Harold Jaffe’s Dispatches from India – November 22, 2015

Untouchable

Barefoot, she enters my room and lies in bed next to me on my left
side. I hear the soft jingle of the cheap bracelets about her wrists
and ankles. Predawn dark, I am just awake from a dream or
sequence of dreams:

Donkeys–they seem to have been abused–a mother and foal
edging ahead in the lunatic traffic; a dark-skinned teenage boatman
on the Ganga in the predawn with eroded fingers, as though from
leprosy; an untouchable woman tiny as a child, on the burning ghat,
but away from the pyre, lying folded on the red stone with her
extended hand grasping her empty alms pail.

I can’t see the woman in my arms; she feels small. We embrace
gently, then tightly, our bodies hard against each other, our faces
flush. My hands move up and down her back and shoulders, which
feel thin, almost transparent. Her spine feels knotty from her neck to
the small of her back. Her face is thin, but her lips are full, firm, I feel
her breathing softl, irregularly near my ear. Her face gives off a
subtle tamarind scent.

We stop moving our hands up and down our backs at the same
time. I am back in the dream of the tiny untouchable woman on the
burning ghat, her face hidden in her tattered sari, her body folded on
the red broken stone like a child with her thin left arm extended, her
small brown fingers holding the empty alms pail. I am sitting on a
backless stone bench facing the smoke with my legs crossed and a
notebook on my lap.

I stand and move to her, kneeling to drop rupees into her pail, when
she pulls me down, or I fall of my own accord. Facing the fire, lying
next to her, I take her in my arms.

I am awake, we are in each other’s arms. I can’t tell whether she fell
asleep as I did. I move my hand to her head; her hair is thick and
long, though unkempt. It smells of musk.

As I stroke her head she puts her tiny calloused hand on my hand
moving with my hand as it strokes.

A macaque is grunting outside the window. I stop stroking her head.
We are on the ghat facing the flames in each other’s arms.
She holds me tight, but with the diminished strength of a small child.
Still I cannot separate myself.

Pilgrims pass by. Hindus, non-Hindus. We hear their chit-chat.
They step over or around us without noticing us. Someone notices

us long enough to drop a coin in her tin pail. We seem to have
moved closer to the smoking corpses.

But now I am driving an old tuk-tuk with some difficulty; we are
crossing the River Ganga, west to east, on a suspension bridge
erected by the colonizing Brits.

East of the Ganga is a wide sandbar, officially empty so that the
sacred sunrise can be witnessed by humans on the ghats. About
halfway is an unexpected gap in the bridge and we are forced to
deviate through tiny impoverished hamlets on rocky paths.

The humans, black and barefoot, Untouchables, live in crude
cardboard shanties. Naked toddlers frolic in the dirt and mud. The
paths are so narrow and rocky that the tuk-tuk can barely
navigate.

Finally we get to the wide sandbar on the east side of the Ganga.
We can see the burning ghats across the river. Erected on the
sandbar slightly to the north is a makeshift temple; I hear chanting to
Lord Rama.

She touches me on the arm and gestures to the temple. I
understand that this is where she worships and back there in one of
the shanties is where she lived or lives.

We are in the room in each other’s arms. It is dark. The macaques
are grunting outside the window. A dog is howling. We are in the
dream, tightly embraced on the red stone while somehow moving
closer to the flames of the burning ghat which continues day and
night. India is vastly overpopulated; there is always another Hindu to
cremate. But if you are low-caste you have to wait your turn in the
grim hospice overlooking the ghat.

Her tiny calloused hand is touching my face tenderly, inquisitively.
My forehead, nose, ears. She strokes my beard, my hair. I hear her
soft breathing. We are embracing again, tightly, as if wanting to melt
into each other.

We are on the pyre at last together.

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