Writer's block Travel

‘I’ll tell you a secret’

Boats anchored along the banks of Ganga in Benares Photo: K. R. Deepak   | Photo Credit: K_R_DEEPAK

After a week in Benares — I somehow prefer this name over the formal-sounding Varanasi — I can easily tell a pilgrim from a local. A pilgrim usually has a purposeful gait, wears a hassled expression — “the sooner I get out of this place the better” — but tries to mask it for fear of offending the gods, and usually sticks to the Dasashwamedha Ghat, which is where most priests are concentrated and where the Ganga aarati is held every evening.

The Benarasi, on the other hand, likes to move at the leisurely pace of the river (why hurry!), moves around without a care, has his own favourite ghat to spend the mornings and evenings, is more reverential to the Ganga than to the gods (if you are drinking on a boat, the first few drops of alcohol must be offered to the river), and prefers bhang any day over alcohol.

This city also has countless people like me, the spectators, who come for a few sips of the heady drink called Benares, not wanting to get too drunk — much like admiring the Ganga from the ghats without stepping into its waters — and return home with experiential stories.

Benares, for that matter, is an open book: you can turn its pages, go through the paragraphs and sentences, read between the lines if you like, and yet it is unlikely that you will ever find the truth.

But after a day or three in the city, you will certainly be enlightened about the traits of a true Benaresi, one of them being his passion to engage you in a conversation.

Each time I approached a total stranger, wondering whether they would give the time of day to me, I found that they were only too happy to spend the entire day with me — talking. While one such stranger insisted that I stop taking notes and instead lose myself in the conversation, another insisted that I take notes — I shall describe my encounter with the latter.

I met him outside a timber mart, and when he learned that I had come to write about the city, he congratulated me profusely. I told him that I had cremated my mother at the Manikarnika Ghat, as recently as in 2009, just to let him know that I wasn’t entirely new to the setting.

“Oh really? Kaal Bhairava would have sent her straight to heaven,” he said.

“Who’s Kaal Bhairava?”

“The angry version of Shiva, didn’t you know?”

He then dragged me to the hardware shop next door and, without even the shopkeeper’s permission, installed me on a plastic chair. “Write down the 108 names of Kaal Bhairava,” he commanded.

After jotting down about 20 names, I put my foot down. “Sir, these names are not relevant to my work on Benares.”

“But do you even know who allowed you to come to Benares?”

“Who?”

“Lord Ganesha, who else! There are 56 Ganeshas in Benares, each with a different name. Write down those names.”

I had no choice but to once again put my fountain pen to paper. He meant well and I didn’t wish to offend him. But he himself didn’t remember all the 56 names: he knew them by rote and, from time to time, shut his eyes and chanted the same mantra over and over again until he had produced all 56.

“I am sure you skipped a couple of names. Not to worry, call me anytime, I shall supply you with the missing names. Note down my number.”

I did as asked.

“Other than madam, no one else has this number. I have another number as well, note that down too.”

“Which madam?”

“Soniaji, who else! She is soon going to induct me into the All India Congress Committee. You are the first person in the whole of Benares to know this.”

That I was the first person in the whole of Benares to have been told a secret — I heard that probably for the 56th time in seven days.

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Printable version | Apr 14, 2021 6:20:38 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/travel/writers-block-ill-tell-you-a-secret/article7743072.ece

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