I woke up early next morning, and all of us got ready quickly. We were excited. Today we were going on a tour of the city temples. The temples which we had been visiting frequently all the time that we were in Banaras – Durga Kund, Sankat Mochan and VT, or Vishwanath Temple, otherwise known as the Birla Temple. These, except the last one, were temples of antiquity and had seen thousands of pilgrims daily for hundreds of years. They were an indelible part of our college life, with memories attached to each and every one of them, and thus, we needed time to be able to visit all of them and then go to Avinash’s house for lunch. The itinerary looked pretty exciting.
We filed out of our room and headed towards Appu’s room to check if they were up and ready.
Appu opened the door, still in his night dress, his hair as chaotic as our college lives had been. Swati and Gauri, Appu’s daughter, were, however, ready. Appu and Vedant, his son, were still to get dressed.
‘Well, looks like the girls have beaten the boys to the finish line,’ I quipped. Appu growled at me and Swati smiled sideways. Swati had been a stabilizing influence in Appu’s life and provided a counterbalance to his natural easy-going nature. She was meticulous and had a mind of her own, and often gave a piece of it to my friend which, I must admit, he needed sometimes. While the children ran inside Appu’s room and plonked comfortably into the bed, switching on the television at the same time, I and Vaishali walked over to the adjacent room, where Sutanu was lodged with his family.
Now Sutanu was a different animal, and Appu often remarked that Bungali, Sutanu’s nickname, had gray matter even in his feet! Sutanu was intelligent, in the sense that he had to put in very little effort to make the grades that lesser mortals like us used to work hard for.
But, Sutanu, unlike Appu, was an early riser, and opened the door promptly when we rang the bell. He was ready as was Sudipa, his wife, although we had come to think of her more as our friend than Sutanu’s wife. Over the years Vaishali and Sudipa had grown close and would often call each other and have long chats over the phone. Sutanu had been lucky he had found Sudipa. He too, had needed stability in his life which Sudipa had more than provided for. She was levelheaded, practical and was a better judge of character than my friend himself. When she talked to me, she looked me straight in the eye, with a candor I had rarely seen in women. Yes, we had bonded well with Sudipa and this was one of the reasons that our families got on so well together. Vaishali, Swati and Sudipa were a gang, and did not need us menfolk to have fun.
Sudipa was just getting Neel and Mon, Sutanu’s sons, ready.
After everyone was ready, we climbed down the stairs and headed to the restaurant across the lawn, breathing in the fresh morning air.
Sri and his family were already there, as was Shyam with his son and his wife, Kanchan, a radiologist by profession and a professional photographer by passion. She moved around with her professional camera which had a huge lens, and kept clicking our pictures. Shyam’s son was a prodigy, from what I had heard, and had won several state quiz competitions and school Olympiads. Shyam and Kanchan had put in a lot of efforts to help their son reach where he was. And this is where Shyam had exceeded my expectations. Not only had he worked meticulously on his son’s career, but he had himself acquired a knowledge which was breathtaking in its depth and its scope.
And thus, we sat around the breakfast tables, eating the delectable dishes that Kaiser Palace offered and chatted merrily. Slowly, as each one of us finished our breakfast, we exited the buffet hall and assembled downstairs where Avinash had arranged a few vehicles for us for the day. Thanks to Appu’s arrangement, we had a vehicle of our own, in lieu of the Traveler which had brought us from Lucknow to Banaras.
All the children quickly jumped into one vehicle to keep each other company.
‘Can we ride together?’ they chimed.
‘Yes, you can. But an adult will need to accompany you,’ I said.
‘Ooooh…,’ a collective sigh escaped their lips. They probably wanted to be rid of us for at least the duration of the car ride.
And thus, it happened that I volunteered to ride with the children, and the adults chose their own vehicles according to their comfort and their preferences.
I was happy. Children, any day, were easier to handle than adults; especially for me. Also, lately, since I had started writing stories, I had found interaction with children more exciting than that with adults. I would just tell them stories and we would bond instantly. And thus, our ride began, and the cars exited the hotel premises one after the other, in a stately cavalcade.
Nadesar, Chaukaghat, Maldahiya, Sigra, Rathyatra, Kamachha, Bhelupur …… the cavalcade passed the familiar places one by one. Earlier, in my previous incarnation as a medical student in BHU, Varanasi, I had always thought that Banaras had funny sounding names of its localities. But now the very same names seemed familiar; part of me, like a long-lost friend you meet after a long time.
Here was the theatre I went to with a friend, here was where I and Vaishali shopped, here was the restaurant we visited, this way led to that temple, here was a friend’s house…..the memories were unending. I was lost in my thoughts, unaware of the games children played in the back seat of the SUV we rode in. Some roads were familiar, some were not. Some buildings had changed, some had been demolished, new ones constructed. Banaras had moved on since the time we had left it – what else did we expect? That it would be the same? The same Banaras of our youth? Maybe we were trying to find a part of us in that old Banaras, relive that part of our lives again. But it was not possible; I realized with some disappointment.
To be continued………………………………….
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