What I am going to narrate to you all is till now known to only two people, so after you finish reading this would be known to you also. This actually would make you in the privilege club of few to have known the secret which is nearly twelve years old.
In was in the month of January 2004 that I decided to go for my very first photo shoot in Varanasi. I had always read about its mystical existence and how the real India seems to accumulate in this small river side town. Unfortunately during that time, I had just graduated and was doing my master’s degree thus not much money in my pocket for an extravaganza outing. Everything had to be carefully planned to save the maximum.
The main concern for me was the hotel expense as that was the costliest. To save I need to find some friends place where I can put up for few days without spending much and just would need to spend on food which would of course be bare minimum.
It was by some miracle that I saw a friend suddenly coming up on Yahoo Chat (Most of you won’t know that Yahoo Chat was once the only way to have a net chat as there were no Facebook or WhatsApp). This friend of mine was known to me from my college days as I had met her once earlier in Ranchi for a youth exchange programme. After some initial hi and hello I came straight to the point, I knew that she was also doing her masters in BHU (Benaras Hindu University) which happens to be in Varanasi. I asked her if she could arrange a place for me to stay at Varanasi as I would be coming next month for some work.
She was unfortunately staying at the BHU girl’s hostel so she could not arrange. However, she would definitely show me around the city when I would be coming. This was a bonus as this would help in limiting the expense in local transport.
For the next couple of days we kept chatting on Yahoo Chat to plan the different locations that we would cover during the trip, during one such conversation she informed me that she has convinced a classmate of hers to accommodate me in the boy’s hostel. This was a good news as a big chunk of expense would be saved.
Finally I fix my date of arrival at Varanasi on 14th of February 2004. I book my tickets on Amritsar Mail which reaches Varanasi at around 9.30 in the morning. Since I was new to the town my friend agreed to receive me at the station.
The day finally comes for departure and I leave to Varanasi on 13th evening. Being mid-February it was quite foggy and the train pulls into Varanasi Junction. I get a call on my mobile from my friend that she is waiting outside in an Auto and two of her friend would meet me inside the station. Now this was something which I was not expecting and was confused. I get out of the train coach and meet two young boys who welcome me, one grab by trolley bag and the other my backpack. We proceed outside the station to a waiting Auto where my friend was waiting.
I was meeting her after nearly two years so I thought of initially to start with a handshake but nothing of such happened. The two boys push me inside the Auto and the Auto driver pulls on the accelerator and zooms off.
Next few minutes were the most horrifying experience in my life. With no vehicles on the road it looked like a ghost town, even the shops were not open, all shutters were down. Then at a road junction I see a group of boys on motorcycle with tridents in hand and red head bands chanting slogans. Now this is something which I never expected. These boys were shouting “Anti Valentine’s Day” slogan.
It seems that some right wing political groups have called for a complete lockdown of the city to protest against Valentine’s Day. One of the boys in the auto whisper that in the morning two couple who were caught in the park were made to shave off their head and then forced to marry at the ghats.
So now I realize what was going on since the morning, the friend of mine could not come alone to pick me alone from the station so had asked some of her distant cousins who also happen to study at BHU to accompany her.
We finally reach BHU campus and it was like a scene from battle ground, Rapid Action Force completely surrounding the campus and the university was officially shut for the day.
My friend then introduces me to Sanjeev Kumar from Begusarai. Apparently I will be sharing a room with him during my stay at Varanasi. Girls are not allowed inside boy’s hostel so my friend had to leave. Sanjeev’s room was in the second floor of the hostel. BHU hostels are quite big in size and are divided according to the degree you are appearing and the subject choices. So I was staying in the Science Department hostel.
I had three days to spend and did not want to stay inside the hostel the first day. No seeing any option my friend took me to a Net Café nearby. What we did was something unthinkable, we spent whole day inside the café planning my three days and chatting. Since there were no shops open so we skipped lunch. Only returned back to hostel in the evening.
Girls hostel at BHU has a time restriction so she had to return by 6 PM and then I had to spend the rest of the evening in the hands of Sanjeev and his Bhojpuri songs. Sanjeev was like an ET for me, his skin colour was white like milk and a grin always on his face. He loved to talk and talk and talk. At night he would hardly let me sleep and almost the entire night I would be forced to stay awake and hear his constant Bhojpuri songs. It went to such an extent that he would ask if I wanted to listen to another and even if I say no he would keep singing.
He also had a unique food taste, one day it would be Dove and the next it would be Teetar (Grey Francolin). Request to spare me from these exotic dishes fell into deaf ear, he would invariably come up with some obnoxious dish one after the other.
If not Bhojpuri songs he would talk about his underwear, why he prefers a Langota than a typical underwear. By Langota I mean the long piece of cloth that one would tie around the waist. He would even show his collection of Langota, even trying to convince me to try one which obviously I refused.
During the day my friend would take me around Varanasi to different spots, this was the time when I still used a film camera so all my frames were carefully thought. Surprisingly some of the best shots of Varanasi was clicked during this time which I could never replicate with DSLR years later. We visited Ramnagar, Sarnath, Chunar, Ghats of Varanasi, lanes of Varanasi and of course BHU campus.
Somehow during this visits I came to know much more about her as previous to this I just considered her as a good friend who happened to be staying in Varanasi. In fact, without her help it would have been impossible to go around Varansi with such tight budget. She knew the connecting share autos and the short distance busses.
I been to Varansi nearly a dozen times but this trip was the best as I had seen Varanasi from a different perspective which I could never replicate later. I returned back to Kolkata promising my friend to come back again as there we so many different things to see.
As luck would have it, I did visit Varanasi again and again. I completely fell in love with Varanasi. BY the way are you not curious who this girl is? Well she became a really good friend of mine and if you still haven’t guessed this is the same girl who I married three years later. Happy Valentine’s day, may this year you get the friend of your dream.