It’s five in the morning and the Howrah -New Delhi Express casually slips into the Mughal Sarai junction five minutes ahead of time after a relentless run the previous night. The diminutive woman in the lower berth opposite to mine is combing her hair with a languid dispassion; she has to look good. It’s the most important festival of the year and she’s visiting her in- laws. On this day, I’ve been told by my mother, a long time back and even she doesn’t know how long, the man who exemplifies manhood in the religion I was born into, came back home after 14 years, after rescuing his wife and being satisfied about her purity (which she had to prove by walking through fire), who also incidentally epitomizes womanhood in the same religion, from a learned demon with ten heads. As the train slows down, the woman hurriedly stuffs a steel tiffin box and a steel glass into a blue bag that reads Vogue and wakes up her husband and son. The train finally comes to a halt after a few minutes of uninspired limbering, and I clumsily get down from my middle berth. The station is like any other big station in the country- neutral and intriguing. I’m the odd one out. I am brown skinned, alone, and with a rucksack. The tempo wallas are confused if I should be haggled. My destination, Google Maps tells me, is 19 kilometres away. I scramble on to a tempo without much fuss; I am to make myself comfortable next to the driver. A family of three is on the rear seat. No one talks in the journey- maybe it’s the incomplete sleep or the chill of the morning. The road is broad but bumpy. Outside I see people with lotas, small teashops just coming to life, and a lot of trucks. The tempowalla says Madarchod every time a truck overtakes us. It’s still dark to see much and I hope it keeps that way for I have a date with the sun today. I am the last one to get off the tempo. I have more distance to cover but that’s all he would take me for twenty rupees, he sternly says. There are more people on the road now. The tempowallas pursue me more enthusiastically this time. I decide on the oldest looking one. I’m alone this time, except for a few cans of desi ghee . “Assi Ghat”, I say as confidently as can. This journey’s shorter but livelier- the old man is jovial and keen to talk and I gladly comply. He does insist, a few times, on showing me around, but is not overly pushy. I am dropped off with suggestions about good guesthouses nearby.
I can finally see the river, but I’m not exactly flushed over with sentiments. She seems sizably smaller than the one back home. I’m late for my date but the my date is generous enough to not completely get spent with her other lovers. He is still pristine enough for me to bask, for a while, in his mellow orange arms. We make love on the boat for a full hour and a half, though I do get distracted time and again by a few white women also seeking him. I want more but my boatman says that is all I get for what I have paid.
There is a slight issue of breakfast, which I settle with two cups of tea and four cigarettes, and some forecasting of Egypt’s future with a Jordanian who likes Israeli coffee. Hotel hunting turns out to be tougher than I had anticipated. The ones I can afford are full and the ones I can’t are full too. Finally, I find myself a barsati in a guesthouse owned by an old man with a cranky wife. The room is basic with a shared bathroom, which I’m to share with an American lady who played the harmonium and sang what she said were ragas from 6 in the morning for an hour.
My date’s right over my head as I step out of the hotel after a bath and exchanging pleasantries with my American neighbor. I’m hungry and I step into a place called the Brown Bread Café. The place is full of foreigners; I sit on one of the couches on the floor, and order a medium sized cold coffee, Mozzarella cheese and chicken lasagna. I light a cigarette and read a short called The Judgement by Franz Kafka as I wait for the food. An excessively touchy young white couple sits in front of me. The guy is doing something on his tablet and the girl, who looks barely out of her teens, is feeling his crotch over his cargo pants. The food takes a long time to come; a girl whom I later discover to be French asks me for a cigarette. I’ve just bought an expensive brand and am not too keen to share but I am too surprised to refuse. The food is mediocre and the coffee is bland, and I’m far from full.
I’m slightly tired by know but I resist taking a rickshaw, I know this has to be done on foot. I walk down the crowded narrow lanes. The demography on the streets bears a stark contrast – old devout God fearing Tamils and young carefree foreigners. But, perhaps, the quest of both converged somewhere on a greater common point I, too, wish to understand some day. I double down a long flight of stairs, they call the Ghats, and sit down as I reach somewhere midway. This Ghat is called the Meer Ghat .The afternoon crowd is scarce and a few metres away from me, a sadhu is pulling on a Chillum with a placid indifference and Shiela Ki Jawani is pompously playing on his portable radio. I wonder if listening to Shiela Ki Jawani is against being a sadhu and make a mental note to try it myself sometime. I take a huge sip from my mineral water bottle and decide to walk on. I walk northwards and reach the biggest and the busiest ghat- the Daswasmedh Ghat. Things here are markedly different and there is a flurry of activities- the ghat is being cleaned by a mechanized water sprinkler in preparation of the evening Aarti. I take a few photos on my phone as a group of shy kids poses for a huge white man with a DSLR. A well-dressed boy, appearing in his mid-20s, approaches me from nowhere and asks if I want hash. I refuse politely. I’ve been warned by my hotel manager that the hash they sell on the ghats is overpriced and impotent. This ghat is too congested for my liking and as I walk further northwards, the crowd begins to dwindle. My legs are beginning to let me down now and I toil up the stairs to exit through the Narad Ghat when a boy with shortly cropped blonde hair asks me for a light. He offers me a joint and we get talking. He’s from Israel and I enquire if he likes A Hundred Years of Solitude, which is, I see, nestled next to him on the stairs. We talk about Love in the Times of Cholera, my favourite of Marquez and end up smoking three more joints. I’m stoned by now and desperately hungry. He suggests me a place a two-minute walk away called the Shiva Café run by a Nepali lady who chain-smoked. The food turns out to be the best I’ve had in quite some time and it is insanely cheap for a place that catered to foreign tourists.
The food has cleared my head and I move southwards again for the burning ghat or the Manikarna Ghat. I am taken aback by the casualness of things here. As the corpses burn, people drink tea and talk about Mayawati as if it’s a big bonfire and I realize, perhaps, no loss in the world’s big enough to stop the living from living. It is strange to see a human body burn. The remnant ash looks as if a child has tried to scatter it in the shape of a sleeping man and the smoke of the pyre is so thick , I am scared it has charred flesh which will smear my face black and red. I am unnerved and make a quick exit back to Daswashmedh Ghat for the evening Aarti.
My date looks subtly splendid now- like a woman, glowing with satisfaction, stepping out of the bed to dress after a whole night of passionate lovemaking. I sneak through, between people and buffaloes to go back to the river. The fluorescent sheath of my date’s reminiscence on the grey water reminds me of home and the many evenings I have spent on the riverside with friends and I’m drowned for a few minutes in a mysterious melancholy. I fight back a strong urge to call my parents for tonight is my night and I have to wade through it alone.
I’m woken up from my reverie by a nudge on my shoulder and I turn back to see the freckled face of the French girl who had borrowed my cigarette. We sit down side by side for the evening Aarti and eat popcorn her friend buys from a girl with cleft lips. The evening Aarti is like an epic dance drama witnessed by thousands of people from the ghats as well as from the river on boats. Priests wearing spotlessly clean white dhotis skillfully perform lithe tricks with magnificent brass diyas on the edge of the river to soulful renditions of shlokas on loud microphones. The pace really picks up through the hour-long extravaganza, that is way beyond just religion, and the climax is beautiful. As I sit down, half an hour later, in the small smoky shop drinking tea and eating butter toasts, listening to the French woman describing what she terms as a ridiculously overpriced breakfast buffet in a hotel in Delhi, I am happy for the last two hours were more than well spent- the evening Aarti was an overwhelming experience and, although, my phone’s camera failed me, images of the spectacle will always remain with me.
I part ways with the girls and take a rickshaw back to Assi Ghat, much more confident this time. The rickshaw walla is drunk but he rides steadily enough. The city’s bright and beautiful tonight, almost like an amateur artist’s impression of heaven. Ayodhya, on the night, where Ram had returned to must have been equally bright too but someone must have forgotten to light the area where the Babri Masjid was to be built later. It’s late but the streets are full of people, playing with crackers and each other, and everyone looks so happy ; I think of family dinners at my home on my birthdays when all of us seemingly happily eat pudding together and in the lump of the frozen rice, so many people and emotions were frozen my naïve 12 year self could never comprehend . But I know I’ve grown up now, grown up enough to get lost under the night sky, ablaze with rockets and fireworks. The dogs are scared and can hardly be seen. I wonder if they see more than us, beyond the apparent brilliance.
I eat Thukpa for dinner in a roof top restaurant near my guesthouse, where Bob Marley plays, but the crackers overpower the Reggae singer’s serene voice. He doesn’t seem to mind though. During the walk back to the hotel, I have to jump several times to dodge stray bombs. The kids giggle at my awkward moves, embarrassing me. My guesthouse is demurely decorated with a few diyas but it is cold in comparison to the festivities around. I climb up three floors to reach my room on the roof. The phrase Room on the Roof raises my spirits, I instantly light a cigarette, and in the haze of the smoke, I see more than I have in a long time- it must be all a great cosmic conspiracy that all the better hotels are full. Maybe I am magically meant to stay in this room on the roof just as Ruskin Bond had in his struggling days. Maybe I am transcendentally supposed to just sit by the small window and watch the river change colours and dream about the girl I had held hands with and seen the river devour the sun back home. The roof suddenly lights up in the glow of an Anaar set alight by the old owner’s grandchildren and the roof’s more delightful than the most experienced artist’s impression of heaven can ever be, and, I know, I’ve seen light. I’ll come back here very soon again. I go inside my room, take out my notebook and write a poem about the room on the roof in a guesthouse at Assi Ghat in a place called Benares.