by Fausto Aarya De Santis
I had been hearing from many friends about Varanasi, some of them described it as a dirty, noisy and chaotic place and others described it as peaceful, quiet; a place you can get inspiration from. The two viewpoints were just the opposite; which was the right one? That was the mystery I intended to discover, so I decided I would go to Varanasi.
It was noon time on a breezy day in February when I was entering the mystery. I was arriving from Calcutta, when I reached the Kashi station of Varanasi. As I got out of the station I was shocked. Inside me, my first reaction was “Oh…my!!! Where have I reached?” It was a chaos. People were pushing each other, getting on and off rickshaws and cycles. There were cows, horses and dogs on the road. Most horses were being used to carry people. In a fraction of a second, all these images came into my mind, and by the time I came out from the clouds of my thoughts and realized where I was, I saw a huge crowd in front of me. Somebody was asking me if I needed a hotel, others were offering to take me around Banaras and the rest were asking for money. All these things were happening so fast that they were spinning in my head like a top. I wasn’t able to understand how people could even like Banaras and the mystery seemed to be getting clearer. I wasn’t able to handle it anymore, I felt like going back from where I had come but it was too far away and I had to get over this “commotion” around me. At the end, with a strong and irritated voice, I said “Stop it!” All the people around me became quiet, but it only lasted for a few seconds and then they started “jumping” on me once again. I had to get in control of the situation. I asked one of the rickshaw drivers to take me to Assi Ghat. He asked for forty rupees. I didn’t know if the price was right or not, but I was so tired that I took the offer. On the road to Assi, I saw so many strange things: cows on the road, not only cows but bulls also, the roads and the houses were very congested, the population density seemed very high and the city was very dirty and noisy. I really wasn’t able to understand how some of my friends could say that is a peaceful and quite place, and the mystery became clearer and clearer.
As I reached Assi Ghat, I went inside one of the hotels and nobody was at the reception. I rang the bell but nobody came. After five minutes of ringing, somebody presented himself at the reception. He was half asleep. I asked him if I could have a single bedroom and he replied he didn’t know if there was a room. I thought to myself, “how can these people do business in this way?” After sending a man to check if there was a room, he told me that there was one left and that it was for a hundred rupees a day, I took it and went into my room. It was around two in the afternoon and I was so stressed and tired that I needed to sleep.
I got up at around six evening and I thought of going for a boat ride. The River Ganges was close to my hotel and so I went walking. Before reaching the Ganges in Assi Ghat, there were twenty metres of sand, and as I was walking towards it, I slowly started feeling relaxed. I took a boat. Looking at the Ghats and floating on the Ganges was making me more and more relaxed and the entire atmosphere around me had a sensation of quiet. I was able to think about my life, about myself and had a feeling I never had before. The mystery was puzzling again: is then Banaras a maddening or a quiet place? I was confused again, because I had a sensation of peace, of quiet and I was thinking about myself, about God and life. Therefore, the friends who said that this was a great place to live in, were also right.
The boat ride had ended, an hour had already passed but it seemed as if it was only ten minutes. I was back in Assi Ghat, it was dinner time and I was getting hungry. A friend of mine had told me about an Italian Pizzeria in Assi Ghat so I went there. The restaurant was full. I saw four people sitting at the right end of the restaurant. I recognized they were Italian because they were the noisiest table in the restaurant.
As I was Italian, I thought of joining them. I went there and asked them if I could join them. They gave me the permission. I introduced myself and then they did too. They were Ruggero, Antonella, Stefano and Vrinda. All of them had already stayed in Varanasi for more than 15 years. We started a discussion about Banaras. I liked a lot the discussion we had, and at the end of the day in my hotel I reflected a lot. All the activities happening in Varanasi were contrasting each other and making the mystery more and more complicated.
There are people who find peace; they like to get away from the world, not to follow materialism. The Ganges gives you a positive feeling, a feeling of quiet and relaxation. In Varanasi, a lot of professors, philosophers, writers and many others come, so there is a lot of “knowledge sharing”. In Varanasi, there is a lot of chaos, people “jumping” on you but the peace can also make you feel worse if you have a fragile mind and sentimental problems. The presence of dead bodies floating on the River Ganges. The presence of the “Babas” and of tantric rituals is difficult to digest. Banaras is also a very noisy and dirty place.
There are people who can not handle Varanasi and leave it as soon as they arrive and there are others who would remain there and never leave it again. The Gods also lived in Banaras and wanted to live here forever but then they were forced to leave. They did all they could to come back and finally they did and settled down, never to leave again; this is what the books on Banaras say.
I realized that there is not only one mystery in Varanasi but many more; some of them we might not know even as yet; like people who run away from Banaras the day they reach the city and those who remain for the rest of their lives; the city that cannot get dirtier than what it is; the masti or intoxicaiton of banaras; the presence of a quiet stillness in a chaotic city.
And many more which I haven’t discovered yet. The day I came, all these mysteries weren’t solved. As I sit here in the Pizzeria, seventy years old, talking to the youngsters coming to Banaras for the first time, I realsie how many are the mysteries I still haven’t discovered.