The Hermeneutics of City-text

“A city is a palipsestic text” may have become a tautology by now, repeated so many times and emphasised and proven in so many ways that it seems impossible to invent a new way to emphasise it any further. So, the city-text is available for interpretation, post-analysis, like the other types of texts, although it is much more dynamic and complex than them. To understand the whole, says hermeneutics, the parts must be identified and understood first. That understanding, even when it is meticulous and positivistic (read scientific in method) can never claim to have reached the final, complete and “real” meaning of the city. One reason behind it, is the absence of any single “author” of the text in this case, resulting into the impossibility of reaching any knowledge of the intended meaning of the creator of the text. What makes the equation-to-be-solved more complicated is the addition of one more variable to it – the interpreting consciousness that depends on various sociocultural forces acting on the psyche of an individual through the years they have lived in the human society.

Vishwanath Gali crowded

The presence of an author as the central authority – creating the city-text actively (the action may have been willed or un-willed) would have made the solution of the equation easier. The absence of any single identifiable author renders the city-equation difficult to solve fully – if not impossible to solve. The equation-to-be-solved has to be solved in an incomplete manner because the text under question is a palimpsest. It has been written upon, incompletely erased and re-written upon so many times that every grid of the text has traces behind the foregrounded script that’s the most recent one and at the top.

Varanasi’s dual nature makes the interpretation of the city-text even more difficult. There may be other cities like Kashi, but any comparisons with it will have to first take into account the material and ideal cities that exist separately too, in addition to being present in a dynamic ratio amalgamation. It’s difficult to ascertain  whether the spoken and scripted (not printed, as the city’s mahatmyas pre-date the invention of printing process) text on Kashi precedes the real city or whether it is based on the real city instead of inspiring it in a long, stage-wise process. One theoretical question arises here: can the same be the mechanism in case of all big cities: London, Paris, Beijing, Rome, Jerusalem? Cities, old cities with a history of millennia behind them, pose this problem to those who wish to study them and interpret them.

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The Subjective City II


Banaras is a city that challenges every generalization about it. Its variety makes it an irresistibly intense experience – an idea that has the power to clutch some minds; make home there. It is for them, if not for those neutrally or negatively inclined, that the city should exist at a personal level. They experience it in their own various ways. It is for them. It’s their city. The irony of the situation is that those who deserve to be called Banarsis belong to many different cities of their own making, with some shared characteristics and one universal trait – the name Banarsi.

Banaras the, is the city available to all but it’s also the city closed to anyone other than the person experiencing it. A gali, a ghat, a temple or a bend on the street may open some kind of passage to another time or place instantly, making it possible for the “experiencer” to occupy two different times and places at the same time: impossible according to the laws of Physics, but possible by the internal logic of mind.


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The Subjective City


It’s not a good thing  – subjectivity isn’t. Yet, experience leads one towards a highly subjective view about a city (any city?): that it’s not a material-objective entity as popular wisdom would have us believe. This is not to deny the material existence of the thing itself. All cities exist in their material form, verifiable through senses, but sensory perception is not all. The material city acts as the stratum that the roots of memory capsules penetrate to germinate upon and flourish as the city in the form of the summation of all the memories and emotions and experiences an individual had had there. Thus, it is elementary that no two persons look upon and experience the same city at any given moment – although they look at the same space and at the same time. Their being two distinct and different organisms with random variations in life experiences and memories causes them to generate (not invent) their own personal cities that are and aren’t the same at any given point of time.

This hypothesis, of the extremely subjective nature of the city-text requires detailed and methodical testing in order to be given the name of a theory. The provisional status of the hypothesis notwithstanding, it may safely be assumed that there will be exceptions to it even when it becomes a theory, if it ever does. That’s true in case of many popular and grand theories – exceptions are present as a rule. What would the exception to the rule of extreme subjectivity of the city-text read like? That a city is a material entity circumscribed by the geographical demarcation lines on a map, and that even when there are perceptional differences, the city remains the same for some, if not all.

It’s logical that those of a city, those who have known it for a long time, may have seen and experienced a city different from those who do not belong there, or whose  exposure to the city isn’t for a comparable time period . Based on the time, type and variety of exposures to the city  they know the city differently, i.e. for any two of them, it’s a different city when they think of it.

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Banaras is History

Life is living in the present. Who has time to turn the pages of tomes of history before plunging headlong into the fast flowing life-river; especially when it offers unadulterated pleasure? The massive pillared and buttressed sandstone palaces that constitute most of the Banaras ghatscape may not be older than the first half of the eighteenth century, but that does not subtract an iota from their grandeur and the cornucopia of happy sensations they offer to a hedonist, especially when the first rays of the sun kiss them at dawn. How could stone be so delicately carved as to give a semblance of fragility of the glass or of poetry flowing along the bend of the leaves and tendrils?


Rending the pall of the morning mist, the soft sun rays at dawn, descend gradually from the sky, illuminating first near then far, the whole wide crescent in stages. Boats float softly on the river, pilgrims and tourists awake, early to soak in the spectacle of the rising sun from behind the silhouetted shrub line on the other bank, and cover the fluid flow in one sweep, paint it crimson first and then yellow. Yellow, not crimson, glows the sandstone grey on the ghatscape. Yellow; the steps feet trod on, yellow the stone walled hills man-made.

Life opens eyes, shining warm upon the crescent’s stone and river. Life wakes up to start, a fresh new day afresh and streams through river going rivers: the galis, on the river bank. Some would stay asleep, half or full, till noon, beckon the morning hours and the soft glowing sun, begins to burn. But those who earlier come take their dip and pray, get a tilak and leave, to run their day long course and finally return to rest, back when evening arrives.

Banaras is history, from the farthest bend in the river in the north, to the city unfolding radially outwards to south.There are spots and pieces of history everywhere. The consciousness of that history is not a universal gift. There are times when the native dyed in the wool Banarsi lives and dies as a perfect example of this type without referring to the historicism of his city consciously even once. And then, there have been foreigners annd outsiders, interested in the city or cities in general, whose sense and awareness of that historicism makes it possible for them to analyse it better than any native: analyse it, if not imbibe it and live it.

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The Past Revisits


The cold, wettish evening breeze, and cottony clouds over the sky, and hidden sun somewhere behind; the feel on skin, the empty time: they all are old, none unmet, new. The solitude and semblant peace, neither new, old friends new met. New is the spot where sit I now, where evening breeze caresses cold and glad my skin with memories old. Of a river, its banks, another breeze, gigantic shapes looming ochre at back.

My house extended, home to peace, Of peace in melancholy dipped and coated twice , or once at least, with slight, thin layered solitude. A time all empty, ready for all sensations, thoughts: good, bad, new, old. A sleight of hand, a trick designed to please, surprise, shock, memory plays, and wisps of olden tinges float; heralded not yet come in sight, with them at heels comes happiness of emptiness and knowledge sad that unsubstantial things of old, with time they gain in  size and force.  Old slaves new tyrants, changed in shape. Cold wettish evening breeze brings back.


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Who lives in the present?

Who has time to turn

Pages of tomes of history?

Turning back?

Far better is to jump

Headlong into the fast flowing

Silver life-river,

Beckoning with shimmering bands,

Flowing in cold fluid veins

Glowing warm force of life-

Happiness forms the drops.

Happy flows the river.


Sandstone, massive pillared

Buttressed sides of tall

Walls of palaces grand,

Decking the ghatscape crescent;

Arc that runs yet stays

Runs along the river; stays

Fixed forever.

Happiness fills the grains –

Waves that glow in the sun,

Glow like the river in front,

Kissed by the rising sun.

Stone carved delicately,

Fragile, glass like flow

The liquid curves

On poetry petrified.



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A New Word for an Old Mania

What is the word describing the phenomenon, rare nowadays, that is concerned with the yearning or pull and the all consuming desire in a person to return to his native place? It has to come from a Greek word: anachoreo ( I return, retire, withdraw, depart (underlying idea perhaps of taking refuge from danger or of going into retirement) Source: Not a word in any dictionary of English language. Homesickness comes the closest, but it’s neither elegant enough nor completely the same in meaning, as it’s more temporary in nature, the uneasiness and the pull of one’s home when one has been away for some time. The possibility of return is definite and distinct in the case of the phenomenon mentioned earlier, and that uncertainty finds the intensity of emotions involved and the poignancy of the pain in the heart. It’s something that a Sindhi or a Bangladeshi Hindu in India feels when he thinks of his place of origin (and when does he not!), the place whose memory never fades – not even after his Alzheimer’s has eaten most of his power to think and remember.


 The generation of Sindhis and Bengalis that still remembers their home is about to pass on to the pages of history: not the phenomenon. The phenomenon will live on in the modern metropolitan – a product of urbanization, modernization and the resultant migration from towns and villages to the metropolises far and near. Most of the people who leave home, do so in search of a better future. They leave to never return. Some of them feel the pull of home and the accompanying ache to a degree that can be called significant. Even they may not return, as the pull is only one of several factors that determine whether a person ‘d reach home or not.

Anachoreomania may be the term denoting the yearning for the return to one’s home (town). A miniscule minority issue, of course, yet significant enough to demand the fullest attention of any urballaghologist or urballaghophobe. The yearning for the homecoming is definitely not to be confused with autopolisphilia, as the “return” part of the yearning is of central importance here.

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The Flaneur’s Heaven

What does Banaras have in store for a flaneur?

Strolling in the galis and on the ghats of Banaras has never been an optional activity for a Banarsi. It’s essential like swimming for a fish or flying for a bird. How else is a person born in the galis near the ghats of Kashi expected to survive? So, the very familiarity that breeds contempt among humans has a similar effect on the relationship between humans and their environs, if not to the same degree, then in a milder fashion. Therefore, an average Banarsi loses the sense of wonder and awe felt by a traveller or pilgrim on their first looking at the work of wonder called Kashi. It’s quite natural and human for a person to be born at a place, to become intimately familiar with the place in course of time, and to lose the sense of wonder of the kind felt by a nature worshipper looking at the Niagra Falls, or at the rising sun, for example. So, there aren’t many native Banarsis with the same sense of wonder alive in them or aroused in them, after having spent decades: morning after morning, afternoon, evening after evening, night after night there.

Most of the Banarsis pass through their galis and ghats like sleep walkers passing through the places they neither see nor feel. It takes a change of perspective that can only be effected through a jolt of the magnitude over 8.0 on the Richter scale. Such jolts are rare and very few old landmarks remain intact, if any at all, at their place after that. But when such a life changing event does happen and a person gains the insight into the spirit of the place, the third eye is bestowed upon him through which he is able to see the city eternal, the abode of Mahadev.

He drifts through the same galis and ghats after that, but the place is totally altered for him, as he perceives and understands it differently. To that changed person and to the chosen few outsiders is revealed the mystery and magic of the city of death and life. For them, the city is an essential condition for existence. They, the kasiphiles and kasilogists par excellence, form the cream of the set of people who deserve the epithet: Banarsi. A Banarsi has intimate relation with the lifeline of his city and his people – his Mother Ganga. He also has roots in his galis and their culture.

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Varanasi Visually

Crossing the labyrinthine lanes, wading through the river of humanity crossing the threshold between the city and the heaven, one reaches the bank (the left bank, to be precise) of the Ganges. Around half an hour before the diffused rays of the pre-dawn sunlight start turning the eastern sky grey, when the sky is still in the night’s shade of bluish-black. The river sleeps peacefully- so does life in the city and at the banks of the Ganges. The sun, the sky and the river are linked intimately, directly and indirectly. The scattered, diffused sun rays start colouring the sky grey long before one sees the sun – a small grey disc the size of a quarter anna – rising slowly and in an east to north easterly arc, and its reflection on the still, mirror-like surface of the river. The first few boats have glided stealthily; nearly silently onto the mirror-surface too, and the ripples that emanate from them turn the sun’s reflection into several wave like repetitions of what has now started becoming a crimson disc.


The young sun can still be looked at, eye to eye, as it caresses the eyes tenderly, in a playful mood. It has just left the bed and has come to bathe in the holy river before it starts on its day long journey of the world. The young sun sports happily in the water that’s now wide awake and then, when nearly half an hour has passed from the time when it was a little grey sunlet, it starts acquiring its dazzle and warmth. And then, no man dares to look at it as they did when it was in a playful mood. It haughtily declares that the morning has entered the stream of time in the eternal city where time flows yet stands still.

A trickle of the regulars, clad in both traditional and modern attires had started reaching their river when the sky was blue-black and the sun was pre-nascent. Young and old, awake and asleep, some with their brass vessels and flower baskets in hands and others with their bundle of unwashed and soon-to-be-washed clothes, like rivulets to the river or rivers to seas  and seas to the oceans, they reach the life line of all civilizations: the river. The river that they have reached is not just any river – it’s the holiest of all holy waters – their Mother Ganga. The spots where they choose to reach the river happens to be their neighboourhood ghat.


 The river has been incorporated into the diurnal rhythm of the people who live in the neighbourhood  – in a manner, with an uncanny resemblance to the insertion of things into the collective unconscious of the social psyche . The utilitarian value  of the river’s water is high, and indisputably so. Yet, its insertion in the collective unconscious owes its origin to forces more inscrutable than that. When the forces be such, people call the effect magic, and the man-river relation is no less than magical in the City of Light. The river that flows from the north towards south/south-west chooses to turn homewards to flow towards north, throughout the crescent span of its ghats.

On the north flowing current of the Ganges sparkle the orange-yellow rays of the sun, dancing gleefully upon the golden spires of the multitudes of temples that deck the crescent ghatscape, filling the sand-stone canvass of the ghats with warmth and light. Agents more active and dynamic than the sun and undoubtedly more numerous too – streams of pilgrims and the dwellers of the city who rises later than the first arrivals have reached the ghatscape by now. They can be recognized separately and very easily too. The pilgrims declare their non-native status both unconsciously and consciously. They declare their outsider status through that look of wonder (or revulsion) on their face. Consciously they do so through their attire, language and activities, none of which can be reconciled with their native counerparts.

Language is one of the surest indicators of one’s pure Banarsi status. Whenever two Bengalis meet, sooner or later, they revert to their mother tongue at the personal level of communication. The same is true about two Banarsis. The Banarsi dialect is a sure indicator of the Banarsi identity – regularly and predictably invoked and brought into action when the time is ripe. Another indicator of the same identity is the ubiquitous gamchaa, but it is not a unique identity marker because it’s used throughout eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar by both the masses and the classes. And the, there’s “Har, Har Mahadev!” – the most popular mode of greeting in Varanasi, equivalent to salaamaleikum, or Radhe Radhe or Sat Sri Akaal at some other places.

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