Can you tell us a bit about what inspired you to write a book about Varanasi?
For me, travelling and writing go hand in hand as a means to explore and work through certain things which interest me. It’s a great privilege really to be able to spend a lot of time doing this and, in that sense, the books I’ve done have been snapshots of my mind during a certain period of my life. In the case of Kaleidoscope City: A Year in Varanasi. I’d been in India several years, visiting Varanasi regularly, before it occurred to me to try and write a book about it. On almost every initial visit I fled after some time, either to go South to Kerala or North to Himachal, just to recover from the experience of being in the city. It’s shattering. But then after a while the lure of the place began to needle at me. Finally I just decided oh, what the hell, let’s really go for it and move there for a while! It seemed a place where I could look at some of the core spiritual matters which were interesting me, as well as the juxtaposition of old and new.
Where did you live?
I lived in Assi Ghat, which is the southernmost ghat, and which remains quite charming, with buffalo that bathe in the river and so forth. It’s long been the choice for long term visitors from the West so there’s a lively community of sitar players and Sanskrit scholars with whom to share a chai with. Friends tell it was positively rural until quite recently but, as with the rest of the city, it’s changing at lightning speed now. I went back last year actually and the tea stand I used to go to which sat on a sort of lane is now basically drowned out by traffic. I felt quite dispirited.
Can you recommend some other books on the city for our readers?
Ah yes, certainly. Photographically, the city has been extremely well covered so there are a number of beautiful photo books I would suggest. Dayanita Singh, whose work I love, has this exquisite boxset covered in linen, that contains these slim volumes on a number of Indian cities, one of which is Benares. That’s a favourite. Raghu Rai has also done magical work on the city. His book is called: Varanasi: Portrait of a Civilization.
Fiction wise, Pankaj Mishra’s The Romantics: A Novel is a modern classic, I hope he’ll write more fiction one of these days because he’s very good at it. I would also recommend the poetry and particularly the journals of the forgotten genius Lewis Thompson who lived in the city during the 1930’s.
Well William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India is an obvious choice. I feel this is an exceptional piece of work and, as I was reading it, I delighted in the fact that he had almost completely stepped out of the frame himself. Having written two quite personal travel books before it showed me how I could to move to the background and let the characters speak. Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found is a magnificent piece of work, too. I had that close to hand, as well as scores of academic books on the city fed to me by Rakesh who owns Harmony Books. This little shop was a stone’s throw from my house and its owner a font of information. He helped me immensely both with what I should be reading and who to talk to.
Do you feel optimistic about India, and particularly about the future of it’s oldest city?
One of the things which is blindingly evident in Varanasi is that the city is not a place so much as a process, a continually evolving thing which is different one day than the next. Certainly, when one tries to hold the city against some imagined former version of itself (and this goes for India as well) it’s hard not to pine for certain things which appear to be fading quite rapidly: the sense of community, traditions of storytelling and music and so forth. I am a romantic by nature and drawn to these old ways but, I like to think, aware of this, too. On the plus side, the free movement of information offered by the web and social media, in particular, is shaking up a lot of the old inequalities, one can see young couples hand in hand, even in Varanasi now, and so there’s tremendous reason for optimism. With regards to the city itself – as in the bricks and mortar – I’m sorry to see India hasn’t had more success getting Varanasi accepted as a World Heritage site. It unquestionably should be and I still hope that may happen. But it will take concerted effort to improve certain aspects of the infrastructure.
Hectic may be an understatement! I would suggest first that people find a place to stay which is tranquil. Establishing a calm base is a must in the city because then you can go out into the fray for a while and then return to calm down. So that’s the first thing. Secondly, don’t try to do too much. It’s not a city which responds well to the ‘been there, done that’ school of tourism. There are things to see, yes, but none which are going to give you the experience of the city which comes from keeping quiet, sitting and observing, acclimatizing to the maelstrom, and then slowly letting the magic of the place seep into you. Even for the most hardened traveller it can be crazy so you can’t go out to find the magic. That will hit you when you least expect it, while you’re doing other things.
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