And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.
It all began with the coincidence, or not, of one of the most famous places that serves choicest bread in the city of Varanasi, deep in the heartland of northern India, bearing a name that comes straight from the Bible. The owner Mr. Ashish Chakraborty, is a Hindu and an Indian, and the name of the bakery was given a long time ago and a Christian friend of his. I know of at least two more places in Varanasi that bake well but this bakery is in a league of its own.
Mr Chakraborty’s story is not very long and it’s unique only towards the end. His story is half-common, with an uncommon post-mid part. As the only, and the eldest, son of the family there was the responsibility of carrying on his illustrious father’s name over his shoulders. The beginning of his story, like that of many of his contemporaries and juniors in the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, is simple: one solid postgraduate degree from one of the best universities of India, i.e. Banaras hindu University, followed by a long and dry spell of preparation for competitive examinations for jobs in the public sector. He spent a golden fraction of his youth preparing for a job he could never get, and finally, decided to be self-employed. He started the New Bread of life Bakery and Restaurant (NBLBR) and the rest, as they say, is history. Today, he gives jobs to many.
How does one reach the New Bread of Life Bakery and Restaurant? Google Maps helps:
What’s the specialty of the bakery? They bake and sell the finest range of breads (remember the name!) and bakery products there. Take a look:
That’s not all. They serve meals: Indian, Chinese, Western and Continental, and are open from 11 AM to 10 PM.
Their platter has food that satisfies taste buds, and their range is wide. They serve vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes, snacks and bakery items. Their prices are reasonable and ambiance just like home’s. The owner is almost always around and his smile a definite add-on to the welcoming embrace of this place.
Ganga Silk and Art Gallery is a sister establishment of the NBLBR. It’s in the same building as the bakery and specializes in unique silk and gift items that bear the scent of the soil of Varanasi.
My detailed knowledge of Mr. Cahkraborty’s life and work can be explained by the fact that he is my uncle. Wait. Did I say he is my uncle? Yes I did. “Ah! That explains why he’d write this post on him!”, say you. Well, not actually. Long before I decided to write about the bakery, it was praised and recommended by many independent players, with real customer reviews too:
Varanasi, the City of Lord Shiva, celebrates the days associated with the birth of Vishnu’s incarnations Ram and Krishna with love and devotion. [I’d love to to know whether Shiv Ratri is celebrated in such manner in Ayodhya and Mathura.] The first celebration (Ram Navami) comes in the month of Chaitra, and the second one (Krishna Janmashtami) in the month of Shravana of the Hindu Calendar. The main attraction of Sri Krishna Janmashtami celebrations, the one that leads to a visual spectacle, is the main theme of this post.
It’s said that Varanasi is on the trident of Lord Shiva. There are three hillock like ascents in the city and the one with the steepest gradient has its summit located at the place called Bans Phatak near Adi Vishweshwar Temple. It is for around two hundred metres on both sides of the summit that one may find hundreds of small, road side, temporary stalls that sell materials that go into the making of the spectacle of Janmashtami. They mushroom (and during monsoon!) just a day before the festival and vanish once the celebrations are over for the day. Although, the marks remain on the city for nearly a week. The distinguishing landmark of this place is the facade of Satyanarayan Temple (image below).
The stalls run from that temple downwards up to the Bans Phatak branch of the one great Varanasi traditional institution called Ksheer Sagar, and upwards nearly up to Chowk Crossing, near Chitra Cinema Hall that’s closed now (image below), and Motilal Banarsidass Publishers (http://www.mlbd.com/).
Now, that I’ve fixed the central location in your mind, let’s look at the stalls, and also talk a little about what they sell and what is done with it then. Gods and goddesses wear clothes: rich, little, beautiful and colourful clothes. Lord Krishna likes yellow clothes, it’s said. The range of colours from which his devotees can choose start from blue, goes to green, yellow, orange and red and then to silver and golden. Small skirt like clothes with shining border are displayed all over the region.
Now, that our Lord has worn right kind of clothes, he must have the right throne to sit at. As our lord is a little child many a time, he is given a cradle instead of a throne. He is rocked in that cradle during worship. The cradles may be made of plastic, wood, mica covered with metal foil or various kind of plated metals. The place for the baby Krishna to lie upon is generally covered with velvet or some kind of soft cloth.
There are two very important elements of Janmashtami decorations in the images below. The gentleman wearing a newspaper hat is selling coloured saw dust (called burada) in sacks, the same thing in sacks and packets is what the lady in sari sells. What is done with the coloured sawdust? It stands variously as green grass, sand, black street, or multi-coloured floor of a palace or jail. The green grass is for cows to graze on, and Krishna to do raasleela with his gopikas, the sand is for wrestlers to practise on, the black streets coming from four directions and more come to meet at a strategic point where a traffic signal and a crossing are decorated. The palace and the jail are for Krishna’s parents. The second important thing is the black pumice like thing (called jhaama) in heaps extreme left. It is used to construct a temporary hill that’s taken as Mount Kailasa on which Lord Shiva lives, around it a steam engine may chug, dragging compartments behind.
The foundation of my love for this literally spectacular festival was laid in my childhood. In fact, I believe that’s the age when the foundation of love for all festivals are laid. Who has time to let the spirit of a festival enter their system and lead them and their subsequent actions by the rhythm of seasons? Shri Krishna Janmashtami, the festival that celebrates the birth of a god as child is celebrated most enthusiastically by children. The rituals and worship are for the elders of the family. Children decorate a room, or one corner of a room in house with clay, wooden and plastic toys.
The poet in an individual is of a later birth than the exile in him. At first he does not know the name of his affliction, but gradually becomes aware of his un/dis- ease being neither new nor unique. It is the pain of exile. The word exile carries with it the historical association of persecution and uprooting. The tradition of the literature of exile is older than history. The theme and poetry of exile are found in the Old Testament of the Bible (ergo in Koran):
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.
(Psalm 137; King James Version)
The poetry of exile is found in the Hindu purans. Given below is Shiva’s yearning for the city of Varanasi (Kashi) from which he was exiled:
What all the ice on this mountain is inadequate to do,
That burning will surely subside
If even the breeze coming from Kashi touches my skin,
Once I was separated from my wife- Sati–
That pain was allayed when she came back as Parvati.
Alas!the pain of separation from Kashi torments me more.
Ah Kashi when again shall I get thy soothing touch,
When will thy cooling touch cure me of this fever instantly?
Oh Kashi, who wash the sins of men, the fire of separation from thee
Has made the moon at my head burn like fire with ghee
It took the daughter of the Himalayas to cure my previous separation
If I don’t get your darshan o Kashi I shall always be tormented.
(Kashi Khand, Skandmahapuran, 44.14-19)
[Translation from Sanskrit by Rajnish Mishra]
The theme of exile is found in poetry from all over the world. Poetry of the pain of separation from one’s place of origin has a rich tradition. It entered the stream of modern poetry during the transition of the socio-economic systems from agrarian to industrial. The hunter-gatherer had less opportunities of getting rooted to his place. A farmer could stay rooted to a place from his birth to death and roots, once sprouted, went deep into the soil and connected the man to his place. The strength of his bonding was such that uprooting could only be effected by a natural or geopolitical change of extreme nature. So, the exile, uprooted and pining, is not commonly found in poetry of that time. As the Industrial Revolution altered the socioeconomic structure of the European (and later world) societies, brought in its wake urbanization and rural emigration, and the literature of exile was born. The most well-known example of this genre is from nineteenth century England, John Clare.
May it be mine to meet my end in thee;
And, as reward for all my troubles past,
Find one hope true—to die at home at last!
An equally well-known example from Urdu poetry is his contemporary Bahadur Shah ‘Zafar’, the last Mughal Emperor who spent the last years of his life in exile in Burma wrote a moving ghazal in the memory of his home (land).
Nothing appeals to my heart in this deserted land.
How can it find peace in these times on this land?
O my yearnings go, dwell elsewhere,
Where’ll you live in this besmirched heartland?
I was given four days of life to live. Two were
spent in yearning for, two waiting for my land.
O Zafar, the unfortunate for your burial,
Two yards were not to be had in your beloved land
[Translated from Hindi-Urdu by Rajnish Mishra]
Clare and Zafar, both died in 1860’s. The theme of exile lived on. In fact, the twentieth century saw the number of artists in exile increasing. Bertolt Brecht, a German exile, beautifully captures the irony of hope in transience of the state that ends up being permanent in his poem ‘On the Term of Exile’:
No need to drive a nail into the wall
To hang your hat on;
When you come in, just drop it on the chair
No guest has sat on.
Don’t worry about watering the flowers—
In fact, don’t plant them.
You will have gone back home before they bloom,
And who will want them?
If mastering the language is too hard,
Only be patient;
The telegram imploring your return
Won’t need translation.
Remember, when the ceiling sheds itself
In flakes of plaster,
The wall that keeps you out is crumbling too,
As fast or faster.
Translated from the German by Adam Kirsch, quoted fully from < https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/54759/on-the-term-of-exile>
The twenty-first century did not witness any change in the geopolitics of the world, hence in the state of the exile. The same pain is found in poems of exile from Tibet, Kashmir, Albania, Afghanistan, Sindh, Bangladesh, Greece and the list goes on. Let’s talk about Aga Shahid Ali, the Kashmiri poet in exile in the United States. His poems of exile have a haunting simplicity of images.
We shall meet again, in Srinagar,
by the gates of the Villa of Peace,
our hands blossoming into fists
till the soldiers return the keys
and disappear. Again we’ll enter
our last world, the first that vanished
It is this tradition of poetry to which many contemporary poems belong. We now find poets in exile, but unlike in most of the poems mentioned till now, not from his nation but from his city of birhth. His poetic oeuvre and imagination are shaped by pain and separation. His poems show his place and times very vividly and clearly yet his city is not restricted to one place or time. He writes:
My city, is your city, and theirs.
My city is stuck with what it’s given.
My city as shown, as true, as real,
yes it is all,
The spirit, the life,
the transience, the sorrows,
the joys, the filth of flowers,
and all that’s seen or not, at all hours,
For the world to see, is my city simplified,
palatable, presentable, made easy.
Simply, ‘city for dummies’.
His devotion to details, and his transcendence of the same make for a curious combination of contraries:
Disgusting, the filth,
reflected sometimes, on faces.
Cow dung, house waste,
refuse and grime,
then scattered again,
seen and felt
on skin, in nose, on feet through eyes.
Yet feet go on,
as time and life run to death,
from flesh to fire to ashes.
His time is not here, and his place is not now.
Professor Charu Sheel Singh’s Kashi: A Mandala Poem is the only epic in English language on the city of Kashi (Varanasi, Banaras or Benares). It falls in the tradition of the puranic praise literature or mahatmyas. It applies the structure of mandala to delve deep into the eternal enigma called Kashi. It has been called variously as path breaker, ahead of its time, apoetic, bombastic, visionary, erudite and a display of intellect and scholarship. Whatever one says about it, the fact remains that there is a large number of poetry books on Kashi in Sanskrit and Hindi but there are only a handful of poetry books on the city in English. To be precise, there are only two other poetry books on the city other than this one: Where Even the Present is Ancient: Benaras by Maitreyee B Chowdhury and Kashi: Sonnet Series on Varanasi by Rajnish Mishra. Kashi: A Mandala Poem is the longest work in verse in English on the city of Kashi, and that is surely an achievement.
This will be the third book in the series that already has books on walks circuiting the ghats and those circuiting the lanes. Taken separately, they make only one half of the complete Varanasi Experience. When the halves come together, one gets the complete experience. So, after looking at two halves separately, now is the time to bring them together. This book will take the following ghats as the successive centres of concatenating circuits that will start from Assi Ghat at the southern periphery and move through the other centres viz. Kedar, Dashashwamedh, Manikarnika, Panchganga, Trilochan and Raj Ghats, on to Adi Keshav Ghat at the northern periphery of the city.
Varanasi is not a tourist package. It’s an experience. It demands only time and gives all that one may want in return. No, I am not being theoretical here. It has done that to many. So, I’ll repeat my advise that I directly give (sometimes unsolicited) to anyone I know is going to my city:
Don’t Rush It.
Don’t Time Your Day by Minutes and Hours.
Stay, Sit and Soak in the City.
My book will take the advise, and will try to take a leisurely, un-timed, multi-directioned stroll through the piece of time and space you will call Varanasi for yourself.
According to the plan, another book was published in the Varanasi Walk series: Lanes of Varanasi. Although I had done some work upon the rhythm of life in the lanes on my blog, I had not done even one post exclusively on lanes. Yes, it’s difficult to believe now, but the search result makes it very (shamefully and late) clear. No kasiphile (one who loves Kashi) will ever pardon me for what I have done. I offer this book, solely and specifically on lanes of Varanasi, as the first installment of atonement!
The book description on amazon reads:
Lanes of Varanasi is about theoretically countable yet practically uncountable lanes of Varanasi that people in the subcontinent know by the name of galis. One of the very first images that appear in a person’s mind when the name of the city is taken is of the lanes of the city. Of course there are ghats and the Holy Ganga, and we have paid homage to them already in Ghats of Varanasi. The labyrinthine (the choice of the word is not mine, it’s a popular dead metaphor) lanes of the city make the subject of this book. In many ways, the spirit of the place is reflected best in the lanes. Varanasi is called by many “the oldest inhabited city in the world” and its oldest inhabited zones are called the muhallas that are interwoven with and interconnected by these lanes.
I planned the Varanasi Walks series over a year ago. As the name suggests, it consists of several titles, linked by the theme of walks in Varanasi. Instead of searching for a publisher, I decided to self-publish the series. It was possible, thanks to amazon.com. I published the first title of the series as a kindle book first. That first book was about the ghats of Varanasi. The choice of the subject was not at all accidental. I had done over two dozen blog posts related to various ghats of Kashi (https://rajnishmishravns.wordpress.com/page/4/?s=Ghat&submit=Search). I had also done a blog post on all the ghats of Varnasi/ Kashi a long time ago (on February 19, 2014 ):
That blog was actually a comprehensive list of all the ghats that I had visited and photographed myself. The structure and treatment of the post was skeletal only and I felt the need to give it a body, some flesh and a better and fuller treatment. So, I wrote Ghats of Varanasi.
The product description reads:
Varanasi is one of the holiest cities of Hindus and one of the most picturesque places on the face of earth. For over a millennium it has attracted pilgrims, travellers and tourists from all over the world due to various reasons. One of the highlights of any journey to the city has been its magnificent ghats, with their majestic buildings and the serene view of the crescent left bank and the holy Ganges. This book is about the ghats of Varanasi. It is the first volume of the series titled Varanasi Walks.
Its table of contents gives a fair idea of the structure of the book:
So, the book of walks begins from the Southern end of the city’s defined periphery and proceeds towards its ancient northern end i.e. the circuits keep moving from the confluence of Holy Ganga with the dry river Assi to that with the river Varuna. Thus the book takes you from one puranic confluence to another, between which lies Varanasi. In fact, there’s an apocryphal etymological link between the name of the rivers mentioned above and the naming of the city. They say that you get Varanasi by combining Varuna with Assi (Varanasi = Varuna + Assi). Ghats of Varanasi structures various city walks in a chain of circuits centred at key ghats: Assi, Kedar, Dashashwamedh, Manikarnika, Panchganga, Trilochan and Adi Keshav.
There were many readers who were neither familiar nor comfortable with kindle format. They needed the touch and the idea of materially holding the ‘book’ in their hands. So, I published the book in paperback format without any change in the textual content.
The Kashi Khand of Skand Mahapuran has narratives that give full coverage to the story of origin of the idols of various gods and goddesses, especially of the various lingams that prominently dot the cityscape. In its eighty-fifth chapter there is the story of how Durvaseshwar/Kameshwar Mahadev came into being. As the name suggests, Lord Shiva bears the name of his devotee here. He is the ‘Lord of Durvasa‘. For those who do not know much about the sage famous for his irascibility, fiery temper and powers, rishi Durvasa directly originated from Lord Shiva. He is a great devotee of Lord Shiva and is full of praise for the city of Kashi as he reaches there. He likes the city and starts his austerities to please his Lord in order to get a boon he wants. Time passes but the sage has no success.
Irascible as he is, he decides to curse the city that does not bring the fruits of his devotion and austerity to him. The fire of his anger envelops the sky, and since then it looks blue. The ganas of Lord Shiva who reside in his beloved abode get agitated and angry and take countermeasure by creating a huge wall all around the city that does not let even fire pass. The world burns and Kashi is breathless. Lord Shiva is pleased with the powerful sage and appears before him (I will not digress and write of another lingam that came to earth at this point of time).
On seeing his lord Durvasa becomes aware of what he had done. He is full of shame and remorse to have thought of cursing Mother Kashi, but Lord Shiva is happy with him and asks him to ask for his boon. The sage asks for only one boon, that the lingam he established there fulfills the desires of the devotees, hence known as the Lord of Desires, also that the water of the pond may have similar powers. Lord Shiva was pleased with the selfless sage and called the lingam Durvaseshwar before granting the sage his boon. He also declared that the most auspicious day for the devotees to reach there would be the thirteenth day of Pradosh that coincides with Saturday.