I came to Varanasi, India, the city held as holiest by Hindus to immerse myself in the issue of death and for an intimate view of how grief is manifested in such different personalities. I wanted to observe the parallels as well as stark contradictions within a variegated culture and then try to clarify my own beliefs by viewing life and death through this filter.
Originally, I had planned to focus on life from the perspective of a Hindu woman; how a young girl is raised until her marriage is arranged, her expectations and worries surrounding leaving her family, and the trials that transpire if, God forbid, her worst fear is realized: widowhood.
But events transpired over the course of the months spent in preparation and research and by the time the actual journey was upon me, that cold outline that existed of interviews with women of diverse demographics in Indian society had sunk so deep into a quagmire of other issues that it was nearly impalpable.
Shreds of painful memories pierced the story I thought I was yearning for, leaving it a deflated dream that wasn’t meant to be seen to its end, at least not for now. As if a mirror, the size of a life itself, were to come unhinged and shatter into millions of splintered pieces on the floor, every silver shard is a reminiscence that slices the skin and makes the spirit of the heart bleed and weep.
The hall bell rang indicating the beginning of Drivers Ed class, the two week course all sophomores take the summer before we were to get our licenses. A few kids were still straggling in nonchalantly, unable to reconcile entering the school building in the middle of summer vacation. The basketball coach teaching the class appeared equally unconcerned with the tardiness and continued to read the newspaper glancing up now and then to gauge a lull in the activity when he may bother to get our attention.
“Have you all heard about the girl from Nixa who’s missing?” he asked a room full of fifteen-year-olds. It was 1985 and there were no iPhones, Blackberries or any other means of instant information overload that is commonplace today. Cable TV had just been introduced to the area the year before and the new 24 hour news networks held no appeal to us when measured against MTV and multiple movie channels.
We had been out of school for over a month, well into the practice of sleeping in until we absolutely had to wake up and get going to school for this brief interruption of our vacation. Of course none of us had bothered to watch the local news that morning.
We were all growing up in a town of only 2,000 people which approximated no more than 80 kids in each class. Almost everyone knew one another or had a connection to each other’s families through school or church. The class stirred and we all looked around as if repeating the question without actually saying anything.
There was an immediate unease; it was just a given that no matter who the girl was, many of us would know her. Coach Gray hadn’t had to say much. His sober expression communicated that he was struggling with how much information to share with the class.
“Jackie Johns. Her car was found on the side of the road this morning and she was last seen right after she got off from waitressing at the sale barn café last night.”
Everyone knew Jackie. She was 5 years older than our group in class that day and although she had graduated a couple of years prior, everyone knew the beautiful, gregarious Jackie for she was involved in just about every school activity available. She was a cheerleader, Prom Queen and Homecoming Queen. She played basketball, softball and volleyball and drove a black Camaro with a license plate that read, “JACKI 1”.
As was the style of the mid 1980’s, her face was always made up prominently with glamorous eye shadows, heavy mascara and glistening lipstick and always carried a bottle of aerosol hair spray in her purse that kept her highlighted layers in a gravity defying lift. She was a living doll but her most galvanizing traits were her constant genuine smile and cheerful eyes.
The room was quiet and I searched my memory for every vision I could conjure up of Jackie and her smile. Cheering at the boys’ varsity games. Diving to catch a ground ball for her softball team. No matter how many times she had to don or take the mitt off, her nail polish was never less than impeccable.
The last time I had seen her she was riding in a friend’s convertible in her cheerleading uniform, squealing as they peeled out of the Dairy Queen drive-through, turning past our house on Main Street. She waved and yelled at my mother on our front porch, “Hi, Myra!” and I heard her laughter until the muffler and the distance drowned her out.
Having no more information than what Coach had just told us, it was as if the silence was enshrouding some vague prayers and hopes as our conscious thoughts tried to absorb what was happening to this lovely girl who had just turned 20 a couple of weeks earlier.
“There, uh,” the coach started and had to clear his throat. “There was blood in the car. It doesn’t look good.”
And hearts sank.
My childhood best friend had gone into labor a couple of days before her due date and delivered a healthy baby boy on Monday morning. Just before the weekend we had joked about the possibility of her having him one day early so that he and I could share a birthday and it had actually happened. I found this out while on my way home from dinner with friends when I just had a thought, “She had a doctor’s appointment today and I never heard from her. She was so uncomfortable the past couple of weeks, maybe I’ll just call the hospital so see if he may have chosen to induce her today.”
Tracey and I had been inseparable as children and it carried on throughout high school and beyond but a few years into college, I picked up on a lark and moved 700 miles away for a change of scenery. I hadn’t intended to drop out of her life but I grew poorer and poorer at keeping in touch due to personal issues of my own that I let chase me away from home and the distractions that a new life offered. Every now and then I would call her up out of the blue and we’d catch up on each other’s lives and she would fill me in on the latest hometown and classmate news.
When we were in our mid-twenties she got married and I was thrilled when she asked me to be a bridesmaid in her wedding; I felt a validation that our bond was still strong even with the miles between us and lapses of correspondence.
A few years later I found out that the marriage had recently ended and I called my dear friend. This spirited, vibrant woman I once knew was not there. She sounded nothing like the girl I grew up with, camping out and playing Truth or Dare in a tent on an empty lot next to her house and following boys around at the mall.
Her wry wit that offered up side-splitting one-liners that rendered us all breathless was trampled by the heartbreak of having to accept that she couldn’t fix this man or her marriage. Then there was that all too common self-blame that is experienced by most of the women who find themselves in love with an abusive drunk.
No matter how many times I told her, “Tracey, you are not responsible for his bad choices,” her soft replies of, “Yes, I know…but…” it was painful to know that I hadn’t been there where I could have seen what was going on and to encourage and help her heal sooner.
The baby was born to Tracey and her new husband a few years later, a healthy baby boy they named after her and her husband’s fathers. Time and a deep conviction in her faith had healed her heart allowing her to marry again and the love for God that they shared swaddled her in bliss. She was happier than she could have ever imagined.
When the receptionist answered I gave her Tracey’s name and explained that I was looking for a patient who was due anytime but that I wasn’t even sure she was admitted yet, I was just checking. Then that eerie question came.
“Are you family?” the woman on the other end of the line asked and there was a note of uncertainty in her tone.
I felt the seconds stop ticking. My mind didn’t immediately go to an assumption of awful but farther back in there, behind that mind’s eye, something was telling me to brace for something that wasn’t quite right.
“Well…” suddenly my eyes were blurred and the words came out in staccato, very succinctly one at a time as I tried to gather my thoughts between each one. “We were best friends from childhood.” As if that would carry any weight to someone obligated to adhere to patient confidentiality. A moment or two of silence, a click on the line and the next voice answered.
“Intensive Care waiting room.”
It had now been nearly 5 years since Tracey’s death from complications following childbirth and while time had mercifully granted enough emotional buoyancy for me to manage my life without daily crying jags, she was still ever present.
Every day I saw her smile, her flawless, silky olive complexion surrounding her pretty blue eyes and heard her laugh. She had the kind of laugh that was light and airy yet robust at the same time, a giggle that was contagious to anyone within earshot. Visions of her from every angle came to me throughout the days and this puzzled me for awhile.
At first I thought it was odd that I was seeing her in so often and so clearly when it had been years since we were really immersed in each other’s lives. I finally decided that when you lose someone you were once so close to, spent so much time with and knew so familiarly, the mind holds fast to every moment spent together in the living years and with no regard for the memories we prefer, it chooses the ones to regurgitate and when to strike. This was the rationale I used to explain why sometimes I replayed conversations we had shared in our twenties over broken hearts when at other times I’d see her as she looked at my fourteenth birthday party.
Just four weeks before departing for Varanasi, the only person of interest there had ever been in the case of Jackie’s disappearance twenty five years earlier was tried and convicted of both aggravated rape and first degree murder. Her body was found in the lake after 5 days and the one man the authorities honed in on was able to elude charges for lack of evidence.
Things turned around one day in 2007 when a new detective was given the file and took advantage of advances in DNA technology that hadn’t been available in 1985. Remarkably, even after being submersed in murky water for nearly a week, evidence collected in the rape kit provided the match needed to indict the most hated man in Nixa, a man who by this time was rumored to be responsible for several other women’s disappearances and deaths.
I’ve always accepted that my grief for Tracey would last the rest of my life and that the severity of it would ebb and flow around certain dates. The birthday I share with her son, her birthday, the anniversary of her death and funeral all fall into the holiday season between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I also knew when the trial was going to be held and that barring a delay or mistrial it would have seen its conclusion before my visit to this city that is intricately painted by death and the beliefs and rituals that define it.
What I hadn’t anticipated when I booked the trip was the emotional assault that this incredible undertaking that I spent 7 months planning and memories of past events were all congealing to perform. The unfathomable loss of Tracey and the re-opening of wounds suffered during the trial for Jackie’s murder would all become heartbreakingly entwined in India.
Landing in New Delhi is like landing on another planet in an entirely different universe. Day or night, the haze of filth and pollution is visible on descent and by the time the aircraft is roughly 1000 feet above ground, your eyes seem to be looking at the cabin of the plane through a filtered lens that blurs perfect lines.
You blink a few times trying to clear the view that you think is just brought on by the fatigue and dehydration of the long flight before acknowledging that the haze is actually inside the plane and settling into your eyes. The burning starts and your body’s own defense mechanisms kick in to attempt to stave off any further discomfort by stimulating the tear ducts to irrigate and rinse the eyeballs. This inevitably leads to rubbing them with tired hands contaminated with the countless bacteria picked up in the cabin and lavatories of a jumbo jet that circles the earth and sets down in various environments, which only serves to further exacerbate the burning and itching.
Then the smells start to permeate; with each foot of descent they change and change again, one moment being a stench of something burning, the next of unsanitary toilet conditions, nearby raw sewage, then back again to a faint burning whose source and substance is indiscernible.
Is it just a combination of all the industrial development and lack of environmental controls that has caused the immediate assault on the senses or did the government raze part of the slums adjacent to the airport that day? Albeit a crude form of zoning and population control, it is a method frequently utilized in this country by the authorities who use bulldozers to demolish shanties and huts of cardboard and corrugated tin sheets.
Most are homes in which the sole method of cooking and heating water is with a kerosene burner so fires are a common by product of this measure. There’s rarely much effort by any emergency services to control these fires; they seem to assist the government in spreading the destruction, death and homelessness by engulfing in flames large areas of the communities that neighbor the areas actually flattened by the heavy equipment.
As unwelcoming as it all sounds, India held my heart from the first time I resided there, and at the moment I once again smelled that rancid odor and felt the burn in my eyes, a sensation of contentment and resolve overwhelmed me. During the months of planning, I had repeatedly resisted the urges to chicken out and cancel the endeavor. Every hour spent studying the ancient holy city of Varanasi and reading about other travelers’ experiences only stirred up more anxiety than excitement.
I wondered if I was taking on something that I wasn’t at that time emotionally equipped to deal with.
Learning of the significance of Varanasi in Hinduism and its role in the soul’s perfect departure from this earth left all my loved ones who had already passed on dancing in my mind questioning if, and hoping that I would, feel them there. I wanted to feel Tracey. I yearned for a connection with her to see where she was, how she was, and perhaps be able to comprehend –at least grasp an atom of understanding –why she was gone. It was a reverberating ache, this thought that I may see her in some way if I just believed it and I latched onto it, took possession, as if that would will it to be so.
When I thought of Jackie, I imagined seeing her come out of the darkness and into a soft light. During the 25 years that her killer was living his privileged life with no repercussions, I saw her in the dark, not a bad place, but just a quiet darkness like someone who sits up at night settled into a chair in the corner of a room with the lights turned out.
Nothing could bring her back or undo the crimes against her but the trial changed the way I thought of her spirit. Now it felt like she could emerge from that wait and go into the comforting light to let her face feel the warmth and she could see ahead to truly pass on. She could have some peace; she could rest now that she had helped catch the monster that killed her.
I liked that for once I thought of her being in a more comfortable place than those of us still living. I didn’t feel that peace for us. So many had said, “Now her family has some closure,” when the verdicts were announced and that beast would be made to pay for what horrors he had put her through. But I don’t believe there is any closure possible when it comes to murder.
A mere human was so saturated with evil that he took it upon himself to end her life in a way that tortured her family and friends and broke the heart of a small town that loved her. He could be sentenced to death by the courts or he could die a thousand deaths at the hands of others as devilish as himself but nothing offers closure on that kind of wound.
Closure for a murder can only come when everyone who knew the victim is gone. Only when everyone who knew everyone who knew everyone who loved her is gone. Only when everyone who was touched by her story is also dead and gone can closure be possible because until there is that buffer zone of a generation with no personal attachment to the lost, someone will still be grieving. True closure isn’t sealed until the last tear has been cried.
The exhaustion that had been left by all this turmoil showed hints of starting to lift once I boarded the 15 hour flight from Chicago. I knew that I was doing what I needed to do and that while it may not have been the best idea for some, it was right for me. Rather than waiting for a more appropriate time when I would be feeling stronger, I started to see that this was how it was meant to be.
It’s the more challenging experiences that allow us the greatest opportunity for growth. It’s the greatest flames that purify and cause elements to change form—the entire point of cremation. Those who put off feeling emotions until they feel more emotionally ready miss the whole experience. Those are the people who make their hotel beds before letting the housekeeper in or who paint their toenails before a pedicure.
This incredibly spiritual journey was destined to be one of healing. The bounce of the landing gear on the runway was validation that I was exactly where I was meant to be.
There were multiple breathtaking moments that I experienced in Varanasi. Many were a sudden gasp at a near miss from being struck by a lorry or a very large cow but most were provoked by tuk-tuks, the black and yellow motorized tricycles covered with a canopy but otherwise open air that topped out at a maximum speed of about 35mph. What they lack in speed, they make up for in mobility and convenience and are the most popular form of transportation in Varanasi, a city of 2 million, mostly poor devout Hindus.
The roads in India would laugh contemptuously at the appearance of the highways to which most Westerners are accustomed. Where our traffic primarily travels in organized lanes and orderly processions, the same road that we divide into 2 lanes would, in India, be wasted space where it’s assumed perfectly reasonable for tuk-tuks, motorcycles and automobiles to be crowded into creating 6 or 7 lanes that fade into one another as the drivers of these vehicles maneuver their carriages in a chaotic dance.
Sprinkled into the mix are the labor intensive rickshaws which are best described as adult sized tricycles that offer no protective barrier for the pedaling operator or the passengers were anyone’s brakes to fail. The lofty riders’ seat that sits about 4 feet off the ground and tall skeletal wheels lend a feeling that the contraption is always perilously close to capsizing. Of the many road accidents that do occur, one is astonished at not witnessing them more frequently given the density and disorder of the whole affair.
Traffic signals do little more than provide mere suggestions as to who is to progress through an intersection. A red light is acknowledged by few drivers and they only become obstacles to everyone else who chooses to employ tunnel vision, ignore periphery and to pretend not to see the crowd of vehicles swarming toward the inter-section.
Brake lights illuminate intermittently and most of the vehicles are the tuk-tuks which have no turn signals therefore forcing the operators to use hand signals and reach outside the frame of the canopy—at great risk of losing the appendage—to signal that he’s turning or edging a different direction.
The intersection takes on the appearance of an orchestrated dance floor. From each direction many small movements from so many participants, all taking turns, moving forward, some three steps and some two at a time, others standing still, blocked in at the moment that should have been theirs to proceed. It’s like a waltz at a royal ball in which the dancers know each step and every so often reach out to change partners and directions; however, one who is a spectator and unfamiliar with the procession can never anticipate the next turn and can’t help but be amused at the uninterrupted flow of the sequence.
The simple task of getting out of passenger pickup area of the airport and to a hotel just a few hundred meters away becomes a chess game in which you are an unwilling pawn and the player’s (your driver) poor strategy could cause you serious injury or, at the very least, quite elevated anxiety.
The horns. The ever constant bleeping and brain rattling cacophony of horns! Rather than turn indicators, there is the honking of horns. For every brake tap there are bleeps. For every acceleration there are bleeps that shout, “My turn! My turn!” In the hundreds of autos, bikes and mopeds attempting to conquer just one traffic light, every movement provokes multiple bleeps and it’s unfeasible to make a distinction between who bleeped their announced next steps and who are the responders making their objections known.
Pedestrians and desperate, darting children are the recipients of scolding shrieks of brakes at the first hint of a step off the curb, saving them from certain collision by sheer millimeters. The Lorries that share the roads with the rickshaws, taxis, and tuk-tuks literally request horn honking from other drivers to indicate they are approaching the truck in the rear or coming up beside them. On the tailgate of the large vehicle will be artistic script painting in bright Hindu art colors stating, “Horn Please”, in Hindi and English, and Indian drivers are clearly more than willing to oblige. In fact, hugging the horn would appear to be the one rule in India that is adhered to unfalteringly.
The first damned horns started blaring at about three o’clock in the morning. At first there were just a few sporadic ones off in the distance, most likely in the direction away from the river and toward the busier streets that bore the business commuters and lorries.
It had been a less than restful first night. The mattress was just a couple of inches thick and the sheet that was stretched over it was so thin that the floral pattern on the mattress showed right through. Two pillows with no cases were at the head of the bed and there was no top sheet or covers of any kind. It was still in the 80’s at night so I didn’t think asking for blankets was necessary but in the middle of the night I ended up pulling clothes out of my luggage and slept with a couple of shirts draped over me.
I thought I’d try to ignore the noise by convincing myself that I was still sleeping and perhaps incorporate the sounds into a dream in an effort to steal another hour or so of much needed rest but it was no use. I lay there on my dandy little prison style bed and began to consciously prepare myself for what I’d be seeing again when the sun brought my reality back to light. Nighttime in Varanasi had already become personified, taking on the characteristics of someone I looked forward to seeing, a dark ghost who provided an escape for just a few hours—yet a spiteful visitor who laughed as he left me and found amusement in watching me struggle through the day.
The ceiling fan roared and stirred the air just so that even in the high India temperatures, some kind of cover was needed on the bed to ward off a chill and the teasing of the hair on my arms that became an annoying tickle. As long as my sleep aid was in its early shift of potency, this was subtle enough to not be bothersome but once it had started to wear off and I began to feel my limbs again it felt like gnats were crawling all over me.
It was the loudest ceiling fan I’ve ever heard and sounded much more like a lumbering old window mounted air conditioner but I was grateful for that for it was the only thing that helped cope with all the city noise by drowning out what could not even be touched by ear plugs or an iPod. I thought for a moment that I could have used a noise canceling headset but I’m sure even the highest end Bose set would have been useless in Varanasi.
What was really necessary to defeat the racket was at the very least an egg of Silly Putty to cram into each ear, stuffed in bit by bit to plug up the auditory canals. After that I could don the headset but even that would have to be outfitted with mechanisms on each earpiece that mimicked that sound of jet engines. I have no doubt that I would still hear horns.
I hadn’t yet purchased any figurines of Ganesh, Shiva, or Ram, but the reverence shown to them is how I felt about my little orange Ambien bottle; it was my chosen deity.
In Hindu homes you’ll find shrines and altars dedicated to the deities that particular household are devotees to. This is usually a prominent place in the general living area where there are statues of their most important gods set upon a shelf or mantle surrounded by beautiful textiles, flowers and candles. To complete the altar there are often paintings of the primary deity of the household that creates a backdrop.
In Puja (worship) the deities are adorned with fragrances, garlands of marigolds and offerings of sweet treats while prayers of thanksgiving and blessings are offered as well as petitions for wellbeing and protection. I didn’t have to be in Varanasi very long in order to realize that my bottle of Ambien was deserving of that kind of adoration.
Resigned to the fact that my opportunity for sleep for the night had concluded, I opened my eyes to the glare of a streetlight shining through the window of the room. Actually it was more of a hole than a window for it was a large square opening cut out of the wall high up near the ceiling and it had no glass panes, just a couple of iron bars spaced just right so that only a small child could fit through them if someone hoisted him up about 9 feet.
They may have kept hooligans out but they did nothing to discourage the lizards from visiting me every morning and with regard to my phobia of reptiles, I’d rather take my chances with a hooligan.
They were just little gecko type creatures which, when in Hawaii or Florida, I find amusing, but thrown into the mix of my sensual bombardment here, not so much. On more than one occasion, I awoke to a couple of them hanging out on the ceiling directly above me prompting a rapid roll and leap out of bed for fear of them dropping onto my face. It didn’t escape my thoughts that in that initial moment of sheer panic, I gasped so forcefully that I’m lucky I didn’t suck one clean off the ceiling and inhale it.
That would have been a less than glamorous way to go after all the precautions that had been taken over the past several months. I had gotten all the immunizations for hepatitis, typhoid, the adult polio booster, yellow fever, tetanus, took the anti-malarial pills that wreak havoc on the digestive system, flew to Varanasi, ate the food and didn’t get sick, drank the water and still held my own and I practically bathed in Deep Woods OFF and Germ-X alternately. Damned if aspirating a lizard was going to be my undoing.
It was still completely dark outside at four o’clock in the morning and as I came to the bottom of the stairs and into the simple lobby of the Ganesh Guest House, I found that the two staffers were still sleeping on the gray tiled floor, no pillows or covers.
Just to the side of the doorway, an ancient computer that was touted on the establishment’s business cards to have “free internet” for the guests clicked and clattered randomly as those obsolete machines do, and cyclically the fan inside would whir for a few seconds at a time. The little green power light blinked weakly as the machine wheezed and rattled as if trying to communicate that it still had a will to compute, to outlive dial up service and grow up to be a big boy with a router and DSL.
The same two young men were manning lobby every day and night, Abbas and Ravi. Ideally, I would have sneaked past without disturbing these poor sweet men who work such tiresome hours but the entrance to the hotel was locked by a large iron accordion-style gate secured with an impressive padlock.
I looked around for any other way to leave without having to wake them but that was the only access or egress I could see which led me to wonder how we were to get out in case of an emergency. In India fire exits are viewed as nuisances, not necessities, whose only purpose is providing one more entrance for thieves and beggars.
I debated returning to my room for just a little while longer until I started hearing more activity, thinking that I’d rather let one of the other guests be responsible for deciding that it was time for them to start their day. Just then, one of the men stirred and lifted his head a bit to try to focus his sleepy eyes. Offering an apologetic smile and an Indian head waggle that I was still trying to master, I put my hands to heart in prayer and nodded at him.
I whispered, “Namaste, so sorry to wake you—do you mind?” and glanced toward the gate to infer a request for it to be unlocked. He smiled and head-waggled in response, and willed his thin frame to lift him to nearly standing. Sleeping on the cold floor had clearly left the poor man too stiff and sore to straighten out of a stoop.
I scolded myself for having found the 3 inch thick mattress on my bed so inadequate when offered up against the discomfort so many have to endure every second of every minute of every hour of every day is beyond comprehension.
Abbas’ heavy keychain jangled against the baby blue painted steel as he inserted an oversized, very archaic looking key into the lock and then leaned against the gate having to use most of his weight to push it open. The metal squealed in protest as its joints were forced to fold back into themselves and the bottom rim scraped against the polished tile.
I walked down the few steps from the guest house entrance and stopped to look in both directions in the alley so I didn’t step directly into the path of anything oncoming and then looked down at my feet to watch for piles of cow shit to avoid. The only thing on the pavement that was more plentiful than cow pies were potholes and I had visions of stepping into a pile of shit, slipping, and tripping into a gaping hole in the street and breaking my leg. The thought of needing an emergency room in this town was far from appealing.
I stopped again at the end of the alley before turning into the street and as I stood there taking in the rhythm of activity that was waking up, I felt something push me from behind. My foot slipped on the uneven pavement and I leaned into the outside wall of the corner shop as an enormous cow claimed her right to the slim passage.
She wasn’t intentionally demonstrating aggression; she was simply looking ahead and saw where she wanted to go, lowering her head to the ground every few steps to investigate possible food sources. She was blissfully unaware of her girth beyond her head. I braced myself against the building and sucked in my breath as much as possible to allow her to lumber past me as she chewed on a decaying banana peel, her massive ribcage pressing me until she narrowed again at her flanks.
Only 38 hours had elapsed since the drive from the Varanasi airport and I felt a crushing anxiety already. It was just too overwhelming to comprehend being able to endure the entire 4 weeks I had planned to stay. I was already about ninety-nine percent sure that I would be cutting the trip short.
However, I was there and I’d spent months planning this adventure and before admitting defeat I was first going to force myself to do something here that I was terrified to do, something that could not be experienced anywhere else in the world; take a dawn boat ride down the Ganges to see the famous banks including the burning ghats where the majority of the city’s cremations take place.
It is believed that if you die in Varanasi or have your body cremated there on the ghats (the banks of steps leading down into the river) and your remains are put into the Ganges, that you achieve moksha. This means that you are released from the turmoil of samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth, and you go immediately to Paradise or Heaven.
For this reason, the city has grown to a population of over 2 million people who take comfort in knowing that this is their last life on this earth. To die in Varanasi means that the misery of all physical life is over; no amount of bad karma can cause you to be born into a more miserable next life and you no longer have to strive so hard to build up good karma for a favorable next life.
This illustrates the appeal that it holds for the large number of widows. The widow’s existence becomes so challenging after her identity dies along with her husband’s that hundreds make their way there every day to live out the rest of their days often actively praying for death. If, however, you foolishly cross the Ganges and happen to die while on the other bank, you will be reborn as a donkey.
Rounding the corner, the river came into view. The full moon reflected on the surface illuminating the ghat just enough for the boats at the water’s edge to be made out, and the dark figures of the oarsmen started to stir as they saw business opportunities arriving.
I braced for an onslaught of hecklers and touts but the crowd was much more docile than what I had experienced in Delhi and Mumbai. The men made themselves available for hire with passive eye contact and polite offers of boat rides but they were refreshingly non-aggressive. Even with the poverty and a daily struggle for survival, the people of Varanasi were welcoming and non-threatening; their faith avows that in the holy city limits, any crime committed is weighted a thousand times more heavily and the desire to avoid bad karma is palpable.
I wanted to give my business to a younger boatman and Deepak approached me at just that thought. He looked to be in his mid to late teens, lean and muscular with teeth so white that they and his eyes were what I could see the most clearly in the dim moonlight.
“Boat, Miss? Boat, Miss? You come in my boat?”
I waggled my head in agreement and asked, “How much?”
“Five hundred rupees.” About eleven dollars US for my own guided boat tour with a single oarsmen rowing about a mile upstream and back. The ride would take about 2 hours and by the time we’d return to Assi Ghat the sun and heat would be too great for him to do another tour until the evening. Even then it wasn’t guaranteed that he’d get another fare so it was possible that what I paid him would be his only income of the day.
Deepak took my hand and guided me to his boat with the aid of other men whose boats were all crowded together on the shore, and led me to use their boats as bridges to get to the one he would use to row us up the river.
All the boats looked the same and I wondered how they could distinguish one from another in the dark; they were all suffering from faded paint and no real identifying marks. It was quickly apparent that I needed to pay close attention to Deepak’s instructions and step only where he did for several boats looked less than seaworthy and when he indicated we had found his, he reached down to adjust a couple of the floor slats. Sliding them into place, he created a safer spot to step into the vessel.
I took one of the seats and checked around to see how it settled with my weight. The rotting boards seemed to cry out to detach from one another. My fear of water is nearly as great as my fear of snakes–yet there I was, seconds away from floating out into the Ganges–without argument, one of the most polluted waterways on the planet. And I was doing it in the dark in a rickety old rowboat that looked like it could have been built by Christ himself.
Well, I thought, if I die at least it was while doing something cool.
I was getting settled in when I looked up and saw a beautiful little girl running toward us. She had something in her hands and a determined expression on her face and I knew that she had found in me an obvious sucker who would buy her wares even if she had been selling baby cobras.
“Madam! Diyahs! Good karma, long life! Madam!” She leapt with quick agility over the boats to get to me. Deepak tried to shoo her away to discourage the pestering that most of his customers surely tire of.
I said to him, “No, it’s ok. I don’t mind. I was meaning to get a few of them anyway to set out on the water.”
The little girl was selling diyahs, small offerings constructed of a waterproof paper bowl that looks like wood parquet. Poured into it was a pool of ghee or oil, marigold blossoms and flower petals and a long wick. Diyahs are lit and set afloat as a prayer for favorable karma, but they also symbolize of leading a departed soul’s way across the river to progress on to Paradise.
I bought 3 of them from her and she ran away to proudly show her profits to her brothers.
This was the primary task I had set for myself to complete before anything else could be absorbed on the journey. There was something so beautiful about the gesture of the setting of diyahs on the water and I wanted to light one for Tracey, one for Jackie, and one for Austin, a 17 year old boy from home whose sudden death a couple of months ago had shaken the high school football team on the first day of summer practice.
I didn’t know Austin, but felt connected to his mother who was my age and with whom I shared mutual friends. My heart broke for her and although we had never actually met, we corresponded through emails and I felt an intimate connection with her. Ironically, her name was Tracey.
The diyahs had been on my mind since I left home. They were to be like a last hug and kiss to the 3 of these people who were all struck down in the primes of their lives, a sort of letting go, and I wished that their family members could have been there instead of me. I felt like I was cheating. It was an experience that they had much more right to.
As Deepak labored and rowed us upstream and past the adjoining ghats, I listened to the worshippers as they rang their chimes, splashed and bathed in the river, chanted and prayed. I was amazed that I wanted to breathe deeply to take in the morning air, which was remarkably without stench.
How could it be that all the sewage, death and pollution of the city is offered into the Ganges flowing downstream to meet us, yet out on the water was the one place that offered a respite from the odor of shit and rot that engulfed the rest of the town? I mentioned this to Deepak.
“The Ganga is not dirty. It is our Mother. The no smell is part of the mystery of her Divine,” he smiled, straightening me out. “You wish to light diyahs?”
I did want to see them before the dark was gone so he stopped paddling and pulled a matchbook out of his pant pocket. I wanted the whole event to slow down so that I could feel every rock of the boat, listen to the fizz of the matches igniting the three diyahs one by one, and meditate prayers for Jackie, Tracey and Austin individually, but that would risk missing the greater moment; their concept of time was now on a different plane than mine and no matter how much of a blur it was to me, they would still feel the energy.
All three diyhas’ flames flickered as I stared at them on the floor of the boat. The still air let them dance daintily to the distant bells and priestly chants. One at a time I scooped them up and attached a name to them.
Austin. Austin, I’m so sorry I never met you. I’m here for your mother right now and at this moment on the other side of the world I want you to know you’re thought of, how far your life reached. I wish we knew why you were taken. How did that one seemingly simple choice lead to such excruciating agony for those you left here so young? I set his diyah on the water and watched the tiny light till it disappeared on the current.
Tracey. My dearest childhood friend Tracey who had solidified a relationship with her God and Jesus, and while my own beliefs were scattered, there was no other place I could imagine her but exactly where she believed she would be. I hoped that she could at least see me from where she was to know she was being remembered at that very moment. I was still in the dark on the Ganges but saw her in comforting sunlight standing, in a field of brightly colored flowers with white rays of Heaven shining down all around her.
Clearly, you’re with the God who captured your heart. I miss you so much. At times I think I understand why you’re gone but those brief thoughts don’t erase the moments that flash now and then when I nearly reach for the phone to call you to tell you about something I just saw. I lose track of seasons and years in those moments. Losing you crushed my faith. Your mother, father and brother are shattered but they still have a piece of you in the little baby you made. He is their lifeline to you and I wonder if he will ever comprehend exactly what that means.
It was hard to let Tracey’s diyah go and it floated off as quickly as Austin’s.
I may not have known Jackie but it was when I set her diyah on the water that I felt the wind purge from my lungs. Maybe it was that we could turn the page of injustice that for 25 years in which her killer paid no price, now it felt like Jackie had won.
It was another stitch in the seam of the collective heart that had been ripped apart that night and while it can never be completely repaired, there was a genuine feeling of one more stone turned upright in the world.
Her mother had passed just a few years after her murder but her father and 4 sisters were still living on and as her diyah drifted away, I hoped that they had felt at least some comfort that her killer would live out the rest of his miserable days as a cursed evil marked for death far from the luxuries he had known most of his life.
While contemplating the grief process one night I was trying to find a thread of reason to grasp that I could use to reel myself to a place where I understood how to feel in the time between the moment of tragedy and the stage of acceptance and moving on.
As a child I would crawl under the covers and cry unendingly. I didn’t yet have the ability to see that the pain would alleviate, eventually compartmentalize the experience, and move on. But now, as an adult, after enduring painful events and being able to clearly reflect upon them and acknowledge getting past them, I wanted an understanding of the time in between.
I wanted to know how I would counsel my ten- year-old self in a time of loss with the lessons learned with age.
It slowly came to me that we may sometimes choose to hold onto and continue hurting over some painful memories, where others we easily process and let go. While I don’t believe that we all have the strength to choose our thoughts and dismiss the hurtful remembrances that hold us back, I can’t explain why we’re able to slough off some more easily than others.
It seems that if we could take in information (such as the news of the death of a loved one) and embrace the lesson and wisdom that the experience has to offer, yet not feel the pain or sadness, we would be a much stronger and emotionally healthy culture.
It simply doesn’t work that way.
Apparently, we have to feel the gamut of emotions for the experience to be complete. A sob not released and a tear not spilled from the eye short circuits the lesson that will at some point impart a measure of comfort.
I remember a line from a book of devotionals I was gifted years ago in a time of stifling grief; “Breaded corn is broken”. In order for a cake to be made or a loaf of bread to be kneaded, its main ingredient has to be taken from its most complete form and picked off the stalk, have the husk ripped away, and separate the kernels from the cob. Then each piece is pummeled and ground into a fine powder no longer recognizable as that solid outgrowth from the six foot tall plant. What starts as a kernel has to be crushed into flour, a workable form before it can be the largest ingredient in bread.
An image started to develop that, to me, became a moving picture to illustrate the confusion of this life experience.
I saw a long, gently curving cobblestone road ahead of me, a memory of one of the streets of Varanasi. It was fairly level and didn’t appear to meet with any changing grade going uphill or down; it just snaked on ahead in even waves from the left to the right.
The stones were slightly varying in shape but similar in size, closely set in an irregular yet flowing pattern, and had an aesthetic appearance that kept the eye interested. The lighting was even as if the sky were overcast or the entire road was shadowed and the one consistency in the stones was their color; that of a dark sienna brown. The space between the stones was minimal and just enough to see where to differentiate one stone from the next by the grooves where the depths escaped what little light was on the surface of the pavers.
I was taking it all in as a peaceful, dream like vision that felt like that last hazy moment before falling into sleep, when the picture started morphing. As I let my eyes gaze farther and farther down the road, in my peripheral vision I started to notice something changing.
I looked down at my feet and one at a time, some of the stones before me softly illuminated and then faded out again in a single subtle blink. I looked behind me and more of them were doing the same thing randomly and never in unison but graciously taking turns. It wasn’t done in rapid succession but very slowly so that perhaps for a second or two there would be none that were changed and then from much farther behind me one would take its turn.
They were communicating, somehow orchestrating the arrangement in which each chose when to rest and if or when to glow. They were allowing one another to breathe its complete illumination and then return back to its unlit state before the next would commence its glow.
A stone behind me took just a few moments to go from that deep brown to a muted shade of glowing green– not a bright and fast blink but more like a light that was filtered through fog. The gaps between the stones kept their darkness but the brown color of the rock itself gradually faded giving way for the green that slowly bled in from the edges until it showed through most directly in the center of the stone. It maintained its faint glow for a brief time and then returned to rest much in the same way that a candle is snuffed out.
Along the road from the area directly beneath my feet to as far in the distance that I could see in either direction, many stones took turns undergoing the same metamorphosis but through different colors. There were flickers of blue, mauve, green, or gray and although they were hazy and subtle, the image was in no way lackluster. The sequence of the dancing colors varied so that I couldn’t anticipate where the next changing stone rested, instead it would catch my eye as it lit and went out again.
Looking behind me and all around, I saw something like a soft, slow motion strobe-effect. As each stone stopped glowing and faded back to opaque, it retained the color that it had changed into. The light’s life span quickly passed but the stone was left permanently changed in its color. The ones that had glowed blue became a darker hue of blue, the luminescent mauve altered to a darker mauve, and so on with all the stones that had shown themselves lit.
This road of changing stones was a metaphor. The road was a life. The stones were all the components and experiences of a life.
Some of the stones were people whose paths we cross, friends, family members, even acquaintances, and other stones were experiences. Some brought profound sadness and others offered inexplicable joy.
There was the moment my dear friend was told that her brother was critically injured in an accident and most probably would not survive. He did, but each surgery, each step forward and each setback in his recovery resulted in colored stones. A couple of years later, another stone lit when someone else she was very fond of was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Each tearful interaction, each conversation filled with sobbing, every opportunity taken to commiserate with her would be another stone kilned to color on the path.
She chose to see colors on her road one day when she committed to accompanying him to his chemotherapy appointments. She could have chosen not to do it and avoid coming face to face with the rigors of cancer treatment and take the less painful direction that would leave stones as they are.
Not everyone would endure this with a friend—a spouse or child, yes, but not always a friend. Fully aware of the horrors of cancer and its remedies, sharing the anguish of the sweats and chills, the vomiting, the “should I even go on” moments that her friend will inevitably go through, I know she will be with him every time, the fact that it means distant and frequent travel notwithstanding.
As painful as they will be, she is choosing to share this experience and create these memories. She will one day be looking back at an incredible mosaic of her life.
Some of the stones in this life road appearing before me were specific conversations with persons that no matter how brief the exchange of words, were meant to leave a lasting impression.
“You’ll never leave me. You’re such a little girl. A little Daddy’s girl and you’ll never be strong enough to just pick up and leave. I can do anything to you—and what are you going to do? You’ll never leave me.”
Such was the claim of the emotionally abusive and controlling individual I endured for a year in my early 20’s. The memory of that conversation is a stone that changed the course of my life–within three months of leaving him, I went from living with him as an unemployed student to getting my first job as a flight attendant and traveling the world and buying my first house. I was never tempted to look back, to reconnect or even just “catch up”.
That stone stayed put and stayed a solid muddy color of the darkest brown while all the stones adjacent shone in all those other heavenly colors.
The scattered stones that went through the metamorphosis indicated a moment experienced or a chance grasped were the stones that felt the touch of my foot. Thinking about life in this imagery made me want to tap my toe onto as many of them as I could without losing my balance and falling, allowing as few as possible to go untouched. From this point on, I would attempt to live consciously, try to recognize the potential lesson in every moment.
In spite of this, I had no regrets over the stones behind me that had never changed. I reasoned that one that I had come so close to stepping on– but then didn’t– may have been loosely embedded in mud and would have slipped out of its place. Another one may have looked like all the other beautiful stones but was actually quite weakened by decay and rot.
Stepping on either of these could have caused me to fall as they shifted under my weight. Those stones are not missed or ignored opportunities over which to be remorseful; they simply lie beside the stone that was the better choice at the time. The stone that provided the firmest footing.
No unchanged stone was representative of regret; some were never meant to be touched but were meant to be there to buttress the stones that were stepped upon. When I turn around to look back at the portion of the road that I’ve already traveled, I see a beautiful path of perfectly coordinated stones. And while even the ones that were never changed from that unsightly appearance of a mud brick certainly do serve a purpose, it’s the others, the ones that felt the questioning touch of life and are forever embellished with color, that make the road one worth traveling.
A special thank you to the family members of Tracey, Austin and Jackie who gave their blessings for me to write about their loved ones and the enormous impact their lives had on this journey.