even before that horrific morning we had been talking about the stench of death in the air of benares- the thick heavy air of futility that surrounds everything. in the city nothing stays new for more than a minute. its as if as soon as the hand of the maker is removed the object begins to disintegrate. the city is a make shift assemblage to house those who live today and as they inch towards their eventual death the city crumbles with them. nothing physical has any meaning- any aura of mystique. the only things that stay are the rituals and stories that transcend all corporality. the city exhausts you. the sun beating down hard on the ghats, the muddy vast river. at night the light go out and the generators come on making everything else inaudible except for their loud rattle that fills the air. in the forecourt of the hotel opposite our lodge- the brand new hotel ok international- all glad clad and ceramic tiles- a uniformed guard stood at the door trying unsuccessfully to keep the carpet of grasshoppers on the front court out from coming into the lobby. we walked on them and they crunched below our feet.
and in the city on the other side of sanity we have to suspend all notions of right and wrong. if there is a logic to benares it lies within its own sense of order. i have never been to a city this entangled in itself- perpetually aware of its own uniquness. rickshaw drivers, pan wallahs, sadhus, all wax eloquent at the drop of a hat about the inverted logic of benares. white skinned tourists seeking spiritual enlightenment sit cross legged at the german bakery and gawk from a launch wearing khadi kurtas and garlands at the burning ghats at manikarnika ghat. a tourist guide over the loudspeaker warns them to be prepared for the shock of what they are about to see. later in the evening an australian girl plays a didgeridoo to the ganga in the darkness.
nearby in a temple compound a photo studio is set up decorated with photographs of corpses. at daseshwamedha the aarti is spectacle with no ritual. halogen lights flashing cameras and a blaring loudspeaker. and we walked all the 84 ghats at different times of the day. to the north the river’s edge is domestic- cattle and dhobis while to the south more religious. boat men tell well rehearsed stories about gods and film stars. at raja chet singh ghat, in the palace perched on top urmila matondkar shot ‘banares’ and the king dove directly into the water when the british surrounded the city. he was watching a mujra at the time and sometimes you can hear the sound of the ghungroo at night. a secret passage leads from here to ramnagar on the other side of the river. ramnagar is where the king of benares lives- in a fort that is assembled out of pieces each signifying some desire to be royal. parts of a colonial palace with pieces cut and pasted from rajasthan. while we were there celebrations were on for the 030 day ramlila. its all very hand made homegrown spectacle as the performance moves around the city named after different parts of the ramayan. the palace museum has dusty cars, palanquins. no one bothers with maintenance. these relics have no meaning here. i wonder what conservationists will preserve in this city where history finds no place in objects and the residue of generations lies layered one over the other making the city.