Overheated flaming pyres of the burning dead,
partially shields my sight of river Ganges —
its fast muddy currents eddying the floating lamps,
remains of corpses, flesh-bone ash.
At Manikarnika Ghat, a mixture of sanctity and stench
rises from silted sands and wooden armatures —
fire-aided decomposition of human flesh —
the offerings swiftly lapped up by roaming animals.
An emaciated sadhu with wild-knotted dreadlocks,
perched precariously on a bamboo frame
on the edge of the river,
dreams of alms that might come his way,
even at this late hour.
Presiding priests, feed ritual ghee
to the burning wood-and-dead —
its flames forming huge flares,
fragmented waves of golden-amber spark,
electrifying helical fire-flurries —
a living, crematorium drama.
A young boy scratches his newly-shaven head,
a pot-bellied man immerses himself in the river,
stray dogs bark, cows groan, loudspeakers bray.
Gandhi’s posters ghat-side walls preach peace, non-violence.
Amid so much noise,
the business of death being transacted
carries on, without any emotion or fuss.
Saffron-robed men on ghat-steps
sit in yoga postures, praying —
a silent quest —
what does prayer amid all this din and commerce
get you anyway?
Medley of bells, conch, chant, fire, water, boat, people
ceases to be a cacophony after a few hours —
variant decibels melding into a drone, a trance —
where the only balance that exists,
is in our minds.
Bare-headed, bare-bodied young men,
draped in swathes of pure cotton,
foreheads smeared in sandalwood and vermillion
carrying ash-filled earthen pots —
walk past me towards the river-edge,
eldest sons performing last rites for their dead.
White-clad teachers squatting cross-legged on the ghat
under large circular cane-parasols
impart teachings from the Upanishads and Vedas
to young priests-in-the-making.
hang on long bamboo poles curving skywards —
homage to the memory of martyrs —
guiding light for heavenly apsaras
descending during the Kartik month to bathe in Kashi —
as oil-soaked wicks flickering on beds of rose petal, sail
catching the waves’ moods.
In the super-heated pyre, I hear another ritual pot break,
another skull crack, another soul take flight.
I see some shore-temples slow-sink
into the swallowing river —
effects of unpredictable tides and climate change
taking with them, both the mortal and the immortal —
Holocene’s carbon-footprint — its death text, unceasing.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust —
water to heavy water, life to after-life.
Translated to Persian from English by Rosa Jamali.