Letter to a Stranger – To The Stray in Varanasi

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Perhaps it was unavoidable for your death to be a mere sideshow in a city where death is ubiquitous. Die in Varanasi, and you’ll never come back—that’s what the believers say. It’s a place where people go to be cremated by the shores of the Ganga, the prodigious river that seeps down from the Himalayas out into the Bay of Bengal, purifying all that it submerges. Death in Varanasi confers a special karmic cleansing on a person tired of the protracted cycle of birth and death—it offers them a way off the ride, to a state called moksha.  

I went to Varanasi specifically to see death. If you ever came to my country, you’d understand how death was, for me, a leaden figure obscured from view like a virgin behind a black screen, as though modesty and shame were its chief concerns. To catch a glimpse of it was to exploit an oversight. I was driven by the kind of anxious curiosity that makes you check under the bed at night before turning the lights out, that draws your eye into the mangled particulars of roadkill.

What I really wanted was to be like you: someone who’d seen the whole act, many times through. I loved life—at that time, it was the freedom of backpacking, the giddiness of possibility, the spice that burned my insides. I wanted to live as many lives as I could. I dreaded the idea of an ending, of letting go—which is why I wanted to see death up close. You ate death for breakfast, lapping it up from puddles and breathing it in with the bonfire smoke as you watched countless bodies burn with a yawn, a stretch, and a back-leg scratch behind the ear. I wanted the same kind of acceptance, and to understand why a release from repeated lives was something to be desired.