The sun yawned across the young morning sky, so young, it still smiled stars that sparkled like baby’s teeth in its gaping mouth. Across the Ganges River the eternal fire raged into the dawn. The untouchables tended to the fire that would devour the bodies of the dead.
Most saw the fire as a never changing entity, a constant presence burning into the landscape of India’s heart and mind. Bashu, the young untouchable, could see the many personalities of the fire. Bashu saw four elements in fire, earth, air and sky. The only element of the five Bashu could not see in the fire was water. Water was the one element that could destroy fire. The rest fed it. To slake the fire’s thirst with water was to kill the fire.
Bashu’s job was to keep out of the way of the men who paid his father and brothers to provide wood for the pyres, and look after the eternal fire. Though Bashu could never leave Harishandra ghat, he took great pride knowing his family were the caretakers of such an important part of reaching heaven.
Bashu did his job of keeping out of people’s way very well. He mostly kept hidden behind the woodpile. Occasionally he would let himself be found and help restock the woodpile. Bashu would take the wood from one pile, carrying it down the ghat steps to the already enormous pile, knowing that one day, some of these sticks would be turned into his pyre.
Most of the time Bashu would hide between the rows of wood and watch the fires. Bashu felt a connection to the fires. He knew they shared a similar fate. The fire was fated to stay here, in this very ghat, kept in its temple, only to come out to be taken down to the river bank and set to work, turning something into nothing. Not nothing, ashes. Then the ashes would be scraped into the Ganges along with the bones that stubbornly refused to be incinerated. Bashu had great respect for those bones: men’s chest bones and women’s hip bones; it seemed appropriate that the strongest bone in the female body is the one that gives life to this world.
This morning was an especially busy morning at the fires. Bashu couldn’t count past five, but, he could count that he would be set to work on such a bustling sunrise. He scrambled out from the wood pile and offered to help.
His father sent him to the temple to feed the eternal fire its hourly meal. It was the first time Bashu had ever been asked to perform such ceremony alone. He could see all his brothers and cousins engaged with customers, Bashu was the only boy not hard at work.
He climbed the ghat steps to the top, to the temple which housed the holy flames. Bashu had been taught to revere the fire, and that the fire demands an offer be made with each encounter. Bashu walked five times around the fire in proper ceremony, one for each element. Then he stopped and gazed deep into the eye of the fire. The fire looked back. Bashu could see himself reflected in the smoke. He looked like a ghost.
“Set me free,” the fire whispered.
Bashu was the fire’s servant. He would obey. But, he didn’t know how to free the fire without getting killed by his father. If his father found him deliberately setting something on fire with the holy fire, Bashu knew he would be the last thing burned.
“Take me back to the sun,” the fire breathed. Bashu looked around to see no one watching. He fetched a stick from the pile and returned to the temple to retrieve the fire.
He took a deep breath, gave a prayer to Shiva to keep away, and offered the stick to the flames. The fire licked the stick, then bit in, chewing away at its bark. Bashu ran faster than an Olympic torch-bearer down to the river, towards the birth of the sun. The sunrise painted soft hues on the face of Mother Ganges, making her blush ever so slightly.
Getting to the last step before the ghats gave way to the water, Bashu was out of ideas. In his hand was the fire that had wanted to make a run for it, but, here, by the lip of the river, was as far as Bashu could run.
A few metres out on the river, Bashu spotted the corpse of a cow floating up river. He swam out to the cow, and placed the fire on its belly. Bashu tread water watching the fire sail away with the cow into the waking sun.