The city of Varanasi was infused with the smell of death. It was my home for the first six years of my life where I stayed in a dingy apartment in one of the byways that, through several twists and turns unbeknownst to the everyday tourist, eventually lead to the Ganga. On quieter nights, one could hear the whispering of the river. I often fell asleep thinking of the undercurrents and the greyed bodies it carried to Bengal.
The smell was not putrid or pungent. My memory of the scent of death was clean and cold, inebriated by the water of the Ganga. It was dry and sharp like firewood. Still, this scent was an afterthought – a compensation of sorts for the sordidness of Death. I once saw a bloated body floating face-down in the river. It did not smell. It was only after the body was cremated that the smell crept up my nose, and there it stayed.
I carried this scent with me long after I left Varanasi and my dark apartment. It was the scent of an underbelly, of things hidden deep under a visible membrane, of sweet flesh rotting in a grave and bones burnt in a furnace. It was quiet and morose, like observing the embers of a bonfire long after the fire had died. The scent of death carried with it stories of lives lived and unlived. In a strange way, it was comforting. It was a gentle yet persistent reminder that one day, I would too disappear and my only legacy will be this odd smell that would impregnate the air. My presence would never be forgotten by the universe.
photo: shivani deshmukh
When I was ten, my aunt died in a car crash. It was a quick and easy death, we were told. She did not suffer. That day I watched her ashen body being carried away in pristine white sheets, cotton blocking her nose and ears. The air was heavy with the scent of death. I wonder if anyone else could smell it. The scent lived with us – with me. I lost my appetite and my skin clung to my bones. My cheeks and eyes hollowed out. I was fifteen. I thought about death a lot. The scent of death enveloped me and I spent most of my days shrouded in a blanket of its comfort. It didn’t scare me. Over the years. a lot of my family died. Painless deaths, most of them. The few who died
unexpected, catastrophic deaths carried the scent better, like a timeless sari passed down several generations. I thought about how my body would carry the scent all the way to Varanasi and live again in the apartment lit only by the scarce oil lamps and the dimmed lights of our neighbors’ homes.
I never understood what the big deal was about dying.
From time to time, I think about the man I found in the river. His bloated body and the way it floated seamlessly to the surface, as if it wanted to be found and remembered by me. I think about how I never saw his face. I think about how, one day, a young schoolgirl will walk along the Ganga and see a forlorn body, but with its face upturned. This time, the body and the face will be mine. The scent of death will fill the air, and it will live on – ubiquitous and ceaseless.