A morning in Varanasi beyond the ghats, the Ganga, the sadhus and the devotees. An ordinary morning with an ordinary person that led to an extraordinary connection.
On my last night in Varanasi, a handwritten note on my weathered wooden hostel dorm bed said, “Dear Kunj, Meet you at 7:30am tomorrow. Satish Raina.” A crisp handwriting on a neatly folded sheet, the kind you don’t see since SMS and whatsapp.
Our plan for an authentic Banarasi breakfast of kachodi-jalebi was on. Satish had offered to be my local guide.
I had encountered the 76-year old Satish at the community breakfast table of the Kautilya Society. Though, he was the antitheses of what community breakfast tables expect. An indifferent, testy man, ambling through the narrow stairways with more displeasure than the old architecture warrants, his disdain cloaked under crumpled night clothes and unkempt grey hair, transporting the weight of his pundit-like knowledge with arrogance, rubbishing your presence from behind a newspaper.
When I checked into Kautilya Society five days ago, I assumed that Satish was the father of the aging traditional home whose four walls fought a daily battle to conserve culture, architecture, social values and an ethos of learning.
It appeared as if his lifetime was spent under its nurturing roof. I was surprised to learn that Satish had only made it home four years ago. He was passing through Varanasi and had decided to pause in one of its cosy and wildly colourful rooms.
The next morning, I promptly knocked on Satish’s door at 7:30 am. I had just returned from my dawn ritual at the Ghat; Freshly coated with the first rays of sunlight, sealed with light sweat and the wind spray of the sacred Ganges. The over-eagerness of early morning devotees marked my clothes.
The man who opens the door is not the dishevelled 76-year old I remember from the last 4 days! Today, Satish is dapper in a just-pressed kurta and bandi [an Indian long shirt and a waistcoat]. His wispy greys are tamed into a ponytail. He is energetically moving about his room, keeping pace with the low whistling escaping his lips.
It dawns on me that today is not just a jaunt to a lesser-known local food joint that rates highly on Satish's critically curated list.
Today’s breakfast is a special occasion.
Immediately, I feel badly turned out; I should have at least showered.
The backseat of an anorexic, old moped proudly waits for me along with the portly Satish in the rider’s seat. We are both raring to go. But, we have picked the worst day of the year in Varanasi to head out on a jaunt - Dev Diwali.
Dev Diwali is the biggest day in Varanasi’s annual calendar, when devotion and faith peaks and overflows from various Indian cities into all roads leading up to the main Ghat of this holy city. We turn the bend to the main road only to encounter a mob of rhapsodic devotees filling every square inch of space possible.
Satish tells me that he hasn’t dared to step out on this day in the past four years.
It takes us half hour to a chai shop at the main square that would have reached us in five minutes by foot on any other day. This unnamed hole-in-the-wall serves earthen cups of delicious tea with cardamom and a mandatory dose of morning political postulation. Satish’s craggy forehead creases when I'm the only woman there. Which turns into a frown when I offer to pay.
The chai momentarily energizes his resolve and we step back into the sea of humans. Only to realize that what we’ve waded past was just a sample of what’s coming.
We take a sharp turn into the first available open lane, discovering a zippiness that’s impossible of the dilapidated moped. Even when the crowd and the blaring loudspeaker and the chaos was far behind us, Satish kept on, overwhelmed by something more.
We hail down a passing banana seller and wolf down a banana each. We go halfsies on the third banana, shared over our lengthy views on life, careers, relationships and journeys, perched atop the parked moped for what seemed like an hour. Satish had had an illustrious career, a memorable marriage and an eventful life.
Satish cuts open the heart of the city on his moped in an attempt to find other possible breakfast joints. But it appears that all of Varanasi has shut down and melted into the burgeoning madness. I don’t see any jalebi-kachodi, but I do end up seeing some beautiful temples, gardens and institutions that haven’t found a place in itineraries and traveller conversations.
“If you come back to Varanasi and if I’m alive, we’ll meet again.” are his parting words.
Varanasi is a city of invigorating connections. Those connecting with the life and energy of on the ghats. Those connecting with their inner selves though devotion, yoga, music, meditation and chillums. Those who have made a connection with death, wanting to spend their last days here. Those who have waited their whole life to connect their forefathers. And those dead, making a connection into the other world via river Ganga.
I wonder what connection got the disdainful Satish to gently open up the backseat of his moped for me? What could have possibly left the most amazing kachodi-jalebi joint still undiscovered and unnamed for me on the map of Varanasi?