Whatever I may write about Banaras and however many times I might write, every time it feels insufficient to describe a city that encompasses all aspects of life, death too. Banaras is much more than what you are going to read in the next story, and is much more magnificent than you can ever imagine. I can never hope to do justice with its rich culture, but I can hope that if you have ever lived in Banaras, you’ll want to come back to it after you read this post. And if you haven’t been lucky enough to come here for even once, you’ll be inspired to do so.
I hand over the luggage to Asif. He’s going to Mumbai for work purposes. The flight leaves in another hour. He looks over my shoulder and tells me I can leave him there. He also reminds me of the report submission due on Monday. It is Friday evening today. I have approximately sixty hours left. I mentally remove two hours for the traffic that I am going to find on my way home, and another six times two, twelve for the hopeful sleep I am going to get. Five hours for miscellaneous that includes bathroom-breaks, food and other ‘urgent’ stuff that my wife tells me. So that leaves me with forty-one hours. Forty-one hours. Yes, forty-one hours to finish Asif’s week-long pending work, i.e., fifty-six hours. I smile back weakly at him. He pats my back and leaves.
If you haven’t figured out still, Asif is my boss.
And if you haven’t figured out yet, I am his B-I-A-T-C-H.
I look around the domestic terminal of the Delhi Airport. It is November and it’s already getting cold. I feel out of place. I feel lonely. I feel cold. I think of a hot cup of tea but it doesn’t appeal much to my mind. I let go of the thought.
Unknowingly, I am still standing at the airport, looking at people come and go. Watching them unload the taxis, saying good-byes. I watch the taxi drivers approach the passengers, some slyly enough to scare them, and some loud enough to let everyone know where you’re headed.
I hear the people passing by me. I am not eavesdropping. I am just standing there, rooted to my spot. My mind doesn’t process anything they say. I just stand there, hearing the various voices. I can’t make sense of anything they say, but I can hear them. I hear the people talking and the drivers bargaining. I hear the policemen cursing and the kids shouting. I hear a wife accusing the husband for forgetting her purse at home and I hear the announcements from the airport. I hear everything.
“Good evening passengers. This is the pre-boarding announcement for flight 639C to Varanasi. We are now inviting those passengers with small children, and any passengers requiring special assistance, to begin boarding at this time. Please have your boarding pass and identification ready. Regular boarding will begin in approximately thirty minutes time. Thank you.”
I hear it. I ignore it. The announcement repeats. I hear it. My brain starts to function this time. I start listening to the announcement. My brain starts processing what I hear. I now understand what is being said. I listen carefully as the announcement is repeated. A flight to Varanasi – in twenty minutes.
I check my wallet. I have my credit card. I see my hands – no luggage. My mind is now racing. I know what I have to do. I find myself running towards the counter. I go to the lady behind the glass window.
“Can I get a ticket in the flight 639C? To Varanasi.”
The lady looks at me. She’s wearing a sari, has extra makeup, and looks a little fluffy. She gives me a be-patient look. Fortunately she finds me a seat in the plane. She asks me to hurry though.
I run through the security scanners as fast as I can. I collect my boarding pass and move towards the gates. I see Asif sitting in the lounge, reading a paper. I turn around to save myself from his eyes. I feel elated as I get past the final security check and board the bus to the plane. This is going to be awesome.
I board the plane. The air-hostesses welcome me to the flight. They are wearing skirts, tight-ones, have extra makeup, and are as slim as profitable health allows. I grin. It takes me sixty minutes to reach Varanasi. One and a half hours from Delhi to Varanasi, I talk to myself mentally, Two hours from the airport to my home.
I come out of the airport. It is much smaller than Delhi but it’s well maintained. I take in the air. It is cool. I find myself smiling for no reason. I go to the taxi-stand.
“Bhaiya, assi ghat chalenge?”
I can’t think of any other place. I don’t know why but it’s the first place that comes to my mind. It always has whenever I have thought of my beloved Varanasi.
I bargain with the taxi-driver and finally settle for six-hundred rupees. I sit back in the Innova and open the windows. I want the air to come in. I want to breathe in as much Varanasi air as I can. I want to feel it slap my cheeks. I want it to rummage into my hair, dishevel it, and fill it with dust. I want to feel my Varanasi… no… my Banaras in me.
Everything is the same as I watch the places pass away in front of me. They come and go like buzzes of lights and fill me with memories which have suddenly awakened after years of sleep. I recognize the places, the chowks, and the areas and keep reciting their names like a beautiful nursery rhyme.
“Sir, it seems you have come here after a long time.”
“Yes. It’s been ten years.”
“You have a home here?”
I fall silent at this question. I don’t know what to say. But the answer comes to me as easily as the question was asked.
“Bhaiya, Banaras is my home.”
The driver laughs a little. He isn’t a typical driver whom I consider the face of Banaras. He isn’t chewing paan, or ghutka. And so he isn’t spitting anywhere he wants to. He seems more like a tourist guide to me than a normal Banarasi taxi-driver.
“Bhaiya, how is it that you are not chewing paan?” I ask him jokingly.
This time he laughs out loud.
“I don’t chew paan,” he said, “I gulp it down. And I am just out of stock. Once I take you to your place, I will restock my box.” He shows me a box kept on the front seat.
I laugh with him a little while wondering the various directions our thoughts take us.
He leaves me near the ghat. I check my watch. It is seven. I run towards the river. It is the time for the aarti.
The view, same as I left it ten years ago, stands right in front of my eyes. It’s as if time stops as it comes to this place. May whatever come, this place hasn’t changed for the last fifteen years I have known it and only God knows for how many years before it.
The sound reverberating from the loudspeakers sings the aarti of the Goddess Ganges, followed by the aarti of Lord Shiva. The young pandit clad in an orange kurta and white dhoti moves the diyas in a rhythm while also singing the aarti.
I look around to find a place to sit. I see the empty cots lying around, waiting for people to sit on them and enjoy the evening aarti. I move towards it only to find my old favorite seats, the stairs. I sit on the stairs, my shoulder taking the support of the cot and listen to the aarti being sung. And then I know. I know what I have been craving to do. I know what I have missed for these ten years.
I see the flames from the diya moving in the priest’s hands, making shapes with their smoke. I see the glittering Ganga behind the priest. I see the moon that shines over the river, watching it so solemnly and quietly as a lover watches another. I notice the small diyas floating in the river. I smile at them. And at memories.
My phone rings. It’s a call from my wife. She’s worried. Somehow, with great difficulty, I explain to her the situation I am in.
“I just wanted to run off to Banaras.”
She doesn’t understand. She shouldn’t, I think, and she wouldn’t. She hasn’t lived here.
She cuts the phone furious over blah, blah, blah things. I think I should call her back and explain properly. I’ll do it later, my mind says, she’ll understand it.
An old phrase comes instantly to my mind and I smile at the thought. It is Banaras after all. Even old thoughts stay here with time. I say the words to myself and smile.
“Ho jayega bhaiya.”
The aarti’s over. Now there are people just sitting here and there, looking here and there, and talking to each other. Foreigners flock in this place like bees around honey. And the locals flock around them like the same. I see a boy talking to a lady, showing her his drawing book. She’s impressed. She stops at a particular page and says few praising words.
I look around again to find the many students who came to the ghat for their art inspirations. They sit anywhere they find, put their books on their laps, take out their pencils and start sketching anything they find. And they are so adept at it that it hardly takes them five minutes to draw your sketch. This boy probably drew a sketch of the foreigner and then showed it to her.
I look around again. I see young couples moving around the ghat. They must be IT people, I think to myself, smiling again. Everything’s the same, still.
I am feeling hungry and all that I am reminded of is the Pehelwan.
The shop is the same. It has not expanded, it has not shrunk. It hasn’t been repainted, nor is it any dirtier. It is the same boiling milk just outside the shop and behind it trays full of sweets, laung-latas, gulab-jamuns, rasgullas, malai-chops. I am famished, and I don’t plan on remaining so.
I take a stroll towards the Sankat-Mochan Temple, not for religious purposes but to subdue the sweet taste that has been left in my mouth. I gorge on the chats and the panipuri and the tamatar.
God, I feel like I hadn’t eaten for ten years.
On my way back to the ghat, I buy myself clothes, a bag and a place to stay. I then go back to the ghat. I am not hungry anymore but I can’t miss sitting in Pizzeria. I order pasta and as I slowly chew my way through it my mind is flushed with all the memories that were made in the same place.
I see Ankit smoking as Gautam talks to me about his girlfriend. I see the times we brought the guitar to the place. I see the time when Baba cajoled me into trying a puff of ganja, and the way we four attacked the plate of apple pie with ice-cream. I see the times when we unexpectedly met movie stars at Pizzeria, who would suggest us to try the apple-pie with ice-cream. I see the times I came alone to the place, looking for silence and solitude. I see the hours I spent at the ghat looking at the river, its reverse flow, the numerous boats in it and its vast expanse.
There is so much peace here, I think.
I am again sitting at the stairs, lost in my thoughts when an old man comes and sits beside me. He says he’s been looking at me since the evening. I start talking to him.
“So I just ran and came here.”
“Are you frustrated with your life son?”
I smile awkwardly.
“I am not frustrated. I have a happy life. I have a good, beautiful wife, and twins, two girls. I am earning good. My family’s satisfied.”
“Then why did you run and come here?”
“I don’t know,” I shrug my shoulders. “It was a spur of the moment idea. I have a lot of work left at office, but I guess I wanted to be in Banaras.”
“And why did you want to be in Banaras?”
My mind is a blank slate. I don’t know. I try to find an answer to his question but I don’t get any.
“I’ll tell you why,” he says, “It’s because your heart is in Banaras.”
I smile at him. There, there starts the preacher, my mind says.
“Maybe,” I say. “I lived here for five years for engineering and those were the best days I have lived.” I know I mean every word of it.
“It does not matter whether you live for five years or five hours,” he says. “If you accept Banaras even for a second, it is the only place your heart will belong to ever.”
This time as I smile at him I know I am smiling genuinely. This time I know that the old man isn’t wrong. He is as right as anyone can be. He is as true as Lord Shiva himself. If you belong to His city even for a second, then you belong to it forever.
“You know,” I say, “I always felt that Banaras was like home to me. But I just couldn’t come here and it made me so uncomfortable. It seemed like I was far away from home.”
The reply he gives renders me speechless. I know he is right. I know he’s speaking the truth. I know that it is the one thing that will keep bringing me back to Banaras, my Banaras.
“No son. You are either near it or less near it, but you are never far. Never far from home, from Banaras.”
Picture Credits: Mohit Modi