BIRTHDAY PARTY AT THE CREMATION GROUNDS
Varanasi. Decided to go to the burning ghats in the middle of the night for my friend’s 29th birthday. Thought there might be some weird people to talk to down there, then realized maybe that was us. Almost didn’t go. Lying in our beds and the beds were so comfortable. Also was a bit sick and my friend wasn’t that eager to watch some dead people barbecue to celebrate the day his mother’s uterus evicted him. Second thoughts. Hey let’s go, I said. Just quickly. We don’t have to stay there till like sun up like how I originally planned like some mentally ill, wannabe vampire. Sure, why not? He said resigned. Are you sure? I asked him, disappointed that he had agreed. You only live once. He said. Well, not if you are Hindu or Buddhist or Jain. We are in India man, so that saying should be: You only live millions of lives, as various life forms based on the karma you accumulated in the previous lives. True dat, I say.
Got dressed and made our way down the winding alleys to Marnitanika ghat, the burning ghat. I had got it into my head that when we got down there, the place would be a weird party, crawling with weird crazy people and Aghori Sadhus, who are basically extreme left hand path tantric practitioners who partake in taboo breaking practices like the consumption of human flesh in a ritualistic context. When we got down there however, it was just a regular work day. This was in some ways stranger.
The burning ghat runs 24 hours, burning 250–300 bodies daily. The place was black from thousands of years of accumulated ashes. Cinders circulate in the air. There are about a dozen bodies burning in various stages of cremation. Dogs and cows lie in their dogshit and cowshit everywhere, next to pyres, on the steps, down by the water. I sniffed the air forlornly, wondering if my soulmate might be lurking around somewhere. At the bottom of the ghat were a bunch of workers who were collecting and sifting through the ashes. They do that to find the melted down jewelry from the bodies to sell at the market. Hell of a fringe benefit, hell of a job. And I thought retail was bad.
They reckon that if you burned on the banks of ganges in Varanasi you would attain Moksha — release from the wheel of rebirth. Couldn’t help but feel this attitude was kind of negative, but then here in India, there’s like leprosy and poverty and cricket and all sorts of horrible shit. I was born in the West where aside from the odd parking ticket, life is mostly fun and pleasant, even though we whine about it like a bunch of pussies all the time. And no, the term ‘pussies’ is not sexist, its derived from the word ‘pusillanimous’ you pussy. Sorry. You know who I’m talking to. The point is, as long as I’m born into the middle socioeconomic bracket and above in the first world, I think I would like the whole born again thing. The pros outweigh the cons. If in my next life — because of some weird staring at a bichon frise puppy for too long and having vague erotic feelings about it type of bad karma, I get demoted to like living out my life as a HIV riddled crackwhore in the ghetto slums of Liberia, well then, yeah… Burn me in Varanasi please.
I watched a middle aged man, set alight who I assumed was one of his parent’s bodies. He was pretty stoic about the whole thing, dressed in white robes. He lit the pyre with some folded straw from the main fire. The main fire is a special holy fire that has been burning for 5000 years. Fuck. The stack of wood the body caught fire quickly. The cotton shawl wrapped head began to smoulder. I kept watching it intently. I wanted to see the face and then watch the face burn. I don’t know why. Guess it would seem like some kind of poignant symbol for something, maybe the immolation of the self/ego. Or maybe I’m just a weirdo. Finally the shawl burnt off. It was an old Indian man. White hair and bushy eyebrows over a weathered, vulture like face. I thought about what kind of life he had led. Drew blanks. The bodies burn unevenly, usually the fire starts around the lower torso first and only reaches the head and feet last, so I couldn’t help noticing that while half his body was burnt black, the other ends were still recognizably human. His mouth was twisted open and his lips were pooched into an stiff ‘O’. I half expected his eyes to flutter open and for him to scream, ‘OH MY GOD YOU BURNT THE MIDDLE PART OF MY BODY HOW AM I GOING TO PLAY GOLF NOW, YOU FUCKEN ASSHOLES?’ But of course, he didn’t.
The smell of smoke, burning hair and flesh hung in the air. Tandoori chicken, said a local junkie to me, pointing at a couple of semi-cooked feet sticking out of a funeral pyre, the toes all sticking out at odd, unnatural angles. I laughed. On a physical level, I guess that’s all we are at the end, just a bunch of meat, cooking on a fire or rotting in the ground. Found myself missing the taste of meat. Thought about sticking some foil-wrapped potatoes in the embers.
There were cows and dogs everywhere. The cows were sat by the pyres, I guess for warmth, just chewing their cud and looking on, unaware they were surrounded by burning bodies. Or maybe they were, who knew? The dogs on the other hand were combing the area for half burnt pieces of human meat to eat. It made me think about how much a waste of meat was going on. Also each body took around 400 kilograms of wood to burn. I thought about all the trees that were being killed to burn dead people. All a bit of a waste really. I decided that I would rather just cut out the middle man and have my body cut up and fed to the dogs.
I love dogs.
A couple of the dogs are fucking near one of the pyres.
I watch the dogs fuck, I watch the bodies burn and I watch the dogs fuck while the bodies burn.
I watch this one worker stoke a pyre with a tall bamboo pole, just straight up whacking the funeral pyre and the half burnt body that was lying on top as hard as he could. I couldn’t tell is he was smiling or grimacing from the smoke, the fire illuminating his face like a jack-o-lantern. I don’t know if he meant to, but one of his whacks ended up spearing the corpse through the abdomen and he ended up lifting the entire smouldering thing high up in the air, before roughly whacking it back down on the fire several times, with enough force to shake the head loose. The head fell off the body and rolled off the pyre. It was pretty darkly comical. Then the guy went around the other side and nudged it back into the centre of the pyre with a well-aimed kick. He shoots, he scores. Yeah, fuckit. It’s just a job mate. You could tell he was just eager to get the job done cause there were another five corpses lined up on the steps ready to go.
‘What do they call each individual fire?’ my friend asked me.
‘Dunno — a barbecue?’
It was midnight.
‘Happy birthday.’ I said to him and gave him a Rudraksha mala as a present. We hugged. I had only known him for five days, but I guess sometimes when you are travelling, other travelers are the only family you have.
‘Ah I too, bought myself a present. One for you too!’ he said, taking out a couple of bars of chocolate.
We sat there, eating chocolate, watching bodies burn. I noted how the colour of the chocolate we were eating was very similar to the colour of the bodies that were burning, but probably the taste was different.
At least there weren’t any mosquitoes down there.