Moksha Bhavan, Varanasi.
The doorbell rang impatiently.
It urged the inhabitants within to hurry. But the days of haste for them were long gone. As the old man dawdled to the door, grumbling in a loud voice.
“I’m coming. Hold on to your horses. What is your hurry?”
He opened the creaking door and exclaimed. “Arre! Why are you back, Kashi? You left one week back. What has happened now that can accelerate your situation?”
Kashi Mishra leaned against the doorjamb. He had an air of dejection around him.
“Please, Tiwari, let me enter. This time, I promise you. I will kick the bucket…heck… I will kick the whole tank.”
Ramprasad Tiwari exhaled with irritation. “And what if you don’t, as you put it, kick the bucket on time, Kashi? What guarantee can you give me? Huh?”
He moved aside to let Kashi enter, warning him while stepping into his dingy office. “And no begging the tourists. And NO playing songs except bhajans. Okay?”
At Kashi’s reluctant nod, Tiwari muttered under his breath, “Bloodsuckers. The whole lot.” In a loud voice, “Kashi, you can use room no. 6.”
Hearing the noise, Chironjilal from room number 5 craned his neck out, but after a quick look at Tiwari’s stormy face retreated with haste.
Kashi was ecstatic with the room allocated to him. It was one of the good ones in the 12-rooms Moksha Bhavan. It had a small window that overlooked Ganga, away from the noise of the bustling roadside. And, the paint, once white, was bravely holding onto the walls. Unlike the rest of the house, room no. 6 was bright. Moksha Bhavan was as old as the hills, and it perpetually wore a pall of gloom. The rooms, save a few, were like their inhabitants, on their last leg. It had a central courtyard containing the areas for morning ablutions.
The guests had to cook their food in their own rooms. Most of the rooms had been a witness to the aftereffects of the culinary skills – or the lack of it. A thick layer of soot had covered the walls, and even the roof was not spared. The whole house begged to be reborn, begged for salvation. But it was the granter of moksha, not the receiver.
Once Kashi was settled in his room, he pressed his ear against the flimsy shared wall. His neighbour, Chironjilal, was FaceTiming someone. Kashi, shamelessly, eavesdropped.
“Kya kahe, bhai. He is STILL alive. It has been 11 days already. And, in 4 more days, that ogre Tiwari will throw us out if bapu doesn’t die. I spent a lot of money to come here, yaar. If Tiwari refuses to extend our stay, it will all be a waste. And I will have to undertake this circuitous journey for the third time. Chodo. How is life, otherwise?” he said.
The conversation then moved to more mundane things.
Acha so, Shuklaji is still alive. This is his second visit here. I wonder what happened to Meenaji.
Kashi strained his ears. As soon as he confirmed Shukla’s son, Chironjilal, had hung up, he knocked on their door. When Chironjilal opened the door, he greeted Kashi.
“Arre Mishraji, welcome. You have come after a week, haina? How are you? I hope you are near death?” he joked.
Mishra made a face. “Nahi, Chiru. It still eludes me. How is Shuklaji? Is it time yet for him?”
“No. Not yet. He is still sipping milk and eating rotis. We have four more days remaining of the 15-days deadline.”
“I will pray he dies soon. How is Meenaji?”
“Oho! Her son, Bhanu, is so lucky as Meenaji died two days back. After her cremation, he has gone back to his village. His daughter was about to give birth, and he was in a hurry to return, and Shivji listened to his pleas. Shivji called his mother home so Bhanu could return to his home. I am waiting to experience that joy, Mishraji.”
Tiwariji overhearing the conversation, butted in. “It is not torturous to stay here. People come here from all over the country and even from England. They want to break the cycle of death. Varanasi is the place where we Hindus believe one will not be reborn. And you think it is a waste of your time? I am telling you: your father has three more days to live. I have never been wrong in 61 years! He will not see the next Saturday. You can bet his life.”
With that sting delivered, he moved towards the main door to spew vitriol at the unfortunate person –who made the mortal sin of ringing the doorbell.
“No, you are NOT anywhere near death. Go away! We are not a charity. Just because you have no place to live, you can’t stay here. This is not a hotel for the homeless. Shoo! Shoo!” Tiwari shouted.
Chironjilal whispered. “I thought a trust ran the Bhavan. Is it not charity-driven?”
Kashi replied. “Yes, it is, but Tiwari rules the roost. He says he can sense when the guests are nearing death, and he permits only those on their proverbial death bed.” He rolled his eyes.
“How does he let you inside? You look hale and hearty to me, Mishraji.”
“Arre, I will tell you why. No one knows the secret. I am his mama’s son. So we are practically brothers. I have seen him in his half-pants! How can he say no to me? But don’t tell anyone else.”
“My lips are sealed, Mishraji.”
Tiwari had returned after his verbal slashing, he said. “Shukla, ensure the room is cleaned when your father dies on Friday. On Saturday, Moksha Bhavan has been booked for a sangeet. And Kashi, please dress in decent clothes, and for god’s sake, go and have a bath.”
Tiwari returned to his office while the two men caught up. Kashi and Chironjilal’s chat was interrupted by his father’s coughing. “I better go and attend to him, Mishraji.”
Kashi entered his room and retrieved the steel bucket. He went to the cupboard in the common room and removed the jug of Gangajal. He sprinkled a few drops of the holy water in the bucket and went to the open bathing area. He filled it with cold water and started his bath. Clad in a dhoti, he set off to the Church Gowadia road to buy vegetables for lunch.
Once he returned, he lit the kerosene stove in his room and proceeded to cook a simple meal. When it was ready, he knocked on Shuklaji’s door.
“Do you want some tarkari and rice, Chiru?”
“No, Mishraji. I have already eaten lunch. I watched the cooking video on YouTube. It turned out good.”
With his neighbourly duty done, Kashi returned and had a hearty meal. He mixed the leftovers and transferred them to a clean bowl. He knocked on Tiwari’s room.
Tiwari opened the door, “What do you want now?”
Kashi proffered the bowl.
“Ah, food! You are a good soul, Kashi. Come on in.”
They entered the room where Tiwari finished the tarkari with evident delight.
He burped loudly and wiped his face with an already food-stained kerchief.
“Thank you, Kashi. That was a lovely meal. I am much obliged to you for it.”
Kashi waved off his thanks. In the privacy of the room, their camaraderie flowed effortlessly.
“Sorry for screaming at you in the morning. I have to keep up the pretences for the guests.”
“It’s okay. I am used to it. How are you, Ramprasad?”
“Of late, Kashi, I find myself disappointed with the society. It feels as if the positivity that piety once brought into people’s lives has retreated. It is hiding in a corner, waiting for its day in the sun. People seek spirituality, but they are unwilling to sacrifice for it. Pilgrims come to Moksha Bhavan, to Varanasi to attain moksha, Kashi, but they are so busy surfing the intrenet. They won’t recognise piousness if it knocked them on the head. Why do they even seek it, I wonder if they even know?”
“You mean the internet.”
“Haan, haan wohi. Internet. Their hands are glued to the devices. Even the ones who are on their death bed! The other week, death was hovering around an old-man from Delhi, barely five days away. When I passed their room on my way to the courtyard, I overheard the dying man ask his son if his what do you call it…Minstagram…minstragram post received any likes. The dying man could barely get the words out! I was stunned!”
“I think it is Instagram.” Kashi was the more internet savvy amongst the two men.
“Yes, whatever. Minstagram. Instagram. The point is not the name –but when death has placed its bony hand on your shoulder, how does your followers count matter? What should matter instead is how you have lived as a human? Your sins and good deeds. Not your likes and posts. Bah. Humbug.”
“Calm down, Ramprasad. You will invite a heart-attack. The world now moves to a different beat, bhai. Change is the only thing constant.”
“Let me give you an example. You, too, lease out the Bhavan for weddings, don’t you?”
“Yes, but not out of choice. This is a trust-driven outfit, and we don’t charge money, except for electricity. We need the money to survive.”
“I don’t doubt your intentions. But you have changed with time, haven’t you?”
“I see what you are trying to say. Yes, you are right, Kashi. Anyway, I am off to the ghats for a walk. Do you want to join me?”
Thursday rolled in, bringing with it the downward slide of Shuklaji’s health. As per Tiwari’s prediction, his condition was failing and failing fast. Chironjilal and Kashi sat sipping tea in the weak February sun.
They watched Shuklaji take in shuddering breaths. Chironjilal offered him sips of Gangajal mixed water at repeated intervals.
“The end is near, Chiru.”
“Yes, Mishraji. I think in a day or two, he will be gone. My duty as a son will be complete when I light his funeral pyre. I am so relieved; he was insistent that he wanted to die in Varanasi. I have taken a leave from my job, and I have to report in two weeks. By then, we will finish all the rituals, and I can return to my house in peace.”
There was a knock at the door. It was the resident pandit. He entered the room and sprinkled some Gangajal around the bed, muttering a shloka under his breath.
“A few hours more before his soul departs for heaven. I will hand over a list to you. It contains all the necessary items for the subsequent pooja. Please get it by evening.”
He handed a sheet of paper to Chironjilal. “Aur haan. Ensure you have a lot of loose change. You will need it for the Mahapatras.”
With a last look at Shukalji, the priest walked out.
“Chalo, he will now be free, beta,” said Kashi as he patted Chironjilal on his shoulder.
“Yes, Mishraji. Everyone will be happy.”
There was another polite knock at the door. The men, except for Shuklaji, who was busy fighting for air, looked up in surprise. The door parted with hesitation to reveal a group of Japanese tourists. They were agog at the sights. Tiwari breezed into the room.
“Shukla, these are some tourists from Japan. We should say Sayonara to them.”
The tourists were mystified and puzzled in equal parts.
Tiwari lumbered ahead. “I told him we Hindus viewed death as a celebration. Here we don’t feel sad that death has arrived! We rejoice.”
Kashi surreptitiously rolled his eyes.
Tiwari continued, “The Japanese tourists said they want to see how we Hindus have absorbed the Buddhist culture. I told him we are the same –Hindus and Buddhists. They are here at Moksha Bhavan to take a tour.”
The Japanese tourists took in the room with wonder in their eyes. The black walls, the weak shafts of light filtering in through the dusty, smudged windows. They whipped out their cameras and began to take photographs. One of them approached Shuklaji, who was gasping for breath. The tourist leaned in for a close-up. Shuklaji reached within himself and managed to give a small smile when the light flashed in front of his rheumy eyes.
“See! Death up close and personal,” said Tiwari to the tourists.
The gaggle disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. Chironjilal and Kashi exchanged glances.
Kashi offered a sip of water to Shuklaji, who wet his lips with it and then sighed.
The dawn spread its wings in a staccato beat on Saturday. It appeared to have forgotten how to spread the light evenly. Small segments of the misty sky gave way to the anaemic sun rays. Kashi stirred in his sleep, tugging at the blanket till it covered his head. His naked feet cried out in protest when the chilly February draft met them. He was fidgeting in his sleep, experiencing a nightmare.
Lord Yamraj is riding on his water-buffalo, Paundraka, coming closer by every hoof-beat. He is twirling his lasso with vigorous movements, and he throws the loop in someone’s direction. I can’t see on whom the lasso has landed. My hands are icy, and a cold sweat is running down my back.
Kashi woke up and threw the blanket off in frustration. It was a weird, portentous dream. And it had shaken him.
It was early morning, but he was wide awake. He made his bed. He rescued his steel bucket where it lay languishing and proceeded with his ablutions. Shivering and reciting the Hanuman chalisa, dressed in a dhoti, he retreated to the slightly warmer confines of his room. He brewed a cup of tea and sat sipping it.
Kashi was bored as his next-door neighbours had vacated the room, literally and figuratively. Late Thursday night saw Shuklaji take his final breath. Tiwari was vindicated as he had called it accurately. Chironjilal, while expecting his father’s demise, cried like a bereaved child. Once the rituals had been initiated, he moved out with the body. He would stay near the Manikarnika ghats, where the rest of the process would play out. The living, as per Tiwari had no business in Moksha Bhavan except to tend to the dying.
Kashi felt a sense of loss in Shukaji’s passing. He had enjoyed Chironjilal’s company, and his endless complaints about his father holding onto the wisps of life had been entertaining. Now it was down to the beauty (him) and the beast (Tiwari). The only silver lining in the misty morning was the sangeet ceremony due to start in the afternoon. The revelry of the marriage party would definitely bring up his spirits! Shukaji’s death and his dream were depressing him.
After a while, when the pandits in the Bhavan started the ritualistic pooja. The ensuing sounds of the mantras usurped the white noise in his head. He enjoyed the morning aarti.
The sangeet was a major hit. Moksha Bhavan had never looked so pretty. There were rows of marigolds, perky, and yellow. Fairy lights hid its grunginess, converting it into a magical place. The red and white chequered carpets covered all the flaws. The sooty rooms were closed, their inauspicious black walls hidden. Kashi had never seen it look so resplendent.
Kashi couldn’t believe Ramprasad could still hold his own in dancing. It was heartening to see him shake his frail body to the beats of the music. For that brief moment, all the stress melted away from his face, and it was unlined and smooth as a baby’s bottom. Kashi didn’t realize when the sun bade goodbye and when nightfall arrived. They were having just too much fun! His hands were hurting with all the clapping, and his jaws were threatening to break up.
After he had finished cooking dinner, he called out to Tiwari to join him.
A tired-looking Ramprasad groaned as he sat on the only chair in the room.
“My entire body hurts. Why did you encourage me to dance? I am never listening to you again. You, old fool,” grumbled Tiwari with a glint in his eyes.
“Well, you shook your booty really well, Ramprasad!”
Kashi’s eyes crinkled with amusement.
After a sedate Sunday, Monday experienced the arrival of a small group comprising of tough-looking men. They brought an old-man into Moksha Bhavan. Kashi helped the men to settle the man on the rickety wooden cot. He looked barely human, a collection of bones held together by leathery and worn skin. The family left before completing the registration form, promising to return after consuming tea.
In a few hours, the doorbell rang again, insistent. Before Tiwari could discharge his verbal missile, it was unceremoniously dumped back into his open mouth. On the threshold stood two uniform-clad police-men.
“Are you the manager?” one of them asked Tiwari as he nodded. “We are here to trace the relatives of an old-man. They are Naxalites wanted for a hospital bombing. Are they inside the house?”
“No, sirji. No one is here. Do you want to come inside and inspect it?”
Kashi’s head popped up in surprise. Tiwari seldom lied.
The police declined and asked Tiwari to stay alert and call them if he came across them. When they left, Kashi looked at Ramprasad, the unasked questions in his eyes spilling over.
“I know what you are going to say, Kashi. The men had a furtive air around them, and I suspected something was amiss. But despite that feeling, I couldn’t deny the old-man his chance at salvation.”
Kashi nodded, unconvinced but choosing –wisely, to stay silent.
When it was dark, the relatives sneaked in. Tiwari accosted them.
“Don’t you feel ashamed of yourselves? When you bombed the hospital, many people died. Yet, when it came to your own relative, you have come here to seek salvation? How can you wash the blood off your hands? Why didn’t you just shoot your dying grandfather? Why take the risk of getting him to Varanasi?”
The leader of the pack fell to his knees on Tiwari’s feet.
“Sahib, I know I am a bad man. But, my deeds have no bearing on my grandfather. He begged me to take him to Benaras as he wanted to die in peace. I have no right to ask you for forgiveness. I know you didn’t report us to the police, and I am grateful to you for it. But, please don’t kick dada out. He has not had a sip of water since yesterday.”
Tiwari looked at him with disgust, “The corner cupboard has a jug of Gangajal. Sprinkle a few drops in a glass of water. With a spoon, pour some sips in his mouth. I will send the pandit to your room.”
Before they could respond, Tiwari strode off to his room.
That night, the old man left for heavenly abode.
Explains the dream.
The next morning, Kashi knocked on Tiwari’s door with tea. Tiwari was reading the newspaper.
“Do you reckon the Naxals will revert to their violent ways?”
“No doubt about it, Kashi. The veil of spirituality was only for their grandfather. Their bullets have already riddled holes in the veil. This experience won’t change anything for them.”
He looked at Kashi over the newspaper’s top edge. “The police apprehended four Naxalites from the Manikarnika ghats. They were wanted for a bombing in Assam, which killed 17 people. The police received an anonymous tip.”
Kashi smiled but stayed mute.
Not everyone seeks moksha. Some yearn for closure.
Mahapatras: Priests who conduct the funeral rites.
Ghat: bank of a river, in this case, Ganga.
Tarkari: Vegetable gravy
Pooja Aarti: Prayer
Chodo: Leave it
Kya kahe: What can we say?
Arre: A way of addressing someone.
Haina: Isn’t it?
Hanuman chalisa: A devotional hymn penned by Tulsidas that has 40 couplets.
Sangeet: A part of the North-Indian wedding ceremony.
Dada: Paternal Grandfather
Roti: Indian flatbread
In Varanasi or Kashi, there are several hotels, called Hotels of Death where people on their death-bed come to…die. As per Hindu customs, Kashi ensures the soul gets moksha. The Hindu vedas suggest every human soul has a lifespan of seven lifetimes before it is retired. The reincarnation of the soul is decided by the sins and/or good deeds humans perform in their lifetime. A record of them is maintained by Chitragupta, Lord Yamraj’s assistant.
The loophole is to die in Kashi. For people who die in Kashi, their soul gets to jump the line and attain moksha before its seven lifetimes are up. Mukti Bhavan offers a 15-days free stay for the poor or a sum of twenty rupees for those who can afford it. If you don’t die in 15 days, the manager may extend your stay, but mostly you are kicked out.
We seek moksha so our souls can be relieved from all the suffering and experience the highest level of joy when we are free from the lifecycle of life and death.
This thought drives most people to places like Kashi, where the chances are stronger.
Whether one’s soul really attains salvation or not can’t be known. It is a faith system.
Karl Marx said, Religion is the opium of the masses. A statement, so true.