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. 

Ashishda

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.

B_DSC07035

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:

https://www.zomato.com/varanasi/bread-of-life-bakery-shivala

https://www.tripadvisor.in/Restaurant_Review-g297685-d1203733-Reviews-Bread_of_Life_Bakery-Varanasi_Varanasi_District_Uttar_Pradesh.html

http://www.fodors.com/world/asia/india/side-trips-from-delhi/restaurants/reviews/bread-of-life-bakery-446454

https://eventseeker.com/venue/708826-bread-of-life-bakery-varanasi

https://yellowpages.cybo.com/IN-biz/new-bread-of-life-bakery

https://www.petitfute.com/v46439-varanasi/c1165-restaurants/c1031-cuisines-du-monde/433721-new-bread-of-life-bakery.html

http://www.varanasi.org.in/banaras-restaurant

 

 

 

 

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Shri Krishna Janmashtami in Varanasi

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).

  DSN TempleSC06419

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/).

Chitra

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.

Jhoola Silver

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. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Tradition of the Poetry of Exile

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!

(‘Helpstone’)

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&gt;

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

(‘A Pastoral’)

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,

and not.

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.

Multifaceted? Never.

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,
Scattered, removed,
then scattered again,
repeat performance,
seen and felt
on skin, in nose, on feet through eyes.
Yet feet go on,
undaunted, eternally,
as time and life run to death,
from flesh to fire to ashes.

His time is not here, and his place is not now.

Reference

Modified from: 

http://stanzaicstylings.blogspot.in/p/rajnish-mishra-poet-in-exile.html

 

 

 

 

Kashi: A Mandala Poem

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.

Varanasi Walks 3: Walks Along the Bank of the Ganges

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 Hurry.  

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.

Varanasi Walks 1: Ghats of Varanasi

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 ):

https://rajnishmishravns.wordpress.com/2014/02/19/varanasi-ghatscape/

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:

Preface

Introduction

The Southern Periphery

Around Kedar Ghat

Around Dashashwamedh Ghat

Around the Manikarnika

Around Panchganga Ghat

Around Trilochan Ghat

The Northern Periphery

List of Ghats

Glossary

References

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.

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Kameshwar or Durvaseshwar Mahadev, Kashi Khand

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.

Kameshwar Mahadev, Varanasi

This post began when Mr Saktibrata Sen posted a question on my blog “Madhyameshwar: The Lord of/at the Centre, Varanasi”. The question was:

Hello, I need help to locate the Kameshwar or Durvaseshwar Temple. I tried for 7 continuous days and failed. Can you please, please help? I have heard that this temple was once a seat of many a classical Hindustani performances by Ustad Faiyaz khan

I knew nothing of the Ustad mentioned, but I knew I could give the exact location. So, I searched. For the temple I searched the great Pandit Kubernath Sukul’s Varanasi Vaibhav and Dandiswami Shivanand Saraswati’s Kashi Gaurav, and for the maestro, Wikipedia and youtube.

Varanasi Vaibhav gives the location of the temple as:

a. The Old Temple at house number A 2/9, near Macchodari (p 222 and 384)

b. The New Temple at house number K 30/1, Ghasitola (p 384)

There is also the mention of Kamkund that is not there any more.

The most auspicious day for darshan, according to the Hindu calendar is Vaishakh Krishna 13.

Kashi Gaurav gives the location of the temple under the circuit covering 42 great Shivlingas. it’s at the eastern side of Macchodari, at A 2/9 in an eponymous lane: the Kameshwar Lane.   

This same lingam is known as Durvaseshwar. Why? There’s a long narrative in the Kashi Khand of Skand Mahapuran regarding its origin and nomenclature. That narrative will be the subject of our next post.

 

Snippets

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At first I had thought to focus on the object at the centre of the image in this piece and a remarkable sight it definitely is. It belongs to the place, and to the milieu. It is, for those who have not seen it before or could not divine its nature, a hand pushed cart to carry house waste. This cart is found in the narrow lanes of Varanasi where it has been in used for at least as long back as my memory records, i.e. nearly four decades now. It has some character: this cart does have something that can be called distinctive and unique. It does not appear in many other cities, so, it may be a characteristic feature of those quarters of Varanasi that lie in the vicinity of the river Ganges at least.

Then, the thought wandered to the houses, or, more specifically, to the walls lining the narrow lane: the house with walls rising nearly from the plinth, the one on the other side with a wide chabutra running along the front, and the freshly white washed one. The Chunar sandstone is definitely there and the characteristic wavy border of the chabutra, the windows with wooden frame and iron grills, the chajja between the two storeys of the houses and the verandah supported with brackets. All the common features of the stone houses of the narrow lanes of Varanasi are also present there. In addition to that, there’s the decaying stone, especially near the base of the wall, where it meets the open shallow storm-rain water drain. The image speaks that the neighbourhood has not changed structurally for nearly a century or more.

Psychogeography and the Kashi Texts

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.

 

Reference:

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.