What ties Banaras’ high and low life to each other is wood. Boatman Siju Sahani’s boat has cost him a lakh. His house at Shivala needs a wooden roof. “That will come for Rs 20,000. So for each day this month, I need to catch a foreigner who will pay me atleast Rs 1,000 for an hour’s ride.”
Isn’t that rather steep? “I have an understanding with Kallu Dom (Doms burn dead bodies on the ghat) at Dasaswamedh ghat,” says Siju. For each dead body the foreigner ‘tours’, Kallu embroiders a colourful family history and Siju pays him a share. The tourist gets his ‘nirvana,’ the Dom gets money to buy wood.
The non-industrial economy of Banaras and the slow, seeping changes in its lifestyle, have disturbed the boatman's traditional means of livelihood. Just 20% of the community now follow the profession. They now fish in the morning. The rest of the time, they paint and repair boats, sell vegetables, work in hotels, and even act as guides. The unholy connection between wood, the boatman and the dom is one strand in his story. The city’s poor are burnt at Harishchandra Ghat, famous for the electricity-run crematorium. “The rich prefer to die on wood. Wood takes three hours to burn. Electricity is for the poor,” says a dom. He uses part of his earnings to burn those without relatives.
Benaras has a philosophical attitude to wood. Says litterateur Kashinath Singh in his book Kashi ki Assi: “There are many chowrahas of the world – Connaught Place, Churchgate, Chowringhee – and people who sit there, think the world is made of bronze, steel and gold but we know the world is made of wood. We use it to make sticks, oars and toys. We know houses may fall down and civilizations may collapse. But wood – even during storms, stands erect. Or lies down.”
There’s another take on this sorry spectacle. The meaningless of wood standing also becomes an occasion for lightheartedness and fun. As KN Singh says: “Here, even death is like a celebration. That’s why when a funeral procession passes, you’ll often see children shouting ‘Ram nam satya hain, murga sala mast hain.”