The drowsy boatman yawned as he waited for the five o’clock tide to hit the side of the ghat. He had nothing but a few cigarettes and a tiny cell phone in his pocket, with a number of rupees to spare. Most would go to his boss – some maybe to his family, and anything he had left would go to the bottle of Jack Daniel’s he truly wanted more than anything. He was still buzzing – if he sniffed for more than a few seconds he could smell his vomit on the dock, now swarming with flies. But the work day started whenever his boss called him, and it ended whenever he called him again. He never called, so the workday never ended.
It was better than sitting in that stinking, hot, tiny shack, up town in a group of slums off the side of the railroad track. Seven family members shared it: him, his father, his grandfather, his wife, his sister, and his two sons, and all of them couldn’t spend enough time at home. He was lucky to have two sons – his father-in-law made him rid the family of their newborn daughter a few months prior. With two growing boys to feed, he could never get enough to eat. His wife was definitely depressed after being forced to throw her away, but what choice did she have? A girl, another mouth? Someone who might grow up poor and have to prostitute herself and bring shame to the family? No, it was better this way.
Honor this, shame that, yelling every minute of the day over a crock-pot of dhal and a patty of day-old naan. He couldn’t stand it, but thankfully he’d been able to control his anger enough to get himself out of the house without hitting anybody. Liquor was a gift from God, and any time he trudged drunkenly down to the docks he felt like Superman. He’d once seen a fat tourist – he might’ve said he was from Munich – in his boat wearing an overstretched Superman shirt. He jokingly asked for it, to give to his firstborn son for his eighth birthday, and the tourist angrily refused. The tip after that ride was meagre, but he was lucky his boss hadn’t stolen it.
It was a constant battle between embittered family and embittered work, working the ghats at Varanasi. The holiest city in Hinduism had suddenly become exposed to a cash-crop of paryataka coming from the West to find their inner peace on the banks of the Ganges. Sure, life continued as it always had for anyone who could afford to treat Varanasi like a ritual place, and could go home after morning prayer and Aarti in the evening, but for boatmen like him, once slumdogs who played in the alleys behind the older areas of the city, it was money in the making.
His father, his grandfather, his great-grandfather – they had all been boatmen. And they lived as indentured servants, which to any other caste might sound like a disaster, but to their family it was as good as life could get. The noble who paid them could trace his line from the Mughal king Aurangzeb, and owned a palace just south of the city, but his family had left forty years prior for Fiji and Australia for better fortunes once their inheritances ran out. Their palace was turned into a temple, and the family lost their home.
It was a sacred right to be a boatman of the Mallaah Caste on the Ganges in the City of Shiva – the city at the end of the world. Even when his family left the palace and settled by the railroad tracks they were given the proper respect by passers by. Mallaah was painted on their tin door, and they were paid well for their services. They were one of the few Mallaah families that could truly trace their lineage from the Gods – his ancestors were direct servants of Shiva, and were alleged to have aided the formless God in ridding Varanasi of the saltwater crocodiles that would send fishermen to their graves further up the river. His family was responsible for allowing pilgrims to swim in the river. But no one cared anymore.
After the surge of the paryataka at the turn of the millennium, greedy godless capitalists from Delhi and Lucknow began buying new boats and employing henchmen to sink and batter the old ones. The boatman’s father had lost his boat to a marauding band of PalmPilot-wielding criminals – he hadn’t the money to replace it, and took employ from an entrepreneur from Agra named Umma who promised to compensate him for his losses. Of course, Indian lies prevailed, and Umma badmouthed his father and his family all over town, to other employers, to other boatmen. The boatman’s father was trapped, and so was his son – once an applicant to Benares Hindu University across town for Engineering, now forever damned to sit in a boat and paddle against the current so foreigners could enjoy a spectacular sunrise over a rising pile of garbage on the Ganges’ southern bank.
The boatman ignored yet another text from his wife, a bride betrothed to him by a friend of his late mother’s, asking him to bring home a bag of flour once he was done. She knew how awful his boss was to him, but she didn’t care – she was a miserable woman, twenty-eight years old to his thirty-six, who hated him more than she could hate Ravana on Diwali. It was as if she wanted him to beat her, even though he tried so desperately not to. His father egged him on, his father-in-law egged him on, his grandfather egged him on, but he couldn’t bring himself, drunk or sober, to hit his wife harder than a light slap. His friends on the docks taunted him for it, called him womanly, insulted his moustache and lean-muscled appearance to their portliness and hairiness – it hurt, but he couldn’t change who he was. He was a boatman who wouldn’t lift an oar out of the water.
He finally crawled out of his boat and checked his small Timex watch: five-fifteen. Any minute one or two or even six paryataka would come to his boat and ask him for a ride. But as usual he would have to deflect every question to Umma, who spoke fluent English. He was told not to speak until the tourists were in the boat, and even then he was told to only speak in broken sentences – a former A-student, he could easily talk his boss in circles in English, but he was out of his caste and out of his element taking on a man above him. And there the first batch came: four, all tall, all round, all with cameras and fanny packs.
He called them “sun-risers”, and these were the first. The boatman yawned and grasped his long, splintered oars. He cracked his knuckles with a squeeze to each and looked up at the four white figures. Umma was with them, stroking his curled, black moustache. He distastefully eyed the boatman and turned back to the tourists he’d been able to corral from the ghat behind him.
“This is going to be so amazing!” exclaimed one.
“Such a beautiful experience – I can’t believe this is our last day in India!” said another. The third, her husband, yawned beside her. “We’re going home tomorrow! Back to Indiana! So much to tell Aunt Joan – she’ll want to see all our pictures!”
“And this is your rower,” said Umma, his accent bouncing off each word like a beach ball. “You pay at the end.” The boatman nodded courteously as the four paryataka lumbered into the boat. “Whoa, whoa, be careful. These boats are nearly one hundred years old! I think this one is two hundred!” The four sun-risers gave a few “oohs” and “ahs”.
Umma turned to the boatman.
“One hour. Until six-fifteen – got it?” he asked in Hindi. The boatman nodded. “And don’t be a stupid fool who tries to keep your tips away from me. I don’t like it when I have to take cheese away from rats. I don’t like seeing your children with full stomachs, Engineer, even though for some reason people never like you enough to give you much more than my breakfast money.” The boatman silently lowered his head, pushed off the dock with one oar, and backpaddled with the other. He could see his boss’s beady, fierce eyes shining through the fading moonlight – the ghats began to light up as the horizon turned from black to blue.
The paryataka yammered on as he swung the boat around and broke the clear, calm water with his large, rustic oars. The chants of the morning were only beginning – he saw a Brahman to his left performing yoga at the water’s edge. A few broken lotus petals floated by them, remnants of the Aarti ceremony the night before. He was awake then, too, watching the Shaivic dancers perform their rituals. Even as a Hindu he barely understood it – he always preferred numbers and science, which was one of the reasons he was one of the few Hindus in Varanasi to refuse to wade daily in the Ganges. He always heard the sun-risers talk about how much they wanted to go in – why? Cholera? Bacteria? He’d once drunkenly fallen off his boat – it was as close as the he himself had come to actual spiritual “ecstasy”.
That, and the Jack Daniel’s in his stomach.
“Wow, look at how they light up!” said the first sun-riser wondrously. “It’s a miracle!”
“But they have so many Gods – how on earth are you supposed to tell them about Jesus?” asked the second.
“Honey, Indians don’t care about Jesus,” retorted her husband.
“Well everyone should care about Jesus – I mean who made Vishnu the king of the universe, anyway? And what Hindu God died for their sins?”
“Remember what they said at the Taj Mahal? If India wanted to embrace a one-God faith they’d usually pick Islam.”
“Oh for Heaven’s sake,” snapped his wife. The boatman, his head down, was suddenly awoken from the hypnotizing rhythm of his oars from a snapping noise at the back of the boat.
It was one of the women, a round, sunburnt beast twice the size of his own wife. She had two lines of sunscreen down her nose, and her rolls of arm-fat shook as she snapped her fingers at him.
“Hello? Umm, hello? Na-Ma-Stay?” she asked loudly – her own accent twanged off each word. The boatman let go of his oars for a moment and put his hands together, bowing. He picked them up immediately and kept rowing without a word. “Do you…do you know who Jesus is?”
He nodded, and it was at this point in every journey he liked to make it very clear that he was much smarter and less corrupt than his boss despite his orders against it. It was here where he got his tips, where he hid his rupees from his boss in between the toes of his shoe. He was never caught, and Umma thought he was just a poor boatman. It was one of the benefits of his caste – firing a Mallaah, despite how Umma tarnished his father’s reputation, was an extremely unethical move bordering on cultural sacrilege.
“Yes, I know who Jesus was – he is the son of God in your Christian faith who died on the cross for the sins of the Western World.” The boatman’s accent was lighter than Umma’s, which suddenly made him all the more engaging to the four sun-risers, as well as blasphemous at that moment.
“Well, actually, he’s the son of God, period, and he died for your sins too,” she replied reprimandingly.
“No, no, they need to learn – he’s been worshipping a million Gods for way too long,” she retorted. The second husband aboard the boat pulled out an enormous camera and began shooting photographs of the ghats along the river. To the boatman, it was where he worked. To the paryataka, the rows of riverside temples and sunrise bathers were something out of legend and time.
“Are you a missionary?” asked the boatman. “I know there is a mission outside of town.” The woman laughed.
“Oh, me? No honey, I’m just worried about your soul!” Her voice had a Southern American twang that he was used to – mostly, the paryataka were a little quieter and more photo-savvy. But he’d experienced women like her before. It was just best to let her talk at him for a while until the sun rose.
“What’s your name?” asked her husband.
“My name is…”
“Oh don’t even start, whatever your name is I’m never going to be able to pronounce it,” laughed the woman. “I only stopped pronouncing yesterday’s guide’s name Ray-ya-vee instead of Ra-vi. We’ll call you Thomas. That’s a good American Christian name.”
“Yes, but my name is…”
“Tut tut tut tut, your name is Thomas. I don’t want to make myself look bad by pronouncing it wrong.” The boatman watched her husband give him an apologetic glance before he himself pulled out an enormous camera. They passed a particularly fortress-looking temple, with a row of Brahmins wading into the pool. He looked over his shoulder – the Burning Ghat was still burning, which according to tradition meant Varanasi would live and die another day.
“Look behind you and you’ll see the Burning Ghat,” he said, like a schoolteacher. “Every day five hundred bodies are burned. People come to Varanasi from all over India to have their elders cremated here. It’s said to break the cycle of reincarnation…”
“Out in the open?!” exclaimed the Christian woman in horror. “Like a Burning Man festival?”
“I heard about that,” said her friend. “My friend from work, Pyaal…Pyaal Singh, she came here last year to empty her mother’s ashes into the Ganges with her brother. I didn’t know she could have had her mother cremated here, too.”
“That’s barbaric!” exclaimed the Christian woman. She turned to the boatman. “Well in Indiana we certainly don’t do that. We get the ashes at the funeral and put them in the ground. I can’t imagine my mother being burnt out in public! Was yours, Thomas?” The boatman nodded – it wasn’t hard to cremate a woman who’d died in Varanasi at the Burning Ghat. Piles of bodies could burn at the same time – with more than eight hundred million Hindus, India was not a country for timetables and schedules when it came to funerals.
His mother had died of an ailment that struck both his grandmother and his mother at the same time: leprosy. When Varanasi began to expand past its means after the death of Indira Gandhi, diseases ran rampant through the city. His brother died of cholera, his mother-in-law died of a yeast infection, and his mother and grandmother both contracted leprosy. His newborn daughter wasn’t the only one of his children to be discarded – his wife gave birth to a son who contracted leprosy at only a few months old. They held five funerals for the family on the same day, and then moved on. Life and death were moving themes of Varanasi, and all the ailing, sick lower castes could do was embrace them.
Suddenly, from the eastern Ganges, the sun rose like an eternal phoenix, growing orange and red in the tropical heat over the nondescript southern bank. The four paryataka leaned over the side of the boat – the boatman shifted his weight and stopped his paddling as he let his boat turn around on its own, following the current back to the docks. They shifted around again, nearly capsizing themselves. The boatman watched a man submerge himself on the southern bank. He held his hands above his head, cupping the polluted water in his fingers, drenching himself in the sacred nectar of this holy city. The gods had touched this man some way, some way the boatman never had fully been able to understand despite his daily visits to the temple of Hanuman a mile north of the ghats. Monkeys jumped out and around his head, the bells rang, the people chanted, then cheered.
Because that’s just what happened every day in Varanasi. Boat or no boat, Umma or no Umma, paryataka or no paryataka, God in Varanasi was always watching. Even Umma made concessions to the boatman’s worship, his pretend praying – even Umma allowed the boatman to put down his oars every afternoon to pray. On his own or with his family, he prayed. Always with the dalits and sudras – the Mallaah were arguably higher than both – but what could he expect with such a low income living such a repetitive life? Drink, paddle, family, repeat. Yell, scream, fight, repeat.
Birth, life, death, repeat.
He returned the fulfilled sun-risers to the dock with a hefty pay-out five minutes before he reached his boss’s slimy fingers. He handed Umma the eight hundred rupee payment plus a hundred rupees in tips as the tourists bid “Thomas” goodbye and the Christian woman told him that she would pray for him. The boatmen around him laughed mockingly – Umma even chuckled, and callously threw the hundred rupee note into the Ganges.
“I’ve bought the Gods breakfast today,” he sneered, “Thomas.” He stalked off and the boatman lassoed his boat to the side of the dock. He pulled himself out and yawned again – was he off-duty? Who was to say? His phone vibrated again – another message from his wife.
He sat down on the stone steps leading into the Ganges and put his head in his hands. A bearded, bedraggled ascetic with painted crosses on his face waded in beside him. “Krishna! Krisha! Hare Krishna!” He submerged himself entirely, coughed out a bucket of Ganges water, and splashed about like a child.
Another rower sat down beside him. He was as lean as the boatman was, but his beard grew layers deeper.
“Why did they call you Thomas?” he asked. His name was Arun. He also worked for Umma.
“They couldn’t pronounce my name,” laughed the Boatman. “No one can.”
“So why not just call you Mallaah?” asked Arun.
“Because only I call me “boat-man”,” he said proudly. He looked out over the sunrise as it slowly made its way out of the orange gloom towards the light-blue sky. This sunrise was different – it was deeper than usual. “And this Mallaah just made six hundred rupees in tips. Five hundred if you don’t tell a soul.” He slipped Arun a one hundred rupee note and he smiled appreciatively. Bringing home five hundred rupees would make his wife shut up for at least an hour. It might even make his father feel slightly less dishonored and shameful that day.
Arun stood up and returned to his own boat as the unnamed boatman tucked his enormous tip into his pocket, into the folds of his pant-leg. He gazed off towards the sunrise as it left its orange gloom behind and floated up to join the light blue sky – it was a different sun today, a tropical sun, a red sun, Shiva’s sun. The Mallaah were always favorites of Shiva, and for the first time in his life the boatman realized that Shiva tended to reward his favorites when he saw fit.
However nameless or worthless they were.