Varanasi: A ferry-tale

30 October 2020 ● 8 mins read ● 1 image
Varanasi: A ferry-tale

“So madam, you two have come to Banaras alone?” Mohan asked as he grated ginger into the milk tea boiling in a coked pot. It smelt of Assam, and my grandmother. She is very picky with her tea and the right amount of sugar, which is, five spoons of it.
“Mom has come with me, and I with mom, so not quite alone, I guess” I blurted out, “and no sugar please”, sitting on a tatami mat in a small shack, not far away from Dashashwamedh ghat.
The guy making tea was Mohan, he was a boatman, a natural heir to his family business. His grandfather had given up farming to come to Benaras and had started ferrying passengers across these ancient ghats, his father had followed and he does it too. He had gauged himself to be more of an entrepreneur, so he had set up a small Japanese looking café near the ghat, with help from his Japanese girlfriend, who had returned back to Japan after a short stay here, and hadn’t called him back. He had so many stories of how the Japanese lived, ate, and slept. Ironically, named ‘The Vishwanath café’ , this miniature Japan presented low tables and Hokusai paintings on the white washed walls and reflected a taste that was essentially all that’s popular about Japan(much like how all the Indian restaurants are called Taj Mahal, in Japan). I wouldn’t know this then, I hadn’t moved to Japan yet. Back then, it all seemed like a fairy tale, from a place where waves were as blue and high as Hokusai’s waves, and monuments were all Kiyomizu dera and clouds always moved stealthily to sit on top of mount Fuji.
He was amused by us, and asked us many questions. I put him down a bit when I told him we hadn’t come to offer our prayers for a specific purpose, and that it was just travel. Ma was busy scrutinizing stones and lapis in a near-by counter. He saw my camera and asked me to make a story on him and publish, he promised he would take us in the best boat trip around all the ghats, early morning was the best time, he reckoned. Mohan took an interest in me. He was a tall lean man, his skin radiant sun laced, a sharp nose on a pair of smart happy eyes.
“Chala jata hoon apne hi dhun mei dhadak te dil ke tarane liye…”
The boat had music on radio, a morning program of 70s evergreen Bollywood. Five in the morning. We started where children were diving into the water and splashing incessantly. He had packed in some stale bread, to be fed to the birds, he wouldn’t charge us for those.
“Madam, camera mein charge hain na?” he helped us into the boat. I smiled. It was beautiful, the sky clear, we could see the entire city on the shore, slowly waking up to the first rays of sun. I tried to play a slower more befitting raag in my mind, but couldn’t keep up with 70s evergreen Bollywood, so be it. We wanted to see Benaras with Mohan’s eyes.
Varanasi, where liberation of soul from body is sought. From the markets of metal figurines of deities, a plethora of prayer paraphernalia, conch shell and lacquer bangles, of spices and paan masala, to the lines of rabri and jalebi, down to the murky lanes of brothels, the elaborate temples to the burning ghats, it looked like an enigmatic mixture of the physical, metaphysical and the supernatural. Life and death exist as simply as day and night here and it is all spread out across the length of one stretched ghat, I donot know about liberation, but it is stimulating, invigorating.
“Madam, pata hai, itna log bas marne ke liye aate hai, mujhe toh lagta hai, itna sundar shehar dekhne bhi aya kare kabhi.” Indeed, this is definitely something one should see in their senses. Why is cremation so alluring? We were heading Manikarnika ghat. White and fire were the colours. It was early morning and shrouded beds were lined up already. Far away could be seen wooden beds under cloth shades, poorly protected from the sun. I imagined a smell of putrefying flesh, what was so sacred about this place, could it be belief? I looked away, the palace on Darbhanga ghat, the Brijrama palace hotel now, could be seen in full view, in all its grandeur of Indian and Greek architecture. Next to it was a stretch of tranquillity, not one was bathing there, out boat wasn’t ferrying in that direction; I asked which ghat it was. “Narad ghat, Madam”, he said. Bathing with the spouse here causes fights. Wow! I thought! I could see white sarees lined up across the ghat, this was a quaint place for the old ladies who could go about their chores here without disturbance from the crowd. Earlier we had seen homes for old women, who had been dropped here by their families, more specifically, their own children. Some knew that they weren’t coming with return tickets, some didn’t. Ma had pointed out, that is also how the brothel started here, and widows had no age, no owner, and hence, were free to be traded. Thirsty words of anguish and oblivion had cluttered like clogged tears in my throat. I wanted to bury everything that was wrong with the world, right here, deep, in you. Sun in my hair, a thousand kisses of the wind to keep me warm, a thousand memories to reminiscent, atrocities are mild now, more subtle, no less shrewd, I wanted to go hug each one of them. Quite the double faced beings we all are, I looked away, to warmer sights.
The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the abruptness of ancient temples in a fast growing city, the carving on the pillars, the jasmine on the oiled hair, the bright colours on dark sweaty skins, the cloth over heads of women, the saffron wear of random men, self-proclaimed ascetics, chandan foreheads marked with lines of restrictions for the daughters in braided hairs, the antennae of the lightning rods, the political posters, the real-estate dream hoardings, of pilgrims swarming in, and unconditional faith, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls. While listening to the water and the gentle rowing against the current, my reflection on the water would be thrown to smithereens by the second, I was lost. I was rediscovering myself and letting go again, I did not know who I was anymore, I was just a part of the vibe called Varanasi.
And the river! What kind of feeling could this be? For I had known, read and heard too much about the Ganga already, my memoire of the river was like an abandoned mailbox outside a house, from where the residents had disappeared without updating the address. And letters and pamphlets and sun and rain and ivy leaves had splashed, peeped and crept in, over days, months, years through the narrow slit, crowding at its mouth. Ends of white envelops, shoved without care, by part-time mail-boys stuck out like a deranged patch of snow in a melting spring meadow.
My premonition about the river was like those letters addressed to me at my previous residence, unopened, wet and soggy, the corners curled up and crisp, yellowed and winkled by the sun. The letters from one merged into the others, the bills had intruded the unanswered love letters from those who mattered once, I knew only too well that the river existed only in its name, in birth-funeral rites, in pollution, plastics and the gills of chocked fishes.
Yet it felt good, to be there. Not on the banks, but on the water, for once, and let go with the flow, however momentarily. Never mind if occasionally ceremonial tents and were pitched on its bed or if the Sunday market was set up, or you could actually see cows bathing alongside half-naked boys in dirty puddles of water. The smoke from the Harishchandra ghat swirling upward, its smell merging with that of rubbish burning on the banks, and next to it, the heaps of colourful flowers on the shops and bees flying over it, the smell of teak and sandal wood and the wax-lamps with their little white stemsof hope ready to be kindled by the evening, as if overcompensated for the arid, for all that was impalpable and lost.
We were flooded with an unexpected flock of cormorants, the white beautiful migratory birds from the Artic. It was magical, magnificent and they glided down the river in strict choreography, some touching the surface of the water just exactly. They flew in a swoop and came back again, so we could feed them bread. I was crying. I sure, couldn’t use my camera well.
I implored Mohan to take us around for a bit longer, he didn’t ask for extra money, the Sun was looking up now. What sense would it have been in going anywhere from then? I was like a blank piece of paper, drifting along ghats , melting in what I couldn’t absolve. It appeared that he was taking us far away from the crowds and the noise.

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About Fiona

Fiona Mukherjee

I'm an artist in Tokyo, Japan

Would love to interact with like minded people, collaborators or just connect over art, poetry, food or wine.

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