So, the phone works? When you dial the reception to ask for a housekeeper, though, you hear nothing but short beeps, as if they’ve foreknowledge of the stench coming from the clogged sink.
–Namaste, madamji. Can you come downstairs?
Mandira forces a foot out of the blanket. The air-conditioning is off-limits for visitors from November through February. And with the windows shut to keep the honking cars and hooting rickshaws out, you could coil round yourself, tail in mouth, and choke. Your soul puffed out of the body would then swirl skyward, hover over the city, and rain down on the Ganga.
Well, no, your soul may not return at all. So says the old widow Mandira sees at the river’s ghat every day. That one widow among the thousands of Hindu widows who come to pass through the holy city of Kashi because the ferry is supposed to be one-way.
–Madam, can you come to our front desk?
Why, Mandira wonders, without committing an answer. Her fingers pluck lint off the ugly blanket. The distressed clock face reads 2 p.m. An Airbnb might have been more comfortable, except mother would not want Mandira to lie in strangers’ beds.
The receptionist takes his cue to elaborate. A boy is looking for a Meera, but no Meera has checked in since August. As per the Excel sheet he managed to pull up on his desktop before the screen froze, Mandira is the only unaccompanied young girl in the hotel. Is Mandira expecting to see a boy?
Mandira looks at her finger where the ring used to be. Hmm, she grunts. Coming. The receptionist hastens to hang up. In the nick of time, she complains about the sink.
A young girl at twenty-seven? Really?
Mandira throws a dupatta over her t-shirt-pajama. The other evening at Café Nirvana, she was debating with a girl from Cape Town, whose name she cannot call to mind, over whether the volume of fabric this city expects on a woman’s body corresponds to the concentration of melanin in her skin. Overhearing them, a guy whose breath reeked of a cross between tobacco and chillum interjected that he’d been groped in the antechamber of the riverfront Maheshwar temple on a damp morning when he forgot to put on his underwear. If you would rather not spend your evenings threading such barely rounded anecdotes, the café-cum-souvenir shop by the ghat is not for you. Of course, you can always sit at a corner with a Moleskine, as this one man from Bali does. You will then be occasionally bothered by those who wish to turn up as characters in your memoir.
Downstairs in the lobby, Mandira recognises the shirtless boy. You can count the ribs pressed against his taut, wheat-ish skin, rising and falling with his breath. Mother would liken ribs to harmonium reeds vibrating to airflow. Sa, re, ga, ma, pa, dha, ni, sa.
The boy displays a nondescript finger band on his water-wrinkled palm. Thousand rupees, he says with deep resolve in his pubescent voice and snaps his fist close.
–Wait. Show again.
He stresses – Original Sil-Vaar, Didi – as he opens his fist for a few seconds.
–No, this isn’t the one.
–It is the one you described: tiny white stone, no design, no writing.
Mandira’s exchange with the boy has engrossed the receptionist. The housekeeper, please, she reminds him. The receptionist nods but shows no sign of budging. What is going on, he asks, fishing for the story. Ring stolen at the ghat, Mandira summarily informs him.
The hotel’s lobby fills with choice words tumbling in from a screaming match that has ensued between two rickshaw pullers weaving their way through the alley with no name. The boy runs the tip of his finger around the ring’s inner circumference. No, this isn’t the one, Mandira says with greater emphasis. The boy holds the ring up to a floor lamp, as though Mandira will change her mind once she sees it catch light. She does not. Giving up, the boy says, Didi, give me three-hundred rupees in advance and you will have the ring before this evening’s aarti.
The evening rituals at the crowded ghat – that’s where Mandira must have lost the ring in the first place. For all she knows, the boy might disappear if he is given a sum of money in advance. Certainly not, she says, dismissing the boy’s proposal. To impress her complete nonchalance upon him, she shifts her attention to the receptionist. Where is the housekeeper?
In search of something, anything, to break her fast brought on by acid reflux, Mandira turns right and left. Walking from the pharmacy to the paan shop, she spots Karen, who is in the city while moving between jobs, or homes or partners. On the heels of Karen are Eric – a man from Porto, who speaks with a very British accent – and Vikrant, who is writing a dissertation on the caste politics of the city’s death-care industry and reading about tantra in his spare time. Are the three – regulars at Nirvana – drifting together, or are they alone? Vikrant was in this same kurta and khaki shorts when Mandira introduced herself to him earlier that week. The seams around his kurta’s armpit came undone when he jumped up on a chair while pointing to his face as a metaphor for the city of Kashi. We are where the eyebrows meet the nose, at the junction of life and hereafter, he had declared.
Eric calls out to Mandira. Found your ring? Without pausing, Mandira raises her ring-less finger, but her little finger accompanies it in an awkward ‘V’.
In the inconspicuous drama of the afternoon, figures that find their way about Mandira in the buzzing street wriggle through her skin. Why is she this porous? Look at you, Mandira: a girl – a woman – in her late twenties, suffering the minute gap at the crossroads of nerves through which impulses pass. Waiting for something indistinct to shape up, diffusing in flavoured haze, or pacing toward the pyre – you pick a ritual a day. Sometimes all at once. You would think that the menagerie of the grieving offered more options. Or that if a girl goes about it with determination, she can produce results other than loss. But look at this Mandira. She watches the descending darkness over the river with an ancient widow. She strolls with a crater in her stomach.
Patches of exposed brick stick out of the dusty facades of two-and three-story buildings flanking the street. Clothes dry on the balconies, but the ground floor is the retailers’ territory. Hagglers scan Mandira even though she has won no bargain. Why can’t she go her way without suffering others? Still, leering bystanders have nothing of the glassy gaze with which mother could hit her. Mandira had run to mother with the faux-parchment certificate that said she’d come tenth in the nationwide race to enter a premier engineering college. Mother was gutting fish with a curved blade. She glanced at the certificate for a quick moment, and then looked up to Mandira. Years ago; but even now Mandira can see mother’s eyes harden. It must have occurred to mother that this piece of paper would be Mandira’s ticket out of her hometown in which everyone was caught up in everyone else’s business.
Mandira laps up the pockets of blood that have sprouted on her lips. She begins to count her footsteps – wayward, sickly, revolting – as her uncles and aunts, whose sons are manning stationary or grocery stores in that stuffy town of her birth, would. Those guardians of fatherless, husbandless girls in the family had decided that Mandira belonged in the bed of a cousin of a cousin. She had strayed. But why did their rolling eyes and wagging tongues never lose the hold of her, even when she became a rare guest in her hometown, visiting mother approximately once a year?
In this city, lying between that landlocked town and the world to which she now belongs, Mandira shuns spectators at times. She seeks them out at other times. Playing to the gallery in Nirvana, she says, this place assaults your senses, but you get addicted to it. This is what you do when you are here. But what is it you get addicted to – death? What is it you do when you are here – breathe in the scent of oxidizing bodies?
Palm-sized doughs dance in a pool of oil. Legends of this shop’s kachori and the sketch of the monkey-god on its signage have made it to Yelp. Mandira, though tempted by the kachori’s swelling belly, remains suspicious of her gut. Her weak digestive system is mother’s bequest. Best to stay away from fried food after a night on the bathroom’s floor. Mother would recommend boiled rice. Lucky for Mandira, her body does not accumulate fat when drowning in carbohydrates. Mandira bites into a cashew barfi. What was she doing that day when mother called to tell that she’d been diagnosed with diabetes? It happens to everyone these days, mother said. The news of diabetes did not shock Mandira as much as the fact that mother had gone to see a doctor. Mother who had refused treatment for a broken finger.
Down the street is the river. But Mandira finds herself at the mercy of a Hero Honda motorcycle’s brake.
As easily as a cucumber detaches from its stem, let the soul leave the body.
The bike’s roaring engine, however, stifles just in time. The only casualty is a strap on Mandira’s slippers. Some holy man with ashen forehead charges, trident-in-hand, toward the panting motorcyclist. Whether he chants to protect or curse, Mandira cannot tell. She tarries for a moment having sprinted to the other side, barefoot. The holy man catches up with her to say, the One with the lotus feet who reigns over this city is the death of time itself. He soon dissolves into the moving stream of heads.
At the bathing ghat, Mandira considers taking a dip. They say Lord Shiva and Parvati bathed in this water. But Mandira has no towel or change of clothes, and she remembers she is agnostic. Hundreds of live and dead bodies are washed in the river every day. This bed of scum does not take you to heaven. It leaves you with eczema.
The old widow who told Mandira that dying in Kashi is a one-way ticket out of life, the most sure-shot route to salvation, is not around this afternoon. Mandira had gotten used to finding her on the riverfront steps. When she visited the ghat hours after her arrival in the city, the widow was here. Draped in a yellowing-white unstarched saree, the widow was spurting chants and counting beads. Nothing could be more commonplace. Mandira had dropped a few coins on the platform. But the widow handed back the coins. She was no beggar. Perhaps the widow is watching over the river today from the balcony of the abandoned fortress. Or pleading with an idol to rid her of exhaustion.
What is this string of syllables that comes wafting? Ram naam satya hai, Ram naam satya hai – the chant that cures one of the malady that is life. Another body must be travelling aloft the bamboo cot toward the cremation ground – the burning ghat. Mandira habitually touches her forehead. She recalls being troubled by a crematorium-bound procession once. She was on her way to school. Face-to-face with death early in the morning, what if she fails the algebra test? But mother said they were in luck: a corpse is the closest one comes to god in this life. She had touched her own and Mandira’s forehead in supplication.
Mother beats as a pulse. Mother – the keeper of limits, the queen of nots. You cannot do this. You cannot be that. You are not them. They are not you. For as long as she can remember, Mandira knew she would not be her mother. Mother who had never spent a night outside that town of thirty square-kilometers. Sleepy and confused mother who rolled off beds at night. Mother who had diplomas enough to be offered father’s job at the cooperative bank after his death, but rejected it anyway, choosing to bring up her daughter – nine-years-old then – on a paltry pension and other people’s blessings. Mother who needed nothing but her daughter. Mother who wanted her daughter for no one but herself. Mother who nonetheless refused to leave the town with her.
From nowhere, Eric shows up. Was he following Mandira? He is drenched waist down. Just splashed myself up, he says. Squinting against the sun, he asks, see you this evening? Mandira does not know whether she will turn up in Nirvana. You should come, we’ll cheer you up, says Eric.
In the light breeze sweeping the riverfront, Mandira stands running her fingers through her hair. We’ll cheer you up? What does Eric think mourning is? Mandira does not know much about mourning either, except that it is a test with no rules. An email from work has enquired how long she needs to mourn. How can she tell when the deceased will become dead to her? Of course, as after a desert storm, the dust on death eventually settles. There was the mother who outlived father, maybe not identical to the one who wiped father’s lips with the ends of her saree, but nonetheless, mother was there, living.
Some tourists are quibbling with the local boatmen about the price of the ride that will show them the evening aarti held at the ghat from the river. The boy who came to see Mandira earlier that afternoon rushes down the steps bearing news of a fresh set of rings.
–Didi, will you be here if I come back with the rings in an hour?
Where does the boy find rings every now and then? Last night, after realising that the ring is missing, Mandira had returned to the ghat with Karen. When they were searching the riverfront steps, this boy had appeared. He’d volunteered to find the ring in exchange for money. She tells him now, if you don’t find me here in an hour, come to the hotel tomorrow. And I want my ring. Not just any ring.
The boy giggles, yes, wedding ring. It is not my wedding ring, Mandira wants to say, but does it matter? The widow is the only other person in this city who could clear the boy’s misconception, but she is not here. The boy somersaults into the river.
Notwithstanding their initial hapless encounter, the widow had warmed up to Mandira. One evening when the priests at the ghat were summoning gods with conch shells, the widow recounted how she ended up where Mandira found her. The widow’s grandson had brought her to the holy city on her request, so she could die in Kashi and be forever liberated from the cycle of birth and death. When you are cremated in this holy land, Shiva whispers the Prayer of the Crossing in your ears, she had said. In anticipation, the octogenarian sat on a raised platform by the river, focusing hard on the elusive horizon.
The temples around the ghat chime the hour of the evening prayer. And it occurs to Mandira, last evening she was playfully taking the ring on and off while telling the widow why it does not sit well on her slender finger. Maybe the ring slipped?
Why is the widow not here today of all days?
When Mandira asked her where she puts up in this city, the widow had merely said, there are places for those like us. It is no secret that one needs money to wait for death. The widow was down to her last hundred. She might have refused charity up front, but she might not be above selling a ring to buy time for death.
The boatman knows, tourists will ask to be taken further up or down the river, no matter what route he charts. They refuse to get off the boat several minutes after the evening aarti, wanting to enjoy the breeze or the ghat’s panorama without paying a penny more than the base fare. They click selfies in the dark for minutes on end. However, he does not often find a traveler who agrees to pay double the asking rate in order to have him stall the boat by the cremating ground. Some tourists request to make a pitstop across the burning ghat on the way to the evening aartis elsewhere, but they prefer to keep their distance from the cremations. The boatman understands – people favour the fire that greets gods over that which burns corpses, evaporating camphor over decomposing bodies. Nonetheless, he could not turn down the offer. So, while Mandira watches the blazing pyres, the boatman watches Mandira.
Boats that bring logs for cremation are anchored to the bank. Three cleaned corpses wrapped in white and red fabric lie on the steps waiting their turn. On the topmost platform, at least fifteen bodies are burning. Dogs, cows, goats, and those mourning the deceased are huddled around the pyres. The evening breeze is congesting the nostrils with a heavy odour of charred meat, charcoal and sulphur.
Sister, the aarti is that side, the boatman tells Mandira a second time, trying to direct her southward.
Lead mourners circle the pyres as the corpses blacken. A body, however lean, can burn in its own fat for hours. If an arm or head slides out of the heap of enkindled wood, the dom pushes it back in with a bamboo stick. Halfway, one of the corpses springs up. Mandira looks away for a moment. Is she hallucinating? No, the mourners have also been taken aback. But the dom has the situation under control. Ultimately, fire tames the errant muscles of the lifeless body that pulls off such antics. With the bamboo, the lead mourner cracks open the corpse’s skull as though it were an egg. The soul cannot hide in the body’s crevices.
Balancing a dizzying head on her shoulders, Mandira forces her drooping eyes open. Her breath shortens. The boatman observes, you are feeling death, Sister. He looks at the crescent in the sky. Sister, the two worlds have drawn close tonight. Burning bodies will claim mourners. Ram, Ram. Let us leave.
Mandira asks, can we go nearer the ghat?
The boatman’s mouth is agape. What is on this woman’s mind? Ram, Ram, he mutters.
Take me closer to the ghat, Mandira urges.
Can mother see her? When mother, the keeper of limits, broke her bangles on father’s lifeless body, the nine-year-old Mandira had locked herself up. But mother, sleepy and confused, would not leave father to be mourned by another, even though traditions dictated that a male relative lead the rites. Mother fed fire to the outstretched body of the man who was throbbing next to her, arms entwined, even the night before. It is the right of the deceased to receive fire from who they most love, mother had said.
The boatman refuses to go any closer to the burning ghat, blaming the river’s treacherous currents.
Karen is passing around the photos she clicked at the aarti. The city is vermillion thanks to her camera’s white balance. The aarti, which Mandira missed, appears as bokeh. The city got its name for shining. There’s a new girl and a boy guzzling beer at the corner that the memoirist from Bali had monopolised. One of the servers at Nirvana is teaching Vikrant and Eric how to order substances that are not on the menu at a roadside dhaba.
Mandira’s arms dangle over the rails of the open terrace. She is staring into the bloodshot eyes of time. That the dead do not experience death is unfair. The ring Mandira lost is the noose that arms time. Time also holds clubs and spears, jaundice and cancer.
–Where have you been all day?
Why do the living not forsake Mandira? Mandira dreads Eric will try to light up her evening but her twiddling about the rails has induced a more immediate concern.
–Look at me. Have you been throwing up? Get her water, somebody.
Mandira turns, still leaning on the rails. She should ask Eric how he earns a living in Porto. And how old he is. She can never tell people’s age.
Without warning, Karen and Eric pull her upright. She wobbles. Eric repeats, where have you been?
When Mandira tells him that she spent hours on a boat by the burning ghat, Eric waves his hand in wild circles. He says, that’s where this energy is coming from – it’s the souls. Mandira pictures souls as helium balloons rising in the air.
Karen wonders aloud whether spending an evening at the burning ghat would be a worthwhile addition to her itinerary. It makes Mandira smile, almost. Does Karen need practice with cremation? It is not easy watching bodies burn. I was unable to stand by mother’s pyre, Mandira says.
What Mandira does not tell her interlocutors is that she reached her hometown several hours after a neighbour informed her of mother’s death. Mother who she had not seen in over a year. Mother whose body was darker and thinner than Mandira could have imagined. Mother who had been waiting for the last rites on the same bed where she used to sleep with father. Mother who died knowing her daughter would feed her fire, crack open her skull. The dead deserve fire from those they most love.
Mandira had carried mother to the crematorium, along with a handful of relatives. But, while awaiting their turn, she was defeated by the odour of death. Even before mother could be placed on the pyre, Mandira had puked her inside out. She let herself be brought home. She never asked who gave fire to mother.
The old widow’s face softened by twilight at the ghat, her eyes that saw death from afar, had brought every detail out of Mandira last evening. Here she contains herself.
Seeing that Mandira has withdrawn to some unknown quarter, Eric says, I thought you were mourning a lover – because of the ring, I suppose.
Vikrant stops sharing his nascent Sanskrit vocabulary with the couple at the corner. Eric’s been reading about the Hindu widows who come to mourn their husbands, he remarks.
It is mother, Mandira says. The ring too is hers.
Mother never took her wedding ring off. It was the only piece of jewellery she wore for the last eighteen years of her life. An aunt removed it from mother’s finger at the crematorium.
When the phone announces the boy’s arrival this morning, Mandira is annoyed. Chances are he does not have her ring but has come anyway. Perhaps the old widow and this boy run a racket. This boy could be her grandson. He never left the city. She never came from anywhere. The widow spins yarns to steal trinkets. The boy returns stolen goods for a price.
No sooner has Mandira stepped into the lobby than the boy says, I know who took your ring. It was an old window – Shankar saw it.
Of course, it was her. But Shankar? Just how expansive is their network? So much for the widow’s chants and prayers. Now the boy will raise the bid for returning the ring.
How much for the ring? Mandira asks.
The boy does not name a price. Sorry, he says, tucking his hand into his trousers’ pocket.
–You must return it. I will pay 1500 rupees.
The receptionist lends Mandira his voice. Oye! Give madam her thing.
But, Didi, the widow took the ring with her to the river. She is gone, the boy says.
–She either drowned herself or she died and then someone threw her into the river.
Did death take the widow or the widow take death? Like mother. Mother who told Mandira it was diabetes when it was stomach cancer. Mother who refused Mandira time by her bedside.
The boy seems to be waiting for something. Mandira asks, has the widow been cremated yet?
–No. The widow would not be able to afford cremation at the ghat. It is most expensive. –
–I will pay. In case no one from her family shows up, I will pay.
The boy sees that Mandira does not understand. Shankar, who dives into the river to collect jewellery that fall off corpses when they are washed, had chanced upon the widow’s floating body. The widow had showed him the silver ring the night before. She told Shankar he should remove it from her finger and burn her at the ghat in exchange for it on the day she dies. But when Shankar found her corpse, there was no ring on her. Maybe the currents carried it away. It will reach the sea.
Mandira cuts short the boy’s account of the ring’s possible course. She can do without it if she can give the widow the fire for which she was waiting. When you are cremated in Kashi, Shiva whispers the Prayer of the Crossing in your ears, the widow had said. Mandira asks the boy, where is the widow’s body now?
–It must have gone far down the river. No ring, so no burning. Still, Mother Ganga is so holy here. You will see, the widow will cross over.