The Assi Ghat of Varanasi is brought alive by a book, which is also being adapted into a film

Delicate art is required to incorporate verbal abuse and slang into a novel without sounding crass. More so, when a book represents the popular culture of one of India’s holiest cities. To take it a notch higher, sound funny all the while.

Much has been written about the ghats of Varanasi: the descriptions, the rituals, the colours, the water, the history and much more. But not quite how Kashi Nath Singh has done it. He has added life, real people and real conversations to these existing elements. In his Hindi novel Kashi Ka Assi, Dr. Singh (70), retired Hindi department head of Banaras Hindu University, cuts through the changing life in Varanasi through conversations at Assi, one of the city's prominent ghats.

The word Varanasi probably originates from two names, river Varuna and Assi, a small stream near Assi ghat. Assi stream today resembles nothing more than a dirty canal, but let's leave that for another day. Like in any other river based city, the ghats of Varanasi are a good indicator of its overall socio-economic culture and transformation. The big change coming, not so surprisingly, in 1991, with globalisation.

In the intellectual fields of Assi, the Babri Masjid demolition and the breakup of the USSR were fresh in discussion. Most often, cups of bhang-chai and paan would play mediators. The novel delves into the late nigh adda culture at the ghat, where like the participants- professors, lawyers, poets, artists and student leaders- the topics ranged from daily socio-economic problems to grand political theories and psephology. And what was a discussion without anecdotes from Tulsidas and Kinaram?

“It was a culture of masti and thahaka (roughly, fun and frolic). Life was slow and careless. There was not a lot of urbanisation. The rich and upper castes indulged in bhang while the lower castes smoked weed. But that was it. I remember as far back as 1984, we had jackals in this area,” he says, sitting at his home, a prominent residential colony in Varanasi.

For Dr. Singh, who is not unfamiliar to acclaim - with his Sahitya award for Reghan Par Raghu - Kashi Ka Assi has been a defining moment. When the novel first published there was a big furore over it. All the characters in his story were alive and some of them were not happy with his candid portrayals of them.

“I was threatened with death, my limbs would be severed. I had a whole bunch of people after my life,” he says making fun of it. He recalls some of his favourite anecdotes from the book as if he is narrating from the pages of a book freshly woven by him. He even announces a subtle pause to laugh at the funny aspects; often with the listener, most times all by himself. “Prior to this period, a few foreigners would come to BHU to study. Now suddenly it was common to see them walking around in ganjis (vests) and lungis,” he laughs. Such was the onslaught of foreigners that Dr. Singh described it in his book as a fear of having the Assi ghat converted into Miami! But despite the aesthetical changes, the entry of foreigners not only raised economic prospects of locals but also altered social relations. These were not foreigners pulled in by the snake charmers and the bizarre. They had come to learn classical languages and music, art, dance, or to study. Some took up Sanskrit while others joined mutts. A new culture emerged rapidly.

Since hotels were expensive and sparse, the foreign visitors adaptively found a way of living with locals, initially the Nishads, traditional boating and fishing community. “For Rs 500, they were provided food, laundry and housing facilities. In return, the foreigners would often pay for their hosts' children's education as well. A bond emerged,” says Dr. Singh. Changes in the lifestyles of the hosts were also evident gradually. “Women started wearing maxis and the children jeans. The upper caste Brahmins (who dominated the locality) began to wonder and were soon drawn in too,” says Dr. Singh. In the subsequent years, the upper caste and the rich homes were converted into lodges, hotels and restaurants, which stand testament today. Some Brahmins even altered their homes to such an extent that the prayer spots were brought down to accommodate attached bathrooms for the foreign guests. Others left their temples and assigned purohits to take care of the rituals, while they themselves engaged in business.

The bhang-tea shops also began to appear less populated. “Locals ran out of fursat (time). They now wanted a busy life. They were now pareshan (anxious). Everything was getting commercialised and nobody wanted to stay behind,” recounts Dr. Singh.

He is today looking forward to the release of the film Mohalla Assi, which is based on his book. The film features Sunny Deol and Manoj Bajpai. There is a character based on Dr. Singh himself. “I haven't met him. But I know he has a longer face, is less fair than me, but bearded,” he laughs. Besides winning various awards and having his literature included in the curriculum of major universities, Dr. Singh is credited with the translation in both Indian and foreign languages. An Italian version of Kashi Ka Assi is under process.

The Assi ghat today is a product of rapid globalisation and change. It’s a place of ritual activity, with a few temples, Nishad boatmen, vendors selling ritual items on the steps leading into the water, book shops, and plenty of foreigners and rest-houses, some of them partially run by foreigners. Amid all this, the popular or local stories are often overlooked. Kashi Ka Assi helps us locate them among the frenzy for tourism.

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