Varanasi is an enigma difficult to understand and ironically it draws millions who want to understand their being. White you might or might not find yourself, if you are travelling alone, you are sure to find friends here.
Your hair is shorter! Not nice! Long hair better!” came a sharp, chiding voice from a distance, as I flung my backpack on my shoulder while trying to haggle with the auto rickshaw driver at the same time. In a swooping movement, my backpack was plucked away from me, strapped onto thin brown shoulders and the still seething rickshaw man hissed away! It took me a few seconds to recognise the face. Then memories came flooding back—it was Raju! The little boatboy who had let me row his bright blue chariot from Assi Ghat to Dashashwamedh. It was my second solo trip to Varanasi and it looked like I had stuck around in the memories of the people I had met, as they had in mine.
City qualms overtook my imagination, as I started calculating how much I would have to tip Raju after he reached me to the guesthouse. We walked through the narrow lanes for almost a kilometre, as the familiar buzz and faces surrounded me—Dineshji, the paan-shop owner who rocked constantly, the flower seller at the junction of Kashi Vishwanath Temple, even the cops who manned the same street, the Internet parlour owner with his paan-stained teeth and the self-appointed ‘Baba’ at the corner of Meer Ghat, who coerced you into paying a baksheesh after he had patted your head. I smiled. This was the Varanasi I had loved even the first time around. In your face. Unapologetic. Slightly bullying but spectacular nevertheless. Raju dumped my bag at the reception and even before I had turned around, he was gone! I admonished myself for my earlier mistrust and promised myself to find him again for a long boat ride.
For anyone travelling to Varanasi, that’s what I would suggest you do first. A long boat ride to orient yourself to the span of the ghals, and the chaos, colour and sheer abundance of stimuli that you will experience in the streets that criss-cross behind them. It must be the smooth gliding in the water, the cool breeze or the distance from the sea of humanity from Assi to Ram Ghat that inducts you gently. Once oriented, waste no time in walking the narrow network of lanes as there is no other way to see life on the ghats other than being a part of it.
Having covered all the essentials (list of temples, the evening aarti and places to eat) on my earlier visit, this trip was all about roaming the slim lanes and stopping for copious cups of tea at pigeon-hole shops and sitting by the ghats. One would think that this would make for a quiet, self- absorbed trip, but that is almost impossible in a place like Varanasi. The lack of space, both literal and metaphorical, is soon filled with curious locals, willing to regale you with stories about their lives (sometimes exaggerated) as much as they want to know about yours. Conversations flow easily over a cup of tea and the vast pool of topics and local insights engulf many hours before you know it.
I sat at the Shivala Ghat, watching a group of lethargic buffaloes loaf at the edge of the water. Boatloads of spiritual tourists passed in front of me, their eyes glued to the ghats to spot temples, their heads bowing in unison when they saw a spire. A high pavilion next to me became the diving spot for some young boys who ran a distance, took off from the pavilion and did a back flip into the water. No better way to beat the clammy heat, I thought. This went on for over an hour, giving me ample time to frame the brilliant photo opportunity. Once finished, a sprightly young swimmer, Karan, came and sat beside me. We completed the fundamentals quickly. Both skilled at small talk between visitors and locals by now. Name, why was I travelling solo, where he lived, why he was not in school, and other essentials. Then came the good part as he took me under his wing to walk me to the nearby akhada the next morning.