The river Ganga seethes with ashes. We shove our elbows into each other’s sides, muscle our way in to look. The bodies of our grandmothers and grandfathers burn on the cremation ghats. We watch them become less like bodies and more like a collection of burning fabric and bone marrow and veins turning into ash.
We collect the ashes into the kalash, and then we say a quick prayer and leave the kalash with the purohit. We wonder if the ashes carry the sickness inside them, or if the sickness has separated from their bodies, and in that moment, we imagine the sickness itself as a body, vulnerable and tender. After a few days, the purohit hurls the ashes in.
The ashes dissolve into the river, mixing, impossible to separate again. This makes it harder for us. We cannot point to a congealed lump of ashes and say, Here is Patti who cooked the best idlis in the world and here is Ushana who made all those beautiful paintings and here is Smruti who is a very fast runner and beat all of us in the one hundred meter dash and here is Pooja who hated us, maybe, and here is our uncle Jaya who, when we told him we were going to be famous singers one day, laughed so hard his fingernails fell off. We still keep the fingernails in tiny urns on our desks.
All these people and no way to tell them apart. We know their names, but the river doesn’t.
When we are sick, we come to the river Ganga begging it to heal us. The heat pares us down, reduces us to thirst and burning. Some of us bring wounded limbs or injuries, inherited through our bloodline or self-induced by our stupidity. Others bring the sickness, arms spangled with mosquito bites.
The smell of scorched hair hovers over Varanasi. The clang of bells. Merchants hawking remedies too expensive for us to buy. Orange embers from the ghats land in our hair and remind us how close we are to burning.
Our proximity to dead bodies makes us nervous. But despite this, the Ganga is a healing river, and there is nothing we need more than to be healed. We anoint our foreheads with ceremonial white ash and bathe in the river. The ashes seep from our hairlines and pool in our collarbones.
Nalini breaks off from us and runs to the river bend. She stoops to cup a section of the river in her hands and her great grandfather passes through her fingers.
There are so many memories we steal from Varanasi. The sweet dahi vada we gnaw between our teeth. People asking for money so their families can cremate them when they are dead. A woman crying as the sunlight strikes her face, sculpting her into something raw. Ashes fall into the river and the water reaches up to touch them.
In the years following the sickness, we learn who the river has chosen to save and who it has forsaken. Swati dies. None of us knew her very well, but we knew she mostly liked to eat food that was colored white. So, we burn white food along with her.
We are scared to scatter her ashes into the river. What if the ashes are still Swati? What if she is still lodged in them, unable to get out?
Kavya tells the rest of us we are wasting time, so we throw Swati into the river anyway. Her ashes mingle with everyone who came before us and everyone who will come after us. Swati’s white food mixing with Pooja’s maybe-hatred mixing with Patti’s love mixing with Smruti’s mile time mixing with Jaya’s laughter.
Nalini looks for animals in the Ganges. The softshell turtle, the river dolphin, the otter. But they will not come near the crush of visitors. We don’t tell Nalini this, so we can watch her try and fail to find them.
She mistakes a passing boat for the back of a dolphin and jumps into the river. We laugh at all of her pouring forward. Nalini struggles and screams, thrashing in the water.
There is a moment where no one knows what to do. Do we jump in and risk ourselves? The boat’s propeller could pull us under, add us to the tally of ghosts in this river. Or do we let her go?
Then Kavya jumps in, swimming towards Nalini, and it would look bad if we didn’t jump in, too. So we all swim to her and pull Nalini to the shore. The boat misses us by a few feet.
Exhilarated by the rush of almost dying, we make promises we can’t keep. We tell each other: we’ll do anything for you, we’ll die for you, we’ll bail you out of jail, we’ll donate our kidneys if you ever need one, just tell us what you need.
We know we’re being stupid, but it’s okay to be stupid. We think we have time.
But we grow up, finish school, get married. For some of us, our husbands die, and we break our bangles, don the white clothes of widows, and migrate to settlements.
For others, we are frustrated because either our husbands won’t die, or our future children won’t be born, and nothing seems to change.
We move away from Varanasi. The population of river dolphins dries up. Gharials are endangered. We read about bombings and shootings and stabbings in the paper, and pour tea for ourselves to drink in the afternoon.
It is only sometimes when the sunlight glints scarlet against the waves or our bodies flush with desire or we touch the fuzzy heads of our children that we think: we are lucky to be alive. Lucky to not be particles in the river right now. Who would ever want to leave?
Nalini is run over by a rickshaw two blocks away from where we live. When she calls out for help, only the rickshaw driver hears her, and he doesn’t stop. She bleeds to death in the street. Her kidneys are ruined.
Nalini’s family does not have enough money to do a full funeral ceremony, but they do everything else right: pray over the body, cremate her, scatter her remains at the sangam where the three rivers meet. Sacrifice a husked coconut, milk, some rice, a garland of flowers.
After her death, the body that used to be Nalini exists amongst the softshell turtles and river otters and endangered gharials.
In some years our bodies will be ashes, and our children will celebrate our lives. They will feast on banana leaves and set our pictures on our verandas and eventually they will cremate us and throw us into the river.
We hope they will cry for us, at least a little. We want our families to grieve for the hundreds of generations that will forget us after we are gone. We hope their tears mix with our ashes, all of it ending up in the river.
When diseases and motorcycle accidents and electrocution finally shove us out of our bodies, we roam the earth for forty days. We can’t believe it is over. We want to haunt the people who killed us or the people who loved us, to terrify them equally, to make them realize we are still here.
But our families scatter our ashes in the river so we cannot return to what is left of us. Some of us grow vengeful. Our families aren’t grieving enough. Others want to save our children from a forest fire or to console our husbands or simply to die again, but with more sophistication.
When the hunt for our ashes exhausts us, we recall the feeling of the cool river against our face, on that day we almost drowned with Nalini. We return to the river. Pollution has darkened the waters. We sift through the water, but we can’t find any trace of our old bodies. Everything that we were is gone, dissolved, so we sink to the riverbed and surrender to a glacial quiet.
We are born two weeks early, seven weeks late, in rickshaws, during stormy nights, in the sunlight, in a horse stable, on the terrace of an apartment building.
Our parents take us to the river Ganga to name us. Around us, the night eddies and aches with the sound of language we cannot yet untangle. We drink in everything with our newborn eyes and immediately forget all of it. The ice-cold water rushes towards our faces. Our eyes sting with the salty water. We scream and thrash to get away from it. But we cannot escape.
We want the water to leave our eyes, but our parents lift us and dunk us again in the river. We make underwater sounds but they come out as bubbles, so we watch our voices lift up and up until they break against the river’s surface.