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‘There’s synchronicity in its randomness’

In Varanasi, if an ‘auntieji’ goes missing, the regulars at her chai stall feel a sense of emptiness, says Banaras Hindu University alum Rohit Singh Dangi.

education Updated: Jul 02, 2013 18:15 IST
Ayesha Banerjee

It was not the city, but the lessons in his B Sc textbooks by biotechology expert Dr BD Singh that drew Indore’s Holkar Science College student Rohit Singh Dangi to Banaras Hindu University (BHU).

Now a PhD scholar at Delhi’s Institute of Immunology, Dangi says, “The best books we studied for bachelors were by Dr Singh and since he was from BHU I decided he would be my teacher and wrote and cleared the entrance exam for my masters at the Institute of Agricultural Sciences, BHU.”

The first day at the railway station in Banaras after Dangi landed up from Indore was unforgettable. His rickshawallah chose what’s known as the Central route. “As we passed by I was awed by the physics and chemistry departments, which were huge mahals (palaces). Since it was shrawan (monsoon), everything was green and there were mango trees and peacocks all around. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen,” recalls Dangi.

Campus life, too, was good. There were just 15 students in class. The hostel was comfortable and had a presswallah and barber. “You had the latter keeping an eye on you and letting you know when he thought your locks had grown too long and needed to be cut,” laughs Dangi.

The chance to study with Dr Singh came in the second year. “He taught us genetics and was the university’s rector at the time. One day, on a Sunday, we were called in really early to class and he started teaching us. He lectured, we listened, and the chai and snacks kept coming in... and in six hours Dr Singh had completed the entire course! Later we got to know that people from other departments had come in too, just to hear him. He was a great teacher and taught so well, with such simple and easy-to-understand examples,” says Dangi.

Food was good too. Each hostel had about five small messes serving different kinds of cuisine - Bengali, complete with fish, mutton or chicken; or Jain, which was vegetarian; and the famous Banarasi aloo bhujia (fried potato), gulab jamuns etc. “The cooks were called ‘maharaj’ - and there was no set menu. They would ask you at times about the kind of food you wanted to eat. A canteen boy would supervise the meals and ensure you were constantly kept supplied with hot chapattis and vegetables and meats,” says Dangi.

The campus is very safe too for women, chips in Dr Garima Tiwari, another PhD student at the Institute of Immunology who is now set for her postdoctoral studies in Singapore.

There’s something called the “Proctoral board and the members are khatarnak (dangerous). They are everywhere in the city and in case there is one case of misbehaviour reported, you can be sure they’ll find out who did it and take the culprit away for some stern lecturing,” says Dangi.

As a city, you can only fall in love with Varanasi. “Strangely, I feel there’s a synchronicity in its randomness. There is so much chaos but everything has its place. We used to visit this chai shop run by an ‘auntieji’ at the famed Assi ghat (According to the ‘Vamana Purana’, the Varuna and the Assi rivers originated from the body of the primordial Person at the beginning of time itself. The tract of land lying in between the rivers is called Varanasi. Source: Varanasi.nic.in), and spend long hours by the banks of the Ganges, students and tourists from abroad. It was so much a part of our lives that when auntie went missing for a few days (she, thankfully, returned later) we felt a strange emptiness. And it was not just us, everyone missed her,” says Dangi.

Students at BHU enjoyed both work and play. The Ramnagar ka Quila (fort) was a favourite and one had to cross a ‘Tankiwallah Bridge’ over the Ganges to get there. There is a Vishawanth Temple, referred to as VT, also on campus, as the VT ke samosey and chholey are famous too. Another place, strangely named Lanka, is famous for its Pehelwan ki lassi and peda. Chachi ki kachori, alas, is not available any more as chachi has passed away.

Nothing, however, is comparable to the ghats, says Dangi - you go sit by the banks, see the arti (evening prayers with lamps) and drink tea and watch the artists painting scenes from the rivers and temples. Some come there to watch the ‘firangs.’ BHU students are also aware of the fact that the main Kashi Vishwanath temple is the spiritual heart of the city and many go barefoot early in the mornings for prayers.

The one thing that is really hot and happening in Varanasi is Holi, which is celebrated with great fervour. “About 5000 people gather at the Assi ghat, and you have hasya kavis gathered there with their rib-tickling poetry, all of which is narrated as gaalis (abuses) and everyone’s had bhaang. It’s in good humor so even if the Congressi has to say something to the BJPwallah, no one will take it quite seriously for that day,” says Dangi.

He does admit, however, that the poverty in the city is heart-breaking. “People are so poor. The rickshawallah earns a measly Rs. 5 ferrying people from the station to the university and it hurts to see so many of them fighting among themselves for passengers, asking for Rs. 10 or Rs. 15. It is so sad. Don’t make the mistake of thinking these people are lazy. They work hard and are willing to do more... but there just isn’t enough work or money to sustain them,” says Dangi.

There is also a lot of dirt and pollution and the traffic is awesome. No one follows traffic rules. “The city has narrow gallis (streets) and at times you might find just one truck parked peacefully with impatient cars honking away. At times, you can also spot the famous Banaras bull doing its bit to hold up things,” he says.

Love

* Assi ghat: Get your special chai here, chat with the firangi tourists, watch the artists painting scenes from the rivers and temples

* People own you. It’s not like a big, heartless city where no one cares whether you live or die. They go out of their way to help

* The Ganges, the temples: For great spiritual upliftment

Don’t like

* The poverty: Can be heartbreaking. Rickshawallahs earn just Rs. 5 ferrying people in the heat and dust

* The pollution and dirt: The filth and stench unbelievable, “but perhaps there are not enough people to clean up this crowded city,” says Dangi

* The traffic: It’s chaos and mayhem on the streets of Varanasi, with trucks and even bulls, holding up traffic