Tonight in Varanasi—the City of Temples on the banks of the Ganges—the light from the pyres on the funeral ghats has competition: the glow of tens of thousands of television sets emanating from homes big and small across the city.
It is not very often that Indian families stay up together to watch TV at 2 a.m. But September 7, 2019 is no ordinary day. A quarter of a million miles away, India’s Chandrayaan-2 orbiter is performing braking maneuvers in lunar orbit. Its payload, the Pragyan rover, is primed to perform the first-ever soft landing at the moon’s south pole.
“It is an overwhelming moment of pride,” says Shivram Pandey, “I could not have imagined India would come so far in space technology. Both my children now want to be astronauts!”
Budding planet hoppers Kamakshi, 9 and Om, 7 seem to have memorized facts about the mission that most adults don’t know. They are growing up in a resurgent India that is flexing its economic and technological clout under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Varanasi is his constituency.
One of the prime minister’s signature campaigns is Sawcch Bharath (“A Clean India”). The $9 billion movement, together with the Ganges-focused Namami Ganga (“Honor the Ganges”) is transforming the notoriously unclean streets and banks of the city. Still, it is an uphill task.
“Change takes time, I suppose,” shrugs Imran as he sweeps one of the winding gallis (narrow alleyways) that snake through much of the old city. He is clad in a bright green fluorescent vest with the Sawcch Bharath, logo but is wearing slippers and uses a large piece of plywood to lift the trash into the back of a cycle-cart. “It is cleaner than before, but these campaigns should have been started three generations ago.” Later I pass a man urinating against a wall in broad daylight without a care, and the wisdom of those words is readily apparent.
I follow the alley and end up on the ghats, which I could have sworn were the other way. The wide platforms are packed. As one of the most important sites of Hindu pilgrimage, Varanasi teems with devotees from across the country and the world every day. They believe that bathing here will help them attain moksha, oneness with the Supreme and freedom from the cycle of life and rebirth.
The rains are late in Varanasi this year but the Ganga has swelled from deluges upstream and is yellow from the rich mud she has churned along her journey. Speckling the water is a spectrum of dark and light skin complexions, eyes that shine blue, brown, green and hazel, and a mix of Indian, Caucasian, and East Asian features. Almost all are Indian, representing the wonderful diversity of the country’s people. They bathe side-by-side in the holy waters, united in faith.
“I have dreamed for so many years of coming here for the nahaan (ritual bathing). Now I can go in peace,” effuses 88-year-old Janki, her wizened face peering happily at mine.
Janki’s granddaughter Kali is an IT professional in Palo Alto, California. “I am only here for three days but I couldn’t not do this with nani (grandma). And I’m really glad I did—Benares is messy and loud and chaotic but there’s a vibe here that I haven’t felt anywhere else. I’ll be back with my friends!” They head off to the changing rooms, grandmother leaning on granddaughter. Incredibly, there were no proper changing rooms here until Modi came to power just five years ago.
“We will be the envy of the world, mark my words,” declares Khadija, one hand holding down her hijab to stop it fluttering in the wind. The recent divorcee is a mother of two who runs a textile store. “See all the dug-up roads? People complain but it is all being done to install underground power lines and stop electricity theft. Already there are almost no power cuts in my neighborhood, which brings in more customers to my store. I don’t think I was ever as optimistic about my kids’ future as I am today.”
That optimism is not universal. “Benarasi na sudhran!” laughs Sunny. “The people of Benares will never learn.” I have stopped at his paan (betel leaf) store and the words of this rotund man seem to be at odds with his jovial demeanor. “Quickly! Look there,” he says and points behind me.
I swing around just in time to see a middle-aged man spit his chewed paan against a wall, leaving an ugly red splatter on the whitewashed surface. Not ten feet away is a green trash bin with Clean and Green Benares stenciled in white block letters. Sunny is laughing again. “Benarasi na sudhran!”
That evening, I strike up a conversation with an NRI, or a Non-Resident Indian, at one of the line of five-star hotels on Mall Road in Varanasi’s posh Cantonment area. Born and educated in Varanasi, Anant is now an angel investor and the CEO of two companies that he founded in the United States. He appreciates Sunny’s perspective but adds another dimension to his assessment.
“Progress is occurring but, just as in every other city, there are two sides to Varanasi. For you and me, putting trash in a bin, water conservation and pollution control is just common sense; for someone struggling to put food on the table, they are fads for well-off people to indulge in. There can be a sense of frustration … perhaps even resentment. I’ve seen firsthand the homelessness crisis in California—the destitute in first-world nations have the same mindset as the guy who spit on the wall.”
Anant’s analysis of motivations proves remarkably accurate by the end of the night. I learn that the men and women enjoying themselves at the bars and cafes in these hotels are enthusiastic about what they term the “Modi Effect,” and some even actively campaign on social issues. On the other hand, the wait staff, bellboys and valets identify more closely with Varanasi’s spiritual wealth and say they are blessed just to be born or live here.
The needs, wants, hopes and desires of the two groups seem almost irreconcilably divergent. Almost predictably with this city, they unite on tradition. The rapid pace of change of the previous five years has not been focused entirely on modernization but a reclamation of Varanasi’s ancient heritage, too. Centuries-old temples lost to urban sprawl have been rediscovered and are being restored under the aegis of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).
Varanasi is on the cusp of something special. While towering residential blocks mold a new skyline similar to that of any world city, Benaresis are celebrating newfound pride in millennia-old traditional architecture seen nowhere else. The City of Temples has come full circle.