I keep coming back to Benares. I keep coming back even now, now that the city, like most of India, has become under my eyes something so different and so far away from the place carefully kept into my heart and my memory to seem a totally different world. But I keep coming back to Benares, always. I keep coming back to Benares in the same way I would go back to an old lover, somebody I tenderly and madly loved in my youth, somebody on whose face I will never be able to see wrinkles and the passing of time. Benares has been the great love of my life. It took away the body, but still keeps intact the memories, of the other love of my life. The one cremated on the banks of the Ganga to become forever a part of that world that we, together and each one in its own way, loved so much. The Benares I carry inside me is still there but is not there anymore. Is more an idea, a metaphisics. Something that stays inside you like a wound, like a light. Something you have to go search into the folds and the plights of what the city has become.
The day begins early, in Benares. Begins in that indefinite moment of passage from darkness into light that Hindus call Sandhya. The promise of a new day, the moment of prayer. It is the bell of the temple that wakes you up, followed by a psalmody of morning mantras. Slowly the birds, feeling the approach of dawn, join the choir. The sun begins to rise slowly over the horizon, a ball of fire that burns the sky and the river and drenches the ghats into an unreal light hailed by the prayers and ablutions of thousands of pilgrims. People moving slowly and filling the air with songs and chants, words, scents of incense and flowers. Inside the river, grey at first then red and then shining silver, men, women, old and young and children bathe raising their hands three times to the sun, offering flowers, mantra, fruit and little floating diyas, whose light becames paler while the sunlight becomes stronger. Throughout the city, there’s a riot of colorful saris, baskets, flowers, incense, and towels unwinding along the banks of the river Ganges to greet the rising sun. The ghats begin to come alive: people go to the river to pray, to wash, to meet friends, to drink a chai. The pilgrims collect around pandits to celebrate rituals and to be blessed. Fishermen tweak their nets, boatmen start looking for tourists. Cows, goats and buffaloes stroll quietly or plunge into the river. Children are playing between sprays and laughters. Another day is born, another day like tomorrow or a thousand years – maybe even a yuga.
Imagine a western girl sitting on the ghats at sunrise and watching all this. Imagine a girl sitting there morning after morning trying to grasp, from the pilgrim ladies bathing in the river, how to fold a sari. Imagine a girl, a western girl more years ago than I would like to count and remember. A girl falling in love with that world outside the world and desperately wanting to be part of it. Because Benares, as it is called by its inhabitants, Varanasi, as it is called by the government or Kashi, as it is called by pandits, is a unique city, which speaks to, compresses and expands all the contradictions, the beauty and the ugliness of India of yesterday and today. A place that eludes every attempt to define it. “Benares is more ancient than history, more ancient than tradition, more ancient even than legend itself, and appears to be much older of all these things together” wrote Mark Twain. He is right. It is said that Benares is the oldest continuous city in the world to be still inhabited: older than the Ganges itself, which according to mythology descended on earth only many years later. Older than Vedas, older than what is suggested by the most ancient buildings that can still be admired in the city. None of the buildings still standing is more than two or three centurie old. Despite that, they seem to carry the sands of time and history coming from centuries. Hate it or love it, Benares leaves no one indifferent. Almost identical in appearance to its ancient self, but, above all, identical in to its next ephemeral avatar. It is enough to read the chronicles of the first westerners from America and Europe who traveled to the city and learn from old prints and paintings to see that those drawn to its magic are either transfixed or want to flee instantly.
Nothing in Benares is easy, nor can anything be taken for granted. The confusion, the noise, the smell, the contradictions of the city of Shiva has crushed many great lovers of India and Indian culture. And it has brought them back as well wondering if there’s an interpretation they missed. Benares does nothing in half measure. On the ghat are done massages, concerts, religious ceremonies, you can eat, drink, have your hair and beard shaved. The boys play cricket, buffaloes take bath and rest. On the steps you’ll find clothes spread to dry, music or dance exhibitions and theatrical performances. Sacred and profane, misery and splendor are carried to paroxysm: Benares, does not like the halftones, the shades. “You can not talk of Benares like any other city,” tells you the old pandit sitting on the banks of the river “Benares lives a life of its own, it breathes as a living being. And as a living being was conceived. Imagine a human body lying along the banks of the river: the head is represented by Asi Ghat, the chest by Dashashwamedh, the navel by Manikarnika, the legs by Panchganga and the feet by Adi Keshav”. A living being that encloses within itself a multitude of souls and many cities into one. There is the city of students who have come from every corner of the world to study or to conduct research at the prestigious Benares Hindu University (BHU). There is the city of intellectuals who, for various reasons have made Benares their home. There is the city of the new hippies, wandering on the ghats in colorful and picturesque groups of three-four, accompanied by saddhus and naga-babas, almost always lost in thick clouds of hashish or marijuana. The city of the mystics and the elderly who choose to come here to spend their last years in search of spiritual peace. There is the city of tourists who, sneekers at their feet, hats on the head, backpack on the shoulders, photo or video camera around their neck and a bottle of water in hand, march trough the ghats from Dashashwamed to Asi under the blazing sun: alone, or more often in herds preceded by a guide of their hotel and followed by a swarm of kids trying to sell them everything or take them to “my uncle’s shop”. There is also the city of merchants, which never closes: beyond the island of the ghats, you’ll be assaulted by noise and traffic. Cows, rickshaws or motor bikes, motorcycles, pedestrians, dogs and cats, sellers of vegetables, flowers, clothes and whatever else is possible to sell occupy every inch of the available space. But, above all, there’s the city of pilgrims since Benares is the sacred city for excellence: bathing here in the waters of the Ganges means to be washed from all of one’s sins. This is the crowing dream of people’s lives, often achieved at great sacrifice as they travel from distant lands and far away villages and cities of India. Some of them make the journey for themselves, to be purified and reborn to a new spiritual life, but many others come here to spread in the Ganges the ashes of their dead relatives. To die in Benares actually means putting an end forever to the endless cycle of rebirth: it means finally rejoining the Absolute. Because Benares is also the city of death. In Benares the dead are cremated on the banks of the river, in the center of the town, at Harischandra and Manikarnika ghat. Because here death is simply another aspect of life. Next to the funeral pyres, just a couple of meters away, the children play quietly, laundrymen wash their clothes, people play cards or chat. The Benares of banarsis and the Benares of the others are often two parallel worlds that blend, touching and intertwining without ever really meeting. Attraction and mutual distrust normally rule. They are different cities, sometimes quite incomprehensible to each other, that coexist more or less peacefully in the same space. You have to make a choice, if you are foreigner. Choose where you want to belong. I never had doubts. I was not a student, not a pilgrim, not an hippy and the wrong kind of intellectual. Moreover, I was in love with the people. I was in love with a culture carrying ancients gestures and words, a world of conventions and traditions, a place of slowness, compassion and understanding. I was in love with the faces of elederlies proudly showing white hair and wrinkles, and experience. With a society mixing prayers, laughters, cheating, old folk songs, respect and honour.
I was in love with the old havelis and its inhabitants, still carrying the zest and the scent of a world forever gone. With their tales of style and refinement. They taught me how to dress, how to move, how to eat. I started exploring the hidden city with a peculiar guide: an eight years old child, who became my sister and who is now living in Rome. I took her to Italy many years later, after her mother died. I met Sandhya in front of the Durga Mandir, while she was selling (and horribly cheating) a pilgrim lady from Andhra Pradesh. The child was bright, smart and clever. To cut short a long story, we adopted each other. Her mother, my beloved Shankuntla forever missed, had raised three children from nothing to set up two shops outside the temple. I spent weeks and months helping her or Sandhya in the shops: I sold bangles sitting on a rag in the street, sold prasad outside the temple. We used to go for puja every Tuesday and Saturday and, with time, I’ve been considered part of the community both by the pandits at the temple and by the people of Durga Mandir. I was not a foreigner anymore, but somebody they would turn to for advise or help. That was the biggest journey of my life. A journey inside the thousand faces of Benares, a journey where I stocked up memories to cherish for the rest of my life. The kind of memories that keep you warm in winter nights, when you need something to fill up your heart. The memories of that Holi when we started cooking on a stove very early at morning, and then mamu-ji gave us some whisky. That Holi when we started dancing on the terrace with the other women of the neighbourhoods. The last Holi before our world was someway wiped away. The memory of Anu who was asking what’s the best way for contraception since she was 27 and pregnant with the eight child. Being a Benarasi meant helping Guddi, who was 14 back then and had been beaten black and blue by her husband for dowry issues. The memories of Soni, Sandhya’s best friend, burned on the gas stove at 17 for the same reason. Being a benarsi was preparing the marriage of Krishna, to whom the wife brought as a dowry the long desired motorcycle. Was opening a saving banks account for Rani, who was 12, to give her the choice one day to use the money to study or for a wedding. I still remeber Radha, a transgendar (called hijra here) who was just taken away from her family when she was a little boy because was showing the first signs of homosexuality. She was living with other friends and her guru, in an astonishing room with a goat’s enclosure in the middle. The smell of cheap make-up and animals was suffucating, but for them it was home, the only home they knew. Being part of Benares was to try and send to school Nishu who did not want to abandon the freedom of the streets, was to explain the West to Devi, who was going to marry a Ducth man. Being part of Benares meant to see and play with barefoot children, to watch kids weaving on wooden looms the dreams of silk that someone else will wear. Children neverthless happy, throwing in the sky songs and kites. Spending time out of the Durga temple meant accepting a chai from the old beggar at the corner, which was proud to do so. Embracing the elderly seller of chai and cigarettes who sleeps in a hut next to his shop, and offers to keep you with her thinking you are leaving so early because you have finished your money.
She had nothing, but was ready to share that nothing with me. Being a Banarsi was chatting every day with Uma, who was from Kanpur and was abandoned by her husband when she got leprosy. She came to Benares, and was living peaceful and happy in a tiny hut of tin on the ghat, just in front of my house, nourished and dressed by all the neighborhood. I keep coming back to Benares. I keep coming back to the memories of my youth, to the memories of my lost love, to the memories of a girl that was and is no more here. To the memories of the Ganges View lady who waited for me in that faithful night following the worst day of my life, offering me chai and sweets and a warm motherly hug. She is no more, but forever with me. I keep coming back to Benares for my friends, the ones who became my family. I keep coming back, even if the city has been ‘beautified’ and so deprived some way of its true soul. The city has changed, people have changed and in Asi Ghat I’m still Didi only for the older people. I’ve fed gol-guppa on the ghats to three generations of kids, but now everything is gone. The ghat is a mess of loudspeakers, cars, motorbikes and hookers.
But I keep coming back. Because while the shadows of sunset start to stretch on the stairway of Asi Ghat, accompanied by the sound of the bells and the singing of the evening prayer, by the fires of peanuts sellers, the discreet chatter of students of art and people hanging around, there is always a moment, only one, of magical silence. A blessed moment in which contradictions, inequalities, questions and differences melt, mingle and disappear. A moment in which, if you listen carefully, you can hear a different kind of bells that toll – the heartbeats of the city.