Full Power Shiva

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I walked down stone steps that led directly into a torrent of brown swirling water; the stairway was ancient, the steps cupped by eons of footfalls. The river looked to be half a mile across, burst and muddied, towing broken vegetation along with it. At its mid-point a treacherous channel foamed and boiled where the currents collided and enormous, prehistoric catfish with blind milky eyes rose to gorge on blackened bones and charred coils of flesh.

The swell had engulfed the crumbling sinks and gats that line the promenade. With the front impassable the only way across town was through a series of twisting and traversing passageways and tunnels, too narrow even for a rickshaw. Overloaded with pedestrian traffic this ancient barrio had become a midden. Deputations of the old and dying were sprawled in every available space. There they waited:beggars and proctors of beggars, disease-ridden, leprous, some partially knackered with stumps for arms and legs. Among them milled hoards of filthy children touting drugs of all sorts at westerners. Females of domestic reputation lounged upon balconies with faces gotten up in indigo and almagre peering from behind their fans with a kind of lurid coyness like transvestites in a madhouse.

As well as the increased load of people, a stinking menagerie of animals had been pushed upward by the flood. Cows blocked these paths entirely chewing on refuge, sacred and beyond reproach; rabid-looking monkeys with pudendae swollen and livid red, hung screaming and baring long yellow teeth; packs of stray dogs barked and barked; demonic-looking goats grazed on the excrement of other animals. A vicious snarl of flies fought constantly over the filth and the foul air was rarified by clouds of sickly sweet incense swung from censers inside temples of every denomination.

Tourists were being led among giant woodpiles assembled on the bank. Wood, split using metal pegs and sledgehammers, was weighed in huge sets of scales. The path was cleared for a group of men baring shoulder-high a stretcher fashioned from green lengths of bamboo strung together with twills of silvery tinsel. Resting on top was a body wrapped in white sheets. There was the tinkle of little deathbells amid the clamour as the funeral procession followed. A caravan of trundlecarts had gathered selling refreshments. The shroud and its carriage were laid upon a pile of wood and the men set about lighting it.

Flames feigned and licked about the body and its wrappings began to burn away. The face of the dead man appeared, eyes cooked, pearlescent like a baked fish. Tears spat forth from the sockets and bubbled away. Suddenly the enflamed body pitched forward as if alive and from a caesura in the head molten brains and blood exploded tearing the face apart. The crowed rocked. “Oh my God,” whispered an American. Gradually the lips burned away and it looked as if the dead face were grinning. Someone lifted the protruding legs and pushed them into the centre of the fire. This signaled the end of the ceremony; the crowd turned and dwindled. Below the bank the sacred river ran on in torrents, polluted by the living and the dead.


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