Minority Report | Last rights


Minority Report | Last rights

It is 9.20pm on Saturday night and we are at Manikarnika ghat in Varanasi. Many children would be either glued to TV at this hour or tucking into a special Saturday night meal but this boy, who looks barely 10 years old, holds a bunch of lighted incense sticks and chants “Ram naam satya hai”. It is a Hindu incantation uttered by pallbearers who accompany dead bodies to the pyre. This is no time in the night for two women to be out at Asia’s biggest cremation ground, I say to Mint photographer Priyanka Parashar, who is clicking away earnestly. We had followed an arrow saying Night Café but couldn’t locate it the dark. No other women are in sight as funeral processions keep coming down the congested lanes. In the daytime, women of the neighbourhood go about their daily routines unaffected by cremation activities but not at night. It’s a humid July evening and the narrow lanes littered with garbage are poorly lit. Given the heavy rainfall and rising water levels, funerals have been moved up to an elevated platform instead of the banks of the Ganga.

As the smoke from pyres mixes with the stench of bodies and the fragrance of rose and marigold garlands, incense sticks and the sharply smelling camphor, my colleague Parashar and this little boy both become minority report subjects. What are they doing here? Parashar follows an out-of-work boatman (the government has forbidden boating due to dangerous water levels) who leads her to the half-submerged river bank for a photographic view. I try to disappear into the shadows when this boy smiles at me. He is a cute, plump kid in a pair of checked shorts and a white vest. He is barefoot and shirtless.

His chubby face displayed a battlefield of emotions as he chanted loudly and I wondered how he was related to the dead person. It turned out that he was standing outside his house in the lane when this body was brought down and someone asked him to hold the incense sticks. The electricity was out, he said, and he couldn’t watch TV or do homework so he willingly pitched in. For this class VI student of a Hindi medium government school, this funeral dance then was Saturday night entertainment.

His expressive face gave away his upbringing, which urges him to do “good karma”. Assisting in the Manikarnika cremations is a pious activity and local families often encourage boys (never girls) to do their bit. Didn’t the funeral rituals scare him, I asked, and he shook his head. He enjoyed the frenzy that accompanied the processions and felt at home.

Funerals in Varanasi are hardly solemn. If the dead person is a woman whose husband is still alive, the bier is decorated like a bridal palanquin. Beating drums and celebrating pall-bearers accompany the body of those who die after turning 90 for a life well lived.

Bodies are brought from all over India and cremations take place day and night throughout the year assisted by different groups of priests—often pushy men prompted by commercial instincts. From travel stories to photographic explorations and YouTube videos, plenty has been said about the myth and history of this ghat, where, by legend, last rites ensure a final exit from the cycle of birth and death.

Even though death rites are trumped into a visual fanfare, the sheer frequency of cremations and death rites as means of livelihood for a number of locals make even children, like this boy, fatalistic in attitude. He seemed accepting of this morbid reality and didn’t flinch.

Every person we met in Varanasi over three days of our work, expressed disgruntlement with the Akhilesh Yadav state government. Father-son duo Hafeez, 45, and Arif Mohammed, 17, both auto rickshaw drivers, told us of the injustices they face as the working class. Varanasi, which wheezes under the civic burden of teeming religious tourists and curious foreigners, can easily be dubbed the filth capital of Uttar Pradesh, which voted Yadav to power in 2012.

Besides the shockingly poor hygiene, most roads are ruptured, making local travel a nightmare, streets burst with jostling crowds, armed policemen stationed outside temples on the holy Dasaswamedh ghat look exhausted. The traffic police are often bribed by auto drivers to get into roads marked “No Entry”. Despite this, there is a sense of what can best be termed as “karmic acceptance” among the locals.

This implausible acceptance of life as a karmic gift or resignation to fate is also one of the reasons why millions of Indians accept shabby treatment from their political leaders, putting one corrupt and callous politician after another into the driving seat.

What do you want to do when you grow up? I asked our little friend before he disappeared into the crowd. “I want to become a priest and bless everyone, good or bad,” he says. I couldn’t help hitting my forehead, which made him laugh.