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Winging it “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” - Martin Buber, Philosopher


INDIA | Tuesday, 5 February 2008 | Views [1120] | Comments [3]

I have found myself in yet another alley way, I have no idea where as I deliberately leave my 'Lonely Planet guide to the road most travelled in India' behind. Desperate for a chai, I resolutely refuse to pay Rs5 without feeling welcome. A well rounded bull preceeds me down the alley, stopping at a dahl stall and extending his thick pink tongue towards the dahl wallah who throws a golden puffed wafer into his mouth. Tacky strands of saliva hit the polished sides of the pans at the shopfront and I edge past, careful to avoid the happy swish of the bulls shit encrusted tail.

'Madam, you should try my chai or coffee, it is the best and if you dont like, you don't pay'. This man is charming and so I sit on the roughened wooden bench and watch him blend the spices for my coffee. The bull has followed me down the alley and speculatively pokes his head into a paan stall only to be shooed away. He knows the next stall, however and opens his mouth expectantly, my host rewardimg him by throwing a handful of sugar onto his tongue. I laugh and the man shakes his head ruefully, 'He knows me, he comes every day'. Frothing the coffee between two metal pots, he then hands me a raw clay cup filled with the sweet, steaming liquid. The earth taste rests on my tongue, we sit and talk. I am asked about my country and family and I find that has no children but was married once although found that it was too expensive and decided that business was better. My congenial host charges me double the going rate for my coffee.

This alley is also a throughfare for the main burning ghat and in the time that I sit, three bodies have passed, hoisted on the shoulders of family members and adorned with marigold garlands and red and gold fabric. When an old person dies, there is a celebration with much singing, dancing and drumming. I followed one boistrous party to the ghat and as the body was washed in the sacred river Ganga, the party continued on the terrace. Five lean young men danced to the earthy sounds, writhing and gyrating as if possessed by spirits. Wondering at their enthusiam, I was told that they were very drunk. One man reached out to a french tourist in the crowd and took his cigarette, puffing proudly and then indicating to me to take his photo. I fumbled for my camera which I had respectfully put away for the funeral and dutifully took a picture.

After plunging the bodies in the ghat, they are stripped of their garlands and placed on the neatly stacked wooden pyres. Families of higher castes are burned further up the terrace and the addition of fragrant sandalwood available for those who can pay for it. The bodies may take up to three hours to burn, depending on their size and during this time they are watched by their family. Afterwards, the ashes are returned to the Ganga and all the men in the family shave their heads.

The intoxicated boys start a fight in the neighbouring ghat, swinging wild and ineffective round house blows whilst stumbling in the shit and piss slurries. They draw a large crowd, some laughing and some furious at the disrespect shown towards the journey of the spirit of the dead. Two men with a Great Dane and a St Bernard walk down the promenade and a call to arms is made by every scabby, manky hound along the ghat. A great cacophany ensues as dogs line the walkway and bay at the interlopers. The pedigrees walk on oblivious to the outcry of the manky hounds, and they, satisfied that they have defended their territory, settle down with a few gruff barks. A girl is using a pair of wooden tongs to pick up embers from the fires and place them into a tin pail. Barefooted, she turns and runs to the nearest chai wallah overlooking the ghat and drops the embers into his fire. On the riverbank, a goat with a tin can on her neck is followed by her kid wearing a jumper and golden pendant. At one fire burns down, another is lit, the goats rummage through the litter and find marigold flowers to eat. I turn to leave walking past the washing ghat a few meters up from the burning ghat and look to see if I can find my clothes sent for laundry that morning.

Tags: culture



As always, your descriptions are beautifully vivid and I marvel at the frequency with which you are immersed in the non-tourist world. Looking forward to see the spoils (which I know will be really interesting).
Call us when you are home and over the lag.
Love always,
Lis xx

  Elisia Feb 7, 2008 10:52 PM


Excellent and interesting style of writing you have. Witty and insightful.

Keep updating!

  cruiser Mar 9, 2008 4:01 AM


This is one of my favourite stories...hope you like it

  tash Apr 5, 2008 2:14 PM

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