UC Berkeley Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

Manikarnika, or The Burning Ghat

Jen Byers

In the Indian city of funerals, I stand and watch bodies burn for fun, for closure. It takes approximately 250 pounds of sandalwood to burn a single corpse, so the entire city (and for miles out, so I’m told) smells incensed and heavy. The Ganga turns deep brown with ash, and when you blow your nose, the salt of dead people comes snotting out. In the equinox seasons, residents tie Rama’s free-roaming bulls to the pillars under the ghats,
so they can cool their heat and mingle their moans with the mourners’ cries.

Months earlier, my throat was slit, and a tumor-ridden butterfly flew out from under my vocal chords. Papillary thyroid cancer gets its name from the French papillion, and recovery brochures suggest cocooning yourself off from the world for a while, to “recover in peace.” An easily curable disease felt like the death sentence I had been waiting for, so upon official confirmation that I was finite, I ran away from life and found myself in Varanasi, India. When my parents finally got in touch with me, they demanded to know what I was doing and where I was. I told them that, if you believed in such things, and you had enough money, you would come here to die, to burn your atoms and your soul out of samsara.

Dubbed by guidebooks as “the most spiritual city in the world,” Varanasi is known as a place saturated with colors, life, and intensity. My naive eyes hoped to find dazzling crystals suspended in the air, a buzzing, mystical godliness that would spark courage within me. I began my quest with the hope that, if magic existed anywhere, it would be

in India, in the fabric of the atman and the pattern of Indra’s jeweled net. In the stitches of communities, I hoped, I would find eternity.

When I deplaned in New Delhi, humidity hit my glasses. I had expected the stewardess to hand me spirituality over the Atlantic, and I desperately hoped that my soul would be purified by landing, granted immortality in this enchanting, new reality. Yet the ground in India still felt solid, the air was only faintly breathable, and the link between me and other human beings remained invisible.

A dismal fog hung over my eyes for two weeks as I traveled from the city to the mountains to the Ganga. I wished the air would grow heavy enough to crush my bones and save me from my shame, burying me with the guidebooks that had promised me fantasies. Speaking to no one, I perched underneath Varanasi’s burning ghat and spent days staring at my reflection in the muddy water.

One evening, my misery was broken by the laugh of a swaggering brahmin. “Why did you come all this way to be so sad?” he chided, crouching down next to me.

Meeting his gaze, I found myself bashfully smiling. “How can you live here and not think of death all the time?” I asked, nodding towards the Ram, Ram Shakti hai; Ram, Ram, Shakti hai funeral chants that signaled the arrival of another corpse.

The pits of his eyes glimmered for a moment as his fingers traced a curled moustache. He shrugged, laughed again, and pointed to the water, where a pile of half-charred limbs lay floating. “Ahh, it’s simple! Death is part of all of us. It’s as natural as eating — I can’t escape it; you can’t avoid it; might as well accept it,” he said, pointing to a kutta gnawing a tibia with his teeth.

The next morning, I woke up at sunrise and went to the Ganga, walking down
the ghat steps until the water lay still at my waist. As I listened to a sadhu chant Sanskrit salutations, my body suddenly racked itself with sobs, and I caught heavy tears with bare hands. To the chorus of the sunrise, I realized I had come here to face my death, to burn my atoms and soul out of samsara, so with finitude, I dove underneath the water’s surface. As I emerged, my crying subsided, and I watched each teardrop send out a ripple, connecting the circles of my salt with the tendrils of Shiva’s hair.

Jen Byers is an undergraduate at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.