THE STONE STEPS OF ASSI GHAT ARE WET with mist and river spray, and in this pre-dawn hour when everything is elemental and where everything is black the glistening steps reflect obtuse images of dancing fires. Below the lowest step and on the stone bank overlooking river Ganga, five young priests have already mounted five east-facing platforms of wood and their arms are now stabbing the heavy air with steel goblets of fire. This is the morning aarti of the sacred river and the chanting priests are teasing the sun to rise over Varanasi. When the crimson star climbs over the watery horizon, the contained fires lose their radiance but the steel hood of the serpent roofing over each goblet sparkles because of the spreading light.
The steps are bare; save for the odd pehelwaan —his strong body massaged with oil and sweat—and a sprinkle of crows who are pecking away at offerings of cooked rice and hardened chapaatis. But the bank below is already bubbling with life. Old couples out on their morning stroll part hands and ways around pink benches; on the pink benches men and women of all ages are caught in varying poses of yoga. One of the practitioners is a middle-aged man and he is sharing his bench with only a portable speaker that is reciting the looping Gayatri Mantra. He shifts the speaker and pats his palm on the vacant spot and I oblige by taking a seat. Formalities are soon exchanged: our names, our jobs.
He is Harishankar Tiwari and is employed with Diesel Locomotive Works. And when he finds out what I do for a living Tiwari is keen to impress upon me his idea of the city he lives in. “This Kashi [Varanasi’s old name in Sanskrit] that you see,” Tiwari says, sweeping the landscape with his hand and simultaneously breaking wind, “this is the Kashi we want the world to see; the Kashi that goraas take pictures of—ghats, Gangaji, aarti, spirituality. But the real Kashi, the Kashi I live in, is a city in decay. Of collapsing bridges and untenable roads unfit for pedestrians. Of dirty drinking water and mounds of garbage. It is a city rotting from within and none of the gods in our many temples can do anything about it.”
In many ways, the gods have less power for change than Varanasi’s incumbent Member of Parliament (MP): the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi. Ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Modi, surfing a wave of Hindutva, chose the most Hindu city in the country to contest the election and more than half of the 1 million voters of Varanasi who turned out on polling day chose the future leader of the nation to represent them in the Lower House of Parliament. Then, on April 26th this year, he chose Varanasi once again to be his constituency. When he arrived at the district magistrate’s office to file his nomination on that sweltering morning, Modi was joined in the outer waiting room of the building by BJP President Amit Shah, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj.
This show of strength during Modi’s nomination was further amplified by the presence of BJP’s key allies: Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray, Janata Dal (United)’s Nitish Kumar, Akali Dal’s Parkash Singh Badal and Lok Janshakti Party’s Ram Vilas Paswan, among others. I ask Tiwari if Varanasi has benefited from being Modi’s constituency for five years and he nods along. “When a city is over 2,500 years old, five years is a very short period of time,” he says. “Yes, Modi has brought change—some roads are broader, Gangaji is cleaner. He will be re-elected from this seat, no doubt. But having the Prime Minister as your local MP is a double-edged sword. He, after all, has an entire country to look after as well.”
The day has wholly swallowed the night in the course of my conversation with Tiwari and it is now time to make my way towards Banaras Hindu University (BHU), the 113-year-old establishment that is also the largest residential university in Asia, where I have an appointment with a professor of sociology. BHU is less than two km away from Assi Ghat and when I make the mistake of climbing aboard a cycle rickshaw instead of walking, I get my first glimpse of Tiwari’s Varanasi. It is not even 8 am and the narrow, arterial lane leading up to the university is already jammed with traffic of all varieties. There are honking motorbikes and honking cars and screaming cyclists and nervous, defecating buffaloes all hemmed in between the lane’s two flowing gutters and the lane is further encroached by tented shops and parked autorickshaws.
The scene below the massive beige entrance to the university (with ‘Kashi Hindu Vishwavidyalaya’ inscribed on it in Devanagari) resembles a siege. “University politics in Varanasi is far bloodier than state-level politics,” says one of the student protesters
There is no room to move forward or backward or sideward and the already remarkable knot is perfected with the addition of pedestrians. Every fine gap between the gridlocked vehicles (and bovines) is filled up with human feet and some of them slide over bonnets and leap this way and that over gutters to make their way ahead. “Only in Varanasi will you see pedestrians playing an essential part in thickening a traffic jam,” says the rickshawwaala, wiping his gleaming forehead with the back of his ropey forearm. He advises me to call the professor and inform him that I will be late, and when I do the professor in turn advises me to not come at all. “A student has been killed. The police have ordered us to not speak to the media. On any matter.”
The scene below the massive beige entrance to the university (with ‘Kashi Hindu Vishwavidyalaya’ inscribed on it in Devanagari) resembles a siege; it takes the combined strength of the paramilitary and police forces to keep the yelling protesters away from the locked wrought-iron gates, whose iron visage holds banners and posters. ‘Gaurav Singh ki hatya ka zimmedaar kaun (Who is responsible for Gaurav Singh’s murder)?’ one of the banners reads. “He was standing outside his room in Birla Hostel last night when two motorbikes approached and shot him in the stomach three times and he died before he could be rushed to the nearby trauma centre,” one of the protesters tells me.
He says that because of its notoriety, Birla Hostel has gained a colloquial name that is indicative of its venom. “Birla ko Bichchhoo Birla kehte hain (The hostel is known as Scorpion Birla),” he says. “You are clearly not from here because otherwise you will know that university politics in Varanasi is far bloodier than state-level politics.” The police clear their lines and when the crowd around the iron bars thins, I catch sight of the scene on the other side of the gate—a group of students squat on the road around a weeping man who, I’m told, is Gaurav Singh’s father.
News of Gaurav’s murder spreads fast through the city’s slow and congested streets. The potbellied man churning buttermilk with a wooden rod at the famous Pahalwan Lassi is discussing the tragedy rather nonchalantly with his customers. “I have seen him here many times,” he tells the lady waiting to be served with an earthen cup. “It’s the same with all these boys from BHU. They come here and fill their systems with lassi. Then they go back to their hostels and spill it in the form of blood.”
THE RIVER IS THE quickest route from any of the outer ghats to Dashashwamedh Ghat, which houses, among other establishments, the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir, the most famous place of worship on these holy shores. But the river is far from the cleanest route. During my 25-minute journey from the northern extreme of Raj Ghat to Dashashwamedh, my diesel- powered boat slices through scores of floating plastic bottles and bloated bags of polythene whose ears are still knotted and even the odd sanitary pad. This, apart from the usual waste of garlands and clay urns that anyway pepper the surface of the Ganga. This, despite having spent a bulk of the boat journey mid-river and away from the banks, the unanimous source of the litter. And this, inspite of the Namami Gange project.
In July 2014, shortly after forming the Government, Prime Minister Modi unveiled the most strategic programme to clean the Ganga and with a five-year budget of Rs 20,000 crore, the most expensive too (a four-fold increase in the total amount spent on cleaning this river since 1985). The day Namami Gange was implemented on the banks of Varanasi, Dinesh Nishad, my boatman for the afternoon, claims to have spilled happy tears. “Not just me, a lot of us from the mallaah [boatmen] community in Varanasi who voted directly for Modiji in 2014 felt vindicated. We knew he had our best interests in mind,” says Nishad, steering the vessel and staring at the rolling water. “But the truth is, and as you can see for yourself, Gangaji is as dirty as ever. And with the increase in tourism in the last five years, perhaps even dirtier than it ever was.”
Nishad says that the consensus in his community is that Modi has done more for the Ganga—and hence their livelihood—than any other leader in the past; but the money allocated to clean the river has been swallowed somewhere down the chain of command. And when money doesn’t filter down to the bottom of this river, plastic does. “Look at those Namami Gange boats,” he says, pointing at a fleet of anchored trawlers on the far side of the river. “Between all those boats, I can bet that they haven’t cleaned even five kilos of garbage in the last year. And you can hand me any punishment if what I say is false.”
The boat is lassoed to a stump at the jetty of Dashashwamedh Ghat and just above the jetty, on one of the walls of the bank, is a giant blue advertisement of Namami Gange. The bank is largely empty at this scorching hour but within a few hours it will fill to the rafters for the evening aarti. “If you do come back here this evening, do take a look at this part of the river when the ceremony is over,” says Nishad, pointing at the river by the bank even as the engine of his boat putters back to life. “You will know what I am talking about.” I bid him goodbye and climb the steep stairs of Dashashwamedh and slip into the nearest of the four entrances to the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir. This path to the temple, like the other three, is labyrinthian and narrow; just about wide enough for two average-sized Indian men to cross each other without brushing shoulders. But there are hundreds upon hundreds of Indian men and women of all sizes at this hour and every hour, all of us boxed into a claustrophobic crush by the presence of trinket shops on both sides of the already thin path.
The Ganga is the quickest route from any outer ghat to Dashashwamedh Ghat, which also houses the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir, the most famous place of worship on these holy shores. But the river is far from the cleanest route
To put an end to precisely this congestion and jostle for space, Modi arrived in Varanasi in March and laid the foundation stone to the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor project—his expansive plan to build a spacious temple complex, which will include not only wide entryways but will also be home to rest houses for pilgrims, beside a hospital, a library and several canteens and information desks. But when the project was set in motion last year, it proved to be severely controversial, evidently turning even the people from his staunchest vote base, the upper-class Brahmins, against him. To help me understand why the masses have protested the corridor project, Valmiki Pandit, an unusually tall shopkeeper seated in one of the bylanes of the temple, has agreed to leave his shop in the hands of his young son and take me to the construction site.
“You will not call it a construction site after you see it,” Pandit says, his slender ponytail swinging as he turns his neck to speak to me even as he takes giant strides and parts the bewildered, oncoming crowd like a shear through grass. “The word I will rather use is tod-phod, destruction.” I see what he means when we get there; the slender path we now stand on is flanked by heaps of rubble the size of small hills. Where there isn’t debris there are skeletal remains of nearly demolished buildings. “This is what it looks like in all the lanes around us,” says Pandit. “Two lanes to the left, that’s where my mother’s brother Atmaram Trivedi lived, in a building that had stayed in his family for nearly 300 years. Then, just like that, one morning he was told he would be compensated if his family moves out without a fuss. So, he did.”
What if he refused, I ask. “There are over 200 such residential buildings that were going to be brought down,” says Pandit. “What would he do there by himself when they were all gone?” A preliminary online search tells me that Pandit isn’t making up the numbers. The corridor project proposed to clear 40,000 square metres of densely built-up land for the complex, and it came at the cost of some 250 multi-storey residential buildings that were all over 300 years old. “God is great and almost everyone who has been displaced are still in the service of Him. Some are priests, some are garland sellers and some others are shopkeepers around the temple, like me,” says Pandit. “But where Modi and the BJP went wrong, according to me, was when they took our houses away to give God a bigger house. God won’t be happy with that, and neither will his bhakts.”
KASHI VISHWANATH MANDIR IS not the only prominent place of worship on the bank above Dashashwamedh Ghat; the precinct also holds in its womb the Gyanvapi Mosque, whose large white dome can easily be spotted from the northern reaches of the temple maze. Gyanvapi has long been a disputed site, after the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir Trust filed a civil suit at the Allahabad High Court, claiming that the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb had erected the mosque over the demolished remains of a Hindu temple.
There’s a large police presence in the alleyway leading up to the mosque and I am frequently patted down at each turn. But just as I reach the mouth of the stairwell leading up to the mosque’s main courtyard, I am stopped by two more policemen guarding this entry; one of them asks me if I am Muslim. When I reply I am, the bigger police officer eyes me up and down, presumably scanning me for traces of faith, and when left unsure asks me to recite the kalma. His name is JB Yadav (name tag) and he derives great joy when I shrug and I am escorted out of the premises with one police personnel holding each arm. “Only Muslims are allowed here,” says officer Yadav, letting go of my arm only once we are in the street and after a warning: “If you try to enter again, we will not be this polite.”
To lick my wounds and to also kill a couple of hours before the evening aarti at Dashashwamedh, I make my way towards Deena Chaat Bhandaar, a Banarasi fast-food joint highly recommended by locals; those recommending never forget to mention that Modi ate there not long after he won the Varanasi seat in 2014. It is a small enterprise, with a total of six communal tables scattered about the space, each of which is crowded by patrons sweating into their clay urns of tamaatar chaat. But the real action seems to be unfolding at the counter by the street where a bald man sits cross-legged behind vessels, his bare hands dipping into each of them in hasty turns.
“Modiji sat right there after winning the election,” he says, pointing a greasy red finger towards the inner reaches of his canteen. His name is Atul Kesari and he is not shy to spread the good word for the Prime Minister. “And this divider that you see on the road,” he says, pointing now at the Toblerone-shaped barriers of yellow and black in the middle of the road, “it was Modiji who got that installed after he took over the reins in Varanasi. Before him, this road was a mess—traffic jams at all hours of the day. But Modiji got rid of the encroachments, broadened a slender road into the width of a highway and got those dividers placed. Not only that, now when you look up above you can see the sky. But before Modiji, all we could see were electric wires. Ugly electric wires strung on rotting electric poles. Modiji commanded that all those wires should be placed underground.”
The sun has begun its voyage beyond the waters, so great swarms of human feet pedal towards the ghat of Dashashwamedh. The evening ceremony is about to begin. There isn’t space to stand on the stone steps and neither is there a vacancy on the stone bank below; the viewing points are brimming with devotees from all over the country and also large clutches of Caucasian tourists. But the real vantage point to view the aarti from is atop one of the many boats docked in the water and the bow of every boat is crowded with beaming faces. When the priests arrive at their respective stages they do so not with goblets but tall cones of fire. They blow their conches in unison and sing their bhajans and when they do, devotees on the bank and the boats clap their hands and sing along.
Ceremony over, the crowd disperses far quicker than it had assembled—and now the bank is once again deserted. But I have stayed back to take a peek at the river close to the bank as my afternoon boatman Nishad had suggested. In the black waters I see a vast collection of fresh litter: wafer bags and cola bottles, the most predominant of the new floaters. To my right, the adjacent cremation ghat of Manikarnika is set ablaze. The firewood burns and crackles in the wind, coughing mighty plumes of woodsmoke into the sweltering night.
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