“Don’t you ever dare to book trips without consulting me. Who asked you anyway.” This was my father’s reaction when I had announced that I booked a trip to Benaras the next month.
While I was processing his response which was way different than I had imagined. My mother added, “You think money grows on trees? Always finding excuses to spend money. Now, another trip?”
And I was thinking why on Earth I felt the need to book a trip for my parents. And I remembered. It wasn’t my idea. It came from another genius in the family – my sister who’s always using guilt to talk me into doing things. She never lets go of any chance to tell me that I am the eldest & I should do more for the family. When I revealed the massive reaction that I got from our parents, she replied, “Who asked you to tell them now. Of course they will be angry. You should have told them only a week in advance. You know nothing, didi”.
The next four weeks were spent chasing my father, who was only a couple of years away from his official retirement, but was busier than the whole family, combined. Apparently he couldn’t even take two days off from work, which we knew was not true. But parents!
When we reached Varanasi early morning, I checked-in on Facebook while waiting in my hotel lobby which is how my brother came to know that the Gupta’s have left for Varanasi without informing the youngest of the family, the proverbial ghar ka chirag. When we were growing up, he always complained of the impartial treatment at home, towards him. He was in Pune and all of us were in Ghaziabad. So, out of sight, out of mind! But he is also the coolest of all, and hence he settled on an undisclosed amount in lieu of keeping his calm. So far, the trip’s been going exactly opposite of how I had imagined.
We all checked in, freshened up & took a nap. In the evening, we had planned to visit the Ghats & participate in the Ganga Aarti. We were told that the ghats are nearby. It was a hot evening. So, we hired a taxi that left us at a spot after which we had to walk on foot, wading our way through Benaras ki tang galliyan (the narrow lanes of Benaras).
As we started walking, I began searching for spots that I could take pictures of. Big trees, old doors, discoloured buildings, elderly sitting on the porch, kids playing or birds perched on an electricity pole. I found some, and I missed some. I also saw a few monkeys, but they were well-behaved. Nothing compared to the menacing family you find in Vrindavan. I passed by a few panwari shops too. An old uncle, dressed in White or Black clothes, squatting flies or busy talking to someone would be seen sitting comfortably in these shops, with fresh betel leaves neatly stacked in front of him. You can see the water droplets shining on the top of each stack. Benarasi Paan is a delicacy, but to me, it appeared ordinary, like any other paan you will find in Uttar Pradesh. So, we kept walking, as the shops went by. Then, in one of the lanes, where only one person could pass at one time, we spotted a few cows and an ice-cream vendor. He was selling Kwality Walls, and somehow I remembered my Summer holidays. It was a kid who’s selling these ice-creams & he addressed my dad, “Uncle ice-cream kha lo.”
Papa looked at his kids. Both Anupriya & I had our reservations. So, the kid sold a Mango Dolly to my dad who happily took it, and walked to ghats while slurping his ice-cream. We clicked his photo & had some fun in our family WhatsApp group. In a while, we reached the ghats & found a motor boat who would show us all the ghats with the last stop at Dashashwamedh Ghat. All four of us grabbed different corners of the boat & began our evening with the much-famous boat ride in the Ganges.
For a while, nothing happened. Both Anupriya & I were waiting for something amazing to happen, but nothing happened. Really nothing. It was usual, ordinary, river-like. There was water, boats and people, doing people-like things. Our excitement wore off, and all of us settled down. My dad had started talking to the boatman already asking about him, his family, tourists, employment & general state of affairs. He was calling the city, Kashi & was asking him when would be the best time to visit Kashi Vishwanath mandir the next day. My mother was busy calculating the probability of us falling down into the water, and kept telling me to back off every time I went close to the edge of the boat to take a picture.
As we reached the middle, the wind began to blow & the sky became clear. None of us could hear each other audibly well, but we could hear the flowing water. To our right, were the ghats. All of those were crowded with families, solo travellers & priests. I saw flames coming out of Manikarnika Ghat & searched on Google if it’s what I think it means. They say that if you die in Kashi, you don’t take a rebirth. No reincarnations. Your soul is free, forever. This is why, many come to Varanasi in their last moments, and spend the last stage of their life in a holy place like this, with only time to think over the life they had, and the life they could have had. And then wither away in flames on Manikarnika or Harishchandra ghat.
Benaras is probably the only place, or one of the rare places where life & death are celebrated with equal pomp & show, and people go to bed to wake up to a new day, every day, doing what they do, living how they live. The Sun had begun setting, and it was time for the majestic, Ganga Aarti. The boat rider took us to Dashashwamedh Ghat & parked us at a spot with a view. In another few minutes, several other boats came and parked alongside us, blocking our view. Ganga Aarti began, lightening up the atmosphere & our spirits. We purchased a diya that’s placed on a leaf platter. My parents lit the wicker and we just kept it on the boat. We didn’t float it in the river & took it away with us when we left. For a while in between, none of us talked to each other. We all were busy looking around & soaking it in – the magic that happens when they perform Ganga Aarti after you have taken a long ride on the waters of Ganges. When we left for our hotel, we all were silent like there was no need to talk to each other, to say anything to one another. It was 8 o’clock in the evening & we felt full, satisfied, happy for we had each other & a great life.