Pranyi had chased the fog across the whole of India.
Most people didn’t even notice the fog, it was barely distinguishable from the thick smog blanketing the densely populated Indian cities. Sometimes the wisps of fog reached through the sickly air. Pranyi liked to think the fog reached for her. Like a promise, waiting to be fulfilled.
That hopeful promise had brought her here, to Varanasi, to the place where the fog originated. It all started here, her long journey had led her to the source. From here, the fog spread all across India, maybe even the whole world. This was what Pranyi had been searching for, for most of her short life.
The fog was why the dogs barked, why the birds circled, why kites flew valiantly on the stillness in the air. The fog was why Varanasi was built here, and why it was the oldest city in the world. Pranyi was here now, sitting by the river, staring at the hundreds of kites flying through the air.
An orange and green kite slowly drifted up and away over the Ganges. Free from the string binding it to the earth, severed after losing a lengthy battle with a black kite a minute ago. Pranyi hadn’t been able to see the ones flying the kites from her seat on the steps leading up to Dashashwamedh ghat, but she’d observed the battle closely. The most skilled flyer had won, and his black kite was already engaged in a new battle. The losing kite waas been snatched up by the fog and disappeared from view.
Pranyi stood up and went for her daily walk. She loved walking around Varanasi; discovering new alleys, interesting buildings, and observing the many different people wandering the city. She’d dubbed Varanasi the ‘three-world city,’ because during her walks, that’s exactly what it felt like.
First, you had the Ganges river and the walkway running next to it, all along the city’s sizable length. The river was mighty, not in size but in presence. The most serene tranquility washed outward from its ever-calm waters, no matter the size or rowdiness of the crowd on its banks.
As Pranyi reached the top of the stairs and dove into the ghats – the second world, the world of alleys – she looked back at the sky and saw another defeated kite being snatched up by the fog. Or to be more precise, by something in the fog.
The third world, the world outside the alleys, held no interest to her. There was nothing special about it, nor anything different from life in other places. Noisy streets with shops, restaurants, and traffic. Just regular people and their regular things.
Rain had fallen for most of last night and the alleyways were covered with a thick slippery sludge of cow droppings. Dung was everywhere, every day, in Varanasi, but without the rain it was dry and caked. Hardly noticeable. Today though, everybody noticed. Foreign tourists tiptoed from seemingly clean spot to cleanish other spot. Pranyi trundled along, unmindful of where she stepped, barefoot as always.
The eighty-seven ghats and their maze of alleys were Pranyi’s favorite part of Varanasi. She’d started her wanderings all the way down in the southernmost Assi ghat when she’d arrived in the city three weeks ago. She gradually worked her way north, taking her time to learn all the twists, turns and dead ends in each separate ghat before moving on to the next. A map was forming in her head, and it intrigued her. It felt to her like more than a map, as if the seemingly haphazard maze of alleys and passages had in fact been placed according to an intricate design.
Not for the first time she wondered if others in the city knew what she knew, saw what she saw. Tonight, she’d pay extra close attention to any people walking the street. See if anyone else looked where she looked. Or perhaps pointedly ignored it. That is, if there were any people of course, the world of alleys emptied out quickly after dark.
For now, night was still far off. She spent the sunlit hours exploring the city.
She passed the burning ghat on her way north and stopped, as she did every day. The fires burned, as they had done on the same spot on the banks of the Ganges for hundreds of years. Fierce and all consuming, they burned the bodies of the dead laid down on the piles of wood. Pranyi stood still for a few minutes, gazing at the three bodies currently being burned. On her first visit to Manikarnika ghat she’d stayed there all day, mesmerized by the flames.
Well most of the day anyway. At one point she’d moved to close to one of the pyres, and the undertaker, thinking her family of the deceased, had chased her away. Women are not allowed to be present during the burning. They might get too emotional and jump in the flames. Or so the men say.
By then she’d already seen over twenty burnings from beginning to end. Cloaked in gold and ribbons, the bodies were carried to the ghat on a bamboo stretcher. They were burned for up to three hours on the piles of wood, the fire lit from the eternal flame behind the ghat. Some burned faster, some burned slower, some on huge piles, some on piles too small for the entire body to be burned in one go. It depended on the amount and type of wood the families of the deceased could afford. When only bones and ash were left, the remains were deposited in the Ganges. The spirit released for another cycle of rebirth.
Pranyi never saw those spirits though, or their believed release. No matter how many burnings she observed. But she spared a few minutes at the fires every day just in case she might.
She moved on from the burning ghat and headed further north to continue her daily exploring. She spent the afternoon mapping out new alleyways and observing any people that interested her. When she felt the first pangs of hunger she returned to the river and sat down on a spot where many tourists passed. Today it only took an hour to beg enough Rupees together for a meal.
Pranyi had been alone, living on the street, since she was eight years old. Her mother had started to cough, had said she was ok, and had died a few days later. Before that Pranyi had also lived on street, the street was the only life she had ever known. She’d been born on the street, as had her mother. She didn’t mind the life she had, but she did mind being alone. Very much. Everything had been alright when she’d been together with her mother.
That’s why, not long after her mother’s death, and after she’d first noticed the fog, Pranyi had started her search.
From Chennai to Siliguri, from Mumbai to Kolkata, from Varkala to Delhi, she’d probably seen more of India than most people do in ten lifetimes. Always chasing the fog, in search of the place it came from. She was here now. Biding her time, waiting for what she knew would happen soon, hopefully.
Pranyi finished her one meal of the day and returned to the river. To wait. She watched the sun take its leave for the day. Color drained from the world around her. The city turned dark as day turned to night. Stars appeared in the sky, their light barely visible through the thickening fog. People disappeared from the streets, seeking comfort, warmth and light indoors.
Pranyi waited, for the first ones to appear.
During the day she always saw a few of them too, like the young girl snatching the runaway kite out of the sky today, but never more than a few. And somehow, they were different. Less there maybe, she could think of no other way to describe it. How did one describe the differences between ghosts?
An elderly man with a long gray beard and heavily wrinkled brow stepped out of the fog layered atop the Ganges. He floated toward the bank, moving his feet as if he himself thought he was walking. The old man hesitantly put a foot on the bank, tested his footing, and after a few seconds put his other foot on the ground too. He looked around, seemingly unsure of where he was, and maybe unsure why. He noticed the stairs up to the ghat, and, his hesitance suddenly gone, took brisk steps toward and up the stairs.
While Pranyi had been observing the man, other ghosts had stepped out of the fog. There were many tonight, many more than on previous nights. Men, women, and children of all ages, shapes and sizes. All along the riverbank, as far as she could see, they were there. Finding their bearings, and when they did, heading up the stairs toward a ghat. All of them, without fail. It was the same every night.
A vaguely familiar shape in the distance made her hesitate for a moment, but Pranyi discarded her quickly, she would feel it, if it was the one. She bounded up the steps after the old man who had appeared first. He was the one she’d follow tonight.
The old man was turning a corner when Pranyi arrived at the top of the stairs. She walked to where the man had disappeared from her sight – no need to hurry, she knew – and came to that corner just as he was about to turn left at another. Pranyi easily caught up to the man as he ambled about. The old man turned left, right, and then retraced his steps. He had come to a dead end. All through the night he turned corners. He walked back and forth through the same alleys again and again – seemingly oblivious to the fact that he passed by the same places numerous times. He just kept walking and turning corners. Relentlessly searching for the way out.
He didn’t find it. Pranyi knew from her own wanderings that the old man had come close to the main streets of Varanasi several times during the night, but he wasn’t able to reach it.
None of them did.
After watching the same thing happen again and again every night she had been here, Pranyi had begun to suspect that the maze of alleys, a maze as old as civilization had been built here precisely for that reason: to keep the ghosts from finding their way out of the fog (or whatever place they came from beyond the fog) to the world of the living. Why someone thousands of years ago had thought such a thing necessary she couldn’t imagine.
As the first slivers of light heralding a new dawn appeared, the old man, and all the other ghosts headed back toward the Ganges. The river they could always find quickly and without fail. They stepped back into the fog and faded from view. Perhaps coming back to try once more tonight. Or the next night. Or the next. Or nights beyond count.
Pranyi stifled a yawn. She never realized how tired she was until after the ghosts had returned to the fog. She curled up on the pavement in the nearest available shaded corner and quickly drifted off to sleep.
She spent the following days in similar fashion. Mapping out the ghats during the day and following ghosts on their searching walks through the alleys at night. Every morning she woke up a little bit more excited. An anxious knot had formed in her stomach, and every day it got tighter. The moment she had been waiting for was about to arrive. She felt it, and every morning became more sure that her search would soon be over.
The morning of the ninth day after she’d followed the old man around the alleys she woke completely refreshed. The knot in her stomach was gone. It had been replaced by a weird pulling sensation, as if she wore a belt and someone was tugging at it. Tugging hard, in a specific direction. Pranyi surrendered to the sensation and followed it. The pull led her to the water tank at Harishchadra ghat. She climbed to the top of the tank and stared out over the Ganges.
The fog was a mere thin sliver today. Inside the fog she discerned a shape walking toward her. She felt who it was immediately, but still couldn’t quite believe it to be true when the woman had come close enough for Pranyi to see her face. So long she had searched, so long she had waited.
Pranyi jumped into the air, toward the shape hovering before her.
She started to fall toward the pavement and for an instant fear gripped her. A strong hand grabbed her by the wrist and the fear disappeared. Pranyi looked down and saw her body fall limply to the ground. She heard bones break. She heard people scream.
The hand gripping her wrist loosened and slowly moved to her hand, intertwining its fingers with hers. Hand in hand, Pranyi walked into the fog with her mother. She was alone no longer.
My own story of Varanasi
If I had to recommend one place in India to visit, it would be Varanasi. It is not a beautiful place by any means, nor does it house any known tourist attractions, but it is a powerful, extremely interesting place. It is definitely not for the faint of heart.
Varanasi is a holy city in Hinduism and Jainism. Hindus believe that dying in Varanasi releases them from the cycle of rebirth and lets them enter Nirvana. Many journey to Varanasi to await death by the banks of the Ganges. The holy Ganges river in which pure and purifying (though by scientific standards deeply polluted) waters tens of thousands bathe themselves every morning. It is a city where life and death are fully present. Having lunch while several (covered) corpses are carried by is not an unusual occurrence. Bodies on the way to the burning pyres by the river. Smoke and ashes floating across the river all day, every day. Or you might come across an even harsher sight, not all are (fully) cremated.
And the city has much more to offer. Gifted musicians play mesmerizing music on classic Indian instruments like the Sitar and Tabla, you can observe the daily religious ceremonies, eat amazing food, and mingle with the host of interesting travelers that this unique city attracts.
Lastly, the kite festival. A yearly event that has the whole populace excited and buying kites by the dozens. The sky is filled with them battling it out. Flying them is harder than you might think. Dozens of attempts and I wasn’t even able to get my kite off the ground.