Like Lopa upstairs, there was one person downstairs who could not sleep that night.
“How long are they going to stay? Shall I ask Buchi?” thought Niranjan, “How can I fill six additional adult stomachs even for a fortnight? How can she be so thoughtless?”
He was worried, as he had always been when it came to spending money. He had to save for his post-retirement years. He was not a fool like his brother Nilanjan, sleeping peacefully after his regular dose of bhaang from the temple. It was he who took care of the finance at home. Nilanjan had no regular income, although the pockets of his trousers hung on the string overhead were full of coins and bank notes that night. How could the pockets of one of the priests in a Shiv temple be empty in Kasi the night after Mahashivratri? “Not a single anna from it would go to meet the new burden over our resources. And to top it all, the idiot is not even conscious of the long term danger in keeping them with us. He’s happy!”
It was three already. half an hour more and it’d be his time to collect his lota, soap, gamcha and daatun and go to the ghat. Niranjan was known in the whole neighbourhood for having maintained his routine four o’ clock dip in Gangaji from the day of his upanayan sanskar.
“Kashi Vishwanath Shambo, Har Har Mahadev Gange,” he chanted while walking towards Vijay Nagram Ghat. He could walk up to the river, down the stairs, and return home even in a moonless night of electricity cut. He’d been walking on the same path for over four decades now, at least four times a day. He belonged to the place. He could not think of his existence anywhere else. All his adult life, and much of his childhood were spent in the same muhalla, and all his life in the same city. He had never been to any other place, barring Chunar, Ramnagar, Mughalsarai and once to Mau, for the upanayan of Dr Tripathi’s son, what was his name? Rakesh.
For his morning excretory exertions he used the sandy banks in front of Chowki Ghat, as he did everyday. He washed his hands using the only source of water around: the holy gangajal and shed all his clothes on the bench made for the purpose. He paused a little before entering the water. A cold westerly breeze that had started blowing the last afternoon had suddenly brought about change in the weather. “My neck is aching. What may be the reason? Ah! That acute angle of my neck over the pillows the whole night is behind it. Ganga Maiya will cure it all.”
He applied mustard oil all over his body and hair. The water was lapping the fifth and sixth slithery stone steps from the bottom. Decades of water erosion and algal deposition had made the stone steps facing the temple extremely and dangerously slippery. The ghats before and after his ghat had gradual sandy slope but his ghat was different. A steep decline began just three feet after the stone floor of the ghat. Pilgrims and non-swimmers avoided the ghat of slippery steps and steep slope.
Shivering, he entered the cold water and started feeling it all over his body, except the part above his neck. He was not feeling well at all. It had become mechanical now: his ablutionary rituals. He’d been doing it for such a long time. “Kashi Vishwanath Shambo, Har Har Mahadev Gange“, his chanting became louder as the cold wave started registering its presence upon the deeper layers of his skin. After three dips, applying soap all over his body and then washing it, he came out upon the dry steps and then went to the first landing and the bench on it. He had to dry himself first. Normally he would wear just his gamcha and wash all his clothes there itself. That day, as he was not feeling well, he returned with his clothes unwashed.
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