Friday, August 21, 2015

City of the blue god

Benaras, Varanasi, Kashi… names of an ancient city, one of the oldest living ones, evoking images of the Ganga, sadhus, Shiva, temples, tourists, widows, cremations. That’s a lot to take in. And the city throws all of it at you and more. There is no holding back here.

The crowds
The crowds hit you like a sledgehammer. Especially if you are in a hand-drawn rickshaw - very commonplace here. People, cows, bikes, autos, rickshaws...all throng the busy streets into the old city. You are from Mumbai and you think you have crowds covered. Mumbai has nothing on Varanasi. You wonder how your rickshaw man is going to maneuver his way through it all. But maneuver he does, weaving himself and his load through, leaving you with that feeling of distaste - you have indeed treated a human being like a pack mule.
You leave that feeling behind, soon. Now you maneuver through the throng on foot. Cows are maneuvering too...and it’s best you get out of their way if you don’t want to be headbutted by the holiest of the holies. The smell of dung is pervasive. There are a lot of holy men - with matted hair and trishuls and ochre robes. You stop to look at some knick-knacks and soon you are engulfed by hawkers. You try to lose them and make your way, along with a thousand others, to the river. Everyone is heading to the river.

Because it’s time for the Ganga arati. The water level in the river is too high - so the arati is performed on a platform high above. It’s all prayers and lights and some strange dance-like posturing by priests in satin dhotis - a bit tacky and touristy. But it draws you in, even if you are disappointed it’s not on the river bank as in the famous pictures..
The Ganga Arati

We walk down to the river and even in the darkness we can see the filth. I slip and my shoe-clad, jean-clad leg goes into the water. I can’t wait to get to my hotel to wash it.

The next day is an early one. We leave the hotel at 5.30 am to see the sunrise on the Ganga. The sun though, is already up. We make our way once more to the water. We climb into a motorized boat and we see the city from the river. Ghat after ghat make for pretty pictures. There is even one where a body is being cremated. Men and women immerse themselves in the muddy water, washing their sins away I presume. That water is punishment enough for any manner of sin, I think. We step off the boat into the bylanes of the old city. Narrow lanes, bright coloured doors, painted walls. Some lanes bring European ones to mind - until you look down and see the cow dung and the plastic in the drains. But there is some peace and  quiet and you are grateful for it amongst the chaos. We see a lot of stacked wood in one of the lanes, along with a weighing scale. People die and wood is weighed for the pyre. This is serious business for a Saturday morning walk, I think.
A Varanasi dawn

The Lord of the city

The ghats

A quiet narrow lane

Weigh the wood for the pyre

The colour!
We make our way through the lanes to the Kashi Vishwanath temple. We stand in queue, are frisked again and again, and finally get pushed into the sanctum sanctorum. The gold on the gopuram shines bright. But the lingam itself is immersed in liquid that people throw on it. It is small, we get a glimpse of it and we are packed off by the milling crowds behind us. And that was the darshan. Before getting off the temple trail, we buy sealed containers of Ganga jal - we couldn’t bear taking the real deal from the river.

We drink tea from mud cups, but run away from other street food. All those food joints recommended by guide books are on the ghats… and getting back into those narrow crowded lanes is an experience we aren’t willing to go through again. We prefer the relative neatness and symmetry of Sarnath, half an hour away.
The ghats

Sarnath has a museum where we are dazzled by the lion capital of Asoka and the delicate 5th century Buddha and all those ancient sculpture. The museum is lovely. As is the excavation site with the ruins of the Asoka pillar and the monuments commemorating the Buddha’s first sermon. We take in the dose of Indian history, buy some knickknacks and escape back to the unremarkable comfort of the hotel.

And so the weekend trip to Varanasi is over. We come back to the pictures of Varanasi and discover the ghats all over again. So much of it is broken down and yet everything is held together too. There is an element of Wabi Sabi, I suppose - a quiet sense of beauty in all those ancient run down buildings. The camera does see things the eye does not.
Indeed some beauty

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Re-telling a classic - Bhima Lone Warrior

By M.T. Vasudevan Nair

To keep my resolution to read more Indian regional language fiction, (obviously in translation, since tragically my knowledge of the Indian languages I know – Malayalam, Tamil and Hindi – is so superficial, it would take enormous patience to read in the original), I picked up this one by MT. I had heard of it from my mother and I knew this was a book I would enjoy. I mean, how could you not enjoy a re-telling of the Mahabharata? And if it was a re-telling by one of the all-time greats, it had to be good, right?
I loved it. It is the Mahabharata from Bhima’s perspective. The Bhima we know is huge, with a large appetite, very strong, very short-tempered and utterly devoted to his family. We don’t give him much thought except as the muscle man of the Pandavas. MT’s Bhima is all of this; but he is also introspective and intelligent, a brooding, sensitive giant, somewhat of an outsider, with an ability to see his mother and brothers and wife with all of their flaws, yet unable to ever walk away.
The stories are all so very familiar. But MT strips them of any of the ‘divinity’ we have come to expect from them. Kunti’s 6 lovers who beget her sons are not really gods, but mortals whose special qualities are transferred to her sons. Krishna is not particularly divine – he is just a canny, politically astute friend. There is no divine help for Draupadi when she is disrobed – Dhritarashtra is prevailed upon to stop the dishonour. We are told in the epilogue that there are hints of these in the original, and that MT has just added his bit of imagination to re-tell them. The re-telling transforms the Mahabharata into an absorbing but simple tale of tribal warfare, a tale that has been embellished by bards with every re-telling, until we get to the epic it is today.
In some ways, this is a very subversive tale. Bhima sees the injustice women are subjected to – be it his own treatment of Hidimbi and Balandhara or Arjuna’s dalliances with his innumerable women. He also sees the inequality the ‘forest-dwellers’ have to deal with – as with his own son Ghatotkacha who Krishna sacrifices for Arjuna or the forest dwellers whose dead bodies take their place in the fire that consumes the palace of lac. He is also cynical about the philosophy Krishna spouts (that becomes the Gita), saying that when your own sons and brothers die, it is difficult to see the bodies their souls have cast away as ‘discarded clothes’.  
MT’s Bhima sees the cowardice and double standards in his older brother’s ‘Dharma’. He knows how manipulative his mother is – be it sacrificing forest dwellers in the lac house fire, or asking Draupadi to be shared between the five brothers or using Karna’s back story to save her sons’ lives. He knows his own weak spot – Draupadi, who is turned on by stories of violence, who manipulates him to get what she wants, yet who never gives him the love he craves. He keeps his distance from Krishna, who he knows is his younger brother’s greatest friend, but understanding his political machinations, as well.
This is an all-seeing Bhima, but one who never shirks from doing what he needs to do for his family. He knows war is inevitable, craves for it to avenge the injustice done to Draupadi and his family and when it comes, gives it his all. And at the end, on the Pandavas’ quest to reach heaven, he is unable to not turn back to pick up his beloved Draupadi as she falls, and so sacrifices his entry to heaven.
It is a fascinating character study – it surprises and delights, as you see these stories you have heard from childhood in a new light. There is poetry in the descriptions of the landscapes. And ultimately, the tale in the hands of a master storyteller is un-put-down able. Maybe I should find the patience to read this in the original.