My Jackie Moments
Many say Varanasi is the oldest city in the world. Most say it’s the oldest city in India. Mark Twain says, “Banaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” My one memory of the city is going there as a young boy, not to see Varanasi but to see Jacqueline Kennedy who was visiting. I joined the small crowd at the ghat where she was to take a boat on the Ganga, and as soon as she got out of her car I shouted “Jackie!” at the top of my voice, loud enough for her to be startled and wave to me. That led to my second memorable Varanasi moment, a letter Time magazine published. “I had to travel 250 miles to see Jackie Kennedy,” the letter went, “and, gosh, was it worth it!”
Many Mannequins Later
Now, years later, I was equally breathless at the ghats, but that was for the more prosaic reason that, unlike Ms Kennedy, we had to leave our cars way behind in a parking lot, and trudge through the streets for what seemed like miles and miles (250 of them?).
‘Trudge’ is probably not the right word. ‘Wade’ is perhaps more apt: like the dead bodies in the Ganga which have to navigate its sludge and silt, we the living had to fight our way through the most crowded streets imaginable. People, more people and even more people. Cows, sheep and dogs. Cycles, stationary or moving. Scooters, parked or weaving. Cyclerickshaws, autorickshaws. Cars, small and big. SUVs with puffed-up cheeks. Mannequins, more mannequins and even more mannequins.... Why Varanasi, which has more than its fair share of people should add to its population with so many mannequins is a question I found no answer to. But there they were, lined up in shops, modelling outfits from suits to saris. Some establishments had so many mannequins, they put them on the road. In the end I began to believe that what was being sold were not the clothes they wore, but the mannequins themselves. Through all this, tourists of all shapes, colours and sizes made their befuddled way.
All of us then got into boats, ours rowed by a young man who seemed too frail for the job till we realised that the job entailed a leisurely, cursory, saunter along the nearest ghats till it was sunset, when all the boats converged on the main ghat. This was the only place in Varanasi which seemed to be aware that tourism is a two-way street: you might fleece tourists, but you need to give something in return.
The ghat for the evening aarti was brilliantly lit and stylishly decorated. The seven priests who stood with a bell in one hand and a diya in the other conducted the aarti to the mesmerising rhythm of drum and bell, their movements choreographed and tightly synchronised. As dusk gave way to darkness, the circular movements of the diyas cast a hypnotic spell on all of us. No one, it seemed, was in a hurry to leave.
“After the crowds and the noise and the sheer filth of Varanasi, this is an oasis of peace.” This is one of the comments in the book of the Nadesar Palace Hotel, run by the Taj group.
In many ways, the Nadesar property is a strange place because no one seems to know when it was built, and no one knows why either. It stands opposite Mint House, built by the East India Company in 1795, and it is speculated that Nadesar came up four years later as the residence of the Mayor of Benares. In 1889, Maharaj Prabhu Narain Singh acquired it for himself as his city residence. During that time, it had many distinguished visitors, like the Prince and Princess of Wales (who went on to become King George V and Queen Mary), King Reza Shah Pahlavi of Iran and his glamorous wife Queen Sorraya, King Ibn Saud, Queen Elizabeth II and even Lord Mountbatten and Jawaharlal Nehru (though not at the same time).
It’s now an elegant boutique hotel of just 10 luxurious suites, each with beautifully restored furniture, works of art, each suite with a colour scheme reflecting the flowers outside, marigold, jasmine, lotus. Each suite is named after a prominent person who had stayed there, which adds a rather nice ring to things. (“I am in the Mountbatten suite” sounds so much better than “I am in 210”).
We sat on the verandah and saw the sun rise with our morning tea. Six peacocks suddenly landed on the lawn next to the fountain. Later, taking a ride in a horse-drawn carriage, we passed the shrine of Goddess Nadeswari (from whom the palace takes its name). Suddenly a mongoose scurried in. Did that mean there were snakes around? “No, no. No snakes,” said our driver reassuringly.
Perhaps he was right. Perhaps no snakes were allowed in this island of tranquility, such a contrast to the crowded streets of the old city. Agreed you go to Varanasi for the play of life and death in its ghats and temples. But, in the end, there is only so much life you can take.
As I Struggled Through...
The crowds in the narrow lanes leading to the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir, I heard the high-pitched voice of an American woman. “Why did you bring me here?” she wailed to her husband. “I don’t want to be here.”
Writer and columnist Anil Dharker is founder-director of the Mumbai LitFest, Literature Live!; E-mail your diarist: anil.dharker AT gmail.com