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My Rickshaw joined the stream of traffic at the end of the airport road and turned in the direction of the city of Patna. The scene was one not to be forgotten. Three taxis from the airport bumped through the potholes and the fog into the distance and out of sight. After that we were part of a great fleet of rickshaws, of which there were possibly fifty in view, all keeping up with each other, while the pullers—as they were still called—pedalled along as if under the orders of an invisible captain. No sound came from them but the dry grinding of bicycle chains, the rattle of mudguards and the horse-like snort with which they cleared dust and mucus from their nasal passages. Muffled against the cold and fog, the pullers looked like Henry Moore's shrouded shelterers in the wartime Tube, or like Ethiopian refugees with only their stick-thin legs showing below their tattered body wrappings, or like Lazaruses called from the dead. The single change in this prospect wrought by modern times was the presence of towering advertisement hoardings, closing off both sides of the road to form continuous ramparts for mile after mile. Floodlit faces radiating joy through the twilight and thickening fog praised Japanese stereos, Scotch whisky, wise investments, luxury footwear and packaged food. Nearing the city the gap left between the bottom of the hoardings and the earth provided glimpses of the homeless, scattered like the victims of a massacre, singly and in groups, who had claimed these uncontested spaces to settle for the night. In the Indian context there would have been nothing exceptional in this apart from the advertisements, and it was these that added a brush stroke of the macabre.
A power failure had cancelled out the city's centre and added it to suburbs glutted with shadows, with sleepers picked out by the headlights who had dumped themselves among the rubbish, and the stealthy inscrutable movements of those who chose to remain awake. From this obscurity the Mauriya Patna hotel, rescued by its generators, stood apart in an oasis of light. Patna had fallen into a coma. The Mauriya overbrimmed with almost unnatural vivacity. There were big events afoot. WELCOME TO THE BALLOONISTS said a large notice in the lobby, and a small one on the reception counter warned that, since the next day was a public holiday, the hotel palmist would not be on duty as usual. It regretted the inconvenience that patrons might suffer. In the absence of separate public rooms a small area to the rear held two long opulent settees upon which rows of guests sat facing each other in a kind of expectant silence. While waiting for the reception clerk to cope with the lengthy formalities involved in checking in I took my seat here. Indians are not necessarily outgoing with their own people, but often fall spontaneously into an easy and informal relationship with foreigners. It came as no surprise to be asked by the man sitting next to me, quite courteously and without preamble, who I was, where I was from, and what were my immediate plans. 'I am Mr Mandhar Chawra,' he said, 'Inspector of Works. You will be here to see the balloon?'
When I said I was not, he was surprised. He was a small, neat man with a pleasant expression and thick black hair, and nostrils drawn back as if to sniff the odour of cooking of which he approved. 'It is an event', he said, 'to break the monotony of our life. Something we are all looking to. Have you ever been in Patna before?'
I said I had not, and Mr Chawra said, 'Oh, you will like it. In our country we call it the City of Kings. It is having a bad press, but do not believe half you hear.'
The key was handed over and Mr Chawra and I parted company in the hope, as we assured each other, of watching the arrival of the balloon together on the morrow. I went up to my room for a shower in a lift that warbled soft Hindu music at me as soon as the door closed. The view through the bedroom window was of a swimming pool lightly feathered by fog and with what appeared as a dark bulk afloat in it. Accounts of happenings in this town during the recent election made this at the time seem a little sinister, although by morning it had gone.
The fog was slow to lift next day. The neighbourhood people were still swaddled voluminously in African style, or wearing ragged ponchos like those to be seen in the depressed cities of Latin America. I braced myself for a reconnaissance. The hotel had been built with an optimistic vista of the park, Gandhi Maidan, but, turning with some reluctance away from this in the direction of the business centre, I was plunged instantly into a slum. Patna is the capital of Bihar, unanimously recognised by Indians as the most atrociously governed of the Indian states, thus the metropolis of civic abuse. A minor official in Delhi had mentioned that one fifth of the population slept on the streets, and at the moment of my arrival the mass daily resurrection of these multitudes was in progress, although those with any reason to get up were already pitched into the business of survival.
Perhaps the medieval warrens of Europe were like this. This was the place where an empty beer-bottle had its price, where a worn-out lorry tyre provided material for a dozen pairs of shoes, and tea in the bottom class of teashop was swilled from hollowed-out gourds. Men practised their crafts in workshops like enormous rabbit hutches raised upon wooden posts above the cluttered one-man factories at street level. Every square foot of earth was put to one commercial use or another, with occasional lanes patrolled by cows splashed liberally with their dung. The cows fascinated me; clean, sensitive, delicately stepping animals that dealt so effortlessly with the maelstrom of traffic and coped with all the imperatives of urban civilisation. I had observed in India before how easily they fall into a routine. Here they were doing the rounds of the town in search of food, gobbling up windfalls of wood-shavings, packaging materials and old newspapers, although quietly nuzzling aside the plastic.
Families lived under sheets of plastic stretched in every angle of the walls, in burrowings among collapsed masonry, on the roofs of houses about to crumble, in dried-up wells, sections of drainpipes (although there were no drains), and in the husks of crashed cars after every utilisable part had been stripped away. There was no room here for the luxury of privacy in the movement of the bowels. Men defecated candidly, without effort or concealment. Five citizens stood in line to piss on or around the feet of the film actor Ramarao, shown in a large poster in the part of a god who looked down with aversion as the yellow trickles joined a black mainstream drawing its tributaries of fermenting liquid from the piled-up rubbish. Perhaps the men did this in token of their displeasure at his performance—there was no way of knowing.
The advertisements were everywhere: great, gloating faces adding their surrealism to those scenes of famine, barely contained, of bodies like cadavers awaiting dissection, of excrement, urine, mucus and phlegm, ALWAYS A STEP AHEAD WITH LIBERTY SHOES ... FOR THEM ONLY THE BEST ... THE TRUE FLAVOUR OF THE GLEN ... LET'S PLAY THE FUTURE TOGETHER. On whom were these inducements and appeals targeted?
A Mr Singh, an insurance claims adjuster down on a flying visit from the capital whose acquaintance I had made in the hotel bar, was happy to reveal what he believed was the trickery involved. 'The people who are spending their money in this way may be under the misapprehension that they are buying prime space in Delhi,' he said, 'where it happens that there is a street of the same name.'
Back in the Mauriya, the news was disappointing. A notice had gone up:
WILLS CIGARETTES BALLOONING ACROSS INDIA EXPEDITION 1990
The Wills balloon 'Indra Dharnust' will take off between 14.30 and 15.30 hours subject to favourable weather conditions instead of 11.30 hours as announced earlier.
Mr Chawra was at my elbow. 'I see we will be wasting time,' he said. 'This is problem of weather. We must only hope that there will be no further delay.'
The balloon was to take off from a spot marked by a small circle of whitewash on the grass of the Maidan about 200 yards from the hotel, all of whose rooms overlooking the scene had long since been reserved. The last of the fog, still adhering here and there like tufts of wool to the grimy façades of the city, was clearing away, and the sun shafting through the clouds haloed a patient group of early arrivals. I would have expected a crowd of those who had not been notified of the postponement to have gathered by now, but the Maidan was surprisingly empty. I mentioned this to Mr Chawra, who said, 'Actually many are not attending in the belief that they have nothing suitable to put on.'
Suddenly the hotel staff seemed to have disappeared. At the reception only the lurking figure of a man whose sole job appeared to be to hand out and receive keys was to be seen. The travel bureau was closed. The porter had slipped away. At the back of the lobby two lines of guests faced each other on the settees, and no one stirred. An out of order notice had been fastened to the lift door. A card left on the palmist's desk held promise. 'On this day the horoscope for all of us is favourable.'
'The thing is what to do with myself,' I said to Mr Chawra.
'Understandably so,' he said. 'Normally in Patna there are many things to occupy the time. When we are holiday-making it is different.'
He was from Gaya he told me, describing it as a provincial hole, and seemed to be happily stimulated by the mere knowledge that he was now in the capital. 'Patna', he said, 'is the centre of my little world. There are people who come to Patna to drive over the bridge to the middle of river. Here they are stopping to make a wish. This is lucky.'
'Isn't there a museum?' I asked.
'There is none better. It is famous for its archaeological sculptures from Maurya and Gupta periods.'
'In that case I may as well give it the once over.'
'Today it is shut,' Chawra said. 'There is also the famous Khudabaksh Library containing many unique volumes. This, too, is closed for holiday. Continually I am arguing that all these places must remain open when there is opportunity for the public to see them.'
'What about the famous grain store?'
'You are referring to the Gholgar built by your Warren Hastings? It is a must, but unfortunately at this moment the only view is of outside as the interior is under reconstruction.'
'Any suggestions, then?' I asked.
'Yes,' he said. 'You should visit the burning ghats here. This is my word of advice. They are very interesting.'
'In what way, would you say?'
'Because they a natural sight to be seen. In Gaya also we have such ghats, but in Patna they are more select. Today is Sankranti, which for us is first festival of the year. Many people will be coming to immerse their bodies in river, also there will be many burnings. As a foreigner this is interesting for you to see.'
The driver of the taxi I took had no more than four or five words of English. Mr Chawra, who had decided to stay in the hotel in case some freak of the weather brought the balloon in to land earlier than expected, told him to take me to the ghats. The driver nodded in confirmation. 'Crematorium,' he said. 'This is a new word they are all using,' Chawra explained. 'He will take you to the ghats.' At the end of the short ride, nevertheless, I found myself shoved through a gate into a dismal shed. This was the new electric crematorium which, had I known, could have been avoided by a nearby path leading down to the river. Here a scarecrow human figure materialised in the gloom, signalling to me with desperate gestures to accompany him. I found myself staring up at what appeared to be a bundle of rags stuffed into a niche in the wall. This was some funerary goddess. An offering was clearly expected. I handed over five rupees, had paste smeared upon my forehead as equivalent of a receipt, then, taken off my guard, found myself peering through an oven door which had suddenly been flung open to reveal a shapeless carbonised mass. Seconds later, reaching daylight and fresh air once again, I found myself holding a leaflet in Sanskrit characters and in English.Low rate burning for families. Discount satisfaction. Ashes for river in 45 minutes.
What was on offer was a cut-price although ritually unsatisfactory passage through the portals of this life into the reincarnation appropriate to the state of the dead man's karma. All those who could raise the money saw to it that they were burned with proper ceremony on a pile of freshly cut and fragrant wood at the edge of the great river into which their remains would be most carefully stirred.
At Patna the Ganges, fed by important tributaries, becomes very wide, a placid unruffled flood, green and opaque in the shallows, then lightening to the milky aquarelle of the distant shore, with its line of palms, on this occasion, sketched in on a ribbon of mist. I noted that a few patches of pinkish scum floating at the water's edge were mixed with straw and ash from a recent burning. On the ghat the scene was a lively one devoid even of token solemnity. Children in their holiday best romped noisily up and down the long flights of steps to the water. A few dogs, even, had slipped past the guards posted at the gates to discourage intrusion by persons of the scheduled castes, previously known as untouchable. Funeral parties entered the enclosure by a separate gate and thus, distanced from the holiday crowd, carried their bier to the music of horns and flutes down to the readied pyres they had been allotted. A hundred or two yards upstream those who hoped to refurbish their spiritual lives by a simple process poured water over their heads, torsos and arms, before immersion. These operations conducted with some grace appeared almost as a ballet, in slow motion. Midway between the groups concerned with this life and those with the next, a man who had arrived on a bicycle unstrapped a large vacuum flask from its carrier, and clambered down the slope to fill it with holy water, evidently for drinking purposes.
The most notable burning that afternoon was of a man whose impressive cortège included a portly Brahmin priest and a photographer with an assistant carrying a battery of cameras. The dead man could have been in his forties, and such had been the mortician's artistry that the semblance of a face flushed with health suggested a man taking a nap after a good meal rather than one that would never rise again. A bed had been made up on piled tree-trunks and on this the corpse dressed in white pyjamas was laid. A flowered coverlet, brought along seemingly as an afterthought, was removed from its plastic wrapping and spread in position. An English-speaking mourner, spotting a European face, came over eager for a chance to speak well of a friend. 'We were all admiring this man for his positive attitudes,' he said. 'Yesterday he announced that he proposed to depart this world on this day, and this he did.' The English speaker was called away to take his place in the group gathering at the head of the bier. The photographer crouched, Pentax levelled, the priest raised a hand to signify that all was ready and the shot was taken. With this, to my surprise, the party broke up, turned their backs and began to walk away. Someone snatched off the coverlet and pushed it back into its plastic envelope. The body was. covered with light, combustible material and the dead man's son, abandoned by the rest, approached to apply the match.
On the circuitous stroll back to the centre I paused to study the work in progress on a new building going up at tremendous speed. The building was destined to become a block of flats, and when finished was certain to be outwardly indistinguishable from a similar construction in any city of the West, yet at first glance it was no more than an enormous example of cottage industry.
Although elsewhere in the city all work appeared to have come to a stop, here this was not the case. The first floor, unfinished, sprouted a forest of spindly tree-trunks upon which the one above would be supported, and this teemed with busily occupied figures. A load of bricks had been dumped by the roadside and a team of girls who appeared to be between fifteen and eighteen years of age were carrying these into a position within easy reach of the bricklayers. Each girl, assisted by another, stacked eleven bricks on the platform on her head—a burden which she carried with unfaltering step and even a kind of absent-minded dignity for twenty yards or so to the waiting bricklayer, before returning to be laden as before. I picked up a brick and estimated its weight as at least five pounds. Thus the total load would have been over fifty pounds. I knew that it was one I could never have carried. These tribal girls were contract or (illegally) bonded labourers, recruited in all probability from destitute families who had lost their land and were now prisoners of a system to which many millions of Indians are subjected and from which there is no escape. There is no secret about the abuses to which they are exposed, and the current number of the Illustrated Weekly of India, reporting on a seemingly immutable situation, revealed nothing that was new. 'They are ruthlessly exploited', said the newspaper, 'by labour contractors who are hand in glove with officials. Men are paid 12 rupees (42p) and women 10 rupees (35p) for a 10-hour day.'
Excerpted from A Goddess in the Stones by Norman Lewis. Copyright © 1991 Norman Lewis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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