2002, VARANASI, INDIA!
As a professional, I have had the privilege of living in and traveling to numerous cities, both in and out of my home country India. almost every city has given me memories worth remembering for my whole life, but some stories are wasted, if they are not narrated to others. Today, I will tell you a story from early 2002, when I was based in Uttar Pradesh, the most populated state in India.
UTTAR PRADESH (U.P.) AND VARANASI, THE HOLY CITY
Uttar Pradesh is a heavily populated state in northern India, with a landmass of over 7% of India, and a population of 200 million (16.6%). It has a Muslim population of close to 20% and a majority Hindu population of almost 80%. By numbers, UP, as it is called in short, has the highest population of both Hindus and Muslims, among all the states in india.
Back in 2001-02, I was based in the city of Varanasi (also known as Banaras or Kashi) as the Area Manager for Coca-Cola, handling a few upcountry districts apart from part of Varanasi City itself. Back then, smart phones were not yet trending, social media was yet to be born, and the country was, in general, not in a conflict mode all the time. Although UP had seen its share of communal riots, especially since the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid, a mosque from the Mughal era that many Hindus believe, was the birthplace of Hindu deity Lord Rama. This mosque was in Ayodhya, also in the state of Uttar Pradesh. But the infamous Gujarat riots, which split apart the whole country in communal lines, was still a couple of months away.
Varanasi itself has a special connection with Hinduism and is considered the ‘holiest’ of the seven sacred cities in Hinduism. U.P. in general, has always had a large Hindu population that is religious, God-fearing and proud of their religious heritage.
As the Area Sales Manager, I was responsible for the sales of Coca-Cola products, through a massive distribution network spread across a number of districts, some far away from my base in Varanasi. The entire geography was allocated to and divided between ‘distributors’, who were private business owners partnering with the company, to distribute their products to retail and wholesale channels, within their allocated territories. All these distributors were local businessmen, usually wealthy and commercially astute, and with significant clout in their own areas.
Most of our distributors were religious Hindus and many of them had named their agencies with religious Hindu names like Krishna Enterprise, Maa Kaali Agency, Om Distributors, Hari Om Enterprises, Maa Mansha Agency etc.
That morning, I was supposed to drive down to one of my upcountry markets in Ballia, a distance of almost 150 kms and with the terrible roads back then, it was expected to take at least 5 hrs of driving each way. I had planned to stay the night in Ballia city, and drive back the following morning.
I started at 8 am and soon reached the main intersection (chowraha) from where the roads split towards Ghazipur (and eventually Ballia) and Azamgarh. This was a massive circular intersection and as you can imagine in a city like Varanasi, with humans, cars, rickshaws, bicycles and cows coming from everywhere, it was a massive challenge to get past this, and this day was no exception.
After waiting for over 15 minutes without moving more than a couple of feet, I became a bit impatient and decided to take a peek and assess the situation. I kept the engine running and stepped out of my car, a black Hyundai Santro, which was barely two months old. Seeing no movement and finding no reason for the jam, I kept walking for almost 20 metres, glancing back at my car every few seconds to make sure it hasn’t disappeared, before I came to witness the problem myself.
There was a HUGE bull sitting in the middle of the road, just at the turn of the circular intersection. I presume, it identified that spot as the most spacious location within a 500 meter radius. People walked around it, cycles somehow zigzagged around it, and cars competed with each other to move inch by inch around the huge mass of flesh. To its left, there was not enough space for a car to pass, so humans and cycles went that way mostly. To the right, it needed a skilful driver to manoeuvre past it but every time one gains a foot, someone else comes right in front. Then there were also the self declared traffic guides who were waving to the motorists
“Go go go..STOP! No..a little left..more more.. keep going… STOP! Go back…”
The huge beast, meanwhile, was least bothered by all this fracas, and was ruminating on its early morning breakfast with an arrogant ‘I don’t give a damn’ attitude. The world around him had collapsed into utter chaos.
I watched this frustrating scene for a few minutes and realised, that on an average, a car was taking nine minutes to go around the bull. I walked back to my car and on my way back, counted twelve cars before mine waiting to pass the huge animal. Turning on my car aircon, I tried to make myself come to terms with the fact that it might take over two hours to overcome this, at its present rate. Ballia would be another five hours after that!
I switched off the engine, lowered my windows and decided to have a smoke, to clear my head, and that’s when it occured to me, that I ought to take matters into my own hands. For me, my car and for the sake of the good people of Varanasi, I had to find a solution to this!
So, I locked my car and walked back to the centre of attention, squeezing through the mesh of all the cars in between. The mighty Bull had not changed his position by even an inch, except for trying to squat a few flies with his tail. I studied the bull closely for a couple of minutes. This was indeed a huge one, mostly of dull white colour, with some patches of dark grey near its hump, two sharp and pointed horns, and in my estimate could weigh at least five hundred kilos, if not more.
I am usually very cautious about the males of any species within the animal kingdom, including homo sapiens, and I first looked for signs of aggression in this massive beast. Observing only a look of disinterest from him, I concluded that the bull was infinitely more lethargic than me, and was unlikely to end up chasing me. And in the extreme case he did, the time he would need to get his bulk up and running, was more than what I needed in a busy intersection, to make myself disappear in the crowd. Being in my mid 20s then, my confidence in my own reflex and ability to run, was admirably higher than what it is today.
I stooped closer to the Bull’s head and made some loud noise at first, to which the beast just turned his head away, the way many of us react, when we hear Himesh Reshammiya sing. I clapped, stamped my boot to the ground with a thud, and even pretended to throw a stone to scare the bull, but he didn’t even flinch. A small crowd gathered to witness this amusing scene of a decently well dressed young guy, doing a solo act in front of a bull, sitting with a royal pose at a busy intersection.
Running out of patience, I decided the bull needed some physical disturbance, and I tried to give it a nudge with my bare hands. Some dirt and dry skin ended up in my palm which discouraged me from further efforts. So rubbing off my hands, I proceeded to use my booted feet to poke him, near his leg area. A quick disclaimer for animal lovers and PETA activists, neither my nudge nor my poke was hurtful in anyway, the idea was to disturb, even irritate the bull, but definitely not to hurt him, for my own safety!