Between song and death

A trip to an ancient capital of Bengal.

I visit Gaur in winter. 'Someone has died,' informs the driver that day, his tone reminding me, in a bloodless way, of my first school lesson: Jack fell down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after. My co-passenger is my new friend, Jim Ishmael. I had met him the previous day and because he is the student of a student, he chooses to address me as 'Ma'am'. I am taken by his name. It is the best kind of cocktail I can imagine – Joseph Conrad's man in Africa mixed with the egotistic, wanderlust-bitten American of Herman Melville. No, he does not tell me 'Call me Ishmael,' so I settle on 'Jim'.

'What could be the religion of the dead man?' wonders our driver, Ganesh, as he stubs out the incense sticks stuck into the crevices of the dashboard. Guru Nanak and Lokenath Baba sit together at the front, their white beards in brotherly togetherness, inhaling joystick smoke. Jim and I do not answer the driver's wayward question. He probably thinks we have not heard him, for he raises his voice and offers a self-explanatory truism, 'Whether he is burnt or buried – for either way, we go back to the earth – drivers know that the road is the ultimate destination.'

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Himal Southasian