Saturday, March 16, 2002
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

Kashi: The oldest place of pilgrimage
Khushwant Singh

Malavika Sarukkai

IT is the oldest place of pilgrimage in the world and one of the most frequented by worshippers on the Ganga’s long course from the snow-bound Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal. Its original name was Kashika, the shining one, and so it gets the title of the City of Light. It was also known as Varanasi after the two rivers Varana and Asi that ran into the Ganga not far from the city. Banaras by which it is known today is a variation of the same name.

No one knows how old it is. Mark Twain who visited it wrote: "Banaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together". Besides its antiquity and sanctity as the holiest of holies, it has always been the centre of music and dance. At one time it was famous for its beautiful courtesans, singers, dancers and mistresses of the art of seduction. Much has been written about them. One such appraiser of the city was Kashmiri poet Damodar Gupta who extolled them in a long poem Kuttanimata — advice of a procuress. It is the story of a beautiful and talented courtesan named Malati who despite her looks and accomplishments, cannot find rich patrons.Vikrala, a retired courtesan, instructs her how to go about enticing the affluent, fleecing them of their wealth and then ditching them. So Kashi has it all:

In Kashi, there is dharma and it stands four square,

In Kashi, there is artha and it is of many kinds,

In Kashi there is kama and it is the source of all delight

And in Kashi, there is moksha

What is there that is not there.

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Kashi, the City of Light, is the theme of Malavika Sarukkai’s latest Bharatanatyam, choreographed by her with the help of her mother Saroj and sister Priya. It is based onDamodara Gupta’s poem. It was performed at the Siri Fort auditorium. Since the performance had to be postponed for a couple of days due to the state mourning over the death of Balayogi, Speaker of Lok Sabha, the auditorium was not packed as it is whenever Malavika is performing. She promises to be back in Delhi in October for those who missed it. For me she remains the most exciting dancer of our times. For her sake, I read all I could on Banaras. Most of it fromDiana Eck’s Banaras: The City of Light. She started with a quotation from Damodara Gupta’s poem:

Are there not many holy places on this earth?

Yet which of them would equal in the balance one speck of Kashi’s dust?

Are there not many rivers running to the sea?

Yet which of them is like the River of Heaven in Kashi?

Are there not many fields of liberation on earth?

Yet not one equals the smallest part of the city never forsaken by Shiva

The Ganges, Shiva and Kashi: Where the Trinity is watchful,

No wonder here is found the grace that leads one on to perfect bliss.

Breaking bread together

It is said that families that pray together, stay together. It could also be said that families that eat together, stay together. My friend Bharat Ram’s father, Sir Shri Ram, founder of the Delhi Cloth Mills Industrial Empire, insisted that all his sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren were present together for the main mid-day meal. When he noticed anyone absent without good reason, he had his personal secretary send them a note asking for an explanation. In my parents’ home, there where no set rules but the entire family was present at all meals. I was not aware that eating together was a form of bonding because my father’s presence at the head of the table had a subduing effect which made us talk in low tones or exchange banalities with each other. What does create family bonding is when the food is cooked by the mother and she presides over the dining table. The atmosphere is more relaxed and the conversation more intimate. If the mother happens to be a good cook, it adds to pleasure of the daily re-union. Claire Datta mourns the passing of the cult of kitchen table.

Claire is an Anglo-Indian married to a Punjabi. She is passionately fond of cooking and takes sensuous delight in experimenting with new recipes and enjoying them. She runs Claire’s Bakery in Santushti Enclave and bakes the best bread, biscuits and cakes available in the Capital. Once a year on Christmas or New Year’s Eve, I place an order for a turkey or a capon. It is gourmet of the highest quality but expensive. She makes up by adding Chirstmas pudding free of cost.

Claire’s thoughts on food as a bonding factor deserve consideration. In the last letter she wrote to me, she said: "What has happened to the world that began at the kitchen table? The way people eat has changed so fast in such a short while, it has left a generation of mothers relieved at their new found freedom, yet struggling to hold onto their children in the old ways. Pizza and Burger expresses now own our children, they dish out meals that sustain life, but can they feed the soul?

"Once upon a time the dining table was what family life was all about, food was pleasure, now its recreation, fast, boisterous and noisy. As a working mom I appreciate all the conveniences, the escape from day-to-day drudgery in the kitchen, but I also miss the sense of security and love that came from being at the table with my family, we discussed school, boyfriends, mom’s day and dad’s, the feeling of steadfastness, that no matter what happened this would never change. Have we lost that forever? If we have, who will teach us the new ways, will it take decades of mistakes before nature endows us with the skills to craft a new table to replace the old one?

"Children fill their plates at the stove and head for the TV or their rooms, I cry out silently, ‘come back, talk to me’, but the words don’t leave my lips. I am a modern mom, my children need their space and I don’t want to crowd them."

The letter continues to say how much her husband shares her views on food (and drink) as bonding factors in a family. She continues: "My husband says he learnt to drink at family dinners. When he was 18, a beer was poured for him, he watched how his dad and grandfather sipped it and made it stretch throughout the meal, it made him feel important. I have never seen my husband drunk, ever. Teens today talk about getting sloshed pissed, obliterated etc. The yardstick for having a good time is how pissed you are, and how little you remember about the rest of the evening. I search to find the words to tell him how uncool this is, growing up in a global economy, his dad hasn’t been around as much as he would like to be, so it again boils down to finding a vocabulary that isn’t contrived, that says I love you but this is decidedly uncool. In our ‘hi mom’ ‘bye mom’ relationship, created by the need for space, ‘Me’ time, time to ‘chill and all the other times I’ve been told a teenager needs, how can I make him stop long enough to listen to me, time was when the table was our ‘mom and pop time!’"

How to die

Three old men were passing the time of day discussing the ideal way of leaving this world. The first, aged 75, remarked he’d like to go quickly, and suggested a crash in a speeding car. The second, aged 85, agreed on a speedy end, but thought he’d prefer a jet-propelled plane.

"I’ve got a better idea," mused the third, aged 95. "I’d rather be shot by a jealous husband."

(Contributed by Reeten Ganguly, Silchar)