There is a dead body in the river.
It is a woman. I know because she is naked, face-up between two giant boulders near the riverbank. Her body has settled there, pushed by the current into the doldrums of still water where she floats. She is bloated, discolored, maybe two weeks dead. But she has breasts, I am almost certain I see breasts. A woman. Dead in the water.
We are rafting the Kaligandaki River, the mighty Kali, named after the Goddess of Destruction. The Kaligandaki is one of Nepal’s most holy rivers. I see evidence of this everywhere; her banks are dotted with colorful puja, offerings to the Gods.
We paddle past temples and a statue of Krishna. A call to prayer rings out over the water, beautiful and haunting. People from a small village stand gathered on the riverbank building a funeral pyre. A body lies near the tall stack of wood, wrapped in an orange shroud, prepared for it’s burning. Shirtless boys wave to us from the riverbank. We wave back from our raft.
But this body in the river, it’s not that kind of body. It’s unburned, intact. There has been no attempt at cremation on this body.
We’ve just come through a rapid, our raft spins clockwise, and we hoot and holler enjoying the rush. But then, there is the body. I see it before I know what I’m seeing and then I know but I can’t find the words.
“Is that a human body?” someone finally asks, slowly, like they can’t believe their eyes.
I nod yes and see that Brian and the others, there are five in our raft, are nodding too. They’re stunned into silence in the same way I am.
But then we are floating off again, rushing away from the body. The whole thing happens quickly. The body is there, we see it, our raft moves on.
“Should we report it?” I ask Brian later.
“Who would we report it to?”
The Kaligandaki is an isolated river that winds through the Himalayas, a river that has carved one of the deepest gorges in the world between Dhaulagiri and Annapurna Mountains. Life here is rural, lived in a string of tiny villages. There are no roads at all, just footpaths worn into the mountains. Brian is right. There is no one to report it to.
But I can’t stop thinking about the woman, who she was and how she ended up in the river.
As we lie in our tent at night listening to the sound of the river’s steady movement, I imagine what might have happened to her. Did she slip while washing clothes and drown? Was she pushed into the water? For Hindus, cremation upon death is obligatory. Almost everyone in Nepal is Hindu. Surely she deserves a pyre. Surely she deserves to give her body back with dignity, to leave what remains of her in the proper way.
Or perhaps I have it wrong somehow, the customs of dying in the eastern world. The little bit of death I’ve seen was sterilized and structured. What do I know about the bloating and rotting, the organics of things? What do I know about the sacred art of death?
We raft the Kaligandaki for three days and when our trip is over we eat lunch on the riverbank. The rafts and supplies are packed into a bus that will drive us back to Pokhara. The heavy things are hauled from the river to the road by porters.
A group of children crowd around us as we eat. A little boy with a brutal scar on his leg points to the food on my plate and I nod yes to each item, an apple, a cookie, and he puts them in his mouth. I look at his scar. He has been burned severely. Someone has twisted the skin on either side of his burn together to close the gap. I watch the porters, thin as bone, carry the heavy supplies to our bus. I think about how hard life is on their bodies. Their beautiful bodies, worn out, used up, scarred and battered and then burned on the river or swept away by it.