Bells clang. The night air is smoky, pungent with incense, fire and ash. As the boatman pulls the creaking oars of our boat, I look back at the stone steps leading down to the river, the ghats cluttered with colorful parasols, flags flapping, swarms of people. Statues of gods and goddesses stare at me from the roof of a building painted in yellow and red vertical stripes. Over a loudspeaker, a deep male voice chants in a language I don’t understand. My son Paz understands a little, so I look to him, but I can see from his bowed head and his hand on his little brother’s shoulder that the moment is too solemn for him to translate.
Our guide, Punam, pulls her paisley shawl around her. I love listening to the melody of her speech, the way she pronounces “we” like “vee,” and draws every syllable out like the elastic hours in an Indian day. “We can say it is a misconception that the River Ganges represents the goddess Ganga. No. Ganges IS the living goddess. She has the power to cleanse our souls. Every dawn and every dusk we offer these prayers and salutations to Ganga to prepare for our soul’s journey to liberation.”
Gazing into the water while I observe the twice-daily rite of a culture that is not mine, I am missing my own annual ritual. Back home, it is the morning of Thanksgiving.
I’d flown to India in a flurry of urgent longing to join my eldest son, 21-year-old Paz, an exchange student whom I hadn’t seen since that day five months ago when I kissed him goodbye at JFK airport. But I’d also left with a pang of worry, leaving behind not only my elderly parents, my father in his wheelchair, my mother bending over him, but also 18-year-old Seth, my middle child, a brand-new college freshman. I’d composed detailed instructions and a list of phone numbers where I could be reached, but I worried. Will they all be okay without me? As if my very presence could keep them all safe. I was afraid of what might happen to my parents and second child without me there. The raw fact still pulsed inside me, that despite my best efforts, loved ones could slip through my fingers. In September, despite numerous trips to the vet and all the care I could give him, our old cat Yoda hauled his cancer-wracked body up onto his favorite sofa to die. About six hours into my 15-hour flight, I discovered my right hand unconsciously curled into a tight fist, the muscles taut all the way up my arm to my shoulder blade, as if it was in my hands to control the details of all of our lives.
And now, here I am, beside my husband, Bart, two of our sons and our guide, in Varanasi, India’s holiest Hindu city. My hand still knots into a fist, so I reach in the dark for the warm pocket of my husband’s jacket. Feeling my touch, he turns, “Everything okay?”
“Just cold,” I say.
Before dusk, we’d walked through the dimming streets, past stalls heaped with flower garlands, past a queue of beggars in single file on the descending steps of the ghat, each person enfolded in shawl and turban as the air grew chilly, each pair of dark eyes peering quietly, persistently, at my pale Western face as I walked by. In my right hand I gripped my purse, and in my left hand, the slippery fingers of 11-year-old Gideon. And inside my purse, I carried a small package: a snack-size zip-lock bag containing a portion of Yoda’s ashes.
On the pier, children approached us offering trays of dujas, little paper cups of lit candles. I didn’t know what they were, and was afraid to take out my wallet, so I shook my head, but Paz eagerly accepted one, slipping a coin to the grinning little girl and murmuring, “Shukriya.” Picking my way past the children, down the wet stone steps, I asked Punam about my bag of ashes. “Would it be okay? Or is it inappropriate–”
As we balanced ourselves onto a small boat rowed by a skinny man in a dirty pink shawl, Punam handed each of us a duja. She said to me, “It is okay.”
The boat begins to move on the river, parallel with other boats of worshippers and other tourists. I gaze into the duja cupped in my hands. The squat little candle nestles in a cradle of golden marigolds, a circle within a circle, juggling a tiny sip of flame, warming my face. Gideon sits beside me, his eyes wide with the same childish solemnity I now feel. I wonder if he is setting aside his fifth-grade worries in this ancient ceremony.
“Gideon, we put it in the water,” Punam tells him, “We let it float away. We make a wish.”
She bends at the waist, leans over the side of the boat and demonstrates. I reach down, down, place my duja and open my hand, my fingertips grazing the brown skin of the water as I set it free. The cup wobbles, the fragile little flame struggling for balance, then floats away, bearing the candles and yellow flowers to the goddess Ganga. Further downriver, my candle joins a procession of other flickering candles on the quiet water, surrounded by the whispers of other people and the swish of oars.
“When a Hindu dies in Varanasi, it is said that he is instantly li-ber-ated from the endless cycle of birth and death. Hindus come here to die, or to be cremated. See?” Punam points to a structure on the dark riverbank, a cave-like building studded with many small fires. “This is the crematorium, Manikarnika Ghat. It is a great honor to be cremated here and to have one’s ashes committed to the Ganga.”
The smoke fills my head, a different kind of smoke than I’ve ever smelled before. Punam continues, telling us how, when a Hindu dies, his nearest male relative lights the funeral pyre himself, with the family present. Then when the ashes are completely cool, they are swept into the Ganges. How strange this seems to me, I was not present at Yoda’s cremation, I will not even be there tonight, if my father has another stroke.
I take out the zip-lock bag of ashes. I had planned to spill them into the river myself, but now I look at Paz and see something I hadn’t seen before, a new confidence in his jawline as he looks back at me.
He’s become a man while he was apart from me. I hand the ashes to him. He holds the bag, weighing it in his fingers, then he turns toward the side of the boat, stretches down and spills the ashes of our old cat into the river. We all gaze into the dark water, watching the ashes sink and disappear. Next to me, Gideon quietly sniffles. Punam puts her arm around his shoulder. For a moment I almost reach across the boat for him, thinking I should be the one to hold my son, but then I let go, glad he can get comfort from someone else.
The priests stand in a row on the ghat, each under a parasol lit with neon, performing like dancers in unison. Faces fill the space behind them, perhaps thousands of worshippers. Over the tinny loudspeaker, the priest chants an endless mantra repeating the words, Krisna and Rama and although these are not my words, not the thoughts I’d be thinking if I were home, taking my Thanksgiving pies out of the oven, I would still feel the same reverence that I now see in my sons’ faces. And looking into these two faces, I imagine the face of the child who is not with us, and I know right now that Seth is doing all the things I worried he could not do without me to remind him. In my absence my normally quiet son sits at the kitchen table and chats with his grandparents about his new life at college, new friends, his favorite professor. My father supervises while Seth builds a fire in the apartment fireplace.
Still chanting, the priests lift their oil lamps to the river, ringing their bells. I can feel my husband’s warmth next to me in the boat. He looks at me, then at our sons, then down at my clenched right hand. My fingers relax and slowly open, like a lotus flower, like the cup that holds the duja candle, which I can still see, following the flickering procession as the current carries it farther and farther away from me.