The Pauper-king


Once upon a time, not a very long time ago, there used to be a youth who worked in a small shop. He worked hard. He worked long hours. He was never tired and always aspired to rise. With his kind of dedication and determination he was sure to rise and he rose in life. He soared high and still higher he soared on the wings of the dreams of those like him, the poor workers of that small shop. They chose him first, and then came others, and then some more, until, he was chosen the king of the city. They loved him like their own, they made him their god.

I think the story must end here, if it has to end happily at all but not all stories end happily.

So, the new king was honest and strong and kingly and his subjects were happy. His kingdom spread, and all was well in his kingdom, until…

I think we must end the story here. Don’t you? But stories have their life. They end when they do and this one went on.

It went on to the day when the king was away, to a far off land on a military campaign. He rode his horse down south, deep south, as he followed the horse of Ashwamedh Yajna. There was no way he could let the horse be captured, and his hegemony challenged. The king had a kingdom to expand, a war to fight and other kingdoms to win. So, he went on. battle after battle, he won. He crushed all opposition with might, and might is always right, as it’s said.

Even here, if the story ended, I’d call it happy. It did not, and went on.

While the king was away, the ceiling of the shop he once worked in caved in and all those men and women, poor friends of the king when he was no king, were buried while alive in it. Pigeons flew with the news to the king, the king read the message and shed two drops of tears from his right eye, and two from his left one. He could weep and laugh at will, for public display. Then he spurred his horse on and won again, and again, until he had won all the land there was to win. For that was all he had ever wanted. It was him, his dreams, his vision and goals. Those poor people just never existed. 

I think that the story ends here. For now.



Father and Sons

I have two black and white photographs of a father posing with his sons in my family collection and one of them is older than I am. The first photograph has my grandfather and his four sons in it. In the background you can see the old and still functional dressing table at our ancestral house in Varanasi. My grandfather holds my youngest uncle in his arms. My eldest uncle, the one younger to him and my father stand from right to left. Look at the posture and the eyes of the three boys. They stand almost at attention and their eyes are locked with the lens of the camera. Probably that was how people responded to such a strange black box at their place or, they were told to look into the lens and stand in that manner. I’m sure there’s a story about the marigold garlands the three boys wear.

Baba n Sons

In the second photograph my eldest uncle poses gracefully with his three sons. Allow me a digression here. I think that my eldest uncle was the most handsome man in our family, his younger brother, my father, was a close second in his youth. We, the sons, got some of their features, that’s all. I can recognize the smile at the face of the eldest cousin of mine. He smiles like that even today, nearly forty years later. The boys at the front are at ease. Although they are very much conscious of the camera, they have not forgotten to smile. They are in a public place and not at their house. Probably that has reduced their camera shyness. They are mentally more prepared for the camera than the three boys of the previous photograph.

Bade Ch n Sons

Where are the girls of the family? Well, my uncle has no daughters. That explains their absence from the photograph. My grandfather had two daughters, both elder than my youngest uncle who is right there, in the photograph. Then why are they not there? Before we proceed, here’s another photograph of the same family. In this photograph my grandmother poses for the camera with her eldest and youngest sons, and her two daughters.Yes, they are fully conscious of the camera. And yes, this photograph was definitely taken at a studio. I’m sure you have marked the absence of shoes at the feet of the two aunts of mine. Why have they not worn shoes or slippers while posing for the camera?

Dadi n Children

Moving on from the black and white photograph of an era long past towards the coloured family photograph, we reach my youngest uncle’s family.

Chote Chacha n Family


New Bread of Life Bakery and Restaurant

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.

John 6:35

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.  

GSAG (2)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:





Shree Santosh Kapooria II

sss kapooria gym

They tried to kill Shree Santosh Kapooria in 1971, and succeeded in taking his physical form away from us. They could not do anything to the ideal form of Shree Kapooria, and its power over the minds of those who had seen him in their time or those who heard about him from others. There’s a gym in his locality that bears his name, and a Durga Puja Club too. More important than them is his only memorial in the minds of the students of his university and his contemporaries, those who belonged to his generation, and then, those who heard his story.


Shree Chandrashekhar Azaad was Kapooriaji’s idol. The image above does bear a resemblance with the popular image of Azaad, with one exception: his fingers aren’t at his mustaches. All riyazis who go to akharas worship Hanumanji. They, and others who worship the god of power, actually invoke that power with an eye on the eventual identification. The anecdotes I have read and heard about Kapooriaji confirm that he was a regular riyazi and worshiper of the font of power: Hanumanji.

He used to exercise regularly. 1000 dands (Hindoo Push Ups) and 1000 baithaks (Hindoo Squats) used to be in his routine after jogging. He was a judoka, boxer and wrestler. Behind his efforts that went into his riyaz was his realization that one must have a strong and healthy body in order to serve their society and nation well. “Healthy body, strong limbs, face plain, pink albeit” was his mantra. He used to give that mantra to the youth of his family and neighbourhood and to his student friends and followers. He would inspire them by his own example and urge them to quit their bad habits and cultivate their body and mind. He was 5’7″ and weighed between 95-100 kg. His body was muscular and strong and reflexes sharp.

He is remembered for his physical strength, and for his intellectual and moral strengths too. He had completed his M Pharma and was elected the President of the Student Union of Banaras Hindu University. A booklet on him mentions very clearly that he had developed many formulas that would be beneficial to the masses. Yet, as he was not interested in using the knowledge he had for petty profit, he did not get the patents. The papers in which he had recorded his findings were stolen from his room after his death.

Kapooriaji was totally against the powerful political parties and anti-student and anti-social elements controlling the Student’s Union of his university. He knew that a strong Union pure of corruption and contamination would always think of and work for the welfare of he thousands of students of the university. So, he wanted that his university had no involvement of students in dirty politics and he worked for it too.

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Shree Santosh Kapuria

Haughtily would I proclaim to an audience of two: “I am the chronicler of my times”. They were neither a ready nor a good audience, but they were my only audience, and I’d return to them with the same theme every alternate month. They were my friends too, so they had no other choice. They bore it with a grin and swam happily away on to the foreground.

It’s after a long time that the chronicler in me has raised his head. I have a story to tell: the story of a legend, as far as I am concerned. It’s the story of a hero. I have heard its parts and pieces from two independent sources, both the hero’s contemporaries, separately. I’ll try to work upon the pieces to complete the picture (ironically though, I have no picture of the gentleman to offer with his story).

In both the versions I had heard about Mr. Kapooria, it was emphasised that he had lifted that cycle rikshaw of nearly a hundred kilograms (90-95 kg) and thrown it upon the gang that had attacked him on his last day, before succumbing to the fatal injuries later. Why the emphasis? And why that tone? Well, how many of us have met someone who could lift 100 kg outside the gym? And how many of them in a lifetime have we met? That’s not all. I gathered from my sources that he had represented our country at world level in Judo (the tournament was in Japan to be precise). He was a student leader and a very well known person in his University. His courage and freedom from baseness made him a legend after his death, the same qualities had brought about his death in the first place.

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1965 to 1967 in Banaras

I heard Mahommedali Currim Chagla‘s name for the first time nearly three decades after he had passed away. The context was Banaras Hindu University, and the person taking his name wore a frown of distaste while pronouncing the words M C Chagla. It was clear that he did not like the person who had served as the Education Minister of India from 1963 to 1966. Chagla had had the honour of calling Quaid-e-Azam and Babasaheb his colleagues. He was secular, so secular, that despite being a Muslim, he was cremated and not buried (wikipedia). Sundaram mentions in his article that Chagla had wished once that “it was his mission to educate a generation of Indians who would not be surprised when they saw a Hindu as vice-chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University while his counterpart at Banaras Hindu University was a Muslim”.

m c chagla

Justice M. C. Chagla


BHU Amendment Bill of 1965 proposed the removal of the word “Hindu” from the name of the university (Baran 377). The Union Minister of Edcation M C Chagla had “indicated in the parliament” (Baran 378) that in a secular country like ours, there’s no place for sectarian words in the names of the universities like Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and Banaras Hindu University) BHU. So, the idea, at least in theory, was to drop the words Muslim and Hindu and from their name change the names of two of the largest universities of India. BHU was chosen for the first onimectomy (cutting of the name, a neologism). Well, it backfired.

The Hindus did not like the removal of the word they associate their identity with, from the name of the only university in the world that had it. Students, as usual, were the quickest to react. the RSS, ABVP, Jan Sangh, Hindu Mahasabha etc. went along, or, as some allege, vice versa. There were protests, strikes, and the life in the university and in the city went off track for a fortnight. The old timers, remembering those days and the years of their student life, do recall many interesting anecdotes. Out of the many names taken during one conversation with an old alumnus of the university I heard the names of those leading the student protests. Out of many that I’d heard, my mind has retained the name of comrade Debu Majumdar. I had read his name on banners and walls of Varanasi some two decades ago. I had also read his name in Kashinath Singh’s Kashi ka Assi. This was the first time someone was telling me his name. Google leads us no further. Few more personal interviews may yield some more information about comrade. That will come later.

Back to the university then. The middle name of the great Banarasi university remained in its place, just as the university remained in its right place in the city that rests on Shiva’s trident, but Chagla had made the biggest mistake of his short political career. He did not remain in his place for long. The very next year came the general elections and he was not given his old department back in the new cabinet. 1967 was his last year in the cabinet and in politics.

He said that it was his mission to educate a generation of Indians who would not be surprised when they saw a Hindu as vice-chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University while his counterpart at Banaras Hindu University was a Muslim. – See more at:
He said that it was his mission to educate a generation of Indians who would not be surprised when they saw a Hindu as vice-chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University while his counterpart at Banaras Hindu University was a Muslim. – See more at:
He said that it was his mission to educate a generation of Indians who would not be surprised when they saw a Hindu as vice-chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University while his counterpart at Banaras Hindu University was a Muslim. – See more at:

1967 was important for Banaras – a city with three universities and a large number of students in hostels and the city. Along with the city’s history of rebellious proclivities, that made a volatile combination. The year 1967 was very important for Hindi, Banaras and for one full generation of students born just as the country was born. That year saw the movement by the students of the Hindi speaking belt of India for their demand that English be replaced by Hindi for all practical purposes. The unrest was widespread; so was the administrative crack down upon it. The state stood against the students in a manner proleptically pointing towards May 1968. Both Kashinath Singh’s Apna Morcha (Our Front) and Shivprasad Singh’s Gali Age Mudti Hai (The Lane Turns Ahead) cover the movement in detail and mention Ratnakar (Jubilee) Park incident very graphically, as it was from there that everything had begun.


Ray, Anil Baran. “Secularism and Political Protest: The Case of Banaras Hindu University (BHU) Students’ Agitation of 1965”. Pressure Groups and Politics of Influence. Ed. Verinder Grover. New Delhi: Deep and Deep Publications, 1997. Print.

Sundaram, V. “MC Chagla: A Titan Among the Nationalists “. <<>&gt;


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In Memoriam: Lala Kashmirimal’s Mansion

Mourn for the departed glory and days

That have left the earth’s face unsung.

Mourn not for the glory that stays

With days imprinted sharp; for long.

Lala Kashmirimal's Mansion_Prinsep_thakur dwaree

James Prinsep has done a great service to the city of Benares by producing a series of sketches portraying its salient features back in 1820’s. In his Benares Illustrated the ghatscape dominates the scene. There are only two sketches of a Banarsi house and both are of Lala Kashmiri Mal’s Mansion (haveli). Those were the years of the decline of that banker’s house. The mansion was not so well kept as it used to be in its golden days around half a century ago, around King Chet Singh’s reign. Yet, the parts presented in the book, the temple in the house and the roof of the female section, are magnificent.

The house and its parts are made of solid sandstone from nearby Chunar. The huge stone mansion constructed in eighteenth century was considered as one of the four magnificent havelis of the city: the other three being Devki Nandan Khatri’s, Kangan Wali Haveli behind Beni Madho’s Dharhara and the one at Bulanala that I’ve not seen till date. The ceiling of the Thahkur Dwaree has a local parallel in that of the palace at Man Mandir Ghat:

DSC05341 DSC05343

When imagination fills colours into the pattern on the ceiling of the black and white sketch, and the stones start breathing with the rhythm of their days of youth, one may actually “see” how magnificent the haveli would have appeared to a contemporary Banarsi, or, if James is not given that honour: traveller. There’s no furniture in the room, keeping with the local way of life. The stone columns terminate into the waved arches and patterns that fill the upper part of the room.

What Prinsep calls the sleeping apartments must have been the Zenana section of the haveli. How he entered the section is definitely surprising. But then, in those days, the rules of the native house did not hold for the powerful white race. The mansion had a male and a female section, as was customary in haveli architecture.

Lala Kashmirimal's Mansion_Prinsep_roof

It was around half past six in the morning. I was nearly five kilometres walk away from my home, in the labyrinth of lanes at the heart of pakki mahaal of Kashi. I had come there walking the ghatscape between Karnatak State Ghat and Umrao Giri/Lalita Ghat. I wanted to search for Umrao Giri’s Monastery and Baoli, but the two persons at Garhwasi Tola whom I asked about it had no clue. They also knew nothing of the haveli of the title. Even my kasiphile and very knowledgeable uncle could not give me directions for reaching the haveli.

I had entered the maze of the galis at the locality called Nepali Khapra. I had read it in the Kashi Edition of Soch Vichaar that the famous (that’s what I used to think till then) Lala Kashmirimal’s Haveli is in Nandan Sahu Lane. I crossed Garhwaasi Tola and turned right before the main gali meets Thatheri Bazaar, as I knew that the  haveli was somewhere there. And then, I read the stone tablet declaring that I was in “Nandan Sahu Lane”. As it was still early in the morning, the normally crowded galis of Kashi wore a deserted look. The only human beings that could be found in the galis were the sweepers and the pullers of the carts that carry the filth away. I hesitated in accosting them with my query for the exact directions and missed my chance.

I had lost all hope of reaching the haveli when I met the gentleman in the image below. As can be seen, he is in his early morning muhalla attire: gamcha and vest. By an experienced guess, it can be said that he lives very close to the point where he was located in the morning.


“Where’s Lala Kashmirimal’s Haveli?”, I asked him. “There,” said he. Now, the word “there” hasn’t any definite meaning in Varanasi. It may mean: I don’t know, in the next gali, exactly where you have just walked past from, right in front of us etc. So, to place my feet firmly upon the rock of reality, I repeated my question. This time round, pointing towards the house in front, he reaffirmed: “There”. “But it’s so small”, said I. “Small?” I had offended him into animation, “Look into that gali, the wall of the house runs up to its end”.

The walls of solid stone that rose two stories from their base at the gali ran long indeed, but that did not impress me. So, I asked him in dismay and disappointment arising from the building’s not meeting my expectations. I had read and seen so much about it that I had created its image in my mind. This “thing” was in no way like that image. Not in the exact words, but as I was in my thinking aloud mode, the same was conveyed to the gentleman in gamcha. “It had four storeys as you can see by the structure towards the end of the wall”, said he. He was right. At the other end of the house, I could see all the four storeys intact.

Lala Kashmirimal's Haveli ruins

Now, four storeys is not uncommon in the pakki mahaal that can boast of several houses that have two, even three storeys over that. The remarkable thing about the building was its length multiplied by its width, i.e. the area of its base, and the minute work on its stone base. Compared to the details on the parapets in the black and white sketches, the window in the image to the left below and the space above the lintel over the door to the right are but poor shadows of the past glory. It must have taken years of hard work by hundreds to chisel and carve the stone and then to put it in its right place to make a work of art: Lala Kashmirimal’s Haveli.

DSC07926_lattice kashmirimal DSC07940_arch etc

Not even a decade ago was the haveli in its place. Although not its condition, its existence can be gathered from local accounts of its presence at Nandan Sahu Lane. I used to pass the gali in order to reach Chaukhambha, or during my trips towards Bibi Hatiya etc. I didn’t know then. I didn’t know three things: there was something like Kashmirimal’s Haveli, it was in that locality, and it would be wiped clean from the face of the earth before I reached it.

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The City is Mine

How can they take from what’s always been mine without even taking my permission? 

It makes me feel jealous, angry, and at the same time, happy.

Isn’t it strange? It’s true nevertheless.

My city is is called my city because its mine. In all the years of my roaming throughout the sub-sub-continent no one has ever contested my claim over my city: not even my own family members. I love them more for that reason. When a blog post about Banaras is good, it presents a challenge in two ways: it lays its claim to the possession of my city as its own, and it jolts me awake from my lazy literary nap. It’s good when many are drawn towards my city. I feel proud and insecure, for it’s no more mine alone.

Sweeping all existential insecurities aside, I welcome all the lovers of Kashi: the kasiphiles. Let the tribe flourish.

painter dg4

There aren’t many blogs about Banaras, other than those with purely commercial and promotional motivations. There are a couple of exceptions, e.g. the Kautilya Society blog. The very few other non-promotional blogs but they don’t cover much of the city. London, on the other hand, has over 100 blogs on it, rich blogs, not emaciated ones. The same is true of New York. There are many blogs on Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai too, but very few on Varanasi: the oldest and tradition-wise, the richest, among all the cities mentioned above.

There’s a genre of blogs I accidentally stumbled upon while researching for the blogs on my city: the city-walks web sites. It all began with London I guess, because the prime London walks site is simply called “”! So, naturally there’s a too. Well let it be mentioned here that putting the name of the cities of India with walks and searching on google, I found that there aren’t many “walks” sites on Indian cities. There isn’t any on Chennai, for instance. Lucknow, Bangalore, Delhi, Kolkata, Varanasi – all have their own “walks” sites. I could locate one blog on Amritsar, but nothing on Agra, Allahabad, Ahmedabad etc. and to finish the list, there’s a purely commercial I’d love to see a in the time to come. Long enough digression! let’s return to the main point, that is my intense jealousy directed upon those writing about, or with a free access to Varanasi. I acknowledge that the statement made above is true.


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Migrations from Banaras


Kashi, the religio-spiritual magnate that attracted Hindus from all over the world, had once been a city of thriving commerce, as its history tells us. Dharm, arth, kaam and moksh: all have been adequately, abundantly and surely available to the dweller of the city. Of course, moksh came into the equation once a person had reached a certain age, i.e. the stage of life called vanprasth. The first three objectives have always been in play behind a migrant’s decision to reach the city and settle there. That remained the case until the first few decades of the previous century. The story of the city, and that of its people, changed with the changing economic and cultural geography of India, and the world. From what used to be one of the major cities of the state, as far as commerce is concerned, Kashi became its backwaters.

The ten years, somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century, i.e. the decade after India got independence, brought more change to the city’s socioeconomic structure than the whole century preceding that time had seen. Of course, the economy and the government of the country had changed, so, the fates of the people naturally had to change. Urballaghologically speaking, the change was going to shock people in a very slow and belated manner.

The contrast between the pristine past and the present plastered with muck, and blaming it on modernization and mechanization, has been a strategy adopted by all the Luddites through ages. That’s not what urballaghology does. It does not aim at spreading panic and destroying things. Its aim is balanced thinking and preservation: preservation of whatever was good, whatever worked well for the people and was pushed aside by the new without a proper hearing. Banaras, and the world, have always been changing as change is the only unchangeable thing. Urballaghology doesn’t aim at opposing change with the purpose of arresting the flow of time. That isn’t possible. The idea is to protect what has been at the core of life and identity of the city and its dwellers. Recognizing the factors causing change and the factors that may alter its rate, and then doing things to counteract its negative effects.

Migration of talent and youth to the city of Kashi had been the popularly observed phenomenon that also finds place in traditions, oral and printed literature. Migration away from the city was something new. In the beginning, when the phenomenon was still new, people could not fully realize what was happening to their city. There was one more reason behind it: the large number of people descending upon the scene from the nearby areas of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Thus, the influx counterbalanced the out-flux and the city did not become deserted. Those born in the city, after having secured their degrees from its (then) world class university, left it for the greener pastures. What else could they do? They were the ones who worked, not the ones who created employment opportunities.

And then, there were those who believed in:

चना चबेना गंगजल, जो पुरें करतार
काशी कबहूँ न छोड़िए, बाबा विश्वनाथ दरबार.

[My translation: Whatever little the Lord of Kashi gives you, be satisfied with that. Never leave Kashi that is the abode and court of Baba Vishwanath.]

The true believers remained in their city. The more materialistically inclined left, only to look back and think about their good old (dawn, morning, afternoon, dusk, evening and night) = days of Kashi. Those who belonged to neither categories, i.e. they remained not because they chose to but because they couldn’t leave, such persons stayed back and hated each day of their trapped existence in the city of filth. For them there was no city of light, as both the cities are one. Proving the laws of space in Physics wrong in its own way, Banaras is two cities at one time: the city of light and of filth, and a person can either see both and live in one or see one and live in it. The Kashi one sees is the Kashi one gets.

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