The Reunion XVIII: Night at the Assi Ghat

Some of us boys stayed back at the club however, having sent our families to the hotel in different vehicles. The night was still young, and we wanted to make the maximum of it. We were in Banaras after such a long time that we wanted to drink in every moment, savor every second of our stay here; not waste even a moment without reliving our time here. In an earlier life we had spent innumerable nights roaming around the streets of Banaras and sitting around it’s ghats; we wanted to do that again. 

‘Let’s all go to the Assi ghat,’ Macha said. We all agreed. 

And so, around thirteen of us filed into three vehicles and proceeded towards Assi ghat, a place on the banks of the Ganges that we, as students, used to go to frequently. Teju, Somu, Venkat, Mona, Abhinav, Sameer, Umesh, Sridhar, Sutanu, Avinash, DK, Appu and I; we made our way through the night to Assi ghat situated on the Ganges near the BHU campus. 

Assi used to be a river, a tributary of Ganga, and used to mark the southern boundary of the city of Varanasi. The name Varanasi, or Banaras the distorted or spoiled version of the word Varanasi, actually derives from Varuna and Assi. These two are the tributaries of the river Ganga and mark the northern and southern boundary of the traditional city of Varanasi. On it’s right or the eastern side, the city is flanked by the immortal river, the deified Ganga. The river Assi, over the years, has degenerated into a drain, used to carry the sewage from the southern part of the city and drain it into the Ganga; the river Varuna has fared only a little better than this. In fact, the river Ganges herself, THE Mother Ganges, is one of the most polluted rivers in the world, no matter the numerous expensive campaigns undertaken by the Central Government of India to rejuvenate and clean the river up. Even though polluted and choking with garbage and filth, the river Ganga, or Ganges the anglicized version of the word Ganga, remains central to several Hindu cultural traditions, beliefs, folklore, legends and myths. The Assi ghat, to which we were now headed, was thus the southern-most ghat of the city of Varanasi and was the one nearest the University campus and thus was the one most frequented by the students of BHU. 

It was to this ghat that we headed in the dead of the night, our cars roaring through the streets of the oldest living city in the world. As we neared the ghat, I saw that the roads leading up to the ghat had undergone a lot of change. The ghat itself was much wider, and cleaner and had recently been renovated. A brick and mortar stage had come up at one end of the ghat for dance performances, folk festivals and poetry competitions which were held so frequently in Varanasi. The ghat itself, at this point of time, was completely deserted except for a couple of students sitting near the edge of the water and smoking some pot. As we got out of our cars and descended the steps of the ghats, we noticed that a police car, which had silently followed us for some time now, slowed to a stop and a couple of policemen got out from it. They wandered around aimlessly, trying not to show that they were monitoring us. After a few minutes, when they had satisfied themselves that we were no threat, the cops took off in their car as quietly as they had arrived. 

It was bitterly cold that night and we shivered even in our jackets. I was wearing a traditional Indian ‘kurta-pyjama’ and had an Indian jacket or coatee over the kurta. Over this I had taken a woolen stole or dupatta, which was the only thing which kept me warm. Everyone was excited to be on the ghat after so many years and acted and behaved like children, walking around here and there, talking gibberish. 

‘We have some lemon tea here,’ Mona shouted from one end of the ghat and everyone walked over to where he was standing. Apparently, he and Macha had found a young boy, a tea vendor, who was ready to serve us some lemon tea. 

‘Tea, tea,’ everyone repeated, like children. 

‘Give me, give me,’ the sound went around; everyone was cold. 

 And thus, we crowded around the poor fellow and hogged his tea stall and drank up all his tea, passing the steaming cups of the hot liquid to all the friends standing at the periphery of the circle that had formed around the source of the tea. 

After having a few cups of tea, someone stuffed a couple of large denomination notes into the boy’s hands and we continued our chattering. It is difficult for me to recall what we talked about, because we were talking nonsense; due, partly, to the cold and partly to the sense of delirium we felt at being there. Everyone was shivering, but no one was ready to go. 

I offered my stole to Appu; he was shivering like a leaf in a storm. Since he was reluctant to take away from me my only source of warmth in this cold, we decided to share it. And thus, we huddled together and wrapped the stole around us, effectively converting ourselves into Siamese twins. 

Soon, the cold got the better of our enthusiasm and someone suggested that we go back to the shelter of our hotels. 

‘Let’s take a picture at the BHU gate. At this time of the night there will not be any traffic and it would make a great picture,’ Macha and Teju and Avinash all suggested. We agreed. 

And thus, we clambered inside our cars, thankful for the warmth inside and made our way to the ‘Singh-dwaar’ or the iconic gate of the University. A quick picture there and we were on our way back to our hotel…. the warm beds beckoning us. ..

To be continued………………………………….

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