In his new book, Bishwanath Ghosh says gullys of the holy city are great levellers

In his new book, Aimless in Banaras, author and writer-at-large with The Hindu Bishwanath Ghosh argues that the only way to experience the city is to wander through its gullys and ghats with an open mind. Doors will open automatically. It was at his mother’s cremation there — after her sudden death in 2009 — that he felt inspired to write a book on the city. But it would take him a while to get to it. He had just finished working on his first book, Chai, Chai, an offbeat travelogue, and he had moved on to several other city biographies, including Longing Belonging: An Outsider at Home in Calcutta and Tamarind City, about his observations on Chennai. But Banaras remained on his mind.

Over multiple visits, the city opened up to him like no other place. And he isn’t alone: Banaras has, for decades, inspired many writers, notably Geoff Dyer (Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi), Diana L Eck (Banaras: City of Light), and Aatish Taseer (The Twice-born: Life and Death on the Ganges). It is easy to fall into the trap of the stereotypical imagery, to appropriate its spirit of spirituality and culture as a stray traveller, and yet Ghosh manages to render it afresh with a lively, energetic first person voice. The appeal of Aimless in Banaras is how it unfolds like a free-wheeling conversation with the city and its people — strolling along the ghats, dropping in at the akharas, sipping tea at roadside stalls, where the writer bumps into and befriends all manner of Banarasis, from a young RJ to a boatman, and weaves their stories into his wanderings. Excerpts from an interview:

In his new book, Bishwanath Ghosh says gullys of the holy city are great levellers

Over the course of researching and writing this book, did your perception of Banaras change?

When you submit a synopsis for a book, you have a certain idea in mind. But in a place like this, the moment you have a schedule or an itinerary, you become blind to the rest of the city. Walking from Point A, not knowing where point B is going to be is the only way to look at the city. You don’t have to have a purpose.

There was a break of about three years between two of my visits, which gave me the chance to see how the city has transformed more starkly after Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister. Several ghats have been refurbished, with a beautiful corridor being constructed (by flattening over 300 buildings) for tourists to access the Manikarnika ghat from the temple. Compared to the other cities I’ve written about, such as Chennai and Kolkata, I felt I truly internalised Banaras. It changed my perspective on life.

Roaming the ghats, I learnt so many things, like the uncertainty of not knowing when we are going to die is as certain as the fact that we will die. So I better make the most of what I have today! The streets of Banaras become your guru. It has made me a much more peaceful person. I’m less scared of death.

In his new book, Bishwanath Ghosh says gullys of the holy city are great levellers

You write that the people of Banaras are among the happiest on Earth.

Banaras is a chain of about 80 ghats, where bodies burn all the time, and you realise this is how it is going to end, on a pyre. Banarasis are not arrogant people. The gullys are great levellers. It is where people from different economic backgrounds are friends and wind down together; they believe ‘be mast’ (be relaxed), that’s what life is about.

There has been some criticism that the book has a white man’s gaze.

I was not a spectator, I was a participant. Someone who cremated his mother there can’t have a white man’s gaze; it is ridiculous. I was probably as local as a Banarasi.

Banaras has been the subject of several books. Did that make it difficult for you in terms of writing a fresh perspective?

When I was writing the book, I wrote on a sticky note on my desk: “Stay clear from everything already known about Banaras.” So it is all absolutely first hand. It is easy to fall into the trap of the history and mythology, but I just wrote what I experienced.

Published by Westland Books, it is priced at ₹399.

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Printable version | Nov 27, 2020 12:09:04 PM |

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