Don’t pay the ferryman until he gets you to the other side…
– Chris de Burgh
It was chaos at the landing. Amid the clamour of two wedding parties, boat-loads of gawking tourists, touts, hawkers, hustlers, beggars and con-men, the ferry boats were moored side by side against the Ganges’ current. The water gurgled and hissed around the hulls. The wooden transoms and gunwales knocked together with hollow thuds. The river stretched out east and west, slate grey under a sullen sky. A lone dog, like a single-headed Cerberus, prowled the periphery of the crowd.
Forewarned is forearmed. I already knew the fare to be rowed across the Ganges. It was forty Rupees. I had asked at the café (the Varanasi Café and Bakery Restaurant, should you ever be in this part of the world!) where I’d had breakfast.
“Thirty to forty Rupees only,” the café’s owner Roduej had told me. “No more.”
So when Charon, the ferryman told me the fare was 200 Rupees I laughed at him.
“You’re a funny guy,” I said. “The fare is forty Rupees.” He shrugged his shoulders and gave that Indian head shake that means “OK.” A few of the other passengers giggled. They knew the fare; and they knew that a ferryman couldn’t be trusted. I took a seat in the bows. It was twenty minutes before the boat was full. Charon’s assistant, Hermes, unmoored us from the pontoon dock and we pushed off out onto the Styx.
In Greek mythology, the souls of the dead are rowed across the River Styx by Charon (pronounced “Kai-ron”), the ferryman. On the far side of the river lie the Gates of Hell, the entrance to the Underworld, the kingdom of Hades, guarded by Cerberus, the three-headed dog. Charon demands a coin as payment for passage across the river and anyone who cannot pay is doomed to wander the riverbank for eternity.
Earlier, long before dawn, a massive thunderstorm had moved over Varanasi. Awoken by the gigantic peals of thunder, I had stood at the window of my dingy hotel room and watched the storm. Amid the clanging of temple bells and the thrum of drums, the thunder had erupted with ear-splitting, window-rattling intensity. Immense bolts of lightning had seared the darkness, strobe-lighting the flat water of the Ganges and the jumble of temples along the Manikarnika Ghat below.
I thought of the storm now as we moved out across the water. It reminded me of the lyrics in the Chris de Burgh song Don’t Pay the Ferryman: “And then the lightning crashed and the thunder roared, and people calling out his name. And dancing bones that jabbered and moaned on the water…”
The boat was a wide-beamed, flat-bottomed rowboat, hand built from hardwood. It was stable and very heavy. Charon sat on the coaming of the bow, his bare feet locked into an opening in the planks to give him leverage as he pulled on the oars. The river was sluggish and benign at this time of the year. During the Monsoon, when Mother Ganga comes down in spate, spreading out from bank to bank, the ferrymen must have a hard time crossing her.
The farther shore drew near. There was a cluster of ramshackle stalls, dozens of bathers, boats pulled up on the white sand. Beyond this narrow littoral of commerce and activity, the bare sand of the Ganges’ floodplain stretched away into the haze. A camel stood in silhouette on the skyline.
It was a neat inversion of the Greek myth. We had left Hades behind, like Orpheus walking into the light. The side of the river that we had departed from was the real Underworld with its burning ghats, crowds of wild-eyed worshippers, black ash-heaps, piles of funeral-pyre firewood, stoned Sadhus and befuddled tourists. This was the Middle World, Elysium, the land of Demeter and the living.
Charon’s assistant took our money. The ferryman had been paid his obol. I took off my shoes and stepped from the boat. The water of the Ganges was clear and cool. The sand was soft beneath my feet. I waded ashore. Cerberus greeted me: not a three-headed demon dog but a friendly tail-wagging mutt looking for a pat and a biscuit.
A warm wind blew down from the west. People bathed in the holy water. Children scampered in the shallows. From the far shore I could hear the temple bells, diminished by distance: the unholy cacophony of Hades dimmed to a whisper by distance. I sat on a stone seat drinking chai, then walked out onto the Elysian Plain, “where life is easiest for man.”