(I do not own the pictures used in this post, but the writing is solely mine.)
If you were there, you wouldn’t have been able to bear the heat. The smell of singeing flesh and charring bones would have been too much for your feeble senses. The raging fires, dotting the entire ghat, would have blinded you.
I wonder if you can imagine what it feels like to me. To me, it smells like opportunity, seemingly evil, but I wouldn’t expect you to understand. The heat caresses me every day, and the flesh and bones are the essence of my being.
I photograph corpses, the ones brought for the final rites at this ghat.
I ply my trade every day, without fail. The dead don’t celebrate holidays, I’m given to believe. The irony of it, though. I have seen many a silent visage during my job. Their people wrap them up in shrouds and adorn them with flowers, all of which the river unflinchingly carries away.
They say this river washes away your sins. I perpetuate the notion because my livelihood depends on it. So, if you find me around, I will tell you how the dirtiest water in the country shall carry the burden of your wrongdoings, simply because you choose to believe it.
I have to hawk my services around like a vendor. People want to treasure their loved ones in a grim posthumous portrait, the logic of which eludes me, but one which I refrain from questioning. I always carry my overused digital camera with me. The emotions clouding the individuals around me make my job easier because people seldom seem to notice the quality of the pictures in this state. I just need to break in and convince them to choose me as the carrier of their memory. The result seldom matters. Although the same turmoil makes the payment process a pain too.
I’ve been in this business for quite some time. I don’t feel the pain anymore. I have numbed myself to anything that could interfere with the tattered notes counted at the end of the day. Sometimes, just sometimes, I stare at those lifeless faces, in the reddish hue of the developing room, and I am paralyzed. I think about their lives and their circumstances, and their bitter heartbreaks and losses. I have to remind myself that all of that had ceased to exist and that the truth is dancing naked in front of me – I have a pregnant wife and two children to feed. But I’m human too, or so I choose to believe.
The sun bubbled out of nowhere that morning, as always, splashing the holy river with its crimson glitter. I sat by the water, basking in the glory of the tender rays, gently dipping my legs in the cool murky fluid, waiting. This has always been one of the best parts of my day. There is a strange peace in watching the faint awakening of life. The embers were dying, and grey ash flew about, filling the air with its light flakes. The ashes possess a sense of finality, of the inevitability that is the stop sign on this journey.
A group of people moved towards the ghat in hushed tones. No funeral procession, no chants, just silence. In the name of bread, I went ahead with my equipment. As I approached the group, they slowed down. All of them were wearing dull colors.
A woman, in her twenties, her eyes bloodshot with the ache of loss and longing, glared right at me. She seemed to stare into the very depths of my soul, as only a body ravaged with the pangs of hopelessness can. You rarely see women here, a product of our patriarchal delusions. I reached out courageously and asked if they would like me to photograph, looking for a body all the while. I could see none.
Suddenly, a strange bundle caught my eye, ensconced protectively within the arms of the woman.
“Here, hold. Click, if that’s what you want.” Her voice was cold as ice, devoid of emotion.
I stopped breathing. My feet were stuck to the dusty ground, which suddenly felt hot and parched.
She thrust a small white bundle into my hands. It felt blue and heavy. The contour of tiny, hollow bones pressed into my fingers, sinking deeper and deeper.
A withered face, caught in the eye of an all-consuming storm, never returning. I could not bear to look at it anymore. A few months old. Just a few months. My insides squirmed, and my eyes felt hot with tears. I tried to imagine what the woman must be going through. I couldn’t.
In a cruel flash, my mind wandered towards my own pregnant wife, the promise of a healthy child wrapped safely in her womb. I looked at the infant again, at the irretrievable curve of its smile, and I could not stand it anymore. I carefully returned the cold bundle back, shaking all the while. I fell in a heap.
I lay still. Infants are usually buried, but I could make out the faint odor of a fresh pyre, growing intense by the minute. The heat felt chilly to me, as if the little life was defying the effort of the blaze. Or maybe it was because of my freezing veins. Her voice still echoed in my bones, banging against the dark recesses of my mind.
I could see my cracked reflection in the camera screen.
The river started swelling as the sky gathered dense grey clouds.
I should have clicked my own picture that day.