When I first landed in Varanasi in the summer of 2014 to cover the most significant election that year, a frenzied contest between two aspirants for the post of prime minister, it was an escape for me from the central Indian forests.
For nearly three years, I had been covering the Maoist insurgency. I had written about over 200 corpses; my laptop and files were swollen with confidential videos of postmortems, encounters and bomb blasts. Leaving Bastar behind, I came to Banaras (now Varanasi) to drown in election reporting.
Here, I found myself in yet another zone of the dead. I was staying in a small lodge near Manikarnika, the eternal crematorium that has never been quiet, never has had a respite, where the innumerable dead await salvation.
A guest at the lodge was visiting from Finland to shoot a documentary film on the meaning of death in various cultures. “In Europe, death is often pushed aside, confined to hospitals or old-age homes. Bodies are kept in black caskets, buried in secrecy,” says Judith Mei, observing that “in India, you are not afraid of death, you celebrate it in public”. I looked at the burning pyres. The insatiable flame of Manikarnika took a giant acrobatic leap, slashed the night wind, threatening to swallow the river Ganga.
A civilisation, perhaps, finds its reflection in the bond it forms with its dead. Are they dead, forever? Do they visit the living occasionally? Or are they their perpetual co-travellers, cohabiting with them as eternal lovers?
The question now stood inverted, turned inward: How does a Death Reporter carry his dead within? In which casket of his being have they made their permanent domicile?
The questions that hit me first in Bastar, the jungle of Mahua that had been converted into a graveyard in the last three decades, took a new form before the Ganga. The Yaksha Prashna found no resonance in the election campaign. Politics was completely oblivious to the pyres that formed Kashi’s foundation.
It’s believed to be a triad, three cities with an almost coterminous geography — Varanasi, Banaras and Kashi. Many metropolises carry several cities within. Delhi has seven, but with demarcated borders. Along the Ganga, Varanasi, Banaras and Kashi flow into one another, and yet stand apart. Kashi is the “City of Light” and wisdom; in Varanasi are absolved sins, while Bana-ras (the Prakrit for Sanskritised Varanasi) incorporates a crucial element — ras, sweetness or joy.
There is, arguably, a fourth city within Varanasi — Sarnath, from where the first, and the greatest, philosophical challenge to the authority of Kashi was mounted. Buddha attained wisdom in Gaya, but travelled around 250 km to deliver his first sermon at the threshold of Kashi. Buddha attained wisdom in Gaya, but travelled around 250 km to deliver his first sermon at the threshold of Kashi. Buddha couldn’t have anticipated that he would eventually be crowned as the ninth avatar of Vishnu and the Ganga would assimilate Sarnath within its waters.
But Kashi is never short of grand ironies, and, perhaps, none bigger than this. The mosque Aurangzeb built on the premises of the Vishveshwara temple along the Ganga, which has been the centre of tension, is called Jnana Vapi mosque — the wisdom well. Perhaps, the only mosque in the world with a Sanskrit name.
The myths of Kashi are those of its residents. One of them was Bharat Ratna Ustad Bismillah Khan, who played shehnai at Hindu weddings. He would walk up to the Ganga and the Vishwanath temple daily for his riyaz. His son Mehtab Hussain had told me: “Mere abba ne Kashi ki Saraswati saadh li thi.” Politics had little regard for Kashi’s myths and histories.
The city that once recorded supreme philosophical debates between Advaita and Buddhism, which gifted a Sanskrit nomenclature to a mosque, was now a witness to vacuous political claims.
Manikarnika smiled then, as it does now, in the summer of 2019 when it hears the clai-ms about the martyrdom of Indian soldiers.
In March 2014, exactly a month before I would find myself in Banaras, a Central Reserve Police Force officer narrated to me the last journey of a soldier who falls to the bullet of the Maoists.
The embalmed body is placed in a coffin, draped in the Tricolour. A policeman, perhaps a friend of the deceased, carries the coffin to his family. He removes the flag, hands over the coffin to the family and returns.
What happens to the Tricolour? Is it used for another deceased, draped over another coffin? Do the police, paramilitary forces and the army have a stock of such flags that are used only for the last journey of soldiers?
The flag is often handed over to the family as a souvenir.
Three years later, I was tracking the Assembly elections in Uttarakhand, particularly the polling booths located at high altitudes. It was snowing. In the hilly Parsari village of Chamoli district lived an old woman, Bhagirathi Devi, with a Tricolour some men had given her a few years ago.
Her son, Murli Singh Bisht, a member of the 24 Assam Rifles battalion, died on duty a few years ago. Days later, the coffin arrived draped in the flag. “They asked me to…,” she forgot what exactly they had told her. “What did they say?” she turned to his teenager grandson Anurodh Singh. “Hoist it on January 26 and August 15,” he completed the sentence.
Anurodh stepped inside to fetch the flag kept in a box. It still had the smell of his father. She smoothened the creases along the fold. He tried to take the flag from her but she wanted to touch it a little longer.
Numerous people arrive in Kashi every year to embrace their death. The Ganga carries in its womb countless tales of salvation. Covering shrill election rallies in Varanasi, I sometimes wondered about the possible turns politics could take if it shed its cynicism and finds a desire to redeem itself. It could then encounter tales it had ignored, ask the river to narrate stories.
The most revered hymns to the river, Ganga Lahari, were composed by Shah Jahan’s court poet Jagannatha who was ostracised by his Brahmin community for having a love affair with a Muslim woman.
Jagannatha travelled to Kashi, the legend goes, and sat with his beloved atop the 52nd step of the Panchganga Ghat. As he sung each of the 52 hymns he composed for the Ganga, the river rose one step by another, before its waters touched the feet of the couple, and carried them away in its embrace. Boycotted by society, a Brahmin poet and a Muslim woman found their love in the Ganga.
The election of 2019 is the first in a decade that does not see me in the field. I have reported on elections from a range of geographies and mythologies — Yamunotri to Varanasi, Agra to Abujhmad. Election reporting often marks the end of certitudes. Well before it dawns that the results can be utterly unpredictable and the public mood can be so treacherous, one witnesses and records politics in its most brazen form.
One soon understands that one can report and write about the tales of love and hope, but there can be no salvation for those like me who find their only abode in the written word.
Kashi answered the question that Bastar had raised. The Death Reporter can never bury his dead, can never even deposit them in the Ganga. He will forever carry them on the nib of his pen.
On the train to the Maoist heartland after spending over a month along the Ganga in 2014, I asked myself — Am I returning from Varanasi or Kashi? Did I live this summer in Kashi or Banaras? Is there any traveller who comes to Varanasi, but returns from Kashi? Or one who spends his days in Kashi, but nights in Banaras? The road from Bastar to Banaras, I then realised, goes via Manikarnika. There was also someone, I now recall, who rejected Kashi, who chose Maghar over Manikarnika, hell over salvation. A poet he was.
Ashutosh Bhardwaj is a fellow at the IIAS, Shimla.