Follow the corpses to the river. A shopkeeper had told them that as they’d entered the city. Looking, sounding, smelling like any other Indian city with its hot, polluted haze and traffic of people, cows, rickshaws, motorbikes, buses, cars, all weaving in and out of each other’s way with startling grace.
Or they could follow Sanjit Baba, the holy man they had been following east to Varanasi for the last week, on the road, part of his pilgrimage. Countless other sadhus were converging on the banks of the Ganges, colouring the stream of human, animal and vehicular traffic with their ochre turbans and robes, like mobile flames. Jeeps, vans and pick-ups laden with corpses garlanded in marigolds hooted past, the bereaved families jostling along with the departed. Eli and the girls could get lost in these hordes; no one would ever find them.
In a cotton satchel Eli carried the tiny sandalwood box with Ojal’s ashes, to scatter on the river, the most sacred river in India. His mother had told him about this place, but they hadn’t made it here. Now, more than ever, he wished she were here to guide him in the face of death…
…There were dozens of boats on the river now, ferrying shadows along the water, mostly headed upriver. Low murmurs drifted towards them from the other boats, and a faint whine of Indian music, overlaid by chanting, grew louder as they approached the main ghat, Dashashwamedh. Against the darkness appeared a celebration of light: strings of small pearly bulbs and multicoloured illuminated umbrellas, a stage where seven men in white robes swung vessels spewing fire through the air.
Ashok rowed the boat in a wide circle, moving in closer to the spectacle. That music, led by the sitar and the tabla, was growing on Eli but he missed his own music, his guitars, his amps, and the chance to play what he wanted – just to play. As the music wound sinuously through the night, he felt intense longing: he wanted to know what it was saying, but at the same time he wanted it to cease and be replaced by the music he knew and loved. Each time he heard this music – and it was all around in India – he felt people were having a conversation without him.
They made a couple of loops and then Ashok headed the boat upriver again. The air thickened with smoke, assaulting Eli’s nostrils. Around the bend appeared the most famous sight along this part of the Ganges – Manikarnika, the biggest burning ghat, now aflame with more than twenty fires, red, orange, gold reaching skywards and sending souls – somewhere. He wasn’t sure it was heaven…
…The satchel with Ojal’s ashes inside lay at his feet at the boat’s bow; he had tucked it there inconspicuously. He felt like her conspirator now. Sanjana, in the middle, and Ashok, astern were talking softly, he mostly asking and she answering. As they floated along with the other boats in the cloying dark, all watching the strange rituals onshore, Eli felt part of some great mystery, some great secret about the meaning of life, and death. He was getting closer to this meaning but didn’t quite understand it, and felt Varanasi, the river, pulling him in deeper and deeper with the promise of telling him the secret, the meaning. He felt trapped, as though he could get so lost in this place that there would be no escaping. From this spiral of life and death there would be no return to the world he knew, a world much less extreme. More comforting. Here comfort did not exist. It seemed a ridiculous idea. An illusion.
Counting on Sanjana’s shoulders to shield him, he quietly lifted the sandalwood box out of the satchel and turned to face the bow, as if searching in that direction. Luckily the slight breeze was blowing downstream, where they were faced. He thought he should say a prayer but didn’t know what to say, and, hurrying, whispered ‘safe journey’ and opened the box, dropping his friend into the river, watching her ashes float for a moment among the little diyas – floating candles and flower petals – sailing past. One diya, a tiny bright flame on the vast darkness of the Ganges, came close to him, and then veered off down the river. He watched till it disappeared in the night, with hundreds of other diyas yet alone, and wondered where the river would take them.
Photograph: Colette Yslie Benjamin