‘’So, has Varanasi really transformed in last 7 years?’’
This is the most common question about my city that I am asked these days from acquaintances and colleagues. (apart from, Are Kashi, Benaras and Varanasi the same cities or different?) As I cast my vote last week at the same school which I had last visited in 2017, I noticed the narrow lane leading to it; it was in a bad shape back then, but was top-notch this time. The little pond nearby had almost dried though and was overridden with weeds and trash, mostly plastic. That image for me summarized the developmental status of the city – which I am privileged to call my hometown and have most of my childhood memories (and in last 1.5 years, a lot of them as an adult as well.) associated to it.
While the holy river (Ganga ji, as we refer ‘her’) remains the soul and heart of this city, the 2 tributaries of it – Varuna and Asi which give the city its name, have also been an integral part of our life and culture. While the Varuna has been flowing over the years in the similar way – narrower than usual river still making the presence felt, Asi river has been almost missing – existing more as a drain and in the files than in reality. In last 7 years – there has been no change whatsoever in the condition of either. As far as the Holy Ganga herself is considered, for the bare eyes, perhaps clouded to some extent by spiritual beliefs, the water has also remained the same ever since I can remember it.
On the banks of the river is where the major transformation has happened. The ghats have become definitely cleaner and more organized; the surrounding markets and the famous lanes look fancier and chic with lights, stones, paints etc.; the tourism avenues including Aartis, boating have been better managed with introduction of new services and amenities from parking to cruise services to cleanliness. For the first time this year, we had a family party on a river cruise on my father’s birthday and as we breezed through the river with a beautiful view of the colourful ghats all lighted up and shining – what was most visible was the change!
Through the city, the roads have got dividers and those artistic streetlights (though a lot of them function at will). The ring road and the beautiful elevated corridor around the airport is the stuff that we were not used to seeing earlier in our Benaras. The walls across the city which were covered with movie posters or paan stains are seen covered with beautiful paintings of mythological stories and at times over-written by hate messages as well (Though the administration made sure they were removed and culprits held up to task). The railway stations have become much cleaner and well-managed.
The memories of power-cut happening as a daily routine seem distant in the past, though I think those had stopped even before 2014.
The health facilities in the city seem to have improved if we go purely by number of hospitals and facilities available, but the fact remains that like most of the country, Varanasi also saw breakdown of the machinery and trust in the second COVID wave last year.
The biggest transformation by a huge margin, in terms of effort, outcome and impact is the all new Kashi Vishwanath Dham. Even the harshest critic of the ruling party cannot deny that it was a monumental task – which has been actualized in a record time and strikes all the right chords with us. The temple premise looks majestic now and with the corridor linking it to the Holy river now open for public, this one change alone would have won them the elections and hearts. If you visited the temple last year, unless you were visiting solely with a religious and devotional eye (like most of the visitors here), the first impression of the temple would definitely have been underwhelming but now it seems grand and worth its fame – and that is no mean feat to achieve by removing obstacles of mushroomed-over-decades-constructions in the narrow by-lanes around the temple, which had it gasping for space and breath. While one can debate the relevance of politics around temples and religion and its significance in a nation struggling in various human development indices, there is no denying that this move is also an economic one- with a major boast to tourism and spiritual industry. For the city where we grow up chanting Har har mahadev, the city where the common tradition is to take the blessings of Kashi Vishwanath in any auspicious event (Apart from the main event and the court registration, I also had a small wedding ceremony in the temple), the city where there is an actual police station where the Kotwal (station in-charge) chair is occupied by a deity of the God (as he is supposed to be the Kotwal of Kashi) while the officer assigned sits on another chair nearby – no change could have been bigger.
Culturally, there has been an increased visibility and prominence of the city in terms of political, cultural, filmy and artistic events being hosted here or the mention of it in national and internal news.
However, for residents and tourists, a lot of the existing problems in daily lives continue undeterred – overcrowding, narrow roads, traffic jams, money extortion by the middlemen around temples, lack of job opportunities in the private sector being the most prominent. But on all these, perhaps it is the general consensus that any solution will take long to show its impact and change or the problem just cannot be solved, at least in most of our lifetimes. (e.g. overcrowding).
Walking out of the polling booth I noticed amidst the entangled hyacinth weeds, a sole lotus blooming in all its glory, that seemed to be answering the question on its own.
The twinkling sparkling city lights Spread around as a sea of illumination I sit across the window trying to grasp The stories behind each little spectacle Some lost in their own chapters, Some still awaiting culmination But most of them Flickering with the hope of salvation Of their original spark That got them here, propelled by dreams and pushed by fear But mostly as unchallenged and blinded by history – unwritten tradition Each spark, of a unique shine and color Shone brighter and brighter Rose higher and higher To merge with this sea of illumination In the mirage of building one’s own identification An identity defined by chases and labels Strengthened by exchanges and transactions of merging with the whole of assimilation and standardization of following the pattern and joining the big sparkling sea of illumination The stories, each brightened with their unique hues Each of them gradually blending into the yellow Their unique stories losing into countless others’ Creating the strong, fascinating glow of the city lights
The (HR) professional in me may debate on the effectiveness of the Work from home set-up, but the 18 years old boy that left his home about 14 years ago and post that got to visit it sporadically for short periods, lesser than many guests, has nothing but all his support and gratitude for this scheme of things.
When I had first left this city, I was of course sad and home-sick for months. While I am all for the spirit of exploring new places and people, it was more than just missing your parents and family. I remember often researching and feeling disappointed at the state of distribution of development across Indian cities. With most of the good jobs only located in 5-6 cities in a country of more than 700 districts, I wondered how most of people of my generation and professional camaraderie would end up settling down in one of these cities. Apart from causing a tremendous imbalance of population and practically unbearable load on the infrastructure of these cities, I also felt it would lead to a terrible loss of the culture and uniqueness of people and their folklores, especially for the next generation which would all have grown up in one of those almost identical flats and would have barely known the cultural flavours of their hometowns – the small towns, which I doubted if they would even be able to call home! For the last 7 years of my professional life, I have lived that life – and loved it no doubt. The glamour & charm of everything that these metros have to offer is also something that I wouldn’t have missed for anything, but is not something which isn’t replaceable or reproducible. And I daresay, a lot of the tier 2 cities are also fast catching up on it.
Then came the doom inducing pandemic – and amidst all the misery, mayhem and loss brought on by it, it also perhaps reconnected many people like me to their homes, courtesy the Work from home set-up! Needless to say, this is the longest that I have stayed at my home, in this city after leaving it more than a decade ago. It is a sad irony that it took this tragic event for us to stay in our homes without compromising on our careers. This time period of last one and half years has not only disrupted in a major way the way how we work but has also reset in motion many a beautiful memories of past. A piece of childhood thrown around at every corner of the city; the lush green views and large open spaces to call your own and walk around; the familiar faces of neighbours, colony kids and even the next door shopkeepers growing old with us; occasional visit to/from cousins and relatives at ease post work; actually having all the meals together with family, and at times joined by extended family; roaming around the city with a sense of belonging and ownership at the same time the pride of ‘having made it’; all these are what else but the happiness boosters for the country boy in me and productivity boosters for the professional in me.
There are times when I do miss the charms of the big bad city, so if I were to say that I would never want to go back to that life- that’d not be true. But why should we have to choose? And if we had to, why should there be the only 2 extremes for choices? To use a clichéd term- the way ahead has to be (wishful thinking!) defined by flexibility and distributive development- the flexibility to not let location of an individual be a constraint in his or her dreams and actualization of aspirations; and the distribution of development across the country to create opportunities. While the former has to be led mainly by the organization and latter by governments; both are extremely intertwined and follow each other. While this is mostly being seen as an interruption before things go back to normalcy as we defined earlier- it should ideally be seen as a watershed moment in the ways of working of global.inc and especially India where we haven’t really been great in terms of workplace flexibility. There are tremendous possibilities of where we go from here other than the extremes of remote work or on site jobs now that we have data to validate efficacy of what works worse, at par or better from a specific location and with teams that are close to each other physically. Most of them would have drastic impact on the supporting eco-systems – housing, retail, transport, hospitality and entertainment. But most of them would be much awaited and for an eventual better future, the one where we wouldn’t have to spend hours in our cars, stuck in traffic.
Here is hoping that a year from now, when the world is vaccinated and has moved past the fear of the virus, we wouldn’t have to wait for 6 months to be at our homes for 2 days! The change has just begun, hopefully!
The darkness of the night engulfed her all around, as she walked with hurried yet hushed steps. A distant flicker of the sole streetlight was in the periphery of her vision as she walked stealthily towards it. She felt a little stupid and also irresponsible for not ‘planning’ the evening better, but then a lot of things had not happened as per the plan that night. Her flat was still a good 20 minutes of walk from the point where the bus had dropped her. Usual sounds like howling of dogs or screeching of tyres of cars being driven perhaps by someone in a drunken influence (either of power or alcohol) seemed unusual and added to the eeriness of the night. It was after a long time today that she felt fear. Not the types of how her boss will react or what will her parents say, but scared for her life and safety.
As a kid, she used to get easily scared- of monkeys, dogs, the evil bearded baba who ate kids if they didn’t drink milk, darkness and most of all – ghosts. Whether it was due to all those horror serials that her elder brother used to watch and she had no choice but to see or due to her own ingrained fears, she was easily afraid of the thought of ghosts and always imagined them creeping behind her whenever she had to encounter darkness or be alone at night. However, as she grew her fears gave away for a strong will, a sense of questioning things and looking from a logical lens and charting out her own path. Coming from a small town, she made sure she didn’t fall into the trap of limiting her life to the confines of womanhood as defined by her traditional society. Post excelling at her education, she was in the journey of building her own identity – through her work, her job and her dreams of doing something worthwhile for the society, and this pursuit had no place for any kind of fear. While she had overcome most of her fears, even with all the rationality and matter-of-factness, she had not been able to convince herself that ghosts didn’t exist. So while she was not really that afraid of the idea of a ghost now and didn’t really believe she will ever encounter one, she wasn’t completely convinced that it was all just a myth. Around a year back, when she was moving to the Capital city for her new assignment; her parents though were gripped by another fear.
‘’The city is not at all safe for girls, please find an opportunity somewhere else’’
“Don’t you remember the 2012 incident? That is no place for a girl to work and stay alone, without family’’
‘’We have always encouraged you to follow your dreams and do what you believe in, but nothing is more important for us more than your safety’’.
However, as always she followed her will and moved to pursue her dream job after a lot of convincing and explaining to her parents and herself. She had spoken to some of her friends and acquaintances who were living there already and understood that it wasn’t that bad – you just have to take some precautions and everything will be fine. She had mentally prepared herself for all the self-imposed restrictions and moved. The year gone by had been decent by the standards of the image that this city had. There were a few incidents of some stares and attempt to shove in the crowded metro, but nothing that made her question her decision, until this night of course.
The office event that she was managing was in a hotel located in the outskirts of the city. The event was supposed to end late and unfortunately all the private cab operators had declared a strike in the city that day. She got to know this in the morning, so she spoke to a colleague who had his own car and agreed that he would drop her home post the event. In worst case she would take an auto, she had thought to herself. However, at 1130 in the night when she found herself free after closing the event and called the colleague, it came as a worry to her that he had to leave early due to a family medical emergency. So, she waited for an auto outside the hotel but she realized that perhaps due to the strike the autos were also sparse at this time and all that she could find was the local city transport bus which had a stop around 2 kms. far from her place. Though she wasn’t feeling very sure she boarded the bus, comforting herself with the fact that there were around 7-8 passengers including women in the bus. It was almost midnight by the time the bus started and her stop was a good 45 minutes away. She closed her eyes and rested her head on the seat, hoping soon to be in the comfort of her room and cosy bed.
As she walked with hurried yet hushed steps, the sole streetlight was her guiding star. The droplets of sweat trickling down slowly from her forehead towards her nose weren’t a result of the temperature for sure. In the eerie sounds of dogs and car tyres screeching, she suddenly heard the sounds of footsteps behind her and for a moment, her heart skipped a beat. But she continued taking brisk steps and didn’t look behind. However, the sounds only grew clearer with each step, and along with it the pacing of her heart. She walked for a minute in hurried steps, but realizing the house was still a good 10 minutes ahead, she gathered all her courage and turned back to face her follower. Before she could barely part her lips and utter a word, she felt the hands of her follower on her neck and a face covered almost completely with a mask except for his eyes. She tried screaming at the top of her voice by overcoming the force on her neck by the hand of the attacker.
‘’Madam, your stop is here’’, she woke up with the conductor’s call, startled out of her nightmare, though the drops of sweat on her face were real. It took her a couple of seconds to realize that it was only a dream, triggered perhaps by her constant thoughts about reaching home safely. However as she got down the bus, the nightmare felt even more real. While she had thought before that she would wait for sometime on the bus stop if there was a fellow passenger at the stop or a stray auto or e-rickshaw, given the complete deserted and dark ambience of the place, she started walking at a fast pace immediately. However her heart raced faster than her feet as she felt a wave of fear pass through herself. All the news articles and coverage she had come across of gruesome incidents with girls involving molestation, rape and murder started coming to her mind. She felt afraid, angry and sad at the same time that amidst all the talk of equality and women empowerment a simple act of returning to her home had the potential to make her feel so weak. She was reminded of her childhood, when at times there was power-cut at night in her home and in a few minutes of complete darkness (while the candles/lamps would be arranged) her brother would make scary sounds and she would get terribly afraid of imaginary ghosts, dreading that any moment a hand with long nails and blood dripping from them will emerge from a corner and grab her or in the dim moonlight view outside her window, any moment a scary face with blood red glowing eyes would walk towards her, with his feet turned backwards.
She was half-way to her home with barely a soul in sight when she clearly heard the sound. She doubted for a moment that it could be her overactive fear-stuck imagination, but the second time there was no doubt. It was a shrill sound almost like a whistle, only much clearer and somehow it seemed directed towards her as it stopped the moment she stopped walking. She was passing by the local biodiversity park named after an erstwhile dynastic politician known mainly for being the son of one of most powerful prime-ministers of the country. It was now reduced to a lake with green water lined on all its sides by the trash from nearby residences, some remains of a broken boundary wall and a large, very old Peepal tree. In his last visit here, her brother had tried his old trick and told stories of how the old Peepal trees are supposed to be home to a large number of scary ghosts who come out post midnight. However, she always suspected that this place must be a safe haven for miscreants and criminals and the recurring sound made her fear the same. She stole a look back towards the source of the sound, but could see nothing and continued her walk. With hardly any human life visible, apart from some homeless beggar or drunkards sleeping on roadsides or one stray bike-rider passing by, the sound was getting clearer by the minute. The sweat droplets on her forehead became pronounced, her heart was thumping in her chest heavily as now the soft whistle was also accompanied with clear sound of footsteps. She dared once again to look back, but this time she realized the sound was actually coming from the side where the tree stood in all its eerie glory. She increased her speed and was almost running now, with the sweat drops trickling on her specs and distorting her view. As she ran she could also hear the whistling sound along with other set of footsteps, also running now. She was sure now that she was being chased and was in one of those horror stories that she had heard and read about female safety in the city. She was dreading that the moment from her dream would be a reality in a few seconds now and started figuring out how would she escape from the predator who was behind her. As the sound of footsteps and whistling became stronger and closer and her hope of escaping unhurt became weaker, she saw the final turn – which would bring her society in her view and along with it perhaps a few people who would be able to help her. It gave her the final push of strength needed and she ran like she had never ran before and almost leapt to take the turn with such a strength that she leapt and found herself on the ground, with her face pressed against the soil.
The sounds – both of whistling and footsteps suddenly vanished. In fact it was as if they never existed. She was needless to say relieved though still in shock. But something felt very weird and she turned back her face immediately to save herself in case the attacker tried to overpower her.
She thought her eyes were failing her.
The large Peepal tree was swaying swiftly in a strange pattern, as if a group of ‘’people’’ were moving it together, from all its branches and extensions. On all its branches, she could or she felt she could see the blurry outlines of a few strange looking people sitting, with their legs hanging on both the sides. Their nails looked much larger than any she had ever seen and she could see in a blurred vision that the red liquid was dripping down the tree. Maybe due to the dim lights, they all seemed almost transparent and their faces were on opposite side to her and as she lay there frozen, she noticed the set of red footprints, all inverted, leading towards the broken wall of the ‘’biodiversity’’ park and on the edge of the wall she saw it standing, rather floating with pale face, blood red eyes and a smile on the face, looking towards her.
In the few seconds that her eyes comprehended the sight, she thought she ought to feel afraid and run for her life. But she felt the exact opposite, she felt relieved. She remembered her response to her brother’s attempt to scare her as she grew up, “What is there to fear of the dead? The real horrors are all by the living ones.” She felt relieved and picked up her bag and walked towards her society, towards light – having escaped the real horror tonight.
It has been one month since the unfortunate demise of Sushant Singh Rajput. The incident triggered a massive outrage among people on and off social media. The outrage has resulted into the following ‘’initiatives’’ by the people who were saddened by the alleged harassment and mental trauma caused to Sushant that pushed him to take his life.
Most of the netizens seem to have agreed to boycott movies of Dharma Productions, Yashraj films and of all other stars who are part of the so called ‘’nepo-gang’’. Considering the cinemas do not seem to be opening in the near future, the effectiveness of this can only be tested maybe at Diwali or Christmas- when Sooryavanshi and 83 the movie release. Both of them either star or are made by the member of nepotism gang. But they also star and involve a lot of people (in fact this number will be much larger) who are outsiders to the industry. So the boycott gang will have an ethical dilemma here, which will also be the case for a lot of Dharma/Yashraj movies who star outsiders. (Dostana 2 starring Kartik Aryan) Not just boycott, some people even found time to burn effigies of Salman Khan and Karan Johar amid the pandemic.
Petitions were filed in court against big names of the film industry who were supposedly responsible for the nepotism in the industry. Needless to say, they were dismissed and wasted the time of an over-burdened judiciary. They were perhaps based on the rants of Ms Kangana Ranaut against the ‘’nepo-kids’’. While she is arguably the most talented actor that we have today, employing her sister as her manager and her brother as the legal and finance head of her company is an irony that she couldn’t fathom it seems.
In their angst against harassment and trauma that Sushant was subjected to, perhaps the angry public decided to harass and abuse those who seemed to be responsible for it. Just scroll through the social media profiles (facebook, Instagram, twitter) of any of these – Karan Johar, Alia Bhatt, Sonam Kapoor to see what can be called a case of cyber-harassment. From being called a ‘Chakka, Hijra (it gets must worse) to suicide wish for his kids – Karan Johar’s punishment, in the view of angry netizens was perhaps to be abused for his sexuality and body mannerisms. From rape threats to her and her sister, death-wish for her family and boyfriend, Alia Bhatt’s punishment for being a star-kid and working in movies which were successful was perhaps this in the eyes of angry netizens. Same for Sonam Kapoor – whose punishment for not knowing Sushant when he had just 2 releases was to hear the vilest and horrifying things for her family.
Meanwhile, the police continued their investigation and nothing surprising has come out of it till now. As known already in the public domain, Yashraj had signed a 3 films deal with him out of 2 had released and 3rd (Paani) was in production due to which Sushant missed out on many good projects including a few of Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Later Yashraj backed out of the third movie. If there has been a breach of legal terms of the contract, the police should take action. This is awaited.
The point is, protest is necessary for anything which we- as individual or group feel is not right. But as a society there should be maturity and sensitivity around the right ways to protest. Just like physical violence is not acceptable as protest, bullying and harassment should not be the way. Not only it dilutes the real problem and shifts focus from real solution to theatrics and drama, it also perpetuates a cycle of hatred and violence. If we really feel sad for Sushant and many others whose talent gets lost in the crowd of mediocrity, nepotism and cartels, we must start with giving all kinds of movies the right chance, let the streaming platforms thrive and avoid watching pirated movies, and yes by all means, do not watch movies of Karan Johar, Alia bhatt or anyone you have a problem with – but do not burn or vandalize theatres, and let those who want to watch peacefully.
The whole narrative and conversation around the unfortunate demise of Sushant Singh Rajput is turning into another knee-jerk reaction of boycotting specific people and their work and deviating from the real issues to be addressed – that of mental health and bullying. Yes, Nepotism exists in Bollywood, but to be honest it’s a universal phenomenon which exists almost everywhere except where a job or opportunity is clearly allocated basis a defined process, which most of the organized, structured and good workplaces have. They also have a strong and institutionalized support against any kind of harassment or bullying. So, watching or not watching a Yashraj, Dharma or Salman Khan movie is completely an individual’s choice – any petition cannot stop them from making movies. As the largest production houses of the largest movie industry – they will make movies and those who have problem should not watch – but that will not solve the problem. So any discussion and effort should be directed towards ensuring there is a regulatory body* which cares for the ‘employees’ – which by nature of this industry are mostly contractual or freelancer; a forum for support where anyone who is facing bullying (of which boycott is also a form) can seek help; and which can ensure accountability of the decision makers and proper legal help and support in all professional relationships. And of course as a society we need to be much more sensitive towards mental health and helping those suffering with such challenges. Instead of vilifying specific people and wasting time and effort (a case has been filed against the Johars, Chopras and Khans for ‘murder’ of Sushant with Kangana as ‘witness’!) of authorities, if this outrage can be directed towards making radical changes to the way film industry – followed by all the sectors with less degree of organized employment, that will be the best way to honour the memory of Sushant Singh Rajput.
P.S. There are some bodies like the CINTAA, Producers guild of India but they hardly cover these aspects.
Major missing happening- To the PVR, Inox, Big, DT, SRS IP, JHV and all the cinemas which had filled our weekends with magic for all these years. #Throwback
वो first day evening show ticket book करने की planning Book my show पर credit card offers को खोजना Friday evening में surge pricing वाली cab की booking और उसमें करना office का बचा हुआ काम नहीं भूलूंगा मैं , जब तक है जान, जब तक है जान
वो movie के 15 mins पहले से ही cab से उतर कर दौड़ना Security check और escalators पर crowd से आगे भागना Audi के बाहर पहुँच कर, time पर आने की ख़ुशी फिर popcorn and cold drink लेकर seats पर बैठने का आराम नहीं भूलूंगा मैं , जब तक है जान, जब तक है जान
PVR के endless 20 mins तक annoying ads का torture But फिर कुछ movie trailers से excitement for the future Finally opening credits का excitement and happiness और फिर दो घंटे के लिए खो जाना उस larger-than-life story में With my favourite भट्ट, कपूर या खान नहीं भूलूंगा मैं , जब तक है जान, जब तक है जान