It was 4pm in a summer afternoon. Barna Pul, or the bridge over the river Varuna in Benaras was jammed under the scorching sun. The temperature of Benaras was 41 degrees Celsius. The locals were not stranger to such traffic jams on this narrow bridge and were aware that it may continue for hours or may be till the next morning. The old and heritage bridge was constructed during the late 19th century and was one of the first of its kind in India. it’s a double decker structure with trains rattling their way above and heavy trucks with Haryana license plates honking below. Officially it’s known as Malaviya Bridge, named after Pt Madanmohan Malaviya, who singlehandedly constructed one of the greatest universities in the world by begging for alms. The Benaras Hindu University is one of the largest and biggest universities in the world, with its own aerodrome and police force. All built by a diminutive guy in white, who was an argumentative and arrogant Brahmin. He was penniless, but had infinite charisma and persuasion. After all, arrogance and pride is in the air of Benaras!
The road to the Varanasi Court or Kachehary Road is always bustling, but now it was jammed due to a stalled overloaded truck in the middle of the narrow bridge. It was a heavy snarling traffic jam. The truck drivers were taking it easy. After all, it was a regular scenario. Some of them had lighted kerosene or coal stoves and were preparing meal. They all knew that haste was senseless. A sardar driver pulled out his folding cot from the top of the cab and sprawled in the middle of the road while drinking neat rum from a bottle, his radio transistor blaring the latest raunchy numbers in cracked voice. Few were playing cards. No one was in a hurry. After all, Benaras is the city of Mahakal! The Keeper of Time! Time is money and we Benarasis are millionaires.
Dr Tribhuvan Prasad Mishra was fuming inside his air conditioned car. His driver was outside, trying to find a route out of this mess. He knew that it was impossible to get out of this jam, but the scorching May heat was bearable as compared to the grumbling of the learned doctor, who was cursing the laid back Benarasis for their careless attitude. Dr Mishra was a renowned cardiologist and was visiting Benaras from Canada.He was born and brought up here and had emigrated to Canada 10 years ago. He stepped out of the cool interior of his sedan car and tried to look for a way out of this mess. He squinted his eyes along the dusty road in the shimmering heat. The little boats in the Ganges were slowly venturing out, the scantily clad sailors singing long forgotten Benarasi folklores in a barely discernible voice. The sun was trying to play with the lapping waves of Ganga like a kitten plays with its mother’s swishing tail. The dusty horizon was amber.
Dr Mishra was oblivious of this cosmic extravaganza and was just trying to squeeze his $1600 suit clad body and tried to find a way out. There was none. He had to reach Bhelupur before 12am tonight to settle his ancestral property. It was merely 6km away, but it seemed that he won’t reach there till next year. He looked once at the setting sun trying to wet it’s fiery hair in Ganga behind the privacy of the Ramnagar Palace and dived in the sedan to grab his belongings. He picked up his laptop and two smartphones, and huffed away, cursing the world. Holy city! What’s so holy about it? Bloody mess! He remembered those overflowing gutters near Kuber Paan Bhandar, at Lanka and was nauseated. It’s just a cesspool of the dregs of the civilization, who come here to wash their sins. Bloody hypocrites! Benaras is a great dump of narcotics and the dregs of society, who seek an oblivion in the name of nirvana with a drag of ganja. Where’s the God here? He demanded of the setting sun. The sun was still busy washing its face.
He slapped a guy, who was trying to push his cycle between a still truck and a tempo, and brushed his coat accidentally.
“You damned oaf! You don’t even see where are you going!” He screamed. The scandalized kid ran away, leaving his cycle in the middle of the mess. The doctor snorted and asked a driver on a cot in the middle of the road. “When is this jam going to clear?”
“Whenever Bholenath wishes!” came the laconic and educated reply.
“Do you guys even have a bit of shame?” Dr Mishra thundered. “You are the people, who are called the Bloody Indians in my country! You guys blackball Benaras.” he went to his cot and kicked his coal stove away, scattering fire everywhere. “This is what I’m ashamed of. I came here as an honored guest of the country and what I see? Bloody louts rolling on ground in the middle of the road!” He threw up his hands in disgust and walked away. The drivers running to douse a few stray coals.
The usually empty road to Bhelupur was jammed. The doctor could see it and was hastening towards it, while trying to avoid the ugly rickshaws. A bright eyed kid came to the doctor, who was hastening along the parapet of the old bridge.
“Is this a computer?”
“No. It’s a second hand calculator.” The old man snarled viciously. The child’s father came running from the nearby stalled and overcrowded auto rickshaw.
“Why do you begat if you can’t bear, damn you?” The doctor thundered to the petrified father. He turned away towards the setting sun, who had stopped washing its hair and was now beedily eyeing the Barna pul. May be, even it couldn’t understand the antagonism.
“God fuck the crows! What a shit am I in!”
A Texan drawl arrested the speeding doctor. He looked behind to see a mild faced American sitting on a cycle rickshaw, trying to peer into the never ending traffic. Dr Mishra approached him. We Indians have a few weird habits. We either show off or we argue. Especially when in Benaras. We always show that ‘Holier than thou’ attitude and to hell with all the Vedas. The learned doctor wouldn’t have given a thought to Chhedi, the rickshaw puller, who was equally stuck there, but his heart went out to the American.
“Hi! Myself Dr Tribhuvan Prasad Mishra. Your good name please?”
The tired American bloomed, “Hey, hi! I don’t believe that you guys can pronounce my name exactly, but you may call me what my pa used to. I’m Nick. And, it’s my only name. Never had any good one!” He said with an easy laughter, while trying to find a way out.
The doctor looked around him in disgust. “I’m sorry for this mess. This is so pathetic, you know! I’m ashamed of it! Can I help you? I was born here, so I know all the streets.”
The burly Caucasian eyed him suspiciously, then decided that he’s not that Benarasi thug his countrymen had warned him against and became voluble, “You really have a shit dump here, buddy! In my country we would outlaw such junk!”, he said, while pointing to the trucks groaning under twice the weight they were supposed to carry.
Dr Mishra looked at those trucks. In spite of all his years in Canada, he failed to see anything untoward. He looked at the frowning American and said defensively, “Well, here people aren’t so rich, you see? They can’t afford high powered trucks as in your country. They try to squeeze whatever juice is from the existing lemon.” He smiled at his own analogy. The Texan wasn’t amused.
“How about eating the skin of the lemon? Hear the groan? It sounds like my father when he had the hacking cough!”
“Well, I don’t see anything wrong here.” In spite of his reservation for the mess in Benaras, the doctor was offended. We may curse something belonging to us, but when an outsider badmouths it, we immediately resent the liberty taken by them and are defensive. The doctor turned and walked away. Nick called out, “Hey, Trib! Can you help me pay this guy? I don’t know his lingo, you see!”
No one had ever called him Trib in his entire life. The shocked doctor put his hands in his pocket and pulled out a ₹50 note and gave it to the rickshaw puller and left in disgust, closely followed by the curious American.
“I don’t know why I came here, Trib! I should have gone to Delhi. They say that it was designed by Lutyens and is the best planned city in India. No such jams there. He did a great job, in spite of being a Brit. Hahahah!”
“Lutyens was an ass!” the doctor stopped in his tracks. “You guys harp about heavy engineering, but did you even notice the engineering of this bridge above your head? It’s a marvel and is designed by Indian engineers. Your damned Mr British Architect designed a city in a wilderness. Anyone can paint a blank canvas. We constructed this on a roaring river in a bustling city.”
“Hey! This is good, but you know what I mean. This city is lovely. I love the mythology. About Shiva living and all. And those ghats. But, I don’t really believe that, as it seems quite far fetched. No offense, but don’t you think that it’s a bit thick to believe that a god really lives in a city populated by mortals?” he laughed pleasantly.
“Oh really? You think that the world believes in Easter? Nick, religion isn’t a panacea. It’s just a consolation. You either believe it or you are damned. We choose to believe that Shiva lives here.” The doctor suddenly stopped at the parapet and pointed towards the setting sun, “You see that castle? That’s the fort of the Maharaja of Benaras. The only King in the world who’s a born Brahmin and is worshipped as a god by the populace. It’s said that his lineage is unbroken since millenniums. He’s considered an incarnation of Shiva. You still don’t believe it? You see these multitude on this road? They won’t sleep hungry. No one ever does in Benaras, in spite of their pecuniary condition. Can you understand that weird logic, which attracts us to come here, so that we can die? You can’t. Then how can you even begin to understand my country, sir?” the veins in his neck were like thick jute cords.
The bewildered American looked at the ruins of the fort dubiously and scratched his head, then hastened behind the doctor. A kid of four came begging. The doctor smiled and sat down with him. “Nick, here we don’t have affluence. But we have happiness in chaos. In your country, you have affluence but have chaos in happiness. Things are always relative here, and we always relate everything to our own soul. That’s what makes us believe that God lives here. That’s what makes you come here in this backwater and search for inner peace. You may be able to search water on Mars, but you still aren’t able to find happiness in your own backyard.”
The dirty kid giggled while he watched the latest Lady Gaga music album on YouTube on the cellphone of Dr Mishra, oblivious of the monologue of the doctor, while the smiling American tried to sing the unknown lyrics in his tuneless voice.
The sun dried its hair and went to sleep. The stalled truck grumbled to life reluctantly and the jam inched forward in the growing dusk.
Life smiled under the benevelont and rising Opal Moon on the Barna pul.
Benaras or Varanasi is one of famous holy cities in the world and is considered one of the holiest cities for Hindus. It’s believed that the city is ruled by the lord of procreation and destruction Shiva himself. The city is situated at the basin of the rivers Varuna and Asi, hence the Sanskrit name Varanasi. However I prefer the newer name Benaras, which was bestowed to it by the famous Urdu poet Mirza Asadullah Khan ‘Ghalib’ during the late 19th century. The word Benah means foundation and Ras means sweet in Persian. Sweetness is indeed the foundation of Benaras.
The people here seem very argumentative, arrogant and careless at the first sight, but once you scratch the surface, you will find an emotional philosopher and an intellectual, who won’t hesitate to fight for you. I’m lucky to be born and to spend my initial years there and it’s my favorite city along with Bombay and Kolkata. I’m still to visit Kolkata, mind you!