(Incredible stories need not necessarily be about incredible places. Often they are about incredible moments - moments which whisper something and fade away.)
The water surface mirrored the clear blue skies. A howling new born took his first dip in the holy waters. An urn strewn with marigold flowers floated on the undulating waves. And across the mighty river, flames from the pyres glowed, even as the morning rays kissed the holy Ganges. It was evident why the city had become a metaphor for life and death.
On the ghats of Varanasi, in that moment, I was reminded of the geography lessons on evaporation, condensation and rainfall. A reminder of myriad forms taken by a river. Just like life, where nothing can ever become nothing. It merely changes form. After any personal loss, at some level, the thought of impermanence is comforting.
Recently when I was in Lucknow, a cousin suggested we travel to Benaras for shopping. I wasn’t enthusiastic. I mean, who wants to travel to a crowded ancient city to shop? I was more accustomed to a ‘no-sweat shopping experience’ in the air-conditioned malls of Gurgaon. But when destiny wishes to take you some place, you can’t do very much, can you?
After decades, the impromptu road trip took me to Benaras, my birth place. A lot had changed. The ancestral house was a pale shadow of its glorious days, palm trees in the garden were dead, city traffic had become worse and the Ganges had become murkier. The truism, ‘change is the only constant’ played itself in all its glory.
The following day I was looking forward to feast on silk sarees, dress materials and some antique jewelry. Unfortunately, owing to a bandh called by some political outfit, most shops were closed for the day. Sigh! Ignoring the sane voices, “the city is tense, don’t go out,” we ventured out for some ‘forbidden fun’.
So we soaked in the languorous rhythm of a quiet city morning where the streets wore a deserted look, except for a few hawkers and vendors. As for us, we had a lot to do. There was ‘bhang’ to taste, snake charmers to talk to, street food to savor and vendors to haggle with: it was day against which my Gurgaon routine registered as a disappointment.
Strangely, for me, quite a few shackles were broken… I overcame my fear of creepy crawlies (Yes, I caressed a cobra. So what if it was defanged?). I overcame my inhibition to do crazy stuff and the reluctance to eat street food. How often had I repeated the cliché ‘Live like there is no tomorrow?’ And how often was I able to practice? Somehow, something managed to dent the resolve almost always - frenzied traffic, mercurial boss, petulant colleague, unreliable maid, past resentment or future anxiety.
After a crazy day, the evening was reserved for a visit to the Kashi Vishwanath temple. We reached the temple, maneuvering our way through crowds and cows, trudging via narrow lanes. As a child, I had once witnessed the evening aarti holding my father’s hands. The memories were vivid but hazy. As the aarti commenced, hundreds of devotees jostled for a perfect view of the smiling idols adorned in bright silk and satin, embellished with brocade and jewels. The fragrance from the sandalwood incense wafted around; strong yet pleasing. Enraptured people, consumed with desire, clapped and sang swaying to different rhythms. Eventually, the sound of the chants and chimes petered out. I stood there with folded hands - one amongst many. I had always prayed for health, family, comfort… believing that God is a tool to achieve these. I felt a wee bit culpable. The idea that I had always prayed for selfish reasons seemed repugnant. Yet in that incredibly beautiful moment, prayer for me was neither about aspirations, nor demands. It was a thing in itself. Something which provided strength and peace.
Strangely for me, the reluctant visit to the city of temples and ghats opened the mind to send and receive messages. A mind that always remains chaotic in the hum-drum of life. It made me see more than I had bargained for.