I just left India. At four months, it’s the most time I’ve been in a country outside of the US. So how to approach leaving? Because I’m nominally pursuing a “journey of self-discovery,” rather than just bumming around, I tend to think of my year in thematic chunks. Ireland offered a historio-philosophical framework, the Netherlands the position of medical autonomy within a political framework, France and Italy the tension between the macabre and the divine.
So where does India sit? There’s a terrible temptation to lean on clichés: A land of contradictions, “overwhelming.” I’m not averse to a good cliché, and they capture something of my time, but they recreate an exotic otherness. Indian friends who have lived in the US have also found it overwhelming and contradictory. Probably most places are if you don’t know the implicit rules. Strangeness is a universal cultural trait.
But in exploring India, I’m inevitably a part of and pushing against a legacy and present of Western imagination, from the boy’s adventure exoticness of Kipling’s Kim to bad Coldplay music videos. In particular, my focus on death and dying brought me into contact with the Western tourist on a spiritual quest. Often dreadlocked and hennaed to the gills, they talk about Eastern spirituality’s acceptance and openness in opposition to the West’s cloistered Christianity. When I would introduce my project, they exclaimed about how comfortable Indians are with death, or more broadly, with accepting life as it is.
Studying death for year means examining how we incorporate the inevitable end of life into our day to day. So despite my distaste for this orientalist attitude, I had to see where it comes from, what it might mean.
The men on the ghats in Varanasi offered one vision.1 One 24-year old guy attended school until he was 12, when his mother died. He left his village, down a way on the west side of the Ganga, to work odd jobs on the ghats, paying his sisters’ dowries and caring for his brothers. He had a sense of fatalism. Along for the ride.
I pushed him a bit, asking him his dreams. “To make people better off,” he says, but then acknowledges his plan is to keep on keeping on. One of the employees at my guest house, Manoj, had a similar attitude. You don’t know what’s going to happen next, so take your money and spend it. Maybe there’s a next life, but you won’t get this one again. For both of these men, and for other guys on the Ghats, this was the life they had, so be it.2
But does this have some grounding in Hindu orthodoxy? Well, it depends, A guru who founded the Kautilya Society in Varanasi, Om, seemed to offer contradictory messages. The intentions behind our actions matter, our minds rightly construed affect the universe, but at the same time karma, in the sense of a divine interplay of action and reaction across our lives, is a convenient fiction. A child that dies from fever isn’t paying for a past life, he says, it’s dying from a fever.3
While I was at the Meenakshi Ashram in Madurai, the Swami offered a variation on the same theme. He described the Hindu ideal as that of a grandparent with their grandchild. They play with the child’s toys for the delight, but not with the expectation of a result. A good life, then, is in line with the men on the ghats. Live life, take pleasure in the experience, don’t expect anything. It’s an interesting contrast with Christianity’s personal God, invested in your decisions, commanding that you reshape rather than inhabit the world.
But Om and Swami-ji’s theory felt contradicted by the daily practices I saw on the streets. People stop in at temples to ask for intercession on all sorts of things. Sick people try prayer alongside antibiotics, and every morning I saw shopkeepers burning incense and offering prayers. So maybe for a spiritual figure, someone who seeks to separate themselves from worldly concerns, this observational and dispassionate approach works. But at the ashram, Swami-ji would go to Temple and participate in these rituals, and Om certainly seemed invested in the Kautilya Society’s work of preserving the ghats.
Om told me that where the the West wants to understand, India wants to experience. I’m a part of this paradigm. Trying to tease apart a holistic experience, find contradictions in life philosophies that were never meant to mimic an academic article. So what if I can’t capture the deeper meaning inside some essay. I should let it escape my grasp, let go, just sense. Perceive, don’t understand.
Part of the challenge was my frustration with the repetitiveness of my exploration. Conversations about my Watson project fell into a groove, with people asking me the same questions, or telling me the same phrase about learning to accept death. I wanted to seek out a conclusion so I could say something satisfying in response, something that moves us out of platitudes and sentimentality. It’s not a helpful way of approaching conversations, hinging on offering rather than receiving.
So to shake myself out of my funk, I embodied one more traveler stereotype and took a trip to the Himalayas in search of myself. I needed to do something different, take a break charting my own way and instead follow a set path. And I’ll be damned if it doesn’t kind of work. Leaving the chaos and human noise and cabs of cities for long, linear, strenuous mountain walks for hours every day, I’m able to just be, to stop trying to think about how I’m supposed to think about what I’m thinking about.
I woke up one misty morning in Chopta and crawl out of my tent. The sun hadn’t risen, but the clouds refracted the light out from below the horizon. I sat on a rock to finish a novel I was given at the start of this trip, way back in July: They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell.4
Set during the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1917, it follows a family in the lead up to and aftermath of the death of its matriarch, Elizabeth. After her death, her husband, James, a kind man who is at a loss of how to raise his children, is devastated, wandering sleepless for days. He plans to sell his house, let his son’s be raised by their Aunt. His life, it seems, has ended with his wife’s. But one night, he wanders out into the snow, lost in his thoughts about what it all means:
“’But to what purpose?’ he said aloud, and hearing the words, he lost their meaning and all connection with what had gone before. He knew only that there was frozen ground under his feet, and that the trees he saw were real and he could by moving out his path touch them. The snow dropping out of the sky did not turn when he turned or make any concession to his needs, but only to his existence. The snow fell on his shoulders and on the brim of his hat and it stayed there and melted…And knew suddenly that it was all a mistake…everything he had done and thought this day. He was alive, that was the trouble. He was caught up in his own living and breathing and there was no way possible for him to get out.”
It clicked then, and it clicked with things I had been told but hadn’t heard. My friend Nehmat recently lost her grandfather. Her family is Sikh and shares the cremation tradition. She told me about the visceral experience of setting fire to a loved one:
“…there’s just something so counter-intuitive and supremely uncomfortable about setting a person on fire. And the son of the deceased person has to do it. So I’ve watched my father pour ghee [clarified butter] over the funeral pyre and then take a stick with one end burning and light the wood/actual head of his parent…And at that point, you’re not dealing with a person anymore – the body of this human being that you love necessarily has to turn into an object in your mind for it to be somehow acceptable that it is burning in front of you. The smell is the other thing because the smell of burning ghee is also linked to cooking food, often comfort food, and all of that associational stuff gets very fucked up….The ritual is that family members go to collect the ashes the following morning. In the Sikh tradition, you’re supposed to pick the bones from the ashes and then take those to the river to immerse. I felt weird and sick looking at what was left of this whole entire person. But at the same time, it’s hard to visually connect a pile of ash to a human being, even though I know that that’s exactly what it is.”
Or this other passage from Amitava Kumar’s piece on returning home to India after his mother’s death:
“I thought of the priest telling me each time I completed a circle around the pyre that I was to put the fire into my mother’s mouth. I didn’t, or couldn’t. It wasn’t so much that I found it odd or appalling that such a custom should exist; instead, I remember being startled that no one had cared to warn me about it. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been. Death provided a normalizing context for everything that was being done. No act appeared outlandish because it had a place in the tradition, each Sanskrit verse carrying an intonation of centuries of practice. And if there was any doubt about the efficacy of sacred rituals, everywhere around us banal homilies were being offered to make death appear less strange or devastating. The bhajan that had been playing on the loudspeaker all afternoon was in praise of fire. Death, you think you have defeated us, but we sing the song of burning firewood. Even though it was tuneless, and even tasteless, the song turned cremation into a somewhat celebratory act. It struck me that the music disavowed its own macabre nature and made everything acceptable. And now, as the fire burned lower and there was visibly less to burn, I saw that everyone, myself included, had momentarily returned to a sense of the ordinary.”
This is acceptance of death stripped of cliché. The relief it brings in companionship with a deep heartache. It’s an acknowledgment of James’s revelation “ neither he nor anyone else had known that his life was going to be like this” or in Leonard Cohen’s darker mirror:
My fallen star
I guess you’re right
You always are
I know you’re right
About the blues
You live some life
You’d never choose”
1. A methodological note: In India, conversations with strangers are a constant. I sat with a friend in an outdoor cafe who started a ten minute, fairly intimate sounding conversation in Hindi with a passerby. After the interloper left, my friend said to me “Would you believe I have no idea who that is?”
So in some ways, conducting the informal interviews that are the bread and butter are the Watson are a breeze here. But asymmetries of wealth and perceived role shape everything. When I sat on the Varanasi ghats, my pasty pallor constantly pulls in young men. All of them have multiple hustles: Local tour guides, boat pilots, commissions from saree shops. Add in the language barrier, and our casual conversation becomes an exercise in repetition. It’s (almost) always friendly, a no taken almost as a given, but it isn’t really moving my project forward.↩
2. I need to avoid pulling a Thomas Friedman here, extrapolating to a society based on a conversation with a cabbie. These are just a few guys, giving me their take. That’s valuable! They’re a part of this place, what they have to say reflects some of it. But it’s not representative or academically rigorous. It’s just what I took away from a conversation, or an image that stuck in my mind, rather than a take on “Indian society.” As though a country of a billion people with a 7000 year history and 22 officially recognized languages (and hundreds of local variations) could be described meaningfully by some 23-year old from Wisconsin after four months. ↩
3. This is not the dominant viewpoint on karma, though it’s hard to say if there is a dominant view on karma. But in general, the notion of karma as physical accumulation of sin or blessing is wrongly put onto Hinduism. For Jain’s, karma is a physical object that a righteously spent life is spent reducing, while in Hinduisim it’s better thought of as a verb, the universe’s swing between action and reaction. ↩
4. Spoiler alert, I guess, though the work of the book isn’t in its twisty plotting. ↩