Textual Analysis of a City II

Legend and history play equal parts in the text of Kashi and the text is richer and more complex than both.


In a series of linked posts, a conspicuous logical link is a good point to begin at. There’s a mosque dominating the ghatscape above. It’s the structure that has always attracted those painting, sketching or photographing from around Panchganga Ghat. Banarsis call it Beni Madho ka Dharhara. Beni Madho is the way they pronounce Veni Madhav or Bindu Madhav, another name of Lord Vishnu. A mosque that bears the name of a Hindu god! I’m sure that Emperor Aurangzebe turns (clockwise or anticlockwise) around five degrees in his grave every time the mosque is designated thus!

History says that there used to be one of the greatest and biggest temples of India at exactly the same spot. The temple of Bindu Madhav was second only to the famous Jagannath Temple of Puri for the Vaishnavs of India, and that of Vishweshwar, that the emperor had destroyed too, the first for the Shaivites. Aurangzeb adopted the hard stance, in contrast to that of his great grandfather Akbar during whose reign the Vishweshwar temple was constructed on behalf of Todarmal by his son Gobardhan. Kashi received his ire very intensely because it was the heart of the Hindu India, the main seat of idolatry.

The temples of Vishnu and Shiv were destroyed by the conquerors and the material was re-used in the construction of the mosques after the Emperor true to his religio-political inclinations decreed that all the temples of the idolators must be razed to ground. There was nothing new about the incident, neither in the history of India, nor in that of Banaras.

Today, the ghat upon which the mosque stands, and the neighbourhood around are Hindu. Aurangzeb had chosen one of the five core ghats on the riverfront for his mosque. Probably he wanted to add insult to the injury of the Hindu populace, not only of the city but also of the country.

In contrast to the towering behemoth on the left hand side, there are small boats on the river that fills the right hand bottom of the image. Boats have always been there in nearly all the descriptions of Banaras and its ghats. Softly they float on the liquid flow.

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The Majesty of Rudra


Rudra Pratap means the majesty of Rudra. His father, a devotee of Shivji, had chosen the name for his son. He had wished, among many other things, that his son would grow up to be someone known to the people from Shivala to Assi. His son outshone his father’s expectations in the end. Rudra was not very bright in studies but by the time he had reached the age of forty-one, the whole city knew him. How? It’d be interesting, the telling of his story. But that would leave Kirti aside. That can’t be afforded at this crucial moment.

The rikshaw that was carrying Kirti and the other two entered the University campus through the main gate and then took a right turn to enter the Hospital. They took her to the O. P. D. of general medicine first. The doctors prescribed a series of blood tests and urine test, and, seeing her condition, asked Bhaal to admit her immediately. The General Ward was (and is) not a place known for the care that patients get there. So, it took full twelve hours before the doctor came to visit the ward in the evening.

The reports had reached the hands of the resident doctors already. They could not tell Somu anything about his mother. “The reports are all clear”, they said. Professor Singh came for his round at six twenty in the evening and spent more than nine minutes pondering over Kirti’s reports and discussing with the resident doctors. “Take her to the O. P. D. of Neurology tomorrow. I’ll tell Doctor Gautam there, meet him in room no 103 at ten”, that’s all that he told Bhaal and then he left.

Somu had taken Lopa back to Kedar Ghat and brought lunch for Bhaal. He, along with Suli, would stay there at night: Suli would sit through the night in the ward and he would sleep on a mat outside the entrance of the General Ward. When he went to take Suli from home she would not come: she was so afraid of her mother’s eyes. Bhaal and Lopa stayed there and took Kirti to Dr. Gautam the next morning.

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The Bicycle Rider


Kirti remained quiet till Bhadaini Pumping Station. While they were crossing the station a bicycle rider overtook them suddenly and that made her apprehensive. She sat straight, started looking around, and looked alert in general. No alarms for the children yet. As they had reached close to Assi Crossing, the place where the rikshaw had to slow down, another bicycle rider veered his bicycle from between the rikshaw and Somu’s bicycle. They collided, Somu fell down and Bhanu had to come down, leaving Lopa with Kirti on the seat. The three men started arguing, and one of them (or two) started using foul language too. That was where it all began from.

Kirti, now in a heightened emotional state, yelled and cried and tried to come down, which she failed to do owing to her physical weakness. The sons had never heard their mother use words that she used then. She was a Banarsi and all the stock swearing vocabulary and ideas were flowing out of her mouth like a flooded Gangaji’s water that day. Rudra Pratap was returning from his constitutional walk when he saw the old lady on a rikshaw swearing and spitting. She was upon the floor of the rikshaw, holding the left arm of the front fork. She was to stay there till they had crossed Lanka and entered the side gate of the compound of Banaras Hindu University.

Both Somu and Bhaal were only thirteen days old in Varanasi and the person they had entered the public discussion with was definitely their senior. He had not only subdued his opponents with the choicest of abuse that he had in his word store, but was also about to start the physical portion of the discussion when Rudra reached the spot. He was nearly Somu’s age but looked more like his elder brother’s age. A sturdy man with  menacing mustaches interrupted the nice good fight about to begin.

That broke the heart of many who had assembled at such a short notice to watch an entertaining scene. Rudra stayed for about ten minutes at Assi after seeing Kirti and her family off. It was a custom with him to take the first tea of the day there. Was it destiny that Rudra had entered Bhaal’s life at that place and time? Was it only a coincidence? Or, is it merely a cheap narrative trick to bring two strands of the story together?

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Eyes Wide Open


All the members of the family, except Lopa and Niranjan, sat in the front room for the family meeting. Nilanjan was the head of the family: a responsibility that he had neither ever thought would fall upon him, nor was prepared to shoulder. “Dr. Lahiri will come at ten in the morning”, he said. That was the only comment he volunteered for, through the night. He was made to skip his regular dose of bhang goli that night, as his nephews had nearly hijacked him at eight fifty.

Yes, he did worry for his sister, and for his bed-ridden brother, but most of all he worried for himself. When Niranjan had fallen on the steps of Vijaynagram Ghat and taken to bed he had established Kirti as the de facto head of the family. She was running the household well. Life was generally peaceful for him and he wished to keep that noiseless tenor that way. But now, he was being called to action. He responded by snoring within twenty-five minutes of the beginning of the meeting.

Bhaal was the eldest functioning member of the family and it was he who would decide their course of action. He went to see his mother and was told that his mother had not spoken a word since she entered (was carried to) the room. Her eyes looked unnatural. He couldn’t understand how Lopa could gather the courage to stay in her presence. He tried to look away from his mother, but her wide pupils had a magnetic pull. He went near her, close enough to actually see his reflection in her eyes. There was no indication of recognition in those eyes, not until he turned to leave.

The big brass lota from which his mother used to take water early in the morning hit his back near the left shoulder joint. The cry “O Mother” came out and Bhaal sat down on the floor. The loud clanging noise of the empty vessel dancing on the floor brought Somu and Suli there. Lopa was already trying to stem the flow of blood from the gashed back of her husband. Somu ran downstairs and brought the alum crystal they used on such occasions. Kirti did not speak at all during the whole episode.

A lot of blood had flown before it started congealing. Bhaal went down with his brother and stayed there till the morning. A rikshaw was called at seven thirty and the two brothers,along with Lopa, took their mother to Sir Sunder Lal Hospital. Lopa and Bhaal held Kirti from two sides on the rikshaw seat and Somu went along on his bicycle. Kirti did not resist, neither did she speak till they had reached the Pumping Station at Bhadaini.

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Nilanjan’s Sister

datura metel

(Source: blog.metmuseum.org)

Lopa had no knowledge of the ghats and galis of Kasi. She could not find Kirti Prabha on that evening of ekadashi. She went up to Chowki Ghat to the left and Lali Ghat to the right, and found no signs of her mother-in-law. She could not go any further to the right because of the fires of Harishchandra Ghat, neither could she go any further to the left because it was dark already. The sun had set nearly forty minutes ago and the three-quarter moon had not risen to a position in the sky from where it could provide light adequate to dispel her fears.

She ran through the stairs and the gali to fetch men from the house: men with knowledge of the place. There was only one such man there: Uncle Nilanjan. Even he was not at home. She had never been to his temple, so, she sent Monu to fetch her husband and Uncle home. They were busy that evening. It was an ekadashi. Lopa waited. She hadn’t told Monu the reason behind his errand, so he left the message and went to his usual evening haunt: Vijaynagram Ghat.

Somnath reached home at around nine, met his sister-in-law, and went to his uncle’s temple immediately. A regular search party, eighteen strong, was formed automatically, as was the way with the things in those parts of the world. It took them only thirty-five minutes to find Kirti and another fifty to return home with her. They had found her near Darbhanga Ghat, on the steps of the ghat close to Gangaji.

Kirti could not climb the steps of her house and had to be carried to her room supported by her daughter and daughter-in-law. Out of the search party that was already thinned down to six outsiders, only Monu remained by eleven, that too because he lived next door. Then he left too. The children had never seen their mother like that. Her dilated pupils and frightened eyes were unnerving. He mouth was so dry that her tongue had stuck to her palate. She had not spoken a word since she was found, and hadn’t shown any sign of recognizing the members of her own family. They could not sleep that night, most of them.

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Destiny’s Hand

They were asking: “Why did he throw his life away like that?” Theories had already been developed. There were only two persons in the whole city who could provide them with non-theoretical answers: Chandra Bhaal and Somnath. They would not tell the truth to anyone; not until the next day, and that too, only to their mother. She did not reveal the truth to anyone, not even among the members of the family, for the next seventeen days. They all called Destiny cruel and its hand invisible.

They had never suspected that their locality would ever have to face such a crisis. There were many muhallas where Hindus and Muslims had a mixed population pattern and many where one of the two communities was predominant. Jabalpur was never notorious for being riot prone. They had heard some stories on those lines by some old timers, but never experienced it as an imminent danger. Well, 1961 in Jabalpur was to become a watershed in the history of communal riots in India. Pandit Nehru was appalled. The whole country was shaken. Jabalpur riots had taken many lives, and Sambhav’s was one of them.

They said there was destiny’s hand in it. How would Sambhav know that between the fifth and ninth of the month only one Hindu would be killed in the riots in the whole district, and that would be him? How would he know that he was to die near Anjuman Islamiya School, not more than nine hundred metres from his house, yet he would not see his wife’s face while dying. The first promise that he had made to his wife was thus broken. So was her heart.

The mantle of the protector of the family had slipped upon the shoulders of Kirti Prabha. She had to act decisively and quickly, and she did not fail them. She brought them home: to their new home Varanasi. She kept acting normal till the first ekadashi after her husband’s killing. And then, things changed. It was her first ekadashi as a widow, and the last one as her old self. She would observe a nirjal fast for twelve hours and would take only fruits and prasad after that. The sins of her past births had come to visit her in the present one and had made her live after her husband’s killing. She couldn’t even become a sati. The least she could do to save her next life was to follow the books and deposit enough punya for her later births in the present one.

She went for her customary dip at Kedar Ghat before dawn, changed her clothes in the ghat shed and sent her daughter-in-law home. She offered puja and then she sat near Nandi, in front of Kedar Baba‘s sanctum sanctorum through the day. The usual crowd also chants some mantras but she remained totally silent, although not motionless. Lopa came a couple of times to check and then returned home. When she came at around seven in the evening, her mother-in-law wasn’t at her place.

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The Mystery Compounded

Bhaal had repaid his friend on the very day of his return. He had provided Mohsin with detailed post-reconnaissance information about the movements of the girl’s family members. He had even got the crucial information that they would leave the girl alone at home from afternoon onwards. Thus had Bhaal become the reason behind his father’s murder.

Mohsin had gone to meet the girl along with his cousin Altaf. He’d left his cousin out and was given entry to the house by the side door. He’d remained in there for around thirteen minutes by Altaf’s watch when he saw the Ambassador of the girl’s maternal grandfather enter the gali. It was his duty to sound the alarm and he did make the cuckoo’s call twice, but there was no response to his alarm. So, he simply disappeared from the scene. The grandfather knocked twice and shouted once before the girl emerged at the front door to open it. The side door was a part of the huge front door and there was no back door. So, Mohsin’s form was revealed as the door opened slowly. Before anybody could understand anything he sprinted through the gali and was gone.

The whole family was called back immediately and it was decided that the girl must commit suicide. They did all the work for her and then dragged her to the basement room that stifled all kind of sound and did not let it emerge outside. The grandfather was one of the leading money lenders of the town and the head of Brahmin Sabha. For him, there was only one course of action: the girl’s suicide after her molestation in the hands of two boys from the other religious community. He was aiming at two birds this way. His honour would remain untainted and he would get some kind of leverage over the Muslim bidi makers who had opposed his entry into the financial sphere of their community. Even he had not planned the literal killing of many over the next fifteen days in an area much beyond the limits of Jabalpur.

What is destiny? It’s a potpourri of factors so large in number that their numerical weight boggles the calculating mind to produce a sense of helplessness and uncertainty that can only be calmed down through theory. Destiny as a preordained and unchangeable reality has been fixed in the minds of the peoples all over the world just because it offers peace to the mind confused with the heady chaos called life.

“God works in his mysterious ways”, they had said, when they had brought in Sambhav’s mutilated corpse. “Such a fine gentleman, had no enemies in the world”, they said. “What’ll happen of his family now? The sons are unemployed and daughters unmarried?” “What was the need? Why did he throw his life away like that?”

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The Real Banaras

Ramu was nearly ten years junior to Bhaal, but that did not become an obstacle in his becoming a friend and the guide to Varanasi’s ghats, galis and culture. They were not equals back in the early sixties of the previous century. No Sir,  that was a time when caste divide went mostly unchallenged; a time when people assigned to the higher castes only could enter Baba Vishwanath’s temple.Ramu felt a natural pride in having acquired such a friend, and showed him off to the people of his muhalla for the first few days of their acquaintance. As they became friends he showed his friend the real Banaras.

Bhaal had taken only two circuits to understand the ghats and their relationship with the galis. He could also reach Baba Vishwanath’s temple without losing his way even once (Sankatha Maata’s temple was not so easy to reach), but he had failed to comprehend the roads and paths of Banaras Hindu University. He could ride his bicycle confidently only on the road that ran from the main gate to the central office, via the Central Library. He would lose his coordinates on any other road, even on the radial ones. His natural zone of comfort began and ended at the ghats and galis of Kasi. Somehow, and very strangely too, he felt at home there.


(Source: wikipedia.org)

There was one more place where he felt at home – his uncle’s temple – or, to put it exactly, the temple where his uncle was the second assistant priest, although he had some ownership privileges. He used to go there, often with his uncle and sometimes alone. He would just sit there through the afternoon, on the afternoons too stifling and prohibitive to remain inside the house. One sun, at its maximum activity level, is enough for the earth. His house had one and a half. His mother’s ire was for her two sons, and that of the post-disillusionment Lopa was reserved for him only. His failure at the professional front had emasculated him in his wife’s eyes in a manner even he was not aware of.

They kept producing sons alright, but his wife would never allow him to claim the status of the man of the house. She had kept that status for her sole use, just like she had acquired his mother as her own. Kirti and Lopa made his staying inside the house impossible. He only went there to sleep. For his first eight months there he tried to emulate his uncle and went to give home tuition. After that, all the pretense at an honourable life was immersed in Gangaji along with the idols of Maa Durga.

Banaras became his home. He would spend his whole day, and few nights, on the ghats and at various places in the galis of Banaras. He stopped shaving his facial hair and started resembling the various sadhus, fakirs and madmen who roamed the streets and galis of the city. As he was a new face so it took his eighty two rounds around their locality to actually establish his identity and to choose between the three possibilities. He was finally awarded a semi-madman status: of a man who has not reached that state but is sure to turn into it some day soon.

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A Mystery

It had happened with the heroes of the epics: the living away from their home for over a decade. Their exile had never been mysterious, as they had never been hidden from the eyes of their audience in that span. Bhaal’s disappearance remained mysterious because nobody knew where he had been, and what he had been doing. People pestered him a lot, but return repulsed by a wall of silence. He would not leave his city willingly and happily that they knew. He was born for Kasi, although he was not born there.

Chandra Bhaal was past thirty when his mother had brought them all to the city of light. His chronological childhood was spent in Jabalpur, but he had another waiting for him in Kasi: this one was the intenser one as it was not by default but by choice. The city would be his second mother, and father. He ad been an early rebel. His biological parents had tried to build him in their image and he had successfully repulsed and resisted all such attempts. When Kasi started making him in its image, he went with the flow. The fire of rebellion was strangely sated after his father’s murder.

Bhaal’s father was a very secretive man. He had died keeping secrets even from his wife. Kumar Sambhav had left his identity behind when he had moved to Kolkata, and he had entered Jabalpur with his new identity firmly established in place. He had successfully metamorphosed a mystery into an obvious fact. His double coup had come when he helped (abetted was the term commonly used by many for his act then) his son Bhaal secure a brahmin bride from Ujjain. Lopa was not Bhaal’s classmate. They had met at Madan Mahal through Lopa’s cousin who was Bhaal’s friend too. Bhaal was an unemployed postgraduate in Physics and Lopa was studying Philosophy in the newly established University of Jabalpur. It was only a chance occurrence that they had met there.

Theirs was not love at first sight. In fact, a part in Lopa was strongly repulsed by Bhaal’s placidity and his lack of drive even then. Their paths met so many times, and not completely accidentally, that a physiological kind of attraction developed between them. So it was, when they eloped too. They had no place to run to, so they camped at Sleemanabad near Katni at Mohsin’s place. Mohsin was Bhaal’s friend and had helped the couple out of pure selfishness.

He had failed in his love with a Hindu girl of Bhaal’s muhalla and it was during his loitering round her house that Bhaal had taken pity on him and taken him under his protection. He had advised his friend to elope with the girl, who had given a firm no in reply. So, Bhaal was the pining lover’s last hope and he wanted to bury him under his obligations so that he would help him later. He was the man who kept Sambhav informed about his son’s whereabouts during the fortnight he was at Sleemanabad. The couple had returned after their court marriage in Katni. There was a small and short Arya Samaj wedding in Jabalpur and the bride was brought into the house. It was the third day of Februry 1961.

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The Fish

Ramu was a boat man, a swimmer, diver and a wrestler too. His father had taught him catching fish from the river: small, big, descript and non-descript. A large net or the desi angling equipment was all he needed to catch fish. He could even catch fish in his gamcha, especially in a flooded river. He was confident about catching fish in any way but with bare hands in water. He had learnt it through experience that the chances of success in such pursuits was less than fifty percent. He had also learnt from it that attempting a thing that had a high probability of failure must be avoided at all costs. He was wise beyond his years. Yet, he had started that day what he could not finish.

He knew it after his third step, but he pushed on, with dada on his left shoulder now. He had switched the carrying shoulder after the fourth step on the stairs. His breathing had become heavier and the muscles of his chest and shoulders had started aching already. He had never lifted a human being and carried it upstairs in his life. He was not conditioned enough. The narrow steps did not provide sufficient hold and he felt the fear of losing his footing pervading his whole body. He unloaded the unconscious dada by the spine of the stairs to his left and sat down on the second landing from the bottom. Prahlad had been walking along from the seventeenth step from the bottom, and he offered help, but Ramu wouldn’t take help. He had to do its solo.

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By the time Ramu had reached the topmost stair Prahlad had brought Chandra Bhaal from Niranjan’s place. Ramu had never seen any relations of dada, as nobody came to his place due to his clear and loud hatred of his gene line. It was Prahlad who introduced Bhaal to Ramu and they brought the unconscious old man back home together. Nilanjan brought their family doctor, Dr. Lahiri, to check the patient and was advised to rush him to SSL Hospital, BHU. Niranjan had a stroke they said. His lower had only fifteen percent functionality left. He was kept in the general ward for the first five days and then was brought back home. He went out only once after that day: to Harishchandra Ghat. Nilanjan did not make enough even for himself and the elder brother got retired from his service on pension, after an interminable sick leave.

Chandra Bhaal had to earn for his family now.  He started giving home tuition to the students that his uncle had passed on to him. He had to work hard, especially before the board exams. Uttar Pradesh Board was notorious for being stingy in awarding marks to students. The topper of the merit list used to get around eighty percent back then. He worked for nine years to establish the name of Singh Coaching Centre, and then, when he had nearly done what he had aimed for, on an evening in February, he simply vanished. He would return, but would speak nothing about the span for which he had vanished. It remains a mystery.

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