The City of Good Death
An Excerpt From the Restless Books New Immigrant Writing Winner Priyanka Champaneri
There is one place in Kashi that everyone avoids. It is easy to find: walk to Mir ghat, descend those stone steps. Push through the crowds of people and drift toward the right as you go down, down, down. Stop just as you reach the final step before the stone dips into the river and mark the place where the ground is clean, where the stone seems newly carved next to the worn and crumbling rock surrounding it. Even better: sit some paces away and watch the spot. See how all folk avoid stepping there, how even those in deep throes of gossip or prayer feel their feet directed elsewhere. The youngest children know to jump over that clean stone; men cross on tiptoes; and women take the widest circle around, hems held in hands so that not even their saris touch that cursed spot. Most don’t question why they cannot cross. They just obey an internal order, the action as natural and instinctual as turning the ear toward the sound of a new story.
But for the ones who do know, who never come near that place without the great God’s name on their lips, the reason is absolute: a ghost wanders there. Not just any harmless specter—a pregnant woman crossing that path might suddenly find herself without child, her belly hollow. Men setting a wrong foot begin to weep without control. Careless children lose their smiles or the ability to speak. Old folk lose their sight or the last of their senses.
No pattern, no rhyme or reason to the ghost’s actions—simply its thirst for malice. The only thing common to all these tales of warning is what you hear, what you see just before the spirit is upon you. The chime of silver anklets. A song that the wind winnows down to a sob. And the rustle and flash of silk, of a parrot-green color that glows in the night.
For ten years, since his arrival to this city, Pramesh followed a similar and certain morning routine. Wake before the sun’s arrival. Walk to the ghats. Descend the aged stone steps to dip into a river even more ancient. Bathe, breathe in great gulps of morning air, make his salutations to the great God. Only then, as he walked back to his home—to his hostel, his wife, his child—only then could his day truly begin. Only then did he feel part of the current of life that hummed through the city’s streets, vibrated up from the ground, and only then did he surrender to being whisked along with the other denizens of Kashi toward the next hour, the next day, the next year. They said this was the city where time did not exist, and on most mornings he truly believed it, that here, in the holiest city of all, he was suspended in a stasis that gave him neither past nor future, no story trailing behind him and none unfurling ahead.
But this was a lie. He had a past. And sometimes, when in the middle of his morning prayers, with the water dripping from his shoulders and into the waist-high river, or when haggling in the woodcutter’s lane over a bed or chair for the hostel, or even while rocking his daughter to sleep, a voice would creep out of his memories and remind him of the thing he had allowed himself to forget. The voice was one he had not heard in many years, one that existed not in this current life of Kashi but in the life he had led before his arrival to the city.
You cannot go without me. You cannot leave me behind.
When the boatmen found the body in the river, they thought nothing of it. There was nothing new in steering past floating arms and blackened buttocks, in putting an oar into the river only to have to reposition it when you found that a soot-streaked foot barred your way. After all, the Doms were cheap folk with no respect for proper funeral rites, money hungry for the few rupees they might save by snuffing a pyre before the fire had claimed an entire body, dumping the charred corpse into the river, and selling the half-burnt wood to another gullible family too grief stricken to know the difference.
The two boatmen had been out early, before the veil of morning fog lifted from the river. They shared a boat, one man at each end, and passed a bottle between them. They steered themselves toward the middle of the river, to a spot shrouded in dense fog between the holy city of Kashi and the cursed far shore called Magadha.
Their spot was well chosen. Every man in Kashi knew three basic facts: dying in the holy city promised freedom from rebirth, bathing in the Ganges washed away the sins of a lifetime, and dying on Magadha guaranteed that you would come back as one of the lowest of the low, a donkey destined to bear loads and insults until a merciful death started the cycle anew. Here, the two boatmen hid their early morning libations from Kashi’s wandering tongues even as they kept a firm hand on the oars when the boat threatened to sidle over to the cursed land. They sat and passed the bottle in silence, comfortable in a cocoon of mist, and they would have remained that way for some time if not for the interloper that loomed quietly in the distance.
An empty boat emerged from the fog and drifted with unhurried purpose toward them. It thudded against the side of their own craft and bobbed in a gentle rise and fall against the current, as if breathing, and the two men looked at it as they continued to pass the bottle, which they soon emptied. One boatman grabbed the side of the empty vessel and hoisted himself in while his friend held their own boat steady.
“This is Raman’s boat,” the first said as he rummaged through the scattered belongings. He held up a packet of mango beedis, which Raman was famously partial toward, as well as a pocket knife, a ball of jute twine, a glass bottle, and some plastic envelopes of chewing tobacco.
“Anything in the bottle?” his friend asked. The bottle was as empty as their own, but the beedis were excellent consolation, and the two men shared the packet around, musing over Raman’s negligence in allowing his boat to wander. The story currently making the rounds in Kashi through the mouths of beggars to the ears of merchants and housewives alike was that the young boatman spent his nights and early mornings in the dancing alleyways of Dal-Mandi to see his beloved Chandra.
Smoke curled from both men’s nostrils and melted into the grayness that clotted the air. Ghostly shades of sound reached them: hollow knocks on wood, a barking dog, a bell clanging. When the beedis shrank to short stubs too small to fit between their fingers, the men flicked the ashy remains into the river and readied for their return to the holy city.
The first boatman pulled at the fickle anchor that lay over one side of Raman’s boat.
“Pull harder, Bhai,” his companion laughed when the anchor refused to rise out of the water. “And perhaps limit the fritters during tea this week, nah?”
In the next instant, the anchor dislodged from some obstruction deep below, and the rope crawled upwards, though slowly and with considerable effort. The wet rope spooled into the open boat, and then the thing attached at the end emerged from the water: not the customary iron weight, but a hand that curled around the rope with limp fingers. The hand was attached to an arm, and that arm had been wrapped with the anchor rope many times. While his companion sputtered, the first boatman kept a firm grip on the cold arm, steadied himself, and pulled the body up and into Raman’s boat.
The man’s life had flown long ago, but the body that remained was almost perfect and unmarred. His mustache, made thin and insignificant with water, framed his parted lips, and the hairs of his wet eyelashes clung together, the long tips reaching toward his cheekbones like thick drips of kohl. A gold chain spooled around his neck. His bare feet revealed thick soles and talon-like toes, and his thick black hair released a steady stream of water onto the boat floor, as did his soaked cotton pants and shirt.
“The liquor has taken your wits, Bhaiya—put him back before anyone sees. Otherwise his ghost will stick to you, and where will you get the money to banish it?”
“Yes, but look, he is wearing clothes.”
“Nothing good enough to steal, if that is the thought dancing in your idiot skull. Dump him over.”
The first boatman wiped his brow and leaned back as he considered the body just a toe’s breadth away from him. “He still has his gold necklace.”
“Take it if you will. I will say nothing. But you’ll have to melt it down to rid its affiliation to the corpse, and that will cost just as much as the necklace itself; the goldsmiths are worse cheats than the Doms.”
“His skin isn’t burnt,” the first boatman continued, as if his companion had said nothing. “Did you see how he was clinging to the boat?” He spoke the truth in a calm and unhurried manner. The body bore none of the talismans of cremation, of funeral rites. Every other charred and singed body in the river had an ending that the two boatmen knew as well as the final scenes of a familiar story, but this body was like a tale with no ending at all.
“Bhaiya,” the first boatman said from his perch on Raman’s boat. “Think. How did this man die?”
“Ram knows. Dump him over, I say.”
“Where did he die?”
“Stop being foolish. He is dead. What more to the story is there?”
“On land? On water? And by whose hand?” His companion refused to answer. A sigh bloomed from his lips in a white wisp of air that disappeared instantly into the fog. The first boatman grabbed the oars, took his position in Raman’s boat, and directed the bow toward Kashi. “Don’t be blind to what is placed before you,” he said to his friend, and without a backwards glance he pumped his arms and glided back toward the holy city.
As the sun finally broke free of the horizon like a balloon slipping from a child’s grasp, the light lifted the veil of fog from Kashi and beyond. The white sands of Magadha winked with the allure of crushed pearls. Birds skated the air above, traveling perfect circles over the land, dipping toward a pair of dogs that snarled and fought, spiraling above a tented barge that trundled in the river on an aimless journey.
The Ganges, calm and composed in the absence of the monsoon, gathered the early morning pink light over its expanse like a sari laid out to dry in the sun, the edges curling against the many carved stone steps leading up to the city. The buildings towering above the ghats gleamed iridescent in the halo of light washing over the water. The bells rang in the temples, and the monkeys watched with indifferent faces from their perches along the roofs.
Men bobbed in the water, dunking themselves once, twice, holding their nostrils closed with one hand while the other directed the holy river over heads, arms, and bellies. Women wrung out their wet saris and crowded near each other as they changed into fresh clothing. The ghaatiye—priests who sat on snug platforms with large umbrellas fanning behind them like cobra hoods—collected coins from the bathers, passed a cracked mirror to one man, said a blessing for another, listened to the dilemma of a third. A perpetual stream of people flowed down to the river and back up the steps, hurried feet side-stepping the drunk stretched out with an earthenware pot clutched in his arms.
Funeral pyres crowded a stone platform at the bottom of the steps, flames crackling, the surrounding men looking like cotton bolls from a distance with their shaved heads and sheer white clothing. Chants laced the air, each word crisp and new as if emerging for the first time from the lips of red-eyed priests. Black smoke rose along with the occasional swirling orange spark, floating up and over the stairs, where the walls bordering the alleyways and lanes drew in closer, cinching all who passed through in a concrete embrace that blocked out all light and sense of direction.
Four men shouldered a bier topped with a corpse and navigated tight corners and crowded lanes. Wrapped in coarse white fabric that rose in crisp lines over the nose, the shoulders, the knobby toes, the body became nameless, an unidentifiable insect tucked and tightly wound with spider’s silk. Their voices, frozen in a monotone chant, echoed in the alleys. Ram Nam Satya Hai. Ram Nam Satya Hai. Ram is truth. God is truth.
The shape of the words was ephemeral, the sound chasing at the feet of a delivery boy, an old woman walking with quick steps, a white dog trotting back in the direction the men had come from. The dog sniffed at a discarded tobacco wrapper and paused to scratch behind its ear. It looked back in the direction it had just come from and suddenly, inexplicably, raised its nose into the air and disappeared into the alley, its tail held upward like a sail, intent on an errand whispered by the breeze.
The news traveled quickly. The police did not know if it was suicide, an accident, or murder. The overlooked note in Raman’s boat seemed to indicate suicide. The rope around the dead man’s wrist suggested an accidental drowning. The two boatmen who dragged the body back could have been murderers.
All the other boatmen at Lalita ghat stuck up for the pair except for Raman. Sore and annoyed that his craft required exorcising and purification by priests, who insisted that it would take an entire day and a hefty sum of rupees, he sat on the topmost steps of the ghat cursing his luck and smoking beedi after mango-flavored beedi. The others sat around and shouted theories as they passed each other on trips up and down the river. They all agreed on one thing. “They found a note, didn’t they? Has anyone read it?”
“A love letter, most probably,” a priest called out from the middle of the ghat as he scratched his chest. “Always a woman to blame,” he added to no one in particular as he labored up the stairs.
“Debts, more likely.”
“Perhaps he had a curse on his head.”
“Or he was looking for Yamraj—did you see how close he was to Magadha?”
“Nonsense. He was drunk and fell over.”
“That Raman should have secured things better. What kind of duffer leaves his boat free for anyone to take?”
“Well, he died in Kashi so at least he will find peace.”
“But Bhaiya, how can you think that was a good death, Kashi or no?”
“Someone said the man’s ghost is already terrorizing that widow in the woodworker’s alley.”
“That’s not such a surprise. He was in the middle of the river, on Magadha’s doorstep.”
Tales of what had happened, what might have happened, and what didn’t happen swelled across the city, ferried from boatmen to ghaatiye, carried by rickshaw drivers and cart pullers, festering inside shops and leaving via family matriarchs, reaching the street sweepers and even the drunks and lechers too ashamed to show themselves in the light. In the course of the telling, the truth expanded, broke into pieces, gilded itself with gold, tripped into a puddle of filth, swabbed itself dry, and left fragments behind until everyone in the old city knew at least some version of the story.
Everyone, that is, except for the one who mattered most.
Everyone but Pramesh.