Book Box | Letter from Banaras - Hindustan Times

Book Box | Letter from Banaras

Mar 02, 2024 10:47 PM IST

This bookish journey in Banaras includes tea with friends, tales of the Doms, and Mirza Ghalib's poetic tribute

Dear Reader,

Harmony BookStore, Banaras(Author) PREMIUM
Harmony BookStore, Banaras(Author)

It is a winter afternoon at the Dashashwamedh Ghat, and we three sit cross-legged on a marble slab overlooking the Ganga.

Up in the distance, a paper kite soars high in the sky. Below, on the river, boatloads of pilgrims sail past us. A boy comes by with milky tea. It's been years since I drank milk in my tea, but sitting with my two friends, going back thirty years to our college canteen, I nod my head. The tea is delicious, and soothing in its milk, sugar and cardamom flavour.

We are sitting at the very spot where Lord Brahma is supposed to have made a ten-horse sacrifice to rule over Divodasa, the king of Kashi. Today, as if in continuance of this tradition, we are asked to make our little sacrifice.

A trio comes towards us, a pandit and two sari-clad ladies. Could we vacate our space for them, they ask. It isn’t even a choice. So profoundly affected are we by the positive vibrations of this holy city that we smilingly comply, squeezing ourselves behind a friendly family who are passing around a comb, a mirror and a kajal stick, as they dress themselves after having bathed in the river.

The trio, in the meantime, sit down and begin a solemn ceremony. The pandit assembles a colourful palette— red chilli powder, golden turmeric, black sesame seeds, and grains. He sprinkles water from a copper pot on this concoction, and the two sari-clad ladies begin to knead little balls of dough.

"It's pitridaan, the puja for your ancestors" my friend whispers to me. "It used to be only men that did this. How progressive that these ladies are doing it on their own."

My friend takes off her sandals and steps into the Ganga. Coming out, she cups her hands full of gangajal and sprinkles droplets on our foreheads, our hair, our upturned faces.

Later, as we three walk along the ghats, we stop abruptly at Manikarnika Ghat, where the pyres burn.

"I read a book set right here on this ghat," I tell them, “It’s called Fire on the Ganges: Life Among the Dead in Banaras. And it’s about the Doms, the Scheduled Castes who light the pyres here. There’s the story of this young boy, he talks of going to the ghat with his father, smelling burning flesh and taking wood from the burning embers for the stove at home. It was hard to read.”

Dolphin restaurant, Benaras(Author)
Dolphin restaurant, Benaras(Author)

Afterwards, when we stop by Harmony Book Store on Assi Ghat, we see many copies of Fire on the Ganges. "It's good someone has finally written about the Doms," says Rakesh, the proprietor. Rakesh brings me Tales of Banaras by Shiv Prasad Mishra, translated from Hindi. And On The Ganges: Encounters with Saints and Sinners along India’s Mythic River.

On a shelf, above One Hundred Years of Solitude, I see The Romantics, an atmospheric coming-of-age story, about a young boy living in Banaras and becoming friendly with an Englishwoman. It is a book I enjoyed reading; what I liked most was how writer Pankaj Mishra managed to juxtapose two worlds—the world of the searching-for-soul foreigner and the gritty violent world of the Banaras underworld and its debt collectors.

There’s also Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer. Reading the book before our trip here, I grew fascinated by Hotel Ganges View, the heritage hotel on the Ganges river, where Dyer stayed for months because he couldn’t bring himself to leave Varanasi. Turns out it now costs upwards of 45,000 a night to stay there. Maybe we could drop in for tea, I wonder, and drink in the atmosphere in an abbreviated paisa vasool way—but it is not to be. The restaurant at Ganges View is only for hotel guests, I am informed.

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi(Author)
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi(Author)

Harmony Bookstore is crowded and cramped, but we spend ages browsing.

When we leave, we are laden. Besides the two titles that the bookstore owner gave me, I have books my friends have bought for me—Pilgrims’ India an anthology of pilgrimage stories by different writers. And also Love in a Dead Language by Lee Siegel, a quirky romp that riffs on the Kama Sutra.

I’ve bought books as gifts too—those books you sneakily buy your friends because you want to borrow them! "It's going to go to Bengaluru with you, can I have The Twice Born for tonight?" I say, in that way, you can get away, with friends you’ve known forever.

I read The Twice Born late into the night, travelling with Aatish Taseer into his exploration of himself and his identity. The love child of an Indian journalist and a Pakistani politician, Taseer hides his half-Muslim side while he is in Benares. Interestingly he chooses to focus on Brahmins or the twice-born, making this book the polar opposite of Fire on the Ganges. The book is not radical or revelatory in any huge way, but I enjoy his anecdotes, facts and figures from history, like the story of the Kashi Vishwanath temple razed by Aurangzeb to the ground and rebuilt with funds from the Maratha queen Ahilyabai Holkar. It all feels very immediate, as Taseer in this book, lives in Assi Ghat, at the Alice Boner Institute, next to the Harmony bookstore, and wanders the very streets we have been walking by.

The next day, as we drive to the airport, we each talk of our best moments in this city. Tea and pakoras at the Dolphin restaurant, with its view of the river and the Ganga arti, gliding by the ghats on a boat on the river, the darshan at the Kashi Vishwanath temple, and chai and white butter toast afterwards, there are so many.

But it is only a week later that I find the last word on Banaras. It is fittingly, from a man who lived over 100 years ago, a man who spent many months recovering his health and falling in love with this city, a man who is known as the greatest Urdu poet of all. Here is a verse from Mirza Ghalib, from his Chirag-e-Dhair or Lamp of the Temple translated by Kuldip Salil, a verse that brings our own Dashashwamedh Ghat experience back to me.

It would be quite reasonable to say

That Banaras is beloved


Busy morning and evening

Doing make-up

Using the Ganges

For a mirror

In her hands.”

Next week, we move many miles, from Banaras to Cambridge, to celebrate Women’s Day with Cambridge don and classics scholar Mary Beard. We talk about reading and writing, being forbidden to read Enid Blyton and breaking out of the trying-to-be-a-man trap.

Until then, happy reading.

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at


Fire on the Ganges: Life Among the Dead in Banaras by Radhika Iyengar

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The Romantics by Pankaj Mishra

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer

Tales of Benares, the Flowing Ganges: The Life and Lore of India's Sacred City on the Ganges by Shiva Prasad Mishra

The Ganges: Encounters with Saints and Sinners Along India’s Mythic River by George Black

Pilgrim's India: An Anthology edited by Arundhathi Subramaniam

Love in a Dead Language by Lee Siegel.

The Twice Born by Aatish Taseer

Chirag-e-Dhair or Lamp of the Temple by Mirza Ghalib, translated by Kuldip Salil


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