In middle school my class took a field trip to a sewage treatment plant. It used a chemical-free purification method. My memory of this is unreliable and immaterial, but I think it was called "aeration." At any rate, our class gathered around a pool of aerating sewage. It appeared to be boiling. I would say this pool was 75 feet in diameter. I think our guide told us it was 40 feet deep. The water was brown, but the individual turds were white. They were mid-treatment. What haunted me most was what the guide told us casually, that the aeration was so great, if a person were to fall into the pool, he would not float. He would plummet to the very bottom, and drown.
Somehow, I imagined the Ganges to be a bit like this, with the addition of floating corpses, crocodiles, and pundits who thought it would be better if I'd leave. I also had heard--and please let me be a bit imprecise--that a bath in the Ganges could, according to Hindu belief, purify hundreds of lifetimes of bad karma.
I am a Buddhist. Clancy often says he suspects writers attract stories. I tell him I disagree, that I think perhaps maybe writers--being anxious watchers--are just a bit more aware of the insanity of this life. I say this because my Buddhist teacher, my guru, does--I think--attract stories.
He once was on a domestic flight in India. It was him, his friend, and two hundred hijaras. A hijra, if you do not know, is an Indian hermaphrodite. Hijras in India dress as women, generally, and--if I may speak from my received ignorant opinion--are flamboyant, something like transsexuals in New York. In India, they are considered the most unlucky, the most inauspicious, the most dirty things alive. A black cat of the seventh magnitude. This is not a view, of course, held by all Indians. It is not a view held by my guru. It is a generalization.
The flight, again, was my guru, his friend, and 200 hijras. To hear him tell it they were running wild. Racing up and down the aisles, yelling to one another, gossiping, flashing.
My guru turned to one of them and said what is, to me, one of the greatest lines ever spoken.
"Hey, where are you guys going?"
They explained they were being flown to the capital for an extremely important inauguration of a treatise ratified by the Indian parliament, or something like that. It was something a bit like the inauguration of a president, and they were being flown there because--as the dirtiest things--they were, according to irresistible Indian logic, the most lucky and most auspicious, and therefore required for the ceremony.
My point is: lo and behold, contrary to expectation and popular wisdom, at least to the naked eye, the Ganges is clean! Yes it is full of E. coli, and all manner of diseases and choleras may await me--i just left bathing and swimming in it a few hours ago--but to look at it...is to see something holy. And the angry pundits I had imagined? Not at all. When we got out of the water, two caught our attention and said, "Smart, smart. Very lucky."
The steps leading down to the Ganges in Varanasi are called ghat. During tourist season, or later in the day, they would be very crowded, but it was early, and with temperatures around 106 degrees, it is not tourist season. Our guide Prakesh selected a boat for us. He took us on a boat tour of the city. All of the buildings, he asked us to notice, had no lower floors. This, he explained, was because of the height the Ganges reaches during monsoon. He pointed to a yellow line on the side of a Bihari palace, built when Bihar had another name. I would guess it was 50 feet up the side of the building. He explained it was the height the Ganges reached in 1978.
It is because of this yearly swelling, Prakesh explained, that only one side of the Ganges is built up--with ghat (steps, like those at a stadium, or approaching the Lincoln Monument), and old palaces from lost eras, and shops in winding alleys. Clancy kept saying, as we went down the steps, as we crossed to the sandy bank, as we walked the winding alleys looking for a small temple to Ganesh, "This is the most beautiful city I have ever seen."
We did not bathe on the ghat side, but opposite, on the banks. This on the advice of Prakesh. I wore a swimsuit, a T-shirt, and a pair of Clancy's boxer shorts. I had seen an old woman bathing naked on the opposite bank and considered doing the same. Clancy said--for once, the voice of reason--"Amie. You are not old. You are not Indian. It's not the same." (In India, Clancy has taken to scolding me quite a lot.) Later, Prakesh showed us women closer to our age bathing in the waters. They wore full saris.
Clancy wore boxer shorts. We waded in. The water was cool. We stopped, and Prakesh took a couple snaps.
Then Clancy broke free. He swam out into the water, taking long strokes, and I followed.
"You dipped your head," I said.
I took my hair down and dipped mine. We swam alongside each other, and a funny thing happened. We became happy. Maybe as happy as we have ever been.
"Kiss me," Clancy said. He was laughing.
"No," I said, because I have a cold sore, from all of the exhaustion of our traveling.
He tried to steal a kiss and I swam away. He swam after. Somehow, for us, this seemed to be the most delightful thing that had ever happened.
"Kiss me in the Ganges," he said, "This is our only chance."
I said no, and he took my head and kissed my mouth.
Previously - Dirty Water Dogs