The fight for the soul of Banaras

Last Updated: Mon, May 12, 2014 06:17 hrs

In Banaras, you should only 'look'. You should not 'see'. There is much to look at. The madari (conjuror) waving his dugdugi and making his monkey dance, tells his audience, thumping his chest: 'Narendra Modi (referring to Bharatiya Janata Party's prime minsterial candidate) to ham hain. Sab ko naach nachayenge' (I am but Narendra Modi. I'll make all dance).

On Saturdays and Tuesdays, the city is full of Hanuman clones, boys leaping about with blackened faces, wearing monkey masks, a loincloth and tails, extorting money as a matter of right.

Although smallpox is long gone, Banaras is taking no chances. The temple for Goddess Sheetla is one of the most popular abodes for pilgrims on Dashashwamedh Ghat - these days for mundans (the Hindu ceremony of shaving a baby's head for the first time), but not so long ago, to pray for relief from smallpox.

Old people, faces pitted with pox scars, lie around, still believing they were saved by Sheetla. Many don't know there is no smallpox in India any more.

Varanasi is also one of the places where a 'leper asylum' was established in the 19th century. Initially, in the belief that the water of the Ganges could treat leprosy but also because lepers had to be sequestered.

They have remained here. It is hard to see some of their faces as they lie begging on the streets leading to the ghats. Today, politics is everywhere. Nitai is a leper of uncertain age, who can't remember the name of the village in West Bengal he came from.

But he does know that a Trinamool Congress candidate is contesting the 2014 election mainly because of the clash between Trinamool and Bharatiya Janata Party workers that he's heard about. He excitedly waves the stumps that are his hands and fingers as he describes the clash.

Politics reigns in the home of Channulal Mishra, one of the proposers for Narendra Modi. BJP leader Nalin Kohli, himself an amateur singer, is trying to persuade Panditji to sing Khelen mashane mein hori Digambar, a unique song describing Lord Shiva's holi in a crematorium.

In Thatheri Bazar (so known because it was the place where thatheris, sellers of copper and steel vessels, still sell their ware), the famous Sri Ram Bhandar has only a little Lal Peda left: The BJP has bought it all up, says the owner ruefully about the red, almost brown, khoya patties sweetened with misri, a trademark Banarasi sweetmeat.

The Vishevar Mandi, the biggest market for oil, ghee, atta and maida in Poorvanchal, is heartily sick of the polls and grateful these are ending soon. "Kabada kar diya chunav ne (It's been a ruinous election)," says Gagan Bihari Jayaswal, lolling half-asleep on a masnad (bolster) in his shop. Business has gone down 80 per cent; this is an all-cash business and police are intercepting large currency movements. Every day before the election, Jayaswal used to get 100-150 traders. Now, barely 15-20 are turning up.

Foreign visitors are captivated by the polls. Local newspapers quote 50-year-old Irma from the Netherlands. "Chaps with caps attract me" she says. "Kejriwal is a good sign for the democracy but in Kashi, Modi seems to have the upper hand."

Litterateur Kashi Nath Singh says the conscience of Kashi needs to be awakened. This means phakkadpana (happy-go-lucky attitude), openness and a tradition of tolerance.

"Comrade Rustom Santin would always go to Congress leader Sampurnanand for his blessings before filing his nomination. When Socialist leader Raj Narain ran short of money to fight elections, he would borrow from his arch rival, Congress' Kamlapati Tripathi.

But the atmosphere today is such that religious tolerance is being pushed away violently," he said in an interview to a local journalist. "If Modi wins, Kashi will lose."

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