J gave me this book. He never stops talking; he loves to talk about India. What the place means to him I don’t really understand. I don’t think I need to. We all have our own India. And in pointing me to this book, he put his finger directly on mine.
Varanasi is an ancient city—legendarily, the most ancient in all of India, the root of the Ganges and the root of the people. There, on the ghats, bodies are ceremonially burned and the ashes are swept into the river. In which supplicants also bathe, because the holiness of the waters there renders any concern for hygiene ridiculous. Hygiene is a ridiculous concept in a city awash in filth, anyway. Because the spiritual wealth of this city is what matters; die here and be cremated on the ghat, and your soul will be freed from the endless cycle of death and rebirth. Die on the other side of the Ganges’ bank and your soul will be downgraded; you will be reborn as a donkey. Varanasi is a good place to die.
Reincarnation is poorly understood by Western minds. Is it really such a bad thing to be born as an animal instead of a human? Does a donkey mind that it’s a donkey? Buddhism can point us to a different way, helping us to let go of concern for our selves and our tiresome vanity, our need to be “happy,” to be fulfilled, to be appreciated. Keeping your head above water as you navigate life’s currents is essential, but often we jump into deep waters when we could just as easily wade nearer the shore. We always seem to complicate things for ourselves, and, lacking the austere self-control of Buddhism, sometimes we need the shock of death to steer us out of the complexity of deep water and into the shallows where we can travel more simply through our lives.
For some of us, that death can be our own. Dyer’s nameless narrator comes to Varanasi, exhausted, jaded, and numbed by life. He intends at first to stay for a few days, and ends up staying for months. Living cheaply, immersed in immersion, he just stays. And as he does, his sense of self and his attachments to the world slip. Immolation and annihilation ensue. Finally scoured clean, seared inside and out by a wicked intestinal virus, the fever-scorched and brittle narrator has a barber shave his head, then promptly runs into an old acquaintance from before Varanasi, who eyes him, terrified. Dyer writes: “I am in mourning for myself…my old self refuses to die. The new is struggling to be reborn. In this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
And this is the moment in the text which grabbed me, the passage where I could not stop my feet from dancing against the subway car’s linoleum, when my heart leapt, when I could not blink the tears from my eyes before they fell; the moment that mirrored my own life in a way I can never adequately explain to my new friend. For me it was not a virus, but my own body that turned against me—for reasons no one will ever know. The cure was: scorching, searing chemicals pumped into my body via a port embedded under the skin below my collarbone. Right side. Its installation and removal left a pair of scars that now resemble a small, faint pink lipstick kiss mark.
But the chemicals did their work; carefully dosed acids poured right through my heart killed the errant cells and burned out of me all laziness, all hesitance, all patience for bullshit and distraction, and, once I was well again, pushed me onto a surer path. Immolation. The old must die so the new can be born. And we are born bald, bald as a chemo patient.
Varanasi is on the Ganges river. My rebirth took place on the shores of Lake Michigan. And how very sad it is that some of us need to be pushed to the brink of death before we see who it is we were meant to be, and the way to change.
This is a relationship about which no predictions can (or even need) be made. But this moment of connection, fostered by the sharing of a book, is real.