Uttar Pradesh, Varanasi, Religious Hindu city, Santro, Ballia, busy intersection, traffic jam, huge Bull, long wait, poke with toe!
If you haven’t read PART ONE, you can read it HERE first
In fact, I don’t believe the bull even felt that someone was trying something to get his attention. At least, it showed no signs of acknowledgment. And just then, I felt a tug on my right arm. A man in a white kurta with a tri-color scarf around his neck (a pretty common accessory in that part), pulled me towards him and said “Kya kar rahe ho? Yeh Shiv Ji ke vaahan hai” [What are you doing? That is Lord Shiva’s Vahana]
For the uninitiated, Hindu deities have mythical animals and birds as their ‘Vahanas’, or carriers that they mount, to achieve supersonic speeds of travel. Lord Shiva was allocated a white bull calf called Nandi, who is often separately worshipped by many Hindu devotees. As per the Hindu mythology, Nandi is the eternal devotee of Lord Shiva, who also acts as the guardian for the deity and watches over him.
I explained to him that this was just a bull that was creating unnecessary trouble for the commuters, and I was only trying to make it move, so we can all go on with our work. But he was unconvinced and within minutes, there were 5-6 people all around me murmuring their disapproval. While three of them were trying to talk me out of it, I heard random people making comments like “Yeh Paapi hai” [He is a sinner] and “Shiv ji ise maaf nahi karenge” [Lord Shiva won’t forgive him]
Sensing trouble, I backtracked and said “Fine, if you want him to stay like that, who am I to stop you?”
I started to walk away, back to my vehicle. But one guy pulled me back by my shoulder
“Kahan jaa rahe ho? Maafi kaun mangega?” [Where are you going? Who will apologise?]
Apologise? To whom?
And that is exactly what I asked the gentleman. To which the guy answered “Shiv ji se” [To Lord Shiva].
By this time there was a growing crowd around us, of at least twenty people by then, and someone in the crowd decided to take it a step further and announced;
“Yeh Mussalman hai, tabhi Shiv ji ka apmaan kar raha hai” [He is a Muslim, that is why he is insulting Lord Shiva]
That made people far more hostile, and I saw a sudden urge from some of the guys at the back, to step in and get a better view of this ‘Muslim guy insulting their Hindu God’.
And out of these approaching enthusiasts, I heard someone speak out those magic words “Peeto saale ko” [Beat him up]!!!
Someone grabbed at my collar and I struggled to free myself, trying to forcefully declare that I am not a Muslim. At this point, the first guy in a white kurta, stepped forward and restrained the guy holding my collar, and asked me
“To kaun ho? Hindu?” [So who are you? A Hindu?]
Now, from my late teens I have convinced myself that I am an atheist and not a Hindu, despite being born into a religious Hindu family. But my sixth sense alerted me, that declaration would not help solve the matter in hand. So I just nodded, evident enough for them to get what I meant, but subtle enough for me to feel I wasn’t saying something I didn’t believe in.
The guy, unconvinced, threw the question “To naam kya aap ka?” [Whats your name then?]
I murmured my name and could sense how divided the reactions were to my first name. Some thought I was lying by taking the name of the most famous actor from Bollywood, Amitabh Bachchan, who happened to hail from that very state. But someone in the crowd picked up my family name and questioned “Das? Matlab Bangaali?” [Das? Meaning Bengali?]
I nodded in the affirmative again, this time with a stronger gesture of my head, preparing myself for the moment of truth. It might all depend on how people in UP perceive Bengalis. From the way I remembered, Bengalis have been painting the picture of ‘UPiites’ in not-the-most-flattering manner, for decades. Most people in Bengal perceived the people from UP as lesser educated, uncouth laborers, and call them ‘Hindustanis’ (which ironically means Indians, although the name probably comes from ‘Hindi speaking’). Many even clubbed UP together with Bihar, which they are made to believe, is the worst state in India, for various reasons. Of course, Bengalis are famously known for being ignorant and lost in their self-glorifying intellectual world that ceased to exist post-independence, by most people from other states.
But luckily, it seemed that a Bengali’s image in Uttar Pradesh was better than it was, the other way around. At least no one tried to grab my collar anymore. That doesn’t mean it was over though. One man came closer to me and started speaking softly in Bengali
“Ekhane chena jana keu achhe?” [Do you know someone here?]
I was sure he was trying to help me as a fellow Bengali, so I told him that I work here and I know quite a few people, some of them pretty powerful (I meant my distributors). He asked me how long will it take for any or some of them, to show up. Looking at the traffic and considering the distance, I told him it might take 35-40 minutes at the earliest. The man, in his 50s I would guess, lowered his voice and gave me the gist of what was about to happen. He said there were two ways out of this.
One, I contacted those powerful people I know, and ask them to show up and take care of the situation. The pro, I might be able to get away if they were really well-connected locals. The con, the idea of calling someone for help doesn’t often go well with a crowd, and they might react aggressively to the idea. Considering 35-40 minutes is a long time for a crowd that is not expected to be patient, things can turn ugly within minutes.
Two, I accept my mistake and give them what they want, an apology! Pro, he will try and do his part to make sure it doesn’t go too far (he explained he was a Bengali himself, living in Varanasi for most of his life), and generally, the crowd wouldn’t manhandle an educated person unless provoked. The Con, it might be humiliating for me personally.
At this point, a few guys, clearly not impressed by our intimate chat in Bengali, tried to shoo him away and shouted at me “Bahut ho gaya, ab maafi maango Shiv ji se” [That’s enough, now apologize to Lord Shiva].
Alas, it was time for me to take a decisive call. Having seen a fair bit of college politics and the Communist driven cadre-based politics in Bengal, I was convinced that a mob can’t wait for forty minutes, and once it loses its patience, there is no controlling the demon.
So I agreed to apologize!
To cut a long and embarrassing story short, I had to kneel down in the middle of the road, a couple of feet from this huge bull, and utter the words “Shiv ji, hume maaf kar dijiye” [Lord, Shiva please forgive me]
At the crowd’s insistence, I had to speak those words thrice, the last time at the peak of my voice, so that neither the mob nor Lord Shiva, had any doubts over my sincerity. Someone in the crowd suggested that I should hold my ears while apologizing, but the Bengali uncle somehow managed to nip that idea in its bud. After the third time, he came forward and picked me up, and firmly caught my hand and started walking away.
The gathered crowd felt very disappointed that the show was over and there were a few demands of something more interesting, but at this point the Bull, after being sedentary for God knows how long, suddenly rose up and lazily started walking away. That was considered to be the divine signal, that my apology had been accepted by Lord Shiva himself. So I was allowed to walk back to my car, and the uncle made sure to escort me back. In a few minutes, I started the engine and maneuvered through the now dispersing crowd, some of them still stealing a glance at me.
This incident was so humiliating for me, that for almost a decade I never mentioned it to anyone. Over time, I made myself believe, that it was more humiliating for those men who made me do this, but these days, I am not very convinced about that logic. The fact that this incident happened in my own country, makes me feel worse, as I have been around the world a fair bit, and have never come close to anything like this.
But one thing I am pretty sure of, if this incident happened today, the result would have been very different. Fifteen years back, I was humiliated in public, but despite an aggressive crowd, I was barely manhandled and definitely not physically assaulted. Of course, one doesn’t know what would have happened, if I had not chosen the easier path of apologizing. But in today’s India and today’s Uttar Pradesh, I would have been surely assaulted and flogged, if not lynched by the crowd.
This incident aside, my close to three years in Uttar Pradesh (two in Varanasi and one in Allahabad) was one of the most exciting stints of my life, both from a personal and professional point. There is something absolutely fascinating about Varanasi, those alleys, those heavily populated streets, those colourful buildings, that indifference from the cows on the streets, and those mystical Ghats by the river (steps leading into the river) along with the pot smoking ‘Sadhus’ in tents. Varanasi is a city, that is unlike any other city in the world. I don’t think Varanasi is a place for everyone, no place is, but if you have not visited Varanasi in your life, and have not felt its deep, underlying spirit, you have missed out on something valuable in your life!
I will leave you with this mesmerizing tour of the city of Varanasi.