A selfie with Kashi

Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay, one of the pillars of the golden era of Bengali literature, once wrote that the cloud-capped sky pretty much looks like a sky full of clouds and not the free flowing hair of an elderly lady to him. With power of imagination of equal strength and sense of aesthetics even worse, whenever I see a mountain or be to some uninhabited lap of nature which is seldom interrupted by human beings I get bewildered, wondering what to do next. In the absence of human cacophony I feel bored; sometimes even sleepy.

Comfort is in seeing myself in the collage of faces that crowd the street. Not away from them.

Last August I got a call from Kashi (Also known as Benaras/Varanasi). And unlike most other calls I took this one in the first ring.

I was accompanied by my brother-in-law. We took an overnight train from Lucknow to reach Kashi at around 5.30 in the morning. We had no hotels booked beforehand. Since staying within the people was the motive of this journey we browsed out a room in a hotel situated in an archaic mazy lane of Kashi. At Rs. 300 for two people. The room was preoccupied by a few rodents who knew that we mean them no harm. So they co-operated. The thick wall created the perfectly impenetrable LOC for mobile networks.

It was just perfect.

After a brief breakfast with poori-sabzi, we set out for the much-awaited walk through the lanes, by-lanes, sub-lanes, is-that-a-lane, this-is-a-blocked-lane, doors-which-opens-to-a-lane, alleys-which-can’t-be-a-lane-but-ends-up-being-a-lane. The best thing about these lane-works is that Google map is often clueless. These are the moments when you move from 3G and 4G and seek help from bahenji and bhaiyaji for directions.

We stopped at a shop to buy a pack of cigarettes. The lady who was working there was a widow who came to Varanasi for ‘Kashibas’. She believes (like her a many others believe) that death in Kashi ensures redemption. Well might just be a faith, but it is innocent. She is not imposing it on anyone and has almost finished her tenure on earth. She is independent and happy. Isn’t that the purpose of life?

The lanes in Kashi runs like a river meandering through the huge buildings on both sides which had stood like mountains through ages. Most of these lanes are so narrow that they are impregnable even to the sun.

In one of these houses stayed the 19th-century preacher of tolerance Sri Ramakrishna for three months. The man has passed away. His idea struggles to survive. In a small house, with a bed and a few pictures of the holy trinity in the first floor, and a colony of bats hanging from the ceiling of the ground floor lives a middle-aged person who takes care of the house.

A brief chat with him was followed by a cup of tea and resumption of the untiring walk. The walk took us to (we had no clue where we were heading. we just walked on) Munsir Ghat popularly known as Dwarbhanga Ghat.

The ghat was slightly crowded. Because monsoon just left Kashi, most of the other ghats were half immersed. However Munsir Ghat was in a slightly better condition. I felt sorry for a Korean couple who were struggling to light a bidi. My ten years of smoking experience came to some use when I actually took a class on ‘how to smoke a bidi’. The joy in their face that followed the first puff made the day a little brighter.

Because we decided to stay with people we decided to move on from the ghat. Well, that is how we consoled ourselves after cursing the monsoon.

There was a tune in the air. There was the sound of silence like a bass guitar effortlessly jammed with the sound of Khanjani that came from a temple or a few temples around. A zealot of devotees singing bhajan in a chorus. A funeral procession went carrying a body, whose soul just left, chanting the name of Ram to Manikarnika ghat where fire has never extinguished ever. Footsteps of a thousand walking lives mixed with the African beats of djembe being played in a shop selling percussion instruments completed the orchestra. It is spontaneous. No musician can ever produce. Every city has a sound. You just need to tune your heartbeat to it and feel contributing to the grand orchestra.

You just have to put those ear plugs to some place, where no mortal hands can reach.

And then there are bovine interventions.  They just don’t move. Just nothing in this world can move them. Hard working Indians often refer to them as lazy. But they are just chilling. Chilling timelessly. If you think you have known the laziest creature on the planet. I must remind you, you are yet to see the cows or bulls of Beneras. Your walk might come to a halt if you find your feet planted in a patch of freshly-produced-still-warm-and-moist cow dung. You can console yourself considering the thin line between cow dung and bullshit and chill back again like its producers. Else hard luck.

After a small break for lunch and a power nap in our temporary shelter, we hit the road again in the evening.

We were walking in Bangali Tola and stopped for a tea break. There we were joined by a Bengali man (whose family is settled in Beneras for almost three hundred years) in his late sixties or early seventies. Well built he was with a pot belly. Fit enough to walk two kilometers at a brisk pace. While walking, he was identifying the owners of each house in the area by the caste they belonged to (Subarnabanik, Brahmin, Koolin, Kayastha) if they belonged to modern Indian territory and the ones from East Bengal were being referred as East Pakistan (present day Bangladesh). He sounded like an educated conservative.

He spoke against inter-community marriage to preserve the heritage of a particular community much in the lines of the great Muhammad Ali. Again that is his opinion. But an important one for sure. In a world where too many people speak and no one listens it is sometimes important to lend ears to the voices of all tones, however ridiculous and illogical it might sound. If it is good, bad or irrelevant is debatable but it exists and it is the “truth” and history teaches us ignoring truth can be dangerous for any society. It is with discussions and debates only we can strike a social balance. Else grievance accumulates and accumulated grievance is menacing.  He also introduced us to the darker side of the city characterized by a history of communal riots that were frequent in Beneras not till long ago.

The day ended with a pot of delicious rabdi near Vishwanath Temple and a walk down the moonlit lanes of Kashi. Somewhere from my distant childhood P. C. Mitter recited

“badur bole ore o bhai sojaroo/ Aajke rate dekhbi ekta mojaroo”

The next morning started at Dashashwamedh Ghat after breakfast. The pahelwans were back to their daily dand-baithak sets. With the water level dropped considerably, the priests were back to the temples executing their daily rituals. The boatmen had just started the ferry service. The ghat life was coming back to normal after a brief interruption from rain. Anticipating better scenes that day we decided to sit at one ghat and just be there. We chose Munsir Ghat because it was in best condition the previous day, so the possibility of it getting closest to normal was the highest.

Unlike the previous day, it was less crowded. A priest who had his temple still immersed in water was taking a nap in the front yard of the palace that stands right on the banks of Ganges opposite to which stood a primary school. Three kids were fighting a bout on the round rink which is basically the upper surface of the pillar that supports the stairs which go into the Ganges now immersed in water. To the right of the flight of stairs, there is an open balcony which overlooks the Ganges. Standing there we could see the young Yogeshwars and Sushils trying to outcompete each other. Full of life these kids were. Soon after the bout they came running up and jumped into the water from almost fifty feet height with three perfectly executed somersault in the air and a smile on their faces. and repeated it at least five times. Fearless they were.  Dipa Karmakar performed Produnova at Rio that night. Tagore roared ‘jonmantor’ in my soul. It is in the fearlessness of these kids Tagore’s India exists. What independence is if you are not fearless. There I could see a piece of my Nation. Half naked. Smiling. Shouting. Diving.

Alive.

Mind and soul were fully charged. I could see a thick veil of positivity wrapping us slowly but surely. A feeling that come what may life will be beautiful from tomorrow and it could not have been better till yesterday had set in.

The best was yet to come.

We went for a small snacking. and came back in half an hour to see the place completely vacant. The kids had gone back to their homes (probably). The absolute silence was only interrupted by the sound of the flowing Ganges, the beautiful breeze, the ringing bells of a temple and someone shouting “Khao, khao” (much like Amrish Puri from Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge). Following the call, a flock of pigeons came on the same dais to have the puffed rice that this guy had come with. He was a man in his early fifties. The birds landing on the dais created a beautiful scene tempting us to photograph that moment. Meanwhile, another man in his mid-seventies with neatly combed, freely flowing white beard appeared with a polythene bag in his hands and started walking down the stairs at the same time. It was this moment when the man feeding the birds burst out in anger and told us to leave that spot. We sensed something not right about this. We quickly came up climbing the stairs and to our utter surprise the second man apologized for the misbehavior. “do din se iye log bhukha hai. is liye wo gussa kiya” is what he said. He had the feeling that the sound of camera is driving the pigeons. The rain had caused the dais to be under water for past two days. The man with the beard came there with wheat balls. He feeds the fishes. While throwing the wheat balls in the Ganges he was making a strange noise. He informed that both of them had been doing this for ages now and this they had inherited from their parents. After around fifteen minutes the two of them left. They looked happy. Contented. They lighted a bidi together and started walking back. Well it was evident that one was a Muslim and the other was a Hindu (from the holy thread)

We stood there awestruck.

India stood right in front of us.

The eight hours at ghat we spend that day showed us what seventeen years of formal education failed to. The idea of Indianness is in living with each other. With the people of it, with the nature of it. Not at the cost of each other. Cases of intolerance sometimes lead to violence. Indianism is sometimes overridden by the brute force of aggressive nationalism. Yet India survives. Survives in the smiles of those kids. In the compassion of those men. India is beautiful. Its mountains, forests, rivers everything. But a country is made of its people. And with faith in humanity gradually diminishing, while taking the evening train back to Delhi, we got a reason to smile. A smile of comfort (maybe a sense of pride).

An old human is like a library whose association educates you. So is an old city.

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