Friday, August 18, 2006

Varanasi Snapshots

September 2005: When you are a graduate student struggling with dissertation deadlines, any stories of a mysterious water reservoir granting the knowledge of this world (and translated in english as a ‘well of knowledge’) is very welcome. I read about  the Gyan Kapur well situated in the compound of the Vishwaneth Temple in Varanasi at a particularly difficult time during dissertation year. As I would write and rewrite the same three lines every morning, I wished for anything that would make my task easier. So it was ironic to hear that there was a well out there somewhere, and by drinking its water I would have the ‘knowledge of the world’. It was sadly half a world away from where I slaved on my trusty laptop. So all I could do was make a mock promise to the deities that ruled the city that I would definitely visit their well if all went well with my academic tasks. Varanasi was also the site of Pankaj Mishra’s brilliant The Romantics a much loved book during the same period of my life. It wasn’t hard to fall in love with the city from Mishra’s portrayal of it.

To arrange a trip to the city wasn’t that difficult, however to negotiate a chaperon to accompany me for the day trip was the tough bit. This was North India now, and everyone I knew was getting nervous on hearing I was taking the trip on my own. However, Varanasi doesn’t figure high on the list for a quick weekend retreat for most Indian families or at least the families I knew. Finally I had to bully and cajole Ronny into taking the trip with me. As he sullenly stared through the early morning train I nastily congratulated him on being the first person in his family to see the city while not converted to ash. Other devout Hindus would hope to be in the city when they approach their last days. To die in this holy city would free them from the cycles of rebirth and they can merge with the divine being.

Our first glimpse of Varanasi were the spires of the city emerging from the early morning mist. Mishra’s apt description of the sea of humanity rising up from the platforms, the chaos of the chai wallah boys, the crowds of rickshaw drivers trying to reel you in, the squalor and filth amongst the beauty of the railway station held true. On exiting the railway station, our rickety cycle rickshaw negotiated the early morning traffic and the pot holes in the road. Groups of mosque goers had returned from their early morning prayers and were congregating in front of the shops. The rubbish of the previous day remained unpicked at their feet. As the white capped young men picked their teeth and ogled at the tourists rattling around in wobbly rickshaws on run down roads, I prayed for a world religion that would concentrate on better infrastructure and  urban management.

However, like countless tourists before me the first glimpse of the Ganges through the pink and brown stoned brick ghats that line the river make you forget and forgive the city's denizens for everything. Though over the past year I had pored through various accounts narrating the beauty of the river and the holy city-- in many cases descriptions more eloquent than mine, nothing in the world prepares you for your first encounter with the landscape. It being the shradh period, when most devout families avoid any religious visits or celebrations, I miraculously had the busy Dashawamedh Ghat to myself. The river my playground, nothing disturbed my first boat ride across the river. The boat also carried a young man balancing water bottles, he will set up a stall for the visitors who have start emerging on the sandy beach across as the sun comes up. I met  a Bengali couple from North America who were in the city with their father’s ashes. They looked uncomfortable sitting cross legged listening to the priest as he guided them through the unfamiliar rite of faith .The man's newly shorn head nodded animatedly even as he struggled to follow the priest’s droning intonations. Later they joined other early morning visitors as they took the dip in the waters. The personal becoming the spectacle, I felt like an eavesdropper at this moment as they mediated the divine with the every day. Nearby a little girl cajoled people into buying small boats made of dry leaves; each carrying the precious cargo of a tiny flower, a lit candle, and a wish that will be set to the river waters. She is wise to the tourists and shifted efficiently between the dollars and the yens.

The boat ride continues, it has been nearly half an hour since we have started our trip and there has been no encounter yet with the odd dead body floating in the river that the guide-books warn you about. The boatman points out the various sites, a funeral party is underway at one. A straggly blonde man with dreadlocks tries to meditate nearby. The boatman repeated what fellow passengers on the train had told me about Varanasi, the beauty of the city is that you encounter the maya (the worldly) and the spiritual in the same space. A funeral procession and a musician perfecting his shehnai will share the same space even as a group of friends chew on their pan and gossip along the riverside. Perhaps facing death every day makes you more grounded in enjoying the banality of every day life. As a flock of pigeons cross in a white arc across the red stoned buildings, a whirr of Japanese cameras try to capture this post card moment.

I spend the next two hours enjoying the changing colors of the river from the Mansingh Observatory. This particular royal had indulged in his passion for astronomy and even now visitors can enjoy the sun dials and other mechanisms to calculate the trajectories of the heavenly bodies on the palace’s roof. The afternoon I was there the observatory was a sanctuary for shy college students escaping from the conservative city to grab a furtive moment or two.

By late afternoon the sun blazes strongly, the house favorite vegetable burger I had ordered for my mid day meal turns out to be a burger dipped and fried in ghee. As the mercury rises it sits uncomfortably in my stomach. Ronny has returned in mortification after inquiring of the manager for the use of washroom facilities, these are only for women. Men have to use the streets.

The spiritual done with we have to decide how to while the three hours till we can catch our evening train back to Delhi. I vote we watch a Bhojpuri film, after all "regional" Indian cinema should not be confined to West Bengal or South India . However, as I later discover in Delhi, Bhojpuri is the newest craze. When I inquire for film tickets, they have all been bought up by the UP ‘bhaiya population’. Our only option is  James, one of the sorrier offerings from Ram Gopal Varma’s Factory. However, from the yelling crowds of the student population in the theatre I can deduce that the film is a hit in Varanasi. One and a half hour and the glowering hero has not said much but the body count is increasing. A group of Japanese boys are clearly bowled over and stamp their feet every time the male protagonist appears The willful Nisha Kothari pouts and preens. I might not warm to her but the crowds scream their approval. I decide not to wait any longer to find out  how the movie ends and return to the railway station. The train is delayed, a little while later the group of Japanese boys from the cinema enter our train. They are clearly still enamored of the movie and animatedly try to copy James who had made his entry in the frame as a passenger on  a train too.

Mumbai Rhapsody

September 2005:I am in Pondicherry for the day enroute to Mumbai. The drive to Pondicherry has been beautiful as the highway curves along the seashore. One is hypnotized by the undulating coastline stretching endlessly in the horizon only to be brought back rudely to earth by the bus driver and his fondness for the pressure horn. He has been relentless in his approach ever since we set out early morning, eagerly blasting aside any vehicle coming in his way. In the past fifteen minutes he has successfully overtaken two police vans, I am impressed with his egalitarian approach towards any opposition to his progress along the highway. Doing a Rajnikanth, he flicks a cigarette mid air and lights it even as he swivels animatedly in his seat arguing with the bus conductor and the occupants of the bus over the most expedient route to my destination. Pondicherry is taking a languid siesta when we drive into the town. The red pill box hats on the police men on the street are a reminder of the French presence in the area in the last century. We debate for a while what South Asia would have been like if the French had beaten the British in colonizing the region intensively. Better food definitely, however one shudders at the model of governance that would have been followed. Today Pondicherry is famous for the neighboring model community of Auroville and the non existent taxes on liquor. I walk through the local sights namely a light house, the one-room town museum and police uniforms on display at the local police station on rues (streets) that still carry their French names. Even during the brief time I am in the town, I miss the gritty ‘edge’ that signifies the rest of the country. As locals doze in the afternoon sun, a swarm of European tourists sip their cocktails on balconies overlooking the sun bleached beach. People start drinking early in the afternoon. Pot bellied visiting business men partake of the cheap rum in numerous pubs bordering the bus station as they watch European league football on the TV screens. The town’s young plaintively cry about ‘nothing being here for us’ and share their dreams of making it to France one day.

The contrast to Pondicherry is obvious as I enter maddening Mumbai, a virtual sea of humanity envelops you the moment one steps into the city. I am amazed at ‘what the body remembers’ as I successfully allow the early morning commuter traffic to carry me into the local train at Dadar. Think of yourself as part of a wave, I tell myself. Eight years ago I had watched apprehensively from the sidelines, taking some time before I figured out how successfully to throw oneself into the throngs boarding and descending the local trains. Suketu Mehta in Maximum City had seen the local trains as the one ray of hope in the increasingly polarized city of Mumbai. Every day the hands reaching out to help haul in the commuter rushing to meet the train extend regardless of what caste or religion the other belongs to. They stretch out with the mutual understanding that the other is a harried worker apprehensive of missing his train and not making it in time to earn a day’s living. As I edge closer to the door an elderly gentleman sporting a fiery tilak gestures me towards a vantage point from where I can approach the platform with ease.

The skyline of the city has been taken over by the Times of India’s larger than life hoardings for the Ganesh Chatruthi celebrations. The media company has successfully exploited the Maharashtan’s in general and the Mumbaiker’s in particular great love affair with Ganesha and media celebrities. A doe eyed Ganesha peers down at pedestrians from above with the wacky slogan of Kaun Bangega Indian Idol scrawled across his tusks. Apparently the Times of India is running a competition for the most popular Ganesha pandal and readers can vote in their favorites. The pink-stoned Shiddhi Vinayak temple devoted to Ganesha is the site of the Ganesh Chathruthi celebration hosted by Times of India one evening. Full page ads in the newspaper target the city’s young and stylish with many a talented artist like Shankar Mahadevan being featured as performing. The Shiddhi Vinayak temple, the richest temple in the city, has been popular with cine and TV stars for a while. A Jaya Bachan two decades ago had walked barefoot to pray for her husband Amitabh when he was injured in a freak accident on a film set. Today Ekta Kapoor, creator of the saas bahu serials on satellite TV walks diligently every Tuesday from her home to the Prabhadevi suburb hosting the temple. She will be conducting the aarti for the Times of India festivities. Pooja who is accompanying me for the day gossips about how she saw Aishwarya Rai lining up outside the temple, early one morning, during the Salman Khan tapes controversy. The mix of celebrity culture and religion is alive and kicking here. The opulent temple lives under a constant security threat; somber police officers frisk devotees even as the mile long queue passes through metal detectors. As we peer from behind the check posts, workers are setting up the stage and audio equipment for the evening celebrations. Later as an ornate wooden carriage bearing the idol inches through the crowd of devotees, DJ Suketu is ready to perform. He belts out Atif’s Woh Lamhe even as the horde prepares to tearfully immerse the Ganesha in the seawater. The confluence of the sublime and the surreal is bizarre.

The only ‘media star’ that overshadows other sites on the religious tourist directory is the shrine of Haji Ali. A significant feature of Mumbai’s landscape, it has been a devotional site for the city’s inhabitants long before a generation of seventies film mothers miraculously regained sight or speech as they cried copiously at the shrine. Haji Ali had forsaken his riches to undertake a pilgrimage he dreamt of one night, many say his coffin had come up floating in the seawater one day. Family members buried him on a narrow land corridor mid-sea meeting his last wishes. As the tide switches from low to full, the shrine becomes a virtual island at particular times of the day. The walkway to the shrine is a mini carnival as stalls sell the ridiculous and essential. Devotional prayer books, plaques with religious verses, fake gold jewelry, plastic toys, incense sticks. A man in polyester trousers pompously escorts his plump paramour, she is one of the (now disbanded) bar dancers the crowd whispers. Her long hair flying loose in the hair, she has overloaded herself with the fake gold jewelry. Families picnic on the boundary wall behind the shrine, some gingerly climb down to face the waves pounding the rocks, an old man laughs out as the surf hits his hennaed beard. The silver ceiling inside and some of the structure outside have seen better days. The city administration has finally given the go ahead to the department of environment to go ahead with renovating depilated portions. Pooja points out landmarks on the Mumbai skyline rising behind the shrine. The high-rise gym where the city’s rich work out as they look intently at the sea, heritage properties owned by rich Gujratis, a blue domed mosque built by the infamous Haji Mustan. It remains a remnant of earlier times, easier times, when a Mumbai don was more of the friendly neighborhood Robin Hood than the terror that plagues the city now.