A Land of the Living/FOUR

Varanasi and The Ganges

On Death and Dying

By Steve Watkins

The glass panes in the jalousie windows of my ground floor room at East-West Medical Center were mostly left open during the day, letting in sunlight and lizards and dust. Steady traffic from the busy road outside the hospital compound sounded sometimes like a river, meditative, soothing, and sometimes intrusive and annoying, nails on a chalkboard. The nurses and Dave coaxed me to sit up, first just for a few minutes at a time on the narrow bed, then in a chair. I was still attached to the catheter and IV, so couldn’t go any further, even if I’d been able, which I wasn’t. Being vertical made me dizzy. I tried the old drunk trick of keeping one foot on the floor and one hand on the wall, but it didn’t work. David insisted that I was dehydrated and needed to drink more. He brought freshly squeezed fruit juices from the kitchen. Cups of hot chai. Thin broths that I could sip so I’d at least have something nutritious until my appetite returned. I was still avoiding most foods other than that. 

When they finally removed the bandages, I saw the scars for the first time–ragged incisions on the right side of my abdomen that overlapped and crossed, with two smaller cuts from the drainage tubes, punctuation marks down and off to the side. They’d shaved me for the surgeries, so everything was exposed. I’d lost so much weight that I could see the outline of every rib. I touched the scars, thinking that would make them real, would make them mine, as if I, or anyone, would ever want to claim ownership. But all the feeling was gone on the right quadrant of my torso, from diaphragm to pelvis. It was like touching something that wasn’t a part of me any more any more, something foreign. Like the hemiparesis of a stroke victim, maybe. As if the scars belonged to someone else. 

Surely over time the feeling would come back. And just as surely over time the scars would disappear, perhaps leaving a faint trace but fading into something hardly noticeable, the way my memory of the accident and all that had followed was bound to fade, would become just another story to tell, but nothing so real as to change my life.

I thought about my brother Wayne, when we were boys. Somebody was burning brush, and Wayne and his best friend took turns jumping over it, not knowing that much of it was poison ivy. The next day at church he complained that he was itching but he didn’t say why. He didn’t want to get in trouble. By that afternoon his entire body had broken out into weeping sores, his face so swollen you couldn’t see his eyes. The doctor was called. Wayne was moved into Mom and Dad’s big bed in their bedroom. Shots were given. The swelling continued. Mom gave Wayne sponge baths to clean off the pus from the sores. She threaded a straw into the narrow opening of his lips so he could drink. 

Wayne could barely speak, but managed to say he was afraid he was going to die. It scared me, and I pretended I hadn’t heard. Mom reassured him, and stayed with him every night, sleeping in a chair. 

This went on for days, for a week, Wayne in Mom and Dad’s big bed, the poison ivy leaking through the sheets. The sponge baths. The straw to his lips. The misshapen hands that couldn’t hold anything. Whenever she couldn’t be home, Mom had me sit with him, read to him, keep him company, help him to the bathroom, though he had a hard time even standing up and usually missed the toilet. 

But the swelling finally went down. The poison ivy sores dried up and went away. Wayne’s features reemerged so he could see again, and he could drink from a glass. His hands could hold a fork and spoon and he could eat solid food. One of the books Mom had insisted I read to him was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I’d hated it, hated all of Lewis Carroll, ever since. Wayne never talked about what happened, about being afraid he would die. There weren’t any visible scars. Even the worst of the sores and lesions faded until they were nothing, until they might never have been. 


After the catheter and IV were finally removed, and once I proved to the nurses that I could totter around my room without collapsing, they let me drag myself up a flight of concrete stairs to shower. I hadn’t bathed since before Sariska, hadn’t washed my long, matted hair, hadn’t gazed in a mirror, hadn’t fully seen what I looked like naked. I braced myself for the shock, but at least I would get to stand, or sit, for as long as I wanted in the hot shower, be enveloped in it, let it wash me clean, and maybe once I was clean, once I washed my hair, once I put on something besides the stained hospital gown, I wouldn’t look as bad as I feared. 

I had to pause every few steps to catch my breath. I held onto the wall as I climbed. Thankfully, there was no mirror in the shower room, either, but I could see enough when I stripped off my gown and cotton pajama pants to be dismayed all over again, to wonder how this could be the same body that had trekked for a week at altitude in the Himalayas, that had taken me all over Asia for the past four months, that I’d taken for granted all this time. I could still hardly bear to look at the bold red scars, the stitches that had yet to be removed, the gray stubble, the stark outline of bones. 

But just as bad in the moment, maybe worse, was the shower. I turned the faucet handles every way possible, but all that came out of the showerhead was a cold trickle, painful in its own way for the acute disappointment and the shock of it on my sensitive skin. I had meant to lose myself in the rapturous warmth, but I was freezing instead, and there wasn’t even any soap–and I realized, too late, wet and shivering, that I hadn’t brought a towel.

I broke into a fit of coughing–so severe I reflexively wrapped my arms tightly around my abdomen for protection, fearful again that something might tear. My legs gave out and I dropped to my knees, then onto my side, curled up in a fetal position on the cold, concrete floor, still coughing, still holding on, still soaked and naked, spitting yellow-green phlegm onto a clogged drain so nothing disappeared.


I wasn’t my best self as the days dragged on. I complained about the food, complained about the temperature in the room, complained that it was too sunny in the grassy courtyard and I didn’t have any sunglasses or anywhere to sit, complained about the blood draws, complained that they wouldn’t discharge me to go to the embassy and recover at Bob Tetro’s, complained that they kept dragging me into taxis for a half hour drive to another clinic for x-rays that showed more fluid building up in my abdominal cavity. 

I complained about the ongoing complications, about being bored, about not having anything to read, about not remembering anything I just read. I complained in my journal, when my hand wasn’t too shaky and I could write. I complained to Dave, who mostly listened patiently, even sympathetically, though I knew he was worn out by it all. I complained about the enormous syringe they inserted between two of my ribs to aspirate more blood and bile–a liter the first time, 1200 cc’s the second.

I pissed the bed on accident, compulsively picked my nose until it was bloody, shit myself before I could make it to the toilet when my dysentery flared up, cursed the lack of hot water, refused to take any more cold showers, quit the sleeping pills and stayed up all night, angry at the world.

But I had Zen moments, too, undeserved, seemingly out of nowhere, of something like calm and acceptance. Long conversations with Dave about our friendship, our travels, the accident, the myth of control, the unpredictable nature of experience, Up Jumps the Devil, the wheel of time, the infinite cycle of existence, amor fati–love of one’s fate.

Dave stayed with me through everything, and when I was at my lowest, homesick and depressed on Christmas Day, facing weeks more in the hospital, he coaxed me out of bed and down to the East-West business office, though he wouldn’t tell me why until we got there. “Phone call for you,” he said. They handed me the receiver and I heard my mom’s voice on the other end of the crackly line, and then my dad’s, and my sister Johanna’s. Mom and Jo were crying too hard to speak, except to say how much they loved and missed me. Dad was his usual gruff self. Told me he was proud of me. Told me to thank Dave for all he’d done, for taking care of me through this ordeal. Told me he was wiring money. Told me he wished he could be there to take me home.

Wayne got on last. He had driven down to Mom and Dad’s for the holidays. 

“Hey man,” he said. “Looks like Mahatma Gandhi got you.”


Death was everywhere in India. I’d seen it as soon as I arrived months before—in the faces of street children in New Delhi, unable to stand, pointing weakly to their empty mouths. I saw it in Kashmir when I set off on my own for a few days from Dave and took a bus from Srinagar to Aharbal Falls at the end of the one paved road into the Pir Pindal Mountains. Halfway there, we got stuck behind another bus on the narrow highway, with no room to pass. The road narrowed even further to a single lane when we entered a village, shops and stalls and pedestrians and bicycles and animals just a few feet away on either side. The bus in front of us didn’t slow down and neither did we, both barreling through with horns blaring. Until the first bus stopped suddenly, forcing our driver to slam on the brakes as well.

We heard screaming ahead of us, a cacophony of hysterical voices. The doors opened and passengers streamed off the first bus, so of course everyone on our bus insisted on disembarking to see what was going on. A Sikh priest, Mahant Singh, who had befriended me early in the trip, urged me to stay in my seat. He and his sons would look into the matter and let me know what was going on, but I was as curious as everyone else and followed them off. As soon as we were on the street, it became clear–terribly, horribly clear–what had happened. 

Brain matter and blood dripped down the side of the first bus from the last small triangle-shaped window–barely large enough for someone to stick his head through. Or to pull it back inside quickly enough if there was an electricity pole planted too close to the road. The crowd from the first bus was running now, further into the village, away from the bus and what must be the body of a dead man or woman on the back seat. What was left of the skull may have been thrown inside as well. Or perhaps it rolled under the bus. No one wanted to look. The passengers from our bus followed the other crowd, running now also, as if we’d been ordered, or as if we were being chased. We ended up on the other side of the village, in a field where a man was still screaming, tearing at his clothes, tearing at his hair, his face distorted with anguish as others tried to stop him from hurting himself, from shredding his clothes, from running off again. He must have been the dead man’s friend, or the dead woman’s husband, or just someone who was also sitting on the back seat, one person away from the window. 

The distraught man gave up. He collapsed to the ground and sobbed helplessly. Others were crying, too, and continuing to hold him. Mahant Singh coaxed me away from the crowd, and with his sons we made our way slowly back to the buses. He was worried that I was traumatized by what we’d just witnessed, but he was wrong. I was shocked, of course, but also darkly fascinated, drawn to the whole macabre scene, the anguish, the hysteria. 

The bus drivers were conferring with what appeared to be officials from the village, though I supposed they could have been anybody, curious onlookers inserting themselves into the scene, adding their voices to the conversation just because they happened to be there. 

“There is a problem,” Mahant Singh told me. “This bus–” He pointed to the one ahead of ours. “It will not start again. And it is too far for our bus to back up, and the road is too narrow. The driver says we will have to push this first bus to the other side of the village, to the field, so we may get by.”

No one had attempted to clean the blood and brain and tissue, or to remove the body. Dogs came out to lick the remains, but villagers chased them away out of respect for the dead.

Other passengers returned. The women climbed onto our bus. The men, and men from the first bus, took our positions and together we rolled it through the village while the driver steered in neutral. Mahant Singh kept checking on me, to make sure I was alright. I assured him that I was fine, but we were all shaken. I wondered what they’d do about the body. I wondered what happened to the head, the skull, anyway, and what they’d do about the mess. Would they even continue on the stalled bus once someone could get it running again? It wasn’t as if there were others to take its place.

We reboarded. Mahant Singh ordered several people to move so we could return to our original seats. Nobody argued. He tried to change the subject once we were seated and moving again–to the beauties of Kashmir, the wonders of Aharbal Falls, the majesty of the Pir Pindal mountains, the icy purity of Konsarnog, a glacial lake high above the tree line, the splendors of the one true God. We passed a cow and a bull fucking violently in a pasture. I’d grown up in the rural South, been chased through open fields by bulls, spent hours searching for mushrooms in cow patties, but I’d never seen that before. Further on, we had to wait while a small procession of mourners crossed the road carrying a shrouded body. 


I’d known a lot of people who died. My infant sister. My mom’s favorite Aunt Missy. A boy everybody called “Big’un” who dove into a shallow creek when I was a kid and broke his neck. A worker who fell from a water tower they were erecting in our little town. A girl I’d just met whose horse was spooked by a passing train and bolted onto the road in front of a speeding car. Veterans from the retirement trailer park, the shut-ins Mom made us visit on Sundays after church when we were little. Dad made Wayne play “Taps” on his Boy Scout bugle at their funerals. My friend when we were twelve who got electrocuted in a pool with an underwater light that wasn’t working. I tried and tried to make myself write a sympathy letter to his mom, but didn’t know what to say and just couldn’t do it. Two guys in high school band, thrown out of the back of a truck. My dad’s friend who shot himself. They said he’d just been cleaning his gun, like Ernest Hemingway. My friend in high school who got in a fight with his parents. He locked himself in his bedroom and pulled a loaded shotgun out of the closet. A girl I had a crush on in tenth grade until I found out that wasn’t her real hair; it was a wig she wore because of chemo. A kid whose mom said she’d buy him a motorcycle if he’d just please get a haircut. A boy in junior high who got kicked in the head by a horse. He told everybody he was fine, but went to bed and never woke up. A girl Wayne dated who went for a ride with a drunk motor head. The teacher in a “Death and Dying” class I took in college who was herself dying. We all went to the funeral, only I was late, and when I ran up the steps to the church, there she was, alive again. It wasn’t actually her, of course. She had a twin. None of us knew. A guy I worked with on an evening shift at the phosphate mine whose wife killed him later that night in a drunken argument. A body I had to wash and toe-tag and bag and wheel to the morgue at a county hospital where I worked for a year in North Carolina, the first corpse I had ever seen, and touched. I managed to close his eyes, but couldn’t force his jaw so his mouth stayed open. I smelled the rotting stench of his cancers and couldn’t scrub it off when I got home after my shift was over.

For reasons I couldn’t explain, those deaths, which were oddly distant then–maybe I was too afraid of my own death to grieve anyone else’s–were closer in India. Death itself felt closer. One night in Varanasi, a week before the accident, I dreamed I was buried alive, or drowning, and woke up gasping, clawing frantically at whatever held me under. But even when I managed to fight my way out of the prison of sleep, the nightmare held me tightly in its grip. 

We had arrived late on the train from Bodh Gaya, the village where Buddha received his enlightenment, and were staying in a cheap, windowless room. I was desperate to escape, but I couldn’t see. Couldn’t breathe. I was drenched in sweat, my cotton drawstring pants and white t-shirt soaked through. I felt my way along the wall, finally awake. Felt my way to the door. Flung it open and threw myself into the alley. 

But it was still too dark. There still wasn’t enough air. I stumbled out of the alley and onto a narrow cobblestone street that wound its way through a maze of sagging buildings and boarded shops and dark temples, down the steep incline to the river. I stopped there, panting, barefoot, hands on my knees, at the top of the stone slab steps on the banks of the Ganges, where people came during to the day by the thousands to bathe, perform ritual ablutions, do puja–and, as I could see in the dark, a few hundred yards away, to cremate the bodies of loved ones on the open pyres—the ghats–next to the water’s edge, then spread their ashes on the sacred river. Dave said Hindus believed that to die and be cremated in Varanasi would break the cycle of rebirth, would let you attain salvation. But only one in a thousand could make their way or be brought there to their final end.

I didn’t know about any of that. I was just thankful that I could finally see and breathe. I couldn’t go back to the room where David must have slept through my panicked waking from the nightmare. I climbed down the stone steps, to the ghats, which burned all night and were burning then, and watched as ashes of one were taken by a grieving family, while the muslin shrouded body of another waited its turn. 

Tired workers wiped off soot and sweat, rewrapped their turbans, then laid the shrouded body on a carefully constructed bed of logs for the next cremation. The fire was set from below, and soon the dried wood was blazing fiercely, quickly burning off the muslin and loin cloth, leaving the body briefly exposed before the hair caught fire and the skin blistered and melted off, leaving the organs to burn away into nothing. Black smoke rose over the ghat and floated above the Ganges, a mile wide there, outlined by a gray sky to the east. It took the longest for the skeleton to disintegrate. One of the workers swung a long staff at the skull to crack it open so the flames could reach inside. And then the ghat-wallahs squatted and waited. There was no hurrying the rest.

I was horrified at first, but couldn’t stop staring. I wasn’t sure what I felt, only that as strange and as awful as it was, I didn’t want to leave. I sat a short distance away, calmer, no longer freaked out by the dream I’d had of dying, and watched and waited with the ghat-wallahs as the bodies burned to ash.


A couple of summers before, living at my parents’ house while working in the phosphate mine, I sank into something like a depression–an overwhelming feeling of dread about the obvious truths that my parents were getting older, that they were going to die, that everyone I knew would die, that I would die, that death was inevitable, that there was no Sunday School heaven where we would all be together in eternity, that nothing was permanent except loss. For a couple of weeks, I hardly spoke to anyone–my parents, teachers and classmates when I returned to college in North Carolina, a girl I had been seeing, even my friends Geoff and Lynn, with whom I was living in an old farm house in the country. 

Geoff was a potter, and I went with him one day in search of a natural source for clay. I had already been his partner scouring junk yards for parts so he could fashion his own potter’s wheel, and had helped him build a kiln in the backyard next to the chicken coop. The day that we waded through tributaries and streams in search of potter’s clay, Geoff kept asking me what was wrong, why wasn’t I talking, what could he do to help? Geoff had survived a year of combat in Vietnam. Lynn was pregnant with their first child. I was one of the few people he could open up to about what had happened to him in the war. I knew it pained him that I couldn’t respond, that he couldn’t reach me. That I was the one who was shut down. But I couldn’t help it. That existential terror kept me awake through much of every night, was waiting for me when I woke in the mornings, plagued me during my waking hours, followed me to classes, shadowed me to my job working evening shifts on the psych ward of the county hospital, and left me shaken, and my friendships strained, when it finally lifted, as if it had been a thing not inside me but forced on me until whoever put it there decided I’d had enough. 

When I was a little boy, I would wake up nights, terrified in the same way–of death, of extinction. I would go into my parents’ room and stand by my mother’s side of the bed, hoping she would wake and see that I was there, and understand what was going on without me having to say. I was embarrassed. Fearful that if I woke her and had to explain, my dad would also hear and he would think badly of me, would think I was pitiful and weak and unmanly. So I just stood there, night after night, until the wave of terror passed. Sometimes I turned to Wayne, who was a year older, on the bunk bed beneath mine, and asked if he would let me sleep with him, but I could never tell him why. 

Only once did Mom wake up. I started crying and she pulled me into bed with her. I knew I was too old to be doing that sort of thing. I was maybe eight or nine. She finally got me to say what was going on, how terrified I was, how desperate. I couldn’t look at my dad. He must have said something. He could be hard on us kids, but I never doubted that he loved me. Mom called our minister and he came over, but all he had to offer was the Lord’s Prayer and a card with a picture of white Jesus and a lamb and John 3:16. I kept the card. I lied and said I felt better knowing Jesus would take care of me, that we would all be together in heaven. 

In Varanasi, sitting at the ghats, on the banks of the Ganges, I wanted to be near death–or close to those death rituals, anyway. I was obsessed with the mechanics of the open cremations, the obliteration of bodies, the disposing of ashes, the way they floated on the water, slowly separating, slowly sinking. I couldn’t explain my fixation. I didn’t want to die. Never that. I was still terrified of extinction. But I didn’t want death to be hidden, either. At the hospital where I once worked, when they called me down to one of the medical floors to remove that first body, the job had been simple and quick: Fold the arms, close the eyes, tag the toe, zip up the cadaver in an opaque body bag, wheel him down the service elevator to the morgue. 

There in Varanasi, in the chill of those evenings by the Ganges, as the fires enveloped the bodies, I sat as close as I could to the dead. 

[NEXT: A Land of the Living/FIVE: A Passage from India]