The summer of 1997,she went to India, to the city of death, the city of light, Benares. For some Hindus, the train stops in Benares because to die there assures an end to re-incarnation and liberation and moksha is guaranteed. It took two years to prepare for the trip. She got a grant, took every immunization possible,went for travel counseling and read voraciously. Her best friend and mentor, a 73 year old Jain woman originally from India,went with her, both needing each other to get around , the beginner and the experienced one. Interdependent.
They stayed in Ahmnabad with her friend's sister for two weeks, giving her a chance to get used to cows in the road, third world cultural differences, the monsoon season, and the dispensability of human life. That is, to take any form of transportation in India or even walk on the roads is an act of faith and a rhythmic, fatalistic game of chicken where you realize that you are not special, hardly memorable, and literally just one more mouth to feed in this country of 850 million humans, some surviving day to day.
She was sobered by the anonymity and insistence that waking up alive was ENOUGH, eating a meal was ENOUGH, going to the bathroom was ENOUGH, wearing clean clothes was ENOUGH and communicating well with those close to her, were all jewels to be cherished. India was spiritually invigorating.
Rains and washed out train tracks stalled her plans but eventually she arrived in Benares. For health reasons her friend could not go with her so she went alone, having made a few phone calls to a man in that city who worked as a research assistant for Americans, asking him to arrange a place for her to stay and find a videographer for her research.
One of the most compelling journeys of her life had begun because as she aged, she found that she was more conscious of consequences, germs, conspiracies and her own death all of which seemed to be travelling swiftly in her direction.
Braving Jet Airways, Indian Airlines and the Delhi airport, she arrived in Benares where a driver greeted her, holding a sign with her name on it. She felt safe for a second, but the 45 minute trip from the airport in a smallish van was another test of faith. With adrenal glands already pushed to the limit, they gushed even more flight/fright juice into her already overworked bloodstream. Would the van hit that cow? Or that baby sitting in the road? Would the car be hit by that other truck careening out of control? Cars, scooters, auto rickshaws came within 3 inches of each other and noone wore seatbelts , helmets, shoes! Each scooter carried a minimum of 6 passengers: mom, dad, 4 kids, grandma and a baby upfront screeching and laughing with delight. A western horror show.
Remembering her thesis and goal: to better understand death, she gulped, incorporated the situation she was in and repeated an inner monologue and command that said,"You asked for this, now surrender, nobody forced you to come here. It is not America and the road laws are different, that's all." That self-instruction allowed her to watch it all, give up all rights to safety and the western model of correctness and go for the ride.
The driver took her to the research assistant, a tall, elegant Brahmin, who had studied anthropology at Benares Hindu University and she told him of her plan.
"I want to study elders in India, noticing how they are integrated into family life, never seeming to retire.They seem to be respected, not isolated and work hard on life's greatest mystery, their upcoming death."
"I would like to videotape a hospice in Benares, Mumuksha Bhavan, so that I can experience a place where elders wait for their approaching death in an atmosphere of prayer, expectation and the support of the community.
She went on and told the research assistant more:"I want to experience what happens when someone dies, and is carried through the city streets of Benares and is then cremated on the burning ghats."
He explained that the Ganges river is considered so sacred that the polluting and hidden aspects of death are transformedby the river's presence. She listened to him and knew that she had come home! (Was she a Hindu once?) That finally, death would be unveiled. But to uncover the mystery, she didn't realize that she would have to die herself a bit more before she would be allowed to make friends with death. Doesn't the homeopathic doctor prescribe snake venom to cure snake bites? Death would cure her of death.
That night she slept with 45 bedbugs and the next day, went to the chief of police to get his permission to videotape cremations. He fed them, something that would never happen in America! And he seemed pleased with her project. But he smiled at everything and everyone... a smile she could not de-code. Terror had not set in.
A three and a half hour boat trip down the Ganges River the next day dislodged her from the role of spectator to that of participant. Should she look? Should she be another tourist voyeuring on the worshippers and bathers? Should she scrutinize early morning ablutions and be another outsider bothering these people tourist season after tourist season...a scrutiny by Americans, Germans, Koreans, Norweigans,...all taking photos of their praying, washing, gargling in the Ganges, year after year after year!
She was beginning to understand aesthetic ethics and the reasons why some artists choose to quiet their curiosity at home, forgoing the invitation to become cultural imperialists, cultural colonists, image thieves.
Was she an image thief? Wishing that she had thought through her impulse to travel to a foreign country for her art (for her soul it would have been perfect), she asked more questions about privacy and customs and the openess of one culture and the non-openness of another, wondering what Hindus in America thought about things we considered absolutely fine to purvey.
It was too much, the desire to see and not look at life and then she saw something so incredible....death! It came floating by, stopped her breath and she didn't even consider taking a photo, remembering her mantra, "This is why you came here, to learn about death, surrender," because what came floating by was a bloated body which completely unfazed the other American woman in the boat. She said the once living woman could have been a victim of rape, abortion, family violence, a botched surgery or mafia murder! She intuited a masectomy gone wrong since one breast had been cut off, but maybe the turtles imported to eat half-burned bodies had eaten the missing breast. Silence."You know, Linda, women are not allowed to do this work, to attend cremations in India. Maybe your presence is offending these people?" Hmmmm, another thought came to her head, something else to consider. Then 10 minutes later, a headless, bloated, blue, dead infant came by. At first, someone announcd, "Here comes a dead dog," but as it got closer, it became obvious but at that point, a dog, a baby , a plant...what's the difference, death was becoming DEATH!
Now she was in pure witness mode, not thinking, not feeling, not talking, not documenting. She had been reduced to terror and attention and realized that she was getting her post doctorate in a subject that she couldn't even name. She was shaken to the core and death was not yet her ally or friend !(St Francis called death, Sister Death and she aspired to that level of no-fear.)
That night she slept with more mosquitoes and thought maybe they would bite her and she would die right there of sleeping sickness. All she could do is repeat a litany of prayers that sounded more like bargaining,"If I make it back to America safely, I will never, ever , ever, ever, ever-------------------------(fill in the blank)." And another bribe, "And I will donate -------dollars to (fill in the blank.)" She called on Jesus; her meditation teacher,Dr. Mishra; her friends; and good memories all night, for many nights and her cowering, infantile, immature spiritual game playing with the Almighty, made her sick with herself but did bring a modicum of comfort to her desperation.
Wondering if she would be thrown into the Ganges if she didn't correctly respect the traditions of this ancient city with its rules that state that only men go to cremations, she swallowed her feminism when the research assistant and videographer went off, without her to document the bodies being carried through the narrow streets while the stretcher bearers chanted,"Nam Ram Satya Hai, Nam Ram Satya Hai." She would go on her own to those places, see everything and would review the video footage once she got home, knowing that she could edit it and everything would work into the collage and final installation which hopefully would function as a call to meditation.
And now to the the nursing home aspect of her research(the videographer taped an asrama for the aged in Benares): having heard her own mother make her promise that she would never put her in a nursing home, she was CHARGED with the task of bringing the Hindu's method of prayer, japa and repetition of sacred sounds and positively respecting elders to every nursing home in America, hoping to reform them and make them prayerfull places. Or was she just kidding herself and trying to insure her own future position in a spiritually cognizant nursing home, bringing a Hindu model of "how to do it" to America.
For she envisioned that she would die in an atmosphere of meditation, surrounded by other elders, in an ideal setting! Hmmmm, a possibility? It would be a wonderfull nursing home where all the elders would be praying, saying mantras? The rosary?, just like in India. She knew she was here to design her own retirement and death.
And to incise death even more deeply into her image bank,she spent long hours at the burning ghats, eventhough she was a woman. Fate compelled her to see the places where 100 cremations are performed each day. The place where bodies are first immersed in the Ganges water then burned then returned to the Ganges as ashes or if not enough wood can be bought because the family had no money, partially burned bodies are put back into Mother Ganga for her to magically purify and transform.
She watched and felt and brushed against stretchers carrying the dead bodies. She noticed how feet burned, smelled the air to see how buring bodies smelled, watched as skulls were crushed with a stick by the male chief mourners so their relatives' spirit could fly free from the top of the head.
She watched, felt, chatted, gasped, moved from shock to surrender, graduating from Benares...
For Benares was healing her of death. Generous, dear Benares let her see enough cremations, enough life being respected yet ritually dispensed with, enough paradoxes and beauty/truth. And then she saw Benares teen age boys hanging out at the burning ghats the way they do here at the malls and they helped her lighten up about death especially when they began teasing a passing goat with courting sounds, insisting on LIFE.
It made her laugh and that laugh dislodged her addiction to fear and made her realize that she had seen enough ancient rituals and temples and life-force and now she could tolerate anything, even the truth and terror of her own mortality.
Thank you Benares.I will never, ever,ever,ever forget you.