Friday, June 19, 2009

I Breathed Dead People

I couldn’t resist the title for this blog. Besides, it’s true. Last December I went to Varanasi, India, where people burn their dead in public. People bring their dead from miles around to burn them on the hills and steps that line the Ganges river. High caste corpses are burned at the tops of the hills. Low caste corpses are burned near the shore. Everybody breathes the ashes. The entire city is in a haze and the gritty air is painful to inhale.

Only men are allowed to participate in the body burning, because women might cry, and crying might hinder the soul’s journey to its next life. Corpses wear different colored cloths depending on how they died. A gold cloth celebrates death in old age.

Here is a website with photos of cremation in Varanasi: (not mine)

I also saw extreme poverty. Children who prostrated themselves in the dirt before me while adults guided them. I saw roadways crowded with chickens, cows, pigs, cars, motorbikes, bicycles, horse-drawn carts, all beeping their horns constantly like a modern orchestra trying to imitate the sounds of a traffic jam. But it wasn’t a traffic jam. Everything was in motion. And pedestrians who seemed able to negotiate their way across these crowded lanes without traffic lights. The vehicles just swerved around them. I suppose one might be able to learn to trust the gods if one can trust these wild honking drivers.

In Varanasi, I developed a cough that I didn’t shake until I’d been home for over a month. I cannot shake the memories. I refuse to reincarnate if it means going back to India.

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