I saw my first dead body on the Bagmati. It seemed clean, wrapped and tied in cream-colored sheeting. It was burning white hot in high flames, excreting human smoke up and across the valley in thin clouds. I thought of tiny particles of dead human flesh floating, light as ash, and settling on the streets and houses. In my lungs. I thought of boiling blood. Not thick coagulated blood, seized through the corpse before the liquids vaporised and the solids burned into a blackened pile of charred bones, but actual boiling blood. I wondered if I could taste it in the air. I breathed deeply. Only incense, rotting fruit, and the sour stench of a filthy and polluted river made their way into my nostrils. Later in life, upstream along this same river, at Pashupatinath, I’d learn what burning flesh smells like, and how the smoke tastes on the tongue.
My second dead body was on another river, just outside the Kathmandu valley, not far from here. I was fishing with my fingers under a large flat boulder, grasping for skipping stones, when I felt bone, brittle and porous in contrast to the smooth round stones that line the banks at what we called ‘pebble beach’. I pulled my body forward over the boulder and looked into the darkness underneath, upside down, my hair on the the rocky bank and my nose nearly pressed against the stone. Holding the boulder – and me – up off the bank, and allowing the space for my exploratory fingers, was a human skull, white and gaping. The twisted body extended around it, seemingly undisturbed but for the rising and retreating of the river waters that come with the monsoon and the melting of ice flows in Tibet, where the Trisuli originates. I wondered, at the time, if this human – whose spine I had explored with my fingertips – had drowned under this rock, trapped in the current, or if the body was ‘buried’ here, the boulder tipped onto it like a marker or perhaps a shield from the elements and hungry predatory birds. I still do not know, and I left it there, undisturbed, wondering if anyone would ever touch my spine.