Since ancient times, the narrow alleys of Varanasi have attracted seekers from every corner of the world. They come here looking for eternal wisdom, spirituality and salvation. The ones who find it are never able to leave Varanasi again.
What drove me to Kashi was none of these. Mark Twain had once said, “Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” I often wondered whether Twain had ever visited Varanasi or even India for that matter. It was much later that I learnt that he actually did. He came to India on a journey which turned into a pilgrimage.
My reasons, to come here were less impressive and more mundane. As a fifteen-year-old boy, I was simply happy to leave behind my small village in North Bihar and become a city babu.
It was, he, who got me here. That man sitting on the steps of the ghat, staring blankly at the aarti lamps, little circle of fire dancing in his vacant eyes, following the movement of the priest’s hands. I am sure nothing else reaches his ears, eyes or mind now but I also remember the time when he was the celebrated “Bade doctor Sahib” of this city. People trusted him with their own lives and those of their loved ones, blindly. Perhaps he was an excellent doctor, but people came to him because he genuinely cared.
Dr. Damodar Narayan Mishra was a reputable name in Varanasi and people from all ranks and walks of life were his patient. He had a profitable practice but he also spent a couple of hours at the municipal hospital every day, working pro bono. There was no fancy term as philanthropy back then but there was an understanding that a person of significance and position should payback to society in some way.
For him, it was more of a way of life. He had always been the exemplary son, the brilliant student and the pride of everybody who knew him. His obedience to his parents was mentioned in the same breath as that of “Shravan Kumar”.
I still remember when I had first met him at his house in our village.
His father was bursting with pride, “The results are out. My son, ranks first in the entire district. He is to become a doctor now.”
His mother stood in the veranda wiping tears from her eyes and stuffing sweets in the mouth of village children who pranced around her for more. While he stood there smiling shyly and touching the feet of elders seeking their blessings.
He was a handsome man, I remember one of my other ten-year-old friend saying, “He looks even better than Amitabh Bachchan.” We all called him Bhaiji.
We were all in awe of his humbleness, his achievements and his good looks. Bhaiji remained an idol for us young boys for many years. Our elders cited his example while scolding us, “Look at Damodar! He is so obedient, he washes his grandmother’s clothes with his own hands and has never talked back to his father and look at you.”
Five years later, Bhaiji came back to the village as a doctor with his own practice. My father’s joy knew no bounds when he offered to take me with him to Varanasi.
He said to my father, “He is a laborious kid, if you send him with me, I would ensure he studies and does something worthwhile with his life.”
“Most certainly son, it is his good fortune that you saw some worth in this monkey.” My father readily agreeing said.
All of this happened so long ago, four decades and more; all those memories have become dreams.
The echoing of several conch shells brought me back to the present. After the evening aarti finishes here at Dashashwamedh ghat we will go to the Manikarnika ghat to watch the dead bodies being cremated. We always sit on the first step so as to have a panoramic view of the ghat. Also, because anywhere closer to the pyres; the stench of the burning human flesh is too much to bear. We always took a bath after returning home, you have to, after a visit to the cremation ground.
Watching a funeral pyre is cathartic, it makes you feel small and insignificant about the petty struggles of everyday living. Sitting on the steps, staring at the burning pyres against the backdrop of calm Ganges Bhaiji and I used to have many discussions about life and its meaning. But those conversations too are a thing in the past. He has barely spoken in the last two years in fact it has been almost a week that I had last heard his voice.
We have followed this routine (of visiting both the ghats everyday) for the last fifteen years, ever since Bhaiji retired. He always said, “Madhav, routine is the last thing that keeps you sane when everything else around you is falling apart.”
Sanity; the very thing that eludes him the most these days.
Bhaiji was always frugal with words, he would just move his head signalling me to stop fooling around and go back to studying. I could not have completed my pharmacy without his guidance and discipline.
Bhowji, his wife, was different though.
If Bhowji had her wish she would treat me as a slave, an animal. Bhowji had a sharp tongue which she used quite often to rip open people's hearts. I never knew whether he married because he wanted to or he had to. His father simply informed him of the date fixed for his wedding and he closed his eyes and gave a nod. The girl’s side was also paying for his MD (Doctor of Medicine) degree.
Sometimes a wrong decision at one point defines the course of the rest of your life. Bhaiji and his wife were pieces belonging to two different puzzles. Her constant declaration was, “Had my father spent the money he is spending on your education in educating me instead, I would be a doctor today.”
When I first heard it during an argument, I laughed so hard that tears ran down my eyes. Perhaps Bhowji had no idea that to become a doctor you needed a head full of brain and not cowshit. But she believed it religiously and used it often to establish the obligation Bhaiji carried on his shoulders.
Bhaiji never talked back, he would simply walk away and come back only when she had cooled off and stopped ranting. Perhaps, it was against his nature to meddle with arguments and allegations. Perhaps he saw no end to it.
I still remember one particular event that brought forth a turbulence in their otherwise uneventful domestic life. I remember the day also because it was my birthday. I remember picking up the newspaper to bring it to Bhaiji. The headline screamed of American President Nixon resigning in the wake of the Watergate Scandal.
It was around lunchtime and Bhaiji was checking an old patient who was brought unconscious. The stethoscope could detect no heartbeat.
“Madhav, run back home and get the new stethoscope lying in my other bag. There is something wrong with this one. He is alive, don’t worry.” He said looking at my confused face.
The clinic was about fifteen minutes of walking distance from home. When I arrived, I found Bhaiji’s parents sitting on the bench outside the house, waiting. The same bench used by patients who visit his residence clinic in case of emergencies.
I touched their feet and inquired, “How are you Kaka, Kaki, when did you arrive, why are you sitting outside in the sun?”
Kaka looked down and started rearranging the luggage and said, “We have just arrived son and are sitting here to catch our breath. I was just about to knock at the door.” He said without looking at me.
Kaki started crying and interrupted him, “Why don’t you tell him that we have been sitting in the sun for the last three hours and nobody has opened the door.”
“Did you ring the bell?” I asked
“We did, knocked and banged several times but no one came out.” Kaka replied.
I found it quite strange, I rang the bell twice and Bhowji came out to answer.
I asked her, “Where were you Bhowji, Kaka and Kaki have been sitting outside for so long, why did you not answer the doorbell?”
She behaved as if it is the strangest thing she had heard in all her life.
“Doorbell! I heard nothing, I have been inside the house all day.”
“Not even the knocking and banging at the front door?” Kaka asked.
“Sorry Babuji, I was watching television and so could hear no outside noise. Please come inside.”
I grabbed the stethoscope and was about to leave when Bhowji came into the room and said, “Madhav, you need not tell your Bhaiji anything about what just happened. He would worry unnecessarily.”
Before she said that, I had believed that it must have been an honest and possible mistake from her part. But, when she said not to tell Bhaiji about it, I understood she did it because she wanted to. I hated her with all the anger of my youth, I stared back at her and promised nothing.
I told Bhaiji about the incident as soon as I reached back. I had expected and hoped he would flare up and do something instead it drew blank look from his eyes. He read my dismay and said, “Don’t worry, I will talk to her.”
All night, I could hear voices and arguments that escaped from their closed bedroom. The next morning was unusually quiet, Bhaiji came to the breakfast table tired and he suddenly looked much older for his thirty-two-year-old self.
Bhaiji’s parents did not stay long, they made an excuse that the altar at the ancestral home cannot be left without lighting the evening aarti lamp. Perhaps they saw that if they stayed too long it will only add wood to the fire burning between their son and his wife.
I was young but not foolish to not see that it broke Bhaiji’s heart to see them leave. He who was the ideal son, the exemplary grandson, the role model for the village; could say nothing to stop his parents whom he worshipped.
He stood at the veranda and watched them leave. He stood at the same spot for over an hour staring at their backs and then at the path. His delicate heart couldn't bear to see them humiliated every second of their stay so he never stopped them.
He never visited village again but often he would send me to inquire about their needs and health. Perhaps Bhowji had put some sort of condition binding him. But he wanted to fulfil his responsibilities anyhow even indirectly through someone and that someone was me. The day Bhowji found out about it, my secret visits ended too.
During those years I had always thought why is Bhaiji continuing his marriage, there was nothing that bound them together and I have never seen two people more different from each other than they were. It was only when I grew older that I understood that the society is not too kind to people who try to break free from its norm.
Five years later, Bhowji did something which still makes me mad with anger. I was convinced she must be a witch or possessed by a devil to have done what she did. Her hatred and foolishness crossing all boundaries with this one act which practically ended their marriage privately within the confines of the four walls of their house.
Bhaiji had been invited for a medical conference in New York and Bhowji insisted to go with him. She said, “I want to see New York, take me with you. I will not have no for an answer, remember, it is because of my father……...”
He interrupted her and said, “Start packing.” and walked out of the room.
I had decided to go back to the village for the period Bhaiji would be out of the country. I took a bag of clothes and went to the clinic. I had decided to go directly the railway station.
I reached the village the next morning and was greeted by the news that Bhaiji’s mother had passed away two days back. I was aghast because we had no news whatsoever about her demise.
I spoke to my father, “Father, what is wrong with everyone, why did you not send a telegram to Bhaiji, he deserves to know, he should be here.”
My father said, “I had sent two telegrams, one about 5 days ago informing him of her failing health and the second two days later, when she finally passed away.”
He paused and then spoke again, “I asked the postmaster babu and he confirmed the delivery of both the telegrams. I also bicycled to the next village to place a trunk call. Your Bhowji answered and said she would inform Dr. Babu.”
I knew there was no use calling Bhaiji because his flight must have taken off from New Delhi. He was coming back after 15 days. I simply could not understand that woman’s twisted mind and why was she doing this.
“So, they are going to perform the last rituals without him?” My father moved his neck and said nothing as if not saying anything would ameliorate the situation.
I knew Bhaiji would be devastated by this news. Three days later, Bhaiji’s grief struck father passed away too. We had no means to reach out to him in New York. Bhaiji’s paternal uncle performed the last riots and the entire village wondered where was the exemplary son?
The thirteen days of last riots kept us busy and finally on the last day when everything was over I locked Bhaiji’s ancestral house and left for Varanasi. I feared for Bhaiji’s mental and physical health. I just prayed for not having to break the news to him, I could live without that burden.
I was looking at Bhaiji after 15 days and he appeared a different man. He had crudely shaved off his head using his own razor and therefore small tufts of hair remained at odd places where his hand and eyes couldn’t have reached. He moved mechanically, very tired, his tall frame stooping from the load of grief that he was carrying.
When he saw me, he came close and moved his hand over my shaved head and tears streamed down his cheeks.
Bhaiji had never consumed alcohol in all his life, but that night, he asked me to fetch glasses and pulled out a bottle of whiskey or scotch. I don’t remember now.
We sat on the terrace and he filled two glasses and said, “After the greatest sin, this seems like an innocuous mistake.” He drank and stared at the night sky and the stars. I could clearly tell he had too much on his mind. Several times he opened his mouth to say something but pursed his lips and said nothing.
He emptied several glasses before alcohol washed away his inhibition. He broke down and cried like a baby, “She hid the news, she never told me that she had received phone calls and telegrams, that witch, she has ruined me. What am I to do now, Maii, Babuji where do I go looking for you now? How will I ever pay back your debt, I was so stupid to think I could negotiate a way with this woman. Maii...Maii...Babuji. Please forgive me, please forgive me. She is responsible for all this, she killed my parents and now I am going to kill her.” He tried getting up from his chair and collapsed.
I carried him downstairs and laid him on his bed. Bhowji stood at the corner of the bed looking at Bhaiji’s face.
I said to her, “What have you driven him to Bhowji?”
She looked away and stared out of the window and said nothing.
He never spoke to her after that incident. They stayed together in the same house, but never talked. Bhaiji started speaking less and less with everyone. He also spent a large chunk of his time at the clinic. He joined the municipal hospital and started attending several seminars and conferences to stay away from home.
Years passed by but his remorse never left him, gnawing his soul. People called him a saint, a divine man practicing as a doctor. The more he became distant and aloof, the more they revered him.
The day he retired from the hospital, the local MP turned up with a small crowd to bid him farewell.
After retirement he spent his days consulting patients at his residence and in the evening we roamed in the narrow alleys like the vagabond oxen of Varanasi. Our evenings were spent at the banks of the sacred Ganges, in the courtyard of the Vishwanath Temple, or, at Manikarnika ghat watching funeral pyres.
Some days he spoke, held conversations rather, talking about the meaning of life, its journey and outcomes but even during those elaborate philosophical discourses his deep remorse prevented him from talking about his parents and his own life.
During one such discussion I asked him, “What is your biggest remorse Bhaiji?”
He sighed and fell silent. I thought he won’t speak anymore but after a few minutes he replied, “Madhav, remorse is of two kinds, one in which you are aware that you still have time to rectify your mistakes and you intend to repent. The other kind is when it is too late to mend anything, the time, the people towards whom you feel that repentance are long gone.”
He paused again and I waited for I knew he wanted to say more.
He spoke again, “The helplessness generated by this remorse is too painful to bear. You know what is the biggest character flaw a man can possess. It is knowing and still not doing the right thing at the right time…. Madhav, look at me and understand. I am at the end of my life and still I feel no different from that night on the terrace; angry, sad and helpless.” And he fell silent again staring at the black water of the Ganges reflecting hundreds of sparkling lamps.
For a cremation ground where death reigns, Manikarnika ghat is a busy place. My attention shifted to the new body being taken to the ghat. It was a young woman, wearing a bright red saree, signifying that she dies a married woman.
Perhaps it was the husband who shouted, “Take off her jewellery and put this strip of gold in her mouth.” It indeed was the husband for he was the one who circled the deceased's pyre with the earthen pot filled with water and later lighted it.
Bhaiji had given us a death scare about two years back. He had slipped in the bathroom and suffered a severe head injury. He stayed in coma for a few hours before finally opening his eyes and saying, “Not yet, not yet, there is still work to be done.”
Doctors said they did not know of there was any internal damage caused by the head injury and as time progresses we may find out.
We found out indeed. One morning, on his way back from his morning walk he found an old man on the streets. He brought him home holding him by his arm. He kept referring to him as Babuji. He washed his feet.
He called out to Bhowji and said, “Kalyani, prepare poori, kheer, stir fried ladyfinger, my father loves them.”
Bhowji looked at him astonished and for the first time in their domestic life she replied nothing and headed straight to the kitchen. I was more surprised with her behaviour than that of Bhaiji bringing in a stranger.
He made Bhowji prepare all of his father’s favourite dishes and fed the old man with lot of love. He stood by his chair fanning him with a pankha and deriving utmost pleasure in watching him eat.
When the old man wanted to leave he started crying like a little boy, “Please do not go Babuji, I would not let you go this time. Please forgive me.”
I had to pull him away from the man and console him saying, “Bhaiji, let Kaka go now, he will come again.”
And that was his new routine. He would go out on the streets and bring home old men and women. He addressed them as Maii and Babuji. Sometimes people would resist and sometimes they relented to his incessant requests. He would wash their feet, feed them and ask for their blessings and forgiveness.
Today, was different though.
An old woman sat under the banyan tree, right outside our compound. When Bhaiji spotted her, he walked up to the tree and said, “Maii you came back. Why are you sitting here, come inside?”
They both walked into the house, the old woman supported by Bhaiji. He looked at me and said, “What are you looking at Madhav, don’t you recognize your own Kaki. Touch her feet and seek her blessings. Today my Maii is finally home.”
He washed her feet, dried them up, applied some foot cream and made her put on a pair of socks. He asked Bhowji to bring in a new saree for his mother and he requested the old woman to put it on. When she had changed he held her hand and took her to the dining table for lunch.
The old woman had a strange beatific smile on her lips. He sat on the floor beside her chair while she ate and every now and then she touched his head and patted it in a gesture of blessing him. He looked like a calf that had found his mother.
When she wanted to leave, Bhaiji again had tears in his eyes and held her feet and said, “Maii, please forgive me.”
She was the first one to have ever said this to him, “I forgive you son, rest in peace now.” Strangely he didn't cry or tried to stop her from leaving.
Bhaiji had a strange smile on his lips all day after she left. He did not speak to anyone else as usual but he was happy. I had not seen that smile on his face in the last thirty years.
This evening when he got ready for our stroll he wore his favourite silk kurta and had a sense of contentment resting on his face. Even today he has not spoken to me the whole evening but he appears tranquil, basking in some unknown bliss.
I check my pale golden HMT wrist watch. It is quite late now, ten minutes past ten. Time to go home. I turn around to find Bhaiji sitting with his shoulders supported against one of the pillars. His eyes are closed and he looks so peaceful, reminding me of his younger days.
I touched his shoulder, “Bhaiji” and his body fell lifeless on the steps of Manikarnika ghaat in Varanasi where people from all over the world come to die in search of perpetual peace and moksha.