I have always had little regard for the exoticism of the Indian Holy cities and I had my reasons for it. As my train chugged into the old station of ‘Kashi’, I remembered my childhood trip to Haridwar and how I was repelled by the anti-exotic nature of the city inspite of being the door to the mighty Himalayas. We, the people had managed to get the shit out of every possible living thing onto the sacred streets of a holy city. And cow shit is supposed to be the purest. If they shit on the roads, let them do it. DONOT dare remove them and if possible lick them to have some Punya Laabh ! And cows somehow love places like this - Haridwar, Puri, etc etc ! However, horses do have a liking for the holy cities higher up. As my train left Kashi and strolled towards the main city station of ‘Varanasi’, wading through the mammoth human wasteland by the rail tracks, my memory lingered atop the Himalayas. We were walking on a 7 km trek and our feet would often get entangled and stuck into the mud that covered the road. It was raining incessantly and it was not even monsoon and this mud was almost a foot thick and had a custard like feel to it. My nostrils were picking up a weird smell all over from my body and from my friend’s walking beside me and from the people around me. My friend quipped “This Himalayan mud do smell different no ? That’s how holiness smells. That’s how the Gods test us while we struggle to achieve Moksha! ” We were on our way to Kedarnath and it was just as you thought… We were walking on Horse shit !
So here I was, sitting in the 3 tier non-AC compartment of my train, winter was here and we were slowly entering the holiest city of the Hindus and surely the most filthiest of all. I have full faith on my fellow countrymen !
I peeked out of the window in excitement as I could not wait to get down on the streets and this train was not helping in anyway. Well of course I am excited as this is my first solo food trip ! And Banaras had always excited me since childhood. But yes the filth !
And then as I had my head outside the window I had the most ethereal view I had ever had … something which will continue to define Banaras for me!
As the train floated through the most dirtiest of tracks in India, as the air smelt of rotten flesh, as a smog of pollution hung all around, there emerged from beyond a heap of the garbage…. the most resplendent of the birds, the national bird of the country - a peacock, in all its elegance and splendour ! A sight cannot be more surreal !
A lesson that I had learnt in Bhubaneswar came handy outside the station and it usually does whenever you are travelling solo mainly. It doesn’t matter how well you can negotiate with your stakeholders at work. All those consultative skills go for a toss every time you make that journey of a lifetime from an Indian Railway station exit gate through the sea of auto wallahs and taxi wallahs and other wallahs (depending on which city you are in) who jump upon you more fiercely than a tiger pounces on a deer and then you are not even as swift as the spotted animal. So you cannot run without being mobbed or robbed.
I had to get to Assi Ghat, the last ghat to the south and the autos were asking for anything from 150 to as high as 300. I had no freakin idea howmuch the transport costs were in this city but there was one thing I had a very firm idea about. It was The golden rule - never… never ever board anything from the men that pounce on you until you get to the main road outside the rail station. And how well it did pay off, thanks to a traffic police who asked me to get off at Durga Mandir on a BHU bound shared auto. I ended up paying 7 bucks for the ride.
I know I am supposed to write a food blog and you may be pissed off already that there isn’t any food yet! But it isn’t the food that I travel for. I taste the cities through my eyes, ear and mouth. I avoided tongue to avoid the obvious underlying vulgarity ! There… I just mentioned what I omitted. Poor me and my cravings for vulgarity!
After searching around for a hotel room around the ghat and shortly after being knocked off by the prices at the hotels overlooking the river I managed to put up at a majestic ‘half’ room (yes you heard me right). It was majestic because you could see the river right from the bed, it was that good a view and it was ‘half’ because if you wanted to go to the loo you had to climb four-legged upon a single bed which lay between the two entrances - one to the room and another to the bathroom. Ohh… and you had to climb four-legged because you could not afford to stand with the electric fan spinning overhead.
But it was 400 for a night. The owner had looked at me for half a minute over his crooked spectacles with a crooked eye when I had made the mistake of asking for a spare room. He looked over my shoulder and asked if I really was alone. I replied “For the time being yes. But who knows what vices may get the better of me when darkness falls” … well I could not afford the smartness to say that at that point of time and could only manage a begging “Yes”.
As you start walking from Assi ghat towards Dashaswamedh Ghat, you make the journey from Varanasi to Banaras. Assi ghat makes you lose faith in your fellow countrymen as you see an unnaturally ‘clean’ ghat with not much of a crowd anywhere. I thought to myself how stupid I had been. This was the prime minister’s own constituency and the Government had just started the small business of ‘Swacch Bharat’ tax imposition and we were yet to notice the small addition to our food bills tax section. Assi Ghat was under a makeover drive with an extension of the ghat underway towards the south.