Dawn breaks as we rumble in on a deceptively solid-looking Sumo, and, ironically, the first sound I hear is a muezzin’s call for prayer. Stereotypical sadhu with matted hair and rotten teeth and saffron and ashes everywhere grins at me. I grin back, taking in the beedi in his hand and the tattered Nike sneakers on his feet.
Within ten minutes of being in Benaras I know that the theories of its existence are hogwash. I have a new theory about how Benaras came into being. God (If, hypothetically, there is a God) built two armies composed entirely of streets and buildings and cowsheds, and made them have an epic showdown in Benaras, and what we see now are the remains of the battlefield. I have never seen so many twisted streets and convoluted paths turning at so many angles. Dilapidated buildings shoot out here, there and everywhere, forming narrow alleys where sunlight filters in through balcony grills and the odd shaft between terraces. A canopy of concrete with no beginning and abrupt ends.
There is much to be said about Benaras being the cosmic center of the universe, about its throbbing, unwavering intensity, about the faith that keeps it running, but it does not matter in the alleyways. They are part of a separate, magical world. Peeling paint that was once bright blue or red adorns doors, balconies, random flower pots, and at times, a rusty clothesline. A stray voice leads us into a stuffy room below ground level where a man sits grinning at us, prayer cap on head, trying to keep his henna-stained beard out of a loom holding the most magnificent silk saree I have ever seen. Silver shining through vivid pink, setting a dusty room alight. Beribboned children chase colourful hens over little ditches and canals. Windows leer out of ancient facades.
Everything looks like it will crumble to pieces if I put out a finger and touch it, and getting lost is easier than buying a bottle of mineral water. I do not like temples, and I do not care for religion. But this, this enchantment - I can live with this for three days, even grow to like it.
Cowdung is everywhere, and in all forms – caked, slushy, fresh. We cannot go anywhere without a bovine tail brushing against our legs. You cannot drive a vehicle here more than a foot wide, so we walk around, circumnavigating cattle and bicycles. And we walk further into a maze we don’t know how to exit, speaking to people whose names we do not know, watched by little eyes behind curtains. Spluttering mobikes sing along to crackling radio songs. Wafts of cigarette and incense smoke float around, creating a musty universe that seems far removed from philosophy and faith – in this world there is only life, and its living. There are only people, and their little routines. This is the Benaras away from the ghats and the temple spires. A world of simplicity and narrow-lined everydayness, living on borrowed time and tea.