If Looks Could Still

I pulled my cap closer to my ears. Sniffed in the nippy air. Steadied my camera bag on my aching shoulders and did what I consider most uncomfortable — walking right through a big crowd of spectators. If I was ever gonna get any good photographs, I had to step outside of my “comfort zone”, quite literally. I had to step to a place from where I could get a better framing and closer shots. Then I did one more thing I consider below my dignity — go over to a spot that was occupied by a photographer two minutes ago. I do not like to blend into a crowd of people with DSLR’s carelessly dangling around their necks. It is too cliché. But well, my photos were not going to be cliché. I hope.

It was only a little past 6:30pm but it already felt like 9pm. The sky was dark. Right in front of me, now, was a pujari on a takhat, or wooden platform, holding incense sticks in his one hand, temple bell in the other, and performing the grand arti as casually as if he was smoking a cigarette at a paan shop. He eyed me once, nonchalantly, and his look told me that in his mind he was like, “them photographers!”. I shifted over a little to the other takhat with another pujari. He had long, dark, curly hair and black, intense eyes. His eyes seemed to be constantly saying something. His lips were moving in sync with the mantras being chanted, though his eyes wandered here and there occasionally, all the time keeping a firm grip and focus on the karpur thaal or arti in his hands. I wondered what he did to keep away the cold in that dhoti. It was probably silk but not enough to stay the cold. He darted a look at me too, while I was fussing with my camera and chanting the mantras while at it. I was trying out a different style of capturing blur. I was also trying to escape his look, hiding behind my camera. There is something very uncanny about looking someone right in the eyes. It is like revealing a part of you to the one who you gaze fully at. It is like allowing a part of you to break down, and feel some emotion. It is like allowing a little bit of the other into you. He was looking at me fully now. It was the same look as the other pujari’s, intermingled with some curiosity, as if his eyes said, “this one looks a little different from the rest”. Well, I was. I was Indian, for one. I was melting in devotion for another. I wasn’t a tourist, for yet another.

After a few minutes, I became aware of almost all the pujaris taking note of me. I had been observing them with the unbridled curiosity of a cat. Was it showing on my face? Unnecessary and improbable as it seemed, it was becoming clear that I presented as unusual a character to them — young, small, bespectacled woman, alone, packed in woollens from top to bottom, carring a camera the size of her head, singing mantras as if she knows them, snapping photos in a rather candid manner— as they did to me. I was so not blending into the crowd. Pity that I like to blend in (except for a crowd of photographers. I do not like to blend into that). Doesn’t change the fact that I almost never blend in. I do not like standing out. One would think it would be tough for me to stand out considering how I am tiny and all. So one would think.

The next day, I went back to the arti. I wandered on another ghat and then made my way to the Dashashwamedh ghat. As I secured a good viewing spot from where I could see them all, I saw a flicker of recognition in the eyes of the pujaris, as they turned around facing the viewing aisle where I was, as if saying, “there, she is back!” This time, I lingered on after the arti finished. I had to talk to the curly haired fellow. He was too intriguing to not be spoken to. I dint know what I wanted to talk to him about. But I had to talk to him. His gaze had been piercing through me. Did he do that to everyone or was it just me? I would find out. I stuck around, losing sight of the pujaris in the mass of people. I thought they might have left already, though I dint see them leaving. But I would definitely have seen them leave in their shiny dhotis and bright red sweaters. Then I saw the curly head. He looked and me and immediately his eyes said that he knew that I would come over to talk to him. He knew I was coming over now even before I had started moving from the spot where I was.

I stopped him on his way. Said “Namaste”, to which he replied with a polite nod. Really, just a nod? I thought he would be happy to know that I am not just Indian, but a thoroughbred UP-ite. I was speaking in very good Hindi. I always speak in very good Hindi. I asked him where they learn the arti. He explained that they are all trained. I asked him if he was from Kashi. He wasn’t, he was here to study. Study? Study what? He was doing an MA in Sanskrit. Oh wow! That was something I would definitely do if I could buy myself two years of free time. He explained how they were seniors, and trained their juniors. He explained how only brahmans were allowed to offer the arti. I was beginning to sound like a wonderstruck kid as I replied to his every answer with another question. I was a very keen listener. I always am. He waited for a few seconds for me to fire further questions at him. His eyes with their raised eyebrows gave me an enquiring look, waiting for my further questions. His head had been slightly bowed the whole time. Was he being respectful? Probably. I just could not think of what else to ask. I should be asking him something that I could use in my travel story, but I was drawing a blank now. I can think of atleast ten more things now. At that time, I had fallen into silence from listening to him. I complimented him on the beauty of the arti and thanked him. He said “thank you” politely with a hint of a smile and disappeared into the crowds. I wondered where he went.

It fascinated me that there were still people in this world who could carry on tradition with a depth of spiritual understanding and the ease of everyday task. That combination is rare. What fascinated me even more was that I was fascinated by a pujari, of all the people. What fascinated me even more was that I had nothing but respect for him, without knowing him at all.

Every time I see the Ganga arti, I feel a part of me disappear; disappear into the beauty of the offering. Any true art reaches its pinnacle when you can disappear and get lost in the art. Where there is nothing to understand, only a feeling of being one with it. Where, even for a few minutes, there is no you.

I looked at the Ganga, a vast expanse of soft darkness bobbing up and down in the moonlight. I pulled my jacket tighter around myself. I had to leave the next day. Though I knew that a part of me never left from there and was never going to leave from there. A part of me was a part of here. A part of me is still sitting on the ghats, soaking in the silence and drinking the love that runs in the water of Varanasi.

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