Two-and-a-half years after my mother died I took her to India. Not all of her--just enough to fill one quarter of a sandwich-size zip-lock bag. Any more than that and I feared getting stopped at airport security, accused of carrying gunpowder in my carry-on. Just in case, I brought along the official crematorium certificate.
My mother wanted to be cremated. But even though she had strong opinions about almost everything, she said she didn't care what we did with her ashes. Lacking instructions, I put Mom's "cremains" on a shelf in my office, which is where they stayed until I joined my partner in December 2006 on a business trip to New Delhi and a three-week tour of Northern India's major cities and cultural sites. My mom would be going with us to Varanasi--the Hindu city of the dead.
India was never high on my list of countries to visit, in no small part because it was a place that figured so prominently in the lives of my Brooklyn-born parents, whose relentless spiritual quest led them to Indian philosophers, poets, and teachers.
As their Hebrew-school educated child, I was often at a loss to explain my parents' behavior to myself or my friends. Mom and Dad read impenetrable books, adhered to austere diets of brown rice and vegetables, and meditated to recordings of heavily-accented Yogis--none of which kept them from engaging in the screaming fights that ultimately tore their marriage apart in 1968. With my father gone, my mother found safe harbor as the disciple of Sri Chinmoy, an Indian-born guru based in nearby Jamaica, Queens.
During the early guru years I occasionally accompanied my mother to twice-weekly meditation meetings, but to me the strange rituals and chanting had no meaning and before long I refused to go. I only relented when Mom demanded that I attend the special ceremony at which she received a new name from her spiritual master. Standing at the back of the disciple-filled room, I watched in stunned silence as my mother, now renamed Shivani, sobbed at her guru's feet.
I was embarrassed by my mother, especially when she left our apartment building to go to her meetings dressed in a sari. But in retrospect I have to admire her courage. It took guts for a working-class Jewish lady to ignore the whispers of her neighbors. And the truth is, I took just a little bit of pride in knowing that I was the one who helped Mom fold herself into the six yards of colorful fabric in a half-hour effort that often left us both laughing with frustration.
While my mother and I never wound up seeing eye-to-eye about things spiritual, in time I realized that it was useless to fight with her about how she fulfilled her spiritual yearnings. And she mostly gave up trying to share with me her latest explorations. Perhaps that's why the idea of scattering my mother's ashes on the Ganges River at sunrise in Varanasi didn't come to me until after I read our itinerary for the fifth or sixth time. There wasn't a lot in life that my mother and I enjoyed doing together, but now that she was gone, we could do this. I felt certain that Mom would like the idea. My brother and sister agreed.
For my mother and me this would be our first trip to India, although by this time we were both world travelers. My mother's international explorations were mostly an extension of her lifelong spiritual search, but despite her affinity for the culture and religion of India, the subcontinent had never been on her agenda. She knew herself well enough to recognize that she couldn't handle the food, the water, or the crush of humanity. If pressed, she'd admit that she preferred eastern religion practiced in western comfort.
My partner and I arrived in Varanasi in time to meet our stick-thin, emphysemic guide for a walk through the city and then a boat ride on the Ganges to witness evening prayers (the ash scattering would wait until morning).
We drove only a short way from the hotel before the narrow road became hopelessly clogged with every imaginable kind of people-powered vehicle, fume-spewing three-wheeled taxis, and throngs of local residents and pilgrims on foot, not to mention the occasional wandering cow. So we abandoned our air conditioned cocoon and soon found ourselves clinging to the center of a tiny traffic circle, marveling at the three-ring circus coming at us from five different directions. And the noise! Bicycle bells, honking horns, wheezing engines--it was simply fantastic. Varanasi may be a city whose primary business is death, but we'd never before been to a place so intensely alive.
With each block we walked, the city grew more dense. Shops filled each square inch of every building's first floor and spilled out into the street. Vendors cooked on open fires and men got quick, open-air shaves from sidewalk barbers. Our guide, who had lived all of his fifty-seven years in Varanasi seemed to know everyone--shopkeepers, beggars, and the little girl who sold us the candles we would light and place on the river that evening.
As darkness fell, our boat pushed out into the Ganges and soon the cremation fires burning along the shore came into view. Tenders wielding sticks poked and prodded at the smoldering remains, breaking up bones and crushing skulls, leaving only granular ashes to be swept into the river before setting up the next fire.
Later, we joined thousands of pilgrims in what became a massive floating theater facing a raised platform at the river's edge on which a half-dozen priests presided over elaborate celebratory prayers. Incense and amplified chanting filled the air and we watched in awe for as long as we could keep our jet-lagged eyes open. I found the sounds and smells almost comforting; things that felt so strange during my childhood here, in context, seemed natural.
Shortly before sunrise the next day, I slipped the zip-lock bag containing my mother's ashes into my jacket pocket, and we made our way back to the Ganges through the now-quiet streets to join the early morning-worshipers and intrepid western tourists. At the water's edge our guide secured the services of a Hindu priest, whose hangdog face looked as if it hadn't registered a smile in decades. Barefoot, swaddled in a dark shawl over his white dhoti to ward off the chill, he carried his implements in one hand, reaching out with the other to our young rower who helped him off the dock and into the boat.
We glided away from shore and the priest set out the tools of his trade: a dried coconut half-shell, a little brass vase that he filled with the foul, but holy river water, a small stick, frayed on the end like a broom, and a wilted garland of marigolds.
During the priest's preparations I took in the scene around us: fifteenth-century palaces lining the shore, like an untouched Venice gone nearly to ruin; scores of tourist boats, pilgrim-laden ferries, and the occasional floating gift shop; two German women standing in the wooden skiff ahead of us greeting the shrouded rising sun with elaborate salutations; mostly naked men washing themselves at the river's edge; smoke filling the air from the smoldering remains of logs and corpses.
The priest instructed me to place my hands together in prayer, dipped the little stick in the brass jar and before I could stop him or shield myself, splattered water over my face. Wiping away the bacteria-laden droplets, I thought of my mother, who loved nothing better than a perfectly disinfected kitchen floor. The priest then asked me to hold my hands over the open bag of ashes and while he chanted a prayer in Hindi he poured water over my thumbs and onto my mother's remains.
With the ceremony done, the priest gestured that I should throw the bag into the river. I turned to the guide in confusion, but he confirmed that this was exactly what the priest wanted me to do, which made a certain sense given the trash we'd seen floating by. But there was no way my mother was going into the Ganges in a plastic bag.
So I did what I'd come here to do. I leaned over the side of the boat and carefully poured Mom's ashes into the water. Then I placed the knot of marigolds on the river's surface, where they drifted into our wake and sank below the waves.
Watching the sun rise over the Ganges, I felt relieved--and a little conflicted--over having left a part of my mother in a place so physically and spiritually far from home. But this was my conflict, not my mother's. Mom was a believer--in meditation, in God, and reincarnation. To her, the Ganges represented something holy. The ritual we'd just performed, according to Hindu tradition, would release her soul from her body for its heavenward journey and free it from the cycle of reincarnation. More than once I recall my mother saying that she'd had enough lessons in this life, which had not been an easy one, and didn't relish the thought of coming back again to learn more.
Returning to shore, we passed two hulking concrete sewage treatment towers, each covered with a large painting of a Hindu god. The guide explained that one was Ganesh, the god of success and prosperity. And the other was Shiva, the creator, the sustainer, and the destroyer--and my mother's namesake. In that moment I wanted to tell Mom how glad I was that we were there together, but all I had of her now dusted the inside of a plastic bag. So I was left to think of her in my mind's eye and to take comfort in the hope that my journey to the Ganges had helped my mother's soul complete its journey.
As for my mother's remaining ashes, we buried them a few months later next to our dad in the family plot in Farmingdale, Long Island. Having joined Mom on this last spiritual quest, and with her soul now dispatched in India, I didn't think she would mind if we kept the rest of her closer to home.