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.