I have just returned but I want to go back. I want to go back right now. Nothing deters me at this moment; not the dreadfully long flight, not even the impending hot summer that is about to set in there. Work here, that is about to get busy, isn’t luring me to stay either. This is surreal to me. This longing makes no sense. And yet it is the only real thing to me right now. Is it the same me, who usually feels exhausted upon returning, who typically needs a year to find the need to go back?
What was different this time about the towns that I have gone to so many times before? Was it waiting in the serpentine queue with fellow Indians at the Taj Mahal? Was it the several train rides through the two weeks? Was it visiting the architecture college in Jodhpur? I can’t lay my finger on it, but something was different this time. I’ve felt most at home this time.
I was often trailing several steps behind my co-travelers, lost in my own thoughts but very much rooted in my surroundings. Why did I catch up with them? I should have wandered away at least once. Or hopped off the train and stayed back at a station accidentally. May be that is why I long to go back. To find out what I could have found had I gotten lost.
This was my first visit to Benares, the holiest city for Hindus. I don’t identify with the two key words in that sentence. What is Holy? What makes one a Hindu? These aren’t concepts that were ever a part of my life. And yet it was impossible to resist the mysticism of the city.
Growing up, there was a small Ganesh temple at the corner of the street from my uncle’s home. Or was it some other god? I can’t remember. But it was a very modest temple, a complete contrast from the ostentatious one on the other end of the same street. I remember as young children, when we were sent out to the either collect the laundry from the dhobi or get last minute supplies in the evening, we’d make a beeline for this little temple, mostly to chime the bells or eat the sugary sweets they offered to the devotees. I was fascinated by the simple ritual of taking off our slippers at the stoop, spending a few minutes there and soaking in the sound of prayers, the smells of the flowers and incense sticks, getting seconds of the sweets and then heading back home. It was magical, especially at that hour in the evening. This is my only memory closest to any religious activity from my childhood. And yet some strings of my heart were gently tugged on as I sat in our boat mesmerized by the evening aarti at the Ghats in Benares, the sound of which transported me back several decades right into those few stray evenings from my childhood. I am not sure if I regret that religion is not a natural part of my life. But I do miss it’s absence. Is it even possible to miss something that you’ve never really experienced? I want to go back to find out what it could be to be a Hindu.
I didn’t take many pictures this year. I had too many from the previous visit and I lacked a new perspective this time. In the first few days, I tried to create a collage of people. People watching is always fun. But soon I felt psuedo with an elitist attitude taking pictures of simple people who were finding joy in small things. I felt so small and ashamed and so I stopped. But today, I regret all those photographs I didn’t take. I remembered what my friend said to me when I had shared my apprehensions:
“Photography is a way of feeling, of touching, of loving. What you have caught on camera is captured forever… It remembers little things, long after you have forgotten everything.”
All those images, though captured in my mind, will slowly fade. And I will miss them. I want to rush back, hoping to find those scenes intact and take those pictures so I can cherish them forever.
This longing is rather absurd. Will it subside with time? Or will I simply tuck it away in a corner until the next time?
PS: Thank you Sussana for reminding me that it’s okay to allow those strings to be pulled.