Psychogeography is defined as the study of the effect of geography of a place on an individual’s psyche. It is the “study of the specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals” says Guy Debord (qtd. in Coverley 10). It’s also seen as “the point at which psychology and geography collide” (Coverley 10). Some key terms that recur in the discussions of the stream are derive, flâneur, drifting etc. These terms of psychogeography have something to do with movement. On the other end of the scale is motionless mental drifting indoors. The stream runs its course between the two extremes. Banarsis have been practising psychogeography long before the term was coined and was introduced in the urban lexicon. What else can one call the responses of a large number of individuals, even in this age of mechanization, to the geographical rhythms of their city? Without any attempt to over-essentialize or generalize, it can be said that the Banarsis breathe in their city and imbibe its vibes.
Coverley writes about it in his seminal introduction to psychogeography and according to him one of the central traits of this kind of novel is drifting, or aimless stroll, and the person doing it, i.e. the flâneur becomes the point of focalization of the narrative. There are some more features viz. Involvement in political activism, “a perception of the city as a site of mystery” (Coverley 13) and an attempt to reveal the reality behind the veil of mystery, the presence of the city’s past in its present, a tendency to present the dark under world of the city, and, one of its recurring themes is urballaghophobia. There are ample chances of discovery in the aimless stroll, and the one thing that is discovered time and again is change in the city. Urballaghology is the study of change in the city, and the fear of that change is called urballaghophobia.
Psychogeographical literature featuring Varanasi is essentially city literature that has close association with the life of the modern man and his functioning (and dysfunctioning) as an individual in the urban society. Psychogeography has always been in texts, even in those texts that generally do not find place among the canonical texts of the field. In many ways it has been a kind of all inclusive and overarching metanarrative that’s as important to psychogeography as the base of economy is to Marxism, power to Althusserianism and desire to Lacanianism. Imagine two lists of any kind, canonical or non-canonical. Sample 1 may contain works of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Bunyan, Swift, Fielding, Dickens, Hardy and Joyce, and sample 2 may feature Amish Tripathi, Chetan Bhagat, Sidney Sheldon, John Grisham and Mario Puzo. Works in both the lists have at least one underlying theme – psychogeography. Now, it may look like a sweeping generalization, but it’s true that the joint current of psychology and geography flows in textual veins. There may be some exceptions to it. None is to be found when the texts originates from or is set in Kashi. Kashi texts are characterized by the presence of a deep sense of place and its imprint upon human beings there.
There have been several psychogeographical works set in the city of Varanasi. In English Raja Rao’s stories and Pankaj Mishra’s The Romantics, and in Hindi Bhartendu Harshchandra’s Satya Harishchandra and Premjogini, Shivprasad Mishra “Rudra’s” collection of stories Behti Ganga, Abdul Bismillah’s Jhini Jhini Bini Chadariya, Kashinath Singh’s Apna Morcha and Kashi ka Assi belong to the genre. Here Pankaj Mishra’s The Romantics and Shivprasad Singh’s Gali Age Mudti Hai that are bildungsroman and psychogeographical novels in many ways have been given special attention. The text that we begin with also happens to be among of the first few plays written in what is called the standard and pure (shudh) Hindi today, and the playwright is the man with whom the very process of the creation of the standard Hindi language began.
Bhartendu Harishchandra’s Premjogini may be taken as one of the first among the texts that originated from a modern mindset. Harishchandra did not blindly praise the city. His scathing criticism of the city in the same play has been quoted so many times and in so many ways that it’d be redundant doing so again. What has been taken up for this essay is the protagonist Sudhakar’s description of his city to a pilgrim from some far away city:
Listen, Varanasi is another name for Kashi where Goddess Ganga turns North ward, curving like a bow and enveloping the city in a manner that gives the impression that she has taken the city in her lap lovingly, knowing full well of Lord Shiva’s love for his city. She washes away the heat of sins and purifies the mankind through the powers of her holy droplets. On the banks of the river, on the massive ghats constructed by illustrious men, there rise tall houses of two, four, five to seven storeys, kissing the sky as if the snow capped summits of the Himalayas have come down to reap the sweet fruits of the place’s closeness to the river.
From among those tall buildings rise the two minarets of Madhav Rao like two arms of the city beckoning to the pilgrims from afar. Morning and evening are the times when innumerable men and women can be seen bathing at ghats. Along with the Brahmins in their evening symposia they appear like the celestial singers and the rishis at Kuber’s abode in Alkapuri. The sound of musical instruments fills the ghatscape like a valley echoes the call of peacocks. Add to that the distant trumpet’s sound (early in the morning or late in the evening) that enchants the ears and acts as a lullaby. The morning splendor of the sun and the evening glory of the reflection of the ghats upon the river are way beyond description.
(qtd in Soch Vichaar 28)
Psychoanalyze Sudhakar and what emerges would be a prototypical Banarsi mindset. The purpose of such an extended extract above was to present how the citizens would like to present their city (if not, how they see it themselves). If the protagonist lives in the city that he so lovingly describes to the stranger, and then invites him to go with him and experience his city, the he surely lives in a daily heavenly ambience – a veritable anand kanan. His life experience has constructed his persona, and his life experience is the sum total of all the various experiences that his city provided him with. What does a city do to a man? To answer the question, another must be asked: What is a city? Is a city purely and solely definable in terms of geography or some other factors come into play? A city is the area of land on that exists materially. But it’s much more than that. It’s also its landmarks and a building, e.g. just taking the name of the Eiffel Tower brings Paris to mind, or the Statue of Liberty, New York. There’s more. A city does not exist merely in space. It exists in time too. So, Paris of nineteenth century is not the same as Paris of twentieth or twenty-first centuries. The name of the city may remain the same, the city doesn’t. So, it can be said that cities are spatio-temporal entities. There definitely are constants across time in a city, but change is always at work in various ways. The ghats and buildings on them feature prominently in Sudhakar’s description, just as they do in the life of an average Banarsi.
Ghat gazing is a central pastime of the city. Gali and street gazing are the other stationary forms of soaking in the city’s cultural air. There are many activities that are elements of doing “nothing” while ghat gazing. Some of them are diametrically opposite to each other, e.g. enjoying seclusion and the company of friends, imbibing nature’s sounds or those made by humans, entering the river or just watching it pass by, sitting with a crowd or alone etc. Ghat gazing becomes a habit with the passage of days and then, with the passage of years, it becomes an essential element of one’s character. A Banarsi can’t live without his ghats and his Mother: Ganga Maiya. There are reasons behind it that range from religious to socio-cultural to psychogeographical.
The way in which the protagonist of Premjogini responds to his environs and the city is important for the development of the plot. It is similar in many ways to the way in which Samar and Anand, the protagonists of The Romantics and Gali Age Mudti Hai respectively respond to theirs. Both of them are Brahmins in their early twenties, without any kind of gainful employment or family backing. They walk out of necessity, and during their various voyages through the city’s labyrinthine lanes and stone paved ghatscape, they discover the city in their own manner and at their own pace.
Anand is a flâneur par excellence and he drifts through the labyrinthine lanes and ghats of Varanasi at various times of the day, even at the improbable time of midnight or the uncomfortable time of pre-dawn. His walks through the labyrinthine lanes of the city provide ample opportunities for the appearance of one of the central motifs of psychogeography in the novel “the motif of the imaginary voyage, a journey that reworks and re-imagines the layout of the urban labyrinth and which records observations of the city streets as it passes through them” (Coverley 15). Anand is perceptive, so he takes in what the senses bring to him and presents it in an organized form. When he reaches a place where he hears the clanging of brass utensils being shown, held or falling, and finds the lane full of people and strange kind of noise, he declares it to be the famous Thatheri Gali of Varanasi. What’s more, he meets somebody accidentally there and presents his description too, thus filling the narrative with a distinctive flavour.
Starting with Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd” and continuing to Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd’s works, psychogeography has always been interested in crowd and its behaviour, and also in how individuals behave in crowds. Crowd in the city, an urban feature and a modern one too, makes these novels psychogeographical. Crowd finds place in both the play and the novels and it’s no surprise that they have large human congregations and crowds as a recurrently occurring motif and image. Hrishchandra’s play shows the crowd as both describer and described, good and bad, and there are many points of view while looking at the crowd. Sudhakar reveals himself in his description of the city. In order have such kind of knowledge; one either has deep connection with the soil or with the people. Singh’s novel deals mainly with the normal everyday kind of crowd, that too, especially in the pakki mahaal. The protagonist, a flâneur, in many ways, although not a pure drifter, takes time to look at the heterogeneous crowd in various parts of Varanasi. He is also interested enough in the human behaviour to actually stop by and observe the spectacle that draws a crowd around it near his student’s place. For Samar, the detached one, crowd is a spectacle in itself. So, he looks at the crowd and wonders about its composition and dynamics. Anand, who belongs to the soil and its people, has deep sympathy from them. It is his sympathy that allows him to feel close to the common man and his problems. He understands the place and the people who dwell there, and seems to like them both.
Samar and his White friends meet at Dashashwamedh Ghat to watch the spectacle of the millions strong crowd of Shivratri festival in Varanasi. What he witnessed there was “a crowd of pilgrims, with not a patch of uncovered ground to be seen anywhere, pilgrims surging into the main road from all directions, through narrow lanes and maze-like alleys” (Mishra 160). Anand too has to navigate his way through dense crowds in the lanes and streets of the city, especially during his frequent visits to the oldest quarters of the city: the pakki mahaal. Varanasi is a city that does not sleep and there are many reasons behind its incessantly active life: the central reasons being religion and trade. Anyone drifting through the ocean of life that fills the ghats and lanes of the city will naturally be acquainted with the true face of the city. Crowd is one of the salient features of the city, more so because it’s a centre of pilgrimage.
A drifter or flâneur, Anand has ample opportunities to look at the city of Varanasi at various times and in all seasons and moods and he often finds it very beautiful. He describes whatever he looks at very lovingly and beautifully. Be it the city, its culture, its people or the river or an amalgam of them all: “the boatmen are right when they say that Mother Ganga goes to sleep at midnight and her surface becomes motionless. One should enter the river only after four, when she’s awake” (Singh 125). Samar, although not his match, does drift around at times. The Varanasi they gradually discover is a “site of mystery” (Coverley 13). Harishchandra presents both the “exalted and the seamy” sides of the city in his play (Dalmia 304). Similarly our two novelists, in addition to showing what is good and bright, never shy away from exposing the dark side of the City of Light as, to use the words used for any city, the “site of crime, poverty and death” (Coverley 13). There are characters bad types in the play and in the novels. Playing the role of the protagonist’s friend, supporter, protector and foil that can be called Banarsi gundas, are Rajesh and Rajulli. In The Romantics there’s Samar’s friend Rajesh and in Gali Age Mudti Hai there’re Anand’s friends Haribabu and Rajulli who are powerful, dangerous and have either direct or indirect relations with the criminal under-world of the city. At a more archetypal level then, these novels are also epical in their portrayal of the protagonist’s descent to, and escape from, the hell. Samar was very close to Rajesh and could have easily been influenced by his way of (criminal) life had the circumstances been even a little different. Anand escaped entering the criminal underworld of Bakkad guru just by chance.
The three works discussed in this paper present Varanasi as a special city, as the centre of the Hindu’s religious universe. Varanasi’s position as the foremost Hindu city was challenged due to the excesses of some rulers in the medieval India. Bernier, who had come to the city in the second half of the seventeenth century, just before the scourge of Aurangzebe fell on it, wrote:
The town of Benares, seated on the Ganges, in a beautiful situation, and in the midst of an extremely fine and rich country, may be considered the general school of the Gentiles. It is the Athens of India, whither resort the Brahmens [sic] and other devotees; who are the only persons who apply their minds to study. (Bernier 334)
This “Athens of India” that used to attract talent from all over India, and the world, continued doing so in the modern times too. Sudhakar is shown praising his city for the benefit of a person who has come there for the express purpose of visiting its various sites of importance. He’d also meet the people of importance, as is the recommendation of his new friend there. Samar and Anand, the protagonists in the novels by Mishra and Singh respectively, come to the city as searchers for knowledge. One of them comes to the city with the plan to spend nearly a decade in the service of Maa Saraswati and Sanskrit and the other, just to spend his time reading to the city that attracts students, if not from all over India like olden times, then in modern times at least from the adjoining districts. Jerusalem and Mecca, important for Christians, Jews, and Muslims owe their importance to the fact that they are a part of the Books of their religion. Varanasi is different. Its metanarratives mention various gods and goddesses waxing eloquent in its praise. The city and the deities appear to be parts of a reciprocal legitimization cycle with the city emerging as superior or victorious in the end. The importance of the city, just like its existence, pre-dates the arrival of Ganga to the plains through Shiva’s final agency. The city and its position in the mahatmyas pre-dates even Shiva’s arrival to the city. In fact, Shiva had chosen the city as his abode precisely because of its beauty, holiness and purity per se. He pined for it when he had to leave it as a boon he had given to King Divodas. There are various praises (mahatmyas) of the city in Sanskrit in which various sages and gods are shown in love with the city. In more modern times although the language and tone of the praise has changed, the content is similar. There’s a corpus of works on the city, both fiction and non-fiction full of praise for the city. The works covered in this paper remain true to two traditions: the tradition of psychogeographical novel and that of the Kashi texts.
Coverley, Merlin. Psychogeography, Harpenden: Pocket Essentials, 2006.
Bernier, Francois. Travels in the Mogul Empire: A.D. 1656-1668, Tr. Archibald Constable, Westminster: Archibald Constable & Co, , 1891.
Dalmia, Vasudha. The Nationalization of Hindu Traditions. Delhi: OUP, 1997.
Eck, Diana L. Banaras City of Light. New Delhi: Penguin, 1993.
Harishchandra, Bhartendu. “Premjogini mein Kashi”. Soch Vichaar. Year 4, vol 1. Varanasi, July 2012.
Mishra, Pankaj. The Romantics. New Delhi: India Ink, 2000.
Singh, Shivprasad. Gali Age Mudti Hai. New Delhi: Radhakrishna, 2010.
Harishchandra, Bhartendu. “Premjogini main Kashi”. Soch Vichaar. Ed. Narendra Nath Mishra. Year 4; Vol. 1. July 2012. Print.