A search in Benares for Brahmins, the twice-born, leads to an encounter with a young member of the aristocracy of the mind
Aatish Taseer | 25 Oct, 2018
THE ELECTION DREW to its protracted climax in the middle of May. Voting occurred in nine excruciating phases, staggered over several weeks. Benares was among the last to go to the polls.
My final week in the city was unendurable. The white skies had arrived; the afternoons burned; the river in the evenings was swampy. The atmosphere was tense with the heavy presence of commandos and intelligence agents who patrolled the streets with sniffer Alsatians. One night, returning home, I came upon a street full of policemen and journalists. The electricity had gone out and the street was under a cloak of smoky summer darkness. In the revolving blue light of a police vehicle and the halogen white of a TV camera, I saw the bloodied face of a party worker who claimed to have been beaten up by members of a right-wing Hindu group a few hours before.
I had not gone to Benares for politics, but politics intruded on my time there. It was present in the obvious form of a general election, which I wrote about in a weekly dispatch from Benares for a Delhi political magazine. But what interested me more than electoral politics was the underlying cultural crisis that was feeding the politics. Modi, for millions, represented a moment of awakening. People spoke of a second independence, in which Hindu India would shrug off the legacy of foreign rule, and the true soul of the country would find utterance. I wondered if the decay of old ways had brought forth this politics of revival, and I was interested in meeting someone in whom the mechanism could be observed.
I first met Anand Mohan Jha on the riverside one afternoon in early April. He was with a boatman I knew. We got talking about the election, and the boatman, a wild wheeling figure who wore a red bandanna and heavily tinted glasses, reminding me of the Dennis Hopper character in Apocalypse Now, said, “When Modi comes to power, we will send this government of the English packing, and everything will become Hindi.”
Anand watched our exchange from an anchored boat nearby. He lay like a Hindi movie hero with his hands behind his head. He was dressed in tatty stonewashed jeans and a checked shirt. His arms were thin, his face small, dark, and impish. A pubescent mustache was shaved strategically around a mouth of large tobacco-encrusted teeth. He had a bit of sandalwood paste on his throat and a dot of orange on his forehead. He now rose, and enjoying the effect of his words, he said that if India was not careful, a new era of slavery would soon be upon her. This was the perennial fear of the Hindu right: the return of foreign rule over a weak and divided country. Anand said that it was here already, in a covert sense; soon it would be out in the open.
“Why do you think that?”
“Why?” he repeated excitedly. “I’ll tell you why: because people are selling out the country for material gain. Our culture is being decimated. Many in my family have received degrees in commerce; but I chose to be nearer my culture. A great civilization, like ours, cannot be subdued without the complicity of men on the inside, working against us. Someone—I cannot say who—is controlling us, and there is but the difference of a syllable between vikas [development] and vinasha [ruin].”
Anand was hard to place. His rag-doll appearance and his being in the company of the boatman, whom I knew to be part of a lower-caste community, made me think he was of the same background. But when he extended his hand and gave me his full name—Anand Mohan Jha—he could only have been a Brahmin from the neighboring state of Bihar.
His talk against development, which was Modi’s slogan in the election, made me think he was not a supporter. I was soon to learn that he was not merely a supporter, but a card-carrying member of the Hindu right. Anand belonged to the ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, All India Student Council), which was the most powerful Hindu nationalist youth organization in the country. The ABVP, like its fountainhead, the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), sought to weaponize Hinduism to bring about a cultural renaissance. For these groups, politics was not an end in itself, but a way to conduct the cultural struggle by other means.
As the election picked up pace, corresponding day by day to the onset of exquisite heat, Anand and I encountered each other more frequently. He seemed to become more and more embroiled in the election’s frenzy, here participating in passionate political conversations in tea shops, there handing out flyers for “cultural events” that were thinly veiled conduits for whipping up support for Modi. On the day Modi came to Benares to file his nomination papers, Anand was delirious with excitement. As a student in the Sanskrit department at BHU, he had been charged with showering Modi with flowers upon his arrival on campus. When he saw me hanging about, he exhorted me to come with him and join the jansailabh: the deluge of humanity. The election provided a kind of release for Anand. I imagined him as one of the many young men who now roamed the riverside in the evenings wearing cardboard Modi masks, the eyes cut out in almond-shaped hollows.
Anand made me nervous. I did not think I would speak to him at any length. I feared that to do so was to let myself in for erratic ruminations about the evil West and the virtues of Hindu tradition. He must have sensed my reluctance to speak to him, for one evening as I was packing to leave, he showed up uninvited at the Alice Boner House.
It was the first week of May. The broad leafy avenues of BHU were alight with the burnt orange of flamboyants in bloom. A hot desert wind called the loo had begun to blow out of the west, bringing with it the full blast of stupefying heat. It robbed the sky of pigment and reduced the clouds to veined outlines. The wind emptied the city’s streets for most of the day and feathered the surface of the river with whitecaps.
We sat downstairs on the veranda in the fluctuating light with nothing to keep us cool but a white pedestal fan. Truth be told, I hardly noticed the heat. I was in thrall to Anand’s story. He began to speak at sunset and spoke continuously for ninety minutes. When he was done, it was dark outside.
MY NAME,” HE SAID, “means ‘joy.’ ” It was given to him by his grandfather. Anand was born on the fifth day of the lunar month of Chaitra, which is auspicious; his birth came after a long period of adversity in his family. There were court cases, land disputes, an uncle with four girls and no boys. But soon after Anand was born, the cases were resolved in the family’s favor. A son was born to his uncle, and his grandfather, believing Anand to be the cause of this good luck, said, “He came and brought joy, so we will call him Anand.”
Anand’s grandfather had two brothers. The younger had made good on the dream of an earlier time: he had secured a government job with the Railway Police and built a house of brick and mortar; he had raised his position in society and, with his deeds—his karma—improved his bloodline. He was one kind of model for Anand.
The older brother was another, but he represented a more cautionary tale. He had become a bandit in Nepal, just across the border from their village in Bihar. He was said to have locked a police officer in his station and set the station alight. Anand, trying to elevate the older brother’s image in my eyes, described him as a Robin Hood figure: “He would steal from the rich and give to the poor. He was a great devotee of Mother Durga.”
But the stain remained, and Anand lived with the specter of further degrading his bloodline, especially because as he grew up, he found himself attracted to disreputable characters.
“Astrologers believe that each person is the product of thirty bloodlines,” Anand said. “There are fourteen familial bloodlines that come through each parent; fourteen and fourteen, that makes twenty-eight; the individual parents add two, so thirty in total.”
The idea of blood redeemed or degraded through deeds had a biological reality for Anand. When he spoke to me of more illustrious ancestors, such as a decorated musician who had performed before Nehru, or a famous astrologer, he was trying to improve my impression of his lineage.
“We had once been an aristocratic family. We had land, and money, and jewels. There was only one other family—the Thakurs, I believe, was their name—who were our equals in the whole district. It was us, and them, and nobody else.”
Anand’s village was organized along caste lines. “Our house is right in the front with the other Brahmin houses, almost as soon as you enter the village.” Then, stratum by stratum, Anand rattled off all the other castes and trades: from land-owning Brahmins to washermen, barbers, weavers, and oil pressers, the caste to which Modi belonged. “Right at the end, some four or five kilometers from our house, come the Muslims. Some ten or twenty houses, and that’s plenty, if you ask me.”
Anand watched our exchange from an anchored boat nearby. He was dressed in tatty stonewashed jeans and a checked shirt. His arms were thin, his face small, dark, and impish. A pubescent mustache was shaved strategically around a mouth of large tobacco-encrusted teeth. He had a bit of sandalwood paste on his throat and a dot of orange on his forehead
The village was more than a place where people lived: it was a physical manifestation of caste. Hearing Anand speak, I thought I could hear the echo of voices older than his own. Recent events seemed to recede into a folkloric darkness.
As time went on, Anand said, “a mountain of poverty” descended upon his family. The Jhas were forced to sell their land as others, less highborn, moved in. The family jewels were stolen in a robbery. Before long this Brahmin family, which had once owned land and horses, was reduced to penury. “Things became so bad,” Anand said, referring to a time before his birth, “that for three and four days at a time there would be no food cooked in our house. It was a terrible burden on my grandfather.”
Anand’s father, who dropped out of school after tenth grade, was unmarried. The atmosphere at home was tense. Anand’s grandfather locked Anand’s father in the house with the intention of pressuring him into marrying against his will. Anand’s father escaped and ran away. He thought he could make good on his own.
The old caste-based society of India was changing. Brahmins could do certain forms of work, such as government jobs, teaching, joining the civil service, that were almost like modern iterations of their old vocation. But work in India is never just work; marriage never just marriage; every element of how you live, down to what and with whom you eat, is informed by the imperative of caste.
Tradition could allow for incremental change, but it could never have permitted the debasing work that Anand’s father in his despair ended up doing: he went to Bhimnagar, on the Koshi River, and washed buses for a Muslim proprietor. “And,” Anand said pointedly, “he lived with him in his house.”
“Despite being a Brahmin?” I said.
“Yes, yes,” Anand said, grateful that I had understood the implication.
Anand’s father earned one rupee a day. Of that money, he spent twenty-five paise on a bag of roasted gram flour, which was all he ate; the remaining seventy-five paise he sent home, and there would be food in Anand’s house.
I had just been in Patna, the capital of Bihar, and under its overpasses, which cast long shadows over the low-lying sprawl, I had seen vendors selling the conical tubes of newspaper containing the roasted gram flour that Anand described. It was meager sustenance. Patna had presented a frightening vision of urban decay. The streets were strewn with dust and bits of paper; open gutters ran alongside them, choked with blackish liquid and plastic bags in blues and pinks and whites. The one image that redeemed the city was the soaring spectacle of silk-cotton trees in flower: their fleshy coral blossoms as large as fruit lay in blankets on the street, rotting in the spring sun. I looked again at Anand’s physique: the delicate bones of his face, the skin stretched taut like parchment, the knotty joints, the thin arms and wrists. A history of real physical hunger lay behind Anand’s hunger now, his hunger for the world.
The words he used for forgetting and remembering—asmara.a and smara.a—are beautiful. They share a root with the English word memory. Anand’s language, in general, was attractive. He spoke a Sanskritized Hindi, which from a less deft speaker might have been cumbersome and haughty, but with him was fluid and natural
ANAND BROUGHT HIS story out of the darkness of a parable into the hard bright light of Indian poverty, garish and detailed. Nothing made his descriptions more real than his uncanny ability to remember monetary values, every penny earned and spent by either him or his father.
Anand’s father didn’t come home for fourteen years. “He learnt drivery,” Anand said. “He was employed after much struggle as a bus driver by the Bihar government. He drove on a contractual basis, and for every kilometer he drove, he received thirty paise.” A stamp, a piece of fruit: that was what twenty- five paise bought you.
Anand’s father went back and forth from Patna to a town seventy kilometers away, earning fifty rupees for the two- hour journey. Eventually he earned enough money to marry. His dream was to land a government job, and the woman who became his wife—Anand’s mother—chided him for this fixation, which, though it offered security, must have seemed more trouble than it was worth. “I have waited so long,” he told her, “I have borne so much; sooner or later, I’m sure the government will reward me.”
And so it did: he received a three-year contract with a regular monthly income. He was made “fix,” Anand said, using the English word to mean that his father, after years of uncertainty, had found some modicum of stability.
THE STORY UNTIL now—about Anand’s father, his grandfather, the distant but illustrious ancestors—had been a prelude to his own. He wanted me to see the loss of prestige against the backdrop of what had been. Without that, it would not be possible to understand what it meant to fall; nor indeed what it was to pick yourself up again. And it was only about now—fifteen or twenty minutes into our conversation—that I made a quick note:
At first I could not tell what his story was about. But soon it became clear it was a story about dharma lost and regained, all embodied in a journey from a roguish and poor past to Banaras Hindu University here, at this ancient seat of learning.
ANAND WAS BORN April 1, 1994, but he gave even this recent date a mythical cast, so that it seemed it could hardly have been the year of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, or of the release of Pulp Fiction.
“I was born in the same month as Lord Ram, and as I grew up, it became clear to my parents that this tongue of mine, with which I’m speaking to you now, and speaking ‘frank’”— Anand used the English word—“would not descend. My parents grew worried. The doctor said, ‘This boy may never speak.’ So I had to have an operation, and only after that was I able to speak. My first school was a convent in the village, a private school. I will tell you all that I remember,” he said, embarrassed suddenly by the breadth of detail he had supplied. “I have forgotten a great deal too.”
The words he used for forgetting and remembering— asmaraṇa and smaraṇa—are beautiful. They share a root with the English word memory. Anand’s language, in general, was attractive. He spoke a Sanskritized Hindi, which from a less deft speaker might have seemed cumbersome and haughty, but with him was fluid and natural. My language, in comparison, was inferior. Here, in India, the modern had yet to surpass the classical. If the cities of the West nurtured sophistication and education, the pockets of urban anglophone life in India had nothing to compare with the cultural richness of the old country.
With the full resources of his language at his fingertips, Anand used a Sanskrit word of great charm to describe himself as a child. He said he was a “cañcala-type” person; it meant “unsteady, inconstant, movable.” I had seen this instability in him, and it had perturbed me. Now, by identifying it himself, he seemed in some way to neutralize it.
His fierce intelligence, raw, prehensile, equipped with a photographic memory, was visible even in boyhood. In speaking of his astonishing recall, he said, “I would see something, and it would go straight into my…” He tapped his forehead. “In the third grade, I came first out of seven schools. I was publicly honored by the elected head of the village. I still have the certificate,” he said with a trace of sadness.
The election provided a kind of release for Anand. I imagined him as one of the many young men who now roamed the riverside in the evenings wearing cardboard Modi masks, the eyes cut out in almond-shaped hollows
A self-destructiveness was evident in Anand even at an early age. His cañcala quality grew into something more sinister. What began as the normal antics of a naughty child—pushing his chair back in class, stealing the lunch of another child— had by the fifth grade already acquired something of the air of criminality that was prevalent in Bihar at the time. A few years before Anand was born, the state had elected a thuggish peasant as its chief minister. By 2004, around the time Anand was ten, The Economist reported that “Bihar [had] become a byword for the worst of India, of widespread and inescapable poverty, of corrupt politicians indistinguishable from mafia-dons they patronize, caste-ridden social order that has retained the worst feudal cruelties.”
Anand and his best friend, Rahul, must have imbibed something of this atmosphere. There were both denied a TC—a transfer certificate required for them to go from primary school to secondary school. The denial was not for academic reasons; they were both, as Anand put it, “toppers.”
“Then why were you denied it?”
“We beat someone up,” Anand said, sheepish still after all these years. Referring to his lady teacher, Anand said, “Madam would not give us our TCs. She said, ‘You have to call your guardian, or your parents, first.’ Naturally we did not want to do that, so this Rahul, who was a pretty rough guy and used to carry a knife around with him, pulled it on Madam. He planted it squarely into her desk and just left it there. ‘If you don’t give us our TCs,’ he told her, ‘I’m going to kill you. Understand?’ Madam got frightened. She said, ‘Obviously you won’t listen to reason. So I had better just do what you want.’
“She gave it”—Anand smirked—“and we took it!”
It was the first of many such moments when Anand had fallen prey to his environment. He even came to look fondly on the legacy of his bandit great-uncle.
“At least he made a name! I feel I’ve got to do something with this life of mine. I’ve got to become something.”
The stories that most enchanted Anand were tales of affluence. He told me of one uncle who had fallen into bad ways. The son of the most esteemed Jha brother, the Railway Police officer, got himself thrown out of the house and ran away to Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh. But there he did not fail. He made a love marriage with a woman who was a Ph.D. from Faizabad University. They bought a large house and a car. “And that same man who could not do without guns, booze, and meat,” Anand said, referring to a triune of sins that exists only in India, “is now totally reformed.”
I suspected Anand wanted something similar to happen to him. He would have liked nothing better than to make good somewhere, by whatever means, and to thumb his nose at the pious fools in his village who were convinced that the bad blood of his uncle and great-uncle was reasserting itself in Anand.
The village was rife with malicious rumors that Anand was on the path to ruin. His father, trying to save Anand from himself, sought his father-in-law’s advice. The boy was sent to a Sanskrit school forty or fifty kilometers from the village. It re-created the ancient pastoral of Brahmin boys learning the scriptures by the banks of a river, and here Anand would be reformed.
“It was a beautiful place.” Anand pointed outside, where the palpitating dusk gave the Ganges a granite hue.
There was a river; the living conditions were excellent; their temple housed a statue of Ram ornamented with a crown of solid gold. In the morning, the boys were fed a porridge of yogurt and sugar, which was known as “the children’s breakfast.” In the afternoon, there was “a royal repast.” In the evenings, they took a ritual bath and cooked their own food. No one could eat until Lord Ram had been fed first.
Little Brahmin boys, cooking and cleaning for themselves, serving Lord Ram, devoting themselves to the study of Sanskrit and the scriptures—it was an idyll. But even here, Anand soon began to play what he called a “leadership” role.
“It took me six months to get the measure of the place.” He meant it took him that long to sniff out the malefactors. He studied for six months with all his heart. His father had convinced him that there was something special about him, and he worked hard to live up to his potential. But then the chief priest of the school, who had a connection to Anand’s village, showed up with the guns.
“Guns?” I said.
“Yes.” Anand grinned. “He had a little trade in guns on the side and wanted me to perform a ceremony to bless them.”
“How old were you?” I asked, astonished by this development.
“I must have been—what?—ten or eleven.”
The chief priest kept his munitions in a cave, where he was also harboring a fugitive from justice. A “sooter,” Anand said, and for a moment I didn’t know what he meant.
“He was an excellent shot. He had amazing aim. People would hire him to kill other people.”
“So, there I was: I had been sent to this place to be reformed, to learn Sanskrit, but I was soon living like a criminal.”
The shooter, like many men of criminal backgrounds in Bihar, had political ambitions. By the summer, he was campaigning to be the chief elected official in Anand’s village.
“We had holidays. There was a nice election mood heating up.”
Anand’s father was horrified to see his eleven-year-old son as a mascot in the shooter’s campaign, riding about in an open jeep with a turban tied on his head. “How do you know this man?” Anand’s father asked gravely. Anand had no reply, and his father saw that his worst fears had been confirmed: Anand had fallen into bad ways.
He was pulled out of the Sanskrit school and brought back to the village, but by then it was too late. Anand had developed a taste for the unsavory side of life. As he put it, “Whatever mold you cast the clay in, that is the pot you’ll get.” He became a “big boss” at school; he was elected monitor, he said, giving the English word a deep tilde, so that it sounded like manyetor. He began once again to adopt a “leadership role.” Teachers grew afraid of him. He cut class with impunity. He sat all day in a village shop, watching Bollywood films.
“And you know what kind of films I would watch?” he said with sudden urgency. “Those films in which the hero becomes a millionaire, films with strife and struggle in them. I would love all the adversity the hero had to endure before he became a big man. One film in particular was my favorite: Muqaddar ka Sikandar.” The Conqueror of Destiny
“And you know what kind of films I would watch?” he said with sudden urgency. “Those films in which the hero becomes a millionaire, films with strife and struggle in them. I would love all the adversity the hero had to endure before he became a big man. One film in particular was my favorite: Muqaddar ka Sikandar.” The Conqueror of Destiny.
I knew the film. Bollywood was perhaps the only shared cultural point of reference left to us both, all the proof Anand and I had that we even lived in the same country, and that was now in jeopardy too: a new generation of Indians, educated abroad, found the films too operatic. The industry was increasingly run by native English-speakers. I had met many actors, producers, and directors from this world over the years, and the impression they gave me were of people guessing at the tastes and desires of a vast Hindi-speaking audience they were no longer culturally in touch with. Many, I suspected, would have preferred to make films that were more subtle and urban, less melodramatic, but those films did not speak to young men such as Anand. And it was interesting that the actors Anand described as his heroes, in that little shop in rural Bihar, had been my heroes, too, despite our fourteen-year age gap. Even this film Anand admired so much—The Conqueror of Destiny—had been made in 1978.
In the three years Anand spent in the village, he became a man of fashion. He adopted what he called an “espice” cut.
“What is a spice cut?”
“Hair forward”—he ran his fingers through his brilliantined hair—“and short at the back. That’s the fashion I would keep. I wore colorful English-style T-shirts and torn jeans. My living style became Western. My own culture—our culture—began to change. And do you know how I paid for all this?”
“I would perform religious ceremonies for people here and there. I’d studied Sanskrit for two years, and so I could get by, and I’d earn some two or three hundred rupees a pop.”
I laughed out loud. “You would use your earnings as a Brahmin to pay for your Western fashions?”
“Yes.” He grinned broadly.
An idea of the West, even if only as a source of technology and fashion, had reached Anand in his little village in Bihar. The priestly work of his ancestors became less an exalted duty and more a way for a young man to fund his growing taste for a Western lifestyle. Anand’s predicament—which was the predicament of so many young men—crystallized in a very real way in his life: a choice.
He’d done badly in his tenth-grade examinations. He’d earned a third division: “I didn’t study at all.” The only subject he’d done passably well in was mathematics, in which he got 66 percent. He wanted to study commerce. He had a natural head for business and thought it was a field in which he might amount to something. He was desperate to make a name for himself. He filled out the application form, paid his fees, and secured a place to study business administration in one of the top government colleges in Muzaffarpur.
His name was already on the list of students when something put Anand on an altogether different course. At a wedding at the house of one of his maternal uncles, a guru, versed in the scriptures and in astrology, came to perform the rites. As the guru recited various mantras during the marriage ceremony, Anand began reciting alongside him in the background. The guru heard Anand and was impressed. He said to his father, with the special authority of a clairvoyant, “Give the boy an education in Sanskrit. It will be good for him. His future is very bright.”
As I heard this, I felt something of the dread we feel in certain books and films when we desperately want a character to go one way, and they go inexorably another. Commerce was an excellent choice for Anand. It represented a kind of shorthand in his mind for modernity, and his desire for material wealth ought to have been given a proper outlet. Anand was intelligent, but did not strike me as an intellectual. I felt he was especially unsuited to the pieties of a traditional education in Sanskrit. He would surely revolt and feel guilty. It was a pattern that had already done him considerable harm. The idea of dharma had calcified over time: it could no longer serve as a guide for self-realization. Commerce was much nearer Anand’s real dharma. He had tremendous energy, which, unharnessed, would fester and become the cause of a greater disturbance.
But Anand’s father—the man who had waited a lifetime for a contract to drive buses for the Bihar government—found it difficult to refuse the revered elder figure of the astrologer- priest. Mr. Jha, though poorly educated, was in the end a Brahmin. A man far grander than himself had seen promise in his son and was telling him to initiate the boy in the ancient rites of their caste. How could Mr. Jha refuse him? Anand had his heart set on commerce, but he could not, in turn, refuse his father. Anand said, “If it’s something you want me to do, then it must be good, and I’ll do it.” His father replied, “It’s you who has to study. Not me.”
Father and son—under the sway of the prophetic visitor— together arrived at a place of perfect misunderstanding. The dream of commerce was abandoned, and Anand was sent to yet another Sanskrit school. He tried again to correct course, tried once more to alter his nature to fit the pieties of his vocation. Once again, his intelligence and charm earned him the affection of people around him—most notably a Brahmin Sanskrit teacher called Madam Veena—and yet his cañcala disposition landed him in trouble.
Madam Veena was a dwarfish woman with a searing intellect. She taught the boys at the school some twenty-five verses of Sanskrit a week. She took a close interest in Anand and gave him some useful advice: “If only you would put one iota of the energy that you put into life into your studies, you would go very far.”
“She really believed in me,” Anand said. Almost as an elegy for Madam Veena’s trust in him, he now recited some verses of Sanskrit that she had taught him that he still remembered. They were from the invocation of The Anguish of Karna, a play by the Sanskrit dramatist Bhasa, who lived some fifteen centuries ago.
The Sanskrit sounded out into the courtyard of Alice’s house, where the lights had come on. Anand recited the verses hurriedly, as if the practice of committing them to memory was still fresh. He enjoyed how easily they came back.
I put my notebook down. I had in my travels through the Muslim world seen young boys who knew the Koran by heart. But Bhasa was not religion; Bhasa was literature; and though Anand was not an impressive figure, not a learned Brahmin, it was as if this twentysomething waif, with his threadbare appearance, were saying, I am still part of an aristocracy of the mind.
ANAND LEFT THE second Sanskrit school in ignominy. He clashed with a senior, a Ph.D. student, who told him to wash his dishes. Anand refused outright. There was a standoff, and Anand was called into the office of the man who had foreseen a bright future for him in Sanskrit, the guru from the wedding. When this venerable figure questioned him, Anand replied with a defiance that would have been shocking. He said, “I’m not a eunuch. I’m no less a man than you, from no less a family. My blood runs hot too.”
Anand arrived at the great arch, pale yellow and red ornamented with the features of Hindu temple architecture, and stood there for many minutes. There was a statue of the founder of the university at the center of a roundabout, where a drab blue-tiled fountain occasionally played. Anand still didn’t understand. He hadn’t realized what this place was—that here every subject under the sun was taught
The guru balked. “Anand, if you can speak to me like this, I can only imagine how you must have spoken to that senior.”
Anand was told to take some time off. He had blown too many chances with too many people. Then, in the midst of his despair, he was thrown the kind of lifeline that only those who have been in disasters of their own making can ever really appreciate: a few older friends told him about the Banaras Hindu University, a seat of learning that had been founded in Benares a century before with the express hope of resurrecting the glory of the Hindu past.
“You’re wasted where you are,” they told him. “That place is too small for you.”
Anand took their advice and applied to BHU. He had nothing to lose. His father didn’t even know that Anand had applied and was surprised when a “call letter” arrived—the arrival of a letter in a village is always an event!—requesting Anand’s presence in Benares for an entrance exam.
It was Friday. Anand was not in the village. He was 120 kilometers away, performing a religious ceremony. He was dressed in a dhoti and kurta, but didn’t even have time to come home and change. He got his father to give his “admit card” to the stationmaster at Muzaffarpur station. When Anand got there, the man handed it to Anand. He changed out of his traditional clothes, and into Western clothes. “I was dressed in jeans,” he said proudly, “when I first arrived at BHU.”
He had no idea what to expect. He thought the great university was yet another Sanskrit school. He arrived at the cantonment at 1:00 a.m. and spent the night at the station itself.
In the morning, Anand saw from the vast crowd that had gathered at the station that this BHU, which he had thought was another piddling Sanskrit school, could not be so small an affair after all. He took a Tempo, a kind of open truck, the ten kilometers into town.
Anand arrived at the great arch, pale yellow and red ornamented with the features of Hindu temple architecture, and stood there for many minutes. There was a statue of the founder of the university at the center of a roundabout, where a drab blue-tiled fountain occasionally played. Anand still didn’t understand. He hadn’t realized what this place was—that here every subject under the sun was taught.
At the end of April, when Anand came for his entrance exam, he felt the temperature fall by a few noticeable degrees upon entering the sylvan sprawl of BHU. He had left traffic, noise, and smoke behind him. The big umbrageous trees of the north flanked the wide streets, scalloping them with pools of shade. The flamboyant, with its terraced canopy of ferns, would have been coming into bloom, and the laburnum, with its restless plumes of solid gold, stirring in the hot wind, would have given the heat and dazzle of the day a bewitching quality.
Anand would have passed by the university’s many faculties, which are European in their use of mass, space, and proportion; but where there might have been a cupola or a Corinthian column, there appeared soaring shikhars with notched capping stones, sloping chujjas, and ornamental chattris with sweeping arcades of bracketed Hindu arches. Sanskrit and Ayurveda sat alongside Chemistry and Computer Science. The buildings were the expression of the idea upon which the university had been founded a hundred years before: the idea of synthesis.
The Brahmin glory may have run thin in Anand’s village in rural Bihar; but here, in BHU, on exam day, it was on full display. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Anand said, “vast foreheads ornamented with sprawling caste marks; great big shikhas, oiled and combed; everyone dressed in dhotis with huge brocade borders. And there I was, a ragamuffin, in jeans and shirt. I tell you, my mind short-circuited. I thought, ‘What is going to become of me in this crowd? I, who know nothing except how to perform the odd little religious ceremony?’ I had to tell myself, ‘Listen, Anand, it’s Shiva who’s brought you this far—he must have done it for a reason. Now go in, do your exam, write whatever you know, and leave the rest to Him.’ And that is just what I did.”
That evening, after his exam, Anand hit the town. He saw the Dashashwamedh Ghat, where the worship of the Ganges was performed every night; he tried (and failed) to give offerings of flowers and holy water at the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. “The crowd was huge, and I don’t believe in this form of prayer. I pray through my heart, and I said to Baba Vishwanath, Lord of All, ‘Please. I want to come and live in this town of Yours, which I love very much. But I’m from a poor family, and only You can make this possible.’ A voice came up from within me that said, ‘If Baba wills it, you will be permanent here.’ ” Permanent! It was Anand’s word for an infinite security, and it had run right through his story.
Anand’s father did not know that Anand had applied to BHU, let alone visited Benares and sat an entrance exam. When he was admitted, his father was not sure what BHU was, let alone how hard it was to get into, especially for someone such as Anand, who was the first in his family to be admitted to a university of this caliber. Mr. Jha wanted to be happy for his son, but needed to call a more cosmopolitan relation in Patna to confirm the meaning of the news.
“This man went berserk,” Anand said. “He told my father that BHU was a huge deal; they would teach me—really educate me—my entire future would change. When my father heard all this, he short-circuited too. He couldn’t believe that his son, the son of a bus driver for the Bihar government, had been selected for this great honor. He said fearfully, ‘How much is it going to be, Son? You know what I earn. How will we send you there?’ I said ‘Baba has made all this possible. He has put down my name for this. He will find a solution.’ ”
Anand had tended throughout his story to let the certitudes of a pastoral past intrude upon the hard reality of his life. And he was doing it again. This business about God and fate may have consoled his father, but I knew it did not console Anand. Certain beliefs that had solaced an earlier generation—his father, his grandfather—had died in Anand, and I was pretty sure that he believed this life to be the only life. In fact he was in the grip of an extremely modern anxiety about what to do next, and how to pay his way. He had come this far, but he had no idea how he would go any further. His Sanskrit education was of no use to him. He had no real academic interest, and he had stumbled into a thesis on Buddhist India. “I don’t have the intellect to be a professor,” he said with desperation. “I don’t have the money to sit around. I don’t know what I’m going to do.” He was due to leave BHU the following year; he had no career prospects, and in his confusion, he had strayed into the world of Hindu nationalism, which promised to restore the glories of his past.
Anand took his phone out of his pocket and said, “Look at this.” It seemed just like any other phone. But then he removed the red rubber band that held it together, and the whole instrument— dial pad, battery, screen, and cover—came apart in his hands.
Anand put the pieces back together carefully. “This is my story,” he said. “I’ve told it to you. And perhaps after you no one will ever hear it again.”
THAT WAS MAY 2014. Ten days later, in the last phase of voting, the sacred city went to the polls. I was back in Delhi when I saw that Modi had been elected by the largest mandate the country had seen in thirty years. Anand was ecstatic. He sent me a text message, saying he had danced in the streets of Benares until dawn. “If only you’d seen the deluge of humanity!”
(This is an extract from Aatish Taseer’s new book The Twice-Born: Life and Death on the Ganges (Fourth Estate, 256 pages, Rs 599)