The Narrow Way is coming out in just about three weeks! Here’s a little teaser to tide you over till then…
Varanasi. Banaras. The City of Shiva. The City of Light. The holiest city in all of India.
I sit on the rooftop of my hotel overlooking the Ganges as the sun, rising higher and higher, sears my skin through a lens of haze and pollution. I look up river, to the north, squint my eyes and wipe away the sweat. No one is coming for me. Not yet, anyway. High above the banks of the river I am safe.
Only minutes ago I was running, running like I have never run in my life. I must have looked terrified. A sadhu, a holy man sitting close to the great river, looked at me as I sped by, his eyes wide, reflecting the fear in mine. Then he laughed, thought I was just scared of the burning ghat a hundred yards behind me; another westerner, sheltered from the sight of death, running now like he’s just seen a ghost. But that’s not it at all.
Yes, I saw the place. Mani Karnika Ghat. Great piles of burning and death, stacks of wood three stories high, the faces of the buildings charred black and turned brittle from centuries of consuming fire. Feed the fire, feed the fire, feed the fire, say the gods. The sight of it burned into my mind. I stood there transfixed while the rise and fall of my chest slowed until no breath came and went at all, just like the bodies wrapped in white cloth there on the pyres.
“So these are the fortunate dead,” I thought.
To die here in this place is the great wish of all Hindus. This place so close to heaven that illumination is granted to anyone who does. The old and the sick, if they can, make their last pilgrimage here. They wait to die high up in the dark rooms of the hospice. They wait for their bodies to be transformed into smoke and ash at the river’s edge, before they are offered back to the Ganges, the source of all life.
It is terrible. It is beautiful.
I knew well how sacred this place was, knew that to even be standing here as an outsider was barely tolerable. I knew too, that to take a photo of this place was the worst kind of brazen insult. But as I looked out and saw the other tourists flashing away, safe on their hired river boats, I just couldn’t help myself. So I took out my camera and holding it low like a spy, snapped a single shot.
“Give me your camera!” came the shrieking voice.
I looked up and saw the wild-eyed young man coming towards me. He must have bounded down through the piles of ash while I had looked away to put the camera back in my pocket. He was wiry, scrawny and before I knew it he was right in front of me hissing through jagged teeth, cracked and stained brown. His clothes were covered in soot and ash. He was one of the chandalas, one of the untouchables, one of those that burn the dead.
“Give me your camera,” he hissed again. And so I did, too scared to refuse.
He turned it on and scrolled through the images. When he saw the one I had taken he huffed in disgust and shoved it back into my hands.
“This is a holy place,” he said. “You do not take pictures here. That is the hospice; people are waiting to die there.”
“I know, I know. I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I said, face red with shame. “Look, I’m deleting the picture…”
“That’s not good enough!” he screamed. His voice rose, spinning and spiraling into a storm of rage. “Now you have to make a donation to the hospice…thirty thousand rupees…no! Sixty thousand dollars!” Foam and spit sprayed from his mouth. I couldn’t move.
“You come with me now!” he demanded. “You come with me now or…or…I will get all the people up there to come down and… they will smash your camera!” His fist smacked his open palm in front of my face.
The future flashed in front of my mind’s eye. I would soon be surrounded by the angry mob and they would not stop at smashing my camera. No, they would tear me into little pieces and toss them into the river where there would be no final illumi- nation for me.
He turned and waved me to follow. I took one step in his direction but when my right toe touched the ground in front of me, I pressed it hard into the earth and pushed off into the opposite direction. And so I ran, sprinting along the walkway on the Ganges, running as if for my life in the morning sun.
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