Baffling Benaras

So, Benaras had been on my wish-list for so long, oh so many, many years, that I actually forgot/lost track of it somewhere along the way. I remember having a conversation with VC about 5-6 years ago after my parents and sister had visited, saying we should go too, and I remember him being most disinterested — “What’s to do there?”

We’ve always had very different motivations to travel. I’m more about the sights and sounds and different kinds of experiences, I find forests as exciting as cities, and I enjoy history and heritage as much as I do the nothingness of a beach. VC is and always has been all about the photography and for a bit in between, the videography (as his Instagram will reveal).

A place was worthy of visiting only if there was something to do there, ie: photo-worthy locations to scout. Even in this, cityscapes, historic/heritage places have never been his thing. As a result, our inclinations to travel and the destinations we’d pick often do not converge. This has meant that I’ve done a fair share of travel by myself, or with my family, my friends, without him. Lately though, I’ve noticed a change in him, in this respect. Where there was once absolutely no curiosity about places that didn’t fall into his very narrow category of an inviting destination, there is now a willingness to at least experience it, and a readiness to go even if no great pictures come out of it.

I was aghast when he announced to me in January that we were going to Benaras. He had decided it singlehanded, on my behalf. He was right to assume I’d want to go. I had absolutely no complains, no inputs even. I just go on board from the word go, and only gave him the nudge by doing my share of research about which area to Benaras to base ourselves in and where to stay.

As it turns out no amount of research can actually ever really, fully prepare you for what a place is really like. We chose to base ourselves about a 400 mt walk away from Dashashwamedh Ghat, which VC picked because he’d figured it’s one of the most widely frequented places in Benaras by photographers of the world. But we didn’t realise the interiors of the older parts of the city along the ghats and banks of the river are mostly not motorable. Old Benaras is mostly a labyrinth-like maze of narrow alleyways, haphazardly cobbled, with homes packed close and high on either side and doors opening almost by surprise right on to the door. Everything happens in these alleys — shops open, little eateries with their coal-fueled stoves right on the road, old women gather around for a chat, school kids run amok, cows and buffaloes amble about very, very slowly, and sometimes two wheelers zip through recklessly.

It can be dizzying and quite confusing to navigate, even with Google maps on hand. It’s also mindbogglingly filthy with open drains, sewerage flowing through in parts, plenty of trash just thrown all around, and lots and lots and lots of shit. Real and proper shit. Open defecation is real in this country. And then there’s cow dung, to top it all. So yeah, it was fascinating to navigate this every time we had to get from the hotel to a spot to shoot, or catch lunch or even just venture out for a meal in the evening.

On the up-side the location was perfect for what we were there to do — explore these parts on foot and get pictures. We didn’t take a single cab or rickshaw the entire time that we were there, until we had to head back to the airport.

The thing that hit me the hardest all through the trip was the extreme levels of filth. I was forewarned but nothing, nothing, could have prepared me for the levels of filth I witnessed. More than the actual filth itself I was severely disturbed by how easily life seemed to go on around it. Sidestepping piles of shit, people stepping out of their homes to casually take a leak or a dump right in the street outside their homes — I couldn’t get over the numbness towards it. It also made me feel very aware of my privilege as well as how out of touch I am with these realities in the far reaches of this country that seem to exist our of sheer lack of choice. I can’t imagine anyone being okay with these living conditions out of choice.

All of this was doubly baffling and disturbing to witness in the landscape of one of the most religious and “pure” places of interest in the country. And this is exactly the sort of paradox that Varanasi is full of.

I haven’t digested so much of what I saw and observed and all that I felt — a rousing sense of rage, confusion, disbelief and helplessness at how terrible things really are in our country. And how much we are falling prey to an excellent PR campaign. The conversations I had with some of the locals really brought to the fore a deep dissonance between what they believe and what the reality right before their eyes is. How did things get this bad?

And yet, I believe this was a good trip. Eye-opening in more ways than one. We experienced a kind of raw and unpolished kind of holiday very very unlike anything we’d usually pick for ourselves. The pictures and the food — essentially what we went for — didn’t disappoint. I put that down to the advantages of getting down and dirty instead of slick and fancy.

One year ago: Everyday is blue Monday

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4 thoughts on “Baffling Benaras

  1. I’m grateful during my mini trip to Varnasi I did not see or experience the filth.Based on your description, I can’t digest that the holiest of Hindu cities is a cesspool of filth, excrement, and garbage.

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    1. I’ve heard similar experiences so I want to believe it’s better on other parts and maybe the area we were in was particularly bad because it’s the heart of the pilgrimage area and we were there soon after the kumbh. It was also scary because some folks told us this is a cleaned up version and things were a lot worse pre-2016 🤣

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  2. I sometimes wonder at how we live in this country and whilst I don’t excuse the government for not doing shit about it, truth is that we get comfortable with living with shit so damn easily.

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    1. That’s exactly what has shaken me up. I’m so disturbed by how casual and brazen it was. And shit is literally right. No government can be blamed for it and fixing this is going to take reversing generations of thinking and apathy. And that can’t be taught or enforced 🤷🏽‍♀️

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