The poor save up everything, even their ghosts. The little family of desert farmers descending the steps to the holy lake of Pushkar has waited patiently for a whole generation of patriarchs to die. With careful husbandry, they have accumulated four brothers and cousins of similar age, who had shared a surname. Now, two generations have gathered to speed their spirits to the other world. On the steps of the bathing ghat in the oasis sacred to Brahma, the dead are represented by four walking sticks and four little wicker baskets which contain goods for the hereafter. The walking sticks are made of cheap wood lacquered to look cheerful. The lacquer is a baleful orange. The wicker has warp of green and weft of blue, and the baskets look very picknicky. The men clustered around them are tonsured and dressed in their best clothes, the worn jeans and check shirts of much-washed colours which is the uniform of rising India. In the watery first light, it is a family of shadows.

The women huddle on the steps, holding babies and tolerating children, all barefoot on the cold stone flagging, hungry but stoical, for the family must fast until the rites are done. Fated to be extras in the theatre of life and death, the women have not dressed for the occasion. Their clothes are old and grey with use, but their ankles offer rich counterpoints, weighed down with chunky silver anklets as thick as a child’s wrist, the accumulated savings of several lifetimes of women.

They have kept the dead waiting but that is not a great sin, for time is in good supply in the afterlife. And in this market-driven life, batch processing the last rites qualifies for a bulk discount. An early-rising Brahmin has taken the family under his fleshy wing after some loud haggling with the tonsured menfolk. One of them comes over to the huddled women and children and whispers to the oldest, a tall, thin, grey-haired woman. Reluctantly, she

reaches into her blouse and draws some banknotes out of her cleavage. She does not give them all to the young man, who could be her grandson. She saves up one big note and tucks it back in her blouse. With India on the move, these are uncertain times.

Cash warming his heart, the Brahmin herds off the women down to the water. It is alive with small fish. Pond-scum gives it the colour of dull, unpolished emerald. They squat by the water and wash their hands, reluctant to wade into the freezing depths. The Brahmin cheers them on. ‘Bathing in Pushkar washes away all sins,’ he exhorts, ‘and to bathe is to wash the ears. Please wash the ears.’ He wears a benign smile and white cotton pyjamas which could hold three of him. He is sleek with many scrubbings and oilings. He keeps his hands joined resolutely behind his back. But for money, he would not come in contact with such people. Two herons and a beady-eyed bittern watch him warily as he issues orders to his little flock.

Before a drought dried up the Pushkar lake, a few small crocodiles had shared the water with the millions of devout bathers who visit every year. They were of surprisingly limited size and prowess and lived on the fish which teem in the waters. The humans offered no competition, since Pushkar is strictly vegetarian. Even the breakfast omelettes are made of lentil powder, not eggs.

Legend has it that before the lake filled up again in the next monsoon, the crocodiles were removed by the government for the safety of bathers, though they had offered them no harm. This is not surprising. In its newfound confidence, modern India fears many beings who offer no harm. A much older legend from the twentieth century holds that Pushkar used to teem with full-sized crocodiles, and that bathers whom they dragged away gave thanks to Brahma with their dying breath, for the reptiles were instruments of grace which took them back to nature. These crocodiles were apparently herded off into the Rajasthan desert by the British government, before India became independent. In a country where governments customarily do not work, such faith in the agency of the state is perplexing. In Indian cinema, the police always arrive just before the credits roll, and just after the hero has thrashed the villains silly. In Pushkar, too, one would have expected the government to enter the picture well after the crocodiles had digested the juiciest pilgrim bathers, but colonial power was always quick to quell disorder.

The great-grandchildren of the colonials have returned to Pushkar. They come from all over, from Oporto to Osaka. They teem in the ancient buildings that line the edge of the water, and swarm up to the strictly vegetarian rooftop restaurants which are everywhere. But it is too early for them to be afoot. They were busy last night, on Shivratri, the night sacred to Shiva, trying the patience of the locals by dancing in the streets to the rhythms of Krishna consciousness in honour of a god of a rather different temperament. The myriad cows of Pushkar, all holy, had watched them impassively.

The sun has topped the hills behind which lies the Sufi city of Ajmer, where the Mughal emperor Jehangir signed a document granting trading rights to a British emissary, and unwittingly signed away his empire and his country. The first light strikes the water low, turning it into a sheet of metal.

Pushkar is coming to life. Two European tourists are walking down the steps towards the water. Loud cries ring out from all over: ‘No sandals! No sandals in 60 feet!’ With due respect to the gods, you are to approach the water barefoot. As in Canossa, so in Pushkar. As with snow in the higher latitudes, so with water in the subtropics. The Europeans, a grizzled old campaigner on the hippie trail and a rather vivacious girl in a flowing batik skirt, sit down on the steps to take off their hiking boots. They are overtaken by two refugees from a boardroom clad in terry cotton shirts with white collar and cuffs. They wear thick gold chains around their necks. The profiles of huge Chinese mobile phones bulge from their trouser pockets. They are barefoot, having left their expensively narrow shoes in their car. They may have driven down from Jaipur and are in a hurry to drive back. Quickly, they strip down to their shorts and wade into a tank at the edge of the lake, made by some long-forgotten Rajput for bathers who do not trust the depths. They know what’s what and do not need the ministrations of a priest.

But there is one in attendance anyway, a skinny, swollen-headed man bald in front and with straggly, grey locks at the back. In the cities, such men lurk in parks at the crack of dawn, on the lookout for huffy and puffy men and women to lure into yoga lessons. Here, in Pushkar, they pursue the visibly rich and guilt-trip them into elaborate propitiations. The priest circles the tank like a hawk and dives for his prey, barely making a splash. ‘This is how you bathe,’ he instructs, coming up for air. ‘Every atom of your body must be underwater, or it doesn’t count.’ He dog-paddles to the steps of the ghat, grips a nylon rope which is set into an iron ring and hauls himself ashore hand over hand. He perches on the steps in his shorts, dripping water. ‘Hold this rope and dive in fearlessly – come, let me help you.’ First Boardroom Refugee declines politely. The priest turns his attention to his companion: ‘What about you? It’s the new moon, most propitious for giving water to your ancestors.’

‘My ancestors are swimming in it,’ says Second Boardroom Refugee rudely, sluicing water into his armpits with his hands. He is portly. His hands are podgy and don’t hold water.

‘How unusual! I must inform you that in this matter, even too much is not enough. Ancestors are always hungry and thirsty, and who would care for them but their descendants? Who else remembers them? Perfect strangers, you think? And it only takes a hundred rupees to set right whatever you neglected to do for them when they, most unfortunately, died. This is Pushkar, where all human errors can be rectified.’

Boardroom Refugee Number Two is an overweight man, but he is shockingly fast. Just walking down the long flight of steps to the water had set him panting but now, he is out of the water in a flash, his fingers curled like talons, reaching for the priest’s throat. The priest whirls and flees around the tank. He must put holy water between the beast and himself. ‘Lunatic!’ he mutters nervously. The spot to which he has fled is near the family, clustered around a sacrificial fire, their heads bent in mumbled prayer. The children look warily at him, sidelong, silent and wide-eyed. Children everywhere always know the real lunatic in their midst.

Their sleek priest in oversize pyjamas drones on, eyes shut to keep out his lunatic peer. What he recites is not exactly Sanskrit, but you would have to know Sanskrit to know that, and his clients know absolutely nothing other than the mysteries of raising mustard and goats in the barren, inhospitable desert. But no, even they know. Everyone knows, of course, and that is why we all grudge paying the family priest.

‘Just a hundred rupees and they wouldn’t be thirsty for a whole year,’ shouts the priest across the water. He is both frightened and enraged. ‘It’s up to you. Your sin, your redemption. Your money.’ Some of the latest abuse in the vernacular floats back across the water, hushing the holy morning. Who would have thought a man in a shirt with a white collar and cuffs would know such language? Violence is banned in Pushkar, and a low chant of protest rises from priests and public everywhere. Who could have known that there were such multitudes afoot, barefoot, at this hour?

In victorious joy, the lunatic priest wraps a worn sheet around himself and wriggles energetically, encouraging his sodden shorts to drop to the ground under cover of the sheet. ‘That’s all I told them,’ he shouts triumphantly. ‘A year’s water. It’s my duty to tell those that don’t know these things. I’m a priest.’ A much older colleague hobbles down the stairs and touches him reprovingly on the shoulder. ‘I’m a priest, I’m supposed to tell people what’s good for them,’ the swollen-headed priest repeats, spreading his arms dramatically and looking around for public support, clad in a sheet. ‘That’s what I am. That’s what I did.’ He brushes off the restraining hand on his shoulder and starts washing his shorts ferociously. He wrings them into a tight cylinder, which he jabs into the water and draws out repeatedly, like a spear-fisher. The fish prudently withdraw from his side of the tank.

The gentlemen in boardroom gear are also being prudent. The first one has calmed down the second, who now quickly snags a passing priest of the new breed. He is clad in a drip-dry shirt and trousers like ordinary people, his profession advertised only by the vermilion and turmeric mark on his forehead. They cut a deal for a five-minute ceremony worth ten rupees. It is an insurance policy, taken out against more expensive and aggressive priests.

Cut out from the action, the hundred rupee priest takes one last frustrated stab at the green water with his wrung-out shorts. He spreads them out to dry on the stone step, now baking under the rising sun. He lopes over to the interloping priest, who is carefully putting a vermilion mark on the forehead of his customer with a little brass stick. ‘Hey, you owe me five rupees,’ he says, ‘because I was here first.’

A bull has come down the steps in search of prayer offerings, which make good eating. He gives the hundred-rupee priest a vigorous shove in passing, but the man barely notices. ‘Five rupees!’ he demands, staggering. ‘Half and half.’ The ten-rupee priest carefully parks his brass stick in its little bowl of vermilion, covers it with a hibiscus flower which he uses for the lid, and turns away, striding up the steps to spend his ten rupees on some breakfast. The hundred-rupee priest runs after him. ‘Hey, five rupees. Or you buy me a five-rupee cup of masala tea right now, and no tricks.’ The ten-rupee priest does not bother to reply.

The boardroom types have bathed and balanced the books of their sins. Now safe from importunate priests, they are climbing back into their street clothes and checking trouser pockets for car keys and phones. The holy lake is winding down for the long, hot afternoon. The bull has gone straight to the ceremonies of the family of the poor. Four dead will offer good pickings, he knows.

Water, fire, incense, mantra. The dead have almost been seen off. The bull will clean up the banana leaves, flowers and sweets of the ceremony. It only remains to lay out the balls of sacrificial rice. If the birds take them, it is a good sign. It means that the dead have been received back into the womb of nature. It is not as dramatic as crocodiles dragging away the living, but what can you do? We are all mad about security these days. It is taking the magic out of our lives.

The ceremony over, the family gathers up their things and trudges up the steps, leaving only the goods for the dead under the watchful eye of the Brahmin. They will soon find their way back to the shop which had sold them, to await the future dead.

Pratik Kanjilal is editor at the Indian Express and a writer/translator.

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