There are some events you experience that stay with you forever – like losing your virginity, the first acid trip or watching the birth of your children. For me, one of those times was Diwali in Varanasi. Diwali is the Hindu festival of Light, and Varanasi is one of the most sacred cities for Hindus.
The first day I was there, I happened upon a riverside cremation while walking along the river to find somewhere to eat. Having invaded a very private moment, I was reluctant to draw attention to myself by turning round and walk away (it seemed somewhat disrespectful). So we watched as the uncovered corpse of an old man burned until there was a sharp cracking noise and the brains started to boil out through the ears. An gentleman who had sat down beside us explained that, when the pressure of the boiling brain causes the skull to split with that cracking noise, the soul had migrated to heaven – because to be cremated at the Ganges guarantees heaven – and the cremation was effectively over. Sure enough, at that point, the family stood up and left, leaving the body still burning, as it would until only the breastbone was left and would then be dumped in the river.
I skipped lunch.
The next day, I got up at 5 a.m. and went to the ghat just outside our guest house. It was easy to find someone in a boat who would give me an hour’s trip on the Ganges, so I asked to go to the middle of the river. It was dark and the river was covered with mist; the banks weren’t visible from the middle of the river. After I’d finished a quiet cigarette, the rays of the dawn pierced the fog, causing it to roll magically back like a B-movie horror movie, showing me the thousands of early-morning bathers cleansing themselves in the holy river. Typically, the beauty of the moment wasn’t free from a reminder of death, as the bloated corpse floated towards us and bounced off our boat.
I skipped breakfast.
Our last day was Diwali itself. However, rather than genteel little candles being floated down the river, huge statues of the Hindu gods were paraded down the streets by throngs of people, to the accompaniament of ear-splitting music and fireworks. Then, at the ghats, they were set on fire and hurled into the river, in a truly unforgettable climax of emotion, noise and colour.
If you’re celebrating it today, have a happy Diwali!