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Three thousand stitches, p.5
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       Three Thousand Stitches, p.5

           Sudha Murty
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  That was good news indeed. I needed all the protection I could get for my upcoming examinations.

  ‘You are lucky to get it at such a young age,’ Avva said, as she incorrectly interpreted the reason for my smile.

  ‘What does the Kashi thread look like?’

  ‘Well, it is a simple knotted black thread. Kashi is protected by Bhairavnath, who is a great and loyal servant of Lord Shiva. If you go to Kashi and don’t see the Kaal Bhairav temple, your yatra or journey is considered incomplete. You will get a Kashi thread from there, which you have to wear for Bhairavnath to protect you. Since the Kashi trip is difficult, he will accompany you in his invisible form until you reach home safely. Then he runs back to assist the next devotee,’ finished my grandmother.

  ‘Hmm,’ I thought. ‘What if he has to help more than one person home?’

  Before I could ask, Avva answered, ‘I know what you are going to ask me now. Bhairavnath can multiply himself as many times as he wants to.’

  So instead, I asked, ‘What is the use of the water from the Ganga?’

  ‘Silly girl, how can I ever describe the use of the holy water?’ She patted my head affectionately. ‘The Ganga is the life of our country. Everybody wants to drink the holy water, but it isn’t possible for people like us who live in south India. So we keep a few spoons of Gangajal, the holy water from the Ganga, for whoever is in the last days of their life so that they can go to heaven.’

  ‘Avva,’ I asked, ‘if Kashi is so important and you believe in it so much, then Kaka and you must go there. I will also come with you.’

  Avva turned thoughtful. ‘I have never ventured out of Karnataka,’ she said. ‘You know that Kaka and I avoid eating anything when we travel. It takes at least ten days to go to Kashi. And it’s better to travel in a group because we don’t know the local language. It is difficult to form such a group here, and we are also getting old. We don’t want to fall sick on the way and burden the group. So going to Kashi will most likely remain a dream for me. But I am happy that Indira has gone there with her cousins. At least I can visit her and listen to her stories.’

  At the time, I didn’t understand why my grandmother had such devotion for this holy land.

  Soon, we reached Indira Ajji’s house. The whole atmosphere was festive. Stumps of banana trees and mango leaves were tied to the sides of the gate. There were plenty of flower decorations all over the place. An intricate rangoli design was drawn on the floor at the entrance. I immediately spotted my classmates running here and there with glee. My teacher was offering home-made drinks to all the children. On one side lay fifty pots containing Gangajal. All the pots had black threads tied around the neck. They were piled up on a table decorated with flowers. A single banana leaf was laid out nearby with all the dishes, though there was no one sitting there. My mind raced to count the number of desserts on the leaf.

  Avva and I entered the main room. Since my grandmother was the oldest person there and quite popular too, people seemed to be happy to see her. Avva turned to Indira, ‘You are so lucky to have visited Kashi, bathed in the river Ganga and seen Lord Vishwanath in all his glory.’

  Indira Ajji smiled gently and invited both of us to sit down. People were gathered around her to hear more about her trip.

  Somebody asked, ‘What did you think of the famous Annapoorna temple?’

  ‘It was beautiful,’ she replied. ‘It is located before Lord Vishwanath’s temple and is the only temple where Shiva is believed to ask for alms and food from his wife with his begging bowl. He is said to appear in the temple only on a few special days.’

  As people started asking more questions, I became bored.

  Slowly, I nudged my grandmother. When she turned to look at me, I pointed to the banana leaf and asked, ‘Avva, why is nobody sitting for lunch there? I am hungry. Can I go eat the food?’

  ‘Don’t even think about it! That food is for Bhairavnath. He has much work to do and has to make the trip back soon. But you can pray to him if you want.’

  I didn’t see anyone sitting there but remembered that he was supposed to be invisible. So I joined my hands together and prayed facing the leaf.

  A short while later, we all had a delicious lunch.

  On our way back, my grandmother remarked, ‘Isn’t it wonderful to hear that Indira took three handfuls of water from the river Ganga and saluted the rising sun? It must be such a beautiful sight. Sometimes, I also wish to do the same. I have convinced myself that the rivulet in our garden is also another form of the Ganga and if I worship her, it is as good as worshipping the river in Kashi.’

  It was evening by the time we reached home and from a distance, I could see my grandfather sitting in the verandah. Kaka was my good friend and I ran to tell him about the day.

  Just as I approached him, he smiled and asked, ‘Did your grandmother tell you about what you must leave behind in Kashi?’

  ‘What are you talking about, Kaka?’

  ‘In the olden days, the journey to Kashi took months and not days. Today, we have trains and roads but then people had to walk and cross forests and face dangers on their way. Many did not make it back to their homes. Emperor Akbar abolished the jizya tax for entry into Varanasi whereas Aurangzeb reintroduced it. Hence the journey to Kashi was expensive. If someone made it to Kashi successfully, they would make an unusual vow—to give up whatever they loved the most after taking three handfuls of water, keeping Lord Sun as a witness. A word given to the Ganga in such a way is considered unbreakable and one is obliged to fulfil it.’

  I was fascinated and waited as Kaka took a deep breath.

  ‘There are certain rules that you must follow.’

  ‘What rules?’

  ‘One cannot give up eating rice, wheat flour, milk, lentils, ghee or jaggery. One can give up eating one vegetable and one fruit that freely grows around their hometown or area and a dessert that they love. So if you love jalebis, you can vow to abstain from it, but you can’t give up something that you don’t like, such as bitter gourd. Whenever you see what you have given up, it will remind you of Kashi.’

  ‘That is quite tough, Kaka!’

  My grandfather continued as if he hadn’t heard me, ‘If a husband and wife go together, they can choose to give up the same things. That is easy as it means that they won’t have to cook separately. But if a husband and wife visit individually and choose to abstain from different things, then both of them must leave whatever the other has, too.’

  Avva, meanwhile, reached the verandah.

  ‘That sounds too complicated!’ I thought. Out loud, I asked, ‘Is it very hard to leave what you like, Kaka?’

  ‘It depends on the individual. If you decide to fulfil your vow with your heart and soul, then the desire for the object goes away with time and that way of life simply becomes a habit.’

  ‘What will you leave if you go to Kashi?’ I asked mischievously.

  ‘I love your Avva and that’s why I will never go to Kashi!’ he replied with a twinkle in his eye.

  Though Avva was old, she suddenly became shy and quickly walked in.

  In a more serious tone, he added, ‘It is not up to us to go there. It is Lord Vishwanath’s wish. He will call us when it’s our time.’

  Years flew by and seasons went past. Avva died without ever going to Kashi. She passed away on the day she always wanted to—the day of Bhishmastami or the day Bhishma died. It is believed that the gates of heaven are open on this day. I was in Pune then and by the time I reached Hubli, I could only see her ashes and her picture on the wall. My memory of Avva remained that of an active, cheerful, helpful and affectionate woman.

  Based on Avva’s last instructions, my aunt gave me the kumkum box and I preserved it like a treasure in an old chest, but did not use it as often as she did because by then, sticker bindis had invaded the Indian market.

  As time went by, I started reading extensively and became completely fascinated with Buddhism. Buddha’s compassionate heart moved me in w
ays that I cannot express and I understood why he had taken the famous middle path. Buddhism is represented by a wheel and two deer. Sarnath, the place that had played a big role in Buddha’s life and was the place of his first sermon, was a deer park located only a few kilometres away from Varanasi. I realized then that the city got its name from the rivers Varuna and Assi that both join the river Ganga at this location. It is believed to be a sacred land since time immemorial.

  In 629 AD, when the Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang visited India, he described Varanasi in great detail along with a description of its temples, rivulets and the richness of the surroundings. I felt an increasing desire to go to Kashi and yet, it somehow became low on my list of priorities because of work and routine.

  During the festival of Diwali in 1995, I received a gift in the form of a book called Banaras: City of Light by Diana L. Eck. ­I kept it aside, intending to read it after the wonderful madness of the festival was over.

  That year, our family decided to celebrate with a traditional aarti. I went to my bedroom and opened the old chest. I began rummaging through it to find the silver plate for the puja. Suddenly, I saw the kumkum box. It was a strong reminder of Avva and I forgot about the plate. Gently, I took out the box and recalled the way she used to wear her kumkum. I saw her dressing up for Kashi Samaradhane and remembered how we had walked for the lunch together. Oh, how I used to pester her to give me the treasured kumkum bharani! She believed wholeheartedly in the holiness of Kashi but never visited the city or regretted the miss! I thought to myself, ‘Going to Kashi is not tough now. Moreover, I have Diana’s book with me. It will help me understand the city better before I go. Maybe I should do it for the sake of my grandmother . . .’

  ‘Are you meditating in there?’ my mom called out, cutting my thoughts short. ‘Everyone is waiting.’

  I found the silver plate quickly and gave it to my mother along with the kumkum bharani.

  ‘Good, this is my mother’s precious possession. It will be as if her spirit is with us during the prayers today,’ she said.

  Once the festive season had ended, I began reading Diana’s book—a masterpiece in itself. It was, in fact, the author’s PhD thesis at Harvard. She, a foreigner, had come to India and stayed here for years studying about the religious places in our country. And here I was, doing nothing! I felt ashamed of myself. The book inspired me to get to Kashi as soon as I could, if only to satisfy my childhood curiosity and my grandmother’s desire.

  In February 1996, I managed to find my way there all by myself. I stayed in a hotel and had the darshan of Lord Vishwanath, whose temple was in a corner of the city. He was worshipped using the three-leaved Bilva (Lord Shiva’s tree) patras and constantly bathed by his devotees who gathered there. There were security gunmen, a barbed wire fence and the Gyanvapi mosque near the temple. The different image of the place I had in my mind disappointed me a little, but I was amazed by the faith of the people of varied ages who had come from all over the country.

  Once that was done, I went to see the Manikarnika ghat, where dead bodies are cremated every day and almost endlessly. The strong belief that dying in Kashi is a gateway to heaven has not changed even with the increase in literacy and the changing culture. I visited some more ghats and was taken aback by the amount of dirt in this holy city. I also visited the Banaras Hindu University that was established single-handedly by Madan Mohan Malaviya, and beautiful museums depicting Hindustani ragas through enchanting paintings.

  I walked to numerous temples, small and big, including the temples of Annapoorna Devi, Bhairavnath and the famous Hanuman temple named Sankat Mochan, where the monkeys outnumbered the devotees. Though plenty of black threads were being sold around me, I didn’t buy any because I had grown out of the belief. The holy Ganga water was abundant and up for sale in different volumes, shapes and sizes. Even today, the water is considered holy.

  In the small lanes of Kashi, I wandered around, aimless and happy in the moment. The beautiful views and the pretty saris caught my eye. What a gorgeous invention the sari is—a rare combination of the cloth-tying method of the Greeks, the Romans and our own. Whenever I travel abroad, I come across people who are fascinated with the border, the richness, the zari and the pallu, which automatically bestows a royal appearance to whoever wears it.

  Kashi boasts of unique Banarasi saris which have changed over the years but still remain attractive. I planned to buy a few saris for myself—a pastel-coloured one, a bright one suitable for evening wear and a dark green sari like the one Avva had. The sellers called out to me and the other passers-by. I absolutely loved shopping for saris. But then I changed my mind. ‘What was the hurry? I will shop tomorrow after I have seen more,’ I thought. So I went about doing some window shopping.

  Then I went back to the ghats and finally reached the busy Dashashwamedh ghat. The crowd was preparing for the evening aarti. I glanced at the tourists—they seemed to come not just from different states but also from different countries. They were smiling and taking pictures of their surroundings. The dirt, the small lanes and the claustrophobic closeness of it all did not seem to bother them. The sadhus were in half-meditation and most of the devotees were preparing for their dip in the water. I was tempted. ‘Why can’t I bathe in the Ganga too? Maybe I can also offer three handfuls of water to the Ganga and complete my Kashi experience.’

  I looked around and the dirt suddenly gave me second thoughts. I didn’t want to take a dip there. As if it was meant to be, I remembered an old friend Ajay who lived near the Gai ghat. Maybe I could ask him if there was a cleaner and less crowded spot more suitable for me.

  So I located a landline nearby and phoned him. It was obvious that Ajay was upset because I hadn’t informed him of my visit. He gave me strict instructions to remain where I was and within a few minutes, he arrived on his scooter.

  ‘Why are you staying in a hotel when you have a friend in the same city? You must move to my home immediately,’ he insisted.

  I agreed. I had no reason to refuse his warm hospitality.

  I shifted to his haveli. Three families lived in the mansion. Each family had a separate kitchen and lived in their own sections of the huge home. Ajay’s side of the home had a view of the Ganga with the evening lights shining brightly as far as I could see.

  His wife, Nishi, entertained me with delicious Kashi sweets, sumptuous food and paan. Later, he took me to a Hindustani music concert and spoke about the great musicians of Kashi such as Bismillah Khan and Ravi Shankar and how the city was also a place for music lovers. The city, though dirty, was thriving with life and culture.

  At dawn, I found myself at the Gai ghat ready for the dip. I sat alone on the steps and then immersed myself in the water till my shoulder blades. The coldness took me by surprise and it took a few minutes for my body to adjust to this new temperature.

  I took some water in my palms and my mind instantly went back to Avva. There she was—wearing the green sari and the yellow blouse, looking at me with love and telling me about the three handfuls of water from the Ganga. I saw Kaka sitting on the verandah during sunset, telling me how it was Lord Vishwanath who decided when an individual visited Kashi. How my old grandparents had loved the city and the river Ganga! Tears sprang to my eyes. I was blessed to have grandparents who were content and had such strong beliefs.

  ‘It is so easy to visit Kashi now,’ I thought. ‘I took a flight from Bengaluru to Delhi and then to Varanasi and reached in a mere five hours.’ Now, there was no Kashi Samaradhane or the customary distribution of the holy water or the black thread. Nobody had the time or the inclination.

  I looked at the rising sun and was brought back to the present moment. I took the first handful of water and said to myself, ‘O Ganga, with the sun as the witness, I give this water on behalf of my grandparents. May their souls rest in peace and be happy wherever they are right now.’

  I felt relieved and knew that I had fulfilled my grandparents’ desire even though they had never told me t
o do so.

  Then I cupped some more water and said out loud, ‘O Ganga, with the sun as the witness, you are the lifeline of our country. You have seen the rise and fall of many kingdoms on your banks. I am grateful and proud to belong to this land. May you continue to flourish. There is nothing that I can give you but this handful of water.’

  With the third handful, I remembered my grandfather’s words, ‘Give up what you love the most.’

  ‘What should I detach myself from?’ I wondered. I loved life, colours, shapes, nature, music, art forms, reading and shopping, especially for saris. My selection of earthy colours was popular and I loved observing the changes in sari designs over the years. ‘Well, if the city of Kashi demands what I love the most, then with the sun as the witness, I give up all kinds of shopping from this day on, except for essentials like food, medicine, travel, books and music. I will do so until the day I am no longer in this world,’ I said and completed the ritual.

  Slowly, I released the water from my palms back to the Ganga.

  Somewhere out there, it felt like my grandfather had just smiled. A few minutes later, I waded out of the water and sat on the steps with a towel wrapped around me.

  So there would be no more appreciation of my sari choices and none of my friends would call me for wedding shopping. I was worried if I would be able to stick to my vow since I had planned to buy saris that day in Kashi. I wondered if I had chosen to give up shopping on the spur of the moment or if it was pre-planned somehow. To this day, I don’t know.

  I got up, changed my clothes, took out the kumkum powder from Avva’s bharani and put a bit on my forehead.

  That was twenty years ago.

  The truth is that the vow turned out to be a gateway to freedom. The desire to acquire has vanished over time. Once a year, a few known friends and sisters gave me saris of their choice and I continued to wear them happily for a long time but as the years flew by, I lost interest in that too, and requested them not to gift me anything.

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