A panoramic view of the holy Ganges river in Varanasi, India.
“Mataji, and Shiva Maharaj, welcome, welcome,” greeted Shanmukha Shasri at the bathing ghat in Kashi.
“Maharaj, the Hotel Babu told me that you’re from America and are here to perform karma for your deceased father. Both of you have crossed the ocean, so please purify yourself by taking a dip in the Holy Ganga. Then, I’ll explain what to do.”
Gowri, Shiva’s mother, and Shiva sat with dripping clothes on a step that almost touched the water. Varma, the boatman who brought the travelers to the puja ghat, squatted on the deck munching peanuts.
“Maharaj, this ceremony will cost you 2,500 rupees,” Shasri said. “Your father’s soul will be gratified in heaven at the end of the ceremony. To satisfy this poor man, you may consider a little tip at the end. We call it dakshina.” He smiled. “Now, where is your janivara?”
Shasri plucked a janivara, tucked to his dhoti at the waist and helped Shiva to wear it properly. Then he led him down a couple of steps till the flowing Ganges water came up to their knees. “Be careful. It’s slippery here. Hold a little Ganga water in your right palm and chant Gayatri mantra. Say, Om, bhur bhuvashva…”
Shasri slipped and fell in the river.
“HELP, someone HELP the priest,” shouted Shiva because he didn’t know swimming.
Varma, the boatman, dived in to the river like a dolphin and for a minute there was no sign of him or the priest.
“The waters are swift here, Mother Ganga took both of them,” said a pilgrim.
Varma, gasping and grasping Shasri’s long hair, dragged him through the water and pushed him on to the lowest step. Shiva and the pilgrim carried Shasri on to a dry spot, a couple of steps up. The pilgrim removed his shawl and covered it over Shasri’s chest and face. “I don’t think he’s breathing. He’s gone, God bless his soul,” he said shaking his head and left.
Mother began to cry softly. Varma stood nearby allowing the sun to dry his wet dhoti. Shiva sat silently. Several pilgrims and local people assembled to watch. A few threw rupees over the shawl that covered the priest, surmising that it was a destitute corpse.
A police sub-inspector in khaki uniform, twirling a thick baton, approached them down the steps. Everyone fell silent.
“What’s happening here?” He glanced at the priest covered with the shawl and money. “Is he gone?”
“Yes, sir,” Varma answered.
He looked around at the gathered people. “Why are you here? Watching tamasha? This is a murder investigation. Get out. All of you.” The crowd dispersed murmuring.
The inspector faced Shiva. “Mister, what’s your name?”
“Shiva Kumar, from Los Angeles, sir.”
“Come with me to the police station.”
“You are the last person seen with the victim.”
“Victim? Shasri slipped and fell in the river. I didn’t do anything.”
“We’ll discuss this in the police station.”
“This is crazy. Inspector, my mother is 70-years-old. We are starving from morning. We need to leave this place by evening. Believe me, it was just an accident.”
“I understand, let me help you.” Facing Varma, the inspector asked, “Is Mr. Kumar responsible for the priest’s death in anyway?”
“Mr. Kumar, I believe you’re innocent. I have to document the evidence from Varma to straighten this mess. It’ll cost you 30 dollars for the paperwork. Pay the money now.”
Shiva obliged. Otherwise he would be stuck in Varanasi for some time. The inspector pocketed the money.
“Mr. Kumar, how much did you pay the priest for the puja?”
“Twenty-five dollars, sir.”
“Bastard, he fleeced you. Now, where is that money?”
“He tied it to his dhoti.”
The inspector moved the shawl a little with his baton, exposing the wet dhoti of the priest. He didn’t find the money. He glared at Varma. “Where is the money?”
“I swear I didn’t touch it, sir. Perhaps, Mother Ganga took it when he drowned.”
“Is that so? Come to the police station.”
“Pardon me, sir,” Varma apologized. Then, he took several wet dollar bills from the folds of his dhoti and gave them to the inspector. “The money was floating away. I didn’t want it to go wasted.”
“Smart boy, now I like you. In my job, every dollar has to be accounted for.” The inspector faced Shiva Kumar. “Mr. Kumar, it is an accident. I release the priest’s body to you now. Move it from here. Then you’re free to go.”
“What will I do with the body, sir?”
“Varma can help you.” The sub-inspector chuckled, turned and left.
After a minute, Varma said, “American Babu, the priest doesn’t have any relatives. He has loans all over the city so no one will come to his help. Give me 20 dollars and I’ll take the body in my boat to the free burning ghat.”
Shiva Kumar gave the money.
“You forgot the tipping, Maharaj,” Varma extended his palm. Shiva added another dollar. Varma bent down and grabbed the priest’s body. He pushed it to a sitting position.
Suddenly, Shanmukha Shasri gurgled, coughed and threw up his breakfast. The half-digested upma and coagulated coffee raised a stench.
Varma screeched with fear and sprinted to his motorboat without looking back. He left the place immediately.
Gowri heard the commotion and saw the priest. “O, God, even the little puja we did is wasted.
This Brahmin has eaten breakfast.” She cried.
The priest was busy searching for the money in his dhoti. “Crooks have robbed this poor Brahmin. They will certainly go to hell,” he wailed. He collected the shawl and a few rupees dropped by the pilgrims, and left the place.
Shiva Kumar and Gowri slowly climbed the steps towards the temple to have darhsan of Kashi Vishwanath who had been silently watching this play of the money-hungry sharks for millennia.
“Mother, let’s pray God Vishwanath for Father’s soul to rest in peace. Hereafter, we don’t need the middlemen,” said Shiva.
“Yes, son. You’re right.”