Welcome to Benaras. The city, where everyone is a ‘Guru‘. They may not afford their next meal, but have expert advice on everything under the sun. The Guddu Teahouse was located under an ancient Peepal tree near Chaukhamba Chaumuhani. Stones throw from Kashi Vishwanath temple. It was a favorite haunt of the locals, who always flocked there for regular gossip, along with a cup of burned milky tea in earthen cups, called ‘Kulhad’. The narrow street was crowded with two way and erratic traffic of pedestrians, cycles and cycle-rickshaws. The overall confusion augmented by a stray ox, which had decided to relax in the middle of the street. No one dared to chase it away, as the ox is considered sacred in Benaras, being the steed of Bholenath, the divine owner of the city.
Chhedi was a rickshaw puller, who lived near Asi ghat. He was the only earning member in his family of six. His younger brother was a good for nothing, who whiled away his time in the local wrestling Akhada and took it for granted that he will always get his meals on time. His old father was past the age of working and it was not expected of him to toil. His two kids were too young to work.
It was mid May. The tourist season was long gone. Chhedi hated local passengers, who always haggled over the fare. Foreigners were his favorite, who never bargained. He loved Americans. They were foolish enough to pay tip along with the double fare, which Chhedi considered his divine right to charge. Sometimes he doubled over as a guide too. It was a different matter that he turned the wheels of history according to his whims and fancy. He once declared the Resting Place of Humayun in Sarnath to a Buddhist Stupa. What difference does it make? Both Humayun and Buddha are dead to object and what these foreigners care about it?
Chhedi loved Americans for their largesse. Most of them stayed here on a semi-permanent basis. There were gullible like these stray cows roaming in the street. The Goras believed that anyone from Benaras is a sadhu and is spiritually enlightened. Chhedi knew few Sanskrit words, which his teacher tried to cram into him, before he was kicked out of the school. He also knew few English, French and German words from these tourists. He loved to con these stupid tourists. Rigveda claimed ‘Atithi Devo Bhav’. Chhedi knew this. Not because he was a Vedic scholar, but because he saw an ad by Amir Khan. He was a die hard fan of Mr Khan. He took a great pleasure in intoning this phrase to the tourists and then translating it in English before fleecing them. After their experience with brassy New York cabbies, the American tourists were pleasantly surprised by this soft spoken, polite and philosophical rickshaw puller, who spoke about karma and life and whatnot. They invariably paid him double of what he asked. Which, in fact was double of what was the normal fare.
The winters in Benaras is really cold. The temperature drops to minus 1 degree. People die in cold wave. Chhedi loved the season. He put on whatever clothes he could find and stood at 6am in front of Varanasi Cantt station, in hope of any foreigners. He knew enough to not to stand at Babatpur airport. Any foreigner, who can afford airfare would never use a cycle-rickshaw to commute to his star grade hotel. It was the middle and lower middle class tourists, which were Chhedi’s hopes. Chhedi was a business analyst. He knew the economics of individual. A pity, Howard didn’t know about him, or this Benarasi would have taught them a thing or two about economics, which they could never dream of! Sorry! I forgot to mention why Chhedi loved winters! A writer is a busybee. He is a swimmer in a torrential river of ideas. If he loses his footing, he loses the thread. I found mine. Chhedi loved winter because it helped him earn enough for his large brood.
Last four months of his favorite season were nothing to write about. Chhedi didn’t know about global recession. He ended winter poorly. He screamed a Benarasi obscenity to his pal and toyed with his tea glass. He remembered Catherine. Catherine Turner. A college dropout, who was in search of ‘Inner Peace’. She was fascinated by the rusty rickshaw-wala with weird accent and a weirder philosophy. She visited his home at Asi. She was fascinated by the way his wife toiled. She decided to stay, but someone squealed to the Haidarganj Thana and she was arrested for possession of cannabis. Cannabis, which Chhedi supplied from the Nirgun Akhada, near Dashashwamedh Ghat. Chhedi hid his big, green bundle of green weeds.
What’s the world coming to! People getting arrested in Kashi for possession of Ganja? Some day, they will arrest Bholenath too! Chhedi spat and cursed roundly.
His daughter was sick. It was impossible to earn anything nowadays. These bloody Benarasi bastards always bargained. How can you expect a hardworking guy to make money? Yesterday a dhoti-clad Bengali hailed him near Ashapur Chaumuhani. He wanted to research Ashoka. He already provided a disclaimer, before boarding the rick that, “Ami paanch taka debo, Sarnath ke. Bargain korchi na.” (I’ll pay only 5 rupaye for Sarnath.
How can you fight such adversity?
Chhedi was sitting in the passenger seat and counting his month’s earning. It was pathetic. Excepting those fake coins, which Benarasis still love to spring on the unsuspecting tourists, he had 80 rupees in cash.
It was near evening. Sun was tired after these everyday’s monotonous toil. The Greek Apollo was exasperated seeing those white faces, who dipped in Ganga. He couldn’t see any brown skins washing their sins. Surya was feeling sleepy and was drooping his celestial eyes, when he saw a white skinned foreigner craning his neck. Sun was a true snob! Yesterday, Moon and Mars joked about him. They literally proved that sun is only ‘Rich Guy’s’ slave. Sun wanted to prove them wrong. He saw a rich white guy. He saw that idiot Chhedi.
Chhedi was shook awake by a Caucasian giant. He initially didn’t believe his luck! American? In August?
“Yes please sir. Welcome good morning. You see Benaras? I have good Sarnath show and Ganga. I have Manikarnika ghat. People dying there. I have… “
The burly Australian hugged him and whispered in his ear. “Listen mate! Need a dose of your trance. I’d rather, your Cannabis are better than the last monastery at Ramnagar! Your Shiva loves it. Get me a pound. ” He rolled a big bulge of five hundreds in Chhedi’s palm. Chhedi understood few things. Cannabis. Shiva. Ramnagar, and the huge bulge of currency!
It was easy money! The money was around thousands! He asked the burly giant to wait near his rickshaw. He ran desperately to a tea shop near Shivpur Chauraha. An old guy was trying to light his stove. Chhedi fell down to help him. He placed 2k near his feet and begged. “Baba, I need 500 grams. Also, please keep this money.”
Chhedi gave the remaining bulk to the baba and took a small bag. He ran like the spirit of Pipali Pishachin was after him! He had all his solutions in his hand. In a pound package. He looked at the sun, which usually was so angry that he couldn’t see him. Today, he thought that the sun winked.
He suddenly stopped at his rickshaw. The burly giant was missing. He kept his left hand on the handle of the rickshaw and right on the seat and tried to pull, suddenly the atmosphere crackled with electric voice.
“APNE HATHIYAR RAKH DO. POLICE GHER CHUKI HAI. “
(Please surrender. You are surrounded.)
Benaras is the land of fun.
Mirza Ghalib decided that this land is founded on sweetness. ‘Benah’ Foundation. ‘Ras’ sweet.
Benaras is the oldest city in world. It’s said to be balanced on the trident of Shiva. He protects the city. No one ever sleeps hungry in Benaras. No natural calamity ever dared to meet Bholenath.
Unfortunately, the bullet was not from Benaras. It was a point three not three caliber from Munger Ordinance factory. It left it’s own house silently and entered, oh so silently!
Chhedi was trying to ride his rickshaw, when the guest from Munger met him.
We all are surprised, when we meet unexpected guests. Chhedi broke the world record. I don’t know why! I never scream when I meet friends.
The Sun was horrified! He tried to glare at Chhedi. When Chhedi shut his mortal eyes, Sun was ashamed. He stopped his chariot for a while and jumped in the Ganges! To wash his sins. shamefaced.
Next day, the Manikarnika saw a small pier. The flames were laughing like a small child. They were dancing playfully. The old and sick sun was looking at them.
I know. Chand bahut mazak udayega uski. Usi ne ye kahani likhi.