Writer's Block Society

The boatman of Benares

The king of Kashi, that is Benares, doesn’t live in Benares but across the river, in a fortress-like palace built on the opposite bank. If you stand at Assi Ghat, the palace will appear diagonally across to the right — perhaps 10 minutes, at the most 15, by boat.

Late one afternoon, I decided to travel to the palace and asked a boatman on the ghat how much he was going to charge me. He demanded Rs. 800. No way, I told him, not a penny more than Rs. 500. After some haggling, we settled for Rs. 600.

As he led me across the ghat to the boat, he told a dhoti-clad man lounging under a tree: “Going to the palace, 500 rupees.” The dhoti-clad man, who also looked well-fed, nodded in assent.

I instantly gathered that the well-fed man was the owner of the boat, and perhaps many other boats, and that the boatman was one of his many employees. By lying to his employer about the fare we had decided upon, the boatman was going to pocket the extra 100 rupees. I was irritated with him when we got onto the boat.

But my irritation evaporated once we were on the river — just the two of us. So far, he had been the predator and me the victim, but right now, as he rowed against the current, the roles looked reversed: he was an elderly man, probably only a few years younger to my father, using his muscular strength to take me to my destination, depending on people like me for survival.

Fifteen minutes into the journey, he took his shirt off: he had begun to sweat and did not want to soil his shirt. The palace, meanwhile, looked just as distant as it had looked from the ghat: we didn’t seem to have got even an inch closer. Since we had time to kill, I asked him his name.

“Babu Lal,” he replied, and then, as I had expected, began to tell me his story. His father had died as soon as he was born and he grew up at the home of his maternal uncle. “Life was tough — you have no idea how tough it was. When I was old enough to work, I began working in a sari factory, weaving saris. Then I fell ill and my eyesight became weak, and I could no longer weave saris. That’s when I became a boatman. I wasn’t qualified to do any other job,” he said.

“Do you have children?”

“I have two sons, babu.”

“Are they also boatmen?”

“No way. I didn’t want them to take up this profession. They work in shops. My job is fraught with uncertainties — you hardly get any business during the monsoon or during the peak summer and winter months.”

“Do you live on the ghat?”

“By the grace of Mother Ganga, I was able to buy a small piece of land near the Kashi station and build a house there. I didn’t have the money to install windows, but I made sure the house had a door. Please come home sometime and have lunch with us.”

“I will, but tell me, are your sons doing well?”

“Yes, they are. They even ask me to stop working. But I can’t keep asking them for money, can I?”

By now, he was sweating profusely but didn’t want to acknowledge it: he still had a long way to go. It took us an hour to reach the palace, and he had spent much of that time advising me how to get back to Benares once I was done looking around the palace. As I got off his boat, I paid him what he had originally asked for: Rs. 800.

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Printable version | Apr 11, 2021 6:30:50 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/bishwanath-ghosh-on-his-encounter-with-boatmen-of-benares/article7770180.ece

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