Sunday, August 25, 2013

THE MEANING OF PURE by Peter Nolan Smith

In the summer of 1995 my baby brother died of AIDS. I sought solace for Michael's soul the Orient seeking solace for Michael's soul by visiting the holy sites of Asia. I lit candles before the Buddha in Chiang Mai. I circumnavigated Lhasa's Jokhang Temple. Despite a lifelong disbelief in religion this pilgrimage comforted my sense of loss. In November I crossed the Himalayas to fly south to Varanasi on the Ganges.

I booked a hotel room up the river from the burning ghats. Backpackers smoked ganga on the terrace. A sitarists at a nearby ashram played a raja throughout the starry evening.

In the steepening disk I wandered to the smoldering crematory pyres. Untouchables gathered bones and dumped charred remains into the Mother of India.

My brother had been buried in a grave outside of Boston.

Here life ended in ashes not dust to dust.

In the morning I ate a khichri of rice, lentils, and spices. The tea was sweet. The water came from the holy river.

I returned to the ghats reading Hindu phrases from a travel guide.

The monsoon season was over and the faithful bathed in the low Ganges. Its waters washed away sins.

Scores of mourners stacked wood for the fiery funerals of their beloved ones.

There was little weeping.

My feet were muddy from the riverbank.

I decided to wash the mud off my feet and descended to the water's edge.

The ghat fell silent.

"Mistah." A young girl in a blue sari stood before me. "You have done a bad thing. The Ganges is sacred and washing your shoes is 'varjita'."

I read the meaning of 'varjita' in the circle of accusing eyes.

A hostile murmur replaced the stillness.

The mourners were on the verge of becoming a mob.

"Kheda." My earnest apology did not penetrate the anger.

"You have to leave." The young girl shouted to a passing boatman. "My uncle will take you to safety."

"Dhan'yavāda." I hopped in the rowboat and the man pulled on the oars.

His name was Ramsi.

"You are a very silly man." Ramsi rowed to the middle of the Ganges. My disgrace had been swallowed by a surge of arriving pilgrims.

"Yes, I am very silly," I explained how I had come to Varansi to purify my body.

"It is the best place in the world to cleanse away your sin, but not your shoes, sir." Ramsi motioned to a broad sand bar. "The water on the opposite shore is cleaner and private. You want to go there?"

"How much?"

"Pay me what you think is right, sir."

"Accha." I was okay with this deal, since he had saved me from possible harm on the ghats.

I took off my clothes and swam naked into the Ganges.

The water was fine and I got out to dry myself.

A vulture was fighting a dog for something lying half in the river.

It was a dead body.

Ramsi came up to me.

"The poor don't have enough money to burn the body. They give the body to the river. See that's a river dolphin joining them. He will help the dead man to nirvana."

A dolphin joined the two combatant in the menage a trois feast.

Back at the ghats I gave Ramsi $20.

"Oh, sir, you are too good. Tonight come to my house for dinner."

There was no saying no.

The backpackers at the hotel discussed the westerner who had washed his sandals at the ghat.

I didn't give them my version and I washed off the mud in my room.

That evening I met Ramsi and accompanied the boatman to his one-room house. His wife was dressed in her finery. The meal was vegetarian and the water was fresh from the Ganges.

"It is holy water. I have drank it all my life and have never been sick once."

"Saubh'gya." Good luck was always good luck no matter if offered by a sinner.

I drank it and felt pure.

I hoped that my brother Michael felt the same.

Our sacred river was the Saco. Only last summer its waters had washed over us. It had been pure too. And that night on the Ganges I went to sleep content. Somewhere in the Here-Before my brother was pure. In some ways I was too.

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