Remembering Benares

The city that inspired The Romantics

Pankaj Mishra

Darbhanga Palace, Benares. Saptarshi Sanya / Creative Commons

More than twenty years ago, I published my first novel, The Romantics. The book was based partly on my own experience in the city of Benares, which I moved to in the winter of 1988 for a few months. I remember that when I arrived one early morning, the city seemed, from the last ghat in the south, to roll away on one side of the Ganges, old and bleached and smothered by mist, the only sign of life coming from the flicker and glow of the perennially burning funeral pyres. Then, as I stood there, marveling at what was more apparition than city, there came a strange sound—the hollow boom of a train invisibly crossing a bridge over the river in the north.

I was nineteen years old, three years out of home, a few months out of university, and trying to get further away from the incessant whispers around me: “Apply for jobs, marry and settle down.” Benares was like no place I had known or read about, and it seemed to offer exactly what I wanted: a chance to live alone in a place that had no memories and associations for me and to look out at a world I did not understand but could perhaps begin to grasp.

Writing these sentences today, I can feel the damp of the city’s stone alleys, hear the creak of the waterwheel over the well in the courtyard of my decrepit house, smell the woodsmoke at the street-side dive where I ate a masala omelet every morning, and these memories of a dignified poverty give me a pang—not only a melan­choly sense of the vanished years and the deepening confrontation with mortality that lay ahead but also bafflement over how a city whose crumbling buildings had persisted for so long—enshrining decay as the main principle of history—could be so quickly ruined.

The ambition to write, though timidly concealed and never shared with anyone, licensed this unconventional life I had cho­sen.

The ruination began not long after I left Benares. Criminal gangs specializing in kidnapping and extortion had already filled the vacuum created by failed industrialization in the region. In the 1990s, mafia dons from nearby districts began to shape local politics and to build shopping malls of glass and steel near the river. More recently, Narendra Modi, the city’s elected member of the Indian parliament and the country’s current prime minister, demolished ancient temples and alleys in order to plant his insecurely grand and ultra-modern monuments of Hindu supremacism.

I, of course, had no hint of a future tainted by the promise of affluence and chauvinism. It seemed that I had all the time to spend. What would I have given then to know that I didn’t, and to not have the misconception that makes the evanescence of youth seem so tragic in retrospect.

My room on the roof of an old sitar player’s house had a bed, a chair, a barred window—and nothing else. The rest of the house was similarly bare, equipped with the minimum of things nec­essary for eating, sleeping, dying, and making music. I had little money and ate only one full meal a day in order to economize. The electricity failed often, especially at night, and I had to read by the light of a kerosene lantern. But it was the first time I had a room of my own, and the boon of privacy and solitude seemed to make up for my material deprivations.

I also had my books—a carefully curated selection of European literature—and a romantic idea of myself as a thinker and writer. Indeed, the ambition to write, though timidly concealed and never shared with anyone, licensed this unconventional life I had cho­sen. Yet a black hole opened in my mind whenever I thought about what I could write. And the fear I felt then—the fear that I probably had no talent—deepened my loneliness.

If writing seemed something I could not do, reading was no different. Books were to somehow open up the larger world; what­ever I grasped of their richness, their meanings and beauty, was a kind of promise of the future. But my totems of European literary and philosophical glory didn’t yield their treasures so easily. Their distance from my life seemed too great.

I found myself more than ever alone with myself. Excited by the moment of arrival, I had been unprepared for what followed, and soon time began to drag bitterly. I felt the cold stone alleys of the old city twist in around me, and I began to know solitude among their cheek-by-jowl lives—the lives fermenting behind tiny curtainless windows, where a father bent over Dainik Jagran, a daughter towel-dried her hair with a sneezing sound, a son tested a cork ball against a cricket bat, and someone practiced the tabla endlessly, monotonously.

Something lay behind everything I saw or heard—the play of light on the river or the yelps of children playing hopscotch on the ghats. Yet it seemed beyond my capacity to know what it was. And from the everyday sights of cows and scabby dogs nuzzling bro­ken clay cups, and the kites flying high over the river with nervous nods, there now came twinges of alarm about the future. The dif­ferent movements of the sitar I heard all day at my house blended into one uniform rhythm, full of jangling reproach.

I reproached myself for asking too much of life at times, espe­cially during long, idle afternoons on the ghats when all striving and achievement seemed vain before a river indifferently waiting to receive us all, its glittery surface broken occasionally by a par­tially burnt corpse.

Company arrived from two different sources: students at the Banaras Hindu University and American undergraduates on an exchange program. Of the former, I was wary from the start. Not only were the students, almost all from poor families, exposed to violent sectarian politics that exploded, frequently and treacher­ously, on the university campus itself, but their futile aspirations for government jobs that a meager primary education had long ago placed beyond their reach reminded me of my own precarious exis­tence, one step away from sinking into cruelty and squalor.

Toward the American students I felt resentment tempered by fas­cination and envy. There seemed something grossly unequal about the global dispensation of fate that had brought them to Benares with a return airline ticket to play with another possibility of being in the world. They knew little of the doomed students at the univer­sity or of the surrounding rural landscape of destitution and crime. In Benares they sought antiquity, a glamorous setting for some brief experiments in self-invention. As though proclaiming their safe dis­tance from it, they went on weekends to a five-star hotel I could not dream of entering. The envious part of me was always gratified when after some first-world merriment—an afternoon at the Taj Hotel’s swimming pool with cold beer—they returned, somber, to the old city, clamorous with rickshaw bells and funeral pyres.

My judgments on these young Americans, dictated by my pri­vate frustrations, were too severe. I recognized later that some­thing of the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s—the last great spirit of Western revolt—lived on in their paperbacks of Carlos Castaneda and Alan Watts, Allen Ginsberg’s Indian Journals and Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf. Disaffected undergraduates of the Ivy League, they took as their antagonist the white middle-class America of Reagan and Bush. Indignant over death squads in Central America, they seem to me now admirably skeptical of the chase for money and fame that, in the late 1980s, was about to become globally respectable.

The confrontation between the two groups—between those disenchanted by modern civilization and those despairingly seek­ing a foothold in it—was not something I had seen described in any of the books I read. The many ironies of the situation, and the historical inequities behind them, should have alerted me to my material. But I kept waiting for a great subject, something com­mensurate with the great literature I read, to reveal itself to me.

I am held, too, by Benares's strange destiny as Modi’s glitzy show­piece of modern Hinduism.

I had to free myself from my idolatry of books in order to write them, and that took some time. In The Romantics, published more than a decade after my months in Benares, I first wrote about the coexistence of peoples with different pasts and futures and the potentially volatile conflicts between them. Over the next two decades, this became my subject as once-isolated societies cracked, and the pace and frequency of communication between diverse peoples became manic.

I have not returned to Benares for many years. Many of the places I knew there have been razed to the ground, and the peo­ple who moved through them have moved away or are dead. Yet I cannot cease thinking about the city, its enduring paradoxes and ironies; I am held, too, by its strange destiny as Modi’s glitzy show­piece of modern Hinduism.

Leaving Benares in 1989, I did not know that its long past was being closed off forever. That city of the late 1980s—and of the 1920s; change was slow for much of the century—now exists only in the memories of those who knew it then and in the photographs and words that saved it from total oblivion. The Romantics con­stitutes one such archive. And then there are irreducibly private memories like mine, in which the sitar’s reverberations form a kind of continuous emotional hubbub—memories of a past of golden light from lanterns, the smell of cardamom from chai, the evening at the ghats coming on faster and faster, until the river is black, inky black, and a distant boom, long and hollow, from the north announces the passing of a train over the bridge.

Pankaj Mishra is the author of several books including, most recently, the novel Run and Hide.
Originally published:
December 6, 2022

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