We walked past temple after temple, praying to god after god, and then went in a single file between a red temple devoted to Hanuman and an open gymnasium where three body builders heaved rusted weights over their heads. I smelled the river before I saw it: a stench of decaying flesh rising from my right. I sang louder: "...the only truth!"
Then there was a gigantic noise: firewood being split. A wooden platform had been built by the edge of the ghat, just above the water; logs were piled up on the platform, and men with axes were smashing the logs. Chunks of wood were being built into funeral pyres on the steps of the ghat that went down into the water; four bodies were burning on the ghat steps when we got there. We waited our turn.
In the distance, an island of white sand glistened in the sunlight, and boats full of people were heading to that island. I wondered if my mother's soul had flown there, to that shining place in the river.
I have mentioned that my mother's body was wrapped in a silk cloth. This cloth was now pulled over her face; and logs of wood, as many as we could pay for, were piled on top of the body. Then the priest set my mother on fire.
"She was a good, quiet girl the day she came to our home," Kusum said, as she put a hand on my face. "I was not the one who wanted any fighting."
I shook her hand off my face. I watched my mother.
As the fire ate away the silk, a pale foot jerked out, like a living thing; the toes, which were melting in the heat, began to curl up, offering resistance to what was being done to them. Kusum shoved the foot into the fire, but it would not burn. My heart began to race. My mother wasn't going to let them destroy her.
Underneath the platform with the piled-up fire logs, there was a giant oozing mound of black mud where the river washed into the shore. The mound was littered with ribbons of jasmine, rose petals, bits of satin, charred bones; a pale-skinned dog was crawling and sniffing through the petals and satin and charred bones.
I looked at the ooze, and I looked at my mother's flexed foot.
This mud was holding her back: this big, swelling mound of black ooze. She was trying to fight the black mud; her toes were flexed and resisting; but the mud was sucking her in, sucking her in. It was so thick, and more of it was being created every moment as the river washed into the ghat. Soon she would become part of the black mound and the pale-skinned dog would start licking her.
And then I understood: this was the real god of Benaras -- this black mud of the Ganga into which everything died, and decomposed, and was reborn from, and died into again. The same would happen to me when I died and they brought me here. Nothing would get liberated here.
I stopped breathing.
This was the first time in my life I fainted.
I haven't been back to see the Ganga since then: I'm leaving that river for the American tourists!
...comes from the village of Laxmangarh, in the district of Gaya.
This is a famous district -- world-famous. Your nation's history has been shaped by my district, Mr. Jiabao. Surely you've heard of Bodh Gaya -- the town where the Lord Buddha sat under a tree and found his enlightenment and started Buddhism, which then spread to the whole world, including China -- and where is it, but right here in my home district! Just a few miles from Laxmangarh!
I wonder if the Buddha walked through Laxmangarh -- some people say he did. My own feeling is that he ran through it -- as fast as he could -- and got to the other side -- and never looked back!
There is a small branch of the Ganga that flows just outside Laxmangarh; boats come down from the world outside, bringing supplies every Monday. There is one street in the village; a bright strip of sewage splits it into two. On either side of the ooze, a market: three more or less identical shops selling more or less identically adulterated and stale items of rice, cooking oil, kerosene, biscuits, cigarettes, and jaggery. At the end of the market is a tall, whitewashed, conelike tower, with black intertwining snakes painted on all its sides -- the temple. Inside, you will find an image of a saffron-colored creature, half man half monkey: this is Hanuman, everyone's favorite god in the Darkness. Do you know about Hanuman, sir? He was the faithful servant of the god Rama, and we worship him in our temples because he is a shining example of how to serve your masters with absolute fidelity, love, and devotion.
Copyright © 2008 by Aravind Adiga
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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