The Ganga is golden foam in the still morning. She allows me to forget my newly dead family now and then. The river is all outbreath; I sing along but feel breathless after a few minutes. Guru, the neo-monk, makes monkey faces at me and skips from one sun-warmed rock to the other before plunging into the bone-chilling waters, flushed with the largesse of melting ice. “Come!” he waves out to me, “Take a dip and get rid of your sins!” I shake a fist at my childhood friend in mock anger. He has been behaving in this impossible manner ever since I landed in Rishikesh. I was aching to bombard him with the question that had lodged itself in every crack and crevice of my mind like a tenacious koan.
Guru would be the right one for answers. I know for sure that he has cracked it— this whole drama of love, suffering, and death. A deep quiet lingers in him all the time like the magical fragrance of the frangipani tree around which he and I played our running and catching games as children.
It was my tenth day in Rishikesh but I hadn’t been able to sit him down for a serious conversation. Why the hell doesn’t he tell me how to go through this messy business of life? Wasn’t it a monk’s dharma? Until a month ago my life could be readily reckoned by a whole range of happiness quotients. There were so many palpable indicators—the large suburban house for which the mortgage had been paid, a doting husband who had recently become the chief executive officer of a successful startup company, and a brilliant teenage daughter who had worked her way into Harvard Business School. In short, life was as perfect as those personalized family photo cards that we used to send our friends and relatives back home in India for the New Year.
As I obsessively watched re-telecasts of the plane crash on television, images of fire invaded my brain in which my husband and daughter crinkled and curled like bits of paper tossed about by the wind. The event played itself over and over in my mind like a worn-out gramophone record until the core of my self collapsed like a dying star.
What is it that remains after everything else has been taken away?” I picked the loudest question buzzing in my head and laid it before Guru the previous night.
Scratched his shaved head vigorously he said, “Don’t ask me difficult questions, Anu! If we stay back discussing these serious questions, we might just miss dinner!”
I fought an impulse to scream out aloud that my question was important. Didn’t he realize that I was on the verge of abandoning the long wait in this tedious transit lounge of life? All I wanted to do was to leapfrog into the strange, dark land which had swallowed up my husband and daughter. However it soon became clear to me that Guru did not want to entertain any discussion about my personal tragedy. As I tossed and turned in my bed that night I wondered if he was doing this to me intentionally.
I was woken up at four in the morning by Guru, not a bad thing considering the fact that I had not slept a wink the previous night. Handing me a cup of hot comforting tea, he said, “I will not insist that you sit in for the morning bhajan, Anu! But I would be delighted if you spend some time admiring our Ganga who looks extremely fetching at this time of the year!” I mutely nod and try to keep pace with Guru’s long effortless strides through the narrow mud path to the riverfront. The question buzzes like a bluebottle inside my head and I have this funny feeling that I will have to figure out the answer myself.
I perch myself on a triangular rock from where I can see the panoramic twirl of the river. The temple priest drawing water to bathe the deity is swathed by the gentle light of the rising sun; his brass pot gleams like burnished gold. Ancient vedic chants floating in the air dissolve in the riversong. The huge bell in the river shore temple calls out in deep-throated resonance, breaking the reverie of resting birds. Its reverberations also die into the river. Guru is a mere dot in the riverscape. He waves out to me and swims ahead, prodding a gaggle of children who are gingerly testing the waters. In a couple of minutes Ganga’s mighty chant is slivered by their shouts and hoops.
The spine of the Lakshman Jhoola stretches before me like a golden bow in the morning. Underneath the bridge, the Ganga gurgles past the mossy slabs of the bathing ghat with her usual turbulence. Today she is in a playful mood. She tickles my feet with icy fingers and dangles a garland of marigolds and crimson hibiscus flowers on my toes. A small group of pilgrims has already gathered around the bathing ghat. The strains of a lilting Bengali song come floating in the air. The words of the song are not very distinct but I am able to catch the refrain: “Deliver us, O Mother!” Petitions take on myriad forms and the Ganga is all-accepting.
The mellow sound of the Pashupathinath temple bell wraps everything in a seamless silence. The sorcery of the river quietens people down. They find themselves watching the swelling river, the emerging red disc of the sun and the silver-finned fish nibbling the skin on their toes with insistent, groping mouths. For some time they forget to discuss the forthcoming election or pour into willing ears the sordid domestic chronicles of their everyday life. The fullness of the present moment spreads over them like honey.
The high-pitched scream of a woman rends the air. Her face has turned ashen; she is pointing at something. A corpse is floating down the river. The bamboo raft carrying it swerves and changes direction, bringing it within the full view of the pilgrims. The corpse is dressed in the traditional gold-brocaded, bridal red sari. Its open mouth is stuffed with uncooked rice grains. The garland around its neck has been reduced to a handful of faded rose petals and twine. It is an old corpse. More than two days must have passed since the family had entrusted the holiest of rivers with the task of removing the taint of death from it. Vultures had gotten at it. One side of the face was ripped open, exposing a hollow eye socket and a few mangled facial tissues. The river glimmers with sparkles of golden sunlight. Flowers, lamps, and cradles float effortlessly in tandem with the corpse. As I said earlier, the Ganga is all-accepting.
Guru is back. He shakes the river from his body like a wet dog. He pats me gently on the head saying, “Don’t try to understand the river! She will elude you!”
Feigning anger I retort, “Are you trying to tell me something profound or just calling me stupid?”
Briskly wringing his saffron overcloth he replies, “Not at all! I know for sure that you were sitting on that rock thinking about the delicious laddus that are being prepared for the morning worship. Since you will have to wait half an hour for that, why don’t you join us in our game?” I have no choice but to pull myself up and follow the trial blazed by the blithe swami.
Guru draws an interesting sand mandala with intersecting triangles on the river bed and proclaims with mock seriousness, “We are now going to lay out gifts for Mother Ganga! Bring her whatever you can!” Bright eyes and eager feet feed on this directive. Red-throated hibiscus flowers and lush neem sprigs are gathered in great haste; nimble fingers vie with one another to gather the ivory-bright shards of coconuts lying in front of the Ganesha shrine.
“My mother gives Ganga ma red glass bangles every Friday. Shall I run back home and bring a few?” The question comes from five-year-old Maya who I see every evening at the river front with her mother.
Guru stays the child saying, “Later Maya! Ganga ma will be here any minute.” Turning to me he says, “What about you? What are you going to give?”
I smile the apologetic smile of a pauper. Death had stripped away too many things! For a moment I remember how their bodies already charred beyond recognition, collapsed into a heap of ashes in no time at the electric crematorium. I offered the dust of those fragile bones to the Ganga the day I arrived, putting away a pinch in the locket which I wear around my neck. Guru’s playful gaze takes on a keen edge as he repeats “Give!” Instinctively I remove the locket and place in it on the mandala. It feels like a sacrilege, this letting go. However, it is too late to undo my action.
“Look! Ganga ma is bringing us flowers!” Whooping in joy, Maya enters the chrysanthemum-river which draws the child deeper into its bosom with a quicksilver arm. Guru leaps in after the child. Ganga careens through to accept the gifts on the sand mandala, the swami and the child.
Everyone watches in shock. An old monk from the ashram folding his palms in salutation says, “Not even their bones will be found!”
A young swami, whom I recognize as Guru’s friend, begins a guttural, slow-paced chant: mrityorma amritam gamaya, om shanti, shanti, shanti. His gentle voice has a calming influence and very soon the chant is on everyone’s lips: “Lead us from death to immortality!”
I don’t join them for a different drummer was calling out for my attention.
What is it that remains after everything else has been taken away?
Guru’s voice calls out to me from the depths of the waters, “Laddus are being distributed as prasad at the Pashupathinath temple! Try this answer for a beginning!”
The guffawing river roars past, drowning his chuckle.
Swarnalatha Rangarajan is Associate Professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras, India. She was a Fulbright visiting scholar at Harvard University where she took a course in advanced fiction writing. Her short fiction has appeared in Zuban’s 21 under 40, Penguin’s First Proof and South Asian Review. She is currently working on her first novel.