River Ganges is considered the holiest of all rivers by Hindus. Varanasi, situated on the banks of Ganges is the holy city for both Hindus and Budhists and is one of the most sacred pilgrimage places for Hindus. Hindus believe that bathing in Ganges remits sins, and dying and performing last rites here, will release the a persons soul from the cycle of re-incarnation ( or transmigration). Hence, millions and millions from various parts of the country reaches the banks of Ganges at Varanasi, for Moksha ( for getting rid of the sins in this life or for dying at this place to attain eternal salvation). This, forms the backdrop for this amazing book by Shuasaku Endo.
Five Japanese arrive at this holy city, part of a pilgrimage tour. Each battling their own inner turmoil, and of various nature. Isobe, is looking after the re-incarnation of his deceased wife; he was made to promise by her on her death-bed. One research paper by an American scientist and few correspondence with him, gave Isobe a clue that a girl called Rajini, near Varanasi is claiming to be a Japanese in her previous life. Kiguchi, a WW II veteran, now a businessman, is still tormented by the time he had spent fighting for life in the Burmese jungles. He too wish to pay homage to his fellow soldiers in the front as well as the Indian and British troops he fought against. His close friend during the war, the one who rescued him from the clutches of death, which came in the form of Malaria, had succumbed to a prolonged illness as the after effect of war. . Guarding a gruesome secret, unable to open up even to his wife or to his close friend, turning himself to alcohol in order to keep himself sane, but loosing his health. Mitsuko, now middle aged, is looking for her childhood friend Otsu, then a wannabe priest, whom in her youthful arrogance, tried to seduce and move away from the spiritual path. Her own personal life had been in a mess, with an unsuccessful marriage behind her. "I can not love anyone", is her excuse, but even while here she really do not know why is she in this place. Numada, an animal lover, believes that his life was a gift from a Myna, who died on the same day of his 3rd operation, the first two being unsuccessful. A writer of Children's stories, which has the animals and birds as the prime characters, he was drawn towards the bird sanctuaries in an around the area of his visit. These four along with a newly married couple, Sonji, being a photographer, would like to gain fame, by taking few photographs, worthy of mention in the western press.
City of Varanasi to the tourist is one unhealthy, filthy place populated with people of old age abandoned in its shore by relatives, people who travel across the land to die, the holy , dirty river cleansing the millions from their eternal sins, by accepting their dirt and flowing silently through the plains. After the initial cultural shock, each of them had been accustomed to the complex nature of Indian way of life ( and its contradictions) and attracted to the myths associated the River Ganges. It reaches to a level where each wanted to redeem themselves at the banks of the same river in their own way.
This book is of an eternal quest for salvation. The salvation for their own troubled selves. Each of them need to cleanse themselves from their committed or inherited sins ( even perceived). After the initial introduction of his main characters, their moments of truth, Endo chooses to alternate between the present and reminiscent tales to some good effect. A book of profound spiritual and religious journey through the Christian , Buddhist and Hindu philosophy threading through the commonality between all religions. He also goes through some fundamental discussion on the concept of God through the unsuccessful priest Otsu , confronting the European priest with their belief ( Probably Endo's own experience with religion and spirituality) who now live a nomads life in the street of Varanasi, bringing unknown bodies fallen on the streets, to the place of burning, doing the needful.
Endo, writes so beautifully through the initial pages. The language is very touching and unhurried, the imagery is very vivid and dense, the spirituality is strong and open. The last few chapters have been a bit patchy and looses the initial magical touch of writing. However, Deep River, on the whole, become a quest of universal oneness of God among Christian, Hindu and Buddhist believes.------------------------------------------
Shusaku Endo ( translated from Japanese by Van C Gessel )
Other reviews: Dan Schneider, Three Percent