IN GOD’S OWN CITY (I)

Well, that is Varanasi for me.

But during this trip back home, the first expression that came to my mind, while mapping its roads, is that the city should ban four-wheelers and other medium sized vehicles from most of its roads – especially in the second half of the day.

It took me an hour to reach the Ganga’s Rajendra Prasad Ghat from Nai Sadak, a stretch that is some one kilometer long. Places lying in between, Nai Sadak, Dalmandi, Godowlia, all are marketplaces now. And these marketplaces, connected by an ‘insufficiently wide road’, are inundated with shops and street vendors.

And that ‘insufficiently wide road’ is flooded with encroachments – by regular shops – by roadside vendors – by auto-rickshaw drivers – by rickshaw-pullers (and the new addition is Delhi’s ubiquitous battery driven e-rickshaws). People park their vehicles as per their own convenience even if it means hurt-burn for others. In fact, the stretch from main Godowlia crossing to Rajendra Parasd Ghat (or Dashashwamedh Ghat) has a thick divider made of illegally parked two-wheelers (as four-wheelers are not allowed) in the middle of the road.

And Varanasi’s every road busy road has a similar grievance to tell – a grievance that is never heard.

So, while feelings the pangs of moving continuously clutch, brake and accelerator my two-wheeler, the thought came to my mind spontaneously. Yes, it means a lot of noise from many of its ‘responsible’ residents, but they need to pay this price to maintain the city’s heritage with needs of changing times.

The problem of Varanasi roads is exacerbated by their poor upkeep.

Varanasi or Banaras is also notorious as a dirty city with loads of dust and garbage afflicting every part of it. Their prevalence is a telling sign of the administrative apathy the city has been subjected to for decades.

I decided to map some of its main road stretches – from Cantt Railway Station to Banaras Hindu University through Sigra and Bhelupur – from Lahartara to Banaras Hindu University through Manduadih and Sundarpur – from Rathyatra crossing to Dashashwamedh Ghat – from Lahurabir to Dashashwamedh Ghat through Nai Sadak – from Lahurabir to Dashashwamedh Ghat through Maidagin and Chowk – and from Banaras Hindu University to Godowlia through Assi and Sonarpura.

And except on the stretch from Lahartara to Banaras Hindu University through Manduadih and Sundarpur, the experience on every other road was like living a nightmare of being trapped in a traffic hell – coupled with potholed roads and air laden with dust particles.

What I experienced on these roads in last four days, its residents feel it daily. And since they are also responsible for it, we can safely say that many of them, the city residents, have this cycle of exploitation (exploiting someone or being exploited by someone) as part of their daily life now. A ride through these stretches (or in fact through most of the roads of the city) gives a feeling that the whole system governing them has collapsed here.

If Varanasi is still God’s Own City, it is because of its ancient spiritual legacy weaved around Shiva, the Ganga and death. Its spiritual and religious mysticisms draw people from all over the world. If Varanasi is still God’s Own City, it is because of its ageless culture weaved around its simple people. (Yes, exceptions are always there, but then, they are exceptions. Isn’t it?)

Varanasi is also famous for its streets and alleys and is loved for people always thronging them. Varanasi’s crowd, in its lanes, on its roads, is a big draw for many.

But we need to differentiate ‘this’ crowd from the crowds on its various roads that make even walking a difficult proposition. People would, naturally, hate this crowd and it is earning a bad name for the city.

The city is in dire need of good roads and their professional maintenance. And the city is in dire need of decongesting its roads – expecially the ones mentioned above – and any road that crisscrosses its older parts. Banning four-wheelers, say from 4 PM, would be the step in that direction that the administration needs to take, sooner or later.

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©/IPR: Santosh Chaubey – https://santoshchaubey.wordpress.com/

VARANASI: GOOD DAYS NOT YET HERE BUT THE BANARASI SPIRIT SAYS THE DAY WILL COME

I come from a city that is ‘twice older that history, tradition and legend all combined’, in the words of Mark Twain.

Yes, I come from Varanasi.

Varanasi’s that ‘oldness’, something that the American writer was trying to express, is an eternal benchmark of the city, its hallmark – but with changing times, has become a time-specific sore point as well.

Because of the people who are supposed to manage its affairs. They exploit the city’s antiquity but have deliberately left it devoid of an imperative modernity.

Any Banarasi is proud of its history, tradition, culture and existentialist ethos. And I am a proud Baranasi.

But a realist one. The city is a living mess now, pushed to a civilizational oblivion by its policymakers, the officials of the state government.

Its fame as being the spiritual-religious capital of India and one of the oldest living citadels of the Indian civilization has failed to catch up with the needs of the changing times.

And when I say of ‘the needs of the changing times’, it’s not about its society or its spiritual-religious of cultural heritage or its academic legacy, it’s about its crumbling infrastructure. The unorganized growth has not yet met its balancing ‘organized growth’ counterpart. It has failed so far in any of its effort, efforts that are all half-baked.

Often, the shabby state of affairs create interesting anomalies to pause, to look at, to stare at, to think, to muse, to feel bad, to feel satirical, to get irritated, to feel pushed to express, or to laugh it off with a frustrated smile.

Varanasi is, technically, a metro city now for many years and the basic civic amenities that should be for a metro city that is also a global tourism attraction – piped water, piped gas, 24-hour electricity, a proper city transport, an efficient administration for health and educational facilities, a modern airport – these basic requirements are a far cry for the city that is one of the major contributors to India’s tourism earning; a city that is educational, spiritual and cultural hub; a city that is one of the very few places in the world having seen the shades of human civilization since the human civilization began.

The city is crumbling under the pressure of administrative and political apathy that has pushed the city’s infrastructure to the ignominy of being a Ganga city where the water of the Holy River is not fit for the Holy Dip.

That is why Varanasi vote en-masse for Narendra Modi because they saw in him the best chance for the city’s revival to emerge as the heritage capital of India – an aesthetic blend of religion, spirituality, culture, tradition, antiquity and modernity. Throughout his campaign, Modi pushed for an extensive vision of making Varanasi a world class city, that we believed the country’s prime-minister and the development-oriented administrator will deliver to us.

My last Varanasi visit this March was after a long time, some 20 months. I was tied up here and there and missed the city I grew up in.

So, when I went there this time, after 10 months of it electing Narendra Modi, I tried to assess the mood in my conversations with the people, from different walks of life, from academicians to administrators, from ghat-dwellers to people living nearby its airport outside the city’s urban limits, from students to rickshaw-pullers and so on.

While my first-hand account didn’t find the situation in line with the huge expectations with which the city voted for Modi, it was in sync with the reality-bound thoughts that Modi needed time to deliver given the decades and administrative and government apathy the city has seen.

Also, a basic need is the change in the mindset of many of the residents who take the city for granted, adding to the garbage dump the city has become synonymous with, giving it bad name.

Though city’s mess is basically due to the insensitivity of the state governments, the city residents have compounded the city’s problems by irresponsible acts. Modi had rightly reminded the city during his first visit as its elected representative that it needed to change its course to get the city cleaned. His ‘paan and spit and stains’ anecdote is a universal problem of Varanasi that sums up how its inhabitants have contributed in giving the city a bad name.

Good days not are yet here – but Modi is still the best hope for the city.

And the Banarasi spirit says – the day will come – till then, we will manage with it – with the ‘travel’ alternatives available.

©/IPR: Santosh Chaubey – https://santoshchaubey.wordpress.com/

VARANASI RAILWAY STATION AFTER FIVE YEARS: CHANGES THAT DON’T CHANGE ANYTHING

COLORES INFINITUM

Railway station, in most of the societies, is an important metaphor of a person’s social extensions beyond his/her neighbourhood.

It is a regular place to visit, either leaving the city to keep the social obligations tied to one’s own social existence or to maintain and build on the sociology’s tenet that says ‘a human being is, essentially, a social animal’.

And it holds true to the core, even in the most modern societies.

Anyway, I come from a city that is ‘twice older that history, tradition and legend all combined’, in the words of Mark Twain.

Varanasi’s that ‘oldness’ is still a benchmark, hallmark – but is a sore point as well.

Any Banarasi is proud of its history, tradition, culture and existentialist ethos. And I am a proud Baranasi.

But a realist one. The city is a living mess now, pushed to a civilizational oblivion by policymakers. Its fame as being the spiritual-religious capital of India and one of the oldest living citadels of the Indian civilization has failed to catch up with the needs of the changing times.

And when we talk of ‘the needs of the changing times’, its not about its society or its spiritual-religious of cultural heritage or its academic legacy, its about its crumbling infrastructure. The unorganized growth has not yet met its balancing ‘organized growth’ counterpart.

And, often, the shabby state of affairs create interesting anomalies to pause, to look at, to stare at, to think, to muse, to feel bad, to feel satirical, to get irritated, to feel pushed to express, or to laugh it off with a frustrated smile.

Its railway station is one such place. Though catering to a much larger and historically important city attracting a huge influx of domestic and international visitors, the neighbouring Mughalsarai, with a sketchy road connectivity with Varanasi spread over 15 Kilometers, has all the important trains connecting to the other parts of the country.

Though Varanasi has many trains connecting it directly to the other parts of the country, it doesn’t have any of the so-called high-speed end-to-end ‘ivy league’ trains that don’t run late (usually), save time and offer a better travel experience. The city doesn’t have any end-to-end Rajdhani, Shatabdi or Duronto train.

With improved air connectivity and increased flight operations, the air-traffic from and to the city has seen an impressive jump. Also, people who can manage tickets and if it suits their schedule, they go for Mughalsarai railway station trains to save time.

My last Varanasi visit was after a long time, some 20 months. I was tied up here and there and missed the city I grew up in. But it was some four-five odd years to my last visit to the Varanasi Cantt railway station, the main railway station of the city. Obviously, the natural reasons were the better air connectivity and opting for some East or North-East India bound Rajdhani train having Mughalsarai on its route.

During my March trip there, I had a visit to the railway station there to see off someone. While I didn’t go beyond the platform number one, I noticed some changes in its front hall.

And the interesting aspect was their ‘half baked’ appeal, like the overall railways infrastructure serving to the city.

There happened to be a stairway going up through other floors that housed retiring room facilities, other office and one State Bank of India branch.

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Now there is an escalator outside the grilled gate of the stairway, somehow crammed into the small area of the front hall. But true to the overall ‘half-baked’ nature of the ‘commitment to service’, it was not working. It was good to see the good old State Bank of India ATM right at its place.

Adjacent to the tourism department’s office was the station manager’s office when I had visited the railway station last. From inside, it opened into another hall that was anything but not the ‘Welcome Lounge’ that it is now. The front door of the manager’s office has been removed with plastered wall.

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These stainless steel gates are another ‘value addition’. I don’t remember if gates were there earlier or if there, how they looked like. The good thing about these steel gates is that they pull your attention (if you are a Banarasi who knows the city), otherwise the gates that always remain open lose their visibility.

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But overall, the front hall was as chaotic as it used to be some four-five years ago, thronged by people not only from the city but from the neighbouring rural areas as well. Anyway, even the New Delhi railway station is the same chaotic story, amply magnified. Indian Railways doesn’t find it apt to install chairs in spite of plenty of room available. And it only knows why.

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The other elements like the ‘information-inquiry’ centre, the advertisements on all walls, ticket windows in the right corner were at the same place, with the same old glory.

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Outside the station has changed as well, but with the same imposing facade. The Hanuman Temple outside is there but rebuilt/renovated with its surroundings replaced by a car-parking. The two-wheeler parking on the left of façade (when facing it) has gone, relocated to the extreme right wing of the campus, where the old one happened to be. ATM kiosks have popped up. There is a luxury public loo as well.

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But the railway reservation centre is still there on the left exit point from the railway station premises. Also, I found the India Post centre at its place, adjacent to the front hall, on its left.

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And on the immediate road outside of the campus of the railway station is as sorry a story as it has ever been. If passing through this road is not necessary or if the railway station is not your destination, no one would ever take this stretch of the road. Traffic is perennially clogged here, even if the cuts in front of the station periphery are blocked to prevent vehicles from making turns.

The half-baked, poorly thought changes that don’t bring any change in the overall situation. Though I didn’t go beyond the platform number one, I can say, with my experience of growing up in the city, that it would be the make for the similar expressions. If the front that has to carry the responsibility of being the face is so, we can rightly guess about the rest.

Good days not are yet here.

But the Banarasi spirit says – the day will come – till then, we will manage with it – with the ‘travel’ alternatives available.

©/IPR: Santosh Chaubey – https://santoshchaubey.wordpress.com/