The Next Travel Writer 2016 Logo
The Next Travel Writer 2016 Logo

Ten Times Ten Rupees

by Zada Clarke

There was the sweet scent of wood burning. Flesh burning by the Ghat’s. An overcast sky met the horizon and the blended into the grey belly of mother Ganga. She was suffocating under the damp air, the sewers stream, the trash foam. Yet she still still moved, unraveling through the city of Varanasi. Offering her toxic holiest of waters to the bathers that wade daily. To the naked boys jumping, their bodies splashing like sinewy fish. She offered her floor to the ashes and bones of the deceased, to empty biscuit wrappers, and wrinkled water bottles. They float, the fisherman float beside, the bull’s bathe in their wake, the current edging femur bones underneath.

“Ten rupee for bug, ten rupee”

I was snapped to attention. A boy pointed at the large bug, the size of a quarter, that had caught my eye. 

“I like bug, but not yours to sell,” I replied getting to my feet.“You like bug, I like bug, no buy.” 

He had a fiery look about him and his lanky limbs bent down and seized a sandstone block with his small tight grip. He looked up at me with fiery little brown eyes. He raised the stone up over his head.

“Ten rupee, or I kill bug,”

I turned and walked away from the little boy and the burning bodies. Behind me, I heard stone on stone, bug guts spilling. Behind me, I heard the touch of fire to just one more cadaver.

As we round a bend men in dark corners without faces offer us boat rides.

“Boat ride, boat ride, three hundred rupees,” a fat man says, following us.

“Two hundred rupees,” another one boasts.

“No boat ride? Then you want helicopter ride,”

We laugh at this, and find only later that a helicopter ride means that for one hundred rupees they will tuck a nugget of hashish enveloped in newspaper into your pocket. Not the good stuff, the envelope could just as well be filled with a ball of river scum. None of the Nepalese cremé hashish that enlightens the Sadhus’s as they mark their brown bodies with white ashes, puffing smoke from their chillum’s.

Up ahead, fires burn. The scene looks medieval. There is smoke, goats, and dogs. Twangy Bollywood music streams from radios as the beedie smoke streams from the men tending to the fires.  A man, stooped in a white shirt, one nest of hair perched upon his shaved skull approaches.

“Welcome, welcome, I am a priest, I will show you, this is the Hindu burning ghat,”

We exchange looks, wondering whether he is just looking for some money to pocket. But he seems eager, peaceful, and knowledgable. We nod and follow him, edging our way closer to the fires.

“They are in many stages of burning, the fires. Two hundred people a day, we burn,” He says.

“It is the the pure way to let body go, fire is. Thousands of families come to Varanasi to say goodbye to their loved ones. Look around, there are no women here at all, they cry, their tears, emotion is not good for the spirits release, western women- okay,” he says, nodding to me. “Many poor people spend all their money to burn a family member. It is a long process, they massage the body with ghee, with oils, with sandalwood paste. Drops of the water from holy mother Ganga are placed into the mouth, then closed. ”

A parade of men walk down the stairs chanting and holding a body on a board above their heads. It does not look as though there is a body underneath the thin white fabric, all I see is a small oval head, skin draped over bone.

“We all die, we all go on, it will happen to all of us,” The priest says nodding to the procession as the board and the body hover over heads.

My eyes sting from the smoke, from the emotion that I feel as I watch the old woman, be placed upon a wood stack. I fight the tears, emotion is not good for the soul’s release, plus, I’m a western woman and we don’t cry. It seems to be more dangerous a pollutant to the ceremony than the thirty-two streams of raw sewage that seep into mother Ganga daily. As my eyes glance downwards, a black skull splits in the heat of flames.

We walk up towards an open concrete porch where there are stacks of firewood, straw, and two men napping. A small flame sits on the edge, a few logs, lots of chalky ash.

“Holy flame, it has burned for many centuries and will never go out.You are my fellow people, may you be blessed with the holy fire,” With this he touches his finger into the silty ash and presses it to our foreheads.

The priest won’t accept more than one hundred rupees, two dollar’s, to help buy wood for those who cannot afford it. The same amount to get high off a nugget of river scum, ten times the amount to have a bug killed.

The next day we share a papaya on the hot crumbling steps with a young boy.  He sells us a small bowl with four wilted marigolds and a white candle. We crouch by the rivers edge avoiding the green film collecting against the lip of the concrete steps. The boy lights a match for us, and we light the candle. We watch it bob past a small trash island, past a school of bathing bulls. Its small little flicker, its fragile light floats down-river. Past the burning Ghat’s, past the jumping boys, past the fishermen sitting quietly in their wooden boats. The candle floats, the sky darkens, the fires keep smoking. The boy turns to us.

“One more candle, ten rupee, please ma’am.”