The second was real travel, soon after I met my last deadline—to Varanasi, a place I had never really desired to go to, as do many others, but unexpectedly had an opportunity to visit. Looking at Varanasi was like getting into an antique painting that one has been unthinkingly looking at from one’s childhood. Much like in the movie Mary Poppins when Bert, Mary and the children jump into the painting on the pavement, and briefly live the life depicted in the painting.
The visuals in Varanasi exactly matched those etched in my mind—the several ghats with the gopurams, umbrellas, flags, pilgrims having a dip in the water, the boats. The burning bodies on the Harischandra Ghat drive home the fact that death is as commonplace as any other scene around—the crowds thronging the steps, or the man selling flowers, or me on the boat.
One scene that touched me deeply was the aarti to River Ganga. The one-hour aarti with different kinds of lamps was graceful and majestic, a dance in slow motion, and so befitting a river we consider holy. Not having seen this anywhere else, I found the concept itself very profound.
We did other touristy things—ate kachori-dahi-jilebi for breakfast, tried the Banarsi paan, bought beautiful Banaras sarees, and enjoyed the lassi and the thandai served in mud bowls.
However, all through my stay in Varanasi, I wondered where Bismillah Khan had lived; where he played his inimitable Shehnai; did he just walk around like any ordinary man? My ears longed to hear some Shehnai somewhere…to me Bismillah Khan represents the quintessential Indian.
I must mention the shop Anil Zarda. On the road that leads to the ghats, this little shop is lined by attractive-looking choorans of all kinds. We went in to buy some, and were totally overwhelmed by the old-world hospitality of the two buzurg men in the shop. They made us feel super special (they give this treatment to everyone!), made us taste several varieties of chooran, and what’s more, when we paid and were about to leave, gave us a packet free…some for the road! This is the India that makes my heart dance, and this is the India I love discovering.
While on India and dancing hearts, on my long journey to Hyd-Delhi-Varanasi-and-back, for ‘time-pass’, I read Shobhaa Dé’s just-released book ‘Superstar India—From incredible to unstoppable’. The first half of the book is full of India-bashing (old wine…)—her usual theories on politicians, corruption, weddings, lecherous Indian men and the uninteresting sexual behaviour of Indians (how can she generalise that, or anything?)—and made me irritated and wonder what she was getting at. In the second half, Shobhaa sits up and celebrates the new developments happening in India—the IT scene, the young rich, the booming Sensex, the Forbes list, NRIs returning home, et al. Her heart brims with pride and happiness, much like mine does when something good happens around here. She celebrates the fact that she always had faith in India (just as I have always done, no matter what), and ends the book on a happily-ever-after note, like a typical Bollywood movie. It made me sigh happily and say, "Good ol’ Shobhaa; we need people like her!"
I am back at my comp, refreshed, ready to take on my many roles, with a smile. Travel does this to me.
Note: Photos copyright Sadhana Ramchander. Photo of aarti taken from internet.