No 169 - 2002
Banaras – My Banaras
The holy city of Banaras* is the most ancient city of India and is well known for its distinct cultural values. That traditionalists regard many of these as not only very ancient but also sacred. For them the glory of Banaras lies in its continuity. So, both man’s civilised state and also his coarseness are for them the living, moving and everlasting reality of Kashi - as Banaras is also known. And inhabitants of Banaras boast, “What is Banaras not? And what is there that Banaras hasn’t got?’
So, even though the concept of the gentleman and his rank is to be found in various forms in every hierarchical society in India, the concept of the gentleman of Banaras and the nobility of Kashi has a connotation entirely of its own for the people of Banaras and is regarded as a very special achievement compared to the tradition of nobility elsewhere. For example, while the gentlemen of Lucknow may peel sugar-coated cardamons before eating them, the gentlemen of Banaras cut even the softest betel leaves into tiny pieces to make sure that no harm befalls their delicate tongues from the sharp leaf edges.
The elder brother of my father, my tauji, was just a new arrival in Banaras. He had given up his position as zamindar in Azamgart and had taken up residence with us permanently in what was not only ours but also his family home. This ancestral home of ours was near Durgakund and after moving in he declared that our household would need all that a Banarsee gentleman required to maintain the Banarsee culture. Although some Banarsees would call him a ‘usurper’ because he was not born there, and regarded him as a ‘lesser gentleman’, he would keep on imitating the pomp and show of Banarsee glamour. Since he was now the eldest member of the family, nobody could oppose his suggestions or rebel against them.
For a Banarsee gentleman a special one-horse cart symbolised his status just as in England at one time a Rolls Royce did. Although the fashion of keeping the ikka - as this horse cart was known - was slowly lessening because they were very expensive to keep, some traditional families still maintained them. During my school days I used to have some classmates from such ‘noble houses’. They would normally be taken to school by car, but if at some point the father or uncle of these children had to come to the school for some function, then he would leave his car at home and arrive in his ‘symbol of nobility’. As far as their grandfather was concerned, he would not even go near these motorised conveyances. He would say that cars were not a Banaras thing. They were an attack on the fundamental stability, peace and serenity of our calm life in Banaras. This life and the car could not co-exist.
The one-horse carts of the gentlemen of Banaras were quite different from the one-horse carts of other places. They were open carts. They had no hood. The seat would be approximately one and a half yards long and wide and at the back was a small seat with two small cushions in front of it. The drivers of the carts would be given the strictest instructions to keep the cushions and seat covers absolutely clean at all times and not allow a single drop of spit of betel juice to escape and stray on to them. Normally just two men would sit in such a cart and chew their pan - betel nut - and the driver would sit behind the horse or mare under that part of the cart. It would have been hammered into his head that he must drive the cart at such a smooth, restrained pace that the passengers would not have to alter their cross-legged position.
The Banarsee would go on special regular trips which had a most important goal. Some early afternoon he would give himself leave from his shop or business to take the one-horse cart to the Ganges at a stately speed. With him he would carry his dhotis, freshly washed and neatly starched and ironed at the washerman’s. He would also carry a sack with him, containing a flat grinding stone about nine inches long, a small pestle and all the ingredients for bhang - a narcotic drink made from hemp leaves.
Having reached the bank on the Ganges, he would halt at the place allocated for parking and tying up one-horse carts. From there the gentleman would walk toward the ghats - the river bank - where his boatman would be standing on the steps. He would greet the gentleman respectfully and take him to his boat. Then he would slowly row across the River Ganges to the other side. On this twenty to thirty minute journey they would appreciate and admire the beauty and uniqueness of Banaras. They would ask the boatman to stop in mid-stream, allowing the boat to drift gently. For a few minutes, at twilight, the miracle of sunset would bathe the amazing panorama of temples and palaces in righteous red, as if ablaze. The whole drama of life was represented here. On the left, young couples or grandmothers would bring a newly-born child to be blessed. Newly-weds stood by shyly among family groups congratulating them. The air would be filled with the chanting of hymns and prayers from the various temples. The sound of the temple bells was deafening and seemed to pursue flocks of birds on their way to roost. Yogis surrounded by disciples prayed on the steps of the ghats. People practised yoga individually and in groups. Women gracefully made their way down the steps to launch tiny oil lamps, the size of a walnut, from the water’s edge. These floated away, together with flower petals, forming a carpet over the water. Looking towards Nepalese ghat, they might notice also a sick or dying man brought to the holy river from Nepal by sorrowing relatives, waiting for him to draw his last breath and fulfil his destiny. Children, oblivious to thanksgiving prayers, as well as to tragedy, ran up and down the steps, watched by bands of stray dogs and the odd cow. There was a grim reminder of the inescapable conclusion of human life in the manikanika ghat - the open cremation ground - forever burning its inexhaustible supply of bodies. Some pyres were burning low and the attendants scattered the ashes, while groups of mourners arrived with their recently deceased relative. Small boats also would bring little groups of people who had come to pray for long departed members of their families.
The gentleman of Banaras would show this vista of life from birth to death and explain its mystery with quotes from popular Sanskrit or Hindi poetic works. My tauji, being a newcomer, was more eager to sing the glory of Banaras and imitate everything that was considered to be part of the rich continuity of Banarsee life. So when he arrived and began living with us in Banaras he used the ikka regularly and mostly in the afternoons. After admiring these scenes, he would slowly ask his boatman to row across the River Ganges to the other side. There the boatman would stop and wait. On the other side of the river the first task of gentlemen like my uncle would be to take the dhotis, so carefully washed, ironed and starched by the washerman, out of the bag, then wash them in the Ganges and spread them out on the ground to dry. Then he would find a secluded spot, take the hemp-grinding stone and pestle out of his bag, wet the hemp drop by drop with water from the Ganges and grind it. This hemp grinding would go on for more than an hour. The rule for it was that it had to continue until the stone was sticking to the hemp and would rise up together with the pestle every time he filled it up. When the hemp had been ground up to this point and was ready, it would be rolled into very small pellets. The gentleman would gulp them down with a glass of water from the Ganges, would stroke his belly with the palm of his hand, shout loudly, ‘Hail to Shiva - Hail to Shiva,’ and would go off with his tumbler of water to some deserted corner in order to defecate.
The arrival of Tauji and his wife, Taiji, my aunt - a very formidable looking, and extremely dictatorial, upholder of the virtue of Indian family life, especially the caste system - made our household bigger, because when on his orders an ikka was added to our household, and a strong mare also became part of our family. And then Bansi Chaudhri came to our house bringing with him also his family. He was to be the driver of the cart.
Bansi would have been about thirty years old at that time. His wife was the same age, and their son Radhu was about thirteen years old. Bansi’s job was to drive the cart and maintain it and it was Radhu’s work to keep the room we had allocated as a stable clean and to feed the mare and give her water. But gradually Bansi taught Radhu how to drive the cart and turned him into an accomplished driver. And in proportion with Radhu’s driving expertise his friendship with us children of the same age as him also grew steadily and became a firm bond.
Although Bansi was a Hindu he was of a very low caste according to the ‘caste and lineage calendar’ of my taiji. And the more our friendship with Radhu grew, the more frequent became her warnings. For example, if we were sharing some food with Radhu then we were certainly not given a metal dish for him. He was considered fit only for a clay dish, a leaf cup or just a leaf, and nothing else would we be given for him.
My aunt gave her most severe decree one day during Holi, when we were playing holi together with Radhu and both his parents and were going to our kitchen in order to eat the special holi delicacies. Taiji said in a very loud voice, ‘Only people from high castes can go into our kitchen.’ It stuck me as an utter disgrace for our friend Radhu and the man Bansi who was like an uncle to us. But greater than the shame was the surprise that day to see how submissively Bansi and his family accepted this wrongful decree, showing neither anger nor concern. As if this actually was their truth. As if it was their fate.
Two of us boys were Taiji’s own sons, but all of us felt not only upset by this decree but also very angry. That very night of Holi, after all the grown-ups had given in to their tiredness and gone to bed, we called a meeting of youngsters in a secret corner of the house and decided unanimously on our course of action, which we brought into operation the very next day.
It was just breakfast time when we blindfolded Radhu and said to him ‘Come on, we’re taking you somewhere.’ He asked where we were taking him, and we replied he would find out in five minutes.
We were eight boys, and together we grabbed Radhu’s hands and dragged him along into the kitchen. Our aunt saw all this from a distance. She appeared to become highly alarmed and wailed, ‘Oh God, what have you done you...! You shameless scoundrels, what have you done!’ And then she shouted abuse, came to the kitchen door, scolded us severely and said, ‘Get out everybody, if you don’t get out I’ll set fire to the kitchen.’ We just laughed out as loud as we could and began to clap our hands. This was all part of the plan we had hatched during the night. The idea with our clapping was that the other grown-ups would see it as Holi-fun and not jump on us as our aunt had done. And so it turned out. The other adults in the house tried to pacify our aunt by explaining to her that this is all part of celebrating Holi... don’t be angry - why don’t you take part? My mother even became annoyed, she took my aunt’s hand and said with a serious expression on her face, ‘Well, what if Radhu went into the kitchen? Is he not a human being?’ Well, for a time the atmosphere cooled off. But Taiji washed the kitchen with her own hands. And she offered our statue of Shiva some water and then sprinkled drops of this water around not only in the kitchen but all over the whole house and thus purified it. Then she said, ‘I have made this house pure again. Such a sin is not to occur again in this kitchen. This is my last word.’
A few months passed. Everything was running and progressing satisfactorily. It had become summer. At night the whole family was sleeping on the roof. My aunt’s bed stood beside mine. During that summer a hot lu - warm air or heatwave - was blowing, and Radhu had come down with a high fever. One evening his temperature had risen so much that the doctor gave him some special medicine which calmed him down a little. Then we had all gone to bed. Around two or three o’clock in the morning I woke up. When I got up to go to the bathroom I saw that my aunt’s bed was empty. I thought maybe she had also gone to the bathroom but she was not there either. Then I suddenly remembered that Radhu was ill and I went downstairs to the room near Bansi’s quarters where Radhu had been given his medicine and put to sleep. I thought, ‘I’ll just go and check if he is restless again.’ When I entered the room, my surprise at the scene before me knew no bounds.
A wet cloth had been put on Radhu’s forehead. A bucket of water was standing to one side. And there at the head of the bed my aunt was sitting, half toppled over against the wall and fast asleep. I felt amazed but also a little alarmed. I went up to Taiji and shook her lightly. She woke up with a start. I said, ‘Taiji, what are you doing here?’ ‘Nothing, my boy. I was just worried about Radhu. His fever stayed very high during the night. So I kept putting cold compresses on his forehead. And then I must have fallen asleep.’
For a few moments I stood there, quite speechless. I realised that this was the same woman who had turned the whole household on its head when she saw Radhu go into the kitchen, because he was from a low caste - and now that same woman was taking care of that same low-caste person. Tears welled up in my eyes. But I took a hold of myself, helped my aunt up and said, ‘It’s very late. You must be very tired and sleepy. Please go upstairs to bed. I shall stay here and keep renewing the compress.’ She replied, ‘No, you will have to go to school in the morning. I’m all right. You just go to bed. I shall stay here. I would not be able to sleep anyway if I went upstairs. But I think Radhu’s fever is going down now.’
Within a few days Radhu recovered completely. And then it was exam time, and when I had finished school I went to Bombay and began my university studies. Some four years later it was decided for me to go to England for further studies. A few months before my departure I went to Banaras to say goodbye to everyone. When I was about to return to Bombay and went to the station, Radhu was also among a group of people coming to see me off. Saying goodbye to everyone, I would have liked to embrace Radhu as well, but Taiji was standing beside me, and it might have hurt her, and so I felt it was not right to embrace Radhu at that moment. Instead, I just put my hand on his head before I boarded the train and found my seat. The train set out towards the future.
I studied in London and stayed there and kept thinking, ‘Now I’ll go back to India - next year I’ll go back’ - and before I knew it some twenty years had passed. Finally one day I made up my mind to go to India. I took some six weeks leave from work and set out for India for the first time in twenty years.
When I reached India after all this time it seemed to me as if nothing had changed and yet everything had changed. I needed to see how much Banaras had been affected in the sea of change. And I also needed to find out if the belief is true which we people from Banaras share: that even if the whole world changes, Banaras will not change. Banaras is permanent - Banaras is eternal... everlasting... indestructible. Lost in these thoughts I was travelling towards Kashi, the main station of Banaras (now Varanasi). My heart had doubled its beat since Mughalsarai station. Like some incantation these words kept ringing in my head - I am returning to my city.
As soon as we had arrived at the station and they saw me in the carriage, a whole swarm of kuli - porters - rushed towards me. I felt somewhat alarmed, especially when I realised that I was the focus of all this interest. Well, I pulled myself together and said calmly to one of the porters, ‘Look here, I only need one porter.’ But I could have saved my breath for all the effect my words had. Several porters began to pick up my luggage. I could not for my life understand what was going on. I did not think that any of them knew me or had heard my name. Then the sturdiest looking porter among them approached me and said, ‘Sir, I’ll get rid of the others and take your luggage to the rickshaw myself. If you would pay me just a hundred rupees.’ Only a hundred rupees! One hundred rupees for just taking one box from the carriage to the rickshaw. I began to feel annoyed. Almost shouting, I said in a loud voice, ‘A hundred rupees for picking up a suitcase! Do you think I am a foreigner? Do I look like an Englishman or an American from whom you would ask this kind of money? I am Indian. I come from here, from this very town. I, too, am a resident of Banaras!’ My words seemed to have some effect. The sturdy porter picked up my suitcase. ‘I can tell from the way you speak that you are from here. Just pay what you think right.’ Then he gave the other porters a sign suggesting that they should leave the compartment - and they all left.
By the time I had emerged from the station, had given the porter a twenty rupee note and received his thanks, some ten or twelve rickshaw drivers were rushing towards me and all talking at once. ‘Come along Sir, use my rickshaw. I know every hotel in town.’ The rickshaw drivers advanced by shoving each other out of the way, came closer and surrounded me.
All this took place in the blazing sunlight. I was no longer used to the heat. I lose my composure in such severe heat, anything can cause me to flare up in anger - and if I do not manage to take a hold of myself I can get quite beside myself. However, in these heat filled moments I began to think, ‘Why are all these people bothering me rather than anybody else?’ They obviously did not know me. I was wearing a shirt and trousers just like any other ordinary Indian. And neither inside the train nor outside it had I spoken a singe word of English. Nor had my skin colour lightened from twenty years in England... so why were these people - my own people - behaving in this way? Why were they rushing upon me in this way in the hope to make some extra money? In an instant I lost my patience, and I shouted in a very loud voice, ‘Get lost - get out of my way, you lot - otherwise I’ll show you an accident here!’ It was the first time I had talked in such a familiar way to anybody here - because usually I considered it fitting to speak in a more formal manner to any stranger. Still the men did not budge - they kept shoving each other, looking at me and all speaking at once - ‘Please come, Sir, into my rickshaw here... I know all the hotels.’ By now I was trembling in fury - I said very loudly, ‘Police! Police!’ This gave the men a start. Suddenly I saw a middle-aged looking man shove all the others out of the way, advance towards me but then stop dead in front of me as if he had suddenly remembered something. For a moment there was silence but then he burst out ‘Bhaiya... elder brother! Satish! Bhaiya! don’t you recognise me. I’m Radhu... Radhu... The driver of your cart... Radhu!’
I looked at his eyes, looked closely, and recognised him. With just half a step forward I reached him, pulled him to my chest and embraced him. Seeing this, the other rickshaw drivers began to withdraw. Radhu spoke to all of them and said, ‘This is my Babuji. My big brother. He’s come back after twenty years in England.’ All the rickshaw drivers seemed to cool off within an instant. Their faces became friendly. One of them said, ‘Babuji, we thought you were a foreigner. It was a mistake.’ These short moments had left my emotions so brittle and raw that I just did not know what to say. All I could do was press Radhu’s hand.
Radhu said, ‘Bhaiya, come along, my rickshaw is standing just over there.’ He picked up my suitcase. I climbed into his rickshaw. ‘Brother Satish,’ said Radhu slowly, ‘There is so much to talk about, but first tell me where you want to go. There is nobody left in your old home now. Over the last twenty years they have been scattered in all directions. One went to Bombay, one to Calcutta- one took up running a business, another found a job. These days they only come together at Holi or Divali. Now, instead of going there, brother, it would be more suitable if I took you to some friend or relative. I really could not just leave you in some hotel.’ I listened to him silently. I still did not know what to say. Then he added, ‘I know, let’s go to Uncle Paramanand...’
When I asked, ‘But where do you live?’ Radhu’s eyes lit up in hope. He said, ‘In a village near Mughalsarai. My father had his cottage there. By God’s grace and the kindness of all you people I have now managed to build on it a little pakka - a brick house with two rooms - with the money I have been able to save up from driving the rickshaw...’
I said, ‘In that case, why don’t you take me to your village,’ and when Radhu replied I could hear his joy. ‘To my village, Bhaiya...? That will make everybody so happy, really happy. There is a high caste man from the Kayasth community living in my village. He is a government officer, and from a noble family, too. He has a very big house. I’ll take you to him, perhaps these people may even know you. And they are very welcoming... let’s go, let’s go to their house - that’s where you should stay.’
I said, ‘But Radhu, didn’t you say you have your own house, with two rooms, which you have built yourself? Would there not be an empty bed in that house for me to stay and to sleep?’
Radhu almost leapt into the air with joy and said, ‘Bhaiya... if you will stay with us in my house, well, my better half will be delighted to see you. My children will cling to you and talk and talk...’
I said, ‘Yes, just like when we were both young... and lived in the house in Durgakund and spent half the night gossiping and planning the next day’s activities. Do you remember?’ And Radhu said, ‘Yes... Babuji, just like that, just like that again...’
I said, ‘Let’s go. Twenty years ago you came here to see me off. And today you have come to take me back. Let’s go, let’s go to your home... no, no, let’s go home.’
Radhu leapt on to the bicycle part of the rickshaw, gave the pedals a sharp jolt and began to move forward, pedalling furiously. Within a moment he picked up so much speed that it seemed as if his feet had grown wings and were trying to outrun the fast moving wind.
* Note on the spelling of Banaras. This spelling is now more commonly in use as it is closer to its Indian pronunciation. The former, Anglicised spelling ‘Benares’ is still in use, however, mostly in academic writings.
Satyendra Srivastava was born in India, but has lived in the UK for nearly four decades. He lectures at the Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Cambridge. A well-known Hindi writer, he has published many collections of Hindi poetry, plays and radio plays, and has been a columnist for various Indian publications. He also broadcasts in both Hindi and English, and is a corresponding editor of Ambit. His poetry collections in English are Talking Sanskrit to Fallen Leaves (Peepal Tree Press, 1995), Between Thoughts (Samvad Prakashan, 1998) and Another Silence (2001). He is the recipient of international prizes and honour. He also has two CDs out: Satyendra Srivastava Reads at Ambit, London, and Poems by Satyendra Srivastava (University of Cambridge).
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