Shivers in the Sunlight

Written in 2012 during a workshop, but the suggestion was not recorded at the time.

by Nanneke van Drunen

Another drop of sweat runs from his black curly hair into his neck. He is sweating because of me. Because this white ‘lady’ is too lazy to walk a couple of miles in this burning heat. He hits the break of his colorful rickshaw in an attempt to avoid bumping into a holy cow that is crossing the street. He turns around and shows me his toothless smile. “You okay, lady?”I don’t know what to say. Yes, I’m okay and no, I am most definitely not okay! But how can I explain this to a man who knows no better? Who grew up in the crowded, noisy, busy and filthy streets of Varanasi. To whom the river I just saw and the rituals I witnessed are holy and part of everyday life. While the sun is burning, shivers run down my spine. I guess I wasn’t really prepared for what that holy river would do to me.

Standing at the side of the river I watched women doing laundry while a sādhu mumbled a prayer on my left. On my right men were burying a male family member who was wrapped in golden colored sheets. They honored him by singing mantras and pouring Ganges water into his mouth. Two logs were placed on his body. And while the men walked five times around the body the logs were set on fire. This much I could handle. In Europe we cremate people as well, although we do it indoors and the burning of the body isn’t visible.

What happened next is settled in my soul forever. While I was standing there a man walked to the river. In his arms he carried a child’s body wrapped in white colored sheets. He tied a wooden board to the body and aggravated it with stones. The man stepped into a boat which was brought upstream. He kissed his hand, pressed it on the child’s forehead and lowered the tiny body into the river.

Goosebumps. Tears. I felt like an intruder watching this father saying forever goodbyes to his son or daughter. This was too much for me. I had to get away from this place. Find a peaceful spot where I could process what I just saw. I ran back to the main street and found ten rickshaw drivers. They all wanted to take me back to my hotel. I climbed into the first one I saw and didn’t even negotiate about the price. All that effort for five euro cents? Why bother?

“You okay, lady?” the rickshaw driver asks me again, while he looks at me with worried eyes. “No, I’m not, but I will be!”

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