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Authors: Ian McDonald

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River of Gods

BOOK: River of Gods
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River of Gods

Ian McDonald


The body turns in the stream. Where the new bridge crosses the Ganga
in five concrete strides, garlands of sticks and plastic snag around
the footings; rafts of river flotsam. For a moment the body might
join them, a dark hunch in the black stream. The smooth flow of water
hauls it, spins it around, shies it feet first through the arch of
steel and traffic. Overhead trucks roar across the high spans. Day
and night, convoys bright with chrome work, gaudy with gods, storm
the bridge into the city, blaring filmi music from their roof
speakers. The shallow water shivers.

Knee-deep in the river, Shiv takes a long draw on his cigarette. Holy
Ganga. You have attained moksha. You are free from the chakra.
Garlands of marigolds coil around his wet pant legs. He watches the
body out of sight, then flicks his cigarette into the night in an arc
of red sparks and wades back towards where the Merc stands axle-deep
in the river. As he sits on the leather rear seat, the boy hands him
his shoes. Good shoes. Good socks, Italian socks. None of your
Bharati shit. Too good to sacrifice to Mother Ganga's silts and
slimes. The kid turns the engine; at the touch of the headlights
wire-thin figures scatter across the white sand. Fucking kids.
They'll have seen.

The big Merc climbs up out of the river, over the cracked mud to the
white sand. Shiv's never seen the river so low. He's never gone with
that Ganga Devi Goddess stuff—it's all right for women but a
raja has
or he is no raja at all—but seeing the
water so low, so weak, he is uncomfortable, like watching blood gush
from a wound in the arm of an old friend that you cannot heal. Bones
crack beneath the SUV's fat tires. The Merc scatters the embers of
the shore kids' fire; then the boy Yogendra throws in the four-wheel
drive and takes them straight up the bank, cutting two furrows
through the fields of marigolds. Five seasons ago he had been a river
kid, squatting by the smudge-fire, poking along the sand, sifting the
silt for rags and pickings. He'll end up there, too, some time. Shiv
will end up there. It's a thing he's always known. Everyone ends up
there. The river bears all away. Mud and skulls.

Eddies roll the body, catch streamers of sari silk and slowly unfurl.
As it nears the low pontoon bridge beneath the crumbling fort at
Ramnagar, the corpse gives a small final roll and shrugs free. A
snake of silk coils out before it, catches on the rounded nose of a
pontoon and streams away on either side. British sappers built this
bridge, in the nation before the nation before this one; fifty
pontoons spanned by a narrow strip of steel. The lighter traffic
crosses here; phatphats, mopeds, motorbikes, bicycle rickshaws, the
occasional Maruti feeling its way between the bicycles, horn
constantly blaring: pedestrians. The pontoon bridge is a ribbon of
sound, an endless magnetic tape reverberating to wheels and feet. The
naked woman's face drifts centimetres beneath the autorickshaws.

Beyond Ramnagar the east bank opens into a broad sandy strand. Here
the naked sadhus build their wicker and bamboo encampments and
practise fierce asceticisms before the dawn swim to the sacred city.
Behind their campfires tall gas plumes blossom skyward from the big
transnational processing plants, throwing long, quivering reflections
across the black river, highlighting the glistening backs of the
buffaloes huddling in the water beneath crumbling Asi Ghat, first of
the holy ghats of Varanasi. Flames bob on the water, a few pilgrims
and tourists have set diyas adrift in their little mango leaf
saucers. They will gather kilometre-by-kilometre, ghat-by-ghat, until
the river is a constellation of currents and ribbons of light,
patterns in which sages scry omens and portents and the fortunes of
nations. They light the woman on her way. They reveal a face of
middle-life. A face of the crowd, a face that would not be missed, if
any face could be indispensable among the city's eleven million. Five
types of people may not be cremated on the burning ghats but are cast
to the river: lepers, childrean, pregnant women, Brahmins, and those
poisoned by the king cobra. Her bindi declares that she is none of
those castes. She slips past, unseen, beyond the jostle of tourist
boats. Her pale hands are soft, unaccustomed to work.

Pyres burn on Manikarnika ghat. Mourners carry a bamboo litter down
the ash-strewn steps and across the cracked mud to the river's edge.
They dip the saffron-wrapped body in the redeeming water, wash it to
make sure no part is untouched. Then it is taken to the pyre. As the
untouchable Doms who run the burning ghat pile wood over the linen
parcel, figures hip-deep in the Ganga sift the water with shallow
wicker bowls, panning gold from the ashes of the dead. Each night on
the ghat where Brahma the Creator made the ten-horse sacrifice, five
Brahmins offer aarti to Mother Ganga. A local hotel pays them each
twenty thousand rupees a month for this ritual but that does not make
their prayers any less zealous. With fire, they puja for rain. It is
three years since the monsoon. Now the blasphemous Awadh dam at Kunda
Khadar turns the last blood in the veins of Ganga Mata to dust. Even
the irreligious and agnostic now throw their rose petals on the

On that other river, the river of tires that knows no drought,
Yogendra steers the big Merc through the wall of sound and motion
that is Varanasi's eternal chakra of traffic. His hand is never off
the horn as he pulls out behind phatphats, steers around cycle
rickshaws, pulls down the wrong side of the road to avoid a cow
chewing an aged vest. Shiv is immune to all traffic regulations
except killing a cow. Street and sidewalk blur: stalls, hot-food
booths, temples, street shrines hung with garlands of marigolds.
Let Our River Run Free!
declares a hand-lettered banner of an
anti-dam protestor. A gang of call-centre boys in best clean shirts
and pants out on the hunt spill into the path of the SUV. Greasy
hands on the paint job. Yogendra screams at their temerity. The flow
of streets grows straiter and more congested until women and pilgrims
must press into walls and doorways to let Shiv through. The air is
heady with alcofuel fumes. It is a royal progress, an assertion.
Clutching the cold-dewed metal flask in his lap, Shiv enters the city
of his name and inheritance.

First there was Kashi: firstborn of cities; sister of Babylon and
Thebes and survivor of both; city of light where the Jyotirlinga of
Siva, the divine generative energy, burst from the earth in a pillar
of radiance. Then it became Varanasi; holiest of cities, consort of
the Goddess Ganga, city of death and pilgrims, enduring through
empires and kingdoms and Rajs and great nations, flowing through time
as its river flows through the great plain of northern India. Behind
it grew New Varanasi; the ramparts and fortresses of the new housing
projects and the glassy, swooping corporate headquarters piling up
behind the palaces and narrow, tangled streets as global dollars
poured into India's bottomless labour well. Then there was a new
nation and Old Varanasi again became legendary Kashi; navel of the
world reborn as South Asia's newest meat Ginza. It is a city of
schizophrenias. Pilgrims jostle Japanese sex tourists in the crammed
streets. Mourners shoulder their dead past the cages of teen hookers.
Skinny Westerners gone native with beads and beards offer head
massages while country girls sign up at the matrimony agencies and
scan the annual income lines on the databases of the desperate.

Hello hello, what country? Ganja ganja Nepali Temple Balls? You
want to see young girl, jig-a-jig; see woman suck tiny little
American football into her little woman? Ten dollar. This make your
dick so big it scares people
. Cards, janampatri, hora chakra,
buttery red tilaks thumbed onto tourists' foreheads. Tween gurus.
Gear! Gear! Knock off sports-stylie, hooky software, repro Big Name
labels, this month's movie releases dubbed over by one man in one
voice in your cousin's bedroom, sweatshop palmers and lighthoeks,
badmash gin and whiskey brewed up in old tanneries (John E. Walker,
most respectable label). Since the monsoon failed, water; by the
bottle, by the cup, by the sip, from tankers and tanks and
shrink-wrapped pallets and plastic litrejohns and backpacks and
goatskin sacks. Those Banglas with their iceberg, you think they'll
give us one drop here in Bharat? Buy and drink.

Past the burning ghat and the Siva temple capsizing slowly,
tectonically, into the Varanasi silts, the river shifts east of
north. A third set of bridge piers stirs the water into cats'
tongues. Lights ripple, the lights of a high-speed shatabdi crossing
the river into Kashi Station. The streamlined express chunks heavily
over the points as the dead woman shoots the rail bridge into clear

There is a third Varanasi beyond Kashi and New Varanasi.
, it appears on the plans and press releases of the
architects and their PR companies, trading on the catchet of the
ancient Buddhist city.
to everyone else; a half-built
capital of a fledgling political dynasty. By any name, it is Asia's
biggest building site. The lights never go out. The labour never
ceases. The noise appalls. One hundred thousand people are at work,
from chowkidars to structural engineers. Towers of great beauty and
daring rise from cocoons of bamboo scaffolding, bulldozers sculpt
wide boulevards and avenues shaded by gene-mod ashok trees. New
nations demand new capitals and Ranapur will be a showcase to the
culture, industry, and forward-vision of Bharat. The Sajida Rana
Cultural Centre. The Rajiv Rana conference centre. The Ashok Rana
telecom tower. The museum of modern art. The rapid transit system.
The ministries and civil service departments, the embassies and
consuls, and the other paraphernalia of government. What the British
did for Delhi, the Ranas will do for Varanasi. That's the word from
the building at the heart of it all, the Bharat Sabha, a lotus in
white marble, the Parliament House of the Bharati government, and
Sajida Rana's prime-ministership.

Construction floods glint on the shape in the river. The new ghats
may be marble but the river kids are pure Varanasi. Heads snap up.
Something here. Something light, bright, glinting. Cigarettes are
stubbed. The shore kids dash splashing into the water. They wade
thigh-deep through the shallow, blood-warm water, summoning each
other by whistles. A thing. A body. A woman's body. A naked woman's
body. Nothing new or special in Varanasi but still the water boys
drag the dead woman in to shore. There may be some last value to be
had from her. Jewellery. Gold teeth. Artificial hip joints. The boys
splash through the spray of light from the construction floods,
hauling their prize by the arms up on to the gritty sand. Silver
glints at her throat. Greedy hands reach for a trishul pendant, the
trident of the devotees of Lord Siva. The boys pull back with soft

From breastbone to pubis, the woman lies open. A coiled mass of gut
and bowel gleams in the light from the construction site. Two short,
hacking cuts have cleanly excised the woman's ovaries.

In his fast German car, Shiv cradles a silver flask, dewed with
condensation, as Yogendra moves him, through the traffic.


Mr. Nandha the Krishna Cop travels this morning by train, in a
first-class car. Mr. Nandha is the only passenger in the first-class
car. The train is a Bharat Rail electric shatabdi express: it piles
down the specially constructed high-speed line at three hundred and
fifty kilometres per hour, leaning into the gentle curves. Villages
roads fields towns temples blur past in the dawn haze that clings
knee-deep to the plain. Mr. Nandha sees none of these. Behind his
tinted window his attention is given over to the virtual pages of the
Bharat Times
. Articles and video reports float above the table as
the lighthoek beats data into his visual lobes. In his auditory
centre: Monteverdi, the Vespers of the Blessed Virgin performed by
the Camerata of Venezia and the Choir of St. Mark's.

Mr. Nandha loves very much the music of the Italian renaissance. Mr.
Nandha is deeply fascinated with all music of the European humanist
tradition. Mr. Nandha considers himself a Renaissance man. So he may
read news of the water and the maybe war and the demonstrations over
the Hanuman statue and the proposed metro station at Sarkhand
Roundabout and the scandal and the gossip and the sports reviews, but
part of his visual cortex the lighthoek can never touch envisions the
piazzas and campaniles of seventeenth-century Cremona.

Mr. Nandha has never been to Cremona. He has never visited Italy. His
imaginings are Planet History Channel establishing shots cut with his
own memories of Varanasi, the city of his birth, and Cambridge, the
city of his intellectual rebirth.

BOOK: River of Gods
12.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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