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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