Danish Raza| Hindustan Times
The rain has died down. Like the rest of Varanasi, Mukti Bhavan, the lodge for salvation seekers, is also fragrant with an overpowering earthy scent. Drops of water trickle down pipes. The sound of traffic is audible again in the bustling street where the Bhavan, a more than 60-year-old structure, with its wrought iron gate, arches and tin mailbox, stands as a reminder of a bygone era.
Bhairav Nath Shukla, the Bhavan’s manager for the last 40 years, has been silent while the rain was falling, and now, sitting on a wooden chair in his room, he seems even more distant, staring through the window into the bazaar beyond the lodge’s campus, which is coming back to life after the downpour. His is an unshaven, stern face with deep lines and almost unblinking eyes, framed by grey, cropped hair. Dressed in a clean, ironed dhoti-kurta, he seems the living embodiment of the lodge that he takes care of.
In the Hindu belief system, dying in Kashi, the older part of Varanasi city, along the banks of Ganga, is associated with moksha or mukti – liberation from the cycle of life and death. “Elsewhere in traditional India, the cremation ground is outside of the town, for it is polluted ground. Here, however, the cremation grounds are in the midst of a busy city, adjacent to the bathing ghats, and are holy ground, for death in Kashi is acclaimed by the tradition, as a great blessing. Dying here, one gains liberation from the earthly round of samsara,” Diana L Eck, professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies at Harvard University, writes in her book Banaras: City of Light.
A Place To Die
In 1958, industrialist Vishnu Hari Dalmia set up Mukti Bhavan for those who wanted to die in peace in Kashi.
“Let us see. Someone may come to check in now,” says Shukla in a matter-of-fact tone. Shukla hosts people when they are close to death. He allocates one of the 10 rooms in the Bhavan to them and supervises the transition from material to immortal. He has done this more than 12,000 times. “A son got his father here thinking that he would fulfill his father’s wish. The son died here and the father lived on. Matters of life and death are beyond our control,” he says, face stoic, as if he has seen it all. The last time someone occupied a room in the lodge was more than two months ago. “The nayee peedhi (the younger generation), people of your age, have got too busy to get their parents here. It is okay. They will reap what they are sowing,” says Shukla, putting a pile of hard-bound registers, smelling of seepage, on the table next to his chair. “Come, all the visitors’ details are here.”
He brushes the dust off a register with the palm of his hand, opens it, moves his forefinger over handwritten details of visitors, and starts murmuring the names. This register is Shukla’s mirror to the past. “You see this one?” he points to an entry. “He was a Naxalite. First, he came with a young man. After two days, an entire battalion landed here. They would often talk to me. Like all rebels, they tried to justify their actions, said that they had taken up arms because they were left with no other choice. They spoke of the ‘injustices’ done to them. I suggested that they surrender to the authorities. Obviously, they were not going to listen to me. After the first one died, they all left.”
He continues to turn the pages of the register. “This one was in a hurry,” he recounts a second tale. “He was upset when his father did not die within 15 days and they both had to go back home in Gaya. I could see that the father was going to live for at least another five years,” he says, clearly bewildered by the son’s attitude.
The stay at Mukti Bhavan is free. The visitor must have an attendant, and can take a room for a maximum of 15 days, after which Shukla decides whether to extend the stay or not depending on the person’s health and the availability of rooms.
These prerequisites are unique to Mukti Bhavan though. Other facilities meant for moksharthis have different terms and conditions.
The Move To Kashi
Take Kasivas Bhavan, for example. It is home to GVSP Kumar, 65, and his wife E Usha Bala, 62. They make for a picture-perfect couple. It almost seems as if they got married last week. They complete each other’s sentences; Usha pats Kumar’s white shirt to remove specks of dust that only she can see; Kumar ensures that this interview does not disturb Usha’s schedule. Both of them opted for voluntary retirement from the Hyderabad education department in 2007, and became regular visitors at Kashi’s Annapurna temple. During one of the visits in 2015, temple officials asked them if they would be interested in contributing money (`5 lakh) for one of the rooms in the then under-construction Kasivas Bhavan for people who wanted to spend their last years in Kashi. The donor had the option of taking possession of the room or giving it to the temple trust. They agreed to take the room.
When they visited the small campus, on an incline, around 50 steps away from Mukti Bhavan, they decided to live there for the rest of their lives. Kumar works pro bono in Kashi Vishwanath Temple’s hundi (donation) section. Usha is learning Carnatic music at Banaras Hindu University and does Telugu-English translation in her free time. “There is still a lot of life left in both of us. If you think we have given up, that is not the case,” says Kumar, laughing. “It is good if we happen to die here. But we don’t lose our sleep thinking about it.” The couple wants to use their resources to set up a music college. They have not decided where.
Moksha On Their Minds
“Mast raho (just chill)” is the idea that has helped Gulab Bai, 76, during her 20-year stay at Mumukshu Bhavan, a landmark near the iconic Assi Ghat. Spread over four acres, the campus has a secondary school, temple, rest-house for travellers and a 60-room section for salvation-seekers.
Gulab Bai is animated for her age. Her eyes widen in her round, full, wrinkled face every time she is talking to someone. She sits on a cot in her room, ears pricked, as if she doesn’t want to miss out on any activity outside. “This is my world,” she says, walking around her room, which is a study in balance amid chaos. There are large, laminated posters of Shiva, Saraswati and Krishna pasted on a wall. A French window near the foot of the cot has been converted into a prayer section. A bunch of clothes hang on a plastic string above the headrest. Fruits and vegetables, kept in polythene bags, hang on a thick string fastened at two ends on walls. The paint on the walls is peeling.
Gulab Bai’s children – three sons, a daughter, eight grandchildren – live in Delhi. Her husband was an employee with the Indian Railways. Together, she says, they went to all the holy shrines in the country. “Moksha is nowhere else but here,” she says in her sharp voice.
After her husband died following a prolonged illness more than 20 years ago, she told her sons to arrange for her stay in Kashi because she wanted to get rid of the “cycle of birth and rebirth.”
She has no friends, keeps to herself, and has grown disillusioned over the years. “If I am good to people, they will exploit me. These days, you never know,” she says. “Your Delhi is worse. You saw how Handa murdered that woman? I watched it on a news channel,” she says, sounding horrified, discussing the case in which an Army Major killed a colleague’s wife in Delhi in June. “No one is safe.”
At the other end of the corridor, just as 76-year-old Gayatri Devi is getting ready for her siesta, her daughter, Veena, knocks at the door. Veena is married and lives in Varanasi. Eight years ago, when her mother, who was then living in Delhi, expressed the desire to attain moksha, Veena made a few enquiries and discovered that a room was available in Mumukshu Bhavan. She visits her mother at least twice a week. “She has not visited Delhi even once since she shifted here. Her biggest fear is to die outside Kashi,” says Veena. “I came here expecting that there would be pooja path (prayers) all through the day, and it would be a conducive atmosphere to die in peace. Nothing of that nature happens here. Everybody is busy back biting,” complains Gayatri Devi.
The Business Of Death
Once upon a time, it was difficult to identify moksha seekers in Kashi. They were part of the crowd and were not segregated as visitors or guests in hotels where people check in to die. Veteran journalist Amitabh Bhattacharya comes from a family of musicians and philosophers that has been living in Varanasi for 23 generations. The septuagenarian’s speech is an exercise in filling pauses. With his partially rusted metal frame glasses, mouth full of paan and slow walk, he seems frozen in time even as Varanasi moves on. When Bhattacharya was a young man, he remembers that neighbourhood families would host salvation seekers – including beggars and widows – in their last days. It was a common occurrence. Back then, he says, there were no separate facilities for them. “He or she could be anyone; your co-passenger in a cycle-rickshaw or the person eating next to you in a restaurant. Now they have shrunk to a few lodges on the banks of the Ganga,” he says.
Bhattacharya wonders if any of the inmates in these lodges will get moksha. “You have to detach yourself from worldly affairs to get attached to Kashi. People in these facilities spend their days on their iPhones. You think they will get salvation?” he asks in a dismissive tone. With a sense of loss, he adds, “Salvation has become a business now. It suits both the moksharthi (salvation seeker) and the person offering the accommodation. What’s more, the same courtyard can be booked for marriage functions. What can you and I do?”