Okay, one last word on Varanasi and then we will be moving on. Besides music and being a holy city, Varanasi is known for death. Dying in Varanasi is considered a quick trip to enlightenment, and the city is known for the burning ghats in two places along the river. Some people want to see the burning ghats, where the bodies are piled with wood and cremated, but I think that's terribly morbid. It's not considered very good taste for tourists to go there, although some guides will do anything to make a rupee, of course. I was taking a walk along the ghats one day when I realized I'd gone further than I thought and I saw the huge piles of logs at the edge of the water, so I turned back.
On a different day, I was at the busiest ghat just sitting and looking, and I saw two teenage boys coming with big cardboard boxes. They were heading for the line of beggars who sit along the back of the steps waiting for alms. There were perhaps 25 people begging. From the boxes the boys handed each one a plate made from dried leaves. Then each beggar got several flatbreads, and a dollop of lentil stew. I went up to one boy and asked what was happening. He said they were doing "social work," so I asked if they were with the government.
No, he said, this is a custom when someone dies. His grandmother died on January 8, and 13 days after her death the family gives food to the poor in her memory. Only then I noticed they were both wearing toques although the day was warming up. It was because their heads were shaved to show mourning. I'm sorry about your grandmother, I said. It's okay, he said. This is the way of life - things come to an end. That's the way of it.
Later, I was chatting with Mahendra at the shop and he was telling me about his family. I asked if they were musicians too, and he said no, he was the only one. His father had been a police officer. He died four months ago. I'm sorry, I said, and asked how old he was. He was 78, said Mahendra. Then he took out his smartphone and showed me pictures of his father's funeral - his father's body wrapped in red and orange cloth, on the funeral bier. His family draping garlands of flowers on his father's body. Mahendra and his uncles bathing in the Ganga afterward, and then having their heads shaved. His father's photograph.
I'm sorry, I said. I wished I was better equipped to know what to say.