We have almost found our way back to the guesthouse. The alleys near the ghats of Varanasi are narrow and slender and impossible to navigate. The walls seem to reach towards each other as they climb upward, almost intertwining at the peak, revealing only the faintest sliver of dark sky. It is night, and we convinced one reluctant cook to keep his restaurant open for us for an extra ten minutes, but when we exit the alleys are black. We try to retrace our steps, turning at half-remembered marks of graffiti, backtracking to statues, making long, winding journeys. We stumble upon one thin pathway completely blocked by a stolid, immovable bull, who grazes his two horns against opposite walls, who stares us directly in the eyes.
There is another path, another slick stair, another bull. We climb up and we climb down, and our fingers run over advertisements painted directly onto brick and concrete. At long last, we find a turn that looks familiar, a sign that calls us home like a clarion. We turn to move.
“Stand back,” a man remarks, waving us off the path. “They need room.”
We look, and a procession staggers past us. The men each are old and grey, their shirts are too big for them at this age, yet they are still strong and purposeful. Their arms are wiry and shaped by decades of work, they strain and haul like steam-powered machinery. Across their shoulders is a stretcher of thin wood, and on the stretcher is the body. He is wrapped in an orange veil from head to toe, swaddled like an infant, and these men will carry him to the water and will carry him to the pyre.
The fires burn all day and all night. We can hear a crackle in the distance, the snap of tinder consumed by flame, the hushed murmur of elegy. Much of Varanasi this close to the river smells like woodsmoke. The sky is heavy with grey.
In the day, light squeezes between rooftops to the alleys, seeps down the sides of narrow buildings like some viscous sap. Every turn opens up new paths in this cobbled spiderweb. Each day we must pause, must pause for processions, make roundabouts when our way is blocked by an itinerant cow. We allow a chain of pilgrims to pad by shoeless to visit the shrines, exchange a smile and a nod with each. There are gods around every corner, in every shop, and some people seem to visit every last one. The shanty bodega where we purchase toilet paper has a vast array of lingams, in clay and stone, in black and white and red.
We are rarely indoors. When we stop for dinner, the curry is accompanied by men on sitar and tabla. But even moments under a roof feel like a waste, when there is so much of Varanasi to take by foot. We stay near the ghats, in the alleys we grow familiar with. We are Theseus, stalking the paths, our ball of thread consisting of pure experience, of repeatedly losing and finding ourselves in the narrow turns. We orient ourselves by a great orange Ganesh, we make our left when we see the advertisement with Lakshmi, we know we are close to the main road when we pass by the Japanese restaurant or the opposing bakeries with the same name. We grow to understand the flows of traffic, to think of alternative routes when one shrine or restaurant attracts a mass of people, when the thin walkways grow crowded with humanity and bodies and breath. Once or twice, we feel certain we have walked directly into someone’s house, but this is just another path through Varanasi.
We grow comfortable and knowledgeable of the alleys because we must. The sacred is everywhere, and we must make ourselves aware enough not to invade, to breach with the profane.
We feel, at every moment, like we are interrupting people, like we are invading their privacy. Our senses grow, and we soon prove capable of averting our eyes, of bowing our heads, of showing our respect whenever someone bathes, whenever someone prays, whenever someone is committed to flame. We pass the burning ghat more than once, can feel the lick of the fire as it reaches up to the sky, can smell the ash. The heat swells.
Marnikarnika ghat. Our boat departs near the fires from a dock crowded with wooden watercraft and downed, soggy lotus blossoms. Nearby, people from all castes gather to send off their dead, to offer this last cleansing, to give release to their beloved. The fire consumes, reduces to bones and then to dust, and guides them to the mouth of the river.
We rise with the sun sometimes and climb down to the waters. By now we know the back alleys intimately, like old friends. Boats are adrift in crisp morning light, and from the bows small children reach into the water and place flowers and the tiniest flames. Some are swallowed, and some yet float away. Cows and dogs wander the ghats along with those who gather for prayer, and who gather to greet the dawn.
Varanasi teems with life and with death. Pilgrims and cows trod barefoot and barehoof through alleys, down to the Ganga and all along the ghats. There are colours, yogis, bells, devas. The dead are there, too—the air feels thick with them, some ephemeral humidity, some great confluence of the departed. Their shells are wrapped in shrouds, are covered in colour, are carried by hands and song, are brought at last to Marnikarnika to burn and return to the Mother.
The river accepts it all. Into the devi’s mouth go feet and hands, bodies alive and dead, flowers and ashes, hope and sewage, prayers and boats and tourists and holy people and all the people alike. Life springs from these waters, and returns there at the end.