The orange sun of Varanasi shines in the morning shyly. The sunlight finds it hard to penetrate the smog, the fog of human bodies that are no more. Ashes turned into tears, into inconsolable shrieks, then nothingness. Here in the City of Light, Kashi, the sun mourns, giving of itself only shades of light until the darkening of the twilight.
I am sitting by a burning ghat. Besides me, a black goat stares blankly at the cremation fire. We both hear the rhythmic bouncing of cymbals and the Sanskrit prayers of a monk. We look out into the ghats and watch the Ganges swimming lazily now across the plains, as a family cries. A teenage boy has shaven his head since his father’s passed. His older brother sobs alongside: “Papa… Papa… Papa…” His tears pierce my heart. Priests console him, hugging him tight and speaking louder prayers than his inconsolable pain can hear. My face, and every person’s face around, are downcast. Out of respect, no one takes a photograph. We only send our wishes for sympathy for the loss of a man and his family, noticing: God, that could be me.
Death in Varanasi is alive. In fact, Varanasi was the closest encounter I have had with death. For thousands of years, Hindus cremate their loved ones here. And for a reason: death here leads to immediate freedom from the unconscious cycle of rebirth. This has been so for millennia, through which always fire in Kashi is burning. The sun knows the earth here only through smoke.
So fire burns in Varanasi, and it also burned inside me. Because in Varanasi, I got sick. I had the highest fever I had had since I was a kid, nausea and diarrhea. Mosquito bites from Allahabad? Overwhelm at my sudden proximity with death? All the smog and change of pace from the mountains of north to the plains of India? Whoever knows, please let me know. All I know was that I was bed-ridden for three days, thinking: maybe that’s it; I have come this far, to die where every Hindu hopes to die.
But in the midst of my sickness, I was reminded of this subtle truth: where death is, angels are also. “You have the best karma in the world,” my friend exclaimed. Synchronicities happened continuously over those three days. Israelis I knew from Rishikesh unexpectedly ran into me and helped me move to a quieter space; the Indian man I met at a café brought home-cooked from his wife to me; an Israeli girl I had run into in Dharamsala brought me water and helped me take medicine. Angels kept coming, from the Promised Land and beyond, to show me generosity saves lives.
And that where this generosity is, light is also. Varanasi is also the stage for the most beautiful light-offering ceremony at dawn and at night. Thousands of Hindus sit on boats or on improvised benches next to sadhus and monks. Together we hear the drums and the voices and chants of singers praising Ganga and recounting ancient themes of Hinduism. A spectacle of fire catches our eyes and sheds light into the evanescence of life. And by watching the fire that is outside and inside, we are reminded of our own frail mortality, of the fickle border between life and death in Kashi.