‘Is this still the Ganges?’ Janet asked.
‘Ganges, Light amid the Darkness, Friend of the Helpless. It has a thousand names,’ Hamid said as they Strolled towards the low wall. To bathe in her waters is to be purified of all sin, or so the Hindus believe.’
Janet leaned on the wall and looked down the cobbled bank into the in-shore channel at the brown, silt-laden water. ‘It looks pretty unhealthy to me.’
Drummond tit a cigarette and leaned beside her. ‘Strangely enough, it does seem to have health-giving properties. During religious festivals pilgrims driak it, often at places where the drains disgorge the filth of the town, but they never seem to suffer. Bottled, it keeps for a year. They say that in the old days when taken on board clipper ships in Calcutta, it outlasted all other waters.’
Down below at the river edge some kind of ceremony was taking place and she glanced up at Hamid. ‘Can we go down?’
‘But of course. Anything you wish..
‘Not me,’ Drummond said. ‘If I’m going to see Ferguson before we leave, I’d better be moving.’ He glanced at his watch. ‘It’s almost two o’clock now. I’ll see you back at fee hotel at four.’
He moved away across the square quickly and Janet watched him go, a slight frown oa her face, ‘I believe Mr. Ferguson said he was in the tea business.’
That’s right,’ Hamid said, ‘Jack has an air freight contract with him. Ferguson usually comes up to see him once a month. He has a houseboat lower down the liver from here.’
‘You said Mr. Dremmosd was OECS a naval commander?.
‘Fleet Air Arm.”
‘He was a regular officer, then? He would have bees too young to have been a full commander during the war.’
‘Quite right. The Pathan still smiled, but there was a slight, cutting edge to his voice, a look in the eye that warned her to go no further. ‘Shall we go down?’
They stood on the edge of a small crowd and watched the ceremony that was taking place. Several people stood knee-deep ia the water, the men amongst them stripped to the waist and daubed with mud. One of them poured ashes from a muslin bag into a larger paper boat. Another put a match to it and pushed the frail craft away from the bank, out into the channel where the current caught it. Suddenly, the whole boat burst into flames, and a moment later sank beneath the surface.
.What were they doing?’ Janet asked.
.The ashes were those of a baby,’ Hamid said. ‘A man-child because the ceremony is expensive and not worth going through for a girl.’
‘And they do this all the time?’
He nodded. ‘It is every Hindu’s greatest dream to have his ashes scattered on the waters of Ganges. Near here there is a shamsan, a burning place for the dead. Would you like to see it?’
‘Do you think I can stand it?’
He smiled down at her. ‘Two years in Vietnam, you said. If you can take that, you can take anything.’
Tm not so sure.’ She shook her head. ‘India’s different, like no other place on earth. Ferguson told me that and he was right.’
As they moved along the shore, she could smell woodsmoke, and up ahead there was a bullock cart, three or four people standing beside it
As they approached, she gave a sudden gasp and moved closer to Hamid. A naked man was lying on a bed of thorns, eyes closed, his tongue protruding, an iron spike pushed through it. His hair and beard were matted and filthy, his body daubed with cowdung and ashes.
‘A saddhu, a holy man,’ Hamid said, throwing a coin into an earthenware jar that stood at the man’s head. ‘He begs from the mourners and prays for the souls of the dead.’
There was nothing to distinguish the place from any other stretch of the shore, no temples, no monuments. Only the ashes of old fires, the piles of calcined bones and here and there a skull, glaring blindly up at the sky.
The people by the fire laughed and joked with each other and as the flames roared through the criss-crossed logs of the funeral pyre in a sudden gust of wind, she caught the sweetly-sick, distinctive stench of burning flesh and her throat went dry, panic threatening to choke her.