“Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as two L K Advani put together” – Mark Twain.
I guess Twain was not very far from reality. Perhaps, Benaras is so old that now will be a good time to change its name to Rekha. There is an element of timelessness to the city, as if it has seen and survived it all, even the Modi wave. I realised this while I was wandering through the labyrinth-like, antique streets of Benaras in search of God. I finally found him at the Dashashwamedh Ghat, at the bottom of a chillum.
It was no ordinary trip, mind you. It was more like a meeting of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen who gathered in Benaras to show their solidarity to one of their fallen heros, as he decided to take the plunge and join the ranks of mortals who inhibit Middle Earth and wear a Ring of Power with the inscription “Jo biwi se kare pyar, woh Prestige se kaise kare inkaar”. So ya, basically a friend had decided upon Benaras as his wedding venue, and we all wanted to
laugh and point fingers bless the newlyweds as they were about to enter the most beautiful phase of their life, BharatMatrimony.com.
Before i boarded my Benaras-bound Indigo flight (tickets for which made me lose 80% of my savings, bottle of blood and one kidney), I had to first navigate my way through thirty-six-chambers-of-shaolin aka Mumbai Airport. This also had me getting touched inappropriately by the security staff, getting boarding pass issued, checked and rechecked 32,587 times, doing the Ajay Devgan-styled split on two bikes, becoming the Dragon Warrior and finally boarding the aircraft after having been tested for Ebola by the concierge (French for ‘Maushi’).
Once onboard, I was told of all the important stuff, like food will cost me my other kidney, smoking was not permitted in the flight, the Captain is a Belieber and that there is a life jacket that would come in handy in the ‘unlikely’ event of the plane landing on water. At this point, I had just two words for them –
Malaysian Airlines God Forbid. Finally, after all safety announcements finished (it had short tutorial on 3-step process to make a Higgs-Boson particle), we were airborne, flying towards the promised land in a plane that was manufactured at the 102nd Indian Science Congress.
The first thing that struck me, as I landed in the Benaras was that people there engaged in a weird activity, one that is totally alien to anyone living in Mumbai – make small talk to strangers. No, seriously! The last time I saw a guy make small talks in Mumbai was “Bandra kis side aayega?”. In Benaras however, if someone starts a conversation, be sure that by the end of it, you would know everything about him, his family, his Candy Crush score as well as the results of his colonoscopy. And all of that, when the question was just an innocent, “Aur batao
The shining embodiment of this bakchod character of Benaras is a guy, who hangs around during the day at one of the city’s busiest, crowdiest intersection, armed with a microphone and loudspeaker, and provides live commentary of proceedings on the road to everyone who will care to listen. Occasionally, he also throws in some shayaris, anecdotes or even his choicest expletives at traffic violators. Although I wonder why he kept repeating “The Nation wants to know”.
It is said that the beauty of Benaras lies in its many Ghats. This is true unless you are at Manikarnika Ghat, which is arguably the holiest cremation ground in India. By a rough estimate, nearly 500 dead bodies are cremated there every day. People go there to bid final farewell to their loved ones and immerse their lifeless bodies in Ganga before laying them down on the pyre, then click a selfie with them and post them on facebook with status like R.I.P. #achedininheaven. It is believed that if a person is given a send-off at Manikarnika, he attains instant moksha. So, essentially the ghat serves as Tatkal quota for the dead, which guarantees them a seat in the Nirvana train, or as it was called in the Vedas, Mumbai Local.
As I made my way back to the hotel after visiting Manikarnika, million thoughts thronged my head. Philosophical questions like what is the purpose of life, what is beyond death, will I be at peace when I die, where will I find a good bhang-thandai ran amok. Fortunately, I did not have to walk too far before I spotted the answer staring right at my face – Baba Thandai. It is said that having bhang-thandai also scores high on the list of ‘3 point Debauchery plan in Benaras’, the other two being, smoking baba ka prasad with a naga sadhu and eating at Deena Chat Bhandar. A word of caution here though: If the all of the above are executed simultaneously, it can cause serious health issues like Severe Hedonism.
During the next two days, I managed to visit a few more ghats, watch the majestic Ganga aarti and had conversations with the paan-shop owners about Modi’s Swach Bharat Abhiyan while a Gau Mata was holy shitting on my face. I also caught up with my friends over some blue lassi, numerous glasses of bhang thandai and serene Benarasi sunrise. As for the wedding, it had all the elements worthy of a Sooraj Barjatya’s wet dream. As I walked up on the stage to congratulate a seemingly happy version of what used to be my friend, his smile reminded me of Rahul Gandhi before the interview with Arnab Goswami. Just like RaGa, I thought, the man had no idea that behind all those wedding glitz, glamour and endless line of refugee-like people waiting for the next round of paneer butter masala, lies the gates of Mordor and Mount Doom, where he will be transformed into a Nazgul by the dark forces like joint bank account and home loan companies.
So, I gave him a bear hug, half in sympathy, and half for the only rational decision he took during the wedding – to keep the venue as Benaras.