By Sandhya Sridhar
That moment you step on the muddy banks of the Assi Ghat of the river Ganga, it hits you. It seems to me that I knew this place forever, and somewhere in the collective memory that is mine, this has existed and I have been here. The Ganga, its surface rippling softly, is part of our collective DNA. She is us – me, she and him and everyone else. There is no explanation needed, no validation sought, no divide, no discrimination. It is as if this feeling of being part of a whole has consumed me.
Is that why the crowds, which in any other city, would put me off, does not disturb? Is this why the heaving and walking populace, all going somewhere and coming from somewhere, sweep you with them, much like a flowing river?
My friend and I stop to discuss which temple to visit next and a bystander who is just there, pitches in with his opinion. Another who is walking past stops to join the conversation for he has heard some key words that make him want to say his piece. We talk to them, get their suggestions, the man walking by continues on his way while we leave the bystander behind.
Who are these people? Who am I? Why do I do what I do? These questions may have been what I ask of myself every single day of my ordinary life – but in Kashi, no such questions pop up. It is as if, in that one visit, I am but picking up where I left off, moving on, being there, doing something or the other. I am the bystander, I am the man walking past, I am the woman with the bundle on her head, a child at her hip.
A tout once stops us, for we are lost in the gully on the way to see Vishwanath, the Lord of Kashi. We are not sure we are on the right path. He is smiling and chatty, and like a friendly soul, accompanies us, showing us the way and being with us. We see Vishwanath, we visit Annapurna, we see the mosque cheek-by-jowl with the temple complex, the forlorn Nandi, not giving up hope, staring at the white walls hoping to see his Lord. Time has moved, things have physically changed; but there is a certain acceptance, for is this not the land of Shiva, that cosmic dancer, he who is quick to anger, but who is the adi yogi himself?
The tout shows us all, he tells us to whisper in Nandi’s ear, he tells us to offer oblations to the well where the original linga lies from the time when the shrine was razed. While Shiva anchors the cosmos, Annapoorani offers the love of the mother, and the Nandi is forever child.
At the end of it all, the tout asks for five thousand rupees. I laugh and he laughs with me then turns sheepish. For the wit and the guidance he has offered I give him a five hundred. He is happy and shares his number asking if any of my friends want to avail of his guide services, to call him. We part ways with no rancour.
Back on the gullies, cows, dogs and monkeys share space with people who let them be and feed them from time to time. There is no irritation or anger shown to the animals as you would see elsewhere; and a dog lies by a temple even as a nomadic family takes shelter somewhere close.
Wandering about the narrow streets I do not want to go back to the hotel. I want to be here, where I can hear the sound of the oneness despite the loud and constant honkings of the many vehicles that tear about here and there – these must be people getting somewhere. People smile, they nod, eyes meet, did we know each other before?
This is the place where it all returns, wherever you are in the world. If you have been born in the sub-continent, be it north, south, the east or west; it is here that you must come back to wander, be it in human body or astral form, until one day, the divine burst of light takes you in and makes you nothing.