American Phil Deutschle chronicles his days as a teacher in a Nepali village and as a trekker in the Khumbu region
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The people of Benaras are a rare lot in India. In a country that has seen the largest internal migration of people over the last century, Benarasis do not seem to want to be elsewhere. They love the unique culture of their city so much that they want to stay immersed in it.
Roli Jindal, who grew up in Benaras, and studied in Delhi and Ahmedabad before settling down in Delhi, is one of those Benarasis who could not take Benaras out of her. So the slim volume of personal stories she has published is as much a memoir of the city as of her own. It’s an unplanned maze of memories, much like the narrow alleys that define the old city’s spatial character.
The short sketches shine at their brightest when talking about the city’s food culture. Of how all the households in a part of Thatheri Bazaar would cook arhar daal in a particular way, but if you moved just a few blocks, how the process would change immutably. Of whether the locals preferred the slow-cooked tomato chaat at Kashi Bhandar or at Dina’s. Of how the presentation of food was strictly regimented and handed down over generations. This detailing, which is lost in most urban memoirs, is important in Jindal’s book. She reveals that her gastronomic preferences trounce her love for religious or architectural significance: she likes Sankatmochan temple over hundreds of others because of the special besan ka laddoo they serve.
The oddest of the city’s institutions mentioned is Ram Bank, where people ‘deposit’ reams of paper with the word ‘Ram’ written as many thousand times as possible. In return the depositor is supposed to get a commensurate absolution. Jindal notes that Benarasis will not tire of telling you the ‘correct’ way of doing or saying things, even if only because it has been done so for centuries. Her own account falls for such reverence of received wisdom. To her, the river is either the religious-minded Gangaji, or the European concoction Ganges. In the middle, the real Ganga is a bit stifled. But then, Jindal doesn’t promise to relate the city’s history, just to tell her story.
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