Later that night, we met up with Raju, who rowed us down the river again, never seeming to tire of explaining the sites along the way. He was taking us to see the Aarti ceremony at the main ghat, where we would watch from the river, as the performers chanted, rang bells, played drums and danced with large candle sticks (I’m sure they have a special name). The ritual is performed every evening, and is a symbol of devotion to the river Ganges, or Mother Ganga, which is believed to be an emanation of the divine itself. Her waters are believed to have the power to purify all beings.
It was the last day of 2010. Yes, I share my birthday with new year’s eve. So a few other people had the same idea, and boats jostled for space in front of the ceremony. Crowds gathered on the ghat behind the performance, their cameras providing a flashing light show to accompany the chanting and bells. Tiny candles on handmade offerings lit up the holy river as they bobbed around on her surface. I had placed a few myself, little tangible prayers and blessings for loved ones back home.
We had been chatting to Raju during the journey down, about his job as a boat rower. He didn’t let on too much, instead he shrugged his shoulders with a simple “it is my duty.” He opened up a little about his boss, an old man we seen at the dock. He spoke fondly of him, as a good, kind man- firm but fair. Raju seemed to admire the old man for building up his business of seven boats. He started with just one. But the old man was getting on in years, and was slowly handing control over to his sons, much too Raju’s dismay. Again, he didn’t say too much, just that “the old man is a very good boss. His sons, not so much.” I asked Raju if he might buy his own boat one day, and be his own boss- maybe built a mini empire like the old man. He looked at me in disbelief- I had obviously been naively optimistic. “Very expensive”, he laughed, shaking his head as he continued rowing, eager to get us a good spot for the ceremony.
The ceremony was drawing to a close, and the fantastic day that was my 30th birthday, was starting to feel like it. This is what I had wanted, something different, something memorable. I drew a long breath and tried to absorb the moment, there on the river.The cool breeze, the smell of incense, the music. I was so far away from the drunken revelers of home. I remembered Raju’s words about asking the Ganga for what I needed, and secretly closed my eyes, the candle light dancing across my face. ‘Please, holy river, can I please have… meaning.” That was all I really wanted, when I searched deep inside my soul. I had so much, yet felt like something was lacking in the life I had led so far. Perhaps that was what my journey to India was about- breaking out of the norm, defying expectations, and doing what I wanted to do, instead of what everyone else was doing.
Raju pushed against the boat next to us, propelling us away from the crowds. As we made our way back, I felt a pang of guilt about the possibility of making Raju uncomfortable when I asked him about buying a boat. He had told us how much a new boat cost, which was the equivalent of a week’s pay for me, but obviously a small fortune for Raju. So I tried to talk about something positive, and asked him if he had any children.
A look of what I can only describe as grief passed across his face like a dark shadow. I immediately knew I had put my foot in it. Again. I chastised myself. Why couldn’t I just shut up and sit quietly? Why did I feel the need to get to know everyone?
“God doesn’t want me to have any children,” Raju said, shifting uncomfortably on his wooden seat. It got worse. Raju’s wife had died of cancer just three months after he had gotten married. He hadn’t re-married. I knew better than to ask why. He lived with his parents, working for the old man rowing boats up and down the river, teaching tourists like us a about the magic of her waters.
“I’m sorry” I said, finally lost for words (about five minute too late).
Again Raju shrugged his shoulders, and the grief and sadness I had witnessed disappeared. You see, Raju wasn’t full of self pity (though he had every reason to be). Though he may not have had the best job in the world, he did good honest work, and had a roof over his head. If I hadn’t been so goddam keen to get to know him, he never would have told us his sad story.
Needless to say, we gave Raju a big tip that night.