My last letter from Varanasi. I know because I am leaving the city of my birth for good. There is an innate sadness to that realization. But it’s simple economics.
First, the pandemic and then its aftermath have decimated the tourism-based economy here. It was relatively slow to hit us full swing despite originating in a neighboring country. The Chinese government’s style of draconian military-enforced lockdowns would never fly in the world’s largest democracy, so, hit us it did.
I watched as shops I had visited since childhood pulled their shutters down for the last time. The lines that used to snake around the age-old temples withered. Longer instead wound the queues to the cremation ghats.
Face coverings, so alien to our open way of life, became the one symbolic physical bond we all shared. Ironic that it unified us in one sense but simultaneously rived us apart by giving everyone an almost inhuman appearance. Far from each other we kept on the streets but grew farther still the chasm between us as people.
Something I had never thought possible happened: a silence descended upon Kashi.
Moving homes is not easy. The scam that is the packing and moving industry apart, uprooting yourself from one location—regardless of the brevity of your stay there—is overwhelming.
How, why, and when did I gather so many useless things? Why are we addicted to keeping old receipts? Why is the sight of clearly-defined, dust-free shapes on the floor from where furniture has been moved so fascinating? So many questions to ponder.
As I throw out or give away box upon box of possessions I realize I never needed, a sense of disappointment comes over me. I had always considered myself a simple person but all these belong-ings prove that assumption untrue. A mountain of physical objects that I coveted grew around me and I did not realize. I vow to not let it happen again.
I have decided to give away my motorcycle, the first vehicle I ever owned. It is almost six years old now but I just cracked 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles) on it last week. On a whim, I go to the garage where it is standing and ride off without telling anyone. I even skip the helmet—it will be just me and the wind for half an hour of guilty pleasure.
The engine sounds so different without any headgear on, sharper and more acute. It affects my riding because the audio cues from the drone of the engine are different, and I cannot identify the point at which to change gears as easily as I did before. Fortunately, my mistakes don’t deprive me of the thrill of the ‘pull’ when I accelerate with a flick of my wrist.
Benares flashes by me on both sides and I know that I am pushing my luck without a helmet. I break the speed limit anyway. Heading south, I approach the century-old buildings of BHU, the Benares Hindu University. The smooth blue-black roads inside beckon me from the grey, uneven one I am on … but I do not have the time.
Deciding to answer the call of the ghats instead, I turn east. Gangaji appears on my right, serene now and calming as always. Some of the tension that has beset me for the past months dissipates as my bike glides alongside her. A glance at my watch and I discover I have been riding for an hour already. Time, fly, fun. U-turn performed, we head back to what will tomorrow be our erstwhile home.
Given the way and speed with which things unfolded, there hasn’t been the time to visit everyone to say goodbye. Egos are surely bruised and I will cop an earful from some whom I overlooked when I speak to them next.
I distract myself by thinking about the plans I have at my destination. If the cards fall in my favor, this unanticipated departure could turn out to be the greatest blessing I have received in a long time. Still, the thrill of potentiality is tempered by the pall of leaving what I had so long assumed would be my permanent home.
Standing at the threshold, I look one last time into the house that has been the setting for so many occasions and emotions. Devoid of furniture, it seems cavernous. A morose smile as I pull the door shut. The lock makes a familiar and satisfying series of clicks as I turn the key two full circles.
Business first, now my home is gone, too. There is residual anger at the circumstances that have forced me to this juncture. Information has now emerged that the virus was created in and leaked from a lab. What manner of madness is this? Who would create such a thing? Why would they let it spread?
The affair has irrevocably undermined my confidence in authority and, after speaking to my friends and colleagues, I know I am not alone. As we see the cascading effects in our neighborhoods and begin to grasp that the pain will last for years downstream, optimism is in short supply.
This is Varanasi, though, one of the oldest continuously-inhabited cities in the world. Over six millennia, we Benaresis have endured the ravages of nature and the ravagers of invading hordes. We have resisted. Our temples still stand, ancient rituals still mesmerize Hindus and outsiders alike, and the eternal ritual fire we worship burns still more brightly within us.
I lean out of the open door of the moving train (very Indian of me) and look backwards as the locomotive picks up speed. Kashi ends at the next bend in the tracks and I crane my head to catch a final glimpse. My vision blurs, ostensibly because the wind stings my eyes. Then, she is gone.
A change in the cadence of the clickety-clack tells me we are above water. Infinite specks of light dance on the swelling surface of the Ganga, each perhaps a soul granted moksha through her. It’s almost as if I am hypnotized by the undulating patterns because a comforting comprehension strikes me: all goodbyes are transitionary when you believe in reincarnation.