To leave the city one resides in and go anywhere else is in itself to leave behind the everyday life. However, in Varanasi, there is an added dimension. It is almost as if one passes through an intangible curtain to enter the heightened atmosphere of Kashi and once there, notions of time, space, money and what is truly essential to life are re-arranged.
A rickshaw-puller will take a while making mental calculations before seeking a paltry sum to take one several miles away. Flowers and other offerings for the temples, in generous quantities, cost between 10 and 15 rupees. Delicious tea served in an equally delightful kulhad costs rupees two. A 100 rupees go a long way in this city. To ask the timeless “how much?” is to hear a price disconcertingly less than expectation. But, should one betray the fact of being an outsider, prices can triple in seconds!
On a recent February morning in Varanasi, I took a rickshaw to the ghats — an experience at once scary and soothing. When a wheel hit a rut on the congested road and I tried to secure myself, my hands clutched at insubstantial air.
Used to city life, my car and the accelerator pedal that required only the lightest touch to cover distances, I found the pace of travel slow, laboured. A stream of dusty vehicles overwhelmed the one-lane, provincial road as Bablu, frayed, discoloured clothes barely covering his emaciated frame, strained to propel me. I felt my body for the burden it was, felt the secret horror that the world found it acceptable that another human being should bear its weight.
Crossing a succession of small, unremarkable shops, the new-yet-familiar sights of the bazaar, cows, huge mounds of wet rubbish, shaded lanes or galis, we moved at a speed that induced serenity. There was all the time to reach the Ganga, eternal presence in this sacred city.
But soon, Bablu picked up speed. Perched precariously at a height, the breeze streaming past my face, the only option was to surrender, let go of fear, and absorb images of the crowded city while Bablu swerved this way and that in his ramshackle rickshaw, coasting instinctively towards disaster only to avoid it at the last minute. I learnt to wedge one foot on the metal strip below his seat to brace myself, even as I wondered if I would be catapulted out into the air and smashed to pulp by a passing vehicle.
Strangely, rather than fearing such an eventuality, it was possible to consider it dispassionately. I realised that in Varanasi the thought of death itself is rendered benign. If it were to come that very moment, it would be a blessing, even if undeserved, of dying in Kashi.
But Bablu was too good a driver; such blessings were not to be granted to me. At Godhulia, he squeezed the hand brakes and brought the rickshaw to a sudden, disorienting halt. As I clambered down, trembling slightly with relief, I understood that to arrive safely at one’s destination is to know the truth that life is a gift.