Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 07/29/15 5:00 PM

Book review: Kaleidoscope City, A Year in Varanasi by Piers Moore Ede

Kaleidoscope City/A Year in Varanasi by Piers Moore Ede. Bloomsbury.

It`s a quiet book, a slim book, this one, chronicling the year the author spent in this ancient temple town. No pretensions at finding a side to Banaras that no one has yet seen here. Ede knows his place, which is that of an outsider, an interested observer of life as it is lived by the Ganga.

He touches on life and death (of course); the Dom Rajas; the aghori and common or garden sadhus; the staging of the Ramlila, the mithai industry, and various plights: that of the prostitutes, the boatmen, the weavers, the fallen- on- hard- days music of the thumri, the bhajans, the qawwali, the widows of Kashi, and does so without any overt syrupy sentiment, thankfully. Sympathy yes, but there is no maudlin tint to it.

The style is restrained but in the episode where he meets Mahantji, Veer Bhadra Mishra, who has long been championing for cleaning the river, (faecal coliform bacteria levels in the river at Varanasi is 120 times the official safe bathing limit but is anyone at all really listening?) you feel the utter hopelessness of the cause as transmitted by the now wearying crusader to the reporter. “My voice has been heard too many times,“ says Mahantji. “Perhaps the Ganga herself will speak to you. Let us pray her plight is heard by someone before it is too late.“

Another pertinent passage is spoken by Atma, who the author meets at the BHU. “Anthropologists love to paint Banaras with grand themes,“ Atma says. “But it`s also just a town that happens to have this long- standing religious tradition. Most people are just trying to pay their bills, send their kids to a good school, or whatever. Most of it is absolutely humdrum. But… human nature is on full display here. You can see people dying, in the streets, you can see people burning bodies, you can see people reaching for the Ganga like she will cure them of all the problems of the world.“

The river is the real heroine of the book, of course. Read this passage: I began to see how much a river`s personality could affect the day –to- day life of those who lived nearby. If a rough wind ruffled its surface, people seemed a little surlier; if a spitting rain moved in, people hunkered under wide-canopied trees, their spirits simultaneously dampened. When the waters shrank during the dry winter months, people fretted over Ganga`s health, cursing the government for the upstream dams, for the poor monsoon that hadn’t brought the replenishment she needed. And in the first days of the following year`s rains, as the river thirstily drank the content of the immense Himalayan clouds, the river-dwellers sang and danced, and held up their hands in thanks for the reassurance that all would be well for another year.

Read the book and shed tears for this beautiful, doomed river.

A Year In VaranasiBanarasKaleidosope CityPiers Moore EdeRiver Ganga

Sheila Kumar • July 29, 2015

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