I cannot contain the restlessness I have anymore. For long I have called onto myself, asked for answers that lay deep inside me. These answers don’t like to be disturbed; perhaps that’s what makes this journey a cumbersome task.
Benares, November 6, 2012
Faith is palpable here. One can feel it in the orange cloth- the gamcha, worn before taking the holy dip, the beads of perspiration on the rickshaw-puller’s forehead; and even in the promise of the boatmen- thugs who pledge to take one onto all the ghats of the Ganga and deftly cause pain to the parsimonious. Faith is all mighty here. Faith is sold, faith is earned, faith is lost and faith revisited.
At the Benares station, built like a Hindu temple, one is reminded of the holy city’s loud and clear message. It feels like the city is announcing its belief in God – red coloured shikar like structure makes the main component of the station. As you step into the city, you are stepping into an overflowing pool of human kind. Crowded cities are not surprising in India, but a crowded street in Benares is unlike any other: it doesn’t look like the purposeful streets of Mumbai; nor does it seem like the disorder of the old city of Kolkata. For Benares is not split into the old and the new, its busy street is discordant, cacophonous, filthy and perspicacious and yet united in an odd way. Here an occasional sound of a temple bell, sound of the shank or a loud cry from the rickshaw puller break the monotonous discordance of the street.
And it is amongst this crowd and cheer that I first met Rajni. He was about 5 feet 4 inches. Twenty-four-year-old and I believe he had a wonderful hearing ability, but relished on making people repeat their sentences – as if buying out time, to be able to think and answer. And it is here with this thug boatman that I saw the spirit of faith and faithlessness. Rajni caught us, just as we were about to reach the ghat. I guess we were looking ill at ease- me and my mother- a perfect target for his expertise. His conversational skills were excellent, and so he got into an interesting talk with my mother as soon as he met us. I, the more moody and aloof person, watched them both from a distance. Less literate: more figurative. I fiddled with the camera, took a few shots; but overall I was distracted.
As we reached the ghat, I stood speechless. I have been to Haridwar and have loved the colours, the voices and the sounds there, yet here at Benares I felt overwhelmed. In the backdrop of numerous heads busily trying to get to the Aarti venue, the background score was a continuous rattle of vendors, boats-men and lamp sellers. At Ganga Ghat these faces made me think of the necessity of faith. I stood there looking at the enormous ghat – the wooden boats; thousands of lamps and the mellifluous chants, and these faces would keep emerging. Rajni’s face was one of them. He would spend his entire day at the ghat, trying to cajole customers to have the ride with him. Here he used every possible trick to get the client – sam, dam, dand, bhedh.
With us though it was terribly simple, he just had to walk upto us and talk assuredly. We were both tired and with some customary haggling that mother did just to satisfy her conscious; we stepped onto a boat with the promise of a two-hour boat journey. I wasn’t sure of the boat or its driver, but I was earnestly waiting to climb atop. Rajni was as earnest as me. As he helped us get onto the boat, his triumphant smile relayed his victory. “Rs 550 madam is not too much, this is Ganga and I will show you several ghats and make sure you see the Aarti from right in front..” he said as we set sail. From the boat the view of Ganga was spectacular. As the evening began to descend into the night, several lamps started to float on its bosom. From here, Ganga was not something one looked at, but it was somewhere one belonged.
As we sat on Ganga, a basuri began playing from the Rajghat. From here, it seemed as if the river had nuzzled us into its grasp, filling our hearts with joy. Rajni, perhaps, was not aware of this feeling. For he had grown up here and may be was used to seeing the river and its majesticity. “In the last twenty years, I have seen more number of people visiting, more garbage accumulating and more people settling in the old Varanasi,” was the statistical info that Rajni rendered about Ganga. The two hour boat ride did not meet the promised line: it didn’t encompass 120 minutes, nor was it right onto the aarti venue. In fact a good 30 minute after our ascend into the river, Rajni parked the boat amongst a few hundred boats, all vying for a favourable spot to see the proceedings.
The aarti had a triumphant start. Atop the ghat, seven Brahmins dressed in orange, incense sticks in hand prayed to the holy river. We faced them, listening the recorded arti on the loudspeaker. Behind us, several plastic cups with a lighted diya sailed on Ganga. The smell and sounds all called onto the divine. Yet, I couldn’t stop looking at the debris of plastic huddled in heaps as if faith had taken an ugly pose. Rajni followed my eyes. We looked at each other. “ There is a lot of filth here. All around, I have grown up around it. Sometimes these firangs have clean ups, sometimes political parties do it, sometimes NGO’s. But it’s the cleanest during Diwali… when all of us do it.”
I looked at him and smiled.
The aarti got done in 30 minutes and the boats started scattering again on Ganga’s bosom. We stood there, still, watching the water around getting cleared. Rajni took us to Manikarnika Ghat and we saw the rousing fire from afar. “ Yahan Shivji rehte hain, nirantar ( Lord Shiva stays here forever),” said Rajni as we looked at the burning amber colour. “ In order to keep Lord Shiva from moving around with his devotees, Parvati hid her earrings, and asked him to find them, saying that they had been lost on the banks of the Ganges. Whenever a body gets cremated at the Manikarnika Ghat, Lord Shiva asks the soul whether it has seen the earrings,” he finished.
“Where do you get all this information from,” I asked Rajni, just to strike a conversation.
“ From my father, and sometimes when we forget, we make it up,” he smiled, “ Some people like to be amused, so we do that with our stories.”
I watched the fire burn. Here at Manikarnika Ghat, bodies are burnt all the time. Here is where life as we know comes to an end and meets the spiritual beings. I stared at the ghat and looked around. Night had set in and Ganga was getting quieter and duller. The floating lamps had lost themselves in her arms. It was Rajni’s oar and the splash against the waters that brought me back from thoughts of Manikarnika. We were now fast approaching the shore and our ride was about to get over.
Rajni accompanied us till we reached the main road. His live commentary was quite handy though. He made us stop at the right shops. Made us buy the right things and well, even helped us get a rickshaw back to the guest house. His smile reeked of the fat commission he had earned that day. As I sat on the rickshaw and waved him, I smiled to myself. Benares and Rajni – both lived off selling faith.
Selling faith, earning faith – the cycle went on, just as bodies kept getting burnt endlessly at Manikarnika.