A veritable repository of neuroses, I often imagine that poor idiot sneezing across the same room could infect me with SARS, that the cretin coughing across the road will cause me to swiftly die of tuberculosis, and that the itch on my arm is the first sign of an as-yet-undiscovered and terribly malignant form of leprosy which will eat away my very soul in a matter of weeks. As a result, I’m always well stocked with hand sanitizer and cleaning products. I am loath to actually use them, though, because, well, they might also contain the secret ingredient X that will smite me dead. Varanasi is a nightmare for such lily-livered individuals as myself. I went there once as child and the Ganga jal I had dutifully collected was kept on my grandmother’s pooja stand for a couple of decades before it found its predestined holy way down my grandfather’s gullet on his deathbed.
“You killed him. He couldn’t have survived that water,” my 15-year-old, who has lately taken to proclaiming his atheism, commented. I thought of that and giggled as I scrambled onto the boat at Bhainsasur Ghat. The marigold encircled diya, my offering to the mighty river, the Ganga, bobs away as the boat man, still a boy really, steers the vessel expertly out into the middle of the great stream. It is early November and darkness, like a cloak, has fallen on Varanasi with an abrupt swiftness. My companions, most of whom are very young people in flimsy footwear by now besmirched by the Gangetic slush, and I, are headed to BrijRama palace on Darbhanga Ghat for the inauguration of the three-day Mahindra Kabira Festival. We glide past the ghats lulled by the gentle current, past Gaay ghat, past Bhonsale ghat, past Narad ghat and Munshi ghat and suddenly it is upon us like a vision of the netherworld, a burning mountain, a giant edifice with fires that have been blazing from the beginning of Time, a huge funeral pyre that will burn on even unto the end of the world. Manikarnika ghat.
My mouth goes dry, and my eyes seek refuge in the dark banks opposite where no one, “only wild animals” the boatman says, lives. After that I need Kabir like I need a Brufen on the days when my feminine innards are savagely twisted by Nature just so I don’t forget I’m still capable of going forth and multiplying. And Shabnam Virmani of the Kabir Project, who performs at the inaugural session, does a good job of introducing everyone to the peculiar straight talk, the radical thought and refreshing honesty of the 15th century mystic.
Over the next few days, as I wander the winding streets of Varanasi, float down the Ganga watching folk lower the ashes of their loved ones into the river, peep into living rooms where meditative men feed rotis to cows, quaff the best lemon-masala-hajmola-tea in the world at Assi Ghat, and sway to the varied renditions of Kabir’s savagely ironic and totally contemporary poetry by Prahlad Tipaniya, Mukhtiyar Ali and Neeraj Arya’s Kabir Café, I feel something shift within myself.
When it’s time to leave, I notice I’m still a repository of neuroses. But I now have a line in deathly jokes.
“Make sure you dunk my ashes in the Ganga when I’m dead,” I say to my obnoxious 15-year-old who, somewhat predictably, demurs.
“Isn’t the water dirty; do I have to do it?” he asks before going on to discuss the logistics of getting my remains to Varanasi on the plane. It’s the sort of talk that I’d have balked at in my pre-Banaras avatar.
Now I just jauntily break into Kabir Café’s up-tempo version of Chadariya jhini re jhini, Kabir’s song about, what else, the fragility of life.