Burning ghats to burning gastric pain

Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
Trip End Mar 21, 2008

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Flag of India  ,
Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Both of our India videos are now uploaded!  See the Contents Page (entry #1) for all the videos.

Varanasi is one of India's holiest cities and through it flows the Ganga River, the holiest river in the country.  Hindus believe that dying here will mean they avoid all the inconvenience of being reincarnated as a donkey or a weed or whatever and will instead go straight to heaven.  Consequently, a lot of old people rock up here when they are feeling poorly and wait for nature to take its course.  Once they die, they are cremated on one of several big fires and their souls drift off to eternal happiness.  Or something like that.  If you fall into one of seven categories - for instance, pregnant woman, child under 10, snake bite victim, you are not eligible for cremation.  Instead, your body is wrapped in decorative material, rowed out into the middle of the Ganga and tipped over the side.
Hindus also believe that bathing in the Ganga has some holy benefits, like cleansing their soul or something.  The Ganga is dangerously polluted, partly due to the decomposing bodies that lie within it and partly due to the 45 raw sewage pipes that flow into it 24 hours a day.  Accordingly, the idea of 'cleaning' oneself in such disgusting water seems almost dangerously ironic.  It is just another example of the inflexibility of religion.  Centuries ago, when this practice began, the Ganga was probably quite clean and clear and suitable for bathing.  Now, even though it has been officially declared a health risk, and bathers are acquiring more gunk than they are removing, they blindly follow the instructions of their ancient texts.
The focal point of Varanasi are the ghats that line the banks of the Ganga.  A ghat is a wide row of steps that leads into the water, and this is where the people do their bathing (as well as their laundry and even some casual swimming).  There are about 25 ghats along the Varanasi part of the river, each with its own religious significance.  Bathing in one at a certain time will absolve certain sins, while a dip in another will recreate the actions of some god.  The best time to visit the ghats is first thing in the morning when all the pious men and women are washing themselves and the sun is just starting to rise on the far side of the river.  Along with all the other tourists, we rent a boat at sunrise and our driver rows lazily up and down the river.  The sun casts an orangey glow across the ghats as the believers soak and wash in the frigid morning water.
Later we stroll further up the banks of the Ganga to the 'burning ghats', where the newly dead people are brough to be cremated.  For obvious reasons the whole thing isn't really intended to be a tourist spectacle, although plenty of ignorant white folk stand on the fringes and gawk.  We are led by a talkative Indian chap up to a balcony where we get a bird's eye view of the proceedings.  The bodies are carried in on the shoulders of the male family members and placed atop one of several large pyres.  The pyres are separated into sections depending on which caste the deceased belonged to.  Women are not allowed in the vicinity, following an incident a few years back when a grieving widow threw herself on her dead husband's fire rather than face the indignity and social exclusion that being a widow causes.  The burning ghat operates 24 hours a day and each cremation takes a couple of hours before any remaining bones are unceremoniously scooped up and dumped in the river.  Remember, this is the same river that thousands of people bathe in on a daily basis.  The aroma of burning corpses is somewhat reduced by the sandalwood used on the fires but it still gives off a creepy smell (body odour if you like) that freaks Jane out a little bit.  she is further freaked out on the way back to the hotel as a group of men trot past carrying a dead body on their shoulders and bump into her.
On the evening of January 19, having spend two or three full days in Varanasi and looking forward to our train to Nepal the next morning, Jane starts to feel a little nauseous and has aches all over.  This is followed by a couple of trips to the bathroom and a fever.  When the fever is immediately replaced by chills, we decide it is time to seek help.  The hotel guys are very helpful and recommend Heritage Hospital, apparently the best in the province.  By this stage, Jane is not doing well - every stair we go down is a major effort and she is doubled over like a 90 year-old. 

The passage to the street is a narrow cobblestone alley, unlit and shared with unyielding cows and piles of their shit everywhere.  Then it turns into another narrow path crammed with stores selling souvenirs, pashminas and holy trinkets to do with dying in Varanasi.  Each previous time we had walked up or down this alley, we had swapped friendly banter with the persistent shospkeepers trying to get us to buy some saffron or a cheap plastic toy.  On his occasion, with my arm around my wife who is shivering and nearly crying in pain under her shawl, the merchants get short shrift. 

For once we are happy that there is a plentiful supply of cycle rickshaw drivers and I forego the usual fare negotiations and pretty much agree to the guy's initial price.  Auto-rickshaws (tuk tuks) are not allowed in this part of the city so we have to rely on the skinny legs of some poor little man to get us to the hospital ASAP.  When we took a cycle rickshaw from the train station to our hotel the other day, I had asked if I could try driving.  They are actually very difficult vehicles to control; not only are you riding a 30 year-old, one-gear bicycle with part-time brakes and no suspension on a pot hole-ridden road, but you also have two people sitting on a raised seat behind you.  Within thirty seconds I crashed into a stationery bicycle and veered into a ditch before the driver haughtily wrested back control of his rickshaw.

Anyway, this driver is quite young and fit and he powers his way along the bumpy streets to Heritage Hospital.  Of all the 23 countries on our itinerary, India was probably top of the list of places we wouldn't like to go to hospital.  Having now been in India for three weeks, seeing the amount of dirt, lack of hygiene and the unending crowds of people, we are not optimistic.  It is a pleasant surprise, then, when we stagger into the hospital foyer and a man greets us straight away, leads us to an examination room and a doctor sees us within five minutes.  He performs the usual doctorly pokes and prods on Jane, strokes his chin, and says to me solemnly, "Mr Morrison, please come with me".  In another little room he says he would like to admit Jane for observation and asks my permission.  "Well, she's right there in the other room, ask her yourself", I thought but just said yes.

We are led through some concrete corridors to a very spacious private ward.  It is actually bigger and more posh than any hotel room we have had so far.  Apart from Jane's hospital bed, there is a TV, an armchair, a couch, a bed for me and an ensuite bathroom.  The ensuite bathroom proves very useful, as Jane is now in the full throes of diarrhoea.  Every ten minutes we have to unhook her IV bottle, carry it to the bathroom and expel some more . . . well, you get the picture.  This continues all through the night, while nurses and orderlies come and go constantly, changing the IV bottles, making all sorts of injections (we estimate about ten altogether), administering various antibiotics and painkillers.  To be quite honest, I don't know how Jane copes with it all.  The ten minute diarrhoea cycle would have been bad enough, but I don't think I could handle the needle in the wrist thing and having to go through it all night while suffering from agonising stomach cramps and a splitting headache.  I think I would have made enquiries about the hospital's euthanasia programme before morning.

Somehow she does soldier on.  The doctor visits us in the morning, with an entourage of at least six obedient functionaries trailing behind him, ready to have orders barked at them.  He asks a couple of cursory questions, says something in Hindi that causes one of the minions to scurry away, then turns on his heel and marches out.  "Uh, hang on, doc", I call after him.  "Any chance you could tell us what is wrong with Jane?"  "Well", he says, slightly surprised at my question, "it looks like a severe infection but we won't know for sure until Monday".  Today is Saturday.  We have a train ticket for this morning and we start our volunteer programme in Kathmandu on Wednesday.  Well, health is the main thing and everything else will just have to wait.

Later that day, I start to get a really bad headache, followed by aches and a chill that a heater and two blankets cannot stop.  This is quickly followed by a couple of bouts of diarrhoea and - almost simultaneously - the puking up of my chow mein dinner.  We assume that we were both hit by the same bug, whatever it was, but that Jane's is clearly much worse than mine. 

By the next morning (Sunday), I am fine, while poor old Jane is still getting the gut-wrenching cramps and crapping out bits of her insides on a regular basis.  By this stage, her poor suffering, overworked backside has even started to poo out blood, due to the 100-plus times she has had to 'powder her nose'.  Her hands are aching and icy cold because of the IV tube that has been continually inserted into her various veins and the nurses are running out of places on her body that have not yet been injected.

When Monday rolls around, Jane finally starts to feel better.  She is able to eat some sloppy gruel stuff and her motions are much less frequent.  The doctor, on one of his daily whistlestop visits, tells us that we can leave tomorrow.

To be continued . . .
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Prakasam on

Spend some years to raise your ability to perceive beyond sensory inputs and inferences of the intellect, then come back to Kashi and ... you'll be overwhelmed and silent.

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