The sun is poised to set over Ganga and Assi Ghat as if preparing for an occasion. A loudspeaker comes alive somewhere while temple bells toll in a distance. A temporary stage has been set up for a kavi sammelan, turning the steps leading to the ghat into an amphitheatre.
Kashinath Singh picks a quiet corner on the first flight of steps. Walking up to the two boys seated there, he asks, “Bhai, idhar baith sakte hain kya? (Can we sit here?)” They turn to look and make space for the frail, old man they see. The veteran Hindi writer catches his breath before he speaks. “Assi used to be the last ghat. So, it was quiet and peaceful. But it’s been turned into a spectacle, a tourist spot. Yoga, aarti and bhajan happen here now. It wasn’t like this before.”
It’s a warm weekday evening and Singh is still a little tired from a book launch he attended the previous day. At 82, he is worn down by a few hours of activity, he confesses. Yet, he has offered to play guide. We are at Assi, which he considers “the essence of Kashi”.
The Sahitya Akademi-winning author’s 2004 novel Kashi ka Assi chronicles life at the ghat during the 1990s. More importantly, it is a memoir of a city at the cusp of change. “Kashi is an ancient city that has managed to hold on to its culture even as the world changed around it. But three crucial events that defined the 1990s — economic liberalisation, the protests against the Mandal Commission report and the rath yatra that led to the Babri Masjid demolition — changed the fabric of the city forever,” says Singh.
Kashi ka Assi is also an account of how globalisation shaped Varanasi, as it became an international tourist attraction. Not all the foreigners came in search of clichés of incredible India but to learn Indian languages and arts, and stayed with residents who turned their homes into homestays. Torn between faith and need, some from the Brahmin community were faced with the dilemma of giving up the temple space in their house to construct a room or a toilet to accommodate a guest. This delicious irony was captured in Chandraprakash Dwivedi’s 2015 film Mohalla Assi, which was based on a story from Singh’s novel. The visitors became a source of income, but the city also accepted them, without forcing its traditions on them. Today, a number of European cafés and Korean restaurants dot the neighbourhoods around the ghats.
“But this pluralism has been under threat after the rise of the right wing. When culture is viewed through the narrow prism of religion, it ignores the history of a city as old as Kashi,” says Singh. The change was as subtle as it was tangible. “For centuries, Kashi has been home to the culture of dissent. It is here that Buddha gave his first sermon. This city was home to Sant Kabir and Ravidass. It has always encouraged and given space to divergent ideas, which made the city a democratic space. But the voice of the right, which emerged around the time of the Rath Yatra, was not only loud but also deafening,” he says.
Singh gives an example of the annual kavi sammelan, held every year at Assi around Holi. “It first came under attack in the early 1990s for being ‘obscene’. The sammelan was no holds barred, and no one was exempt from ridicule, not the prime minister of the country and not even gods. It continued until a few years ago but changed in essence and venue, because people began fearing harassment,” he says.
A large part of his book is set at the various tea stalls at Assi Ghat, which, in Singh’s opinion, were once Varanasi’s most democratic spaces. “Assi was my home for many years. It’s my Bodh Gaya and the tea stalls are where I attained my nirvana,” says the writer, who calls Varanasi by its ancient name. “Kashi never runs out of tea and conversation. Doesn’t matter if you walk into a stall without a penny in your pocket, you are bound to find someone who will buy you a cup or more,” he says with a laugh.
The tea stalls once doubled as addas for poets, writers and artistes. Take, for instance, Kedar Tea Stall, frequented by some of the biggest names in Hindi literature in the 1960s, such as Kedarnath Singh, Vijaymohan, Vidyasagar Nautiyal and Vishwanath Tripathi Dehlavi. These gatherings, Singh says, would be presided over by his elder brother and noted author Namvar Singh, along with Trilochan Shastri, and would conclude with a trip to Tulsi Pustakalay, the bookshop that stood around the corner. “These visits groomed me as a writer. They helped me understand ideas such as communism and socialism, which shaped my work,” he says.
The central character in Kashi ka Assi remains Pappu Tea Stall, which provides a vantage point from where the reader views the city. “The greatest attraction of this shop was that it sold bhang. A rich businessman and a rickshaw-puller would walk in here, wearing the same Banarasi gamcha. Supporters of the Congress, the BJP, the Janata Dal or BSP leader Kanshi Ram all gathered there to debate politics and current affairs, their differences reduced under the effects of bhang, which is as much a part of Kashi’s culture as chai and conversation,” says Singh.
Whether the shop was already famous or first made popular by Kashi ka Assi is debatable but it continues to attract visitors. It’s also where the BJP kicked off Narendra Modi’s ‘Chai pe Charcha’ campaign ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
It’s 7pm and the tiny tea shop is milling with people, seated on benches placed on either side of a single narrow table. As Singh steps inside, he is warmly welcomed and a glass of tea placed in front of him even before he can slip into a vacant spot on the bench. “Well, a lot of us are dead now,” says Singh, laughing as he remembers Tanni Guru, his dear friend and a regular at Pappu’s. “But after the Babri demolition, the nature of debates changed. The VHP and BJP supporters would often try to shout others down and some discussions turned into brawls. Slowly, the liberals and socialists moved out of here.” It is now, he says, a less democratic space.
Some of them went to Kedar Tea Stall, now popularly known as Poi’s Tea Stall, a hundred metres away. Here, Singh is greeted as ‘Gurudev’ and within minutes, another glass of tea materialises, along with Gaya Singh, a Hindi writer who features in Kashi ka Assi. He brings Singh his favourite paan too, but without the bhang, which he quit a decade or so ago. In the book, Gaya Singh is also a bhang-loving Varanasi resident, who puts up a fight against the crackdown on illegal cannabis sellers. He also indulged in an occasional chicken curry — till the day he saw the image of his late father in a rooster he was about to cook. In his 70s, Gaya Singh comes across as a fine example of a generation that used humour and sarcasm as a means to counter opinions. “If we had mobile phones back in the day when Gurudev was working on Kashi ka Assi, at least I could have sued him for adding so much colour to my character,” he says.
Gaya Singh might not have minded, but Singh’s novel ended up angering a host of Varanasi characters. “I didn’t want to create fictional characters because the real people here were entertaining enough. Because I didn’t want a lawsuit against me, I added some flavour to the conversations. Not everyone took that kindly,” says Singh. Kashi ka Assi was also accused of being “indecent” because of the generous use of swear words. “Swear words were common between friends and used with a certain degree of endearment in Kashi. But it was misunderstood as a language that goes against Indian tradition and culture,” says Gaya Singh. “Today, the language Kashi speaks has become cleaner but the endearment is lost. And a swear word, when uttered, feels like a cuss,” Singh adds.
Many believe that as a result of this criticism, Singh didn’t bag any notable state or central award for Kashi ka Assi. He got the Sahitya Akademi award in 2011 for Rehan Par Ragghu, a novel that looks at how globalisation changes human relationships. In Singh’s opinion, the award was to make up for Kashi ka Assi, which had, by then, won a lot of acclaim. The author, a vocal detractor of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and right-wing politics, was one of the many writers who returned their awards in 2016.
With a little over a year left for the next Lok Sabha election, the author is now curious to see how Varanasi, Modi’s constituency, will react. But he also knows that the fabric of the city has changed forever. “You won’t find a peepal tree in the city, where an idol has not been placed and which people don’t bow before. It wasn’t so before. After the RSS claimed that Narad Muni was the first-ever journalist, the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) even held a conference on the subject. How the BJP and the RSS are working towards limiting Indian culture to religion can also be seen in the way they promote Sanskrit. The perception is that Sanskrit is closely tied with Hindu religion. But ‘Sanskrit’ is derived from sanskriti, which means culture. In India, culture has always been superior to religion and the attempt is to change that.”
Singh sees a hint of hope in the recent students protests across the country. He has closely witnessed student life and politics, first as a student and then as a professor and head of the Hindi department at BHU, the job he retired from in 1997. “The protests by the girls last year was the first organic protest in decades and laudable especially because the BHU girls, for the first time that I can remember, stood up for their rights,” he says. “The anger is brimming somewhere and the next revolution may just be around the corner. Only, this time it won’t be driven or led by any political party but by people. I hope I live to see that day.”