Under the looming cantilever of the bustling Howrah Bridge, a wide expanse of silty water pushes towards the Bay of Bengal. This is the Hooghly River (traditionally known as the Ganga), a major distributary of the famed Ganges. Believed by Hindus to be a god descended from heaven, the river water is believed to be holy, bringing salvation to the dead.
The Ghats, or riverbanks, are therefore places of cleansing—both physical and spiritual. I found my way to Mallick Ghat in the early morning, before the sun had burnt off the foamy cloud cover. A handful of bathers washed themselves, brushing their teeth with frayed sticks and carrying buckets of water up to shallow stone basins for laundry. The mood reverential, these riverbanks afforded a respite from the cacophony of noise and jostling on the bridge above. Holy as it was, the river had slipped with the tide leaving a blanket of silty detritus: bright plastic cups, crumpled basket, foil wrapper, leaves and the dead's ashes.