Six years ago, when I was packing my bags to leave Banaras, I didn’t have much.
My grandfather had always spoken about the city in high regard. He used to tell me that our ancestral land in Banaras was taken away by the king of the city who gifted it to the British government long before he was born.
That day, like my ancestors, I too left Banaras empty-handed. I didn’t have any memories, nostalgia or even the spirit of the city. Or so I thought. Back then, I never realised that I left something back here; that I missed the whole point.
The only memory I had of Banaras was sitting on Ganga ghat at night, until some policemen shooed me away. I never had any transcendental realisation or spiritual experience. Nothing. I used to just sit on the stairs of the cleanest ghat I found.
I often used to walk to Manikarnika Ghat, where the flames of the pyre are always lit. Some drunk dom – a lower-caste community in Banaras – once told me that the day when not a single dead body will burn at Manikarnika will be the last day of humanity.
Back then, I was too young and arrogant to accept my own existentialism. I would stare at those pyres, watching a whole human body go up in flames – each having decades of life – now waiting to be swept by the waves of the mighty Ganga. Yet, I stared at them with all my vanity.
Six years later, I am back in the same city with my Dadi.
She is almost 80 now, and barely remembers anything other than her late husband, a few verses of the Ramayana and my name. She was sleeping after a tiring darshan of Lord Vishwanath when I decided to stroll around those ghats again. But this time, I could not gather the courage to climb the stairs of Manikarnika.
Life is a humbling journey indeed.
I sat on Assi – now cleaner than ever – and was staring at the somewhat green-coloured water of Ganga. Suddenly, an old man tapped my back and said “Machis hau? (Do you have a match stick?)” He had a bidi (cigarette) in his mouthful of stained teeth.
“Hum na piyeli cigarette (I don’t smoke)” I replied in my broken Banarsi. “Machis ka sirf biddi cigarette piye khatir hawe (matches aren’t just for lighting cigarettes)” he replied jokingly. “Kaha se bata? (where are you from?)”
I wanted to tell him that I don’t know where I belong anymore, but I didn’t. I felt that making philosophical conversations with a strange old man won’t be very rewarding.
“Delhi, aur ap? (Delhi, and you?)” I said.
“Assi” he replied.
“Banaras se hi matlab? (you mean from Banaras?)”
“Na…hum ta Assi se haiye (no, I am from Assi)”
“Banaras ta log banaule , Assi ganga maiya banaiye , hum ta Assi se haiye (Banaras is built by people, but Assi is built by mother Ganga herself)” he continued.
We both sat quietly for a while.
“Dada, dadi…wadi key hawe? (sir, do you have a wife, family, anyone?)”
It was a bit discomforting. So, I asked him about his family or wife.
“Na, rahil, maar gaiyl, Ladika bacha aiku naahi (no, my wife died and I don’t have any kids)” he replied without any sorrow.
We were silent again.
I decided to go back to check on my grandmother.
I stood up, put my hands in my pockets and took out a Rs 200 note to give to this old lonely man.
And to my surprise and embarrassment, he refused.
“Paiesa na chahi, machis chahi (I don’t need money, I need a match stick)” he laughed with joy.
I stuffed my money back into my pocket and started walking.
This city, a chaotic but organised centre of “letting go” for the whole country, where people dump their sins, want to dump their sorrows, and even ashes of their loved one, has again surprised me.
This is probably the only city where old, lonely rags don’t want money.
All they want is a ‘machis’, laughing at well dressed young souls who have everything to offer but the flame.
Prakhar Shukla is an economics graduate who writes about minute experiences of this grand reality.
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty