All photos: Abha Iyengar
It is New Year’s Day, and in Banaras, it’s not the eve, but the first day of the year that is celebrated, for it being a new beginning, a good beginning, and rightly so. I seem to have begun the year with stories of death and of the dead. Stories of Aghori Babas, who walk around with chalk-smeared bodies and long beards, wearing nothing except some beads around their throats and wrists; carrying the trishul, the sign of Shankar Mahadev. They sit for long hours stoned, lost in dhyaan or meditation.
We are on a boat, being steered in the night from Dashashwamedh Ghat to Assi Ghat. It is cold, there is smog on the waters, we cannot see beyond a few feet. It is almost as though ghosts are travelling with us, or it may just be my imagination playing tricks.
I look at the man telling me the tale.“ Aghori Babas have strange powers,” Rakesh says. He leans back, “The Baba then said to us, ’ Give me the skull of a Jaiswal’.”
The boat rocks in the dirty green waters of the Ganges, mother to us Indians. We bathe in these waters to purify ourselves… this water into which the sewage waters pour from the city, this water where people wash dishes and clothes and throw the ash of the wood from the burning corpses.
“You know why the Baba asked for the skull of a Jaiswal?”
I nod, wondering what is so special about a Jaiswal skull. All I know that they are the Banias of Banaras, it is a common surname here.
“The skull of the Jaiswal is big, and it is hard. It is a hard skull and does not crack easily. That is why the Baba wanted me to give him the skull. It is big, so the Baba can cook a good meal in it, and it is hard, so it will last a long time as a vessel.”
“So why did you not give it to him?”
“Well, a Jaiswal skull is hard to crack,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. It was obvious that he did not want to give the Baba what he wanted. This Baba was his father’s friend, or acquaintance. Maybe he did not feel obliged enough to do what was required. A shiver ran up my spine. There was more to come, even as the fog enveloped us some more, and the boatman rowed harder, the oars moving slow against the water current.
“I have seen the Baba call a cat to him, a cat just walking along the river’s shore.”
And then rip the cat’s body, remove its heart and eat it in front of me.”
Rakesh’s eyes gleam.“He puts the body back together again and the cat walks away.”
“The Baba has eaten it in front of me, all raw and throbbing.”
“The cat walks away without a heart? It won’t fall dead?” I give a very cynical smile and raise my eyebrows; it’s such an impossible thing to believe.
“It ran away. It did not die.” He does not laugh. ”These are the powers. You have to see to believe. I have seen.”
His brother Dinesh, trailing his hand in the water, and cupping a few mouthfuls now and then, chimes in, “I have seen it too.”
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