I walked along the Ganges today, ghats on my right and incredible slums and poverty on my left. Ghats are platforms and steps, stone or marble, leading down into the water in India. People wash their clothes, their bodies, their hair. They play, swim, and let go of the ashes of their relatives, who have been recently been cremated on the highest step of the ghat. I listened to someone explain the steps of the process and watched one body burning beneath a pile of wood. It felt more like part of the cycle of life and death than being in a traditional “funeral parlor.”
I hired a young man to walk with me and explain some things. He helped me stay aware of the social cues I’d be expected to know, like don’t take photos when the police are around, because of the tension with Pakistan. Raju showed me where the famous poet Tagore was cremated, which has become a devotional place.
I saw cobra handlers open baskets and stir the snakes into raising their hoods, while men tossed coins into the baskets, then I watched the cobras drinking milk from a cup. I saw huge, painted clay deities like Hanuman and Kali wrapped in garlands of flowers from devotees. Then I walked to the flower market under Howard’s Bridge, mind-boggling in the number of flowers and the handiwork to make those garlands.
I met what must have been a test for me, a test of my patience, in a beggar who had flawless English. He demanded to know where I was from, so I told him, thinking that would shut him up…wrong. “You are USA, I am a crippled man, you should give me 100 rupee’s!!!” It was everything I could do NOT to answer him. Namaste.