Matru, the ‘owner’ of Hari Chandra ghat, a wiry old man with three days of fuzzy stubble and ochre-yellow eyes and teeth, is telling us about karma. What he really wants is for us to visit his silk shop, but for now karma is the topic of conversation.
Before us, covered by cloth and saffron garlands, lies a dead body on a wooden litter. We saw them earlier, someone’s mother, father, brother, sister, husband or wife, borne unceremoniously atop an autorickshaw through the tangle of traffic in the streets behind us.
The corpse is attended only by men. Matru throws back his shawl and explains to us no women are allowed among the mourners.
“There is still the danger of suttee,” he says. “Even now. Sometimes the woman will throw herself on the pyre – so we do not allow women close enough to the flames.”
His convoluted interpretation of the Hindu way of death continues. “You see, if a person eats fish, when they die they are burned. Their body is left to the river, and perhaps the fish will eat the ashes.
“Then the fish is caught, a person eats the fish, and all begins again. It is karma. My shop is just back there, just five minutes, very good prices.” To our left a dhobi wallah rhythmically beats out his mantra, beating wet clothes against a slab of stone.
The best time to take a boat ride – the best way to view the ghats and the lives and deaths that go on around them – is in the early morning, but during December the Ganges is veiled in fog. The boatmen still call out to us, a hundred Charons desperate to earn their 50 rupees on India’s Styx, but we opt instead to walk.
We see only one ‘real’ sadhu, a naked man covered from head to toe in ash like a greying corpse. They are indeed a dying breed, Manoj tells us. “Every year we see less and less,” he confirms. “I don’t know why. Perhaps it is karma.”
However, there are many more less spectacular ascetics who conduct their daily business around the ghats. One has even built himself a hut at the top and sits there eying us suspiciously surrounded by his followers, a pack of sleepy dogs. Grain by grain he fingers rice into his mouth and pretends to ignore us.
And then there are the fakes, skeletal individuals with matted hair and paan-stained lips who are really no more than beggars. Matru and Manoj both warn us not to give them money: “A real sadhu never needs money, he has nothing and wants nothing,” they say.
At the main ghat, Dasaswamedh, we are approached by a bearded eccentric but his intentions seem more altruistic. “Do not give money,” he says, pointing to the line of ragged children seated by his feet. “But if you can, go to the market and bring rice and dal. I will use these to feed the children. It will be good karma.”
Everyone in Varanasi tells you about karma. They know it’s what the tourists go for.
Apart from the machinations of silk-stall touts and fake sadhus, the tacky side of Varanasi continues in the tourists themselves. There’s a proliferation of the beardie-weirdie here like nowhere else in India – the dreadlocked types who dress from head to toe is baggy ‘ethnic’ garb and are less interested in discovering the Ganga than in smoking the gangaa. They may well be devouring Varanasi’s spirituality, but it’s for its ‘cool’ value. I don’t think they understand it any more than I do.
The city is nothing more than a series of interlinked impressions, rather than one coherent ‘big picture’. It’s like a stained glass window seen up close – all parts and no whole, at least not one that I can understand.
But there is something here. Even the touts and rickshaw wallahs are less aggressive, accepting your rejections with a karmic head-wobble of acknowledgement rather than chasing after you as in hot-spots like Delhi, Khajuraho and Agra.
It’s all part of the picture that makes up India, something else that I accept I don’t comprehend or even necessarily like – but something that at least now I’ve seen.