May 31, 2020
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Benares Diary

Which is the dirtiest city in India? The ignoble award goes to our most ancient—some 3,000 years old—and holiest city.

Benares Diary

A Kashi Funk

Which is the dirtiest city in India? I have not been to Patna in the pre-Nitish Kumar days, so I have to perforce rule out Patna. No, it is not Calcutta—chaotic and anarchic though it may be—but not particularly dirty, at least not by Indian standards. The ignoble award goes to our most ancient—some 3,000 years old—and holiest city. Yes, you guessed it: Benares or Varanasi or Kashi as it is also called. I have been going there almost every year for the past decade (why, I will explain later) and every time I am absolutely appalled by the filth (the Benares Hindu University campus on the outskirts of the city, on the other hand, is an oasis of greenery and cleanliness). Open, stinking sewers with vile fluids flowing in them, piles of garbage and, of course, excreta from humans and animals everywhere. I would lay a wager that Benares has more cowdung and goat droppings in its streets, per capita, than any other place in the world. Many of the lanes leading to the ghats are so narrow that if you happen to encounter a cow coming at you in the opposite direction—a frequent occurrence—there is usually not enough room to squeeze past it.

Believe It Or Not

Yet, having said that, there is something magical about Benares, which somehow overcomes the filth and draws many visitors to it, both Indian and foreign, apart from the regular pilgrims and devotees. The 90 ghats stretching 6 km along the banks of the Ganga have an indescribable charm. A boat ride at sunrise or sunset on the river facing the ghats is one of the loveliest experiences you can have, matching a first-time view of the Taj. Lining the ghats are a myriad of temples—over 700 of them—and shrines, the most famous and most visited being the Vishwanath temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. A walk from the southern-most Assi ghat to the northern-most Adi Keshava ghat, with forays into the interior, can take up the best part of the day. I have taken that walk at least a dozen times over the years, braving the cows and the cowdung, and every time I have discovered something new or stood transfixed by a sight that is special to Benares. Pervading it all is an aura of devotion and religiosity that moves even an agnostic like me.

The Ganga Refuses

However, on this occasion, at the fag end of the monsoon, the magic was gone. The impressive new state-of-the-art Lal Bahadur Shastri airport, ready to receive international flights, was a promising start. But soon after leaving the airport, the nightmare began. A trip from airport to city that should have taken less than an hour took close to three hours. The airport road is a shocker, full of axle-breaking potholes and craters. And in the city proper, some of the roads were entirely covered in knee-deep water. As a result, my taxi driver was forced to take alternative and much longer routes. Massive hoardings with a picture of a smiling Mayawati looked down on the shambles of a city where nothing resembling a municipal corporation seems to exist. When I reached my destination, a shocking spectacle greeted me. The entrance to my hotel was blocked by one of the most disgusting sights I have ever beheld. The overflowing river had brought all the refuse of the city to the hotel’s doorstep: plastic bottles, cartons of all kinds, rags, lumps of excreta, varied debris, dead rats, even what looked like carcasses were floating and bobbing all around. And not only there—the same kind of disgusting refuse had found its way along all the ghats. It was as if the downpour of the last few days had washed down the entire waste matter of the city along with the sewage into the holy Ganga.

I have a suggestion. Since the municipal corporation is clearly moribund, why can’t some of the wealthy princely families, whose patronage of the ghats goes back centuries, along with the five-star hotels and the prominent business houses, get together to improve the infrastructure of Benares? A city that boasts such a proud musical, artistic and philosophical heritage—and so central to India at that—surely deserves better.

Do The Write Thing

What takes me to Benares so regularly? A remarkable Canadian lady, Welthy Fischer, spent many years in pre-independent India and was close to Mahatma Gandhi. She asked him how she could help India. Improve literacy, he answered, especially among girls. Sage advice that his own government did not take. That was how she started ‘World Literacy of Canada’, which has several projects in and around Benares where children are educated and women empowered by acquiring skills that enable them to earn a livelihood. I am on their advisory board and we like to think that in one of the most backward regions of the country, with low literacy and healthcare levels, we are making a difference, even if in a small way.

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