Abdul Matim is a 20-year-old who looks his age. So when he tells you that he has been weaving saris for the last 10 years, you check that bit of information with his employer. Iqbal Ahmed, 'MD' of Silk Mine, one of Varanasi's largest manufacturers of saris, confirms Matim's shrug of an answer that hints at a craftsmanly arrogance. In fact, 'training' usually starts from age 10. Ahmed himself started weaving at that age, and his bright-eyed nephew, Misan Ansari, hovering around him, will start handling the loom in another two years.
There are some 400-450 figures like Matim working on their looms at Silk Mine. "Around 80 per cent of Varanasi's Muslims are weavers," says Ahmed. While his weavers are all Muslims, his clientele is overwhelmingly Hindu. Does the BJP's 'CD controversy' and the VHP's latest call for a Hindu Ekta Yatra in Varanasi from April 15 worry Ahmed? "Hindu-Muslim problems are always created by politicians. Before the BJP first came to power in Uttar Pradesh, all the other parties were telling us how our lives would be endangered. They're at it again this election year. But once we had a BJP government, we realised that it was like any other party. In Varanasi, we have no problems. Neither Muslims nor Hindus can afford to have problems."
Iqbal's brother and partner, Wasim Ahmed, gives out a wry smile. "We may not sit down together to eat but business makes us all friends." He recounts how after the bomb attack at the Sankatmochan Temple last year, there was lafra (problem) for "some four-five hours". But the weaving community and the businessmen sat down and the matter ended there.
Tribhubhan Nath Pandey, a Brahmin, has known the Ahmeds for decades and is now planning to set up his own Benarasi sari retail business. "Would we rather make politics out of us being Hindus and Muslims or make a living?" This is from someone who is still looking forward to a Ram mandir being built in not-too-far-away Ayodhya.
Overlooking the Ganga straddling the steps of Dasaswamedh Ghat is the Banaras Saree Factory, another major manufacturer of Banarasi saris. Shyam Kumar Pandey (Om Dutt) took over the family business in 1996 after his brother's death. More interested in talking about Hindu philosophy than about silk saris, he has strong views on what is wrong with today's India ("If Netaji Subhas Bose had been alive, all this would not have happened") and minces no words while talking about the "policy of appeasing Muslims" by politicians. But he, too, finds no contradiction in underlining the fact that the sari business knits Hindus and Muslims of Varanasai together. "Sant Kabir talks about the tana-bana of Hindus and Muslims. There are only two kinds of people in the sari business here – the rich and the poor. That's all."
Both Ahmed and Pandey seem to mentally roll their eyes when confronted with yet another newspaper reporter's question of Hindu-Muslim amity forming the warp and woof of Varanasi. "If anything needs to be looked at, it's the matter of development," says Ahmed. "This part of town has eight hours of power cuts every day. We make do by running on generators. But what kind of government makes tall promises and can't provide its people with electricity?"
Instead of harping about the Banarasi sari bringing about communal amity, Ahmed would rather lead us to a small room where a middle-aged weaver is craning over his loom above which a small tube light flickers. In the semi-darkness, one can barely make out what he is working on: a half-finished white and violet silk sari that will fetch some Rs 30,000 for a retailer somewhere, for which its maker will make Rs 100-120 for the next month or so.