More Options Prices excl. Contents About Restricted Access. Archana Kumar and Ramnarayan Tiwari. A Case Study from Lisbon By: A South African Perspective By: Sultan Khan and Shanta B. Siti Hazariah and Binte Abu Bakar. Hindu Temples in Trinidad and Malaysia By: Sharmina Mawani and Anjoom Mukudam. He is author of several books and scholarly papers and has edited several books.
His recent publications include: The Banaras Chauk is on a hill, and to reach its nucleus the rickshawalla had to pull the two of us with our various bundles up a slope of approximately five hundred yards see fig. Being dragged up the hill by a sweating, undernourished man of unguessable age caught us unprepared and left us with a sense of betrayal and acute discomfort. As with living in filth, it was as if we were suddenly being made to participate in activities not to our taste.
I should add that those who live in Cantonments never take rickshaws, and New Delhi does not have them at all. The shops and signs and people crowded into our vision from all directions but meant absolutely nothing. By the time we reached the top of the hill, the center of Chauk, a drizzle had started again. That day stands out particularly because we had embarked on two major discoveries: Dasashwamedh ghat, the fabled millennia-old seat of the Ten Horse Sacrifice, and Chauk, nerve center of the city.
But most of our early experiences were like that. We had only the vaguest notion of what to expect of places such as, say, Banaras Hindu University. We would pack up baby and baby things and ride away on a rickshaw, falling over ourselves on the way to stare at passing sights. The baby seemed much more in tune with her surroundings, perched high on one of our laps, legs swinging, chortling contentedly. Her world, unlike ours, was limited to warm sun and fresh air and the security of her perch. Ours, or I should say mine, was afloat in boundless space as I strove to construct a map: How shall I understand it?
We would go around, poking at this or that, trying to keep up our enthusiasm. But the truth was that we did not enjoy those early days of discovery. Each trip was a disappointment. There was nothing to make of whatever we saw, partly because of the very nature of the objects of our attention and partly—to be again unfair to tourists—because of our packaged tour approach. But to be fairer, it was more especially because of my lack of preparation as an ethnographer. I had not trained my senses; I had not prepared my questions.
That was the missing vital link, a notion of the appropriate questions. I had never read a thick ethnographic account of any Indian city. Having chosen Banaras for its hoary, palimpsest-like venerability, I was discovering that its age did give it an inscrutability which confounded my naive expectation that it would prove alluring and irresistible at first sight. I did not have sufficient information about the place. I could not have had: I was there to piece it together. When I compare those early days with later ones, it seems incredible that one can look at so much yet see so little, or want to enjoy and appreciate so intensely yet not be able to do so.
Had we by some chance been obliged to leave after one or two months, we would have had practically nothing to report of Banaras, except the aridity of our residential area, the difficulties of survival, the lack of company, and the enigmatic and unattractive nature of ghats and streets.
I carried on my archival work steadily through all this. Nagari in this context was a euphemism for Hindi, not in its literal meaning of the Sanskrit-derived script, but as a cultural-political tool. Luckily for me, the route took me through the heart of the city every day, though the virtues of this route were more evident in the beginning than when my senses became dulled by hundreds of trips.
Just as there is an uphill and downhill to the Banaras Chauk, there is an uphill and downhill to fieldwork. Climbing up painfully—pulled up manually by informants, analogous to the Chauk rickshawallas, you might even say—you reach a height of clarity and perception.
At a particular point, inevitably, the decline begins, and as you go downhill things become fuzzy again, escaping you, you are worn out, and your experiences are all anticlimactic. One of the calculations I always had to make as we approached Chauk was, do I leave my rickshaw, walk uphill, and then take another one for the ride down? For I had to negotiate the center of Chauk, from a major crossing called Godaulia at one end to another called Maidagin at the other, and then go a few yards further east.
Or, I debated, do I retain my rickshaw but alight and walk alongside it for the steepest part of the climb? I tried each variation several times but never resolved the dilemma. Walking alongside my rickshaw marked me as a fool and a foreigner long after I stopped being these things. Trying to bargain for a new rickshaw in the middle of Chauk, where the rickshawallas were at their most supercilious, was always a doubtful proposition. I would inevitably waste precious minutes, and a trip broken up into two was always more expensive. The days that I refused to make up my mind and sat, dummy-like, on my pathetic little carriage as my man slave inched me up the steep hill were more uncomfortable still.
Every moment of the journey was spent in cursing the system, the geography of the place, the quality of the creaking rickshaw, and my own stupid indecision. Such mental pressures prevented me from thinking positively or imaginatively about the uphill half of Chauk, which was in any case the market for products, such as electrical goods, cloth, timepieces, and eyewear, for which I had no use.
I rather despised the large, clean shops and their well-displayed products. The downhill part of Chauk was more subdued and interesting, with a major post office from where you could even make international telephone calls. It ended in the crossing of Maidagin, for which, again, I could not care at all, with its taxi stand, one of the two biggest in the city, displaying rows of, in Banaras, white cars. I quickly found out who took those. The first time I volunteered to accompany a new informant, Abdul Jabbar and his family on their Thursday trip to the shrine they patronized, we reached the main road and began bargaining with the drivers of different modes of transport.
A tempo, at ten rupees, was chosen.
In fact I was surprised that they argued with me. In their situation, I would have immediately let someone vastly better off than me pay the fare. It was just one of those swift and frequent lessons in their different attitudes toward honor, debt, and equality. There were two other routes by which I typically arrived at this crossing of Maidagin, and they both deserve to be described here. One went through Pan Dariba, the wholesale market for chewing tobacco, betel nuts, and leaves, and all the related condiments that go into the making of the Banarasi pan.
It was a narrow lane fronted by tall attached buildings; on the ground floor was an open store each few square yards. Hills of tobacco, coated with silver, color, or perfume, and baskets of symmetrically arranged pans, accessible only from the central artery, were all displayed to passers-by and were always open to my scrutiny. This extreme openness made for the result that, occasional resolves notwithstanding, I never started a conversation with any of the merchants and never numbered one among my informants. There was not a corner or crevice to take refuge in; to start a conversation there would have meant holding up the traffic and collecting a crowd.
The other route sometimes taken by my rickshawallas was through the locality called Lallapura. There was no unity to the Lallapura area; sprawling, crisscrossed by lanes, evidently very poor, I could not quite grasp it. I always passed an open workshop where drums of various shapes and of different shades of leather were made and stored. I was still looking at all this, it might seem, from the vantage point of the tourist. Although I describe my first impressions casually now, even indifferently, I was very serious about everything, and curious to the point of absurdity, though often amused, in spite of my seriousness, not at them but at the confrontation of me and them.
I was straining to understand, and I could sense at least how, with every passing day, I had to try less and less hard. One glimpse of something opened up a world of meanings. One comment from a passer-by explained many things. To look into, behind, and under shades and doorways became my second nature. To act swiftly, with question, direction, notebook, or camera became a habit the adeptness of which surprised me.
Both these routes met at Kabir Chaura, a crossing named after the saint Kabir and famous for many reasons. There is something very meaningful about crossings for Banarasis, and they keep referring to their main ones. In a book on Banaras, the old-time resident Vishwanath Mukherjee takes his readers on a trip around the city.
All his points of reference are crossings, places where one territory ends and another begins and where cross-movement is possible, a partial reflection of the stable and culturally differentiated constitution of neighborhoods in old cities. Indian crossings are intersections of four roads chau raha, four paths , hence the hubs of commerce and communication where life at its most intense can be observed. The busiest teashop or pan shop, for example, will be at the crossing, and, with its crowds, serve in turn to make the crossing more packed, impossible, and wonderful.
Kabir Chaura was distinguished by the main public hospital of the city, called by the same name, and by drugstores and fruit vendors for the patients and their families. Here the threat was from the traffic flowing rapidly in all directions, including jeeps, trucks, and bullock carts. The rickshawalla would stick out his arm to signal the direction of his turn and plunge in without further confirmation.
Somehow we would always survive, perhaps because everything was proceeding slowly despite the illusion created by the swinging of the rickshaw. I never saw an accident there, although I always clutched my vehicle with all four limbs and noted how I was approximately one inch away from being crushed from the left, the right, and behind. If Lallapura seemed medieval, then with the next lap of the journey, Lohatiya, we were in the third millennium b. The road here was of round, polished cobblestones, making rickshaws jerk their passengers roof high. Some of the woks displayed in front were six feet in diameter, the pails four feet high.
I tried interviewing here the very first or second day, before I had acquired the necessary techniques or confidence, and was too discouraged by the responses to go back again. I had pressed on bravely with a spate of questions addressed to an ironsmith hammering a metal plate, and our conversation had gone like this: Some prejudices and mental blocks persist; most, fortunately, are washed away with time. I never made a study of the iron goods industry or of the ironmongers of Lohatiya after my premature and totally unsuccessful initial incursions.
But the Lohatiya crossing came to show itself as endlessly fascinating. At the Muslim mourning period of Moharram, the procession called Duldul passed through in its most choking and pushing phase and gave me an intuition about the attractions of crowded places. At Vishwakarma Puja and Durga Puja, and again at Ramlila, there were many stages and canopies for the gods and it was easy to catch the organizers. To the immediate south of Lohatiya was Nakhas, where carpenters had their workshops.
Nakhas led to Kashipura, the locality of the brass workers and coppersmiths. All the neighborhoods bordered on one another, connected by hidden lanes traversable on foot. Every time I was in Lohatiya, the surroundings were less and less opaque. The city was a blank map gradually becoming filled in with lanes, byways, and turnings, dotted with names of localities, individuals, and homes. Because of the proximity of Lohatiya to the archives, it became one of my first exploratory fieldwork sites.
On a given day, I would walk hundreds of yards in the galis, with stops to visit a dozen people gradually assuming the status of good friends: And whatever doubts I may have entertained about informal conversation as a method of fieldwork, upon engaging in it and seeing the incomparable richness of my results I became a total convert. The archives of the Nagari Pracharini Sabha in Visheshwarganj were a few hundred yards further east of Lohatiya, beyond a steady row of teashops.
Teashops, around which much of my day revolved, came to figure as pivotal elements in my work. I gave them a fair amount of thought. A tree with a hefty trunk would be taken as the starting point for the construction of a teashop. From one side of this trunk a large stove say, with four burners of brick, stone, clay, and cow dung would be built.
From the sturdier branches of the tree would be suspended wire baskets of eggs, buns, butter, and cakes. The shady leaves would provide shelter for the customers. A few benches here and there would complete the tea stall. This was its infancy, however.
I have seen many teashops at this stage, pleasant and popular enough, but the ones in Maidagin were more elaborate. Walls were hung up on three sides: These walls were serviceable and were patched regularly. The roof had to have strong beams, but, like the walls, anything might cover the surface. Often tin sheets, still showing off the name of the original canistered or canned products, were used.
Inside this cozy room, toasted by the sun in all seasons but always airy and shady, were fitted an amazing number of benches and tables. The teashop became a regular restaurant, and you became oblivious to the composition of the roof and the walls and to the tree that had begun it all. Crockery would clink, little boys darted around to serve and mop, omelets and french toast were created, water was served as you sat down, newspapers were provided, and tips were discouraged. There was one teashop right next to the gate of the Nagari Pracharini Sabha.
It had grown, in fact, not from a tree but from one of the pillars of the gate. Because of its location, it had a rather intense intellectual atmosphere, though all teashops tend to be oriented to discussions of philosophy and politics. I was, typically, the only woman present. Everyone ignored me in a masterly manner, but everyone was aware of me. I began to take a certain amount of protectiveness for granted from this teashop.
If a serving boy splashed a little water near me, he was reprimanded. When I arose to leave, knees would be pulled in and backs straightened on the benches I had to pass. If my way was held up by a person not paying attention, there would be coughs and perhaps a warning announcement.
Nor did I speak to anyone. After considering it at length, I decided that in this one case the atmosphere and inner harmony of the place had to be preserved from my active interference. Nagari Pracharini Sabha itself was unrecognizable as a library and invisible as a building. Red, symmetrical, gracious, it stood independently in its compound. Recently the decision had been made to use the land in front for commercial purposes. This meant the construction of a row of two-story shops that sold textiles, dry goods, tea leaves, and medicines.
All that was knowable of the Sabha from the road was a gate, half-concealed by the teashop, and a front of modern stores whose owners, if asked, would most likely deny that any library existed in the vicinity. If you did go behind the stores, you came to the large red building, impossible to evaluate immediately because it loomed over you and could not be viewed in perspective as planned.
The remaining open land on both sides had been ruined, too, as an aftereffect of the construction: These small revelations were like gifts of the gods: Inside the Nagari Pracharini Sabha was a dark hall, fifty yards long, at the center of which stood a massive wooden table for readers. At its head sat five or six officials of the Sabha, some scribbling or turning over pages, most looking out restfully. The whole place was still, uncrowded, unencumbered. On three sides of the hall were verandahs studded with doors to the outside, many of which were open to let in sunlight and air.
After you got used to the place, it was pleasant. The hall was too dark for me, but the verandahs were ideal— cool in summer, sunny in winter, perfect for watching the rains in the monsoons. I would pull a broken chair and table to my desired spot, balance my folio of newspapers—twice the size of the table—on one side, and place my notebook on my knee. Only two exceptions shine out as models of orderliness and a state of perfect maintenance, both of which I grew up with which might explain my alacrity in noticing the broken: Everywhere else the notion seems to be attuned to total recycling: Where all the Sabha books and papers were stashed was a mystery in the beginning.
At the head of the hall, behind the seated officers, was a stone staircase. No one ever used it, or could, since it had books all over it, this being where loose material was deposited until it was gradually catalogued and shelved. Though never used, the stairs implied that there was another floor. Though the hall itself had a ceiling the height of the building, the verandahs had a second story where the stacks were located.
Occasionally, a reader asked for a book, and there would be creaks overhead after an interval. The old newspapers and magazines I was interested in were piled high on dusty shelves along the walls of the very verandah I chose to sit in. One man on a stepladder would pass down the volumes, each of considerable weight, to another man on the ground, who then called out the date on the volume, and thus their search progressed as I stood by and fidgeted.
I had nothing against the men who ran the place, or even against their system of working, except that it was very bad for the materials. The dust and accompanying spiders and insects obviously damaged the paper. Most of the volumes had too much weight atop them; I gathered they were too oversized to be shelved upright. But because their spines were not marked, the moving around that was required when a scholar needed a particular volume pulled and pounded at the bindings.
There is absolutely no doubt that the materials I used were in a far worse condition after I called them. I learned gradually of the powerful people of the Sabha, the member of Parliament and the member of the Legislative Assembly who held court in the office and guest rooms in the complex behind the Sabha. I knew they were unconcerned about the condition of old newspapers and could not be motivated to do anything about them unless they became an issue at the level of state or national politics.
Surely there were other, more academic, members of the Nagari Pracharini Sabha Committee. But they were never mentioned; nor did they make themselves known by signing anything, or coming around, or showing themselves in any other way. I knew only of the politicians at the top and then the foot soldiers at the table in the hall. I began my work there smoothly enough: On the first day I made a preliminary note of about twenty journals that would be of interest to me. I looked through the issues of only two journals in detail in the next fifteen months.
Then, alarmed at the fast-approaching end of my stay, I quickly scanned a dozen more. But I left feeling that I had barely glimpsed the real treasures of Nagari Pracharini Sabha, and though I have gone back since I continue to feel that way. Two of them were young men in pants and shirts, and they were mobile, being the ones who went upstairs. The others never budged, except to go and relieve themselves in the compound.
They wore dhotis, those elaborate lengths of white cotton wound around and between the legs, and all they had to do was gather up the cloth and squat— something I firmly believed only women did till I saw them. Their dhotis made me nervous. One of these men, Chachaji, often sat with one knee folded up on his chair—naturally he got tired of sitting still for so many hours—and I was afraid to look at him, not sure how revealing his posture might be. No one asked me any questions or took notice of me. Or so I thought. Chachaji had his sources of information, however.
About a month after I began work there, he suddenly asked me about a cousin who lived in Banaras. Through that connection he established that my father was well known and that I was a pakka, or authentic, U. Kayastha, that is, of one of the ten? So, it turned out, was he. I cannot pretend I had not been curious, and we both breathed more easily after that. I had been itching to place all my recent acquaintances and daily companions according to caste, class, occupation, family, and area of residence—for my own reasons of course.
But just as they made little sense to me, so I made no sense to them without this positioning. I am fundamentally a shy, retiring person, not a journalist or a socialite by nature, and if I could escape having to make conversation with strangers I would. In the early days of my fieldwork, that side of my personality dominated the professional anthropological one. I wonder now why I remained so subdued and inefficient instead of starting natural conversations with people, asking them who they were, and telling them, of course, who I was.
At Nagari Pracharini Sabha I could be myself, not my self as presented to others; I could think my own thoughts and be almost oblivious to the world as I scribbled away. What did I scribble? The first weeks, as usual, were difficult to comprehend or to justify. I read through the one page on Banaras in every issue of the fortnightly Bharat Jiwan, beginning in , and wrote down whatever seemed of interest. Having no immediate intention of changing the research topic outlined in my proposal—though I thought I might in the long run, since everyone seemed to—I took down mention of all festivals, music performances, other public events, the city itself, politics if they were interesting, and social affairs, that is to say, everything but the strictly accidental: I wish I could say that I found things about, or even casual mention of, lower classes and artisans.
But they might as well not have existed. The world of Bharat Jiwan was one of middle-class, educated babus, interested in world affairs and political analysis, socially competitive and somewhat amused by one another; their city was humming with activity, including the Parsi theater, wrestling matches, balloon-flying demonstrations, the Calcutta circus, in-house parties and receptions at Holi, Diwali, and a dozen other festive occasions of the year. It seemed somewhat irrelevant to me, with my stated interest in the lower classes, but I doggedly kept copying.
Within weeks the picture started changing. I knew what the journalists were talking about, not because their reportage changed but because my notions of the city and its life began to fill in and develop. Everything in Bharat Jiwan, for example, was always given a seasonal reference. They would always give seasonal references, talk of similar activities, such as going outside and making excursions to gardens, assume the centrality of temples, and so on. The importance of the discovery was not that nothing had changed between and but that the upper-class world reflected in this journal was much the same as the street-level world I was getting to know in my fieldwork.
I could not have found more convincing evidence of the oneness of Banaras culture than this unsought coincidence of what was important for both the elite and the masses. It gave me a solid handle for investigating change through the issues of location, patronage, social constitution, ideology, and function of cultural events. Upper-class participation in the past gave me both a record of activities I could not have found otherwise and an interpretive insight regarding, for example, the crucial nature of seasonality that would have taken ages of labor to develop from field data alone, and even then without relating it to the past.
Such discoveries provided thrills beyond compare. I turned to the Bharat Jiwan with fresh interest, taking care not to leave out anything on Banaras. I had hit on the relationship of history and anthropology that I had always expected I would hit upon at some point but had not been sure when and how. I combed volume after volume for such treasured statements, and when I would finally leave—my limit was three-and-a-half hours—it was because of sheer hunger.
Lunch was always a problem in Nagari Pracharini Sabha. I tried bringing some sandwiches, but they tasted awful. Unused to this, I would stuff myself in the morning and would feel dull and heavy for the next two hours. And the truth is that no matter what you eat in the morning, you get hungry again in the afternoon. There was little choice but to flee to the teashop again, as I did in mid-morning and mid-afternoon. At other times I fortified myself with biscuits and buns.
Elsewhere in the city finding something to eat was not such a problem. There were fruits a-plenty, as well as corn, cucumbers, peanuts, and so on, according to season; and there were, as far as I was concerned, excellent sweet shops. But in the street from Maidagin to Nagari Pracharini Sabha there was nothing to eat except at the teashops. Once I found a lone hawker selling third-rate guavas, but he must have realized that he had lost his way, because he never appeared again.
One day, driven by my stomach, I decided to go the other way from Maidagin, that is, eastward, toward totally unknown areas. I had walked but a few yards when I found myself in the midst of what seemed a gradually thickening mela, a fair. It must be a special day, I thought greedily, looking left and right for easily collected information. People swarmed over the road and pavement; hawkers occupied the middle of the road, and buyers crowded behind them to approach the pavement stores.
Everyone, of course, proceeded on their business without noticing me. The one interaction I could think of was to join in the buying, which was the idea that had brought me there originally. I bought voraciously, until it struck me that I had no way of getting my purchases home. The hawkers had not even that, and gestured toward the end of my sari. I might have guessed where I was by reason of the goods being sold: What particularly attracted me was the range of batashas, crisp white sugar confectionery.
I had eaten such sweets in childhood, but as balls about one inch in diameter. Here were ovals and spheres up to eight inches wide. My cloth shoulder bag, in which I carried precious notes, was soon crammed with guavas, batashas, savory lentils, and other odd delicacies rapidly turning to crumbs and pulp.
I hastily took a rickshaw and withdrew. The rickshawalla had to walk till he came out of the glutinous mass of human beings.
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Once the northeastern side of the city had been incorporated into my range of activity, I went through Visheshwarganj frequently. Curiously enough, the crowd was never again so overwhelming, nor did the rickshawallas have to disembark to take me across. The products on sale never again seemed so exotic or desirable. I came to see Visheshwarganj as a dirty, chaotic, difficult place with too much hay strewn around and, as a consequence, too many wandering cows and far too much cow dung.
There came a time when it was conquered as well, a time when I would go to a house asking for old residents and argue confidently with the neighbors about who had actually lived there; or late at night would turn briskly into a two-foot-wide lane unmarked by any road sign to go to the house of my friend, Pandit Baikunthanath Upadhyaya, to record his singing group; or would crisscross the maze of lanes that lay between Visheshwarganj and Chauk in the early morning or late night—and, better sign of conquest still, would do this in the company of Hindu informants leading me to temples and Muslim companions showing me to mosques.
During these days of refuge in the Nagari Pracharini Sabha, my earliest days in Banaras, I was gathering courage to begin fieldwork in earnest. My first attempts, to approach an impoverished family of brass workers in Luxa and the arrogant ironsmiths in Lohatiya, had proved total failures. The brass workers had in effect requested that I kindly get off their premises and never return, and the ironsmiths had communicated the same invitation by continuing to hammer at their iron sheets while I questioned them.
I have one weak genealogy and one page of disconnected notes for each. But those meetings had indeed been undertaken in a tentative way. As with the first visit to the river, I had simply not been ready. All this bungling in the first month of my stay was, upon reflection, partly deliberate.
I was not anxious to proceed with a strict professionalism that obtained immediate results at the expense of insights into the complexities of the world I was setting out to construct. In those first days I was slightly too naive, overly careful to assume I knew nothing and had to learn all. Only they knew what they were doing, and I thought I should be prepared to discover it the slow, painful way, without even the guarantee of success that a child has unless I could pass the test of childlike naivete.
By Diwali, at the end of October, I had made a major breakthrough on all fronts, as they say of battles, and I had the same image of conquest in mind. I knew metalworkers and woodworkers and had visited with a weaver. I also had promises of friendship from a potter and a painter. When I think in wonder at how it happened, I can credit it to nothing else but sheer perseverance, the passage of time, and an incidentally growing realization that I did not need to deprecate myself to appreciate others.
The story begins with Vishwakarma Puja the Worship of Vishwakarma , the first signs of which were idols, wheeled to and fro on cycles, rickshaws, and scooters, of a deity seated cross-legged, with a paternal face framed in a mane of flowing white hair. He looked benign, even harmless, and was supposed to be the original creator. The image was reproduced in the thousands, in sizes ranging from that of a thumb to that of a full-grown man. All the Vishwakarmas looked identical. They were made by the potters of Banaras, who could not face up to my unsubtle inquiry concerning the origin of the iconography, though all agreed that the Vishwakarma icon was not very old.
After wandering around their stalls for a while, I wisely decided to avoid them on this, their busiest day. As I discovered slowly, many days were equally busy, and it was impossible to find them in a quiet moment. Consequently, the people I got to know on that momentous day, the 17th of September, were not potters at all but a family of copper wiredrawers.
Luxa Road, although close to the center of the city, was a safe place to hang around in, not teeming with objects, people, and impressions like Chauk. It was a modern road, more so than the so-called New Road, crowded enough, but not overwhelming. No one knew where the soapy-sounding name had come from. There were also one or two estates with massive walls and gates, now being subdivided and sold off.
Lining the street were new shops—tailors, stores for ready-made clothing and electrical appliances—mostly around the Sikh Gurudwara, the whole compound evocatively called Gurubagh, the Garden of the Guru. At the main crossing on the street were older shops, for sweets, bicycle repairs, baskets, pottery; one had been converted into a video store. Potters obviously lived off the road to the north side; just where the northern lanes joined the main road were little displays of clay toys and other clay products—for sale when painted, for drying in the sun when not. In — Luxa also had a video arcade, and, in the same category as far as I was concerned, two temples, both under spreading banyan trees, that hosted all-night programs once a year.
The arcade provided me with one of the most memorable sights I ever encountered in Banaras. One day, on the other side of the road near the arcade, walked a man clearly from another age, with his dhoti, kurta, gamchha native clothes par excellence , thick slippers of recycled tire, all the evidences of poverty, illiteracy, and—well— absence of modernity. On Vishwakarma Puja day, I was hanging around the old stalls, observing who was buying the images, waiting to trap a likely person in conversation.
The length of his list gave me time to think see fig. Probably the best rule in fieldwork is not to think too much, but rather to act spontaneously and unhesitatingly. But sometimes you absolutely must be sure of what you are going to say, and you should not interrupt someone in the middle of an activity either. When the young man paused to consider whether he had got everything and the shopkeeper tied up his purchases, I approached him with great interest.
That was my line, I had decided—not casualness or indifference, but deep interest.
You celebrate Vishwakarma Puja? I am not sure what he answered then or later in the day. The whole event is rather hazy. I was so preoccupied with my own questions, planning them in advance, shaping my reactions, considering the impression I was creating, wondering what on earth I could do next, and so on, that I could hardly be said to have been concentrating on the other, as one ought to.
He was positive and encouraging, however, and when I told him I was new in the place and would love to watch Vishwakarma Puja, he led me into a lane south of the road. This, as I was to discover, was the neighborhood of Nai Basti, which also had an instance of every other kind of cultural activity I could want. It was an exhilarating beginning for fieldwork, though the incident itself did not match the more exciting ones to occur later.
Brothers who lived in a joint family were newly separated, and though I met only one, I became acquainted with the wife and daughter of the other. The brothers lived in rooms opposite each other, shared a common space in between, and pretended not to speak to each other. On the ground floor there were three vast wiredrawing machines in a partially covered courtyard and a little room with a string cot and some clothes. Maybe those working at the machines—in turn? Another three rooms upstairs, as well as a verandah and terrace, were divided between the brothers, as were the machines, but I was to get to know the upstairs and the women only later.
Kishan, the man who had brought me here, was not one of the family but a day worker. It was a holiday for him, and like all those who worked in a factory, he celebrated at his place of work. He set up his purchases, created a typical puja scenario, and performed the ritual. He was inexpert but unembarrassed and unfaltering. The puja I had sat through at the Vedanta Society in Chicago for a headache-laden two hours, with every flower or was it every petal?
I sat on a stool and took photographs. To recite or join in chorus at a celebration specifically yours, you have to feel good about yourself and the course of your life. Everyone ate prasad, the food blessed by the deity, and the three silent hunks of machines were garlanded and dabbed with vermilion. It was all over in four or five minutes. In fact, all I did was sit around till the mood of the puja faded, the brief flicker of something special that had been created died away, all of which happened rather quickly. I sat there till everyone else moved off.
It was their holiday after all. That part being so clearly over, I could only continue with an apology for extending my project, no matter how I defined it. No one in the quickly disintegrating group helped me by supplying a question, comment, or even expressive gesture. My first real participation may well be said to have been none too dramatic. There was no sudden shock of discovery, no vision of vistas rolling forth. But I had seen Vishwakarma Puja, and if it was brief, trifling, casual—so be it. The informants could not be wrong. When I came back to this house a month later, package of sweets in hand, seizing upon the occasion of Diwali, none of the people I knew were there, and I met a totally new cast of characters.
At a hand pump in the courtyard, right next to the entrance way, a fresh, perky young woman was washing some utensils. This is my house! I was not sure whether to believe her, but then she led me upstairs. She was Usha, the older of two daughters of one of the separated brothers. Misjudging her status simply because she had been caught doing domestic chores with her sari tucked up and her hair disheveled gave me such an eloquent example of my narrow, middle-class prejudices that I was almost cured of them.
Usha had attended school, as Nisha was doing now. They shared one school dress, and both had studio photographs of themselves in it. Their full name for school purposes was Verma. This was, for me, the inside view of the schoolgirls in identical uniforms, each with a placeable name, that I had seen all my life. Usha must have been about sixteen and had been married a few months. She was spending her first Diwali after the wedding in her natal home, as was the custom. Her father-in-law was expected any time for a meal. The meal itself was an eye-opener on many counts. The father and father-in-law sat downstairs in the kothari, where they were served; they exchanged not a word with any of the women, including me.
The food itself, the flour, ghi, vegetables, and fuel for cooking had all been specially bought for the guest and sufficed only for him and his male host, with some leftovers for the womenfolk. The ghi was enough, for example, for puris for the men; as it got used up, the deep-fried delicacies were replaced by well-greased toasted parathas, then by dry rotis with simply a lingering touch of ghi on one side.
Apart from the segregation of the sexes and the obviously limited resources, the third eye-opener was the sheer frolicking fun of it all, as we, the girls, kept up a bantering, giggling, carefree exchange all through the cooking, serving, and eating. I suppose I must have expected depressed spirits, some explicit signs of deprivation, scarcity, and oppression, some signs of revolt maybe, of the poor against the privileged, of women against men, as one ate dry and the other rich. Having been confined to one small world as a child, I also had a personal need to expand my arena of experience into other worlds.
Fieldwork—once it succeeds beyond a point—allows you to do that. I had suddenly, rather magically, become a privileged insider, recognized by some hitherto unknown Usha, Nisha, and family, as one of them. The poverty of the house was brought home to me only on my later visits. There was never enough to eat. Her father, I discovered, was unemployed, supposed to have gone crazy upon the shock of the partition with his only brother in their hitherto harmonious family.
The household was supported by the other male in the family, ten- or twelve-year-old Bahadur, who operated the wiredrawing machine and earned the usual three to four hundred rupees a month. Bahadur looked morose, his father avoided the house altogether, and the mother and daughter took in all kinds of work to keep busy, since there was nothing to do at home in the absence of food to cook and possessions to take care of. They rolled papars, dry lentil cakes, at the rate of one rupee per hundred and hooked chains of artificial beads at eight annas per twelve dozen.
I watched them endlessly. I realized how much difference an individual personality makes, and indeed a special event like a festival. With Usha gone and the silly abandon of Diwali over, there was not a trace of the gaiety and lightheartedness that had left me wondering. In that sense, I had been right to wonder. I had always held my own stern views on the preferential treatment of sons over daughters.
But seeing in this case how the mother and daughter together earned thirty rupees a month and were incapable of doing anything else, and how the far younger boy earned twelve times as much and supported them, I could understand the logic of treating him as special and superior. As for the female protagonist of the tale, his sister Usha, not only had she had a happy childhood but she was still bubbling over with the joy of a child, untouched by any care. At Nai Basti I had a glimpse from the very beginning of something that was going to confront me directly only later, with Mohan Lal, Tara Prasad, and such close comrades: As September advanced and the monsoons drew to a close, it suddenly became possible to achieve much more in any given day.
Even so, I regretted the end of the monsoons. If you took one of the two key roads traversing the city from center to south, you passed Durga temple and Tulsi Manas temple. The area around them always seemed festive, with crowds blocking the roads, hundreds of little stores, flowers, sweets, ribbons and trinkets for women, puddles, and monkeys. It was Sawan, the fifth month of the North Indian Hindu calendar, the time of year for fairs and music and small local celebrations. None of the people we encountered was able to tell me of even two or three of the celebrations, leave aside the whole variety or range of them.
I had to discover them for myself over the next few months, fervently hoping that I was searching for, and then looking at, the right thing. It was a depressing, disheartening process. He did assist me in unforeseen ways though. He had helped us buy a refrigerator in Chauk and received a cut?
I could not help wondering later, as I grew to feel uncharitable toward him , and having made his acquaintance through that transaction, I walked into his police station early in my fieldwork. Is the refrigerator working all right? He recovered and made an important and mysterious phone call. As a result of this, an old, frail, but straight-backed man in a dhoti and kurta showed up at the thana. This was Govind Ram Kapoor. It took me a few days to place him properly, but I will sum him up here. He was a businessman who imported and sold silk yarn and some silk fabric.
More important still, he was sycophant of all officialdom, a middleman between the public and administrators, and a general meddler in all public affairs. By virtue of having a shop in Chauk, Govind Ram Kapoor knew all about the sari business; by extension, about weavers and their culture. He and the station officer there and then appointed him my guide and mentor. Two days later I was winding my way with him through the cobbled galis of Madanpura, known as the central weaving district of Banaras.
On all sides rose tall buildings joined by common walls, trapping the sun. From the ground floor windows of these came the sound of handlooms clapping, but the windows were too small to permit hurried observations. It was not a poor locality at all. Roads and houses looked clean and well maintained.
Children ran around, and though they were eating the usual two-paisa and one-anna things from hawkers, they were combed and fully clothed. Two or three less innocent months later I was to discover the reason for this obvious prosperity. Madanpura was not the central weaving district at all but the center of Banarasi sari export, where the Muslim traders had their business establishments the Hindu businesses were located in Chauk.
Govind Ram Kapoor naturally knew them because he had dealt with them for decades, but he knew no weavers whatsoever. Nor did he seem to know that the weavers of Banaras were concentrated in two areas, Adampura and Jaitpura, quite distant from where he had taken me. We sat in a comfortable office-cum-showroom on white sheets spread wall to wall, backs resting on bolsters, everyone relaxed but me.
Once again my mind was on what the most appropriate questions would be. I interviewed them at top speed, scribbled down whatever they said, and understood almost nothing. I gathered that a huge family ran the BSC, with a dozen brothers and sons either introduced to me or alluded to. Both because the BSC ran powerlooms and hired semiskilled labor from villages outside Banaras and because those I was speaking with were obviously not weavers, I quickly relegated the encounter to the back of my memory, to be resurrected only when I had to formulate an opinion about sari businessmen. Govind Ram knew what he was doing, but his choices in social interaction were different from mine: A second foray into the galis with him proved equally frustrating.
It was in the control of one Babu Sharad Kumar Rastogi, head of one of the biggest such trading houses, who had his business downstairs in the adjoining building and his home upstairs. The other activities that afternoon consisted of feasting on greasy sweets and savories and touring the ceiling-high glass closets stuffed with rather ugly brass, copper, silver, and German silver artifacts. As I shook off his offers of further assistance, he gave an engaging smile that left me speechless: Raja Darwaza, the area where he had told me he lived, is a legendary place.
Whenever old mohallas neighborhoods or galis of Banaras are mentioned, Raja Darwaza is included. Of course, the truth is that as soon as you acquaint yourself with a place in your fieldwork, you forget the legend. As I stepped into Raja Darwaza, I was afraid. It seemed only about six feet wide, though rickshaws are able to traverse it and I once even saw an automobile parked in a makeshift garage. Both sides of this narrow street are lined with attached shops, all elevated about two feet and accessible by steps or a jump.
Most of the shops are tiny, and their floors are spread with white sheets on mattresses. They seem to fill the tiny shops till you see one with a dozen customers squatting inside and wonder where all the space has come from. Now the shopkeepers do not have business all the time. Whereas some look down at newspapers, many sit languorously, facing the road and staring at the passers-by, so when you step into Raja Darwaza, it is immediately an unequal battle.
You are longing to enquire into the place, the people, and the activities, but dozens of pairs of eyes are already probing you to discover your activity and your purpose. I could not stand the onslaught that first day and hastily withdrew my inquisitive gaze. I looked down and proceeded straight ahead as if I knew exactly where my potential purchase was located. After a few yards Raja Darwaza becomes a market for other things besides jewelry, primarily jute products and cheap cloth. Then it becomes Kashipura, largely a market for machine parts, and looks grimy, oil-drenched, and heavy with the weight of iron and steel.
I had heard from many sources that Kashipura was the home of the braziers and coppersmiths of Banaras, as I knew it to be the home of the one artisan I had met. He had given me his mohalla and had assured me that to find him I need only ask for Master Sita Ram, nakkas, in Kashipura. I asked dozens of people, and no one could tell me where he lived. So it has been throughout my research.
I began to regard with bitterness the myth of personalized, face-to-face contact in the traditional city, where everyone knows everyone else in a mohalla. The whole day I searched for Master Sita Ram, my lone contact among metalworkers. Where did all those brass workers and coppersmiths hang out? When I finally saw a shop with metal products prominently displayed, I stopped at it, determined to make this my compensation for the other disappointment. At the shop sat a beautifully aged man who could neither see nor hear well.
For all that, he had time and warmth, and welcomed me. Of course, it was rather easy not to care about what he said, because all he said that first day related to himself as he saw his needs, not to himself as I saw my need of him. It was not a beginning full of pleasure and satisfaction, as I had unconsciously anticipated when we started talking. But here was a metalworker at last, an ancient one at that, and here was I, firmly lodged, determined never to relinquish him, and all that he was saying—however limited in scope—was necessarily True and Real.
Even if his complaints of poverty had never figured in my calculations as the refrain I would repeatedly be subjected to, I thrilled at the situation itself while feeling abjectly helpless about the content of the conversation. Mohan Lal, the old man, sat in the shop to occupy his time see fig. He almost never sold anything. He and his four brothers had been legally separated for about twenty years and had divided the ancestral home along with the business.
Each house, sharing a wall with its neighbor, was only about ten feet in width but ten times as deep and five stories high, like a tall chimney. The staircase along one side was extremely narrow and steep. The workroom had a mud floor, a hearth and fire, a lathe, metals, and tools. The shop had a wall-to-wall dirty white sheet on the floor, a cash box from which coins were always being handed out to the children of the house, a Ramayana that Mohan Lal peered at with his thick glasses when he had no one to talk with, and miscellaneous merchandise.