The Holy River

exclusives, Nepal, On the Road January 25, 2016

“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” ― Mark Twain

The Nepalese Hindus burn their death alongside the holy Bagmati river. The mighty river is reduced to a mere stream when we visit her. I’ve never seen something this polluted and worshipped at the same time. “This man has not been dead for more than six hours.” We give way too much money to the boy that followed us ever since we set foot in Pashupatinath, the holy temple complex, just to be alone. It is hard to be alone in Kathmandu nowadays; the people are desperate.

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Children are asking for food and if that doesn’t crush your soul, they ask for dictionaries. How can you deny a wide eyed girl with braids on the side of her head a tool that helps her with her education? I still feel the warmth of her hands as she drags me across the city to get to an ATM.
I feel very white and white resembles money in this city. I don’t remember feeling so white last time I was here. “Never visit the same place twice,” R. once said, “it destroys the romantic image you have of it in your mind.” R. knew about these things. He was already travelling the world with a camera in his hand while I was busy throwing dolls in a corner in kindergarden. He follows me from a distance while I listen to another wide eyes girl talk about her hopes and dreams for the future.

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I have a soft spot for girls that want to go places. The strong ones that have the guts to fight for their believes, their dreams, the ones that don’t take no for an answer and don’t get discouraged if there is no immediate reward. “She says she wants to be in tourism,” I smile over my shoulder. “She doesn’t want to stay home and have children, she wants to learn English and see the world.” I tell her about my friend Suman, how he is a guide in the mountains and that he takes care of his entire family that way. How he sends his brother and wife to school, how he takes care of his mother after his father passed away and how he and his wife took in a girl from the streets after she lost everything and how he was about to send her to school as well as he is a smart man and understands that education is the key to a better life. We talk and talk and I feel her warm hand in mine, the slender fingers rubbing my own. I am scared but excited at the same time. I hope she really does become a tour guide and doesn’t sell her dictionary on the next street corner. “You know she could have taken you anywhere like that right?” I look at R. and appreciate the concerned expression on his face. I nod. I’m an idealistic idiot and he is being nice about it.

Smoke starts coming from the row of bodies along the river. The sons of one of the deceased finally managed to give their relative a proper send off. We watched them struggle with their pire as a professional cremator lighted his with great ease. He looked like something from another world in his white tunic and trousers, surrounded by white smoke and with a stick in his hand, calm in the presence of those who had passed, like the ferryman to the underworld.
Monkeys jump over his head from one building to the next, hanging in the electricity wires and stealing food. I think about Suman and the stories he told last time I met him, right here on these banks. Stories about rituals, about the Lord Shiva and about the offerings in the small temples next to the grand stairs. I pass the stories on to R, just like he passed his stories on to me, and in between we contemplate our own deaths.

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“We don’t know how to mourn in the west,” I say, looking at two girls on the other side of the stream, overcome with grief. They screamed, they cried, they threw themselves on the floor, orange flowers in their hands. Their grief could be felt right across the river, and went straight to my heart. So much hurt. I threw a lost petal in the river. “We just eat cake and wear ties.”

Photography by Roberto Rubalcava
Words by Rebecca Rijsdijk

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