Spring 2017, Volume 22

Fiction by Neerja Raman

Once Upon a River

The eighty-five ghats that form a crescent-shaped riverfront project a majesty that gives perspective to the vicissitudes and vanities of death unfolding in its lap. Janvi has read in a tourist guide that the city of Varanasi derives its name from two rivers: Varuna, which flows from the northern end, and Assi, which meets the river Ganges in the south. The city is compared to a goddess whose arms are the two rivers. It is said that like a mother, without judgment, Varuna and Assi embrace, coddle, and cradle all who come: sinners and saints; wealthy and destitute; male, female, and in-between; all who come to Varanasi seeking something.

As proof of the power of the river, they keep coming, in ever larger numbers.

They keep coming, worries Janvi as she looks around and the ghats begin to fill up; so many that even the goddess mother might find herself running out of sanctuary.

Mornings are the busiest times at the ghats. In the glow of dawn, when the devout rush down steep steps, the destitute sleeping on those steps awaken to stagger up and leave. Their footfalls create chaos, yet the ebb and flow of humanity bypasses Janvi as she sits still, clutching tight the urn with her mother’s ashes.

Tourists gawk and click cameras while hawkers sell sandalwood paste, holy ashes called vibuthi, flowers, and sweetmeats. At this time of the morning, when the hot glow of cremation pyres burning by the ghats melts into a serene crimson sky, the air is cool and a dawn twilight bathes the entire riverfront, lending it a ghostliness that defies time.

The clanging of metal pots, used by bathers to pour water over the head, mixes with melodic chants of the devout, not so devout and, perhaps, just plain old sinners. Pilgrims come to experience rituals and customs that have endured over thousands of years.

Lately, the tourists come in increasing numbers as well. Air-conditioned comfort is to be found in modern hotels that overlook ancient ghats, opposing architectures in sharp conflict. Unlike pilgrims, tourists wear shoes to keep them safe from contamination from the very earth they wish to touch. Like Peeping Toms, they prey on the faith of the ascetics; or perhaps they come hoping they might find something to believe in, something to give meaning to their lives.

Janvi wonders. What category do I fall into? Not a tourist, she hopes, but surely not a believer either. A sinner?

She looks at her feet and removes her flip-flops. She is barefoot. She feels the sand between her toes, the wetness of water trudged up by returning bathers. The rough stone of the ghats. She consciously relaxes her feet, spreads out her toes, rocks in place, embraces the ground.

After five days in Varanasi, Janvi has still not done what she came to do. She has not bathed in the river or immersed her mother’s ashes in the water. She comes to the ghats but is gripped by a fear that her lack of faith in the ritual would render it meaningless. Her trip would be wasted and her burden intact.

She sits paralyzed by a lack of faith, which till now she had not only embraced but had been proud of.

What if the urn floats away without taking the burden of her guilt? What if the river accepts the ashes but rejects her remorse?

An adolescent rage born of real and imagined wrongs has imprisoned Janvi. Focused on rejecting her mother’s love, she did not see her mother’s body grow frail and her soul grow deeper. Janvi had rebelled and finding no one else to blame, heaped scorn on her mother. Eventually it became a habit, a millstone around her neck that she could not cast off. When Janvi crossed teenagehood, her mother aged gracefully: she stopped giving advice, made no rules, passed no judgment. But Janvi only aged. She failed to grow up. She raged out of habit long after there was any reason to.

Up until one day her mother quietly collapsed on the floor and stopped breathing.

That moment had jolted Janvi into reality. Time had turned tables, so her mother became the wronged child and she herself the censorious parent. When did it happen? How did it happen? Why did I not see it when she was still alive?

Am I too late? Do I deserve forgiveness?

Could she cast her baggage of guilt into the river? You can do anything you want, her mother would have said. My job is to make sure you want the right things, she would add. And Janvi would yell—How do you know what’s right?

Janvi opens the urn and looks in. The ashes are still there. Slowly, softly, soundlessly, Janvi starts her penance. There are some things that are always right. Others always wrong. This one is right.

This one is right. Right because it is my duty, or my duty because it’s right? Or is duty the action that is the ultimate expression of love?

One by one, she plucks the tentacles of guilt out of her body and places them into the jar. Memories of harsh words uttered in anger go into the ashes. Failure to respect follows. And then the heaviest burden of all—withholding love, for which mother left India to come live with her in America.

Janvi cries without tears as she pats the ashes down and closes the jar. Today is the last day. Her last chance.

And today is different, she reminds herself. She has not prayed, but she has dressed differently: no jeans, no open hair, and no—yes, that greatest tourist transgression—expensive cross-trainers. She has found a cotton sari, 3/4-sleeve blouse, and flip-flop-style sandals that could be easily slipped off, and she has oiled her dark brown hair before coiling it into a low bun that sat demurely on her neck, just as she had seen others do. She even found a yellow thread that served as a necklace worn by respectable middle-class married women in India.

It has made a difference. People in both directions rush by her barely avoiding her, and unlike previous days, no one is selling her marigolds, sweets, diya lamps, belpatra leaves, holy red thread, or sacred ash.

Prayer had not been a big part of Janvi’s life, though she was familiar with common Hindu rituals. If she thought of religion at all, it was as a crutch for the weak, a last resort of a victim, and she had not wanted or needed it.

Surely there is a difference between religion and ritual. Isn’t my morning coffee a ritual? It helps me start the day on the right foot. Isn’t bedtime story a mother’s ritual to calm her child and to create a bond? Life embeds rituals, like processes are embedded in business. A simplification, a structure for continuity.

Immersion of ashes is a ritual: a process of communication between the living and the dead. A process for continuity, when you can close one chapter before you open the next.

She hopes to hear her mother’s voice in the rippling river. She hopes it is not too late to ask for forgiveness.

As she sits on the steps, she begins to feel more relaxed today than she has for the past few days.

Today, Janvi looks up and sees a joyousness in the limbs of the bathers, whereas yesterday she had only seen foreignness in their actions. This gives her courage. She looks at the bedraggled boatmen and their rickety boats with a foreigner’s distrust. But today she also notices the kindness in their eyes.

Janvi hails a boatman and descends the ghats. She steps into his boat while he holds it steady. As it pulls away from the steps, Janvi shifts her weight to match the rocking of the rickety boat and, in spite of everything, feels herself getting caught in the vastness of the scene around her. It casts a spell; her lack of faith insignificant when surrounded by the faith of a million believers.

Janvi has not bought flowers, or any offering at all, which is customary in the ritual of immersing ashes in the Ganges. What will they think? Feeling awkward, she asks the boatman, “How long have you been doing this?”

“It will be sixteen years this coming summer. I did not know when I started this work that I would be helping people. Now that I know, I cannot stop doing it. It is hard work, and in the winter months when tourists come, I work all hours. I don’t even go home to see my family.” He looks around and adds, “I can row you farther down the river where the ghats end; it is more peaceful there. I charge you just one extra hour.”

“What makes you think I want a longer ride?” Janvi asks suspiciously, wondering if it is a trap.

“Oh, just a guess, madam. Most people come to pray, and I can tell that is not why you are here. But you are not like other tourists either. You are coming alone to our holy city?”

“Well, I want something from your goddess.”

“You come to look for man? You want boyfriend? Varanasi ghats, not good place for finding boyfriend. You should go to Jaipur or Udaipur—full of raja maharajas, all looking for modern wife. Here, except for the swamis and holy men in the ashrams, all come to wash away sins and start a new life.”

The steady rowing has not even broken a sweat on the boatman’s brow. His easy banter has no hidden agenda. She sees that now. Janvi feels at ease with him, enough to confide, “My mother died suddenly.”

She holds up the urn for him to see.

The boatman is silent. He rows steadily, just as before, without breaking his rhythm till all you can hear is the clop, clop of his oars. Janvi takes a breath but the air is sticky, constricting her throat.

When the ghats have receded in the distance, the boatman slows down, drops anchor. By now the sun is up in the sky casting silver ripples in the water and spraying diamonds in drops on distant bathers.

“Go in the water,” he says. “Take a dip. Do what you came to do. I will wait here till you are ready to go back.”

“I didn’t buy any flowers or hire a priest.”

“No matter. Say a prayer when you empty the ashes. Do it slowly, hold that moment in your heart, never to be forgotten.”

“I don’t know how to pray.”

“Mother Ganga understands you like she understands us all. Speak to her. Tell her what you have come here for. Say out loud till you feel better. When you speak with a pure heart, mother will listen to you. She does not want flowers, money, or priests’ prayers.”

The boatman’s loose shirt flaps in the breeze, beckoning Janvi to do his bidding. He is wrinkled, yet ageless too.

As if in a trance, Janvi puts aside her slippers. She knots the sari palloo around her waist. She picks up the urn and lowers herself in the river.

The water is cooler than she expected. Yet it warms her too. While it looked muddy from the boat, here down below the water is clear. Janvi opens her eyes and looks around. She sees her sari billow about in the water, caressing her legs; slowly she begins to feel the embrace of the shadows playing around her. Then suddenly she panics.

She bobs back up to look at the boatman. “It’s cold,” she says. He nods and waves her away.

Taking a deep breath, she dips her head in, counts to ten before swimming out, farther away from the boat, the urn still clutched in her arms.

This time Janvi is more relaxed, and she feels the gentleness that lies within the powerful currents. She opens her heart till finally her tears start to flow. She uncorks the urn and tilts it upside down to see ashes float around. She sees her tears mix with the ashes to form an embrace. Mother Ganga has taken her back into the shelter of her womb. Her words and her sorrow dissolve in the purity of her mother’s soul. It cleanses and heals and when done, opens its arms, birthing her anew.

Fifteen minutes later, minus the urn, minus the ashes, sari clinging wet, Janvi swims back to the boat and climbs in. Without breaking the spell, the boatman rows her back to the ghats.

A newborn Janvi is wrapped in an embrace that will never go away.

Next morning, like any other tourist, Janvi packs her bags and hails a taxi to catch her flight back home. But she no longer looks at the taxi driver with suspicion when she pays the fare. She waits patiently in line to get to her seat. After takeoff, she takes her first deep breath in six days. She notices her lungs inflate with ease; there is no constriction in her heart. Her hands relax in her lap.

Having forgiven herself, Janvi can now forgive others. She is gentler, kinder, and wiser. A smile plays on her face. Even before the plane has reached cruising altitude, Janvi falls asleep.

The river has done its duty.




BIO: Neerja Raman's essays “Year of the Girl Geek?” (2015)  and “Wisdom of Fearless Feet” (2016) have been published in India Currents.  Her book, The Practice and Philosophy of Decision Making: A Seven Step Spiritual Guide, is available via Amazon.