I have returned to my little nest with fractured understandings of you. You – an astonishing ancient Indian city – have troubled me, teased me, taunted me. The more I try to implore you to take form as a story or poetry, the more there is a decline in my understanding. You are for something beyond the intellect of a being and I haven’t even started on that inward journey yet. You strike as an unblunted force for the soul that only bloats with mere sensations. You are here, but you are the beyond. You are the now but you are the eternal. You are otherness but you are intimate. Right before one’s sensorial perceptions but so agonisingly unreachable. Your reality and your surreality blending into a frightful union.
My dear holy land, you are that lift of darkness, peeling away to make way for the morning mauve to touch and blot all of the gorgeous Ganga – a sacred soaking. You are the boats sailing calmly on her gently-rippling waters, you are the pleading muteness of the moored ones. You are slender-billed gulls that visit from Pakistan, guests who adorably flaunt their black ear-spots only in winter.
You are that shiver-inducing chaos created collectively by us humans living in the womb of you. You are the colourful kites caught in the branches of wise-old Ashvatthas. You are the narrow streets lined by shops named ‘Shaadi Cards’ and ‘Constant Institute of Technology’ and so on. You are the endurer of vehicles honking so loud that they absurdly, hilariously cure ear barotrauma of people who have just descended from the quiet skies, from a plane. You are the nurturer of ash-smeared naaga saadhus.
You are the muse, the seductress, the femme fatale of storytellers. You are history, mythology, art, architecture. You are beyond religion. You are the nostalgia of Aadi Shankara’s glorious existence. You are transcendence, you are spirituality. You are the devastating beauty of the Gangaa Aarti – the mystic sound of the conch, the enchantment of the Samskrutam verses, the sublime fragrance of the camphor and its vanishing into the naught. You are the air shudders when it throbs with a different energy during the aarti, agitated to a divine ecstasy. You, the most ancient continuously inhabited city, you have never taken rest from containing life and all its colours. You are also the pitiless announcer of death, in the bodies on pyres and the burning flames licking the air with fire’s eternal ravenous hunger for annihilation (must I say ‘transformation’?) of everything it touches.
Beloved Varanasi, you are joy, you are bliss. But you are anguish, too. Like we exist only to suffer and endure and to leave this world and as though that in itself really is liberation enough. Forgive me, my dear city of ancientness, I visited you to seek solace from torments I have been trying to even define but I have failed to let you help me. I have failed to strain my ears to your whispers among your people’s loudness. I couldn’t glean songs from your cacophonous streets except during the glorious Gangaa Aarti on your ghats. Sometimes even the Gangaa didn’t speak to me except through the shivers her waters, shrouded in mist, sent through my skin to my bones.
You are not sweet poetry but an unanswered grief. You are that conundrum I’ve ached to resolve, especially when I have swallowed the most delicious lassi like it were punishment when dead bodies were being carried right beside our table, for cremation on the Manikarnika Ghat – the frightening coldness and detachment of its stone-steps – ossifying them, but screaming in my bones. I still hear this chanting and it numbs me: Raam naam satya hai, Raam naam satya hai, Raam naam satya hai…
Such myriad imagescapes of you. We grasp half-stories and even a half-glance is never a wasted one, but they have stopped at being half-consciousness. You aren’t for analyses and reckless rapture. You are an eternal tease, Varanasi, and therein lies your mischief. You are a dear land but your entropy is the queen who reigns over you. There were several brief moments of illumination I couldn’t contain long enough for fathoming but, Varanasi, there is more of a dark collapse within me, like I am avalanching within myself.
And there is that one moment when I stood on the steps of Dashaashwamédha Ghat, waters of the Gangaa kissing my ankles, when I wanted to end it all. But what stopped me from drowning was not my love of my single mother, the man of my heart, but sheer cowardice (what courage Woolf had when she allowed the Ouse to swallow her!). But Varanasi, you are that force of nature that makes me confess this, somehow awakening my corpse-cold heart to a painful ecstasy. Varanasi, because of you, I am a being being kneaded into something I am yet to comprehend. I hope, I pray, that you help me.
Learner of you,
Editor’s Note: To live the evocatively contrasting, conflicting experiences in Varanasi, join our guided ‘Ghats of Glory Travel Photography Tour to Varanasi or get a customised holiday tailored from our personalised Toehold Vacations services team to suit your travel needs and plans.