The book “The City of Good Death” by Priyanka Champaneri brings readers inside India’s holy city of Banaras, where the manager of a death hostel shepherds the dying who seek the release of a good death, while his own past refuses to let him go.
This transcendent debut novel is the winner of the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing.
The novel is told in lush, vivid detail and with an unforgettable cast of characters.
Read an excerpt from the book below.
The week had been busy. They were full up, whole families in each of the twelve guest rooms, some doubled up if they could manage it— space could always be found; the folding of belongings and bodies was always possible. The fitting together of personalities, however, proved more difficult. At first, the guests kept their bickering to dark looks and under-the-breath mutterings, but as the hours passed and small pockets of space became akin to acres of land—a blanket claiming a corner here, a leg stretched out farther there—tempers flared and discontent became more vocal.
“It doesn’t matter, I suppose, who got here first.”
“And that cements your right, does it? When we have only just arrived and you have been here with yours for days—days! And nothing, no dead to show for it. This place is for the dying, you know, not the delusional.”
“Next thing we will need to put Ma in our laps; that will be the only space left.”
Pramesh could not turn anyone away, and so he packed the newer arrivals into the open-air courtyard and beseeched them all to be patient. But the air grew thick with irritation and impatience, clearing only when a wail went up from room No. 5.
Secrets could not last within Shankarbhavan’s walls; the rooms were fitted so tightly together that everyone heard everyone else, be it a cough, a whisper, or the final creaking breaths of one of the dying from the hostel’s furthest corners. And so all eyes fixed on the manager and followed him as he picked his way along the raised walkway bordering the courtyard and entered the room only recently visited by death. He felt the men among the guests move to cluster behind him just outside the door, ready for a preview of the preparations they would have to shoulder when their own dying kin left this world. The women remained behind, but the manager heard their murmurings, their mutual curiosity turning enmity into friendship. With the dead man’s expansive family spread out before him, Pramesh tried to determine whose face he should focus on.
Three grown daughters sat in a row, faces shielded from view with their sari ends, mouths open with keening cries and bodies rocking back and forth. Their husbands crouched behind them, rattling off a continuous loop of Rama-Rama like a trio of frogs. The women’s grief was loud and affected, the husbands’ mechanical. At the far side of the room, next to the concrete wall where green paint peeled away in large flakes, a youth sat with his father’s head in his lap. He was slight and had an early dusting of stubble, and he was silent and intent as he bent over his father’s body and touched his hands to the face, the chest, the legs and then back to the forehead, his fingers trembling.
“Rama-Rama,” Pramesh murmured as he always did when someone passed. He gripped the shoulder of the nearest man in a gesture of comfort. Pramesh had been the manager at Shankarbhavan for almost a decade, and he had seen and heard death at least weekly in the hostel, had grown accustomed to the constant spectacle of corpse-laden biers and flaming funeral pyres lining the ghats.
But this time in room No. 5 something was different. He knelt close to the youth, placing a hand on his back, and he took a closer look at the father. The face was still and the skin felt cold. No breath emerged from the nose or mouth, and the gnarled hands did not respond when touched. The youth was like stone. He had said nothing, but now he whispered two syllables. “Bapa.”
And there it was: the papery eyelids flickered, and then the man’s eyes were open, the pupils searching, and his chest resumed a halting rise and fall under Pramesh’s palms.
As if their voices had been snatched away, the sisters ceased wailing. Their husbands straightened up from their defeated positions, their eyes resuming the exasperation that Pramesh had observed in the days since they’d entered the hostel more than a week ago. The youth only stared, eyes wide. His father sought out his hand and gave it a weak squeeze.
The woman on the right, the dying man’s eldest, lifted her hand and gave an impatient flick of the wrist, and one of the three men coughed and stepped toward Pramesh as if pulled by an invisible thread. His face lost its irritated expression and became businesslike. “Manager-ji,” he said. “You know about death. Our father has been here for days, and still he suffers. When will it end?”
Many pairs of eyes bore into Pramesh with hopeful pressure, but the youth refused to look up. “I can only tell you my experience with these things,” Pramesh said. “It could be two days or two months. Death is not easily predicted.”
He knew this wasn’t what they wanted to hear. The disaster of remaining alive was what all such families coming to Kashi dreaded. The bhavan had few rules, but those posted on each guest’s door were resolute. At least one member of the party must be dying, preferably of the old age or natural causes that defined a good death, and that person must be accompanied by at least one family member. Lodging was free; guests were to provide for their own needs. Meals were to be simple, with little or no spice that might awaken the senses, the goal being to nourish rather than entice. And stays were limited to two weeks.
The last rule ensured all pilgrims had the same fair chance at ending their days in the holy city, lest the hostel become host to folk who lingered for months on end while others languished, waiting for a vacated place. But this was also the rule that the guests argued over the most. For the old man in No. 5, returning home meant he would miss this chance to die a death that was the best one could hope for on this Earth: the city promised it would be the last—the death to end all rebirths and miseries. But now he would suffer another birth, hopefully once again as a man, but if he had been imprudent in this life he might return as an insect, a monkey, a bullock destined to draw a wooden plow until exhaustion brought upon death and triggered the cycle anew, pulling the soul into the misery of yet another life. Who knew what path a person’s karma could put them on? Who could be sure they had not committed a sin that would set them backward by five births? In Kashi, sinner and saint alike could achieve the same goal. This was the city where time did not exist, or so the scriptures said, and on most mornings Pramesh truly believed it, that here he was suspended without past or future, no story trailing behind him and none unfurling ahead, just like every other denizen of Kashi.
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