This was my second visit to the city in as many years. I was asked by many “why go a second time?” .. well, there are no simple answers. Some places grow on us, seep into our thoughts on those idle afternoons. They force us to disconnect, observe and absorb (vanishing tribes, all three !)
Prima facie, Benares seems an odd place to find solace and seek a deeper understanding of life. With its maze of lanes and bylanes, chaotic traffic (including stray dogs, holy cows and insolent monkeys) and constant din, the city does nothing to soothe a troubled soul. Or so it seems. But as you open up to it, you realise there is a method to this madness. Your senses will be checkmated at every turn. One moment you are in a busy street full of lights, sounds and people. The next moment you may find yourself in a narrow dimly lit by-lane, with a roadside shrine and a stray dog for company. Within a matter of yards, you may be away from the two-wheeler horns and trishaw bells, while the soft notes of a sitar waft in from some where. Narrow lanes lead you to the wide open ghats, and the river beyond. The mother river, as they say. My favourite times to be at the ghats were early in the morning (before dawn, actually) and from late afternoon till dusk. I remember one such late afternoon at Munshi ghat. The old flute seller playing a lovely rustic tune, the warmth of the tea cup spreading across my palms, the timeless sloshing of the waves against the stone steps … the world was a tranquil place that evening.
The relationship between the city and the river is quite fascinating. They live off each other. Equally fascinating is the nothingness on the opposite shore. The lights and sounds of the city are accentuated by the darkness and silence across the river. In this, it is quite unlike other settlements along the gangetic plains. During my last visit, it was all about the river, as the ghats ceded ground. Post monsoons, the Ganges was all fury, with whirlpools and undercurrents, grey skies and heavy air. This time, the city and the river were at their languid best under the mellow winter sun. The ghats wore a festive look, with kids flying kites and playing cricket, holy cows having their right of way, colourful laundry left to dry in the breeze (and making a fine backdrop for photos), and hawkers of all kind plying their trade. There is a certain timelessness about these ghats. Morbid as this may sound, to me the most fascinating ones have been Manikarnika and Harish Chandra, the two burning ghats. No throngs of devotees here. No hopeful dips in the river. Only impassive faces witnessing the greatest of truths. Even as the dead are brought in and the pyres are arranged, there is an air of nonchalance. Old hindi film songs play from a rickety radio in the tea stall, a vendor goes around selling lemon tea, and life goes on.