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Baby, Light My Pyre: On Dying in Varanasi

A stroke of utter brilliance! The Kolkata Sudder Street tuk tuk mafia will be defeated, by dint no less, than taking the bus to the Howard Railway Station for the pittance of seven Rupees. The bulk of the two hundred or so Rupees that I shall save will nest securely in my front shirt pocket [...]

A stroke of utter brilliance! The Kolkata Sudder Street tuk tuk mafia will be defeated, by dint no less, than taking the bus to the Howard Railway Station for the pittance of seven Rupees. The bulk of the two hundred or so Rupees that I shall save will nest securely in my front shirt pocket and warm the cockles of my clever heart.

I have found a bus whose route begins nearby. It will be an empty bus. At least for the first fifty feet.

The plan rolls out smooth as silk. Flawless. Both my backpack and I secure premium seats and enjoy the fine view of Kolkata’s crepuscular mayhem. My happy bus eventually fills to beyond all comprehension of capacity and anticipating the chaos of the railway station I feel it prudent to re-examine my ticket, checking my assigned second-class sleeper coach (93) and berth (33 Upper).

Self satisfied and overly smug I transfer my ticket and wad of mafia cheating lucre into my hardcore travelling pant’s front pocket. All now is readily accessible.

Indian railway stations are a hurly burly maelstrom of unholy humanity stumbling and cursing under oversized luggage, touts eyeing marks, lost and mewing foreigners and a constant stream of incomprehensible announcements. Having a memory that a sieve would envy I deign to check my ticket one more time before boarding.

Something is wrong. Very wrong. My ticket is not where it should be! Nor is my wad of filthy lucre. A bubbling froth of panic forces it way upward from my unsteady viscera and swirls around my hammering heart. I scour every lint-filled cranny of my delicate person with ever increasing despair. It appears that an unscrupulous brigand has picked my pocket.

A decision must be made. Do I forgo my journey to Varanasi tonight and get another ticket for two days hence? (Indian Rail is heavily booked and you cannot simply belly-up to the counter and demand a ticket for same day travel.) I am sure this sort of thing happens all of the time. Foreigners —- timid deer-like creatures anxiously lapping at the water holes of great explorations —- are constantly preyed upon by hyenas with beady little eyes shining with glee at the prospect of destroying hard-earned dreams. This is an unbending rule of the Universe in train stations, bus terminals and wherever confused travellers congregate.

Knowing my coach number (93) and sleeping berth (33 Upper) I am sure that the conductor will tearfully empathize with my predicament. He will have his passenger manifest to confirm the rightful space in which to plop my buttocks upon. I therefore shall sally forth to Varanasi unencumbered by an unnecessary piece of bureaucratic flotsam.

A dark ink splat of doubt troubles me as I look for my coach. 93? … 93? All of these coaches begin with a letter … a ‘B’, an ‘S’, something illegible. Nothing begins with 9.

‘Where is coach 93?’ I enquire of a respectable, albeit a tad dowdy, looking gentleman.

‘No 93. Go away,’ is his unhelpful reply to my unsolicited mew.

The train begins to move. Just get onboard and sort things out there. Run! Mike, Run!

**********

‘You are not on the list. I cannot help you … do you have a ticket?’ The conductor eyeballs me with the dull, glazed eyes of a long dead fish. ‘There is no seat for you.’

I walk the length of all of the second-class sleeper coaches hoping to espy my empty upper bunk. Confusion has infiltrated the fruit cocktail of my mind. Could my coach be 53? Or 58? Maybe S5. Or S6. I fear that some maleficent scoundrel is comfortably bedded in my bunk.

Every nook and cranny is crammed full. Save for one: an evil parcel of perfidy next to the toilet. A small favor granted me by the chortling universe is that the toilet is downwind. But every time the train stops for more than a minute a thick blanket of urine and the unimaginable extrusions of hundreds of troubled bowels gather to pound me senseless.

Crumpled as best as can be managed in my little piece of smelly hell I stare into the black abyss of the Bengali countryside. There is not much to see; just a few blurred yellow lights here and there. The night is a nullity. Anxieties crawl like hideously wounded soldiers into my head to torment me.

The wash basins do not work. No one washes their hands after relieving themselves of nature’s odious burdens. Typhoid is endemic in India and I am well overdue for a vaccination booster. But the typhoid vaccine is not wholly effective -— could it withstand the multitudes of salmonella typhi that must surely be assaulting me.

I wonder: what percentage of the better bedded passengers are typhoid carriers? Every time they touch something a spot of contagion is planted. Shit is everywhere.

This will be an eternal night.

***********

Rumbling into a new day’s dawn, marveling at having survived the deadly night I casually watch lines of rural Indians squatting alongside the railway tracks enjoying their morning expungings.

At the Varanasi railway station I stumble onto the platform and allow myself the tender mercies of a tout. He delivers me to a friendly looking hotel in the Assi Ghat. The room is $1.30 more than my parsimonious budget allows but after that unquiet night I could use a little comfort.

Varanasi is a holy city skirting the west bank of the gangrenous Ganges for a few miles. Hindus aspire to be cremated on these muddy banks and their souls released from the wearisome cycle of enduring yet another life of disappointments and betrayals.

Cows, dogs and furiously honking motor scooters crowd the tight alleys that exude the joyous ambiance of open sewers. I spend my day carefully trodding from ghat to ghat, wary of sinking ankle deep into bovine splatterings. (An aside: to trod also means to copulate. At least among birds. Another fascinating tidbit of knowledge to share at family gatherings.)

By late afternoon the culmination of the previous night’s horrors and Varanasi’s underfoot tribulations exhaust me. Upon my hotel bed a quartet of bedbugs abandon their diurnal merriment and flee deep into the excrescent exuberance of dried body fluids of my promiscuous mattress.

An hour into my fitful nap something in my brain goes ‘krnnnk!’ and my dim cerebrum spins wildly out of control. I sit up. A big mistake. This unmerry merry-go-round accelerates with a keen viciousness and I crumble onto the cool dusty tiles of the floor where I remain until morning.

For almost three weeks I am a prisoner of a viral fever and this spartan hotel room. The bedbugs can hardly conceal their joy. They extend invitations to far flung relatives and half-forgotten lovers.

At a merciful interval, where I can almost stand up, I mostly fall down the five flights of stairs to the lobby and ask for a doctor. I am led to a street side clinic. A ten year old boy is tending to the festering wounds of whom I suppose in my delirium to be the tattered remains of a motor scooter accident. The boy looks competent enough to attend to my fatal fever. Perhaps my judgment is impaired. I am far past the point of caring. Do with me what you will.

My blood pressure is taken. It is critically low. Two large bags of salty snacks and copious litres of water are hurriedly prescribed. The salty snacks insist on returning to see the light of day one more time.

A lunch-sized box is filled with mysterious sundry drugs capped with a note of illegible instructions. Clutching my prize of medications I slowly mount the Golgotha of millions of unsteady steps back to my odious little room and eagerly awaiting platoons of bedbugs.

After nineteen days waiting for death, that ever popular travel agent for zippy voyages to the flickering stars, I resolve to embark upon a course of action. I gather my Rupees and whatever trinkets might conceivably be bartered for wood and stagger toward the burning place. The wood sellers should be able to gauge how many cords will be required to reduce my terrestrial sorrows to ashes.

A corpse always looks smaller than would be expected. Perhaps we are like balloons inflated by our souls and hopes, at times deflated by disappointment and unrequited wet dreams. When our soul is exhaled we shrink.

At the burning place, a muddy and very unkempt patch of Ganges River bank, the dead are delivered gift wrapped and solemnly positioned on their pyre. Like a macabre Christmas morning, the gift wrap is ripped off and casually tossed aside revealing a cloth wrapped mummy. In many cases a mommy.

A few splashes of holy Ganges river water is doused onto the beloved deceased before the pyre is lit. The heat of the fire will cause the chest to split open releasing the weary soul to travel heavenward onto the great turnpike that will deliver us all into the cold, uncaring cosmos.

The beauty of it all touches my failing heart. I reckon I have only a few more days to live … this fever shall assuredly murder me … this is how I want to check out. Not burned alive, of course; only after I fully expire. Who, I wonder, will light my pyre?

Through tear glazed eyes I contemplate the dying embers of a newly freed spirit. A holy man smashes a vase of blessed water onto the remainder of a life and mutters something inaudible. Something that probably means ‘That’s all, folks.’

The embers cool. A plumpish dog roots his snout into the ashes and drags out a prize, a tasty treat. I watch stunned and dismayed. Is this what it comes to? … a life of joy and promise tempered with vails of despair … a life of love and regret … all reduced to a doggy snack.

I cannot die in Varanasi. But I do. Farewell cruel, cruel world.

Filed under: India, Travel Stories

About the Author:

I like the velocity of travel — it is the constant motion, like the flitting movement of a loaded brush over canvas, where a rhythm develops and is occasionally syncopated by thwarted plans or minor disaster. It is a way of living and an exploration of the outer world and my inner landscape. There are dangers in such a way of living. Rarely are there external dangers; what is to be feared is the habit of exchanging nullity for nullity, drifting from visa to visa until either the money runs out or the earth simply swallows you. Painting and writing is the binder that holds my center together while also compelling me onward. To what end I do not know … these are voyages of discovery. The destination, if there is one, will manifest itself at some point.

has written 28 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.
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