Banaras vs Boredom

Regular writing is dependent both on habit and need: the habit of writing every day, or the need to earn a living through it. So, it’s difficult for me to go regular. I take the occasional walk on the path of writing. That brings us to the present subject. A strong urge to write, or a strong subject to terminate into that urge, is all I need to begin. The present subject is my painful consciousness of the comparative boredom, colourlessness, soundlessness, sightlessness and odourlessness of my constitutional walk. Day after day, day after day, I walk one of the few fixed circuits for around twenty minutes, i.e. two kilometres. More than once have I felt an intense surge of helplessness, accentuating the contrast between the ghats and lanes of Banaras and boredom. From my place in my city Banaras to Dashashwamedh Ghat is around two kilometres, and I never used to go for any kind of constitutionals in my city. Yet, I regularly walked my ghats and lanes nearly every day, more lanes during the flooded months and more ghats normally. The same ghats and lanes, the same circuit, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, and never boring – not even once. It’s unbelievable: the contrast is, or unreal. The rush of pilgrims and the regulars in the mornings and at evenings would be the same too. The addas too never changed (not even today have they changed, and I thank Mahadev for that). Yes, there’d be the same shops and road-side stalls from where fruits, vegetables or other such FMCG would be purchased. And yes, there would be the same people to exchange a hearty Mahadev or a Ram Ram with. A short digression about “Mahadev”: As Lord Shiva, or Mahadev, i.e. the great god, is the Lord of Kashi, so his name becomes the shorthand for Hail the Great God or Har har Mahadev. Although for the readers of the Naga trilogy, Amish had derived it differently, but the people who have been using the same customarily for as long as they can remember, it is exactly as mentioned in the previous sentence.

Fundamentally speaking, if boredom has any kind of relationship with unchanging environs, Banaras should be just as boring as any regularly walked circuit. The facts in hand, although, point towards some weakness inherent in the causal link. When in Banaras, I actually look forward to a repetition of features and occurrences on my daily circuit. It has now taken a ritualistic turn, and just like the rituals associated with places and occasions, the novelty of repetition and the variety of sameness, can only be accepted with one place, and there’s no such place outside Banaras for me. The Romantics have been criticized for their escapism, so has been Yeats in his Innisfree poem:

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

BY WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
Source: The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (1989)

Alienation in industrialized urban setting, with its normative migration, drives people away from their place of origin. Many respond well, and gel well with the socio-cultural environment of their place of transplantation. It has something to do with the age of uprooting too. The younger the sapling, the lesser is the shock, and the better the chances of acclimatization and naturalization in the new environment. The degree of attachment to one’s roots and the origin and the mode and the motive of uprooting are amongst various factors that determine the intensity and persistence of the shock. The daily rhythm of life and the availability and use patterns of leisure time are also very important determining factors. I miss the past rhythm and leisure time utilization of my life, and prefer it over my present state’s rhythm and pattern. I also miss the complete and unchallenged ownership of the time available – my time – that has now been heavily compromised.

Past time and place, in a very indistinguishable manner, have become one, courtesy the way our mind looks back and recollects. [The Prelude: looking back, recollection in tranquility, Nature, joy, sense of loss etc.] Brain thinks, and the heart only pumps blood. Both the clauses in the previous sentence are wrong, partially, and partially correct too. If and when a body part or organ functions without taking commands from the brain, especially when the time for or the need of analytical response is limited or instant, it does what actually is brain’s job. Then, it may be said to be performing brain’s function. Therefore, the relevant question must be to ask: why is the same brisk walk different in Banaras? Twice or thrice have I launched myself on the daily routine kind of walk, with diligence and consistency too, always getting mightily bored in the process. Driven from within, I do stick to the boring routine, like I am doing nowadays, but I don’t tell myself the lie that I am enjoying it. The moment Banaras flashes in my mind, and that happens very regularly and definitely, my walk turns sour and mechanical. Mine is no Wordsworthian loss of joy, for the moment I enter my city, the joy returns. Mine is a simple case of single mindedness. I have probably committed somewhere in my mind to consign happiness to Banaras, or have made them interchangeable in my personal vocabulary. Yet, I also am aware of the fact that walking along the Ganges is a treat: visual, aural, even olfactory.

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Lavanglata

I had never thought that I’d write this post someday. For me, Banaras comes with the adjectives intellectual, spiritual and psychological attached to it. Hitherto I have been concentrating upon the action of place and time upon psyche and vice-versa. I never worked upon the effect of food that’s intimately related to a place, upon the psyche. Now is the time for a new beginning. It’s said in the Hindu tradition that any work should begin with Ganesha’s name. So, I start by invoking the name of lavanglata aka launglata. It’s a delicacy that does not look very delicate. The outward appearance of this king, or queen, of sweets is rough and tough. It looks like a heavy weight version of modified samosa, or a double sohaal with a sticky, syrupy thin covering. There’s a sweet khoya core within a thick crust of dough that’s deep fried and then dipped for a while in sugar syrup and then consumed, either hot and on the spot, or later, cold and with a definitely different taste. I’ve tasted two types of launglata in Banaras. Depending upon the core, it is either a fresh khoya, sugar, choronji, elaichi mixture, or, in the well-established and practiced tradition of jugaad, and occasionally, already made sweet of some kind. That’s the physical side of it. Can something be written of its taste?

I have never seen lavanglata in any other city. Probably it’s a unique taste of Banaras. I have asked people from many other parts of northern India about it, presuming that the chances of its being made in other parts of India are very low. (No, I’ve not Googled it yet.) No one recognizes it either by name or by a description of its external features. So it’s going to be really difficult to translate its taste with some kind of objective correlative for anyone who has never seen and tasted it. For those who have tasted it, there’s no need of a mediator, or interpreter of taste. Yet, even if inadequate, once declared, an attempt must be made to describe its taste. How vividly do I remember my latest experience of its taste? It was nearly six months ago that I had tasted it for the last time: for that was the last time I was in Banaras. Closing my eyes, I can recollect my lips getting the first feel of the hard, syrup coated outer layer, then, that small first bite that makes just a slight incision over the outer surface: a cut deep enough to release the first trickle of the sweet syrup trapped between the various layers of crunchily hard dough inside. The first few bites, tentative and closer to the surface, bring the fried dough dipped in syrup to mouth. The crunch and the mixture of the crust’s plainness with some sweetness that has not fully permeated it are the prominent features that I can recollect. Then comes the heart of the sweet: the succulent and purely sweet khoya portion. It tastes like any other khoya based Indian sweet, albeit, with a constant base taste of the crunchy bland-sweet outer layer. The fresh and warm thing tastes different from the colder one. Sugar syrup hardens on cooling, i.e. the dough too becomes harder and crunchier and the syrup less sticky and more solid with the passage of time. The yellowish golden crust tastes different from the deeper fried light brown one. This paragraph has only proven that I have inadequate vocabulary, or thinking capacity, to encode the idea of taste into language.

Let’s make one more attempt for the subject is difficult for me. This time round, I’ll try some comparisons. Imagine the outer thicker crust of a samosa dipped in sugar syrup. If there’s any way it could be done, it approximates to the taste of the crust of our sweet, and that is the easy part. How does one describe the taste of the core? Ah! failure once more. I now bring reinforcements. Ghujia is a popular Indian sweet generally prepared on the festival of Holi. It has a large range of filling options. When it’s filled with khoya and dipped in sugar syrup its core tastes somewhat like that of our target sweet. Descriptions don’t do justice to the taste. Lavanglata deserves to be tasted first hand (or, tongue!).

Where in Banaras can one get it? Everywhere. Is there any place that’s especially popular? Depending on which specific zone of the city one’s searching for it, there always is the people’s favourite shop, e.g. there’s one famous shop at Lanka crossing, one at Godowlia crossing, and over two dozen not-so-famous ones between them. This ubiquitous banarsi sweet, with some variation of taste, can be found, as the adjective suggests: everywhere in Banaras.

Potpourri

Look a little southward, facing the suns,                                                                                                                    When northward blaze the morning burning pyres.                                                                                                     Ghats of Kashi, all a crescent that runs                                                                                                                          Miles with majestic mirror-river that never tires.
My river’s angry today, or call it restless.
Its foaming, rolling waves make swishing sounds.
Its former flow has changed, with broken bounds,
My river stays the same, or little less, night and day.
Black is the colour of darkness they say.
Black is the colour, definitely, quite true.
Black, the colour of darkness, night and day.
Black it is black of un-fixed hue.
A curse is a curse that burns the blood and flows;                                                                                                    Liquid venom in veins: murdering, butchering, scalding, stops.                                                                              For lost is that fear – a servant attentive.
For lost is that fear above head always hovering.
So, lost is the fear of not ever returning
Heart, once hardened, its terror drained.