Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Writer of Varanasi: Writing of Saints and Warriors

As a child, I lived in Varanasi – that ancient city in India that seems older than all of human memory. Those were special days – idyllic summers spent in the shade of the guava tree in my grandmother’s house; the cold winters spent basking in the sun with a book in the backyard. All the while, the brass pennant of the old Shiva temple – of Barhajkothi – fluttered high above our heads, gleaming in the sun. It was a constant reminder, along with the periodic sound of the conch-shells ringing out in prayer - that we were fortunate to inhabit the city of Shiva.

I made up stories even as a child. The earliest stories I remember creating featured a brown bear that didn’t really do much except spend time happily living in a comfortable cave and occasionally charging some unwarranted intruder. I am sure psychologists would make more sense of that particular leitmotif of my childhood than I can. However my favourite memory is of sitting on a peedha – a low wooden stool – in the kitchen. My grandmother would be preparing the food while I ate my dinner. We always ate in these traditional thalis – huge metallic platters that gleamed dull pink-gold – and with matching bowls. As children, we got the big bowls, fluted like wide lotus flowers. For dinner, we would get a thali with a big bowl full of hot milk – from our own cows – with crushed up chapattis. And in a smaller bowl would be the vegetable portion of the meal – generally something combined with potatoes, because I was finicky consumer of greens.

While I sat and ate my dinner, my grandmother and aunts would cook dinner for the rest of us. There were stories about my aunts’ day at the university, and my grandmother’s memories of times past. And of course, my brown bear! My grandmother always patiently heard out the complicated incoherent epic sagas that must – in retrospect – have been terribly boring. And she always feigned an interest that seemed sincere. But then, our house was always full of stories. Everyone seemed to tell stories – of the past, the present, and in case of my favourite uncle, of distant lands.

As I grew in that house, I realised that all I wanted to do was to make up stories. Of course, I didn’t know precisely what I could make up stories about. So I asked my grandmother, the source of all wisdom in my childhood. She had a simple solution, one that I wondered hadn’t occurred to me earlier. She said “write stories about saints and warriors.” I think she wanted me to write about warriors because that was our genetic legacy. And she wanted me to write about saints in desperate hope that I would somehow be inspired to follow their example and behave well.

The problem was that saints are not a very clear concept in Hindu thought. So my grandmother would tell me about Meera-bai, the fifteenth century poet-queen who gave up everything to follow her dreams. Or she would tell me tales from the Mahabharata, where no one is particularly saintly. Every so often, if I had behaved particularly poorly, my grandmother would tell me about Sita – the ultimate in saintly behaviour. I personally thought she was a weepy dishrag, and I have a sneaky feeling that my grandmother wasn’t terrifically fond of Sita either. But the story had to be told – after all, Sita is the model of womanhood held up by traditionalists in society. Besides, we apparently traced our blood lineage back to Rama and Sita, so in a sense it was family history.

Of course, we would end each session with a flaming row: I would refuse to accept that such saps could ever be our ancestors. My grandmother would feel honour-bound to take offence and attempt to explain how the lineage extended back to them, all noted down in a miniscule letters on the early pages of our family Ramayana. I would challenge her on Rama – who I considered a particularly poor example of a man – and Sita – who I felt spent far too much time passively lamenting her fate. She would argue feebly until finally accepting that “yes, yes, but that is the way it is written in the books.” Then we would happily revert to snuggling up together for a tale that contained more blood, gore, adventure, valour, and somehow, less morality. I suppose even back then, we were renegades – my grandmother and I.

However, none of the above solved my problems regarding saints that I was supposed to write about. There was the “aghori” ashram across the street of course. The ascetics who lived there, I suppose, would qualify in some way as religious. Except the aghoris were wild-eyes men with matted hair, bloodshot eyes and unpredictable tempers. They were also not particularly pleasant, as I fully understood, even as a child. The aghori ashram also had a running feud with their next door neighbour, one of the leading entrepreneurs of the region.

The aghoris aren’t particularly the most desireable neighbours in any case, even by moderate Hindu mainstream standards. Simplistically, they are a tantric Shaivite sect of Hinduism. They take the idea of interconnectedness of death and life as their basic precept. As a symbol of this understanding, the gate-posts of the ashram were topped by human skulls. On the other hand, they consume liquor and dhatura, eat flesh, speak obscenities, dress scantily. There were always rumours of sex – of all forms – although they may have simply been rumblings of adults. We weren’t allowed to approach the ashram or enter its gates. In fact, my grandmother had an injunction against any of the girls in the house even giving alms to the aghoris.

Our entrepreneurial neighbour – of course – wasn’t too thrilled with seeing skulls from his own garden. So for a period of nearly three years, a tacit war was carried out between the aghoris and the capitalist. The businessman would periodically raise the common wall between his house and the ashram to block out the ghastly view of the skulls. The aghoris would wait patiently until the wall would be built up, cemented, painted freshly white. And then the next day they would raise the gate-posts of the ashram higher so that the skulls would tower again over the neighbouring wall.

The ongoing war between the aghoris and the capitalist of course provided much amusement to the rest of the neighbourhood. But the sight of human skulls was also a special lesson that Varanasi teaches its denizens. While they are children! Death is a fact of life, for most Banarasis. And it is neither to be feared nor dreaded. Instead it is a something to be mocked, laughed at, accepted as a pesky but familiar neighbour, and finally, embraced with love and affection. This is why the city is the cosmic cremation ground as well as the Anandvana, the forest of joy.

Perhaps that is why we all were so mocking of the funeral processions we constantly crossed. As you may know, Varanasi has a special place in Hindu philosophy. The city is believed to rest on top of Shiva’s trident, and thus Varanasi alone is not destroyed when Shiva dances the tandava. It also has special powers because of its unique mythico-geographical position. Simply living three nights and three days in the city is believed to grant a soul moksha upon death – liberation from the cycle of rebirths and the goal of all Hindus. Simply dying or being cremated in Varanasi is a great karmic act and can secure a better birth or a cosmic holiday in the Hindu paradise-spa. This is a reward for souls between death and birth and is by no means permanent; one is simply granted a short holiday from the cycle of rebirth by spending some time in paradise.

Of course this means that lots of people bring the dead to be cremated in Varanasi, and often the city seems to live a constant stream of funeral procession. Every few minutes one can spot grieving relatives, all clad in white, grim and exhausted, walking two abreast along the road. The corpse is generally carried on a make-shift stretcher of bamboo and wrapped in orange/yellow cloth, and covered with flowers. As the funeral proceeds, the pall-bearers and mourners chant out loud: “Ram naam satya hai” – “The name of God is true.”

As children growing up in Varanasi, we had our own version. So on our way back and forth from school, all crammed up in big school-buses, we would crane our necks out to check for funeral processions. “Ram naam satya hai” – the mourners would chant.

Murda saala mast hai,” (“The bloody corpse is happy”), we would gaily chortle back. Nearly seventy grimy-faced cheerful urchins would stick out of bus windows to mock the demonstrations of grief in our city streets.

As an adult, I have often wondered if I ought to feel mortified at mocking the grief of those poor people carrying their dead to the cremation grounds. Yet, always, the Banarasi in me wins out: death must be mocked at and diminished. Otherwise its shadows grow so long and dark that it can snuff out all that is joyous and ridiculous in the world. Besides, I always remember the manic grins we got from the aghoris for the act. For that alone, our mocking defiance of death and grief was commendable. Unfortunately, all this means that the idea of writings about saints was quickly complicated by the masti (joy/madness) that Banarasis value above all else.

The second part of my grandmother’s injunction meant writing about warriors. We knew lots of those, of course. There was an ample supply in the family tree, without needing recourse to the history books. Of course, it helped that we lived in restless times, so we never needed to look too far for warriors. My father was an officer in the army. My great-uncle would always show up in the city wearing his cartridge belt across the waist-band of his dhoti, his rifle slung across his shoulder. Then there were sundry relatives, and constant feudal conflicts involving various family members, politicians, dacoits seeking amnesty, police chasing rebellious student leaders…In all, death, and violent death, never seemed too far away.

Besides, there are only two possible ends to war: victory or death. And all victories are similar, ephemeral, paving way only for another battle. An endless litany of battle victories makes for poor stories. So the only stories that can be told of warriors are of how they embraced death, gloriously, joyously, laughing into the bright sun even as the swords clanged, and ground grew warm and fertile with the spilled blood.

Yet mine was not a frightened childhood by any means. Or a traumatised one. It was an idyllic childhood in many ways where love and affection abounded and loyalty and laughter filled our lives. The only difference was that we were never protected from the reality of death – and its constant presence.

Not surprisingly then, a lot of my writing is about death and the joy of life. It is about people making sense of life in the face of death, or even re-affirming life even as they die.

Perhaps, in a strange way – and in strangely arcane ways – I am a Banarasi writer after all. Some part of me is constantly aware of the fragility of life, and its unbearable beauty, much like the fleeting sun-rises on the Ganges. Yet another part of me is simultaneously aware that the sunrises on the Ganges are never-ending, and are repeated unfailingly every day; that life and death go hand-in-hand, and are valuable, terrible, magnificent, for that conjunction.

I have been often told that my writing is violent. I have been told that my writing is disturbing often for glorifying that violence. But perhaps that is a lesson only understood by those who have lived in Varanasi: by those who have seen the sublime beauty of a red-gold dawn spreading like so much fine silk over the Ganges at Dashashwamedh ghat even as blue-grey smoke rises from the pyres at the Marnakarnika ghat nearby. No image of Varanasi would be complete without the intermingling of the two aspects, like Shiva himself, of life and death. Similarly, my writing would be incomplete without that image of death-life – an unbearably beautiful but wild-eyed Shiva smeared with the ashes of the funeral pyres, with snakes twirling around his neck and limbs, accompanied by a band of ghouls and demons – terrible and wondrous at the same time.

My writing – I suppose - is simply the same as that of writers of Varanasi for so many millennia – an invocation of Shiva in all his glory.

NB: From a talk presented at the University of Cordoba in 2006. PEN International Magazine's most recent issue carries a Spanish translation of this essay.