At Varanasi, they whisper to the fish and set them free in the water.
I’d come to the Ghats to watch the sunrise, an event that was turning out to be more spectacular than I had imagined. Ahead of me, the sun spilled molten gold onto the calm waters of the Ganga. Majhis (boatmen) were ferrying passengers across in similar-looking rowboats, their silhouettes adding to the drama. A million seagulls circled above the boats, their squawks accompanying the sound of temple bells and the chants of worshippers performing pooja on the stone steps. Men and women were bathing in the holy waters, their faith shielding them from the biting cold of a winter morning. Wash away our sins, mother…
From the high octagonal stone platform I was sitting on, everything seemed surreal.
A while ago, I had bid goodbye to Pooja, a young engineer from Poona who was sharing the platform with me. She had come to the ghats with her brother and sister-in-law, and was kind enough to click a picture of me for memory. We had found each other on Instagram, and parted with vague promises to keep in touch.
I sat there alone for a long time afterward, at peace with the world that was bustling around me.
As I got up to leave, I saw a couple of Muslim men – father and son, presumably – carrying transparent yellow plastic bags, making their way to where I was sitting. I noticed that the bags held water, with small, black, live fish in them. I stopped in my tracks.
“Are those fish?” The father ignored me. Talk about stating the obvious.
The son nodded.
“What are they for?”
“To be released in the Ganga,” he mumbled without looking at me.
“To be…what! Why?”
“Why? Because…” He looked at his father, but the old man did not help. Then he turned and met my eyes. “...where else do fish belong except with Ganga Maiyya?”
Where else indeed.
I followed them as they went to the edge of the platform, asking their permission to click pictures. The son looked at his father again. Though the old man decidedly turned his back on me, the son did not seem to mind. I decided to take their silence for consent, but maintained an unobtrusive distance.
They sat down and carefully opened the bags. The older man took each bag separately, brought it close to his face and blew softly into it. Then both the father and the son gently took the fish one by one in their palms and dropped it into the water. That done, they got up and left.
No one gave a second glance. Except me, that is.
Later, I came to know that this is a sadka, a ritual performed by the members of the weaving community regardless of their faith. Meant to ward off evil, to protect their person and property.
Protect us, mother, protect our livelihood. You, who are all-accepting, all-forgiving. You who do not distinguish between humans and their faiths. Guard us against evil, Mother. Within and without…
A prayer or two, breathed into the slim, dark bodies of a dozen fishes. To be carried to the heart of a mighty river brimming with the desperate pleas of generations and lifetimes. Of the living and the dying, the hopeful and the hopeless.
Down there in her womb, these prayers too would feed on human sins and grow. As guardians, protectors. Shielding mortals from themselves…