The Ganges River is ablaze this full moon festival night. Numberless candlelit leaf cups full of flower offerings float on the river, now a twinkling carpet of flame. Tiny oil lamps cover the vast flights of steps leading to the river's edge. The temples and palaces lining the riverbank are covered in cascading colored lights. All this light welcomes the gods back to the city of Varanasi for another year of well being and prosperity. From our boat, one among hundreds on the river tonight, we watch streams of celebrants passing along the steps between the rows of flames — a flickering vintage film with a soundtrack of temple bells and sacred chants rising from the city's innumerable temples and shrines. Indians still live in the company of their gods; every detail of their lives is sacred. read more

In the boat with Carol and me is a friend of ours. Kedarnath is a distinguished Brahmin gentleman with a halo of silken white shoulder length hair. Always dressed in a long white shirt and a dhoti, a thin white cloth wrapped around his waist and draped in elegant folds over his legs, he looks like a marble statue of an ancient Roman nobleman.

Kedarnath and his family still live in their ancestral home in Varanasi, only a stone's throw from the Ganges. His ancestors were astrologers at the court of the Maharaja of Varanasi. It was a respected and wealthy family, and in every generation the males were born with two thumbs on their right hand. In the old days, it is said, they were working thumbs, fully prehensile. Unlike in the West, where two thumbs on one hand would be viewed as a deformity, in India it is an auspicious sign and added luster to the family's reputation.

Gods bring together in themselves the diverse powers of the universe, and though often personified, they are more than merely human. Shiva and Vishnu have four arms to encompass the four cardinal directions of space; Brahma has four heads; the goddess Durga may have nineteen arms or more; and one Buddhist divinity has a thousand hands with an eye in the palm of each one. A man who has more than the normal number of limbs, even if just an extra finger, especially if it is a working one, is closer to the gods than normal people, even something of a god himself.

The combination of their erudition in the science of astrology and their extra thumbs contributed to the family's advancement — until Kedarnath's father was born. He too had the extra thumb, but it lacked a bone and hung flaccid from his hand. He was not a diligent pupil and couldn't apply himself to the study of astrology; and what was worse, he had a penchant for gambling and frittered away most of the family's fortune at the gaming tables.

Kedarnath's extra digit was a mere shadow of his forebears', just a flap of skin hanging from the outside of the base of his perfectly normal thumb, and it had been surgically removed in childhood. The fortunes of the family continued to decline. Kedarnath was forced to rent out rooms in his ancestral home to strangers and had to accept charity from friends. There on the boat, in the light of the full moon, he showed us a small protuberance at the base of his thumb, all that remains of the stunted digit.

Kedarnath 's son and the son's four sons were born without any trace of their family's divine attribute. They are modern young men making their way in a world where gods count for less than they used to and extra thumbs for nothing at all. But when one of them has a son, the first thing they do is examine his right hand, hoping to find the divine sign of that extra digit.

Copyright © Martin Noval 2006