After checking in at the Mukti Bhawan hostel, guests have two weeks to die or else they are gently asked to leave.
The hostel — a short walk from the Ganges river in the northern Indian city of Varanasi — is a final stopover for elderly Hindus hoping they will shortly end up on one of the hundreds of funeral pyres lit on the riverbank each day.
“While the rest of the world celebrates a new life when a child is born, similarly we celebrate death,” said Bhairav Nath Shukla, the cheerful manager of Mukti Bhawan, one of several places offering shelter to outsiders wanting to die in the city.
Hindus believe that dying in Varanasi and having their remains scattered in the Ganges allows their soul to escape a cycle of death and rebirth, attaining “moksha” or salvation.
But for those making that most final of pilgrimages to the city, orthodox hotels and guesthouses can be expensive, and, as Shukla points out, most are reluctant to welcome guests on the very brink of death who do not plan to check out alive.
Mukti Bhawan — or “Salvation House” — offers 12 bare, tatty rooms arranged around a courtyard in a 100-year-old red-brick building with green shutters.
The atmosphere is far from sombre.
“Here we witness the deaths, the wailing shrieks, the chaos on a daily basis, so where is the fear?” said Shukla. “There will be another life after this, so there is no basis for fear. Crying over this is foolishness.”
In one room, Narayan crouches on the floor frying chillies on a portable stove, his infant daughter wailing from the fumes. Nearby his 80-year-old mother, Manorma Devi, lies supine on a wooden plinth, unconscious and panting.
“It’s old age. She’s had a long life, so how can I feel sad?” said Narayan. “Kashi (Varanasi) is a very important place. A place of temples. I’m happy she can die here.”
Devi’s family will pay only their electricity and food bills. The poorest families pay nothing.
There are no doctors, nurses or medicine cabinets. Instead there are four priests to offer prayers for the dying.
Between 30 and 70 people die here every month. But if a guest has not died within a couple of weeks of arriving, they are usually requested to make space for someone else.
At especially busy times, Shukla will sometimes let people in to die in his office. If it’s quiet, he sometimes waives the two-week rule.
MAYBE NEXT TIME
Predicting when someone will die is an inexact science, which makes choosing when to travel to Mukti Bhawan something of a gamble.
“People come in the hope that death is near but at times it isn’t, in which case they are caught in a fix,” said Shukla.
The family of Ram Bhog Pandey is beginning to feel anxious. The 85-year-old former teacher from a village in the eastern state of Bihar has been lying on the hard floor of his room at Mukti Bhawan for ten days.
Unlike some other guests, he is still conscious, although he is no longer able to speak and barely able to move.
His rheumy eyes stare at anyone entering the room. He struggles to smile. Mushed up food falls from his mouth. His body is skeletal.
“We brought him here after the doctors said there is no hope for him,” said Daya Shankar, Ram’s eldest son, who will light the funeral pyre when the time comes.
“His right hand is already dead,” he added, pointing towards the hand’s yellowy-purple swollen flesh.
But if his father doesn’t die within the next few days, Daya Shankar said they will have to return him by train to their village. The family can’t stay away from their farm for too long.
It would be a great shame if his father missed the chance to draw his last breath in Varanasi, Daya Shankar said. But perhaps he will get another chance at the end of his next life, he added.