can I try some?”
Sunil passed the joint and Archil took a long deep hit. Varanasi, Sunil, the crackling of the freshly dead, the lilting of the river, as if the universe was a giant ear tuning to his deepest thoughts giving voice to Archil’s latent passion.
“There is a story about Shiva.”
Archil drew deeply on the joint.
“Some small gods were fighting, who could make this drink for living forever…”
“The nectar of immortality.”
“Never mind. Go on.”
They made poison by accident. It began killing everyone. All the peoples started to die.”
Archil had the distinct impression that the boat was beginning to travel in the opposite direction but decided not to comment on it, just in case it was because he was stoned.
“The poison was called Halahala. No one could survive it. So Shiva offered to drink the poison and save the world. His wife was Parvarti. She was so said, she put her hands down his throat to get the poison but it was too late.”
“Shiva survive but he turned blue from the poison.”
“Halahala,” said Archil under his breath.
“Are they alive, the viruses?”
“No. They’re not living things. But they do have DNA.”
“It’s a molecule.”
“Archil ji, I didn’t got to school.”
“I’m sorry. A molecule is…really really tiny…sets…of things that we can break other things down into…” He hadn’t needed to explain this for some time. He’d never been a teacher, and the uninitiated were rarely interested.
“Like pure stuff.”
“Yes, like that, sort of core sets of matter. DNA is a special kind of molecule that contains a code, all life is built on this code. The important thing to know about DNA is that it can make copies of itself.
“What do the bacteriophages look like?”
“Well, you can only see them with a microscope. That’s a very strong magnifier. Archil took out his iphone and flipped his hand over the screen. He turned it towards Sunil who leaned in to examine the photo.
“They look like spiders. Spider machines.”
“Huh, I never thought of that, but you’re right, they do. I always thought of them as tiny lunar landers. Ha!”
The chariss was kicking in now. Definitions loosened their belts.
“They can hang around for years in shady water, not doing anything. But when there is a big increase in the number of bacteria the phages jump into action. They leap onto the bacteria which is many times bigger than them and they grip it tightly and sink holes into the surface.”
“Like a mosquito.”
“Yeah, sure. Then they copy themselves by injecting their DNA into the cell, like, like a syringe.”
Archil made a gesture to this effect as if injecting his own thigh, and Sunil registered his understanding. Archil began to speak faster, convinced that Sunil was some kind of savant.
“The copies of the phages are made very, very fast; one hundred, one thousand, then ten thousand. Vroom! These new phages burst out of the host bacteria, killing it, and then move out to find other bacteria.”
“So it sleeps until it spots its prey, and then it pounced, like a tiger.”
“Ha ha, something like that.”
“So we actually need the bacteria—bad stuff—for good stuff to work.”
“Yes. But I’m wondering if it’s stopped working.”
“What do you mean?”
“If something is interfering with the operation of the phages, keeping them dormant.”
“So would lots of extra people taking bath in Ganga make more bacteria?”
“And this is why you came to Varanasi near Khum Mela?”
“Right….the Khum what?”
“The Khum Mela. The pilgrimage. Oh ji, the ghats are full, full of bodies. One hundred million people come and take a bath. It is very crowdy. If you want to study dirty bath water, that is the best time.”
Archil shivered and pulled the orange blanket he’d tucked around his waist up over his head. The stars were swirling around him and he was struggling to keep focused.
“But that’s very dangerous, Sunil. The illness. Who knows what might happen. To study a river, it’s like studying a whole universe. There are open sewers pouring shit straight into this river. Pollution from tanneries and paper factories. This pilgrimage. When is it?”
“It’s different each year. But this year it begins end of January.”
“In two weeks.”
Archil shook his head heavily, his bearded face beaming out of the orange blanket like a stoned saddhu.
“In my country, if a rooster gets sick, we bury him in the ground and hit him over the head with a stick.”
“What’s a rooster?”
“A male chicken.”
“And does it work?”
“It either works or it doesn’t.”
“And what happens if it doesn’t?”
“It kills the rooster.”
The boatman and the scientist slipped into their separate pools of reflection. Neither felt the penetrating eyes of the Dom Raja’s tigers, high on their watchtower, flicking over them like searchlights.
Archil pondered why he cared if the hand being eaten was the left or the right. As if knowing this would somehow make it fit back into place. The turtle seemed content with this ignorance. It’s insouciant eyes in pre-historic fixation as its knife-sharp ridges worked more efficiently than any teeth at the puffed up flesh of the ring finger.
“They eat everything. Everything except the bones. Ten turtles will take about three days to finish a whole body,” Sandeep, the turtle farm manager, spoke with an enthusiasm that Archil found slightly unnerving. “But whole bodies are rare.”
“So how many bodies a day aren’t fully cremated?”
“It’s hard to say. But we’ve released thousands of turtles a year. And they’re not starving.”
“How many so far?”
“Twenty-five thousand,” Sandeep beamed. “We have trouble keeping up. Especially these days.”
“Do they eat the fish too?”
“No. We train the turtles to only eat dead things. We raise them in a pond and feed them dead fish for one year. Sometimes they try to eat me!”
Sandeep pulled back his checkered sleeve to reveal a forearm freckled with small scars.
“So, how efficient are they?”
“Well, you don’t see many dead bodies in the Ganga these days. The turtles are thorough and determined. Once I saw four turtles fighting a pack of dogs for a corpse. Some say they’ve even seen turtles pull corpses from the burning pyres.”
Archil’s eyes widened.
“But I’m not sure that’s true,” Sandeep added, not wanting to seem unscientific.
They headed back to Assi Ghat where they had met that morning over aloo paranthas and chai. The meeting had been arranged by Sunil who seemed to have become Archil’s unofficial guide. The project was part of a number of efforts to clean up the Ganges. The man at the oars was Guarav, his recalcitrant ringed-eyes and a brain reluctantly sober. Archil was already missing Sunil’s easy communicative presence.
Sunil was two kilometres east at the helm of his motorboat, stacked with wood ten feet high. Water ferrying earth towards fire. There were so many bodies waiting their turn for moksha at Manikakarnika, that whole buildings had been requisitioned for their storage. Varanasi’s death machine was in over-drive. Even the extra tulsi and sweet-smelling herbs could not overwhelm the presence of death. Everyone could sense it, like a bitter after-taste, in their steaming cardammon chais, with their fried pooris, in every spoken word.
On the benches of the tea stall behind Manikarnika, one topic was burning almost as hot as the pyres themselves. The cancellation of the Khum Mela in Allahabad, two hours down river. A single grubby copy of the morning paper had been worked through four pairs of hands, and now was being used by the chai wallah to soak up the spillage from his counter. This was no rumour. It had been announced by both the city’s Municipal Corporation and the Development Authority, and was being vigorously reported in the national press. In fact, on that day, the story was the top breaking news in Indian media. The report read: ‘due to an increase in unexplained deaths in the holy city of Varanasi, the municipal authorities decided on Monday to cancel the world’s largest human gathering.’ Instead it would be held on the Godawari at Nashik in Maharashtra.
The chai stall was a hotbed of indignation. The profits from the Khum Mela with the attendant needs of hundreds of thousands could feed a small family for six months.
“We could go to Nashik,” offered one, with a half-hearted reach towards optimism.
“Don’t be daft,” retorted another. “You think the Maharashtrans would let us elbow in on their business? Those guys run their ship so tight there’ll be not even a drop for us.”
The four of them nodded in solemn agreement.
“Where are you my friend?” Archil’s voice belted into Sunil’s mobile.
“Where should I be ji?” Sunil responded.
Minutes later they were back on the boat, sharing leftover pizza from Archil’s backpack.
“How is the research going?”
“It’s going okay. The turtle project was interesting. Thank you for that.”
“But you’re not satisfied are you ji?”
“You can see my mind so clearly?”
“No ji. But you look unsatisfied.”
“The truth is,” said Archil, rubbing his beard, “this river is making me a little crazy. I can’t figure it out. We have an epidemic in Varanasi that no one can explain. Twelve thousand turtles are patrolling the Ganges eating every rotting ass and limb they find. River cleaning projects are going on all over the place. And still the bacteria levels are rising…
“The phages. They’re not waking up?”
“No. They’re not waking up.”
“Archil ji. You know when there is a split in the river?”
“Yes, a fork. Water gets sent in a different direction.”
“Are you talking about funding?”
“I would say at least 20% if not more gets forked.”
“Pockets, Archil ji. There are lots of pockets in India, haven’t you noticed?”
They both fell quiet, gazing up at the hundred of kites whisking through the air, the convergence of so much wind on paper creating a constant low fluttering hum. Kites soared and fell, operated by master strategists positioned on every rooftop. There was a sharp wet fluuk as a kite struck the water next to them.
Sunil used his oar to fish it out and pointed to a second string attached to the first.
“In kite-flying, each one tries to cut the other string. For this you need what we call a Manja line. This line is dipped in a kind of glue and then covered with crushed glass. It makes your kite stronger, and more dangerous.”
“Who owns the pulp mills along the Ganga?”
“There is a very powerful man who owns them.”
“Who is that?”
Sunil kept his eyes on the kite.
“My boss. The Dom Raja.”
Without noticing they were doing it, both Sunil and Archil leaned in a little towards one another, their bodies translating conspiracy into intimacy.
“Tell me your mind, ji.”
“I don’t know, Sunil. It’s possible that the bleaching methods used in these factories is interfering with the work of the phages, keeping them in dormancy. But I don’t know.”
“Keeping them asleep. Perhaps if this man could be convinced to try different bleaching processes that are chlorine free.”
“And what argument would you use?”
“That it might help to reduce the death toll in his city.”
“Ji. Do you know how this man makes his living? Death is his life!”
“Perhaps if I spoke with him?”
“And say what ji? Tell the man whose business is death that his factories are making more business for him? He’s likely to just build more factories.”
“I cannot believe that he doesn’t care what happens here. He must have family who have been effected by the epidemic.”
“He cares very much what happens here ji. This is the problem.”
“Is he so evil? Is he a man without a conscience?”
“He doesn’t need a conscience, Archil ji. He believes he is without sin. You can call that evil if you want. But I am sure that if you want to change the ways of an evil man, you don’t appeal to the good.”
“So what do you appeal to?”
“In the case of the Dom Raja? Vanity.”
Sunil slipped his mobile from his pocket and smiled.
“What is it?”
“It is vanity calling.”
The Dom Raja was asking to see him.
The Dom Raja was stretched on his charpoi. Next to him was a small table covered with a golden shawl, on top of which, carefully arranged in size order, was all of Archil’s stolen sampling equipment. The tigers seemed to sniff the air suspiciously.
“Sunil, I must congratulate you.”
“Thank you ji,” said Sunil, wondering where this was going.”
“You are doing a fine job. I’m very grateful.”
He leaned back on the cushions revealing the proud bloat of his belly and ran one hand over his freshly oiled head.
“This Russian scientist,” he began. Sunil’s heart twitched. “I’m sure he means well. But what does he know about the balance of things here?”
“He means to help, ji. He wants to help to clean the Ganga. I believe him.”
“Sunil.” He turned back to look upon him with a smile of disdain. “You and I both know that Mother Ganga doesn’t need our help. As soon as anything impure touches her, that thing becomes pure. Why, the very thought is almost sacrilegious!”
“You are right, ji. Of course he cannot know. But you can.”
The Dom Raja’s eyes blinked with renewed interest.
“He tells me that the pulp mills are using chlorine to bleach the wood pulp. I don’t understand all the science. But he says that if the pulp mills used a different kind of bleach, one without chlorine, it might help, to balance things out. Because there is another chemical…I don’t remember the name.
“Yes, dioxin. Anyway, there is a government award for reducing dioxin levels in the Ganga. Did you know that?”
“No, Sunil. I didn’t. But I appreciate you telling me.”
Sunil felt his cheeks begin to burn.
“I think you deserve this award. I think only you could….could deserve it.”
Sunil felt utterly transparent. The Dom Raja picked up one of Archil’s vials and twiddled it between his fingers as he spoke.
“I am sure this Russian scientist is a good man….”
“He’s not Russian. He’s Georgian.”
The Dom Raja was not used to being interrupted let alone corrected. The air between them bristled like a tiger’s tail.
“We should not interfere with the way of things,” Sunil. “It is the ultimate vanity.”
That evening Sunil and Archil met at their usual café and Sunil told him about his conversation with the Dom Raja.
“It was a long shot anyway,” said Archil after he had listened.
“You worry too much, Archil ji. Let me tell you a story from my city:
One day Shiva thought he should test the faith of his followers. So for this he turned into an old man someone very sick. Parvati, his wife, became a young woman, eighteen years. Shiva as this old man lay down on the river bank, while his young wife called out for help as the people returned from purifying their sins in the Ganga. Parvati was calling out to everyone who passed by.
“Please come and help my husband. Anyone who is pure in heart, I beg you to bless my husband with the sacred water.”
But no one stopped to help. Then a low caste man walked by, almost falling over from too much whiskey. He heard Parvati’s crying and ran into the river and took a bath. When he came out he brought some river water in his hands and put it on the old man’s head. Shiva turned back into himself, and everyone came around to see him and fall at his feet to worship him. But Shiva pointed to the drunk and said.
“Of all of you, only this man understands the meaning of faith.”
Archil clinked his bottle against Sunil’s beer and drank almost half of it in one pass, then sat back in the chair, his head leaning heavily against the stone.
“I wish I had that man’s faith.”
“The man in the story. He knew that the Ganges would clean his sins. When you know what will clean the Ganga. When you really know, Archil ji. You will be like him.”
Archil went to grab his beer glass and missed, knocking it onto the ground with his elbow.
“I think you are a little drunk, Archil ji.”
Archil stood up and held out his hand for Sunil to shake.
“In Georgia, we have a saying. When three people tell you you’re drunk, go to sleep.
“But I am only one person,” said Sunil.
“It’s enough for me,” said Archil and meandered down the balcony towards his room.
Sunil didn’t speak at first. Archil was gazing across the river, still as a corpse. Sunil knew when to keep silent. This was one of those times. When Archil let out a shallow sigh, Sunil took it as an opening.
“Are you try build a bridge with your eyes, Archil ji?”
“In Georgia we have a saying. The fish says, “I have a lot to say, but my mouth is full of water.”
Sunil nodded gravely.
“What are your plans for the future, Sunil?”
“Aaaah.” Sunil looked down and shifted his feet. “I have tried many things and lost many things.”
“What are you going to try next?”
Sunil sensed that Archil’s time in Varanasi was coming to an end. His foreign friends always began to talk about the future just before they left. As they began to step off the boat.
“I don’t know, Archil ji…..there is some opportunity there, but I’m not sure if it’s right time. I must wait.
“There is a saying. Carpe Diem. It’s Latin. It means seize the day.”
“What is seeze?”
Archil grabbed at the air with his fist.
“Ha ha, oh right. We have something similar in Hindi. When Lakshmi is doing tilaka, do not go to wash your face.”
“I’m going to miss you, my friend. I have no idea what you are saying half the time, but I’m going to miss you anyway.”
“I don’t understand half of you neither.”
They both laughed.
“And you know your Mother Ganga. She also I can’t understand.”
The crease between the Georgian’s brows burrowed deeper into his skull.
“There’s so much going on with this river. I can’t figure it out.”
“You are not her doctor.”
Sunil looked more serious than usual.
“She doesn’t need you to heal her.”
“People are dying Sunil. Too many of them. Today I saw five stretchers in a row. Three of the bodies were….so small. Whole families….”
Rama nama satya hai! The funeral procession chant wafted through the air as if exclaiming the point.
“My uncle died today.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry, Sunil. I didn’t know.”
“Actually, it wasn’t the roga. He had heart attack.”
“We’re you close?”
“No. He used to beat me for no reason. So you could say we were very close.”
Archil pulled a tight smile at Sunil’s forced joke, recognizing a bit of his young self in Sunil’s personal bodyguard of black humour.
Sunil pulled back his shirtsleeve to reveal a half-moon shaped scar on his forearm. When I was four I looked after a sick dog. After a week it died. I cried a lot. He burned me with the back of a spoon he put in the fire and told me to be a man. He was a drunk.”
The boats groaned as they tugged at their moorings.
“So what will you do, Archil ji?”
“I don’t know. It’s so complex. It’s the raw sewage, the chemicals, the pollutants. Your mother Ganga has shut down. Her arms of purification aren’t open any more, Sunil. She’s only dishing out Halahala now.”
They both watched as an old man form the South limped into the waters and sunk his bald head beneath, his bald head glimmering like a seal.
“I can’t believe people are still bathing here.”
“You don’t understand. He’s ready to die, Archil ji. He would rather die here anyway.”
“How do you know that?”
“There are many differences between us, Archil ji. But the biggest difference I think is that we are more ready to die than you.”
“You could be right.”
“The phages are asleep, right?”
Archil sighed again.
“And you can’t figure out why.”
“But you know what wakes them up.”
“So wake them up. Like the chicken.”
“You know, like the sick chicken.”
“I know what you’re thinking, Sunil. But it’s too risky.
A man rowing downstream was shouting through a loudspeaker. He used to sell postcards and Limca from his boat to the tourists. Sunil often bought namkeen from him to feed to the seagulls. But now the only forengi in town was Archil, apart from the American baba, an ancient hippie who had long ago lost his passport and significant portions of his memory, and now spent his days in Christian penance in the lotus position, downing pots of bhang lassi and trying to forget the cracks in his heart. The namkeen man’s boat was now packed with layers funeral cloth. The red and gold silk flowed together under the mid-day sun, glowing like molten copper. The man was shouting something over and over. Archil could make out only one word Kumb Mela!
He turned to Sunil, whose sights were firmly nailed to the passing boat.
“Sunil, my friend. What have you done?”
Some ideas land in the mind like a shipment of engine parts, demanding endless labour over oil and grease to piece together into anything coherent. Others descend like poppy seeds—as if the conditions for their growth were there already, just waiting. It wasn’t that Sunil didn’t trust Archil’s Kartvelian science. In fact, it expanded his faith in God like a sponge in water. But he was not one to leave things to chance. And prophecy made him uneasy. He would take tourists to the astrologer, but he never himself got a reading. Perhaps he had heard his grandfather too often mutter the words in the face of fortunetellers:
“My future does not depend on the lines of my hands. People who do not have hands also have a future.”
Sunil had planted the idea in the Dom Raja’s thick cubist skull where all the necessary conditions for its flowering prevailed—the rich soil of vanity, the bright sun of greed and an occasional watering of that subtle embarrassment that lies beneath all conceit. When Kashinians thought of the Dom Raja, another epithet would now spring to mind—The Savior of the Mela. Strangely, his shipments of supplies to Maharahstra were going consistently astray. He suspected embezzlement, but at which end?
“The Saviour of the Mela,” Sunil repeated, just to ensure the seed would take root, while the Dom Raja eyed his laconic tea boy with suspicion. And then there was that dream. The Ganga appeared to him, dressed all in white. Darkly beautiful, lit all around by glowing lights as if the stars themselves were embedded in her hair and sari. She implored him to bring the Kumbh Mela back to Allahabad while he shivered and spluttered in awe.
“If you do not…” she pointed dramatically in the direction of the burning ghat. “I will send you there.”
The very next morning, the DC of Varanasi got a call. He listened carefully and then put down the phone, picking it up again to call the CM, who in turn called his guru who went on television and called for donations from far and wide to appease the wrath of Shiva. Surely, it was clear to all that the plague in Varanasi was the opening of Shiva’s third eye; directed like a laser beam at his followers’ paucity of faith. A story about an engineering student from Karnataka, too afraid to bathe in the river who was said to have spontaneously combusted on the steps of Raj Ghat, spread like flames in summer grass.
“Come to Kashi” boomed the television guru through his close-to-omniscient beard.
“Come to Kashi!” was the call soon on every headline with every fiery metaphor known to man. Television ads paid for by Shiv Sena called to the doubtful to “Rekindle the faith!”
In all the superhuman rumours that grabbed the ears of a city, now tired of this life in ashes, no one had noticed the young low-caste girl sneak out of the Dom Raja’s house at midnight, pulling a string of battery powered party lights out of her hair with one hand and stifling her teenage laughter with the other.
It was one month later when Sunil replied to Archil’s email, evading the scientist’s questions about how Allahabad had been reinstated in the sacred calendar. It was the kind of email that only could have come from Sunil.
You should come. God is hitting the chicken.
As Kumbh Mela’s go, 2017 in Allahabad was not impressive in terms of numbers. Around 20 lakh according to the paper. But what it lacked in numbers, it made up for in enthusiasm. The pilgrims positively plunged into the Ganga, eager to prove the firmness of their faith—to themselves as much as to the gods. Their dhotis and saris twisted in swathes of practical modesty. Over one week in and only one death and one serious injury had been reported. A Keralan woman of uncertain age slipped into moksha in her sleep (or was stepped on by an obstreperous bull, depending on which end of the camp you were in). And while helping to construct a floating puja stage, a civil engineer from Gujarat broke his leg when a water tank rolled over it. The Dom Raja was praised in a speech delivered by the CM of Uttar Pradesh as a “man of integrity and inspirational faith” while the CM’s PA whispered in his ear that perhaps he should perhaps now consider lowering the cost of funerals to the original rate, as a gesture of this integrity with which the CM had so emphatically assured the gathered assembly that he was well-endowed.
“Don’t make my boss a liar.” His words thickly coated with a warning.
By the time Archil arrived, the Kumbh Mela had reached record numbers. The early reluctant dribble had now become a tsunami. When a teenage girl caught a fever, it was thought it must be the roga, but the fever broke by the next dawn. Even those in the early stages of the sickness were being carried by their able-bodies relatives to the ghats and lovingly assisted into the very waters that were killing them.
Sunil waved at Archil from the prow of his boat and soon the two were embracing like long-lost brothers. But Archil’s smile vanished quickly.
“You are worried, Archil ji.”
“Of course I am. You should be too.”
“I would worry if anything was up to me.”
“So you’re not the one who hit the chicken?”
“Jab Lakshmi tilak karti ho, tab muh dhone nahi jana chahiye. When Lakshmi is doing tilaka, is not a time to wash your face. Size the day.”
“Sieze. Seize the day.”
A flower girl hopped up from the bank and pressed a little tray of dried leaves, marigolds and candle into Archil’s hand. Archil reached into his pocket for some rupees, but she shook her head with serious conviction.
The pandemonium was almost deafening. Archil shook his big gray head, recalling the sombre silence of the Eucharist in his village church.
“In my country, purification is a noisy business.”
“It’s enough to wake the gods.”
Beneath the murmurings of the Gyatri mantra—so old, its sound seems embedded into time itself—beneath the floating legs twitching in primordial memory, beneath choirs of heartbeats seeking a common rhythm, the detritus of the devoted; flakes of skin, galaxies of particles of piss and shit, molecules of old ladies farts, filled the Ganga. And like stars flowering in an evening sky, the phages began to stir.