Story and photos by Carolyn Handler Miller
In the weeks leading up to our trip to India, my head was full of exotic images: elephants, camels, monumental Moghul architecture, gorgeous saris and mysterious rituals at the Ganges. What I didn’t envision was something that would perplex my Western sensibilities: that India was a country that seemed completely inside out. By that I mean that many of the things we normally do in private in the West are done in public in India. This unexpected part of India’s culture challenged my American feelings about privacy and good taste and left me wondering whether if my own sense of privacy was perhaps too rigid.
Going to India was a long-held dream of mine, one I’d cherished for almost 50 years. It began in New York, when I became good friends with a filmmaker from India who made documentaries for the UN. I peppered him with questions about taking a trip to India. Where should I go and how should I travel through the subcontinent? To my surprise, he recommended that instead of staying in hotels, that I rent a private railway car there. The railway car, he explained, could be hitched onto a commercial train and would thus harness India’s excellent rail service. He assured me it was the most comfortable way to see his country and would allow me to travel almost anywhere in that vast land. I toyed with the idea, but it didn’t seem like something that a person like me could manage. I was just a hard-working woman of modest income and little knowledge of India. It seemed like something suited to a carefree billionaire, one who could enlist a diligent minion to figure out the itinerary.
Years passed but the dream didn’t die. Some months ago, on the brink of a milestone birthday, I decided that the time had finally come to make that journey. What better way to celebrate a big scary number than to go to the colorful land I’d always wanted to visit? My husband Terry was happy to help me fulfill this dream, but we both decided to scratch out the impractical private rail car idea. Instead, we booked a trip with a well-regarded, reasonably-priced tour company, Gate One. It would take us to the highlights of northern India, including the Taj Mahal, the Pink City of Jaipur and Varanasi on the holy Ganges. For weeks beforehand, I practiced doing the Namaste salutation to Terry. I didn’t want to look too awkward when the time finally came to do this traditional greeting to an actual Indian.
My first taste of this inside-out phenomenon occurred moments after landing, on the ride from the Delhi airport to the hotel. I was avidly studying the traffic on the clogged highway, drinking in my first tastes of India, and I noticed how the trucks that were passing us were decorated. The cabs of many of them were brightly painted with intricate designs. Furthermore, the driver’s side often had a bouquet of flowers attached near the door, a delightful though unexpected touch to my Western eyes. At home, we generally decorate the interiors of our houses, not the outside of our vehicles. But I was too new to India to recognize that here, much of what we customarily do privately is done publicly here.
As we drove through the narrow streets of the cities we visited, I witnessed other forms of “inside-outness.” I saw barbers giving men hair-cuts along the road (not in salons, as in the West) and people warming themselves by smoky fires. It was winter and somewhat chilly, so the fires made sense, though we Westerners light our fires at home in our fireplaces and not by the road. But in India, not everyone has the luxury of a home to enjoy a warm fire or even a bedroom. Some people need to bed down right along the street. This was something I expected to see. Before leaving for India I’d heard many stories of the immense poverty and homelessness of this country. However, I did not see as much of this as I’d been led to believe. I had seen far bigger homeless encampments the last time I was in San Francisco than I saw anywhere in this country.
All the roads in the urban areas were lined with carts and stalls of various kinds, where much of the shopping for food and everyday items takes place. There was even one street lined with car parts, with enough of a variety to assemble one’s own car. I saw women trying on shoes and shopping for bangles in tiny, open air retail stalls. Many of the stalls were too small to accommodate shoppers. Only the vendors could squeeze inside, helping their customers who stood out on the street. I even saw chickens being slaughtered and plucked at poultry stalls, something I would rather not have noticed.
The most appealing sight was the cooking of street food, and the aromas were intoxicating. The food came in every imaginable shape: thin and fat pancakes, balls of various sizes, wraps, puffs, layers, skinny noodle shapes, triangles and pretzel designs. It also came in liquid forms, like soups or beverages. Some of it was pre-prepared but most of the offerings were made right on the street, fried in enormous pans or cooked in giant pots. The food was served to people without the comfort of utensils or tables and often without plates, but I could fully empathize with the desire to gobble it down without bothering to sit or use a fork.
I longed to sample some, but had been sternly warned that it could make me ill, since the microbes in India are foreign to our picky Western stomachs. Street food stalls were on every street and business was brisk. This form of open-air cooking and eating was totally unlike how we in the West prepare and consume our food, enclosed either in our homes or in our cafes and restaurants. But it seemed like a wonderfully vibrant part of Indian culture.
More intimate activities of everyday life were also taking place along the streets. On a couple of occasions, I saw men taking bucket baths, a typical form of bathing in India. A cup is dipped into the bucket to wet the skin, then the bather lathers himself up with soap and rinses off using the same cup. It is an effective water-saving method of bathing. Though not something you would expect to see in public, the men I saw were not immodest. They did wear bathing trucks or boxers. A far more common sight was that of men urinating in public. Their backs would be toward the street but it would be very clear what they were doing. Though this would certainly be frowned upon in New York or London, one quickly got used to it. It didn’t seem particularly off-putting after seeing it the first few times. Though not pleasant, it was just a normal part of everyday life.
In rural India, we came upon another sight unfamiliar to Western eyes: stacks of mud colored objects shaped like flattened soup bowls. At first I thought they were a form of roof tile, but then I learned they were cow patty cakes. Formed from straw and cow manure, they are burned to provide heat and to cook food. In the West, our sources of power are virtually invisible. The electricity and gas that supply us with heat and cooking fuel come through wires or pipes concealed inside our walls. In rural India, however, this common power source is right out there in the open. It is hand made from a widely available material: cow dung. Indian women (and it is usually the women) form these cakes from fresh manure and straw and slap them onto the walls of their homes to dry. To Western sensibilities, cow patty cakes are unpleasant or even repugnant. But in a land with a scarcity of other inexpensive sources of fuel, these disks are highly prized and widely utilized. And, like the bucket baths, they are environmentally friendly.
Varanasi, one of the most spiritual cities in India, was our last stop on the tour, and it here, on the banks of the Ganges River, that I was exposed to an ultimate example of how private things for us in the West can be reversed in this country. Varanasi is one of the oldest inhabited spots on Earth and it is often called “the city of learning and burning.” Learning because so many great thinkers and scholars from here contributed to India’s culture. And burning because of the cremations that take place on the ghats of the Ganges, stepped sections of the embankment leading down to the river. We received a small taste of the learning part of the equation during a drive through the lovely, leafy campus of Banaras Hindu University, which has a student body rivalling that of our largest universities. It was during a night-time boat ride on the Ganges that we witnessed the burning. Public cremations take place on the Ganges all night and all day.
We witnessed the burning during a night-time boat ride on the Ganges, on a garland bedecked old wooden boat. During the first part of our ride, our captain anchored the boat across from the Dashashwamedh Ghat. Here, a group of priests performed the sublime Aarti ceremony. In synchronized, hypnotic movements they blessed the sacred river with ornate fire vessels and chanting. Hindus consider the water of the Ganges to be sacred and so pure that by bathing in it they can wash away their sins. People come from all over India to bath in this holy river. It is even more desirable to be cremated beside the Ganges. If after cremation one’s ashes are dropped into the Ganges, it is believed it that they will be released from the burdensome cycle of life and death. In the Hindu religion, this is the greatly sought after state called moksha.
After the Aarti ceremony, our boat headed for the middle of the river. There we were given little vessels of fresh flowers, each set with a burning candle, to lower into the river. Our guide chanted a blessing in Hindi as we did. It was a deeply moving and peaceful moment. I thanked God for being alive to participate in this sweet ritual.
Then the captain steered the boat to the Manikarnika Ghat, one of the most popular spots along the Ganges for cremation. When we arrived, staying a respectful distance from the shore, several cremations were already taking place. Mourners surrounded the bodies and bells were ringing. We could clearly see the shrouded bodies in the funeral pyres. It gave me an uncomfortable jolt.
For Hindus, death is a natural part of life, not something to push away out of thought and sight. I am sure they grieved at their loss, but nevertheless, being able to help one’s loved one transition this way was an occasion to celebrate. For me, however, a Westerner with little exposure to dead bodies, these public cremations were, to be honest, more than a little disturbing. It was too raw and too real. My previous exposure to the dead was extremely limited: my mother, my mother-in-law and two of my cats. And in each case, my impulse was to let the professionals take care of the bodies and not to linger. I remember feeling sick to my stomach as my mother’s coffin was lowered into the hole that would be her home for forever more.
As we sat watching the cremations, more bodies were arriving. The bodies were adorned in colorful wraps in festive colors. For the mourners, this was a magnificent way to send a loved one off to a better place. The mourners, we noticed, were all male. Traditionally, women were not welcome at these rituals because their sorrow would darken the mood of the event. The colorful wraps were removed before the cremations, leaving only a simple white shroud, because the wraps are made of materials that do not burn well. The bodies were then taken down to the river and bathed in the water. In some cases, water was even poured into the mouth of the deceased, which would help ensure the person would achieve moksha. The corpse was now ready to be placed on the pyre of hardwood logs and a special person born into this duty carried a sacred flame to the pyre and lit the wood. The bustle at the ghat continued unabated, each family crowding around the flames to pay their final respects to their departed one.
It was not easy to watch these cremations and I felt like a gawker, invading a deeply personal moment in the lives of these mourners. Yet it would be hypocritical not to admit that I respected what they were doing. They faced death head on, not hiding the corpse in a bulky coffin and turning the final rites over to a clergy person and a funeral home. In the West, death is the favored subject matter for ghoulish horror films about zombies and spooky Halloween costumes. It’s not unnatural to prefer life, but we make death something supernaturally gruesome. We place it as far from life as possible. We don’t want anything to do with it. But here in India, they give the departed a personal, hands on farewell. According to their beliefs, they were offering a great gift, the freedom from the endless and tiresome cycle of birth and rebirth. Instead this individual would experience peace.
In the West, we guard our privacy fiercely. I am no exception. I was even alarmed when I discovered that the new house we bought did not have a door between the bedroom and the bathroom. But, I wondered, are there things we do in public in the more developed countries that they do not do in India? All I can think of is that we exercise in public, running through the streets in tight shorts and skimpy tops. And we express our affections to our spouses or boyfriends or girlfriends more publicly, kissing and hugging them, and walking hand in hand. This is not done in India, not in the places we visited.
In general, though, things are more open in India. Would I want to take a bath in public or cook my food on a cow patty fire? No. But many of the things they do in public they do out of necessity. Many homes do not have indoor plumbing for toilets or tubs for bathing. Few homes have electricity or gas for cooking. But it isn’t the lack of such things that inspires the desire for the public cremations. These rites are deeply spiritual and a loving gift to the deceased. The inside-outness I found in India made me challenge some of my own rigid ideas of privacy. If nothing else, I envied their personal and fearless connection to death.
Carolyn Handler Miller (www.carolynmiller.com) is a writer who works across a variety of media. Originally beginning her career as a newspaper reporter and magazine journalist, Carolyn's projects spans TV, feature films, books and new media. She is one of the pioneering writers in the field of interactive narrative, where she has contributed to dozens of projects as a writer, writer-story designer, and consultant. She is the author of “Digital Storytelling (Third Edition): A Creator's Guide to Interactive Entertainment (http://tinyurl.com/digstorytelling3rded).