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Drugs, Guns And Salvation In Benares

20/06/2016 2:45 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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Hindu devotees bathe early morning at the River Ganges in Varanasi, India, Wednesday, July 11, 2012. Varanasi, also known as Kashi and Benaras, is Hinduism's holiest city. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh)

I land at Varanasi on a sun-drenched sultry afternoon. Benares, as it also called, along with its classical variation, Kashi, is one of the world's oldest cities. The modern Lal Bahadur Shastri airport, though, defies the city's historical, bygone contours. At the exit gate, India's famed demographic dividend exhibits itself in all its frenetic energy in a motley gathering of the usual suspects; there are private cab drivers, hotel touts, tour operators, luggage carriers and sundry hangers-on, each looking intently to hustle and grab a potential customer amid the passenger flow. The journey to the hotel is peppered with the hotel's well-informed staff telling us about Benares's must-see/do list. Outside, we see a regular rural landscape with pretensions of development -- hurriedly made haphazard structures, dusty barren lands stretching into dry fields, a cluster of tacky construction, flourishing small sweet-shops and retail traders co-existing with some fancy multinational outlets. Billboards at regular intervals have a beaming Prime Minister Narendra Modi reminding you that this is his territorial domain, one that he apparently wants to convert into a replica of Japan's breathtakingly charming Kyoto. I am told that real estate prices have skyrocketed high since May 2014. I nod in empathetic understanding.

The Benares narrative is fascinating... everything is about a sacrosanct holy dip for the purification of past sins. And a future without moral baggage.

The Taj Nadesar Palace with its spectacular opulence in the heart of the city stands out like an overflowing fountain in an interminable desert. Every room has had an illustrious visitor of international stature who has stayed there; their names distinguish one room from the other. The garrulous guest relations executive tells us that the Jawaharlal Nehru suite is one of the most preferred by foreign dignitaries. Saurabh, the master-chef, cooks for us the most mouthwatering colonial dish, the railway mutton curry. Outside, a few peacocks saunter lazily in verdant gardens under the summer sun.

The trip to the Benares ghats in the crowded old city is a mind-numbing experience. There are no traffic signals, and everyone defines their own rules for circumvention. The fact that everyone seems to have a frantic emergency to attend makes the walk through the streets as nerve-racking as bungee jumping. The circumspect guide casually warns us about the dangers emanating from bored bulls. Apparently, if they are miffed, those lazy horns on their head are put to immediate use. Some who have been at the receiving end of the exasperated bull have even died, he says. But death in Varanasi is like heavenly salvation; being immersed in the Ganga is liberation, the long-cherished final destination. I don't pooh-pooh the warnings and walk past seemingly disinterested bulls, keeping a safe distance.

The local #UdtaBhaang has official state approbation... I guess several are happily stoned, given secretariat blessings.

We take a motor-boat ride as the evening shadows begin to envelope the innumerable ghats alongside the Ganga River. The boat is a manifestation of India's celebrated jugaad; there is a hand-held rope that works as a lever to provide a momentary pause to the acceleration, while also doubling as a brake. The highly inflammable kerosene oil is cursorily tossed from one hand to another till it is poured into a cranky vibrating machine that seems furious at being given a disrespectful awakening. However, when sufficiently soaked, the engine roars to life with a cacophony that justifies the boat's convulsions. Manoj, our loquacious boatman, begins to narrate stories about the various ghats, their tiered steps leading into the river banks. The Benares narrative is fascinating; it is like an ongoing religious congregation where everything is about a sacrosanct holy dip for the purification of past sins. And a future without moral baggage. Manoj is proud of the Assisi Ghat, which is undergoing a major makeover in accordance to Mr. Modi's specifications. The Ganga Aarti performed in a choreographed chorus has large crowds in a virtual trance, as mobile cameras flash intermittently into the twilight.

The local #UdtaBhaang has official state approbation. Made famous by Amitabh Bachchan in his landmark hit "Khaike Paan Benares Wala" in Don, you know why. I guess several are happily stoned, given secretariat blessings. At a popular joint famous for betel-leaves, a rotund soul with a sunny disposition buys 50 paans. Fifty paans! I ask Manoj, what explains this dazzling consumption. Paan makes you happy, he says with a broad grin. It is excellent for digestion, gives a fragrant breath and keeps one alert. In short, damn the chewing-gum. But he also narrates a captivating story of how his grand-aunt would sleep with a paan conveniently ensconced in her dentures; her average consumption was 35 per day. Anything less, I gather would lead to social expatriation in Benares. Manoj himself devours 30 odd every day in keeping with family traditions.

On the way to the airport, I spot a trendy looking warlord-type character wearing dark glares and appearing straight out of Anurag Kashyap' Gangs Of Wasseypur...

As we boat around, Manoj passionately proclaims the healing powers of the pure Ganga waters. He bends down to scoop water in a mini Bisleri bottle and drinks it bottoms-up. A look of triumph invades his countenance. It purges you of debilitating health issues, besides washing moral effluents away, he says. Watching several funeral pyres burn at a nearby ghat and having crossed a thick black mass of floating debris near the river banks, I unambiguously hesitate. I sense Manoj takes my guarded response to the curative powers of the Ganga as urban paranoia. I feign indifference to his disapproval of my choice.

The Kashi Vishwanath temple is indeed iconic, located in the bustling byzantine lanes of Benares. My chatty guide takes me through a tricky maze of narrow streets, and an incredibly multi-layered security for that magical darshan. The original temple was destroyed by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in the 17th century. At a nearby location is the happening Blue Lassi. The owner sits with a deadpan expression, chewing paan, almost oblivious of his Lonely Planet credentials. His banana caramel lassi sounds like a quixotic fusion, but one settles for the less adventurous coconut lassi. Made meticulously, it has a delicious taste and comes in a large bowl. In Benares, you don't drink lassi, you eat it.

The famous Benares chokha is an exotic blend of mashed potatoes and grilled aubergine, flavoured with green chillies, tomato, onions and garlic. At the local hot-spot called Baati Chokha, people lounge on khatiyas awaiting their tables. The wait is worth it. The service is laid-back but efficient; the food is delectable. Even at 3pm families causally stroll in. If your breakfast is kachori, lassi and jalebi, a delayed lunch hour seems a biological necessity.

On the way to the airport, I spot a trendy looking warlord-type character wearing dark glares and appearing straight out of Anurag Kashyap' Gangs Of Wasseypur, flanked by his private militia carrying large rifles. In a way, that last enlightenment is the loss of innocence of Benares's otherwise majestic holiness. But it is in keeping with Uttar Pradesh's visceral, violent constitution.

I board SpiceJet for Mumbai. The airhostess asks me: Sir, a chicken sandwich? But all I can think of is a banana caramel lassi. I decline the offering, packed immaculately in a plastic case.

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