VARANASI: The steep stairs of Munshi Ghat, rising right from the riverbank, send flashes of familiar visuals to any Bengali’s brain. Isn’t this the route, which led Feluda to the hideout of the fake Machhlibaba? Yes, it is.
Courtesy Satyajit Ray, Varanasi and Bengalis will remain inseparable, perhaps forever.
Varanasi was once called a ‘mini Kolkata’. Nearly three lakh Bengalis, who had settled here were engaged in various activities – trading, business and tourist services, among others. Many of the wealthy Bengalis built large houses along the riverbank and visited the place during vacations. Above all, it was a holy city and a nice place to spend time.
If Varanasi is boiling in the heat of a high profile political battle – Narendra Modi and the rest – even the dwindling population of the otherwise nonchalant Bengalis here have started throbbing in excitement.
Nobody has any clear idea about the exact number of Bengali voters in this constituency. A rough estimate puts the number to about 80,000. In a voters’ list of nearly 15 lakh, the number may be meagre to feature in the priority list of any candidate. But in the tough electoral battle of 2014, the 80,000 plus figure can’t just be ignored.
While most members of the community preferred to remain silent about their choice of candidates, the local Bengali MLA from BJP, Shyamdev (it has become “Shyamdeo” over the years) Roy Choudhury, is a popular figure among the community. Allegiance to him and the NaMo factor in Uttar Pradesh will be factors in favour of the BJP.
“Every party is the same. Look at the state of Varanasi. It’s one of the most important pilgrimage centres in India. But take a tour of the city and you will shudder at the extent of chaos and the condition of roads. There are so many civic issues to be addressed. No one is doing anything. I want to leave this place at the slightest opportunity,” said a 24-year-old Bengali youth near a grocery shop at Assi Ghat while munching paan.
Just like this man, the opportunities for young men and women have been shrinking rapidly here. “Both in terms of education and jobs, there is nothing left here for the Bengali youth,” said Saumitra Banerjee, co-owner of Dasashwamedh Boarding House. This boarding house still retains its iconic status after Ray designed his ‘Calcutta Lodge’ dormitory for the film ‘Joy Baba Felunath’ and recreated the same in a Kolkata studio.
“I still remember as a boy, Ray’s tall figure entering our drawing room seeking my father’s help,” remembers Saumitra. The Banerjees helped Ray not only with the concept but also managing the unruly crowd who used to gather during the shoots.
The Banerjees have been living and running the boarding house for the past 84 years, catering to Bengali tourists. They have seen the exodus of Bengalis from Varanasi over the years.
Parthasarathi, brother of Saumitra, said, “We are perhaps one of the very few hotels which have a stamp of Bengal on it and the USP of the hotel is a ‘perfect Bengali’ atmosphere with authentic Bengali food.” Just like the Banerjees, several other families are trying to preserve their Bengali identity. Strains of Rabindrasangeet welcomed HT at the Bangalitola Intermediate College compound. (HTNS)
On the left side of the huge field, several kids were spotted dancing to the tunes of popular Bengali numbers with teachers correcting their steps. Apart from the participants, there was equal number of enthusiasts watching the rehearsals.
“We are rehearsing for a programme next week,” explained Debashis Das, secretary of Bangiya Samaj, a socio-cultural organisation engaged in all kinds of activities, including women’s issues, health and even hearse services.
Bangiya Samaj and several other Bengali organisations are trying to preserve Bengali culture through multifarious activities.
“This was once called the Second Bengal. Bengalis were part of Varanasi’s society. Even today, every one calls a Bengali man dada,” said Das. He explained how Bengalis are slowly getting uprooted from their second home because of the lack of opportunities. “Most of the big houses owned by Bengalis have either been sold or encroached. There are no good academic institutions here. Why would any one stay back,” lamented Debashis.
Fifty yards from Dasashwamedh Ghat is the starting point of Bangalitola, a labyrinth of narrowest of the narrow lanes and by-lanes. A few decades back, Bangalitola was the hub of all Bengali-centric activity and the residence of most members of the community.
Slowly, the Bengalis left the area, deserted their shops as well as business ventures and Bangalitola turned into an area without Bengalis. Even today, there are shops selling typical Bengali marriage items or sweets at obscure corners. But the numbers are shrinking every day.
Bengalis’ tryst with Varanasi is coming to an end. Those who are clinging on to their second homes may not find that spirit left in their next generation. Narendra Modi has been on a wooing mode in Bengal, addressing one meeting after another. Bengalis of Varanasi may not be that fortunate.