One day, I will vanish. I will vanish in this sea of people. I will not run. Not hide. In plain sight, I will remain. Yet no one will know me. Vanish. 

It is not running if I cannot be recognized, right?

I finish writing these words, sitting at Dashaswamedh Ghat, Varanasi. It’s afternoon, and I have been sitting here for quite some time now, staring at the distance. The space that we occupy is everywhere and nowhere, somewhere next to nothing.

When this huge river floats by, with millions of peoples’ worth ashes poured into its heart, it becomes to me a river of collective memories. All I can think of is the enormity of it all, and when I compare myself to it, I feel as if I am nothing. What is today is not tomorrow, and that is the only truth of life. I feel this unshaken river to my core, which moves in time, but yet remains constant in it’s movement. The essence of life is defined in movement, which ceases in death. I ponder silently, while people come and go, the ghat never without a certain amount of chaos reigning.

Moments later, I meet two girls from Netherlands, who are walking over to Munshi Ghat. One of them is called Chand (or whatever I could catch of her name), and she speaks Hindi with a lovely lilt. I walk with them to the side of Munshi Ghat, where a group of people are already sitting. On closer inspection, I notice a man with an accordion held between his hands. There is a group of local boys sitting across him. A pair of sadhoos sit beside him too. I walk over.

While Chand and her friend sits on the edge, I make a little space for myself near one of the sadhoos. One of the local guys (later I know his name’s Manoj Pandey), is passing a chillum of ganja to his friends. He sings a song, a raucous version of Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s “Man Ki Lagan” in a way which is sure to destroy the poor man for the rest of his life if he ever had the misfortune to hear it. He claims that this is Indian classical music. I wait on the side, and after a while he keeps on telling the man with the accordion that Indian classical music is all about hand gestures and wobbling, high notes. After he stops singing, the man with the accordion starts playing, and the local dude keeps on talking through it. I get thoroughly irritated, and just wish they would go. They do, thankfully, but not before the local had claimed that the music played by the accordion player was just like “Mera Joota Hai Japaani.” When they leave, he stands up and wishes them good bye, thanking Manoj Pandey especially for the music.

As soon as the gang of locals leave, the man with the accordion starts playing once again. His intense concentration is on the music, and I listen to him, mesmerized. After a while, he stops playing and one of the sadhoos ask him his name. “Rhys”, he says simply, and goes back to his music. Among the two sadhoos, one is an Aghori, and the other one is a Nanga Baba (although he wears his clothes for the time being). Soon after, tempted by the music and the ganja, a flute seller joins us. Nanga Baba asks if he has a bidi. The bidi is quickly produced, and Aghori Baba decides to make another joint while there is a little pause in the flow of music. Meanwhile, my Dutch friends leave, and I wave them goodbye. There is a brief exchange between Nanga Baba and Rhys. Soon after, Nanga Baba brings out a diary filled with Bhajans, and start singing, telling the flute player to accompany him.

His voice is high and it warbles, but I can hear the pure notes behind the smoke-encrusted tenor. The flute player hears him sing, and then patiently tell him to modulate his tone to make himself sound better. Nanga Baba accedes, and soon after, their voices are in cohesion, a bhajan executed straight from the heart.

At that moment, I am staring a the river, watching it flow as the music washes through my soul. Perhaps one of those moments of perfection in my life – the late afternoon, the birds circling high up in the sky, the kites flying all around the ghat, and one girl quietly soaking everything in, enjoying her moment of stillness.

After a while, Nanga Baba asks, “Do you sing?”

“I can try,” I tell him. Soon, I find myself singing a song. Its an old Bengali song, and when it is over, they ask me for another one. After nearly fifteen years, I sang “Paayoji maine, Raam ratan dhan paayo”,  an old favorite. A chillum is made again and passed, and I offer them my pack of Happydent, since I have nothing else to give. To my happy surprise, everyone in the group take one, and chew. Cups of tea is served by a lady wearing a simple violet saree, and we all drink and talk about music.

The flute player now starts off. He plays tunes which I have half forgotten, and I sit there, in a surreal daze, while he plays. My mind a complete blank, I look at the river again, and when I look back, I see Aghori Baba staring at me.

Aghori Baba

“Why have you come here?” He asks suddenly. “Are you from Allahabad?”

“No,” I contradict gently. “I have come all the way from Kolkata.”

He frowns, and looks at me more intently. “Why?”

“I wanted to meet Kashi Vishwanath.” I reply.

He seems slightly taken aback. I decide to keep quiet, not telling him anything else. The silence is broken by the general rumble of noise that is Munshi Ghat, and the scraping of paper in Nanga Baba’s hand while he crushes a piece of newspaper to prepare a fresh round of ganja.

“What do people want?” He suddenly asks. I am startled by this question. He looks at me, but it is as if he does not see me. “Life is always moving, so what do people want?”

I stare silently.

Gyaan“. He replies to his own question, almost meditatively. “Everyone wants knowledge.” Suddenly, his eyes turn piercing as he stares at me.

“We all want to know more. Always. Life is all about knowing. From going on living in the state of “agyaan” (lack of knowledge), to being in the state of “gyaan“: that is what we are all after.”

Nanga Baba had stopped what he was doing and was looking at Aghori Baba too.

“But gyaan or knowledge is nothing more than getting things from others. Learning from others. Knowing what everyone else does.”

The chhillum is lit now. He takes in a great drag, sniffs and continues. “The best form of gyaan is what you know from within. It is what you teach yourself. Self-knowledge.” His red-shot eyes are again on my face, searching for something. “Self-knowledge. Knowing the self. Teach yourself what you want, and follow the path. You will find so many things that are absolutely new.”

Aghori Baba suddenly look away from me, and start talking to Rhys about his music. I feel slightly betrayed, as if something precious was being handed to me, and at the final moment, it was taken away. It is discovered that Rhys is self-taught, but he has never met an instrument he could not play. I watch as he starts to play the flute, and in exchange, he gives the flute-player his accordion. Aghori Baba is persuaded to show off the skull he drinks his liquor from, and Rhys holds it in his hand, marveling at the smoothness of the human cranium. I feel suddenly restless, as if I am an unwanted alien once again. I check my watch, and yes, it’s time for me to leave. I wish my friends adieu, knowing deep inside me that in all probability we shall never meet again, and it suddenly feels like the moment and the connection is lost. I don’t know if they feel the same, but when I wish them good bye, they smile and wave me off. There is a bittersweet taste in my mouth, and sudden moisture at the corner of my eyes, as I walk away from them quickly, my feet not quite steady.

And as I am halfway back to Godawlia crossing, I realize that I had never told any of them my name – my identity – who I am. They never asked me, in all fairness. But I could have volunteered, couldn’t I?

But then, as long as the memories of the emotions and the sentiments and the feelings remain mine, the profound experience, and the deep, continual happiness remain within me, who needs names? I am one in a billion and more, and my experience is part of a whole, my aatma a part of the greater soul.

Obliviate. Vanish.

I look at the diary cradled between my palms and smile.

Rhys Holding the Skull.
Written by Poorna Banerjee

Leave a Comment