“The City That Burns” or the city where I had first figured out the shallowness of death.

India. When I utter it, I see only images of us together, throughout the unknown.

After I’ve read your writing, I felt the need to complement with my perspective.

Let me recount it to you, my dear Ruah.

“From Delhi to Varanasi there are about nineteen hours by train.”

Nineteen hours through which my legs have gotten numb over nineteen times. I am coated in dust. I sit crouched on a straw mat near a moustachioed Indian, while you’re on the hallway, between the doors of the train carriage. All around me, there are people snoring beneath thick woolen blankets. We’re in the desert. Sand is flying through the bars of the windows. At daytime, you melt, at night time, you freeze.

“It is dreadfully crowded in here. We don’t have tickets.”

I sit on the floor of the compartment. The Indian is leering at me, and offers me his woolen blanket. With gleaming eyes, he tells me that I’m beautiful. I wear my hair in a loose ponytail and my feet are bare on his mat.

I feel something cold against my feet. I wiggle my toes and the little claws start climbing onto me. It’s a mouse. I feel too sleepy and cold to get up. I look at it, it looks at me, and sets out further throughout the compartment.

Indians always have food and blankets when they set out on the road.

„We sing and our melody makes the entire train burn, the whole of India burns. We sing and our lips stretch with joy. We sing and our soles are almost frozen. I say to myself that it is the best experience of my life. And who could say otherwise? I am of the world, and the world is mine. The train is my home. The earth is my home. I am home… wherever I would be.”

I hear your voice from the other compartment. Two french girls and I are trying to sleep. It’s 5 in the morning. My eyes are tired after the multitude of images. I haven’t eaten anything and my stomach is quietly rumbling as if burnt. People are coughing all around me. I feel worn out. From the chair on my left, a slightly green-faced old lady springs up and sprints out on the hallway. I hear her spitting out her stomach.

The Indian on my right asks me whether I’m married. He’s in the army and it’s time for him to get married now.

I’m looking at him, but my eyes drift towards the window behind him. The shades of the morning start showing up. The sun can’t yet be seen, but you can almost feel it rising. My feet have gotten warmer.

In my eyes, a sunrise of bright orange can be seen. The dunes of the desert shatter into clouds. The Indian keeps on flapping his mouth. A smile cracks at the corner of my mouth, and I breathe in the coughing of the ill.

You could say I’m not having the best night of my life. But I will argue against this, my darling. Here and now on this straw mat, under a woolen blanket, surrounded by sick people; I’m riveting my eyes and smiling upon the sunrise in the window on the left. I don’t care about my greasy hair, my unwashed clothes, about when I’ve last done my nails or what I’ll eat for lunch. Here and now, I am witness to the most gorgeous sunrise of my life. I’ve spent nineteen hours in this train, on a straw mat.

The old lady returns, wobbling. Children are moaning in the distance. The scent of the masala dosa we’ve had for dinner strikes us all.

The friends of the Indian beside me are starting to wake up. They mock him for being a wimp.

I tell him, “I thank you from the bottom of my heart for this mat and this blanket. May the Universe bless you in likeness to your soul.“

The Indian remains shocked and shakes my hand in gratitude.

“Rikshaw, rikshaw! Where are you going?”/ – We are striding over those that sleep

“Rikshaw, rikshaw, cheap, cheap!”/ – And we are sleepy.

“Taxi, Taxi, rikshaw is not fast!”/- We close our eyes.

“Rikshaw, rikshaw! Taxi’s expensive!”/ – And we are sleepy./ And we are sleepy.

I eye your backpack in front of the carriage’s toilet. I wave at you.

I get to you, while being pushed by two – kind of weird – Indians, and we get off the train almost by jumping.

In the train station – heat and people hustling.

I cling to your backpack and let myself be drawn towards the exit out of the station. I am a tad hungry, and Alan always manages to get us out of the madness.

Those with the rickshaws are trying to milk us of as much money as possible. We get into a rickshaw and only utter: Ganges!

“The city is filthy. The cows swallow zealously plastic bags off the ground. The people bark. The dogs are lame. The people are blind, they are blind. They fell asleep on the street, resting their cheeks on others cheeks. There is no light, there is no air, there is no space. There is, actually, nothing. There is no sentiment.”

The rickshaw stops and we are being barked at: “Here, no more! I can’t pierce any further into these alleys!&rdquo

We throw 100 rupees at him and we step into the labyrinth of alleys. Shops, painted walls, dogs, cows, narrow lanes that stink. A kid runs out of a house butt-naked and bends over a manhole to defecate. The stores full of colorful clothes, the stalls where the onions are starting to sizzle, and old people in shirts and dhotis are only some of the signs that show the city has awakened.

Above the houses, there is black smoke, you might say there is a factory nearby. I stop near the first corner of the street, sliding longly on dung. You turn to look at me and start laughing, but reach your hand towards me.

„Ganges is almost fifty meters deep. Thousands of corpses build up the sand and a thick, opaque golden smoke delimits the surface.”

Little winding streets are taking us to the depths of the city. Alan stops and shouts out an “AH”. We reach the top of a stair flight. 108 are their numbers.

At the bottom, beneath the paddles of the boats, lies Ganges!

We stop in astonishment. Time seems to cease and our eyes spill into the ashen waters. No camera is pulled out, no cigarette is lit by anyone. The paddles stop and the smoke becomes thicker. The waves bring wreaths of flowers with them.

We step upon the stairs, downwards. With every step, the chests start beating. It’s impossible not to feel the calling. Every step means a new beginning, towards Ganges.

108.

108.

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The feet barely even sustain now, but the heart would sprint however much.

„This is the first day in Varanasi. Hundreds of flames and hundreds of bodies. Shiva’s fire, the eternal one, burns for over 3500 years. The same families of monks are sustaining it since the dawn of time, night and day, come rain or sun, with their breath, with their mantra.”

One thing is certain: when you travel, you have no time to rest! You’re so thirsty for the sight of so many things, that you are barely even aware of the fatigue.

The first day in Varanasi. We didn’t know where to toss our gaze. Monks that were praying on the shore under the gaze of a guru. In the water, a woman in a green sari is washing the dishes that are gathered in a washbasin. Ten steps further, a man in underwear is lathering his beard. A boy throws his bull into Ganges to wash the dust out of it, the bull moo’s in contentment and the boy is rubbing its back.

We’re walking towards the center of the city, or at least that’s what we think, because of the smoke in the distance.

A boy that is strolling in our vicinity strikes up a conversation with you.

He tells me, “Children under the age of twelve are never burned. They are not yet sinful. They are sent on the Ganga pure as they are. Pregnant women as well, the leprous as well.”

I remain with my eyes stuck to the bracelet on the foot of a woman that was hanging the laundry in the sun. It was of immaculate whiteness. Inside her washbasin full of clothes, the water is crystal clear. She smiles to me and blushes. She snorts, and starts to sing while squeezing the water out of another sheet that has been washed in Ganges.

In front of us, an empty building grows tall, with heaps of wood around it. The boy you were talking to says it’s a hospice. We enter awkwardly. My stomach starts writhing, I have to eat something!

Two old ladies lay crouched in a corner. I pass them by and stare at the empty chambers. I can almost feel the death that lives in the walls. I feel the sickness hovering heavy in the air. There’s no trace of life, only some newspapers spread out, a straw mat, and some blackish stains.

I descend with trembling knees. At the entrance, I’m obstructed by a man, who warns me that I’ve nothing to do here and that it would be better if I got out of here. Behind me, you and Alan are clinging to the walls.

The next day, I left you inside the room. I brought some bread, two bottles of water, and a bowl of rice from the restaurant.

Together with the rest of the Europeans, I’ve defied the heat of the sun and the reek of the burnt. We arrived at the hospice once again, we climbed to the top. Behind the heap of lumber, was actually the crematorium.

On three levels, on Ganga’s shore, heaps of lumber were burning. The sizzle of a hill catches my attention.

A hand was flowing out of the flame of the fire.

I was struck with a thunder.

There wasn’t much space between the hillocks of wood.

While one of them was burning, the other was coming. Wrapped in white when male, wrapped in red when female. At their throats, their families hanged garlands of flowers and jewels. The bodies were tossed into the fire at once with essential oils and ghee (rice that has been boiled with butter).

In Hindu faith, the bodies are burned because that’s how the soul can exit the body quicker. In Bhagavad Gita, it is said that the soul is a spirit that cannot be pierced by sword, cannot burn, cannot get wet and cannot get dry.

Three men carry a body in their arms. It’s small and bent, clothed in red. On the shores of Ganges, they lay her down gently, and wash her through the cloth. Their lips are murmuring in song. They raise her in their arms, and then put her on top of the heap of lumber. The fire rises in shades of purple. Around it, three men sit.

On my way towards the hotel, towards you, my knees start shaking. I’ve only just realised what I’ve seen. I feel pins and needles all over my arms and back. My stomach sticks to my first ribs. My forehead and my hands are sweating. I feel myself getting dizzy.

The evening ceremonies begin in the distance.

“Two days have passed. Now my knees awake. Now I can eat, now I can rest on the edge of my reddened elbows. I smoke their ashes. I breathed their smoke of lead. I drank the Ganga, with thirst, with thirst.”

For two days you had been laying in sickness. I, for one more.

Death and life had circled me in dreams.

I had sweated with cold and heat at the same time.

My stomach hadn’t resisted the images. I feel small.

Life and death are pulling to the synapses of my mind.

Om/ Namo/ Bhagavate/ Vasudevaya.

Ganga hits my window sill. Shiva’s Mantra shook the sky.

– I thank you for the bread, but I can’t eat it now.

– C`mon, please eat something. Look what I’ve gotten myself today.

You toss a necklace with 108 beads onto the bed.

– I’ve also been on Ganges with a boat.

– Wow. How nice.

– Come on, we’ve got to leave. We’d said only two days in this city. Alan is leaving tomorrow morning.

“Through the living fire of Shiva, death begins. Through the dead stillness of the Ganga life starts. We are the travelers that step over their dead feet. And they are the dead that I breathe. Night or day. Day and night.”

People die. They are born. They live. Day and night.

The Ganges stays with them. It soothes their pain, it washes their clothes.

I couldn’t have said it better than you did, my dear.

My mind was finding it difficult to perceive death. However, my soul already knows everything it needs to know. I’m remembering it.

My body is but my house for now. My heart is the one that carries me. And I put my trust into it because it’s mine.

Being accustomed to the fear of death, when I looked it in the eyes, it was hollowed of its meaning.

The petals of the flowers on the shores of Ganges remind me of a body.

With a knot twisted in my stomach, I set out among the sizzling bodies.

The sensations have shattered in thousands of flames. The scent of spices has stupefied my brain.

In spite of all these, I picked up the bottom of my colorful dress, and barefooted I stepped through the ashes that have been spread by the wind.

I passed by her, I got wind of her and I let her pass by me, through me.

 

Om shanti shanti shanti

 

written by atthara

translated by lenorah

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