Five months ago, Sal had woken before daylight for the same reason. On a morning that had stunk like a rotting shadow, like burnt hair and sharp open sewer enlivened by a wide-browed, curious sun, stone stairways flanked the shoreline where whole families, undressed or fully clothed, descended down into the Ganges. Grime floated in gelatinous layers of garbage, petrified in the thick water. Broken garlands of marigolds rode atop submerged plastic bags. Ruptured pieces of rotten fruit sank just beneath the surface. Perched on a cracked wooden seat he’d been rowed out onto the river to catch the sunrise cascade off the bather’s bodies. How long ago that morning seemed, his first in Varanasi.
Today, however, he’d been able to ask the boat owner in broken Hindi to row past the barrier of tourist boats out to the far bank where the melon farmers were already tending to the sandy fields. The face of the rower, once measled by acne, was stretched over by a taught jaw of grey whiskers. He wobbled his head in acceptance of the price Sal offered and pushed the boat away from the ghat before leaping aboard with silent, feline agility. Perhaps it was because death was so exposed in this city – the perpetual funeral of an eternal cataclysm – that the residents appeared at peace in their daily suffering and survival. Aghori sadhus, the most extreme of the ascetic sects, inhabited the cremation grounds and ate out of bowls made from hollowed human skulls. They wandered around the ghats or sat meditating next to the funeral pyres, their bodies coated white with the ashen remains. Death smelt a different colour here.
Sal watched the curls of water surge against the hull with the rhythm of the rower’s pulls. Marigold petals spiraled in orange patterns over the dark particled surface. He’d seen what went into the Ganges. Riding back in the dark from visiting with Vaman, the funeral pyres burned on the shore like beacon signals. Dead bodies shifted into detonations of sparks as the logs cracked and flames shot skyward into the full moon. Vaman was right. All was delusional attachment to temporary sense pleasures; sooner or later, the body disintegrated. He knew that now. The news over the last two days had confirmed it for him.
Nearly every day Sal had crossed the Ganges to meet with Vaman. Some intangible wisdom encircled the young vairagi and his words clung to the fractures in Sal’s psyche like a warm soothing pulp.
–Once one becomes master of self – Vaman had said, offering Sal a tangerine – one is master of life. This cage of ourself is what makes life so limited! How important to do away with this nonsense.
Vaman’s face seemed incapable of a frown. It hovered between several expressions of equanimity–the object of his meditations–but was not devoid of caring. He spoke with a confident assurance that overrode any doubts Sal had about his age. The coarse beard of a young ascetic roughened his cheeks and chin, his unwashed matted hair fell down like cord to bare shoulders and two lines of red paint glowed across his brown forehead. An ignorant question from Sal brought only a glint to Vaman’s eyes, followed by a devastatingly practical answer.
The far bank was already beginning to fill with families who came to this side of the Ganges to picnic on the sand and escape the dirty crush of the city. Doubling itself in reflection, a white pony stood in the shallows and nosed down to its own ripples to drink. Boys kicked up glittering fans of water as they sprinted into the river then dove beneath the surface–the children of the farmers who squatted on this temporary embankment. When the monsoons arrived and buried the shore, all of them would exodus across into the city and set up equally temporary shacks in deserted lots or alleys. Having nothing meant such freedom, Sal thought. It meant liberation.
–You don’t want this? – the guesthouse owner had said when Sal offered him his backpack – What’s the problem, man? Where you put your clothings anyway?
–Won’t need any clothes. Just one pair, what I’m wearing.
–No clothings, sure sure – the man unzipped the bag and looked inside – No shoes too.
–Don’t need those either.
–What you going to do anyway, huh, no shoes.
Blades of the ceiling fan cut across the TV screen in the upper corner of the room. An Indian newscaster reported from the south-eastern coast, that enormous wave eternally impacting the shore in playback from tourist cameras. Upside-down fishing boats, men clinging to palm trunks, women wailing in Tamil as they picked through the bodies. Indonesia had been hit the hardest. The Maldives and south-western Sri Lanka utterly destroyed. A black, suspicious silence from Burma. The increasing death toll convinced Sal even more – You may not even have the opportunity to enjoy what you are working so hard for. Everyday people’s effort is to acquire things that will most certainly vanish – Vaman had said – What devastation. What devastation for the soul.
–I keep the bag for when you come back – the owner’s eyes were fixed to the TV screen.
–I won’t be coming back – Sal said.
–Sure sure, no-shoes-man. You think you the first traveler to come in India and meet a guru? I’m Dalit but I’m Dravidian also. That means I’m no dummy! I keep the bag for when you come back.
Slumped in the cool of a corner chair, a stoned Australian backpacker stared slack-jawed at the screen – Thailand got hit too? Jesus. Just imagine…all those tourist resorts on Phuket. Wham! A ton of dead foreigners on vacation. You hear? All ran down to the beach to watch the wave apparently…
–Shame – Sal said as he turned to leave – Their families back home would be wondering.
The ceiling fan sliced across the anchor’s face. It too would disintegrate.
Vaman’s hut was a driftwood construction of poles and scraps of fabric. It stood to the left of the melon fields on a small curve in the embankment where the Ganges turtles sometimes ventured to lay their eggs. Perfect in its poverty, it had intrigued Sal on his first trip to the far banks; a few oranges nested in a worn basket, stacks of cow manure for a simple fire, a shrine to Rama, the Lord of self-control, and Vaman sitting crosslegged on the sand, eyes closed and chanting bhajans. Across the river, Varanasi swarmed while Vaman seemed like a tranquil oasis opposite a flurry of death.
Sal watched him carefully for some time before the sadhu broke from his meditation, stood and stoked the fire. The desolation of the sand bank reminded him of an island tearing free of the mainland, a giant beach-raft of contented castaways drifting further from the chaotic shore. He felt somewhat nervous, as though if he lingered too long the city would disappear completely and he’d be caught adrift.
Sal raised his hand at the sadhu – Was just curious…sorry.
But the sadhu replied – You are on Krishna’s land, not mine. You need not make an apology for that.
For an instant, Sal thought the man was a westerner. He’d seen them in Delhi and Rishikesh, foreigners in loin cloths with begging bowls, dread-locked pale-skinned disciples who’d grown tired of office politics, mortgages and dress socks, choosing to live instead in caves smoking hashish, owning nothing.
–Nature is the best teacher of the human – the sadhu spoke with a soft humility as he broke a disc of manure in two and dropped the halves on the fire – So easily it can show you the state of your spirit, yes?
–What do you mean?
–Come and look here. Look at this fire.
Sal came to the fire, a few bright sticks ignited against the dawn.
–If I am in sorrow, I will see that the flames of this fire contain sorrow, no? Or this river. To those who are not wanting to clean their hearts, it seems a filthy river. But to those who seek such purification, it becomes the holy Ganges. Everything, you see, depends on from the vantage you are looking. And it takes time to understand! Much time. There are no shortcuts for this thinking!
As though he expected a response, he lifted his bony face to look at Sal.
Sal could think of none except – Right. No shortcuts.
Vaman continued – Many people now coming to India to learn meditation, learning yoga. After, they go back to their country, you see, they want to make a school, they want to ask money. They come here, take some lessons, maybe fifteen days or one month. After just this, they want to become a teacher!
The sadhu laughed; it reverberated like the wisest laugh Sal had ever heard, a lustrous, intelligent ripple that shocked the guru’s eyes into brilliant sparks.
Sal went to the train station that night and cancelled his ticket to Agra.
One extra week in Varanasi became four; one month stretched into five. He’d boated across the river nearly every day since bringing Vaman small bags of cooked rice and fruit, sticks of juniper incense for his shrine.
Sal began to join him for his ritual morning baths in the river. Trepidatious at first, the water became an icy primordial cocoon that caressed every surface of his body. He taught Sal how to recite holy mantras while submerging: Asato ma sad gamaya... Lead me from ignorance to truth. As the intensity of his desires and fear subsided, vibrations of bliss, deep and profound, began to form on the inner corridors of his being. Low at first, the sensations grew then began to move him into wefts of tears. Lead me from ignorance to truth. All his silly aversions and unskillful words replayed so fiercely in his mind, and then vanished for good.
Under the shade of an orange piece of fabric, he and Vaman would talk on the sand for hours and then meditate until dusk. One afternoon last month, the turtle eggs began to hatch. Out on the promontory, dark circles emerged from the sand like wet oil creeping slowly to the surface. With clumsy flippers the hatchlings dragged themselves towards the river. Vaman pointed Sal’s attention to the sky: a gyre of vultures spiraled lower. As the others landed, the largest buzzard hopped to the nest with its collared neck and crooked wings at full extension, stabbing its beak into the sand with a few swift pecks.
–The turtles eat the bodies – Vaman said.
–Of course – he squinted across the Ganges at the columns of smoke lofting from the pyres – They eat the bodies of people in the river. After the dead are in the water, very soon, very soon they are gone. Some humans eat turtles, yes, but then some turtles eat humans, so I must ask myself every day, what will eat me! What can possibly do it! Brahma created the world and Shiva will destroy it. We must treasure these many aspects of God.
Sal left the guesthouse with the TV behind him still broadcasting the disaster. That wall of water, its thunderous approach towards beaches lined with curious families and children run out to the tidal pools to gather shellfish. He wondered what it had all looked like from their perspective. Did they treasure God at that moment? Did they praise the divine Creator as it roared towards them in a curled fist of ocean stretched high until it shadowed the sun with its velocity of barbarous indifference? And for those that hadn’t drowned, for those who’d clung to palm trunks or held their breath, however they’d managed, everything had been destroyed. Sometimes, Sal thought, it was worse to survive a disaster. To survive meant you had to do something about it, to process the aftermath, to assemble a new philosophy so as not to slide into utter anger and hate.
From the Rana ghat Sal walked along the labyrinth of steps and platforms until the Manikarnka ghat, where cremations took place throughout the night. Darkness in India no longer scared him. The aghori sadhus, still feared as cannibals, sat by their fires in meditation. Sal carried nothing worth stealing and the tsunami had confirmed to him that his life was as death-prone as anyone’s. Without his backpack he felt free and less vulnerable. Once a protective shell, Vaman had shown him that his belongings had only been hindrances, an armor defending him against an already-perfect reality he had always insisted on shying away from.
–I am trying to serve Krishna with a pure heart – Vaman said – I am traveling many many years, just observing, just looking, trying to understand. I leave everything, my home, my family, only to understand nature. Every way the human is searching. Everywhere people search many things, but it is not so easy to find the truth. You are living in a five star hotel and an air-conditioned room where everything is perfect, and in this life we say we are searching the truth? It’s a funny world, Sal. A very funny world…
Vaman’s fingers toyed with a string of beads he used to count his bhajans. He stood up and looked at Sal without speaking, then squatted in shallows of the river and splashed water over his dry arms. Farther down the bank, two boys kicked water at the white pony that backed away with small shifts of its hooves.
–What should I do? – Sal asked, stepping into the Ganges beside him.
–That answer always depends on what you want to find.
–You’ll live on this sandbank forever? When the monsoon comes?
–No. In the monsoon I will find new places to mediate. I no longer maintain illusions of permanence. I am not even convinced of being a sadhu forever. You see, I will die one day and so I will no longer be a sadhu. Only my skinny corpse will be a sadhu!
A charred leg shifted in the fire, paused, then dropped out of the coals completely. Gripping it with tongs, an attendant placed it back on the pyre. Sal could see the skeletal mouth and gaping rows of teeth, a ribcage bowed like the curve of a hull. A family stood to the side throwing baskets of marigolds onto the beds of embers. The river was thick and sooty here and the water lapped up onto a small filthy beach where the ashes and remnants were raked through and then left for the waves. Sal imagined a phalanx of turtles drifting off-shore just under the surface, their prehistoric eyes peering out through waxy membranes for any undevoured pieces. Everything seemed so potently clear when he observed the water closely.
Like Vaman had said, death was our destination from the beginning. That made sense when he’d heard it but he’d never taken time to dwell on it. Standing here on the ghats as the sparks flew up towards the full moon, he felt at peace. It would come. One day, maybe even tomorrow, his own extinguishing was sure to come. He’d given his backpack and shoes to the guesthouse owner. All that remained in his pockets were a few rupee notes and ragged passport. It too was temporary, transient, uncertain. There was nothing in the world one could count on for stability. The disaster had proven that. Nature hadn’t discriminated between good and evil, between tourists or locals. Death wouldn’t either.
Instantly igniting, his passport flared into enlightened orange flames then cooled into ash. The fire attendant raked the coals against the shore where they hissed on the sand. Tonight Sal would sleep tucked into the stoop of some temple doorway, his body receiving equanimously whatever sensations came and went. In the morning, he would boat across the Ganges to study alongside Vaman for good.
The sky had brightened to an early blue by the time the bow slid onto the sandbank. The melon farmers were trimming the vines with curved machetes, throwing the foliage into woven baskets strapped to their backs. A spark of conviction shot through Sal. He was excited to tell Vaman what he’d done, the path he’d chosen. He wanted to see the young guru’s eyes light up, to watch that grin crack beneath his beard. Life was uncertainty and Vaman had taught him to embrace its fluctuations without trying to manipulate them.
He arrived to the promontory and looked out at the ghats half hidden in morning haze across the river. So many ways to live, he thought. One side or the other, all the way down the Ganges to the Bengal Sea. Underneath though, on a bottom thick with the sludge of old bones, crumbs from those turtles and the ashes of thousands, there was nothing but mud that even separated the two.
–You are so pensive this day – Vaman said from inside the shelter – What have you studied.
–Waves. Bones. Catastrophes. Something happened in the ocean yesterday.
–Yes, of course. Happenings as always.
–Many people died. An earthquake caused a massive wave…
Vaman crawled out of the hut, his hair matted and still dripping from his bath in the river.
–…You were right. Nature is the best teacher of the human. You said that before.
–The best teacher, yes, of how things truly are.
–I was thinking about the people who got swept away. How it ended for them. How it felt that moment as it came to crush them. I thought, why should we fear death…
Sal suddenly noticed Vaman’s fire was a cold pit of ashes. He’d let it burn out. The stacks of cow manure were also gone.
–I wanted to tell you – Sal continued – I made a commitment. I mean, that I’m serious about studying. I gave my things away. Burnt my passport…
The sadhu squatted and began picking through the sand. He hadn’t looked at Sal since he arrived. A surprise unease scratched at his stomach.
–Is everything fine? – Sal asked.
–Yes, yes. Fine…yes, fine.
–I’m telling you I came to study for good. I left everything.
–This is good news, Sal. The life a sadhu is difficult but rewarding. You will learn about a truth not many people know is even existing. I wish you good luck and Krishna’s fortune for this…but I have chosen to leave the sandbank.
The guru stood and looked down the beach to the melon farmers and the boats arriving from across the river. He looked at the ghats and then down at Sal’s feet.
–As you know, I have lived here for many years as a sadhu. In the dry season I return every year and I have experienced much about the joy, the love, about what the human is searching for. But now I have a different curiosity.
You see I put out my fire. I sold the dung for some rupees to take me to Varanasi. I don’t know how to do it, but I am curious to discover how humans live on that side. There must be a joy to have children, a family! To have a small room to live with a wife and a grandmother. To spend the days working hard as a chai walla or office man, there must be a joy in that.
Sal felt the grains of sand sear into his soles. The haze was burning off and a full Indian sun was beginning its temper.
–What kind of joy?...There’s nothing over there. That’s exactly what I realized, what you taught me. That’s why I came here…
Vaman continued to stare at the ghats that lined the far riverbank. The city seemed to Sal like a giant wave perpetually cresting on the horizon, the colorful saris and longyis of the people like shattered debris churning in its momentum.
–You are welcome to my hut – Vaman said – It will last until the monsoon if you’re lucky… Since a teenager, I have only been a sadhu. I keep a curiosity about that shore I can no longer ignore. I need to participate in its fluxing, you know, to share in its movement. Sure, to be sadhu is easy, you don’t have someone to say to you rules about waking, about clothes or behavior. We can be free as we like with no one but God to answer to. But there is no challenge to that anymore. It feels so usual, standard, so customary. Now I want to try and make the way of life that will be a challenge to me. To help me grow, to use my practice with who needs it.
In the laughs of the boys down the bank, Sal heard the guesthouse owner in his dirty undershirt – You think you the first traveler to come to India and meet a guru? You’ll be back – and his stomach felt like it had been inflated with liquid.
–I am happy you have decided to live in this way. It is a good way and you can learn very much. But I am so curious about this city I have watched from across the river every day and night. Yes, I have been there, but as a sadhu, not a citizen. You too have this curiosity, Sal. So you can understand what it means to try.
– Yes…– Sal paused – I suppose we should all try.
Vaman promised to visit the sandbank as soon as he could. Sal watched him walk down the beach to a boat and the boat was pushed off the sand by the boy holding the reigns of the pony. Except for a scalding breeze that hooked under the fabric of the hut and flapped it against the poles, there was silence. You think you the first traveler to come to India and meet a guru? A film of sadness collected on the insides of his breath. He pictured the fishing villages on the south coast, Sri Lanka, the beaches of Thailand full with inquisitive tourists camcording the wave as it grew and towered above them and then terrified them and then swept them away. He saw the surface of the Ganges roil as the turtles snapped hold of an arm bone or pelvis, shredding it of its meat. He watched Vaman’s boat disappear into the chaos of the far shore. In one month, the monsoons would arrive on the horizon, a banister of grey cloud that would send him eastward towards the ocean.
Matthew R. Loney is a graduate of the University of Toronto’s Graduate Creative Writing program and studied under Ms. Rosemary Sullivan. His graduate thesis was a full-length work of literary fiction titled, The Tiger-Wolves Stop to Drink, written under the mentorship of Canadian novelist Paul Quarrington. His collection of short-stories, That Savage Water, deals with the events surrounding the 2004 Asian tsunami and the global consequences of tourism in South-East Asia. Of this collection, five stories have been published in Canadian and American literary journals.
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