|Benares (photo courtesy Wikipedia)|
I reached Benares on an overcast Sunday afternoon. The guesthouse had sent a car to pick me up from the airport. As I stepped out of the airport a fat drop of rain greeted me. The driver and I hurried to the parked car, eager to be off. I was excited and nervous, this was my first solo trip. We reached the car, which was parked perpendicularly to the curb. And discovered another car parked perpendicularly to our car, blocking its way. It wasn’t the only one, there were three cars in all, parked serially, and very effectively blocking our car’s exit. Whoever does such things?!!! But then, this is Benares. So anything is possible. That thought gave me the license to tell my driver to back out over the curb and make off. He readily revved his engine, the tyres spun against the curb and the car shot out backward over the foot-path, reminding me of Hollywood car chases. Along with the rain, I smelt a touch of madness in the air.
I had six days, a plan to volunteer at the Missionaries of Charity and simply not enough time to explore this magical city. I checked into my guesthouse at the busy Girja Mor and headed out for a reconnaissance of my route along the ghats to the Missionaries of Charity. On my way back I decided to stop at the Dashashwamedh Ghat. Dashashwamedh is like the Mahatma Gandhi Road of the ghats. The weekend crowd was swelling. So I walked to the next ghat, Rajendra Prasad Ghat. It was also very crowded and looked exactly like the India that used to be depicted in movies and other media half a century ago. Snake charmers, children flying kites, large families with women in red, orange and pink saris trailing small kids, turbaned sadhus, dogs, cows and more cows everywhere. Shifting sights, colours, sounds and smells. It felt like being inside a live kaleidoscope.
It was too large a dose of Benares for my first day! As I picked my way through cow dung and cow pee, I noticed a sadhu meditating. White hair, lean body smeared in grey ashes, naked except for a small loincloth, a string of rudraaksh around his neck. As he sat frozen in meditation, an island of peace in the midst of the chaos, a few men chatted on the steps above him, a cow seemed to look for something, two Europeans, an elderly man and a young woman, sat beside him in rapt attention. I pulled out my cell phone and took a photograph.
The next morning at the Missionaries of charity I met three other volunteers. Franz, a tall, stately old French lady, her cheeks a criss-cross of fine lines and her wrists twinkling with silver bangles and bracelets. Kahn, a gentle slightly built young man, with floppy brown hair, a stubble and a shy smile. He said he was from the UK and spoke in an accent that I couldn’t place. And Yves a sixty-year-old Frenchman, of even slighter built, close-cropped snow-white hair and beard. He spoke softly and with a French accent that I needed to watch like a hawk. We chatted over small cups of sweet thick tea that the staff made for us and glucose biscuits.
I asked Yves if he had been to India before and he nodded, “Yes, about 20 times.” He then told us about his first visit. It was the year 1972, he was 17 and he hitch-hiked from Paris to Benares. Through Europe, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. I thought for a moment that a French passport must indeed be a magical thing if it gave its bearer some protection through a route that is fraught with peril today. Perhaps this stretch of the world was a safer place then, but even then, I wondered what it would take a seventeen year-old to go on a journey this through unknown lands, where he didn’t speak the language and long before the safety of today’s connected world of cell-phones and social media. I could’ve asked Yves so many questions, but it was time to get back to our posts. Yves and Kahn went back to tend to the elderly men they helped, sometimes helping them exercise, sometimes helping one of them shave, often running errands like taking up the laundry to the terrace or sweeping the unseasonal rain off the courtyard. Franz went back to chopping vegetables in the kitchen. And I went back to the women of all ages, many of them with the mental age of small children.
A day later I figured that Yves walked back the same way along the ghats to his Guesthouse in the Manikarnika Ghat, beyond mine. So we walked together in the afternoon sun, a sleepy time along the ghats. There were a few people in the shade, flocks of pigeons, crows and the sun sparkling on the dark waters of the river. Yves asked me how I was spending my time in Benares. I told him that I had had just a couple of afternoons, of which I had spent one watching people at the Dashashwamedh and Rajendra Prasad ghats. It suddenly occurred to me that Yves was strangely familiar. I had seen him somewhere. For a moment I was puzzled, and then the penny dropped! I pulled out my phone and showed him the photograph I had taken of the sadhu meditating on the steps of the ghats, and sure enough, it was Yves sitting next to him in my photograph! Lakhs of people thronged the ghats that Sunday, there are over fifty ghats in Benares, I photographed all of two frames and one had this person that I was to meet the next day. What were the odds?
Yves nodded and smiled. “This is how things happen in Benares. I never carry a phone” he said “When I need to meet someone, I run into them.”
Bangalore / 14 September 2016