(Part III of a 3-part series)
It was my last night in Kashi and I was walking down the small lanes around the Kashi Vishveshwar temple. I saw a Tibetan place offering the authentic cuisine. I felt that my soulful trip to Sarnath that morning, where I had the good fortune of interacting with a few monks in the Tibetan monastery would reach a perfect crescendo with this food joint.
A quick climb through a few dimly lit stairs led me to a corridor where an old woman sat on the cash counter. One of her waiters, a boy in his early twenties, sporting a Virat Kohli hairstyle, navigated me through a large number of doors, finally assigning me a seat on a partitioned bed.
The bed had two old style tables and the guests were supposed to sit in the traditional Indian way in front of those tables for one. On the other side of the balcony was a small stage where two old men were playing flute and tabla. They played some classics from the black & white era of Bollywood. The song “phir bhi mera mann pyasa” received a spontaneous once more and the artist duo immediately obliged.
I was served a hot Thukpa Soup and for a moment I forgot that I was in Kashi. While I ate the soup and later on moved on to my momos and noodles, I struck a conversation with the artists. It was interesting to see how they perceived this cauldron of cultures, religion and ethnicity in their city.
“Kashi apne mein he ek Vishwa hai” (Kashi is an entire world in itself) one of them said, and I could not agree more.
I told them about my plan to go for an early morning boat ride, and they requested me not to feed anything but bread or nuts to the migratory birds. It was conveyed to me in the typical Banarasi style – A kind hearted request with unpalatable cuss words for the sides. I simply laughed and agreed to oblige.
The next morning, I was at the Dashwamedh Ghaat at 5:00 AM. I hired a boat ride and my co-riders were an Israeli ex-soldier and a Chinese engineer, born and brought up in San Francisco. We left the shores and our sailor Kanhaiya, started narrating fantastical stories about Ganga and the several Ghaats that we crossed.
I had been assigned an unpaid role of a translator and I happily indulged. Some stories were so fantastical that I could see my co-riders doubting my translation abilities. I assured them that I was merely the messenger and the content is as it is.
We saw several flocks of migratory birds being fed by the tourists. I had not carried with me any bread or nuts, but my sino -american friend was happy to lend me some. These birds apparently travel from Siberia and Kashi is the only place on their entire route, where not a single one of them is ever hunted.
When our boat took us to the centre of the basin, we were asked, if we wanted to carry some Ganga Jal back with us. Our sailor offered empty bottles for a steep price. Our resourceful sailor exploited the fact that we were in the middle of the river, with no one but him to offer us the tool to ‘moksha’. I had to explain my new acquaintances the importance of taking this water back home and how they could too have this unique opportunity to escape the cyclic trap of life and death, thanks to Kanhaiya, our sailor in this life and beyond.
I convinced them to buy his bottles and I got mine for free.
“Banarasi bangaye aap yahan aake” (You have become a Banarasi now) said my sailor and I felt my chest swell with pride.
We also took some water in our palms and drank it, then and there. This was impossible just a few years ago. The recent efforts to clean this holy river had started to show results and an American drinking the water directly from an Indian river and surviving, was a living proof of it.
When our boat ride ended, my Israeli friend decided to do some Yoga. He was learning Yoga at Banaras Hindu University for a year and was impressive in his moves. I wondered, why we Indians never realized the intrinsic brand value of Yoga before the outside world did?
I bid adieu to both of them, and sat on a secluded corner on the ghaat. I was breathing in the beautiful morning breeze of Ganga along with a cup of hot ginger tea. Ganga was as beautiful and as magnanimous in the morning as it was during the night.
With heavy steps I left the shores of this great river and went back to my hostel. I said goodbye to a few friends I had made during my stay and payed my dues at the hostel counter.
I am not someone who gets attached to places and things but I had to admit that leaving Kashi made me sad. Even though I knew, I could never live in a city like Varanasi, I had gotten attached to the place.
I was now a part of a five thousand year old civilization and I was proud of it as any Banarasi would.
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