For three days, cheeky young hawkers and college students followed Avinash Tripathi, a thin young man who suddenly dug himself into the muck that lines the ghat of Assi, the southernmost ghat of Varanasi that is a readymade stage, as it were, for all sorts of unconventional behaviour.
The reason for Avinash’s whim was unknown, so they hung stories around him; the stories gave him girth and personality. At the end of the first day, he was called mad. On the second day, he was an artist. On the third day, the children who were throwing stones at him were being pushed by their parents to call him a ‘Baba’.
At Assi, Baba Avinash Tripathi is in good company. The eccentricity of this ghat, which the director of Pinjar, Chandraprakash Dwivedi, is now making into a film (based on well-known Hindi literatteur Kashinath Singh’s Kashi ka Assi, a rambling, masticating yarn), is well-known.
From Tulsidas, the eccentric householder whose Ramcharitmanas elevated him to the status of a saint, to literary characters like ‘Jhakkar Baba’ (from the short story The Whimsical Gentleman by Bhartendu Harish-chandra), who would spit from the window of his three-storeyed house on men whose clothes were clean, Assi and Varanasi’s liking and acceptance of irrational behaviour are both fact and fiction.
The eccentricity of the city, says Varanasi-based veteran theatre artiste, Kumwarji Agrawal, is also at its very source. In a holy city, that source is its legend. “It is said that Varanasi rests on Shiva’s trident, so this is a city that is suspended in mid-air,” says Agarwal. “It is not of this earth and its residents are constantly in limbo, searching for it.” Like Kakaji, a tea-seller whom you will meet every morning beside his boat-home, searching in the distant waters for some outline of his city he hopes will re-emerge in a future April.
By 7 a.m., the screams of Baba Mahadev, a fixture on Assi, pierces the dawn. “Aaj adhaa chilla raha hai (Today his scream is half of what it usually is),” notes a Ghat regular as Mahadev feeds his stray dogs — ‘Tulsidas’ and ‘Kalidas’. No one has insisted they are Indian literature’s holy cows. “This is a city where a Chamar could question the Shankaracharya, where Tulsidas, by writing his Ramayana in a dialect of Hindi, could challenge the monopoly of Sanskrit,” says Singh.
Mahadev’s rants of “O bhola! Sambhalo! Sabh jhola bhar raha hai! (They are filling their pockets),” invoking Lord Shiva to crush corruption, do not go waste. The ghats are frequented by small-time businessmen, junior clerks talked down by their superiors, and people tied to their jobs not out of conviction but desperation.
The eccentricity of people like Mahadev, a paan-seller, is discussed by local intellectuals at tea shops and is seen for what it is: the anger of the common man against the established structures of power, society and religion.
Assi, and Varanasi, give such people a platform. Their plainspeak — even a role-playing of a Santuran Prasad, 50, who thinks he is a crack traffic cop — articulates general discontent. And re-examines reality.
Former labour officer Sreenivasanji is another case in point. He’s not insane, say locals in defence. His mother, a university warden, was murdered. He protested. He failed. His paper Gajlu ka Samachar, where an elephant is his “anchor of an anti-mafia project” and in which, as he says, “coded messages are slipped in for wise men”, has its supporters. Many like Uddhbhav, a young artist with an art collective, insist that at times, it makes sense. “Aberration is diversion of anger,” he says.
Nineteenth century colonialism produced the city’s first non-conformists. The exploits of Nanku Goonda, who forced Warren Hastings to retreat from Varanasi, are celebrated in rhyme here. A Pandit Ram Avtar Shastri would take Sanskrit classes in a college run by an Englishman in dhoti-kurta and felt hat.
The globalisation of our century, which is re-ordering old symbols of power, prestige and custom, is threatening to remake Varanasi. And eccentricities are being produced, yet again, as many acts of resistance, rattling it, much like Istanbul, where the end of empire produces, in novelist Orhan Pamuk’s words, “huzun”, a melancholy of sorts. To empathise with Varanasi’s eccentrics is to realise that powerlessness can make you go ‘mad’.