We move towards the Ganga. The corpse-bearers overtake us, rushing to Manikarnika.
I, and a boy who was brought up in Bangalitola, the renowned “Bengali” neighborhood of Kashi. He has never been obsessed, as I was, with the Feluda stories of Satyajit Ray; he has not seen Pather Panchali. He read Tagore in translation. Because you can’t avoid the school syllabus. And yet, we speak Bengali, our putative common heritage. He wants to migrate…he does not know where. We reach the Ganga, and the preparations for the arti are on.
He whispers to me, “Do you worship the Ganga in Kolkata?”
Broken on the shores of history, a handful of diamond dust,
A lost and yet jealously guarded heritage:
He smiles, “I seldom spoke Bangla in school. Not even with the other boys from Bangalitola.” They know the rules of adaptation. I notice that he is handsomer than me, and he proudly declares, “Here they think I am a proper Banarsi, fair and robust.”
I remember Bengalis are infamous for their bad health.
We could have met in Kolkata. We could have met in Delhi. Fate and chance —
We could have been brothers. He might have been born in Bangladesh.
Places are the petals of fate. And our lives, our Cultures:
Only the chiseled thorns to weave those petals.
Scattered over the body of Earth,
We are the pollen of possibilities.
The compassion I feel for him, a confused robust boy haunted by the spectres of Bengalihood and the invisible ether of the local Bengali-phobia, has a meaning:
I perceive a filial bond, and yet find it ridiculous.
Those of my family overseas — the stars of the Bengali diaspora beyond the Atlantic —
We have always thought of them. They were my, our role models.
They returned home once in a decade. Jhumpa Lahiriesque.
My sister and I greedily eyed their clothes. In their perfume Eros flapped his obstreperous wings.
They smelt of America, and spoke of glamour.
Their seas were better, their rivers were cleaner.
We heard, and had hungry dreams.
But these…the diaspora closer home,
The Bengalis of Varanasi…are more alien to us.
We echo the diaspora: Kashi is not clean.
The fair boy sitting with me on the ghat
Has not seen a clean river since his birth.
And yet, he has worshipped the unclean river,
Unlike us — the ones from Kolkata, and the American Bengalis.
We were — I and my Bangalitola’s unnamed — bound, however, by the same river. Ganga, the flowing song of life and death.
And yet, the river — or the goddess — never wove us
into a single garland for her chignon.
There is no sea for islands of language.
Unlike the migratory birds arriving in Kashi
In this purple hour of autumn,
We are floating without wings;
Though we long — eternally — to be boats sailing without boatmen.
“I am thinking of becoming a guide for the foreign tourists, though Father isn’t agreed.” The father, a remnant of other purple hours, thinks of Bengali “self-esteem.” Why should you roam with the foreigners for the sake of money? They curse their guides. They think the Indian guys are potential rapists.
But the boy, looking “forward,” dreams of money:
A better future.
“Father thinks Bengal is a better place. He dreams of returning there.
But I am not sure…”
And the dark petals of the flower that never existed,
That flower which we call Motherland,
Shower around us.
I laugh. The river wears the necklace of lamps.
Our brotherhood, of evening-kissed prince from the half-lit alleys of Bangalitola,
Will rest upon the rhizomes of a diaspora, dewed with the fragrance of distance,
And the odor of non-reaching.
With the sweet sound of the bells,
Under the hungry eyes of tourist cameras from foreign lands,
The river wakes up from afternoon slumber. The arti begins.