I am fire. Neruppu-da. Rajinikanth the icon.

Had fun writing this piece.  Going to watch Kabali today.

23 July 2016 | E-Paper

All is well in the Rajini world

You don’t go to a Rajinikanth movie for the plot. You go for the comfort it gives


The Rajinikanth-starrer Kabali released in theatres on Friday

 

To understand the hold that Rajinikanth has on his fans, you have to meet my ex-driver, Robert. An archetypal Rajini fan, Robert dresses, walks and talks like Rajini. Conversations with him are a triumphant reminder that while English is the language of logic and analysis for us Indians, our mother tongue is the language of the heart. It is Tamil that I turn to when I want to plead or persuade. And like many of our great vernacular tongues, Tamil lends itself to exquisite hyberbole. What passes of as conversation in Tamil would sound like a film dialogue when restated in English.

Robert quit working for us for two reasons: he wanted to open a restaurant and he was tired of my accusations that he was drinking away his salary every time he came to work with red eyes.

“Modom,” he told me. “I follow Rajini. Not just me. My whole family. Yes, I did drinks. My father got spot out in a lorry accident because of drinks. My mother asked me for a promise from her deathbed. ‘Dai, Robert,’ said she. ‘Give up drinks.’ But I couldn’t. Not then. But when Thailavar told that drinks is bad, I quit immediately. On the spot,” said Robert just before he quit.

It was Robert I turned to when I wanted first-day-first-show tickets for Kabali in my neighborhood Lavanya theatre. I was tired of all the trainers in my gym crowing about snagging tickets. I called every theatre in Bangalore, Chennai, and every town in a 400 kilometre radius, pleading for a ticket. They laughed—like Rajini, I might add. And like how, I, in unconscious imitation of Thalaiva, laugh.

“Even God cannot give you a ticket to Kabali,” said one particularly uppity lady from Abirami Theatre in Erode. “Why God? Even Thalaivar cannot get you a ticket. Ahh-hahahaha.”

I could imagine her rolling her eyes heavenward, like Rajini does when he laughs. I looked heavenward for guidance. God sent me an image of Robert.

Robert knew the moment he saw me waiting outside his children’s school at 8 a.m. He tried to escape by pretending he hadn’t seen me. I appeared like Rajini as he made the turn into Coles Road. I stood in the middle of the road, planted my feet apart, removed my sunglasses and twirled it around my finger. Unlike with Rajini, my sunglasses fell on the road and cracked. That is why Rajini is Rajini—he wears sunglasses to protect the sun from his rage. My sunglasses crack and cry with a mere twiddle of my thumb.

Robert, without his wife, Mona-darling (actually, that’s not her name), braked his moped in front of me and sweated.

“Robert, you have to make a sacrifice,” I said without preamble.

“Modom, ask me for my blood. Ask even for my children’s blood. But don’t ask for this. I fall at your feet.”

“Remember, Robert, you owe me Rs. 30,000. You said you wouldn’t forget. Well, this is your chance to remember. I want those tickets.”

“My wife will kill me,” said Robert sullenly. In that moment, I knew I had him.

“It isn’t the first show. I can only give you one ticket.”

Why do we love the things we do? Certainly it is not an objective exercise.  It is not even about taste.  Rajini movies for me, aren’t really about plot, character or cinematography. They are about ethos, dialogues, predictability and Rajini-style. They are about how Rajini says his character’s name, whether it is Padaiyappa or Arunachalam or Basha or Muthu. I love them all for complex contradictory reasons that have to do romance, nostalgia, and yes, loss of a stage of life. Rajini is a way of connecting with the patch of earth that I call home.

For a man with two daughters, the chauvinism inherent in Rajini films makes my blood boil. His heroines play to every traditional stereotype, beginning with their names. I mean, who names their daughters Kumudavalli (heroine in Kabali) or Tamilselvi (in Sivaji) or Ranganayaki (Muthu) these days? The names set the tone for the character. Rajini heroines speak softly, dress demurely, jump if a man appears near them, and don’t look a lover in the eye. Come on. Are you telling me that Rajini raised his daughters in this fashion? And how do his two girls put up with this? An assertive woman with spunk is cast as the villain in his films. Ramya Krishnan played this role unforgettably in Padayappa and almost stole the show from the superstar. But you don’t go to a Rajini movie for its stereotypical heroines or predictable plot: Rajini is a poor servant or don, with a heart of gold. He kills all the villains and snags the girl. That about covers the storyline of pretty much every Rajini movie. You go to a Rajini film for the comfort it gives. Europe may be going to hell in a handbasket. Christine Lagarde may liken Brexit to 1914 when World War I started. America may be caught in the throes of a fulminating childish narcissist who thinks the country is like a giant Legoland where fences can be erected. But all is well in Rajini land. The good are good, the bad are bad, and the women are sweet and don’t answer back.

Watching a Rajini movie in a multiplex is a total waste of time. Its pleasures come from the “tharai-ticket” or floor-seats, where you are caught in the warm embrace of other rabid fans who are whistling and screaming so loud that you can barely hear the dialogues that you know by heart anyway.

It will be the same at Lavanya theatre. I know the drill with every Rajini movie. There is a thumping irrational exuberance when the screen comes to life. The unabashed whistling and shouting. I take earplugs, and they aren’t much help. This continues throughout the movie. Every time Thalaivar appears, we jump up and pump our fists. When he announces his name with great style, whether it is “Badshah,” or “Kabali-daa,” we all shout along prayerfully. When his face morphs into a tiger, our eyes riveted on the screen. After a particularly good stunt, when Rajini swings a dozen villains 180 degrees and tosses them aside, I glance at the man next to me, unable to contain my excitement. It is one of my building’s security guys. In that moment, I forget that he is supposed to be at work manning the gate, and not playing hookey. He forgets that I am on the building’s Human Resources Development committee, meant to patrol his patrolling. We are simply two fans enjoying the moment when our beloved Thalaivar has left the abode of the mortals to mingle with the gods. I chew on my red-stained paan and grin at Gagan from Bihar companionably. It is beautiful.

 

Shoba Narayan plans to watch Kabali about ten times this week.

 

Marrying my cellphone.

Loved writing (and rewriting) this column, mostly to get the word play right.  Thanks to the husband for supplying the line, “At least the phone is smart.”

07 July 2016 | E-Paper

Getting married to your phone

Our gadgets punctuate our lives and burrow deep into our souls. There is an app for every emotion. Getting hitched to your phone is the next logical step.

Cellphones as lifelines. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Cellphones as lifelines. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

“I am thinking of marrying my cellphone,” I tell my husband. We are sitting beside each other, tapping on our colour-coded iPads—his, black, and mine Hermes orange—the colour, not the brand. “Oh really,” he says in that overly enthusiastic voice he affects when he hasn’t heard a word I have said.

My inspiration is Aaron Chervenak, a Los Angeles man who drove to Las Vegas and married his smartphone, complete with a ring and priest who proclaimed them “husband and cellphone”. Documented and uploaded on YouTube, the marriage isn’t legal. But that, according to Chervenak, is a small price to pay for declaring undying love for what is for many of us our favourite appendage.

“If we’re gonna be honest with ourselves, we connect with our phones on so many emotional levels,” says Chervenak in the YouTube video. “We look to it for solace, to calm us down, to put us to sleep, to ease our minds, and to me, that’s also what a relationship is about. So, in a sense, my smartphone has been my longest relationship. That’s why I decided to see what it was like to actually marry a phone.”

The man is right. Our relationship with our devices is almost as complicated as the Brexit referendum. We may want to quit and return to a way of life that is the stuff of nostalgia but, like David Cameron, Boris Johnson or the British people, we have no idea how galactically difficult it will be to untangle this particular union. More addictive than marijuana, more trance-inducing than Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s addled speeches, our gadgets punctuate our lives and burrow deep into our souls. In a sense, they define us. Look at Chernevak’s list. There is an app for every emotion. For solace, there is MoodKit. For calm, you can meditate through the app Calm or Headspace. To sleep, there are lulling nature sounds, music, or podcasts. To ease your mind, there are a million games. There are countless others. I use Grid Diary for journaling, 7 Minute Workout to exercise, BrainHQ to focus, Freedom and SelfControl to stop distractions, and 50 Languages to learn Kannada. On average, I touch my device more often than I touch my spouse.

“I think I will elope and marry my smartphone,” I say loudly.

This time he looks up, my husband, with that deer-caught-in-the-headlights look that I have come to recognize. I can hear the wheels whirring in his head as he processes this bizarre statement, sans preamble or context. I know what he is thinking: What have I done and what is the best response? I even know what he will say, for it would have been my approach. When you don’t know how you have messed up, offence is the best form of defence.

“Well, you certainly pay more attention to your phone than you do to me,” he says huffily.

“At least the phone is a smart one,” I retort and I meant it to sting.

And so it comes to this. You have been married for so long that you can hear each other think; and the object of your jealousy, the mistress in your ménage à trois, is a device that rings instead of purring, that buzzes in lieu of flirting.

Viewed through this prism, marrying your cellphone is both the logical next step and a little sad. Will Chervenak’s bride put up with it when he upgrades to the next model? Will he leave her for someone from a different species?

On 3 December 1992, the first text message was sent over a phone—“Merry Christmas”. The late Finnish engineer Matti Makkonen, pitched the idea of a “short messaging service” at a telecoms conference in Copenhagen. Nokia incorporated the idea into its phones and the rest is history, or at least over a trillion messages sent per year. Remember voicemail—that quaint outdated thing we used to do?

I love voicemails and try to leave some to friends and family through WhatsApp or iPhones. But they don’t appreciate my cutesy messages because they are an intrusion. Reading a text can be done surreptitiously while you are bored in a boardroom. Listening to a voicemail requires headphones and solitude.

In the new reality, communication is condensed for efficiency and speed. Letters replace words (R u ok?); emoticons replace the emotions that leak through your voice when you actually speak to people or leave voicemail. Texting, unlike live conversation, offers a great buffer. If someone asks you an uncomfortable question, you don’t have to respond. The surprise or pain that you feel will not be apparent to the other party. You can fake a response by sending a “thumbs up” emoji when you actually want to kill yourself and the other person.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in today’s teenagers. Thanks to selfies, they know how to pose: pouty fish lips for girls and macho glares behind glares (sunglasses) for the boys. They are camera-savvy, understanding composition and light in an intuitive way. Facebook is waning in popularity among preteens. They prefer the casualness of Snapchat and the texture of Instagram. A thousand words, typed on Facebook Messenger, cannot convey the mood of a party as effectively as an Instagram photo.

There are many instances when communicating via a device is an excellent option. When you have to spring things on unsuspecting spouses, there is no better friend than a cellphone. Consider this message: “5 friends showing up at home. Know you have world cup finals. Thought u r going to friend’s house to watch so agreed. Hope ok.” Can you imagine springing this on your spouse in person? Through texts you can escape his curses.

Or consider this message to your son or daughter. “Why are you not picking up the phone? You will be grounded if you do not answer my call. I am serious. And by the way, you have to attend the wedding of that cousin you hate next week with us” (offence before defence always, my friends, particularly with children. Yell at them before forcing them to do stuff they detest).

And now I need to go reconnect with my to-be spouse. There are messages to read, emojis to craft, photos to share, and miles to go before I sleep.

Shoba Narayan didn’t elope with her cellphone. Shoba tweets at @ShobaNarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Also Read: Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

Ode to Radio

Today is my good friend, Shailaja’s birthday.  In her honor, writing these words

It is hard to find a friendship who has a combination of wit, honesty, discretion and humanity.  In Shailaja, I have a friend who will point out my mistakes with candor and compassion; who is funny as hell; and who keeps my (and all her other friends’) secrets in that well of her.  Happy Birthday, Shailaja.  Who my kids call “Shailu Mami.”  Love

Loved writing this, but failed to address the question: if the whole clan was listening to the radio, how come only my Dad lost his accent? Must ask him.

 

25 June 2016 | E-Paper

An ode to Indian radio

Ameen Sayani, Melville De Mellow, and the voices that shaped us and united a nation


Ameen Sayani . Photo: Vijayanand Gupta/Hindustan Times

Ameen Sayani . Photo: Vijayanand Gupta/Hindustan Times

How did you lose your Malayalam accent, I asked my father, especially since it has smeared itself like coconut oil on every other relative from Kerala. Radio, replied my father. My paternal grandfather was a lawyer in Kottayam, the kind of man who made fallen dominoes out of hardened criminals. At 9pm sharp, he would order his vast clan of sons, daughters and nephews to collect at his feet. Together they would turn on the radio and listen to the familiar voice that said, “This is London calling.”

Listening to the BBC, said my father, taught him diction and delivery, skills he put to good use during his career as an English professor. He may have been a teacher, but his heart was in radio. Like legions of young men of his time, my father was inspired by Melville de Mellow, an iconic radio announcer who brought the nation to tears with his marathon 7-hour commentary during Mahatma Gandhi’s funeral. One 17-year-old was so inspired that he followed in De Mellow’s footsteps with his trademark line: “Mein Jasdev Singh bol raha hoon (This is Jasdev Singh speaking).”

Curious about De Mellow, I called P.V. Krishnamoorthy, the first director general of Doordarshan. Rangoon PVK, as he prefers to be known, is 95 years young and lives in Chennai. In the circuitous fashion familiar to Indian families, he happens to be my sister-in-law Priya’s grandfather. PVK worked under De Mellow and recounts tales of the radio icon’s dedication. “I made the mistake of telling DeMel that I heard packs of jackals baying behind Birla House on my way back home. Years later, for a documentary, he asked me to record the jackals. When I slyly offered voice recordings of British foxes, he said, ‘You lazy lout, PVK. I want the Indian jackal, not the British fox.’ So I went at midnight with my recorder and waited for these jackals to oblige me, which those buggers did, after a few hours.”

A meticulous man, DeMel, as he was known, practised speeches many times before the need to deliver them actually came. Like Nicetas of Smyrna, Demosthenes and Cicero, who used their skills of augury—by watching the flight of birds—to practise speeches for future events, De Mellow kept a close watch on history as it was unfolding. “His best running commentaries were at the funerals of Nehruji and Gandhiji. I have a feeling that he prepared well in advance after (Madanlal) Pahwa tried to place a bomb at Gandhiji’s prayer meeting,” PVK says.

The voice of my childhood, however, was Ameen Sayani and his Binaca Geetmala. Introduced to radio by his elder brother, Hamid, the younger sibling soon became hugely popular for his countdown of Hindi film songs. His opening greeting, both elegant and affectionate, epitomized the Indian ethos, whether delivered to his “Fauji bhaiyon (Army brothers)” or to his “Behno aur bhaiyon (Sisters and brothers)”. My husband recalls napping during hot Delhi summers, radio by the pillow, listening to the reassuring voice of Mr Sayani. Growing up in Chennai, I was not as clued in to Hindi film songs. Instead, I looked up to impossibly sophisticated college boys, who were obsessed with the Bournvita quiz contest, magisterially conducted by the voice of Hamid Sayani.

Ours is a family that loves the radio. We may watch talking heads on TV at night, but we still wake up to the sound of the radio, whether it is 100.1, a radio station that plays classical songs in the morning, or other channels that help me practise my Kannada.

Radio united India at one point, with everyone tuning in at the same time to listen, like they did when the TV serialMahabharat aired. Can there be a more poetic name for this particular device than Akashvani (voice from the heavens)? This celestial name captured the mythology of an entire continent and forged it into the soul of an instrument, albeit one that is on the verge of becoming an antique.

The beauty of the radio is its simplicity. Like a book, it offers some choice in stations (as titles do with books). But once you pick a station or a book, you cannot control the content. Rather, you rely on curation by experts who seemingly know your taste in music better than you. Unlike mobile devices or YouTube, where you can choose every single song that is played, the radio is a relief. You turn it on and off it goes: plain old music peppered with commentary from professional radio jockeys. I would like to believe that the current RJs are not as good as those who came earlier, but that isn’t really true. They speak to the times we live in, and the best ones these days are often young women, sharp of wit, spry of comment and fetchingly laid-back and conversational in delivery—verily the opposite of the baritone that made Walter Cronkite the voice of America.

What makes a good radio announcer? Is it a good baritone or a catchy way of speaking? Cricket commentary is what most people associate with radio these days, and this has its own line of giants, including Anant Setalvad, Suresh Saraiya and Harsha Bhogle. My dad remembers smuggling a wire into the long-sleeved shirts they would wear during cricket matches and holding a pocket radio to the ear during classes. An entire class of boys, elbows on desk, head cushioned on palm, staring unwinkingly at the droning lecturer and sweating in their long shirts in hot and humid Kottayam—all so they could listen to cricket commentary.

As Mint’s founding editor, Raju Narisetti, told me in New York, today we have households where everyone watches the same show, be it Quantico or Modern Family, on multiple devices in their own space and time. As for the radio, it is relegated to traffic jams.

Shoba Narayan contacted Ameen Sayani for this piece, but he wrote a nice email back, thus depriving her of the great pleasure of listening to the voice of a legend. Shoba tweets at @ShobaNarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Napa Valley wines

Inside Napa Valley wineries: part II

In theory, making organic biodynamic wines is simple; just let nature do its job. Let the grapevine dance with the moon, dodge the sun, discover the stars


Napa’s Screaming Eagle. Photo: Eric Risberg/AP

Napa’s Screaming Eagle. Photo: Eric Risberg/AP

Beyond the blue yonder where chocolate-coloured grapevines stretch as far as the eye can see, a plant is making choices about its future. It is gnarly and old. Its snaking brown roots sink deep into the land that has been its sole and only home; a land that made its name through Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Napa, they call this place. It used to be farmland until the 1970s.

A young Stanford graduate, Robert Mondavi, moved there to start a winery in 1966. That changed everything. More wine buffs followed suit. In 1976, Steven Spurrier, a British wine merchant in Paris, concocted an audacious plan to gain fame, publicity and posterity. “Judgment of Paris”, he called it—a blind tasting pitting French wines against others.

To everyone’s shock, several bottles from Napa won over the Burgundy and Bordeaux varietals. The French judges tore up their sheets in shock and dismay. Those two wineries still exist in Napa: Chateau Montelena, run by Bo Barrett, who is married to Heidi Peterson Barrett—the winemaker who created Screaming Eagle, Napa’s most expensive wine (talk about pairing and pedigree); and Stag’s Leap, whose Cabernet Sauvignon made the cut.

The vineyard I am standing in makes a restrained version of the famous “California Cabs”. Frog’s Leap—like Peter Cellars in Sonoma Valley—follows organic, biodynamic practices, although I doubt that they bury cow-horns into the earth as advocated by Rudolf Steiner, who invented biodynamic agriculture.

In theory, making organic biodynamic wines is simple: You let nature do its job. You allow the grapevine to dance with the moon; dodge the sun; discover the stars; and synchronize itself to the earth’s magnetic and gravitational fields. The grapevine, as the folks at Frog’s Leap say, “knows when the birds visit, it’s on familiar terms with surrounding insects and their life stages and it takes a cue from the acorns falling off the nearby oaks. In short, everything in its environment is a clue.”

If the flapping of insects reduces, the vine knows that frost is coming and the insects have gone underground. If the birds brush against the vines joyfully as they ride thermal currents, the vine intuits things about the weather. The chatter of adjoining plants—the roses, mustard, oats and dandelions—is a negotiation about nitrogen, minerals and other nutrients. Who takes what?

Based on these clues, this single grapevine sets forth a cascade of actions: when to allow bud-break; how to attract pollinating insects to procreate; how many clusters of grapes to grow. The plant has to give up eight clusters for that single glass of wine you are holding in your hands. So treat it with respect.

The wine that we drink these days is a far cry from the time the Romans dropped pieces of toasted bread into their wines to temper its high acidity. They would “toast” each other with stirring speeches after quaffing bad wine. The Egyptians used to give their daughters bottles of mead—a type of honey-wine—as part of the dowry, thus sending the couple with honey-wine on their honeymoon.

What makes a wine good? Some part of it has to do with rhythm and routine. Grapevines get comfortable in the spots they have inhabited for years—they find familiar spaces in the sun and soil. They reveal themselves slowly through the changing seasons and the blooming of flowers and berries. The winemaker touches every vine and every cluster of grapes. She knows every crack in the soil. She stumbles against a rock. The next day, she walks around that section—unthinkingly and automatically.

A collection of memories—from grapevine and winemaker—goes into a bottle.

A lot of it has to do with continuity and recognition. Years and years of harvests and the memories they engender, layered like sediments across the sands of time. Every new vintage ruffles that memory. The early frost of 2016 reminds the winemaker of 1998. He makes daily adjustments as the clarion call of the harvest season approaches. He stays up nights to stave off the frost. He puts machines to work. They are shaped like windmills and press warm air against the earth on frosty nights. He measures the “brix” or the sugar to make sure that the acid and sugars are balanced. He prays and makes choices—“let’s harvest a few days later.”

A collection of memories becomes a brand name. Myth and metaphor get passed down generations of winemakers. Some vintages surprise—like a coloured feather floating amid a cloud of dust.

In Europe, this deep sense of continuity and rootedness is centuries old. In Napa, it took 40 years versus the 400 years that it took to build a brand in France and Italy, and still Harlan Estates is able to sell a bottle of its wine for $750 (around Rs.51,000). Prices have shot up too fast, they say. And yet, there is a waiting list for these wines.

Why do we love the things we do? Certainly, it is not an objective exercise. Wine is about taste but it is also about ethos, nature and memories. The reason we choose a wine to drink has to do with complex layers of emotion, romance, nostalgia and finally, taste. All plants are entwined with the soil and climate they inhabit; the grapevine more than most. It offers a home to bugs, bees, flowers and the odd dash of frost. It is a microcosm of the climate, soil and wind of the place it calls home; its terroir, in other words, echoes nature’s alternating exuberance and restraint. In that liminal space between the sacred and the profane, a glass of wine comforts the soul and spirit.

Drink it reverentially. Because it comes from nature; it echoes nature’s exuberance and restraint. And because it is the result of countless choices made by hundreds of vineyard workers and thousands of grapevines.

This is the second in a two-part series on Napa Valley wines. Shoba Narayan is drinking a lot of Napa wines these days. She tweets at @ShobaNarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Dead cow in the Ganga

Photo: Shoba Narayan

The mission to clean the Ganga will be a pipe dream as long as Indians have no problem in perceiving and accepting the river as both pure and dirty

The Ganga would be a good place to jump in. The question that looms before me is whether to jump into the Ganga in Kashi: the holiest of rivers in the holiest of cities, according to Hindus.
I ask friends and family. My French friend Pasquale has jumped into the Ganga in Kashi. See, nothing happened, he says. Then again, he is a war photographer who thinks riding a motorbike through the Swat Valley is normal. Another friend, Ashok, recently returned from Varanasi, said no, he didn’t even dip his feet in it.
An older uncle says to go deep into the Ganga and jump in. “In the middle, there is flowing water, so even the pollutants will be washed away,” he says.
“To be in Kashi and not immerse yourself in the Ganga is a waste of a trip,” pronounces an aunt.
It is this unshakeable faith in the Ganga that causes millions of Hindus to plunge in even though they see sewage flowing into it. This type of faith ignores rationality, data about faecal matter, coliform bacteria counts, contamination or even their own eyes—which is probably why it is called blind faith.
It is a mind game really. You may see dirt; you may even see the dead buffalo a few yards downstream. But because you believe that the Ganga is holy, you don’t really care. She will purify your mind, heart and soul. The body doesn’t even enter this equation. It is superfluous to this world view; merely a carapace to be shed en route to liberation.
Ganga mata pavithra hai,” they chant. “Mother Ganga is sacred and pure.”
Photo: Shoba Narayan

Photo: Shoba Narayan

The problem is the semantics—the difference between pollution and purity. Indians know that the Ganga is dirty. They also believe that she is sacred and pure. After all, that is why she descended from the heavens and came to earth: to wash away sins.
It is the reason for her existence. Her power originates in her creation myth. She is liquid Shakti; a tangible reality of divine power. She connects the heavens to earth; washes away the sins of us mere mortals.
This is why she is a great tirtha or pilgrimage site: because of what she takes from us (our sins) and what she gives to us (moksha, or liberation from death). This is why the Ganga is pure even though she is dirty.
When then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi launched the Ganga Action Plan in 1986, he alluded to this distinction. Standing on the steps leading to the Ganga, Gandhi said, “The purity of the Ganga was never in question.” The problem was that a river “that was a symbol of India’s spirituality was being allowed to get dirty”.
Pavithra versus gandhagi: purity versus dirtiness. The Indian mind has no problem in perceiving the Ganga as both pure and dirty. It accepts both ideas, without really wanting to do much about it.
This is a problem for the Clean Ganga mission launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose links with this city are both obvious and tenuous.
Unlike in Chennai, where billboards and hoardings of chief minister J. Jayalalithaa are all over the place, Modi’s photos thankfully do not take over Kashi’s urban sprawl. Yet, of all the constituencies from which he could have stood, fought and won the 2014 Lok Sabha election—and he could have literally written his own ticket—Modi, significantly, chose Kashi as his constituency.
At Madison Square Garden, where he performed like a rock star, Modi asked the Indian diaspora to contribute to his dream of cleaning mother Ganga. In short order, the National Mission for Clean Ganga was set up under the newly renamed ministry of water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation, headed by Uma Bharati. It has commissioned surveys and reports.
In August 2013, a 134-page interim report was submitted by a venerable group of institutions—seven Indian Institutes of Technology, Banaras Hindu University, Jawaharlal Nehru University, National Institute of Health, World Wildlife Fund and others. It states—no surprises here—that “the Ganga river’s present-day water quality is abysmal due to anthropogenic (human) wastes polluting the river network in various ways”.
This is obvious to anyone who stands on the Ganga’s banks. People bathe, wash their laundry and defecate all along the 2,510km long river that serves a staggering one-third of the Indian population. Faecal coliform bacteria levels are off the charts. Chromium levels are at least 10 times the permissible amount. Untreated sewage flows directly into the waters.
Add to that the fact that industries dispose their waste into the river—leather tanneries along its banks in Kanpur; carpet factories in Mirzapur; paper factories; distilleries and dyeing units—and you have the makings of an environmental disaster.
The Ganga is essentially dead, say activists. Her vaunted oxygen levels and ability to regenerate are being choked by the sheer amount of garbage being thrown into her, ranging from corpses to contaminants.
A Kanpur-based uncle of mine, who I will call Mahen, said that when he was young, crocodiles and tortoises were teeming in the Ganga, eating up corpses. “Within Modi’s term, the Ganga will get salvation,” he says. “It has to because it is a huge part of his promise to India.”
The Ganga’s pollution is linked to India’s population. Sometime in the 16th century lived a Bengali scholar named Raghunandana, who wrote 28 books on tattvas, or elements, which could be viewed as “how to” books. Vivaha Tattva: how to get married; Daya Tattva: how to show compassion; Grihastashrama Tattva: how to live as a good householder; and Durgapuja Tattva: how to celebrate Durga Puja are some of the books.
One of the books is called Prayaschitta Tattva, and it means how to make amends; or how to expiate sin. This section contains a verse about how to treat the Ganga.
Ganga punyajalan prapya caturdasa vivarjayet
Saucamacamanam kesam nirmalya madyamarsanam.
Gatrasamvahanam kridam pratigrahamatho ratim.
Anyatirtharatim caive anyatirthaprasansanam,
vastratyagamapaghatam santaram ca visesatah.
The verse talks about how to treat the Ganga. It lists, or rather prohibits, in some detail, 14 acts. Comments in parenthesis are mine. The prohibited actions are: no excretion, no bathing, brushing teeth or spitting out gargling water (only holy dip permitted); no cleaning of the ear and throwing earwax into river (Seriously? People did that?); no shampooing of hair; no throwing of used garlands (done all the time these days as a commercial activity—the Ganga is full of leaf candles and marigold garlands); no frolicking or playing in the water (come on—not even frolicking); no obscene acts (meaning nude bathing or sex?); no attachment or praise of other sacred places (meaning that they viewed the Ganga as a goddess who could get jealous?); no washing clothes and throwing garments (we discharge corpses these days); and in particular, no swimming across the river (I wonder why—because the river is so broad that people could urinate en route?).
Not a single one of these dictums has been followed. Instead, people believe that the Ganga will self-rejuvenate; that her waters, considered healing and self-perpetuating since the dawn of Hindu civilization, will simply continue to do so.
This is alluded to in a type of literature called Nighantu literature, a Sanskrit materia medica of sort—a glossary of words and objects that delineated the characteristics of herbs, trees, forests, water bodies, minerals, rocks, humans, animals and, well, pretty much everything that was available at that time. Some 30 works were written in this manner, empirically classifying among other things, water.
Nighantu is a hard word and concept to translate. It alludes to the secret meaning inherent in objects. Madanapala Nighantu, for instance, says that coconut water is an aphrodisiac, digestive stimulant and a cardiac tonic. How would the ancients know this? By making thousands of people drink gallons of coconut water and seeing the effect it had?
Or did some sage who had meditated for centuries to the point where he was so attuned to the nature of things, drink the coconut water, get a— shall we say—rise, and decide it to be an aphrodisiac? I say this tritely, but honestly, I am a secret practitioner and admirer of these subtle ways. Cowrie shells, alternative medicine, astrology, crystal gazing—you name it and I am interested.
I studied acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). I believe that the ancients in most cultures took an empirical approach towards health and healing that resonates with me more than the randomized double-blind clinical trials of drug companies all of whom have a commercial agenda to sell drugs.
As my cousin who worked for years in the US pharmaceutical industry says, “The permissible diabetes numbers used to be 140—no problem. Now, they keep reducing the acceptable level every year so that drug companies can sell more Metformin.”
I’d love to know how the Nighantu literature was composed. How did our ancients know that buffalo milk was soporific, that sheep’s milk was easy to digest and that Ganga water was different from the waters of the Narmada, Bhagirathi or Saraswati?
Amid this materia medica approach is a particular type of literature that fascinates the tree-lover in me. Like Prem Koshy, the ebullient proprietor of the Koshy’s restaurant in Bengaluru, I hug trees. There is a particular brand of poetic convention called “Dohada” rituals.
Do hada literally means two hearts and it talks about cravings that pregnant women—and pregnant trees—get. These Dohada rituals allude to the intimate connection between trees and women; and allude to the hunger or yearning that comes about when you are pregnant with children or buds. The simplest way to explain this is to describe the trees and their rituals. In the Parsvanatha Chaitra, there are descriptions such as the following:
“The Priyangu tree bursts into blossom when touched by beautiful maidens. The Bakula trees bursts into blossom when sprayed by a mouthful of liquor from maidens who are giddy with sport and merriment. The Asoka tree waits to be kicked by the heel or foot of young maidens who have red lac as decorations on their feet before it gives itself to flower. The Tilaka tree is happy with just a glance from maidens. The Kurabaka tree needs to be embraced and enfolded by heavy-breasted young maidens. The Mandara tree likes pleasurable talk; the Champaka likes to be surrounded by scantily clad, laughing young maidens who sport under the full moon. The Nameru tree likes songs and is partial to young women who sing to it before it blooms.”
The over arching motif is the intimate connection between women and trees, all of which is described by the word, Salabhanjika: she who seizes the branch of the Sala tree and breaks it.
As a birdwatcher and tree-hugger who gains strength and solace from trees, I can totally relate to plants blooming when touched, sprayed, kicked, talked to and sung. Jagdish Chandra Bose, the scientist who discovered that plants are sentients beings with feelings (as exemplified by the quivering of injured plants) would have approved.
If plants have life, why not water? Even in our time, our mothers and grandmothers treat river water with a respect and sanctity that those of use who use rationality to mask our receptiveness towards the sacred cannot ignore.
Water that is exposed to the sun’s rays in the morning and the moon’s rays at night is considered rejuvenating, promoting strength and intellect, and balancing to all the body humours.
My mother does this. She places water in a copper pot, throws in some tulsi or holy basil leaves, along with some cardamom and cinnamon, leaves it out in the sun in the morning and makes it “absorb the moon’s rays” through the night and then drinks it on an empty stomach the next morning. All good things; all prescribed in Ayurveda. But how did my mother know? Through word of mouth and homespun wisdom that she heard from her parents, perhaps; or through the all-encompassing word that we call tradition.
The Sanskrit word for tradition is agama, or “that which has come down”. The word, gam, meaning “to go”, and the prefix a, which means “towards”. Agama means “to come towards” us. The word, Ganga, flips this around. Gam-ga, or “because she goes, she is Ganga”.
River waters, too, are classified in the Nighantu literature. In an English translation, titled Materia Medica of Ayurveda: Based on Madanapala’s Nighantu, by Vaidya Bhagwan Dash, the rivers Ganga, Yamuna, Sarayu and Satadru are considered to have healing properties because they have fast-flowing water that originated in the Himalayas and flows through rocks.
In contrast, rivers that flow out of the Sahayadris—the Sahya mountains—like the Godavari causes kustha or obstinate skin diseases like leprosy. Rivers like the Shipra and Reva, which originate in the Vindhyas, cause anaemia and skin diseases. If I were a non-Himalayan river (and I know I am anthropomorphizing here), I would be really pissed.
A Kashmiri polymath called Narahari Pandita took this riverine water analysis to the next level. He is believed to have lived in the 17th century (some say the 14th century), knew 18 languages and wrote the magisterial Raja Nighantu, with chapter headings such as the following:
1. 47 types of forests with details of names, properties, actions and uses
2. 40 types of fragrances
3. 154 types of human beings with age, qualities, character and ailments
One of the 24 chapters talks about the Ganga’s waters, which have the following properties: coolness, sweetness, transparency, high tonic property, wholesomeness, potability, ability to remove evils, ability to resuscitate from swoon caused by dehydration, digestive property and ability to retain wisdom.
Consider this: people actually believe that the Ganga gives you the ability to retain wisdom. Our ancestors believed that, and to some extent, that belief has percolated down the centuries. For a Hindu, wisdom is the highest of aspirations, falling just below moksha.
If Indians believe that the Ganga can give you wisdom, the highest of all human desires, then pollution and defecation are trivial problems. If faith can heal the planet, then the Ganga doesn’t need human intervention. The reason why cleaning the Ganga is so complicated is because it requires behavioural modification—or brainwashing—on a scale that is staggering.
Photo: Shoba Narayan

Photo: Shoba Narayan

You cannot even point fingers and say that it is the peasants, the illiterate, the great unwashed hordes who are causing this contamination. It is People Like Us (PLUs). My cousin Vikram studied economics at Princeton, went on to Harvard Business School and now works in public policy. When his father died, he acceded to his mother’s wishes and brought his dad’s ashes to throw into the Ganga. He knew that this act only increased the amount of anthropogenic waste (or waste from human activity) that went into the already burdened river.
“As a climate change activist and someone who believes in sustainable living, what I did to the Ganga was abhorrent to me,” said Vikram. “But as a son, it was the least I could do for my grieving mother, who firmly and fervently believes that throwing my dad’s ashes into the Ganga will take his soul to heaven.”
There are tens of millions of Vikrams in India who do this every single day. Eighty million of them converge during the Kumbh Mela to bathe in this holy river at a holy moment. This happens all along the course of the river and its tributaries, across 29 cities in 11 states—Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh and West Bengal.
Kashi, as it turns out, is one of the worst offenders. And while we are at it, I might as well tell you that I am going to refer to the city by its ancient, intimate name—one that is used by locals and all over south India.
Not Banaras, the name given by invaders beginning with the Sultans, the British and even Mark Twain, who famously observed that “Banaras is older than history; older than tradition; older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”
Not Varanasi, the city’s official name, denoting the stretch of land between where the Varuna river and the now-dry Assi river join the Ganga. The name I love is Kashi, from the Sanskrit root, kash, which means shining; as in Pra-kash; as in “moksha prakashika kashi”, the effulgent city that offers the path to moksha or enlightenment. Kashi, the city of light, the luminous one.
In some parts of south India, wedding rituals include the Kashi Yatra, where the bridegroom mock threatens to walk out of the wedding and head to Kashi to become a sanyasin—an ascetic scholar. My husband did this. With a great deal of merriment, all my relatives charged after him to make nice.
“Please don’t leave for Kashi,” my father repeated after the priest. “I will give you the hand of my daughter: a good woman who will stand beside you for the rest of your life.”
And there the wedding rituals take over with a lot of flower throwing and drum-beating so that the poor bridegroom or bride cannot think—which perhaps is the point of these rituals: to literally beat the young people into thoughtless submission.
My husband didn’t leave: not then; not now.
Kashi was not just the place where eligible young men went off to escape getting hitched. At one time, it was a centre of learning where young ascetics and students flocked—to study with scholars, formulate their beliefs, and search for the divine.
Like Greece in the time of Socrates and Plato, Sanskrit scholars used to stand in the street corners of Kashi and invite other philosophers to debate with them. Anyone who came up with a new theory or a new philosophy had to road test it first in Kashi.
The famous grammarian, Patanjali, who wrote the yoga sutras, taught here in the 2nd century. Vatsyayana lived in Kashi in the 3rd century and wrote the Kama Sutra, the treatise on sexuality. The three great Hindu philosophers—Shankara in the 8th century, Ramanuja in the 11th century and Madhva in the 13th century—all spent time here.
It wasn’t just the Hindus. At least two Jain tirthankaras (sages and teachers) spent chunks of time in this city. An entire sect of people who believe that Jesus was buried in Kashmir also believe that he spent time in Kashi. The Buddha spent his summers in Kashi. Many of the Jataka tales about the previous births of the Buddha—he was called Bodhisattva before he became the Buddha, the enlightened one—were centred in Kashi.
Several stories begin with the line, “Once upon a time, when Brahmadatta ruled Kashi…” The Jataka tales are dated between 300 BC and 400 AD, and they referred to events that happened a few hundred years ago, all of which lends weight to the Hindu claim that Kashi is the oldest continually occupied city in the world.
Kashi was to Indian philosophy what Florence was to Renaissance artists, what Paris was to the Impressionist painters and what Silicon Valley is to today’s entrepreneur—an intellectual hub where ideas could cross pollinate. It was the place to be; to learn from other scholars engaged in the same pursuit, whether it was philosophy, logic, metaphysics, spirituality or poetry.
“There is hardly any city that can claim greater antiquity, greater continuity and greater popular veneration than Banaras. Banaras has been a holy city for at least 30 centuries,” said the great Indologist and Sanskrit scholar P.V. Kane, who was awarded the Bharat Ratna. “No other city in India arouses the religious emotions of Hindus as much as Kashi does.”
As I stand in front of the goddess Annapurna, I am trying to feel aroused—religiously, I mean. All around me are men and women, palms together in supplication, staring at the goddess with her large black eyes, muttering appeals, their gaze unwavering, lost in hope and prayer.
I envy their transcendence, their engagement with divinity, even if it is self-perceived. I want to feel it. If Kashi doesn’t do it for me, I am a lost cause. Please, I mutter, let me experience divinity. Instead, my mind remains stubbornly observant, questioning and judgemental.
Something is wrong with me. Do these devotees actually believe that the goddess will change their lives? How? How can they surrender free will, ego, pride and sense of self to a nebulous higher power?
The goddess gazes back at me passively. Don’t tempt fate, I think to myself, a little fearfully. I remember the Tamil movies I watched as a child in which a wrathful god decided to teach a disbeliever a lesson by throwing hardships and life lessons her way.
Those movies showed a beautifully simple cause-and-effect relationship between humans and god. You go to this temple and voila, your blind son gets his eyes back. Sudama offered Krishna some beaten rice. When he returned home, his hut had become a mansion.
Having grown up in a religious family, I am not an atheist. I am not even agnostic. I am a Hindu—a questioning one, perhaps, one who is hypersensitive to petty religious hypocrisies for sure. But I have long lost the boundless self-confidence with which I could dismiss the divine.
The school of hard knocks has made me a little more humble; it has taught me that everything in my life is not in my control, that there is such a thing called luck—or the divine hand if you will—and that random acts can change the course of a life.
A priest stands in front of the idol, chanting Sanskrit mantras, some of which I recognize.
Annapurne sada purne, Shankara prana vallabhe…
Oh Annapurna, always whole. The one who gives Shiva his life force. Please give me the boons of wisdom and detachment. “Jnana Vairagya Siddhyartham, Bhiksham dehi cha Parvati.”
Man, my ancients were obsessed with detachment as a path to wisdom. Yoga says the same thing. It says that vairagya is letting go of attachments, of fears, of sins, of false identities. Put that way, it is uplifting. You fly free of all these illusions or delusions of grandeur and remove yourselves from the shackles of fear. If a goddess can do that, I will stand in line.
My grandmother used to say these shlokas to Annapurna, which is why I know this bit by heart.
Above the stove in my home is a tiny bronze image of Annapurna, given to me by my grandmother after she visited Kashi. My cook, a devout Hindu, places steaming hot rice in front of this tiny idol and allows the steam to envelop the goddess, offering the cooked food to her first before setting it on the dining table.
In Kashi, I view first-hand the goddess who has been part of my family for three generations. Two women stand on either side of the idol. They are folding saris into long strips and placing them on top of the idol. Stalks of yellow wheat are placed next to the idol.
Annapurna is the goddess of grains. She epitomizes sacred food, holding in her hands a vessel and a large ladle to dole out a nourishing, unending supply of food to her people. She is the queen of Kashi. The story of how she came here is one that I relish, as a spouse and a feminist.
It turns out that Shiva and Parvati, or Shakti, as she is called in this story, were having a philosophical discussion in their Himalayan mountain abode. Shiva grandly pronounced that the whole world wasmaya—an illusion. Only he (or the realization of him) was the true reality.
“Is that so?” asked his wife. As Shakti, she was the material half of the world, manifested in all things. Stung by her husband’s dismissal of her role in creation, she vanished.
The world came to a standstill. Time stopped. The earth became barren; devoid of sustenance. All of creation suffered. Seeing this, the compassionate goddess Shakti appeared in Kashi as the goddess Annapurna. She set up a kitchen and began feeding the world again.
Shiva did something that all men ought to do when they are proved wrong in a spousal quarrel. He showed up at his wife’s door and made nice. The mythological version of an apology is that Shiva appeared with a begging bowl in hand, shame-faced and sheepish at his grandiosity.
“Say it,” the wife must have said.
“I realize that the material world is as important as the spiritual,” Shiva must have mumbled. “I shouldn’t have dismissed it. Your role is as important as mine. More important.”
The smiling wife fed her husband. All was forgotten.
The husband and wife made a deal. In Kashi, Shakti would take care of the people during their lives. Shiva would help them after they died. Living and dying: a good division of duties. Both are important in Kashi.
This is the second in a four-part series from Kashi. Read the first parthere.
Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

Kashi, Ganga and the politics of religion

I enjoyed writing this four part series for Mint on Sunday.  Kashi is a dream-like place.  Seems to belong to another time, and yet to all time.  The photos are mine too:)

 

Photo: Shoba Narayan

In her quest to embrace faith, the ultimate feel-good pill on the rocky road called life, this writer looks for divine intervention in Kashi

A dead cow is floating down the river Ganga. She is a black and white Holstein Friesian cow, like the one I own in Bangalore. She floats sideways, legs spreadeagled. Half of her face is visible, even though it is dark—7pm on a Friday. I wish I could say that she looks peaceful, but her teeth are bared.
Some 100 boats filled with Indian and foreign tourists are converging on Dashashwamedh Ghat for the evening Ganga aarthi, the spectacle that is the culmination of daily religious life in Kashi. The cow floats amid the boats, forcing embarrassed guides into stuttering, apologetic explanations in Spanish, French, Russian, Hebrew and English.
“Sometimes, when people have a pet cow that died and they cannot afford to bury or cremate her, they simply throw her into the Ganga,” says our guide, J.P. Mishra, of Magic India Tours. He stares at our horrified faces and shrugs. “Ganga is the mother. She accepts everything.”
Would the Ganga have been better served, had we imagined her to be our child rather than mother? What if our ancients imagined the Ganga to be a daughter, or better yet, given the Indian preference for male heirs, a son? Would we have taken better care of Ganga, our child, than we do of Mother Ganga?
These are moot questions; whispers into the mists of time that reach back to 1500 BC when the Vedas were “revealed” (not written or composed but revealed, but more on that later) to Hindu rishis. The first Veda, the Rig Veda, mentions the Ganga but a few times. The most famous reference to the Ganga in the Rig Veda comes from thenadistuti sukta, or the “hymn in praise of the rivers”. Even that mentions the Ganga somewhere in the middle, along with nineteen other rivers—including the Saraswati, Yamuna, Purushni, Asikni and Gomti.
The hymn is predominantly in praise of the river Sindhu, or Indus, described as the mightiest of all rivers, into which other roaring rivers run “like mothers to their calves”, not calves to their mothers as I first mistakenly thought. The Sindhu—who flows flashing and white, with ample volume; whose roar can be heard to the heavens; who bellows like a bull; and who is beautiful like a steed. Ganga is just part of a list in these early days of Hinduism.
An aside: Unlike other ancient literature like the Egyptian Book of the Dead (recorded on papyrus) or the Sumerian tale, the Epic of Gilgamesh, often called the first story in the world (recorded on carved tablets), the Vedas were not written down until much later. They were not even believed to be composed by humans. They were heard—a better translation is seen—by Hindu sages, who were therefore called seers.
For this reason, the Vedas are apauraseya or authorless—revealed texts that were grasped by Hindu seers as fully formed philosophies or insights about the world. The Vedas are preserved as shruti or listened literature in exactly the same form—unchanged words, exactly the same meter and intonation—for millennia.
It is only later when stories and myths were compiled into the Puranas that the Ganga gains importance. Her creation myth, depicted in the Bhagavata Purana is spectacular and goes thus: To teach a lesson to an arrogant king called Mahabali, Lord Vishnu lifts one of his feet heavenward in the Trivikrama pose, and pierces the sky with his toenail. Like piercing an egg, this causes the milk of human creation—the Ganga—to flow downwards from the upper reaches of the cosmos into the mere heavens where Brahma the creator resides, the Brahma loka, as it is called—Brahma’s world. In some tellings, the Ganga is imagined as the Milky Way. The gods enjoy her fertile waters and she enjoys her stay and status in heaven.
Several millennia later, on earth, a dutiful son is in a quandary. He has just discovered that 60,000 of his ancestors are wallowing in the netherworld because of a sage’s curse. They cannot even attempt reaching heaven. The dutiful son performs a lot of austerities, which pleases Brahma, the creator. Brahma tells him that the only way his ancestors can have a shot at heaven is if the purifying waters of the Ganga touch them. The son begs Brahma for help. Brahma orders the Ganga to fall to earth. She isn’t particularly thrilled to leave the heavens, but has no choice but to agree. Brahma, after all, is the creator, her father.
The problem is that the power of her fall will smash the earth to smithereens, wash it away in a great cascade of water. So the son prays again, this time to Shiva, begging him to cushion the Ganga’s fall by absorbing her into his long matted locks. As is seen in a wonderful painting by Raja Ravi Varma, there stands Shiva, with the kind of six-pack abs that would put Shah Rukh to shame. His long matted locks flow out like Sonam Kapoor’s—and isn’t it pathetic that the only metaphors I can come up with are from Bollywood?
Moving on, a leopard skin is wrapped around his waist, a snake around his neck. Shiva gazes upwards as the Ganga falls. He wraps her in his hair, trapping her impetuous arrogance, and allowing only a small trickle to fall on earth. Man subdues woman in the feminist telling of it; except that Hindu myths are gender agnostic. There are enough Durgas and Kalis who will ruthlessly kill the bad guy and swallow his blood if they need to, like Kali did with the demon Rakthabeeja.
So the Ganga hits the earth. With folded hands, the son—his name is Bhagiratha—leads her to the netherworld where she purifies the souls of all 60,000 of his ancestors, allowing them to make their journey upwards to the heavens. No wonder all Hindus want to have a dip in this holy water—touched by Vishnu’s feet, Shiva’s hair, and Brahma’s command, she is the liquid goddess linked to the divine trinity in Hindu mythology.
As creation myths go, the story of the Ganga is hard to beat or duplicate. Is there a way to massage this myth to serve the Ganga in her present state? Indians view her as Ma Ganga. Mothers are taken for granted. Viewing her as a cherished daughter—or son—might have served her better through the ages. The instinct to take care of a child is primordial.
Photo: Shoba Narayan

Photo: Shoba Narayan

Might we have taken care of Ganga the child, better than we do Ganga the mother? Too late. Rationality cannot alter lore. Myths are carved in stone, and certainly one that is so braided into the Indian psyche cannot be morphed so easily, even if it might potentially help the river.
A dead cow is floating down the Ganga. This irritates me on many levels. Cleaning the Ganga is a Herculean task—or should I choose from Indian myths instead of Greek and say, Bhagirathan task? And why not choose a woman’s name? Cleaning the Ganga is a Malala Yousafzai-ian task.
This dead cow with her wide-open eyes symbolizes everything that is impossible about this venture. Why couldn’t this cow have been given to a slaughterhouse? Did the poor farmer whose cow it was live in a state that banned the killing of the cow? Why couldn’t the poor farmer have cremated the cow instead? Or did he love the animal so much that he wanted it to attain salvation through the holy waters of this river?
Or was it simple economics? He didn’t have the money to deal with her death. Tossing her into the Ganga was an easy option. Was it faith or desperation that led to him throwing the dead animal into the waters, polluting her further?
***
At the Dashashwamedh (Ten Horse Sacrifice) Ghat, the Ganga aarthiis about to begin. The boats are fitted against each other like a jigsaw puzzle, to form an arc that faces the bank. In the next boat, two young women—American by the sound of their accent—sit cross-legged on the wooden boat, chatting with their guide. Ahead of us, on the steps of the ghat, a huge crowd of people has gathered. In the buildings behind them are billboards with photographs. Actor Sunny Deol posing, as if in a Calvin Klein ad, selling Cozi underwear to religious tourists who want to elevate their minds.
Those of us on the boats are a captive audience, or as it turns out to be, customers. Within a few minutes, an energetic group of children balance their way across the boat, carrying bamboo baskets filled with ice water, candles to float on the Ganga, matchboxes, incense and photographs of gods.
One young boy who looks about seven years old entreats the two American women beside me to buy his wares in broken English.
“This candy (he means candle) very nice,” he says, holding up a leaf cup inside which nestles a small tea candle amidst a bed of yellow marigolds.
It is a beautiful arrangement, Balinese in its simplicity, handmade and tenuous—a floating candle, carrying wishes and hopes into the Ganga.
“You buy? Good price,” the boy says.
The two American women shake their heads even though he is charging them the same price that he charges everyone—Rs10. Hardened by beggars and touts who swarm around them, warned by guides about bargaining for anything sold to foreigners in India, they fail to recognize a good deal. I feel sorry for the kid and buy six candles even though I don’t intend to float them on the already overburdened Ganga.
A male voice begins singing over the loudspeaker. Seven priests, all male, take their positions at different points on the broad ghat. They depict the Saptha-Rishis, or seven primordial sages. They follow the protocol of a puja, beginning with flowers, then incense, then a lamp with a single wick, and then a beautiful multilayered lamp with a tiered pyramid of wicks, all shining in the darkness.
In synchronized movements, the seven priests lift the shining pyramid of flickering lamps, face the river, and circle their hands round and round. A group of men paying homage to a female goddess. All religions are male-dominated. Hinduism is no different. I have never seen a female priest in any Hindu temple. I resent the fact that Ganga aarthi does not even have a token woman as participant—a female singer at least?
“Here have a peda,” says our guide, opening a box. “It is from the Hanuman temple.”
In Kashi, sacred food is everywhere. The peda is delicious and we chew it contentedly while watching the priests do their synchronized movements—like chewing popcorn at a movie. The aarthi lasts about half an hour. At the end, I search for the cow, wishing I had photographed it.
Ghai? Woh chala gaya,” says the boatman casually. It has gone.
“At least it is better than those corpses we used to see floating in the Ganga,” says our guide soothingly.
We take the motor boat upstream to Assi Ghat where my hotel is. Along the way, we see a dead buffalo right by the bank of Harishchandra Ghat, which, along with Manikarnika Ghat, are the two crematoriums on the Ganga. Somehow, this isn’t as horrifying, perhaps because it is on the banks of a crematorium. A remnant corpse, even if it happens to be an animal, left behind, perhaps by a poor farmer, who couldn’t pay for its funeral.
Photo: Shoba Narayan

Photo: Shoba Narayan

A few yards upstream, a couple is immersing themselves into the river. Like most devotees, the man is topless, with a cloth wrapped around his midriff. The woman is fully clothed in a maroon sari and mustard yellow blouse. She wades into the water and dunks her head in. The man does this three times. Can’t they see the dead buffalo to their left?
“So many people take a bath every day in the Ganga. They don’t fall sick. It is the power of belief,” says our guide in explanation.
Photo: Shoba Narayan

Photo: Shoba Narayan

Ah, belief. The great divide between the rational and the spiritual. The problem with religion is that it is predicated on tenets that are hard to measure, understand, explain or duplicate. Like reiki healing, noticing auras, or anything to do with intuition, religious belief has to be experienced. That is the problem.
The path to belief can be zig-zagging and precarious, full of questions and second-guessing, like mine is. Sometimes, it happens gradually over a course of a lifetime through a guru—although that too is a circular, chicken-and-egg situation. They say that a guru will come when you are ready to accept the lessons she has to offer; but how can you evolve to the stage when you are ready for mysticism, faith and spirituality without a guru?
Faith can also happen in an instant, like a lightning stroke, through divine grace, although that is rare and requires miracles. “Look at me through the corner of your eye; your kadai-kann,” goes the lyrics of a Tamil song. Just a glance from the goddess—not even a full one—but one from the corner of her eye—can elevate a moron into a mystic, as the goddess of learning, Saraswati, is supposed to have done to the poet Kalidasa by drawing on his tongue.
As nebulous as faith is, numerous studies point to its benefits. Faith is in vogue—on the cover of publications worldwide. It confers self-control and peace of mind, fosters relationships, increases happiness and nurtures community. Faith is the ultimate feel-good pill on this rocky road that we call life—it heals and empowers. I get all that. I would like to embrace my faith. I would like to be a better Hindu.
Religion, however poses a perplexing paradox. Only if I have faith will I experience the benefits of faith. But how to embrace faith without some sort of proof—not scientific proof necessarily but even some sort of inner awakening, some sign from the cosmos? “Anything?” as George Costanza said in Seinfeld.
How do I get on the religious bandwagon? Where do I jump in?
The first of a four-part series.

Napa Valley. Wine. Sonoma Valley. Part 1

People in America, California particularly, have access to a ridiculous amount of great wines, many sold direct from wineries through wine clubs.  Here is a sampling.  Naturally, this being written for an Indian paper, there is an Indian angle.

 

Inside Napa Valley wineries: part I

An Indian winemaker gets the best out of California terroir


At the Nicholson Ranch, the entire process from planting the grapes to bottling the wine is done in-house. Photo: Shoba Narayan

At the Nicholson Ranch, the entire process from planting the grapes to bottling the wine is done in-house. Photo: Shoba Narayan

Nicholson Ranch was the last stop on Day 1. By then, Platypus Wine Tours had taken a group of us wine tourists to three Napa Valley wineries in California. Buena Vista, because it was the oldest; Robledo, because it was the first to be owned by a migrant Mexican worker; and Peter Cellars, because it was a one-man show by a transplanted Brit.

Everywhere, we paid the $15 (around Rs.1,020) tasting fee to swirl and sip aromatic Merlots, austere Pinot Noirs, buttery Chardonnays and refreshing Pinot Grigios. Most of these wines never make it to the market—they are sold in-house to tourists like us.

Our tour bus reached Nicholson Ranch around 5pm.

“This winemaker is Indian,” said our guide, Andy.

Inside the tasting room, several glasses had been laid out. A cheerful young man talked about the winemaking process. Unlike many Napa wineries that buy grapes or subcontract the winemaking process, Nicholson Ranch is an “estate” wine—the entire process from planting the grapes to bottling the wine is done in-house.

The owner, Deepak Gulrajani, graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, and worked in finance before founding the winery along with his ex-wife, whose family owned the land. The vineyards were planted in 1996. Four years later, he had the wine caves dug. Between 2000-03, he took over the entire process from vine to wine. The undulating hills allowed Gulrajani to create a “gravity-flow” winery, built over multiple levels to take advantage of gravity rather than pumps or equipment to get the grapes from the vines to the wine-crush to the barrels in the caves.

Gulrajani’s wines are terrific and I am not just saying that because he is Indian. We carried a glass of his delicately layered Pinot Noir outside. Situated between the Napa and Sonoma valleys, the estate high up on a hill offered sweeping views. The evening sun ricocheted off the yellow mustard plants that alternated with the chocolate-coloured grapevines that were dormant, awaiting the “bud break” that would start the next wine cycle. Songbirds dipped in and out of the flowers; a gentle breeze caused the yellow mustard to sway; the sun warmed our backs. The Pinot Noir was throwing out scents of berries and spices—la dolce vita.

They say Pinot Noirs are the hardest to grow, but really, it could apply to any varietal. Blame it on Sideways. The movie and its famous monologue about this “haunting” and ancient grape caused Merlot sales to drop after its release. Today in California, Sonoma Valley—closer to the water and cooler as a result—grows cool-climate grapes. Napa Valley, between two mountain ridges, is famous for its Cabernet Sauvignon wines, with alcohol levels getting higher and higher.

Worried that I would be sozzled by day’s end, I did the only thing I could over several days of wine tours. I sipped and spat out the wine in the “dump buckets” that were lined atop the counters. The pleasure of wine is through the nose and the mouth, I rationalized; from the aromas it exudes and the mouth-feel. You don’t have to swallow. Katsuyuki Tanaka, one of the world’s most respected wine tasters, is a teetotaller.

Yountville is the prettiest town in Napa. We stayed at Vintage Inn, because it was more reasonably priced than the Calistoga Inn that all our friends recommended.

I asked two of the Platypus guides where to dine in Yountville and both said Bottega, where it’s a little easier to get a reservation than its more famous neighbour, The French Laundry. The restaurant was packed on a weekday night. Unlike many fine-dining restaurants, we didn’t get artfully arranged vegetables that left us hungry. The sommelier, Amgad Wahba (of Egyptian descent), poured us some of the best wines we tasted on the trip—most of them, except a Barolo, from Napa. “Chefs these days balance the dishes so well that the old adages about drinking a muscular wine with a steak and a light wine with a salad don’t necessarily hold true,” he said, comforting this vegetarian.

Next to Bottega restaurant is the V Wine Cellar. I walked in and got talking to Bruno, a Frenchman who works there. When asked about the best labels in Napa, he and his colleagues named “Screaming Eagle”, which retails for $2,000 a bottle.

Heidi Peterson Barrett, who got this wine its reputation, is a cult figure in Napa. The daughter of a wine pioneer, she created the first Screaming Eagle wine that got 99 points from wine critic Robert Parker. That, coupled with limited production, drove up its prices. V Wine Cellar does wine tastings for $75, where they pour wines from excellent vineyards along with cheeses from Cowgirl Creamery. Those in the mood can top it off with a cigar in their patio.

I tried—unsuccessfully—to get Scott Lewis, the proprietor, to pour me a glass of Screaming Eagle. He shared a wine he was developing for the Indian market. It was infused with peaches, chillies and cloves. I didn’t like it.

This is the first of a two-part series on Napa Valley wines.

Shoba Narayan hopes to meet Heidi Barrett and drink a Screaming Eagle at some point. She tweets at @ShobaNarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Also read | Shoba Narayan’s previous Lounge columns .

Love after fifty

Fifty by heart

Love after 50 is a complex dance; it is also just habit

Elizabeth Taylor and husband Richard Burton at Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, 1963. Photo: SSPL/Getty Images

Elizabeth Taylor and husband Richard Burton at Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, 1963. Photo: SSPL/Getty Images

Love after 50 is a loaded phrase: one that is full of possibilities. Does it mean that it is possible to love after 50? What kind of love? The same spousal love that has now degenerated to arguing over TV channels? Or a new sort? With whom? For how long?

Is love after 50 a hopeful or a hopeless phrase? I ask Rooney, my neighbour’s dog.

We are sitting in the corridor outside our apartments. Rooney is waiting to go for a walk. And I? Well, I am in the doghouse. Self-imposed doghouse, I might add. Because these days, all my relationships are predicated on two simple things: to be out of earshot when the husband, child or parent is asking or accusing. And to eat enough fibre.

You might say, dear reader, that if my life has boiled down to whether or not I am eating enough Isabgol, I deserve to be in the doghouse. So there I am, sitting cross-legged on the cold granite floor, stroking Rooney, who has eyes only for the elevator. Rooney is 50 years old in dog years—which, if 60 is the new 30, and 50 is the new 20, makes him a newborn puppy in the doggie calendar.

“Do you think you will fall in love, Rooney?” I whisper. “With someone else?” I clarify, for I know that Rooney loves me, and not in the egalitarian unbridled fashion of dogs who love mistress, master, milkman, dog walker, and anyone else with a bone. Rooney and I have something special. We are about the same age, give or take; that makes us great potential partners.

Even if you are happily married, turning 50 imbues you with hope. Mathematicians probably have a reason for it. Maybe because 50 and 60 are round numbers. No one says fit after 47, or sex after 63. If I were 47 or 63—the numbers, that is—I would be mighty upset that only numbers that end with a zero are used for self-reflection by humans.

The reason that 50 imbues us with hope is because of the conceit, which is an advertising term for an idea that could, but need not, be true. It sounds true, which is really all that an adman needs to create reality. This conceit of “love after 50” is best epitomized by that movie Bridges Of Madison County, in which Clint Eastwood plays a rugged photographer (why do women find photographers sexy? Is it because we want to be photographed all the time?). Anyway, Clint Eastwood shows up at Meryl Streep’s home. She is married, but in one of those tired relationships where you go for date night once a week and want to kill yourself because you are so bored. Clint and Meryl fall madly in love. That is the hope that turning 50 offers: The possibility of experiencing the crazy stupid love that you felt in the first years of your relationship.

So what do you do? You reinvent yourself. A man whose life revolves around the Sunday Jain thali at Thaker Thali in Borivali shows up with a tattoo and a Harley-Davidson. Midlife crisis, he says ruefully, but really—he is waiting for actor Sunny Leone to sweep him off his feet.

Women take it out on their bodies. They aspire to become like Queenie Singh or Gauri Khan, never mind that there is enough research to show that men actually like fully formed, voluptuous women of the kind that Botticelli and Peter Paul Rubens painted.

“Have you considered Botox?” I ask Rooney.

He licks my nose.

I want my lips to be fuller, I tell him, like actors Priyanka Chopra, the late Silk Smitha and Seema, the Malayalam actor of yore who caused scores of young girls to pull out their lips and tape the lower one to their chins.

I am trying bee venom. To get bee-stung lips. I actually have access to live bees because of the giant beehives in my balcony. I have even tried bottling a bee, and opening the bottle right near my face in the hope that the agitated insect will aim for my lips. The stupid thing just flies away like it has a bullet in its bottom.

If you are single at 50, you have the hope that you will meet someone special.

The big fantasy for married folks, I would wager, has to do with change. Even those who are happily married ache to fall in love again, not with someone else—that would be too much work—but with the new and improved version of their spouse. For women, it could be a husband who picks up his clothes from the floor; who knows salsa or ballroom dance and can literally sweep her off her feet; who likes to cuddle for hours; has no problem listening to her and responding like a shrink might; and who is comfortable wearing clothes that are two sizes too small. For men after 50, the fantasy could be a woman who gives them the gift of silence after a long, tough day—she who doesn’t talk, let alone nag. She who is comfortable wearing (or not wearing) clothes that are two sizes too small; she who will cause heartburn in other men when she is on his arm; and she who can talk dirty after tucking the children to bed with sweet, wholesome maternal words. There is a reason why these are called fantasies.

Relationships have a rhythm. That is their charm and comfort; but also the reason they need resuscitation. The best part about being in love with the person you know very well is that you can take him or her for granted. That is also the worst part.

Love after 50 is about taking the long view of life. People change, circumstances change, old enmities dissolve; heck, you change. The gift of middle age, whether it is at 37, 46, 54, or 63, is that you hit your stride. You are comfortable in your skin, even if the skin is beginning to sag. Being secure in yourself lets you forgive; give others—whether they are spouses, colleagues, lovers, parents, siblings, children or friends—a wide pass. Summoning up anger or even outrage becomes harder as you gain perspective and, hopefully, humility. Sure, you yell. I yell. But I have learnt emotional efficiency: when to yell and when to merely raise an eyebrow; when to shrug and walk away, and when to hug and hover; when to swallow and stay silent, and when to let my vocal chords rip.

Love after 50 is a complex dance. It is the connection that comes from offering a sip of fine wine or single malt to your loved one, simply because you cannot enjoy it on your own. It is holding the hand of the woman who has loved, hurt, taunted, cheered and nagged you into becoming who you are, warts and all—the one you call Mom, by the way. It is staring at the man who has shrunk a little but who still manages to surprise, inspire and, yes, irritate you—yes, Dad. Love is glancing at your sibling at a party and suppressing a smile because some silly situation takes you back to your childhood and an inside joke that only the two of you understand. Love is learning to stay silent when you are seething with rage because you are the parent and the irritating ball of teenage contradiction, angst and rebellion that you were staring at is your child. “For the greater good,” you mutter when you want to slap the child.

The best cinematic depiction of maternal love that I have seen is in the Tamil film, Kannathil Muthamittal by Mani Ratnam. Simran splendidly plays the mother whose nine-year-old daughter runs away from the house when she discovers that she has been adopted. The parents—superbly acted by Simran and Madhavan—scour the streets and finally find the child at a railway station. The combination of anger, love, protection and betrayal that Simran portrays without saying a word is haunting.

Love after 50 is laughter. It is learning how to fight and forgive. It is identifying people that you want to be with for the long haul: friends who can sense your fears; call your bluff; soothe and comfort; and mostly, show up at the right moment.

Love after 50, in the end, is a habit. It is a practice: one that you hopefully have practised in the last five decades. Now, it is time to perform; to play; or cash in the chips you have collected.

Shoba Narayan often runs off with Rooney.

Gauri Diwakar, Aditi Mangaldas, GR Iranna, Sudarshan Shetty, Matt Ridley and the art of collaboration

22 January 2016 | E-Paper

What rehearsals tell you about an artist

Rehearsals are a vicarious pleasure; a way of accessing the genius of performers without the pressure of a performance


G.R. Iranna with his sculptures at the NGMA, Bengaluru. Photo: Shoba Narayan

G.R. Iranna with his sculptures at the NGMA, Bengaluru. Photo: Shoba Narayan

 

“The arts have become unidimensional, and we live in a multidimensional world,” says the petite Kathak maestro, Aditi Mangaldas. We are in the basement of the Kamani Auditorium in New Delhi. Mangaldas and her foremost disciple, Gauri Diwakar, are rehearsing a new work, titled Hari Ho…Gati Meri: Muslim Poets In Love Of Lord Krishna. They will present it the following day.

Rehearsals are a vicarious pleasure; a way of accessing the genius of performers without the pressure of a performance. A few arts institutions—the Lincoln Center in New York, for instance—accord the privilege of watching a rehearsal for a price. I am at Kamani at the behest of Minaakshi Dass, whose venture, India Heritage Desk, aims to discover the next Aditi Mangaldas or Malavika Sarukkai. Gauri Diwakar may be one candidate.

In one virtuoso display, Diwakar—clad in yoga pants and a top—mouthes a series of bols, or syllables of beats, that sound exactly like a tabla would. To watch her interact with the tabla player, the harmonium player and the singer, is like watching jazz musicians jamming. A young boy—the tabla master’s son—sits in the middle, absorbing it all. This, I think, is how the next generation of musicians is fostered.

“One beat is off,” says Diwakar. They go over the sound of beats again. Her tongue does gymnastics. The tabla sounds like the beats coming out of her mouth. They are immersed in the complex rhythm. At the end, Mangaldas says, “It is still off.” And off they go again.

During a rehearsal, you learn many things. I learnt that Kathak dancers arch their feet like ballet dancers. That pure dance, called nritya in Kathak, can take your breath away. To hear Diwakar beat her feet to the immersive sound of the tabla master is to watch two bodies performing to the same beat, each one goading and celebrating the other. It is what the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called “flow”. As I watch the group, I am envious. Diwakar dances joyfully, sweat running down her forehead; Mangaldas watches the dance she has choreographed come to life—with unwavering eyes and a slight smile. The singer plays the harmonium and sings. The tabla and mridangam players nod their heads, their eyes on the dancer’s feet. All of them are in unison; in another world. Dass and I are interlopers.

More than other art forms, dance is a synthesis—of music, song, lyrics, and costume. If Mangaldas believes that it is unidimensional, what does that say about the rest of the arts?

I think about this as I walk through Sudarshan Shetty’s new sculptural installation at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in New Delhi. Haunting and intimate, the space he has created reminds me of the Chidambaram temple in Tamil Nadu, which, as it happens, is where sculpture and dance came together during the Chola dynasty. What would happen, I wonder, if Mangaldas and Diwakar were to dance between the pillars that Shetty has erected in this vast space? Would it enhance the sculpture or detract from it? Shetty, more than other artists, would understand and appreciate this fusion of dance, space and sculpture. His wife is a dancer and his father was a yakshagana artiste.

Artists collaborate, of course. But as they become bigger—in fame, and perhaps, ego—the urge to merge with other arts falls short. When you are a Jitish Kallat or a Priyadarsini Govind, why would you want to inhabit another space, particularly after you have slaved away at technique, research and expertise in isolation? To collaborate, you have to leave ego at the door; and that, I guess, is what Mangaldas means when she says that most art these days is unidimensional. It does not mimic the richness and messiness of life.

Govind was felicitated last Saturday at the Dhrishti National Dance Festival in Bengaluru. I read about it in the Deccan Herald, my hometown’s paper. I have never seen Chowdiah Memorial Hall so full. Every seat was taken. Children sat on their parents’ laps. People crammed every aisle. It was among the best performances I have seen in recent times. Anuradha Vikranth and her dance ensemble presented the navarasas (nine emotions) of Durga. Ten beautiful dancers enacted scenes about the goddess. To choreograph two dancers is a feat. To choreograph 10 of them is like herding planets. Four male dancers—two in the Kuchipudi style and two in the Bharatanatyam style—followed; a treat to watch. Dass should keep an eye on Vikranth’s dance ensemble for the next rung of talent.

Which brings us to the question: How does succession planning work in the art world? How does the public access the artists, dancers and musicians in the rung below the top layer? G.R. Iranna is an example. He has had a mid-career retrospective of his work at the NGMA in Bengaluru, but isn’t well known outside the closed confines of the art world.

The NGMA, Bengaluru was buzzing the day before the show opened on 16 January. A museum group from the US was chatting with Iranna. The usually dour museum guards accorded him the deference given to a native Kannada speaker. “He learnt shilpakala (sculpture) in Bijapur,” one guard told me when I asked him if he liked the show. I loved Iranna’s sculptures, which spoke of brave, rebellious politics. Made of white fibreglass, they are visually striking. I could imagine ayakshagana performance amid them. Or Akka Mahadevi’s poetry being read out by Ramya the actor—dressed in a white sari to match the white sculptures. Two different worlds colliding with each other. As they should. For, as Matt Ridley said in his TED talk, we live in a multidimensional world where ideas should meet and “have sex”.

Shoba Narayan loves watching artistic rehearsals. She tweets at @ShobaNarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com.

Breakfast in Varanasi

01 January 2016 | E-Paper

A hallucinatory breakfast in Varanasi

Is there a more beautiful sound in the world than the sizzle of frying jalebis early in the morning?


Forget about cholesterol if you happen to be in Varanasi. Photo: Alamy

Forget about cholesterol if you happen to be in Varanasi. Photo: Alamy

South Indians, or should I say Tamilians, can be cantankerous purists. No mixing tastes. No adding sugar to dal like the Gujaratis do; or adding jaggery to rasam like the Kannadigas do. Only one vegetable per sambhar; be it okra, brinjal or small onions. If you mix multiple vegetables, you are a caterer who is trying to palm off all the cheap vegetables available into one pot. These Tamilians ought to taste the pleasures of breakfast in Varanasi. It might change their minds.

I am standing at Vishwanath Mishthan Bhandar in Vishweshwar Ganj. It is 8am and I have just done yoga and pranayamwith a hundred strangers on the banks of the Ganga, led by a female teacher who shouted, scolded and coaxed us into stretches, bends and submission. Just show up at Assi ghat at 6am if you would like to join in. Suitably lubricated, my body is ready for its next round of lubrication.

At the Vishwanath Bhandar, four men sit outside, frying stuff. Have you heard the sizzle of a jalebi early in the morning? It is the most beautiful sound in the world. Chopin’s Nocturnes have nothing on the twin sounds of jalebi and kachorisizzling in oil right next to each other. I stand with the milling crowd. It is my turn. I hold out Rs.10 and get two leaf bowls. An impassive man ladles aloo sabzi into one leaf bowl; and the kachori in another. Now comes the dilemma. How to stand, balance these two bowls in one hand and eat with the other? The others around me are doing just fine; they’ve had years of practice, darn them. If I could be born again, I would come back as a Kashi vasi (Kashi resident), not necessarily for the good karma but for the terrific kachoris. I have had kachoris in Jaipur, Haridwar, Delhi and Bengaluru. So far, the ones in Kashi are the best. They are fluffy, not brittle. They hold their round shape and have a respectable amount of dal. They collapse like a bubble when you tear them open. The best part is the aloo sabzi: a trite tangy, just enough spicy, and piping hot.

The only way to make a kachori better is to mix it with jalebi. It is like adding a pinch of salt to hot chocolate. The shot of pure sugar makes the shot of pure cholesterol better. Best if you don’t think in those terms and use the term that teenagers these days use to explain everything: YOLO (You Only Live Once). Ergo, eat kachori-jalebi for breakfast; if possible, every day.

Once breakfast is done, I go temple hopping. At the Sankat Mochan Hanuman temple, hot laal pedas (red pedas) are brought out. Devotees buy boxes of them to take to the Hindu god Hanuman and then distribute to those gathered. I stand in line, awaiting my share. A lady in a purple sari hands me one; then, seeing my face, she gives me another with a smile. “Jai Hanuman,” I say and pop one into my mouth. She looks pleased.

“My daughter conceived after eating 10 of these pedas,” she says. “They are a fertility tonic.”

I stop half-bite. Is this why India is overpopulated? Too late. The peda is “too good”, as my nephew, Harsha, says. The trick to a good peda, and I speak as someone who has never made a peda in her life, is the consistency. It has to melt in the mouth but you should be able to chew the last bits. You should make those popping sounds that babies make when they relish food. In Tamil, we call this naaka chappi kotti, which is like saying, “making clicking and clapping sounds with your tongue”. A good peda should make your tongue clap.

At the Annapurna temple across town, someone is serving sesame rice, perhaps because it is Saturday. Karnataka, where I live, is home to several “rice varieties”, or “chithra-anna”, as we call it: coconut rice, lemon rice, tamarind rice, curd rice, and, best of all, bise bele bhaath, which literally means hot lentil-rice mixture. Sesame rice is not often made or served. It is a delicacy and an acquired taste. I acquired it in Kashi. The recipe is simple: roasted and ground black sesame seeds, red chillies, curry leaves, some urad dal, and a good helping of asafoetida. Grind it all up and mix with hot rice. Here too, the leaf bowls make their appearance. If you like the depth and girth of good sesame oil, you will love sesame rice. It is great for vegans because it contains a ton of calcium.

At the Kashi Vishalakshi Temple, this wide-eyed goddess is served some ghee-dripping sheera as prasadam. The sponsor of this prasadam ladles out a spoon to a line of devotees, including me.

All this eating has made me thirsty. The great thing is that you can get thandai with bhang in Varanasi on an average day. You don’t have to wait for Holi to indulge. Lord Shiva, the ascetic, loved his bhang, made from the leaves of the cannabis plant. At a government bhang shop, I nervously watch the vendor pour a respectable amount of this green concoction, before adding chilled milk laced with crushed nuts, sugar and saffron. The resulting drink is slightly bitter. It is supposed to be hallucinatory. It makes people giggle and wake up with what seems like a hangover.

The other dish that is a signature of the city is not as potent. Banarasi paan is a digestive. I grow betel leaves in my garden. How different can this be, I think, as I stand in front of a tiny shop and ask for a paan.

“With zarda or without?” asks the vendor.

Zarda comes from tobacco. It is addictive; gives a high. How bad can it be? With lightning fingers, the vendor smooths open a bright green betel leaf. He throws in several items: betel nuts, lime paste, fennel seeds, a pinch of zarda, rose petal jam or gulkand, and what looks like tutti-frutti. He folds it into a triangle, sticks a clove to hold it together, and hands it over to me. I have eaten paan before, but this one has oomph. As I chew, I can feel myself becoming light-headed. The juices flow down my throat, inducing a pleasant sensation of relaxation. I smile beatifically and thank the vendor.

“Careful,” he says as I stumble out. “Sambhaalke.”

I wave my hand and keep walking. It is a beautiful day.

I don’t remember very much of what happened after that; except that I, much like a Hindi film heroine, woke up in bed.

Shoba Narayan loves a good Bengaluru bisi bele bhaath followed by a Banarasi paan. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com