Manikarnika

by Gabriella Sonabend

I dig into my bag for my sunglasses and cover my eyes hurriedly. I stand beside men who crouch low and stare into the distance, the heat from the fires ripple the air and distort the distant boats and towers. I am the only foreigner standing amongst the mourners by the pyres. I can’t stop my tears. I am glad to be alone. I would not be able to speak in this moment. When I arrived the bodies were clearly distinguishable inside the piles of wood; the fires lapped around them but for a while they held their form and were definitely human. As the orange glow grew and the smoke blew over to the water the white shrouds quickly blackened, limbs flinched and soon I could not distinguish what was an arm and what was a log. The bodies were rapidly becoming no more than smoke and ash, I watched mesmerised as the wind tugged at the fire and the bodies disappeared into the ether. It was not some perverse fascination but rather a need to understand this reality that glued me to my place. I needed to see how quickly the human body could evaporate into air. How soon it could become no more than light black dust; nothing could be more true this. Here anyone can come and watch the fragility of life; the ephemerality of the human body. It is funny that we feel so solid, so permanent, we are so assured of our stability, yet in mere moments our bones turn to little more than smoke. I can’t stop my tears, but they are not tears of sorrow, they are tears of acceptance. They are strangely joyful tears bound up in the deep beauty of the cremation ground.

How can I deal with these thoughts as I walk along the water’s edge? Here where every breath carries particles of those who have been released from their bodies here; thousands of lives reduced to smoke. The image of reincarnation becomes so literal here; one body dissolves as hundreds of others live on breathing in the remains of the faded. Suddenly it seems so clear how people can bathe in the Ganga amongst the floating bodies and debris hurled in from the city. Here there is no divide between life and death. Death is no great occasion; it is simply an exhalation – the release of one material form being received by another. So here life must continue in full colour and joy, must be experienced in its greatest form, ritual must prevail alongside banal activity and tourists must be drawn from throughout the world to be invited to glimpse into something, which lures them with exoticism, but is in fact their own reality.

I watch for hours. Time is irrelevant, I am not a voyeur, I am not an outsider, I am unified with those around me by this simple truth – that we are all fragile bodies who will meet the same end. I am enthralled by the beauty of cremation, it seems to me the most amazing ceremony that mankind had created, a perfect way of releasing life and allowing the world to continue.

I follow a group of women along the ghats; some of them are chanting and singing. They become aware of my presence and walk beside me, inviting me on their pilgrimage along the waterfront. They are warm and welcoming; they warn me of dangerous men along the river front and make sure that I am beside them as they make their various stops along the way. I walk with them for almost an hour and then we part. They enter a temple and I sit on a wooden crate and watch the bathers. I find an old lady to sit beside; she wears large plastic rimmed glasses and an orange sari. She sits cross-legged and chews a green herb, which she spits onto the ground below. At her heels three stray puppies are sleeping tucked beneath the shadow cast by the wooden crate. She is oblivious to them and them to her. I greet her with praying hands and gesture to the crate, she shuffles aside slightly and I remove my shoes to sit beside her. At first we sit in silence. The local boys who gather on the ghats and seem to be hanging around with little purpose are intrigued by the site of the old local and me. They point at me and whisper. She stares towards the water and I follow her gaze wondering what she might be thinking about, what she might have seen and thought over the years of her life. I wonder how often she comes to this very place, leaving an impression of herself alongside the shifting activities of the ghats. After a while she speaks to me in Hindi and we smile at each other, but struggle to communicate. She asks me if I am married. This much I understand from her gestures. I tell her that I am not. She seems somewhat disappointed. I explain that I am an artist and I take out my notebook and pencils to try to demonstrate what I am saying.

The gesture is quickly confused and she looks at my expectantly. I realise that she wants me to draw her and so I shift to face the old women and begin to draw her face, trying to capture her soft nonchalant eyes. As I draw the onlooking boys are overcome by curiosity and within moments I am utterly surrounded by males peering over at me from all angles trying to glimpse the drawing in progress.

This was such a strange violation of space and such an aggressive attack on the intimate moment, which I had (up until that moment) been sharing with this woman. The scene was loaded with uncomfortable signs about Indian society and the prowess of the male. For the first time I was actually sickened by the crowd around me and their curiosity did not amuse me, it disgusted me – they could not allow two women to interact without their judging, controlling presence. I could not stay, even though I could have happily sat all day with this quiet stranger. I thanked the old lady, packed up my bag and walked away along the water front.

Now that the water level has fallen, huge stretches of stone walkway have resurfaced and along these walkways stalls providing all nature of things have emerged. The ghats now resemble a festive fairground. Stages are being assembled along some of the larger ones for upcoming music concerts and performances. There is a great feeling of celebration and joy. Young workers are repainting the stone walls and steps, the boatmen repair their boats, laundry is being washed and hung all along the riverside. The boatmen continue to call out at any passerby offering boat rides, meanwhile phony sadhus follow impressionable looking tourists offering them hash and a variety of other drugs.

I was frustrated by what had happened with the men surrounding me. I walked fast avoiding all further interactions and conversations. I decided that for the rest of my excursion I would remain mute, this is something, which I have occasionally taken to doing here. When I find myself surrounded by questioning men who seem incapable of understanding rejection and disinterest I simply pretend that I am unable to hear them. I make signs with my hands to show that I can’t speak and I can’t hear. The reaction to this is quite remarkable. Sometimes my inability to communicate is immediately understood and respected and I am left alone, on other occasions people have used it as an opportunity to say strange or offensive things to me but my silence has taught me a great deal about what I represent to others and what I communicate involuntarily.

I walked for almost ten kilometres and although it became cooler, the heat was still exhausting and I returned to the residency completely drained. Back in our clean white refuge it was not long before I realised that the other residents all had food poisoning and that I would be the next to suffer.

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