Dolphins of the Ganges
In the midst of the warm winter sun, we ate and slept along the waters of the Ganges, dreaming of the river’s famed, elusive inhabitants. Smartphones stowed, computers and voicemail and traffic forgotten, this trip counted a lifetime in its making. Lying there with the heat of the mid-day’s rays casting an aura around her dimmed glow, she sighed. Ananyā turned her face into the pillow that the boatman had provided. “Watch for the susu,” he’d advised yesterday. She cuddled into the blanket, away from the sunny heat. I saw my chest move, felt my lungs breathe. I was breathing again, no longer holding my breath, wondering mistakes of the past. Nights of camping stretched into days of lounging, the boatman and his pal doing all the work, cooking, cleaning, paddling. Rudra had arranged it all. He wouldn’t take a single rupee, saying only, “That’s not how we do things here.” Thousands of miles away from his one-time home of Atlanta, my old chum now back in Delhi lived the definition of Southern hospitality when he arranged our trip. I tried, got frustrated, even with the internet, over the internet. Too many choices, too many chances, and whom could I trust so far away? The ordeal of Ananyā’s sorrow had capsized my tendency to stay afloat, so I turned things over to Rudra.
“Yes, I’m here. I’m right here,” I said.
“Of course you are.” She reached for my right hand, which had always been within her reach. She grasped it with her left, squeezed it, sighed, collapsed back into the blankets – a routine I knew all too well, by this point in the journey.
“The ceremony was perfect,” she said.
“I know,” I replied.
Looking out over the landscape, I envied the constancy of the blooming mustard plants. Everywhere you looked: yellow atop green, high above the riverbanks. The wind danced into nature’s colors and always returned them to their proper place, yellow atop green. I didn’t want to consider their larger cycle. Come harvest time, they too would be cut down, replaced by their offspring the following season.
“I miss him,” Ananyā said. I extended my hand again, yet held my thought to myself, caressing only her hand.
“There will never be another like your Dad, I know,” I wobbled my head sideways in the way Indians have a tendency of wanting to do. She smiled. “You love me. If I ever doubted, I can no longer remember that time. This is what I needed, exactly what we needed. Thank you.”
“Svaagat hai,” I replied. She smiled, again. I leaned into her and this time, for a moment, she held me. She smelled of peace.
While her father lived, Ananyā could only love him. Her mother died giving birth to her, bequeathing Ananyā a lifelong legacy of motherlessness and only-child syndrome. Both of Ananyā’s parents came from very large families, all of whom had turned out for our wedding. In typical Indian fashion, several festive days of marital events combined generations and centuries of secrets, traditions, colors, fragrances – altogether, sensory overload for my family’s Christian half of the extravagant party. Her cousin, trained in opera, sang ancient Sanskrit lessons. With prompting by an aunt of my bride, one of my cousins arranged flowers, four floral pillars representing four stabilizing parents. My Garden Club mother still talks about the roses, carnations, marigolds. When he saw the four pillars in the chapel, Ananyā’s father said his wife, finicky as she was about flowers and ritual, would have approved.
Ananyā never fussed. She grew into the perfect child. She knew that because of her birth, her parents’ marriage had ceased. That’s how her sensitive spirit and precocious mind worked, and she tried to simplify all things into clear-cut, cause-and-thus-effect, this-leads-to-that. At a young age, she told me, she felt immense brokenness from her father, so she set about to achieve, to make her father proud, so he, unlike her mother, would never abandon her. That was how her young mind thought, she told me. Needless to say, she far exceeded any modern father’s imagination of filial success, from son or daughter. She lived up to her father’s family name, but also to her own: Ananyā, in her ancient language, meaning having no equivalent. The daughter-father bond merely strengthened over the decades, despite the distance after we married.
“Do you want to say anything?” she asked me last week, on the flight from Delhi to Varanasi.
“At the ceremony.”
I had never considered this an option. In so many traditional ways, I remained the outsider here. Since the new prime minister, things were changing even faster, yet millennia of tradition lay rooted, blooming and perfuming and incensing all of life here.
“I really don’t know what’s appropriate,” I said to her.
“Oh, I think in this day and time, just about anything is.”
“Even in Varanasi?” I asked.
“Oh, my God. I don’t know. I’ve never been.” We laughed. My wife had seen more of the United States than she had of her ancestral lands.
An American Southerner by birth, I had read all of Twain’s works before turning sixteen. Somehow I remembered his description of the holy Hindu city: Older than history, older than the tradition of history, older even than the dirt where the tradition started, something like that. When we’d first arrived there, I didn’t think much of the place. I kept looking for unique evidence, museum-quality proof, but living remnants to justify Twain’s assessment and locals’ claims that their city was, in fact, the world’s oldest continuously inhabited, still-active city. My silent assessment: too dirty, in broad daylight or subtle moonlight; too real, at any and every hour of day or night, when cremated smoke fluttered heavenward through birds scavenging nutrient-rich, murky waters. As with India, as with the American South, we all have our rituals. Outsiders devote lifetimes to deciphering us, or trying to–
Ever true to his claim, unseen friend Rudra had handled with aplomb every detail of our trip. The long-haul flight from Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson to Delhi’s Indira Gandhi, the shorter flight on to Varanasi and its sparkling new terminal, the polite driver with bottles of water and the comfy SUV ride into the age-old city, the stay at the guesthouse adjacent to the Manikarnika Ghat. We arrived in time to say our final good-byes, but it would all be over for us too in a few days, and we’d soon be following our earlier path, yet this time in reverse.
“Rudra, what are you doing here?” I said, startled to see him entering the lobby of the guesthouse. “We were about to go out for a stroll.”
“I decided to surprise y’all.”
“Y’all sounds so quaint over here, Rudra,” Ananyā teased him before hugging him.
“This is so out of the way for you to be here,” I interjected, shaking his hand. “It’s not like Delhi is just a float down the river.”
“I had to go to Bihar for work.”
“What a lovely surprise!” Ananyā said.
“Nice to see you in such spirits, Ananyā.”
“Rudra, you didn’t have to–”
“Rudra,” I said, “really, truly, you didn’t have to do this. You’ve already done so much.”
“In all truthfulness, I’d never been to Varanasi. I couldn’t be outdone by a couple of friends from Atlanta!”
“Too funny,” my wife and I said at the same time.
On our walk, Rudra gingerly relayed rumors that the family in charge of the central fire for Varanasi cremations was Muslim. Talk of that kind living for long in this country surprised me, but as fiction often mothers truth, I wobbled my head.
“I think you’re talking about the Muslims who hold the keys to the Holy Sepulchre church in Jerusalem,” I said.
Rudra wobbled in kind. He said he’d already arranged the priest and torch-bearers upon his arrival. Everything would be perfect, as it had been for all of our visit, no need for worry.
I thought I knew India, married one of her beauties, familiar with much of its history, a speaker of thoda thoda Hindi, and oh, I can count: shoonya, ek, do, teen, char, panch….Preparing for the cremation unveiled a side of this world still very foreign to me: “Isn’t it lovely?” seldom crossed my mind as a question during funerals back home. “Isn’t it lovely?” the erstwhile funeral director kept mumbling, while preparing the body’s shroud and stoking the nearby fire. “Isn’t it lovely.” This time as a statement. “It is time. Chalo.” We followed.
I thought I knew death, helping bury three of my grandparents and an unknown number of cousins, but the eternal flames of old Varanasi and the tears of my modern and beautifully sad Indian-American wife conspired to conjure other definitions. Life, still so precious, despite our similar shades of differing wants. The purifying body of my father-in-law burned in front of me, and all I could think of saying remained unsaid. It was true for all of us there, my wife, me, and Rudra, who had respectfully distanced himself during the cremation. I held Ananyā’s hand. We both knew he had lived a good life. This man, who moved across time zones – a full day’s journey even by plane – to try to be with his sole daughter, but eventually did not take to Western ways and returned home before it was too late for him. I now saw that he loved me, too, because I loved her. I finally got it, despite our differences and our quarrels. The beauty of life, the transcendence of generations, the lore of Kālidāsa and Shakespeare, the lure of empire, its timelessness we all seek.
Georgia so far away, the Ganges nearby, I looked at Ananyā, her bindi proudly in place, a tribute to her father. Eventually, we stepped away from one another, the immensity of the ceremony needing room to breathe, as if fanning a flame. A single tear coagulated on her left cheekbone, suspending time. Our eyes locked. She removed the red dot. Her bindi traded her father for me, a tribute to all three. The piney wafts of burning sandalwood chided me, changed me into child, back to South Carolina pine-land forest fires, the smells of pine sap mixed with charred bark. I reached for her father; I looked for my own. Ananyā’s light sobbing awakened me from my stupor. Rudra motioned. I moved closer to my wife, resplendent in the glories of her native land, her white sari billowed, her father’s saffron wrapping extinguished. Father and daughter, united until the end. Eventually, she reached for my hand again, and I clasped it before kissing her palm. Marigolds fell to the ghat, color atop dirt, life surrounding death. This incredible India, this exotic beauty I married, I loved them both like never before. We kissed.
For the final night of our stay several days after the cremation, we camped along the river, a safe and considerable distance upstream from the city and its crowds. We supped, as we could, on the usual fare of dal, rice, cucumber, paratha, veg achari, tea – but no meat, no alcohol on the holy river. The boatman reminded us of the river dolphins, ever shy those creatures, and we gazed out into the darkening water, as he waved his hands like a magician.
“They love gud people – gud people verrry, verrry much, they love. They will come ’round, e’en if you do not see them. They will feel you. You will feel them. This is gud, verrry, verrry gud, this is.”
We looked, but saw no dolphins, and later that night, we dreamt. Playful, finned creatures of the Ganges frolicked in our dreams. They consoled us. Serenading by the moonlight, they cheered us on in the modern cycle of life, in still yet more ancient and mysterious ways.
image by Jake Levinson