When I first came to Benares in the severe winter of 1989 I stayed in a crumbling riverside house. It is not the kind of place you can easily find anymore. Cut-price "Guest Houses" for Japanese tourists and German pastry shops now line the riverfront; touts at the railway station and airport are likely to lead you to the modern concrete and-glass hotels in the newer parts of the city. The new middle-class prosperity of India has at last come to Benares. This holiest of pilgrimage sites that Hindus for millennia have visited in order to attain liberation from the cycle of rebirths has grown into a noisy little commercial town.
This is as it should be; one can't feel too sad about such changes. Benares-destroyed and rebuilt so many times during centuries of Muslim and British rule-is, the Hindus say, the abode of Shiva, the god of perpetual creation and destruction. The world constantly renews itself, and when you look at it that way, regret and nostalgia seem equally futile.
The past does live on, in people as well as cities. I have only to look back on that winter in Benares to realize how hard it is to let go of it.
It was pure luck that I should ask the pujari at the river side temple about cheap places to rent at the very moment Panditji came in with his offering of crushed withered marigolds. Panditji, a tiny, frail, courteous old musician, overheard our conversation. He saw me as a fellow Brahrnin who had fallen on hard times and he offered to help. With his oversized rubber flip-flops slapping loudly against the cobblestone paving, he led me through narrow winding alleys, past large-eyed cows and innumerable little shrines toHanuman, to his house. We went up steep stairs, past two identical enclosed courtyards on the ground and first floors, on which opened a series of dark bare rooms, to a tiny room on the roof. Panditji, his white wrinkled hands
fumbling with the large padlock and the even larger bolt, unlocked the door. I saw: sunlight streaming in through a small iron-barred window that looked out onto a temple courtyard; whitewashed walls, a cot with bare wooden boards, a writing table and straight-backed wicker chair; fluffs of dust on the rough stone floor. The room, Panditji said, could be mine for just Rs. 150, what he called "Indian" rent, meals not included.
Oddly, I hardly ever spoke to Panditji again. He spent his days in a haze of opium under a pile of coarse wool blankets. In the evenings he would awaken sufficiently to give sitar lessons to American and European students-all identical with their long hair, tie-dyed shirts, and stubbly, emaciated, sunken-eyed look. I saw him occasionally, wearing a muslin dhoti and white Gandhi cap, carrying a pail of milk back to the house from the corner sweetshop, the skin on his exposed bony legs shriveled and slack, his sacred thread dangling from under his woolen vest. We nodded at each other, but never exchanged more than a word or two. All my dealings were confined to his arthritic wife, Mrs. Pandey, who lived in one of the dark bare rooms on the first floor with her family retainer, Shyam; she had long cut off all contact with her husband and claimed not to have gone downstairs for over fifteen years. The tenants lived in two small bedsitters on the roof, and I shared the view of the river, the sandy expanses beyond it, and the brooding city toward the north, the looming cupolas and minarets, the decaying palaces and pillared pavilions, with Miss West.
Miss West (as she was called by the local shopkeepers-it was weeks later that I discovered her first name was Diana) was English, middle-aged, and, from what I could tell, well-to-do-she presumably paid the "foreign" rent for her room. The perception that Miss West with her clean high forehead, hazel eyes, slender neck, and straight blond hair, now flecked with gray, had been very beautiful at one time came to me only later, when I was more accustomed to the physiognomies of white Europeans. Her presence in Benares, in a tiny room on the roof, where she appeared to do nothing all day except read and listen to Western classical music, was a mystery to me. I thought it had to do with some great sadness in her past. It was a large judgment to make on someone I didn't know at all. But the impression seemingly confirmed by the serene melancholy she gave off as she sat on the roof, a Pashmina shawl draped around her shoulders, and gazed at the river for long hours-this impression came out of the mood I lived with for those first few exceptionally cold days in Benares, the thick mists rising from the river and shrouding the city in gray, the once hectic bathing ghats now desolate, the sad-sweet old film songs from an unseen transistor radio in the neighborhood reaching me weakened and diffused as I lay huddled under multiple quilts in my chilly damp room, trying to read The World as Will and Idea.
It was the kind of big book that idleness made attractive. So many long hours of wisdom and knowledge it promised! It was why I had come to Benares after three years in the nearby provincial town of Allahabad, where I had been an undergraduate student at a decaying old university. In Benares, I wanted to read, and do as little as possible besides that. The city, its antiquity, its special pleasures, held little attraction for me.
But the weather made for a special kind of gloom. It brought back memories of an earlier visit to Benares. I was seventeen years old then. Hastily summoned from Allahabad, I had come with my father to perform the last rites for my mother. It was then I'd had, tinged with my confused grief and sense of loss, my first impression of the city. The thick river mists through which we rowed one cold early morning to scatter my mother's ashes; the priest with the tonsured head reciting Sanskrit mantras in a booming voice and waving incense sticks over the rose petals bobbing on the ash-smeared water; the temple bells and conches ringing out in unison from the great mass of the city-these were the memories, almost phantasmagoric, I had of that visit, and they kept coming back to me in those first few days in Benares.
I read slowly but understood little of The World as Will and Idea. Nevertheless, I soldiered on. Other big books awaited their turn in the small octagonal niches in the whitewashed walls of my room where, when I first arrived, vermilion-spattered clay idols of Krishna and Vishnu had stood; and frequently, in the middle of reading, I would look up and let my eyes wander over the thick multicolored spines and grow impatient at the slow progress I was making, at the long interval that separated me from those other books.
Then the mists lifted and a succession of cloudless days followed. The river gleamed and glinted in the mid-afternoon sun. Bright red and yellow kites hung high in the clean blue sky. Children appeared on the bathing ghats; the uneven cobblestone steps came to be chalk-marked with hopscotch rectangles; scrawny drug pushers lurked on temple porches where chess players sat hunched over tattered cardboards; pilgrims dressed and undressed all day long in a slowly taming kaleidoscope of Indian colors: the South Indians in their purple Kanjeevaram silk saris, the visitors froom Rajasthan unwinding the spools of yellow and crimson turbans, the widows from Bengal in their austere white cotton. In the evenings, the funeral pyres in the distant north of the city were like glowworms in the gathering dusk.
I abandoned Schopenhauer and started on Turgenev's Torrents of Spring. Miss West, who put on the first of the flowery summer dresses I was to see her in, said, "What wonderful weather! We must celebrate, we must have a party." This sudden familiarity puzzled me. Did the "we" include me? I had exchanged only a few words with her. One of the very first things she said to me was: "Where did you learn to speak such charming English?" I hadn't known what to make of this remark. Was she being complimentary or condescending? One sunny morning on the roof, as she lay in her sagging charpoy, her legs partially exposed in a way I thought immodest, her oval sunglass frames accentuating the whiteness of her skin, a mysterious haunting melody floating out of her room-Beethoven's Archduke Trio, I later came to know-one morning, she had asked me about my undergraduate years in Allahabad. "You see, Rudyard Kipling wrote for a newspaper published from Allahabad-how do you pronounce it?" she said. "But tell me: did you enjoy yourself there? And why did you choose Allahabad of all places?" She spoke with a sharp emphasis, in short rapid sentences, her voice demanding a similarly precise and brief response.
There wasn't much I could tell her. These things couldn't be explained. Just as my father, when he announced to me his decision to move to an ashram in Pondicherry after my mother's death, hadn't needed to explain anything. His decision was in accordance with an old rite of passage: the withdrawal from the active world in late middle age, the retreat into the self. We instinctively understood these ancestral obligations; we rarely ever questioned them and never asked for explanations. It had been so when, after an indifferent education in a number of nondescript small-town schools across India, the time came for me to go to university. Three generations of my mother's family had gone to the university in Allahabad, a sister city of Benares, and it was to Allahabad that I had gone.
On the face of it, it wasn't a bad choice. Set up in 1887, the university was once known as the Oxford of the East. To seekers of jobs and careers in the colonial dispensation it offered an attractive pedigree. But unbeknownst to those of us who still set store by its old reputation, the university had suffered a steep decline in the years since independence. Anarchy reigned behind the still-impressive facade of its domes and towers. Academic sessions were in total disarray: examinations due in April were more likely to be held in December, if at all. Everyone was locked in conflict: students against students, teachers against teachers, teachers against students, students against the management, teachers against the management, students against the police. Often these conflicts turned violent. Students shot at each other on the streets with country-made revolvers. Late at night, you were hurled out of your sleep by the sound of a crude bomb going off somewhere in the vicinity. In the morning, you read the details in the crime pages of the local Hindi papers: political rivalry, ambush, instant death, investigation ordered, no arrests so far.
Miss West appeared shocked by the few things I told her. "How extraordinary!" she exclaimed. "How absolutely awful! You must have been very brave to have survived all that." Then, in a calmer tone, she added, "You know I never went to university. My father belonged to a generation where people didn't bother with educating their daughters.î
I thought this odd. Prejudices against female education were a feature of poor societies; I didn't associate them with England. Could it be that her father couldn't afford to send her to university? I wasn't sure, and didn't think it was the sort of question I could ask. Then she mentioned the party and confused me further.
I was nineteen years old but hadn't ever been to a ìparty." The word itself brought to mind noisy, half-naked revelers; it suggested the kind of empty frivolity and moral laxity I had been brought up to disapprove. My view of Miss West altered; I now saw her as an organizer of parties.
At the same time I felt myself corralled into her preparations. I bought the welcoming garlands for the musicians who Miss West said would perform after dinner; I went out to the bazaar and looked at the various kinds of Bengali sweets available; and, overcoming an innate aversion to intoxicants and stimulants, I even arranged for the bhang-flavored thandai that I'd heard was the staple item at such occasions in Benares.
Miss West fretted over her guest list. After five years in the city, she knew a great many people. In the end, she invited only a handful of them. "Can't possibly have them all over. It's frightfully small, this place," she said, her pencil stabbing at the list of scribbled names. "Mrs. Pandey might object to that many people trooping in and out of her house."
Mrs. Pandey and Shyam, her retainer, did look askance at our preparations. Sitting close together on low wooden stools, they would look up from a brass plate of finely chopped tomatoes, ginger, and garlic to exchange muttered remarks as people came up and down the stairs carrying logs of rolled-up dhunies and bolsters. The general drift of these remarks-some of which I overheard-was that Miss West's party was a poor approximation of similar events in their own past. One evening before the party when I had gone to eat with them-as I did each alternate day, sitting cross-legged on the floor in their dark, sooty windowless kitchen, awkwardly inhaling smoke from the chulha fire over which Shyarn rotated slowly inflating chapatis with a pair of rusty iron tongs-Mrs. Pandey spoke pointedly of the splendor of the musical soirees the Maharajah of Benares used to hold at one time. Her own father, a famous sitar player, she said, was an exalted guest at such gatherings. What about Panditji? I asked, referring to her husband downstairs. She looked scornfully at me. What about him? she seemed to say. I was soon to know that this was an obsessive theme with her: how the grandeur of her family connections had been fatally undermined by her marriage to Panditji, a penniless musician who, when he first arrived at her father's mansion as a student, Mrs. Pandey would claim, owned nothing other than the clothes he had on his undernourished body.
On the evening of the party, Mrs. Pandey ate early and then disappeared into her room. Panditji was as usual oblivious to the goings-on in his house. Only Shyam showed some interest. He lived the neutered life of a feudal retainer, aware of nothing except his mistress's wishes, and he rarely spoke a word apart from a cliched proverb in Hindi he would repeat, without regard to context, as he fanned the chulha fire: "Greed," he would mumble, "is the biggest evil. It eats away man, destroys families, sunders son from parents, husband from wife. . . " This evening, he squatted on the floor, scrubbing brass dishes with coal ash and water, his jaw jutting out as he slowly chewed on his tobacco, and stared disconcertingly at the guests as they walked up to the roof
The musicians had been the first to arrive, wearing long embroidered kurta and shawls that had been drenched in attar. Miss West, who wore an expensive-looking chocolate-brown dress of some soft shiny material and was to receive compliments for it from everyone except myself, made the introductions. "This is Samar," she said. "He wants to read everything." That was to be my role with her: the autodidact, the fanatical reader who wanted to read everything. She seemed to take a somewhat proprietary stance toward the sitar player among the musicians, a thin young man with tense sharp features and long, flowing hair, red betel juice around the corners of his mouth. His name was Anand. "Are you treating Catherine well?" Miss West asked him, and he replied in a tone of mock complaint, and with a heavy Indian accent: "But, Miss West, she must learn to cook." And Miss West, still bantering, said, "You sexist Indian men, you never change, do you?"
Mark was the next to arrive. He was studying "alternative" medicine in Benares. Miss West had shown me an essay he had written for an American magazine on the superiority of Ayurvedic medicine; it was the kind of thing Miss West seemed to like reading, anything that proposed a radical assault on received knowledge. The essay was full of technical terms I couldn't follow. But I was struck by the biographical note, which mentioned the various careers Mark had pursued at different stages in his life: poet, dishwasher, painter, Tibetan Buddhist, carpenter, and traveler through such remote lands as Ecuador and Congo.
On that first sighting, Mark's craggy broad-shouldered handsomeness, enveloped in a long Pathan suit, seemed to match perfectly the years of hard experience his byline hinted at. He was accompanied by two women. One of them-with close-cropped hair and glasses on her round, plump-cheeked face-was called Sarah. She was German and a practicing Buddhist, Miss West had told me, and I had wondered about the word "practicing": it seemed to me superfluous for someone who had gone to the trouble of converting to Buddhism from the faith she was born in. But I didn't raise the point with Miss West. I had seen Sarah before on the ghats-Miss West had pointed her out to me-and she had appeared serious enough about her new faith. She sat on the same spot every day, a step away from the waterline, and in the same contemplative posture: cross-legged, arms held straight in front, hands resting on her knees, Palms facing upward, eyes fixed on some distant invisible object out on the river. Nothing seemed to distract her: neither the banter of the boys playing badminton on a chalk-marked court down below nor the late-evening bathers and the boatloads of tourists, who would stare curiously at the woman in semi-Indian attire sitting all by herself on the ghats.
The other woman accompanying Mark was his girlfriend, a snub-nosed woman called Debbie. Short and squat, she looked a diminished figure beside the tall and sturdy Mark. She wore long silver earrings over a slightly ill-fitting white cotton sari; extravagantly curled Indian clips kept her frizzy blond hair pressed on each side of her forehead. She spoke very fast; her sentences ended with a nervous giggle and an inquisitive gaze.
I helped Miss West set out the food on brass plates: dal, tandoori chicken, matar paneer, puris, and saffron-scented basmati rice. Miss West said, "Where's Catherine? She's always late, the poor girl," as she went around pouring the bliang-laced thick creamy thandai from a brass jug into day cups I had bought at a nearby tea stall earlier that day. Everyone except myself drank the lassi (Miss West said, "Are you sure you won't have any? You are a real Brahmin, aren't you?" and Debbie turned to look appraisingly at me). It didn't take long for the cannabis to take effect. The voices and laughter grew louder; people grew careless in their postures: Mark slumped against a bolster, his back to the river and its fickle late-evening traffic of tourist-laden boats, and Sarah was half-recumbent on the white sheet, her thandai cup precariously perched upon her stomach. Several conversations grew around me.
I overheard bits of the conversation between Debbie and Sarah. Debbie was saying: "You know, I met this really pecular man at the Taj yesterday. Mark knows him; he's an Indian scholar of some sort, called Prasad.... Anyway he started asking me all kinds of really aggressive questions about Buddhism ... and, you know, I could tell what he was thinking inside ... something like 'What's wrong with this woman? Why's she a Buddhistí etc., etc. I didn't like him at all. He sounded like a real jerk with his ... sort of British public-school accent."
"How did he know you were interested in Buddhism?" Sarah asked
"Well, he asked me what my religion was."
"What did you say?"
"Well, just that I was raised a Christian, but I'm now thinking of converting to Buddhism."
"What else did he say?"
"Nothing much really." Debbie seemed to lose interest in the topic. "He really ignored me altogether and started ta