Khaike Pun Banaraswala
I would not, on a normal working day, accost a man in a wet loin cloth vigorously scrubbing his upper thigh, and engage him in small talk about moneylending and moksha.
But this was Banaras, and it seemed to be the most natural thing to do as, a sloka's throw away from Darbhanga ghat, I encountered Avinash-ji, who would turn into an accountant again as soon as he'd finished settling his daily debt to Ganga-ma.
Pausing in mid-massage, while I kept my gaze decorously within the modesty rekha, he told me that this sunrise hour was all he had to call his own.
After that he got caught up in such mundane matters as juggling the books for his merchant maliks. Like a karm-ically challenged soul, our conversation ricocheted between corruption and salvation.
Avinash-ji was both comrade and contrast to Adam, who kept his elongated earlobe at full stretch with a lotus carved pebble.
Like his body-pierced cohorts, he spent an hour at the cybercafe tracking finances, and the rest of the day coasting along the spiritual highway, from aarti to Zen. With weaving, hydrodynamics and/or surbahar in between.
My friends, all Hindu, had direly warned of shock and awfulness. Moloy shuddered. Neville advised, "Go with low expectations"; when I said they were already very high, he had snapped tersely, "Then shut your eyes."
Nandita had exclaimed, "Corpses!" and then launched into a ghoulish procession of "dead bodies ? loaded on tempos, carried in rickshaws, hefted on shoulders, crammed into taxis".
I half expected them to be standing at the airport with welcome garlands. As an infidel, I had no access to the believer's blinkers, so I arrived prepared for the worst. Masochistic disappointment.
For starters, there were only two desultory pyres on Harishchandra Ghat, incidentally the view of choice from the much-advertised 'Indiana Rooftop Restaurant'
The evening boat-ride got us a ringside seat at the packed aarti at Dasashwamedha Ghat. With the surround-sound of electronically amplified bells, conches and bhajans, the stylised movements and blazing red kurtis of the purohits, it was a theatrically cathartic performance for the spiritual tourist.
Complete paisa vasool came via the ash-smeared, matted-locked sadhu in tiger skin and trendy wire-rim glasses, swaying and clapping like a rock star. Banaras manages to survive the spiritual hardsell.
The firang accents may be louder, and previous centuries did not have the 'Bread of Life' cafe, the result of an American interior decorator's epiphany ("standing on the sacred banks, I heard a voice say 'Feed my sheep',") , but Banaras is old enough not to get carried away by today's insta-fervour.
It helped that I was cosseted in a more-haveli-than-hotel recommended by Meenal, the only friend who hadn't put a dampener. Shashank Singh runs the Ganges View on Assi Ghat with refined understatement (and underpriced hospitality).
It had the works ? ancient family mandir, heirloom artifacts, mataji meditating in an alcove armchair, breakfast cornflakes and shuddh Vaishnav dinner, Sunday classical concerts impresario-ed by a bicycle-riding Frenchwoman who's lived in Banaras for 15 years and always wears a sari (badly).
And, completing the cameo, American teenagers immersed in, Gap-Year spirituality, painstakingly colouring Shiva drawings on the sun-drenched terrace.