Ten years have passed since I last visited Banaras , but on every Tuesday I find myself reciting Hanuman Chalisa at the Sankat Mochan and every other evening is spent walking along the Assi Ghat. Everytime I eat chaat, it gets compared with Kashi Chaat Bhandar’s offerings. No glass of lassi has ever tasted as sumptuous as those countless kulhads we used to savour outside BHU’s Vishwanath Temple. I still hover around Lanka looking for Bun-malai, masala chai, Poori-bhaji and jalebi. Banaras is in me, I am Banaras. It is the frame of reference on which I operate- the basis of my Faith, the source of my Vidya.
No book has ever managed to capture the essence of Banaras (or of any mohalla of any other city) like Kashinath Singh’s Kashi ka Assi does. Diana L. Eck’s City of Light is a valiant effort. Mark Twain’s famous quotation declaring Banaras to be older than legends and history is bombastic, hence unhelpful. Pankaj Mishra’s The Romantics succeeded to an extent in painting the picture of life on ghats. Bishwanath Ghosh’s Aimless in Banaras is an earnest effort to capture the soul of the city that ‘shines’ (Kashi).
The book begins with the cremation of author’s mother at the Manikarnika Ghat, and then moves through regular rounds of ghats , galis and temples of the town. This vivid description is laced with author’s interesting discussions with common Banarasis who have a tendency to punctuate their routine talk with aphoristic observations. He who is a true Banarasi might utter Chewtiya and Bhonsadi ke in the same sentence as Moksha and Mahadev, and yet not notice the offense he might have given to puritan minds. If reminded of the discomfiture caused by their acerbically musical prose, the standard response of a Banarasi would likely be ‘so fucking what?’(to kyaa karen + gaalis) or ‘chewtiya ho kya?’ (are you a fool). Banaras and Banarasis generally get this irony, but if they miss it, no big deal.
‘Jo hamare palle na pada,wo samajhne laayak tha bhi nahin bhonsadi ke/ka’.
During his journey, the author gradually realises that the babas and the locals throw around a lot of cunning philosophical phrases, but gift-wrap them as nuggets of wisdom.
The beauty of Banaras rests in the river ghats which extend northward from the confluence point of River Assi (Assi Ghat) to where River Varuna meets the Ganges(Rajghat). Ganga takes a northward turn in Varanasi which lets its western bank wake up to rising Sun. This also perhaps explains why the eastern bank is almost totally uninhabited. Even before Kashi (meaning ‘shining’) was founded by Shiva, there existed Manikarnika crematorium, Anand Kanan forest and Pishach Mohan pond. The author talks about vagaries of time – the desecration and renovation of Kashi Vishwanath Temple and the construction of ghats and many other buildings by Rani Ahilyabai Holkar and a Bengali Zamindar, Rani Bhabani.
The present one is the era of anti-encroachment drive. The Corridor has been cleared and widened. Ghosh has mixed feelings about decongestion, unlike most locals who see this as Bhole’s will.
“tootega tabhi to banega.”
Concerns for public safety must override cheap sentimentalism. On one hand he admits that the domes of both the temple and the mosque are now clearly visible, and provide a fair bit of idea about the location of the older(till 1669) and new temples(after 1780), yet on the other he betrays his socialist leanings by harping on the rights of encroachers.
In Aawarana, S.L.Bhyrappa had imagined how violent the destruction of Kashi Vishwanath would have been, and must have resulted in a lot of bloodshed. Bishwanath Ghosh has shed some tears for the encroachers, but has sugar-coated the historical tragedies surrounding Kashi Vishwanath. He has even watered down the jihadist attack on the Sankat Mochan Temple in 2006.
“More Muslims than Hindus had volunteered to donate blood to the injured,” says some minor character. What does that even mean? I expected better from someone named after the Lord of Kashi.
The author delves upon his visits to Nepali Temple and Lalita Ghat, Tulsi Ghat, Tulsi’s House and Swaminath Akhada, Kashi Annapurna Book House (Assi Ghat), Kashi Chat Bhandar, Ramgarh Fort and its famed Ram Lila, Ravidas Ghat built by Mayawati, Panchganga Ghat and Trailang Swamy Temple, Kal Bhairav Temple, Ratneshwar Mahadev or Matra Hrin Mandir located inside the river at Manikarnika and Mukti Bhawan (The Waiting Lounge for Death at Gowdolia). The narration of his visit to the Masaan Temple at the Manikarnika is most impressive.
The author mingled with Doms at Manikarnika and Harishchandra Ghat, and discussed the philosophy and business of death and cremation as well as doms’ lives in detail. His description of boat rides and the photogenic beauty of Banaras is quite intimate. He has not left out Aghoris and Naga Babas from his survey. He has also recorded the mahima of bhang, thandai and ganja. He has not left out the famed Banaras Paan and Saris either. He rightly seeks the spirit of the city in its lanes and ghats, its mundane and decaying structures. The loud, garish aartis of Dashashwamedha do not interest him, but cleaning up of the river and its ghats does. His sharp eye, capacity for detailing and reverence for Banaras lend this book some credence.
But for me the book comes alive when Bishwanath Ghosh calls upon Kashinath Singh to discuss Kashi ka Assi. According to the latter, people of Banaras regard attachment and detachment equally. They generally look happy and carefree as if they have unravelled the mystery of life.
“जमाने को लौड़े पर रखकर मस्ती से घूमने की मुद्रा आइडेंटिटी कार्ड है इसका….”
But the great author laments the loss of ringing laughter and carefree attitude which used to be the essence of Banaras. Those who strutted about in a carefree fashion, the whole world placed on their dick are now virtually extinct. The duo end up discussing writing, writers and Kashinath Singh’s atheism and Naxal past. Ghosh later gets to meet Dr. Gaya Singh, the only character in Kashi ka Assi whose original name had been retained, and also pays a visit Pappu ki Dukan, the ‘Parliament’ in Kashi ka Assi where affairs of the Mohalla, Shehr, Rajya, Desh and Dunia were discussed.
Aimless in Banaras is a deceptive title. The idea of book germinated when Ghosh went to Banaras for his mother’s cremation. From death, sprang life. Even if one is purposeless in Kashi, moksha is always the unstated aim of every soul.
मरणं मंगलं यत्र विभूतिश्च विभूषणम्।
कौपीनं यत्र कौशेयं सा काशी केन मीयते।।
यानि जिस स्थान पर मृत्यु मंगलदायक, भस्म का त्रिपुण्ड (तिलक) ही अलंकार है, लंगोटी ही जहाँ रेशमी वस्त्र के समान है, ऐसी काशी का सेवन कौन नहीं करना चाहेगा?
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