Varanasi is considered to be a holy city, rendered by the River Ganges and the burning ghat where bodies are cremated. It is believed that when cremated here, your soul will move onward without suffering. People come from all over India to die here, to be cremated, or to have their ashes spread.
One afternoon, I was at a dosa shop, when I suddenly heard male chanting getting louder. I saw a group of men coming towards us holding a body above their heads on a stretcher. They were taking it down to the river for cremation.
This is a common sight in Varanasi. Everyone in the street dutifully moved aside to allow them to pass through the narrow alley. As they approached, I could see that the body was uncovered, and so I braced myself. The men were chanting with forceful energy, almost sounding aggressively protective. As they passed in front of me, I saw the body of a young girl, aged between thirteen and fifteen. Her skin was perfectly coloured. She looked asleep. Her head bopped up and down as the men marched onward with her. Her lack of reaction was the only certain sign of her not being alive. Following the body, I could see her father sobbing and being held up by other men as another rush of people followed in support.
The dosa maker’s face betrayed his thoughts; he too was shocked. He knew the father who lived up the road. A few days ago, the girl was dancing during the Holi festival in the streets. For a few moments, we stood in solidarity, sharing unspoken sadness at what we had just witnessed. He continued cooking his dosas for his customers. When it came to leave, he said, “Sometimes, I think God is also human. He makes mistakes too.”
I understood. “Because He’s taken a young life?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied. “When I saw her body, so young, it reminded me of my niece who died at four years of age.”
The image of the girl’s beautiful face, knowing she was to be burned, remained in my head all day. Her father’s sobs rang in my ears.
Image: Dosa maker. Image from Flickr.com, photo credits to Manfred Sommer.
Later that day, I felt compelled to visit my young friends who had a mehendi (henna) shop. They’re three sisters and three brothers living with their parents above their shop. When I arrived, they offered me sweets and chai, and put red powder colour on my forehead in honour of Holi festival. As Sandhya designed my hand in henna, I asked her about the young girl I saw, whom she knew. She had lived close by to them. She was playing badminton on the roof, fell down, and died after two days in hospital.
I thought of my friend in Malta who had passed away after a motorcycle accident. I thought of the heartbreak her family went and still go through. No parent should have to bury their child. I then forced myself to be honest about my inner prejudices and the commonality in humans. Did I expect parents in India to react any differently to parents in Malta? Did I expect them to accept the death of their child more readily because it was more common here?
I continued to speak with Sandhya. The eldest of the three sisters, she was soon to start college and continue her studies. She asked me if I had a boyfriend and I said no, explaining that relationships in my country don’t always lead to marriage, and that sometimes they fail and a new relationship with someone else can start. Sandhya said this wouldn’t be accepted in India. She said that she’s expected to marry into her caste and her maternal uncle would not accept otherwise. She explained that her uncle was a strict man and she laughed saying he’d get violent if she defied him. She also said that there was a boy she liked who bought flowers from her shop every day, but he wasn’t from her caste. Her uncle was looking for someone for her to marry, as she was eighteen now.
Image from Flickr.com, photo credits to fredcan.
I remained quiet for a while, taking in what she’d just said. I was searching for the best thing to say, thinking of a way out for her. Not-so-subtly, I asked, “When your uncle dies, would your parents accept you to marry out of your caste?”
She made me repeat the question thrice; perhaps she couldn’t believe I was speaking about her uncle dying as a solution to her problem. I realised that it might not have been the most diplomatic thing to say, but I took the risk. Her voice softened and she whispered, “No, I don’t want my uncle to die. My uncle saved my life – two times I was very sick, my parents have no money and my uncle paid for my cure. He takes care of us. My parents also respect him. I don’t want him to die.”
“You love him,” I said.
“Yes, I love him. I will do as he asks because he helps us a lot.”
I immediately felt like rubbish for suggesting that the death of her family member would solve her problems. Did I expect her not to love her uncle just because he was traditional, doing what he believes is best for her? Did I expect her to want a way out, that she was trapped?
Situations aren’t so straightforward as we would think in the West, with our independent “no one tells me what to do” mindset. Was it wrong for her to wish to honour her uncle to whom she owed her life? Without him, her family would suffer. Her uncle didn’t have to help them, but he did so because he cared. It’s easy to demonise him, especially when knowing that he can be violent. It’s easy for us to reason that she shouldn’t owe him, as his generosity has been voluntary. Hearing her speak, it was clear that she felt care towards him and a moral obligation to follow the tradition she was raised in. I started to think that perhaps it’s a beautiful thing to be dedicated to your family, their wishes, to tradition and to appreciate so deeply the help you receive from them.
Image from Flickr.com, photo credits to oochappan
It seems that in our Western world, the words ‘tradition’ and ‘obligation’ make us recoil and rebel. Our society is so individualistic, that seeing the opposite from a fresher perspective challenged me to appreciate it and acknowledge the positive aspects that are lacking in my own culture.
I thought of the young girl who passed away and then of Sandhya. I thought of how common human feelings are; the father who weeps for his child, the young girl who loves her family. What made me expect any different? While there are a million differences in culture and even in mindset at times, feelings are the same. Feelings of loss, feelings of duty, feelings of appreciation, feelings of love towards family… We’re all united in a common pool of human emotions.
This is what I love about India. Emotions are raw and open and there for you to feel. There’s no protective layer. Life’s in your face. Death, joy, celebration… they feel it all, they express it all and they live peacefully and respectfully together in their differences with the understanding that they’re all the same – human, feeling and loving.