Sunday 30 July 2017

The language of ashes: The stories around Aghori babas

It is New Year’s Day, and in Banaras, it’s not the eve, but the first day of the year that is celebrated, for it being a new beginning, a good beginning, and rightly so. I seem to have begun the year with stories of death and of the dead. Stories of Aghori Babas, who walk around with chalk-smeared bodies and long beards, wearing nothing except some beads around their throats and wrists; carrying the trishul, the sign of Shankar Mahadev. They sit for long hours stoned, lost in dhyaan or meditation.

We are on a boat, being steered in the night from Dashashwamedh Ghat to Assi Ghat. It is cold, there is smog on the waters, we cannot see beyond a few feet. It is almost as though ghosts are travelling with us, or it may just be my imagination playing tricks.

I look at the man telling me the tale.“ Aghori Babas have strange powers,” Rakesh says. He leans back, “The Baba then said to us, ’ Give me the skull of a Jaiswal’.”

The boat rocks in the dirty green waters of the Ganges, mother to us Indians. We bathe in these waters to purify ourselves… this water into which the sewage waters pour from the city, this water where people wash dishes and clothes and throw the ash of the wood from the burning corpses.
“You know why the Baba asked for the skull of a Jaiswal?”
I nod, wondering what is so special about a Jaiswal skull. All I know that they are the Banias of Banaras, it is a common surname here.
“The skull of the Jaiswal is big, and it is hard. It is a hard skull and does not crack easily. That is why the Baba wanted me to give him the skull. It is big, so the Baba can cook a good meal in it, and it is hard, so it will last a long time as a vessel.”
“So why did you not give it to him?”
“Well, a Jaiswal skull is hard to crack,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. It was obvious that he did not want to give the Baba what he wanted. This Baba was his father’s friend, or acquaintance. Maybe he did not feel obliged enough to do what was required. A shiver ran up my spine. There was more to come, even as the fog enveloped us some more, and the boatman rowed harder, the oars moving slow against the water current.
“I have seen the Baba call a cat to him, a cat just walking along the river’s shore.”
And then rip the cat’s body, remove its heart and eat it in front of me.”
Rakesh’s eyes gleam.“He puts the body back together again and the cat walks away.”
“No heart?”
“The Baba has eaten it in front of me, all raw and throbbing.”
“The cat walks away without a heart? It won’t fall dead?” I give a very cynical smile and raise my eyebrows; it’s such an impossible thing to believe.
“It ran away. It did not die.” He does not laugh. ”These are the powers. You have to see to believe. I have seen.”
His brother Dinesh, trailing his hand in the water, and cupping a few mouthfuls now and then, chimes in, “I have seen it too.”

For me, it’s a story. But I can imagine a heart cooking inside a skull over a lit fire, a chalk-bodied Baba watching over it, and I wonder for a moment what he puts in the curry. It seems like something out of a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale with an Indian flavour. My stomach churns, and it is not with hunger. Luckily, we have reached the Assi Ghat, where celebrations are on. Lights blink and the sound of people merry-making reaches our ears.
I rise slowly, not willing to show my eagerness to leave the fog and the waters behind, to reach stable land. I hold onto the hand of the boatman to steady myself, and see with a shock that he is naked, and his body is the colour of chalk. I stare at the beads around his wrist…each of them is a skull. I tell myself to pretend I do not see what I see and do not touch what I touch, and slowly step ashore.

The boat sways and disappears. I look at Rakesh who told me the story of the Baba. “The boatman,” I say, “where did you get him from?”
“He is one of my father’s friends. He offered to row us across. No one else was available or willing. It’s the night of first January and everyone is celebrating.”
“He is a Baba, this friend…the Baba?” My voice shakes.
“No, of course not, how can he be?” He laughs, then seeing the look in my eyes, becomes quiet.“I think he just wanted to tell you to believe.”
I shake my head. I would never believe. I clench my hand. There is something in the palm of my right hand. I open it, and see a small bead. It is skull-shaped. I hold it up to the light, and it seems to be grinning.
I toss it to Rakesh. “Is this a Jaiswal skull?” I attempt a joke.
He holds it in his hand and his face freezes. “The Baba is here,” is all he says. “We’ll meet him soon.”
I look at the revellers and wonder if any of them have had such a good beginning to their New Year. Not everyone is helped ashore by the hand of an Aghori Baba.
“Let’s move on, join the crowd. The night is getting morbid,” I tell Rakesh.
A cat mews as it passes me and I jump.
Then I am laughing, hysterically. “No, I don’t want to know any more,” I say. ‘This is enough, it’s enough.”

(Source: The Punch Magazine)

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