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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Finding balance in Varanasi

The India we have known since 1947 is not one of extremes but of finding the balance, of synthesizing differences

There is a Gujarati aphorism—Suratnu jaman ane Kashinu maran. One who enjoys a feast in Surat and death (or funeral) in Kashi, is truly fortunate. Kashi is another name for Varanasi. Indeed, a feast in the hospitable city of Surat is highly recommended, and I do not wish death upon anyone.

Death is an undeniable leitmotif in thinking about Varanasi. Many Hindus (and others too) see death as transition, an inevitable step before rebirth—the noble ones are released from the cycle of rebirths. For the unbelievers death is just that—an end. In the case of Hindus in Varanasi, the body is placed on the funeral pyre, which is then lit, and those ashes get scattered, disappearing within the elemental forces. Many devout Hindus who die elsewhere often want their descendants to bring their ashes to be immersed in the Ganga at Varanasi, and the river would purify the soul. Many Hindus come to Varanasi to take a dip in the river, hoping to wash away their sins.

Reflecting on the rise of Narendra Modi, many observers have argued that an idea of India is dying—the idea of India as a secular, inclusive, tolerant, democratic nation. Modi’s enthusiastic supporters find that argument to be ridiculous and challenge it vehemently. They suggest a new India will be reborn if Modi is elected from Varanasi and if he then forms a government. That new India would be dynamic, meritocratic, corruption-free, industrialized and prosperous.

The Varanasi election pits two interesting outsiders against one another. (For the record—there is a local candidate, Congress’ Ajay Rai, who has been in three different parties in the past 18 years). Modi and Arvind Kejriwal are both outsiders who have come to Varanasi, seeking salvation through an electoral victory, presenting radically different visions of India.

Kejriwal is making a political point standing against Modi. But what was Modi thinking when he chose Varanasi? Was it to wash away his sins? Unlikely, for he does not think he has committed any sin. Was it to help a new India be born? That’s the version he prefers. Or was it to see the dying embers of an older India on the funeral ghats of this holy city? That’s the version his supporters, unrestrained by any model code of conduct, argue with colourful language: to usher in the new, you have to sometimes destroy the old.

Varanasi is ancient, but it is not changeless. In an essay, Edmund Wilson in Benares, in The New York Review of Books in 1998, Pankaj Mishra noted: “The world of old Benares…was still intact in the late eighties, and of which the chess games in the alleys, the all-night concerts in temples, the dancing girls at elaborately formal weddings, the gently decadent pleasures of betel leaves and opium formed an essential component." But it changed: “The old city was to be scarred by a rash of fast-food outlets, video-game parlours, and boutiques, the most garish symbols of the entrepreneurial energies unleashed by the liberalization of the Indian economy, which would transform Benares in the way they had transformed other sleepy small towns across India." The core of this debate is that transition from the derelict old to the brash new. Past imperfect, future tense.

Choices don’t have to be restricted to extremes. Mishra wrote about a student leader he knew, Rajesh (who ends up being a contract killer), who calls the sandy expanses across the river sunyata, or void, and across, “the teeming conglomeration of temples and houses" is maya, or illusion. “Our task is to live somewhere in between," Rajesh says.

The India we have known since 1947 is that in-betweenness: not extremes, of finding the balance, of synthesizing differences. It is what Salman Rushdie once described as the dream we had all agreed to dream. Modi’s supporters (and possibly Modi himself) argue that that wasn’t a dream; it was a nightmare. Modi’s detractors look at him, or his hologram, and see a nightmare.

Kabir was once the most famous citizen of Varanasi, and neither Muslim nor Hindu elite liked him much. They complained about Kabir to the Delhi sultan, who took a kinder view, and as the essayist Nilanjana Roy wrote in a recent column: “Instead of executing Kabir, he merely banished him to Maghar."

That was Varanasi’s loss. Kabir understood India’s essence. In a poem that Arvind Krishna Mehrotra has translated, he writes:

His death in Benares

Won’t save the assassin

From a certain hell

Any more than a dip

In the Ganges will send

Frogs—or you—to paradise.

My home, says Kabir,

Is where there’s no day, no night,

And no holy book in sight

To squat on our lives.

No day, no night; neither this, neither that: the meaning of India. Subtleties, not certainties; nuances, not trances; in-betweens, not the extremes.

A week from now Indians will find out what kind of India they want.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com.

To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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