work with e3 Foundation, Texas

I got to work with a non profit organization called e3 Foundation from Texas. Their project was very interesting. They were making a documentary about religion and what it means to people. It was a series of documentaries which was based in three different countries. They wanted to make one episode about Hindu religion and this episode was based only in Varanasi. I was was responsible to do research, find different people who were interested in talking about what religion and God mean to them, schedule appointment for interview and do interpretation. But they did not want just anyone, they wanted each person to be different from other so that there is diversity in the show.

It didn’t really take me much time to organize it as I already knew many interesting people. I think my interest in people helped me a lot here. There is a public call booth at Assi crossing which is owned by my friend’s uncle. I always found him different from others because whenever we were sitting next to his shop, he would usually come and stay close to us so he could hear what we were talking. Sometimes he also became part of our discussion. Only a few days before e3 contacted me, the show owner, friend’s uncle, had shown me his diary. His diary was full of poetries written by him.

These poetries were basically about his life, his religious practices, the way regular people practice religion, the world and questions about religion and God. It was really impressive. He had told me once that people who are not curious and do not question things are just like animals. Because the God has given us mind and we need to use it. His another writing which impressed was – Are we really worth getting blessings of God? I was really impressed with his writings. And when I was thinking about right people for the show, he immediately clicked in my mind.

And when I asked him if he would like to be interviewed, he was so happy and agreed on getting interviewed. I took e3 to Kashi Labh Mukti Bhawan also where we interviewed the manager about the idea of death in Hinduism. We also filmed a family who had brought their mother to die a Varanasi. We filmed evening and morning rituals as well at Mukti Bhawan. It was again very intense experience translating the manager, because he loves talking and talks too much and the atmosphere at Mukti Bhawan. Anyways, it went very well.

I introduced the director to a boat rower also who is known for his singing skills. He writes his own songs and most of them are religious. He loves singing his songs when he is rowing the boat and his voice is really beautiful. This interview was also very good and interesting. Other than this we interviewed a lady professor of Hindu religion and definitely her interview was very nice. Overall we did 10 interviews with different kind of people and did some regular touristic things like evening ceremony, morning boat, temples, rituals etc. It was nice working on this project because it was mostly about interviewing people and I got to listen a lot which is always a nice experience for me.

Another project with VPRO

VPRO hired me again for their documentary project called From Bihar to Bangalore. This documentary project was bigger than the last one I worked with them in 2011. The host of the show Mr. Jelle Brandt Corstius wanted to show how India changes from one city to other. I was responsible for organizing their work in Varanasi. Mr. Jelle spent 4 months studying Hindi and exploring India to prepare for the documentary. I met him about 3 months before the crew arrived in Varanasi. Mr. Jelle told me that the whole world knows Varanasi but they only one classical picture of Varanasi but he wanted to show something different.

We went to a few places which is shown in all of the documentaries about Varanasi. Apart from those regular places we went to Kashi Labh Mukti Bhawan where they allow only 15 days of stay for the people to die, we met with Mr. G. D. Agarwal and the king of Doam society. They wanted to interview one of the members of National River Ganga Basin Authority also. I suggested them to interview Mr. Rajendra Singh because I was very well aware of his honest activism for environment, especially Ganga but we could not schedule an appointment with him as he was going to be busy somewhere else during the filming time.

We decided to work with Mr. B. D. Tripathi, professor at BHU, instead of Mr. Rajendra Singh. Mr. Jelle was very much interested in the king of Doam society, the people who work at the cremation ghat. Arranging an appointment with him was kind of a pain because this person was seriously commercial. The only thing he cared about was money. VPRO wanted to film Shivratri festival in Varanasi and I arranged the filming at a temple called Tilbhandeshwar with consent of the temple management committee and Shivratri organizing committee.

Everything seemed very well organized. I knew what we were going to do and when. Everything went smoothly except filming at the Tilbhandeshwar temple and interview the king of Doam society. When we arrived at the temple to start filming, it was too crowded. We got in the temple and by the time we were going to go on the rooftop to film the preparation, a policeman stopped us. He said that filming inside the temple was not allowed. I told him that I had permission but this guy just did not want to hear anything.  One of the persons from the management committee also said that it was not problem for them but he still did not allow us.

VPRO understood that it was not my fault but it was crazy to see how this policeman behaved us. The king of the Doam society was also a crazy guy. He did not want to speak anything, his answers were too short and finally we decided not to work with him. We filmed a Sadhu also at the biggest Ashram in Varanasi which was very nice. The Sadhu was very cooperative and he invited us to join him at his personal Ganga ritual. VPRO just loved this footage. Everything went very well and finally we completed the filming in Varanasi and VPRO told me that it was one of the best episodes they had ever produced.

Work with Gilles Delmas

Gilles Delmas is a documentary maker and an artist from France. I was introduced to him by a friend of mine from Varanasi. Actually Gilles was looking for an assistant to help him photographing in Varanasi. The theme of the photography was relationship between chair and death. He approached to my friend first but my friend had to no idea what Mr. Gilles was talking about so he brought him to me. Mr. Gilles explained me his project and since I had already worked with so many photographers and documentary makers, I just thought that this project would also be like any other project I had worked on.

I immediately agreed on working with Mr. Gilles but I had no idea how different this project was going to be:) A few really interesting things happened only in the first meeting. Actually Mr. Gilles was staying at Hotel Haifa and it is prohibited for me to enter in this hotel. Mr. Gilles asked me to meet him the next day in the hotel lobby and I told him that I cold not enter in the hotel. He asked me the reason behind it and I told him that hotel owner had told me once that it was their policy that they do not allow locals to enter in the hotel. Mr. Gilles did not tell me anything at that moment but later I got a call that he had already changed his hotel.

Mr. Gilles told me that he doesn’t like racism hence changed the hotel. I had never thought that somebody would even care about my personal problems this much. Anyways, it was really nice of him that he cared a lot about me and I really appreciate it. We met the next day and Mr. Gilles asked me to take him to the places where Sadhus or regular people live to die. I took him to several places and he chose one of them to work. Now he needed chairs which I did not understand. I asked him the reason behind this theme of relationship between chair and death.

He told me that he had always wanted to come to Varanasi to photograph death and once he was laying down with his closed eyes in Haridwar along the Ganga thinking about his project in Varanasi. When he opened his eyes, he saw a big chair in the sky with yellow and orange color and it gave him this idea that there was some kind of relationship between chair and death. He thought a lot about it and realized that it was true. He was trying to tell me things that I did not understand at all. He told me that even the people who come to die in Varanasi have to use a chair in their journey, maybe just by sitting on it waiting for a train.

I did not understand anything but at the same time things were becoming more and more interesting. I took him to several shops where they sell chairs but Mr. Gilles did not like them. At some places he did not like the way they were making the chair, at one place he did not like the children of the carpenter and at the same time he was asking me to take him to a right place. I did not know what was going on, it was kind of upsetting for me. I had no idea what was the right place for him. I kind of gave up at this moment and called the friend who had introduced him to me.

I asked him to take care of him as I felt like leaving the project. This friend came and we went to his place along the river side. I introduced my friends father to Mr. Gilles and told him that father also works as a carpenter but he usually makes boats. Mr. Gilles finally said that the father was the best person to make his chairs, big relief. We went to buy the wood and day was over today. I thought a lot of about working with Mr. Gilles and started talking about him with my western friends. They all told me that Mr. Gilles was not different at all, all the artists are same. They do things differently, they are very creative people and we should respect them.

When I met with Mr. Gilles the next day, I saw him with hair shaved. I asked him why he shaved his hair and he said that it was because he was going to start his project. He was wearing orange color jacket and it was also intentional. Actually most of the holy men and other people who come to die in Varanasi wear orange color dresses and since he was going to work with them, he also wanted to wear the same color dress. His devotion for the project made me feel like really artists are different. I realized that it was first time in my whole life when I was working with an artist. His devotion made me respect him and his project more than ever before.

Mr. Gilles had drawn pictures of several different kinds of chairs with different sizes. He needed a chair with really long legs, as long as four feet. Another chair with regular size, one chair one and half feet tall, one broken chair and three chairs as small as a match box. I was thrilled to see the idea of the chairs. The most interesting thing about the chairs were how they were going to look like. They needed to be in two colors- orange in front and yellow in the back. The space of the seat and back needed to be empty, wow. I was thinking that if someone sits on such kind of chair and get photographed then those empty spaces won’t be even visible but it was still very important for Mr. Gilles.

I told about this strange structure of the chair to my friends and they told me that the things which was not visible but still exist means a lot to artists. I was like, wow. I had never thought about such thing. Anyways, finally the chairs were prepared. They looked beautiful and different than any chair I had ever seen, even in my dreams. The chair with the long leg was so big that it would not fit in any taxi or auto so we had to hire a boat to carry them and then lift them to the photography place. Mr. Gilles had chosen one particular ashram called Machli Bandar Math which was situated near to the river and he wanted to photograph one particular Baba.

We arrived at the Ashram the next day with all of our chairs and started photographing. The tall chair was so big that the person could not even sit on it. We had to lift him up and help him getting on the chair, it was so funny. Mr. Gilles sometimes wanted the Baba to sit on the chair, some times just stand next to the chair, sometimes just look at the chair, sometimes walk towards the chair… many different poses. Mr. Gilles was super devoted for his work. Once he started photographing, it felt like he had lost connection from the world. Sometimes he would talk with himself and with the camera. His camera was also very different.

He had three cameras and all of them were roll cameras. One of them was very big in size. I asked him why he was not using a digital camera and he said that since his pictures are poster size, he could not print digital photographs in that big size. I did not know this before. We worked with the wooden chairs for three days and the fourth day something new arrived. Mr. Gilles brought chairs made of cloth. He had two chairs- one regular size and other one as big as a house. He wanted to stick the regular size one on the wall the spread the bigger one on the ground and just have the character look at it.

The big chair was so big that we had to go in a ground. He spread the chair and went on a roof top next to the ground and photographed it. The project was completed successfully but the last day was not happy day. Actually Mr. Gilles wanted to compensate the Baba for his time and we had agreed on a price but on the last day he started asking for ten times more money. I somehow handled the situation by paying the Baba from my own pocket. I did not pay him ten times more but a little bit more than we had agreed.

I think a lot about Mr. Gilles and his project and feel like I really learnt a lot. He was a gentleman and super professional person and I really look forward to work with him in future. Mr. Gilles want to come to Varanasi again for the documentary filming project and again I would love working with him.

Coca-Cola Varanasi

I worked with a journalist named Bart Spellers from Holland who was writing an article about the Coke issue in India. He wanted to visit all the disputed Coke sites in India including Mehdiganj, Varanasi and I worked with him in Varanasi as his local assistant and translator. I also look for an opportunity of visiting Mehdiganj and talking with people about their problems created by Coke so I was happy to get this job. I took Bart to Mehdiganj, arranged interviews with Nandlal Master, a few employees, the union leader at the Coke plant, a few women and a few farmers. Bart did not want so many interviews but he wanted to talk with the right kind of people because he did not have much time for Benares.

I was kind of surprised to hear that he did not have much time for his work. He was writing the article on a very controversial subject and I think he should have spent more time in Benares in order to come closer to the fact. Anyways, I think they did good job because they talked with few but the right kind of people. I had an idea but was surprised to talk with the people in Mehndiganj. I was very well aware of the situation but thought it might get better this year but after talking with the people I realized that the situation is still the same as it was four years ago when I went there the first time to work.

All of the people were still angry at Coke and the government. They all said that Coke is responsible for the lack of water in Mehdiganj and the government is doing nothing against Coke. They said that the situation has been getting worse and worse year by year which did not surprise me at all. We had less than average rain last year and I heard that Coke’s market increased within the past year in India which would of course cause more ground water shortage. Nandlal Master said that the committee constituted by the prime minister of India to study the issue has submitted its report to the PMO but has not made it public yet which sounded strange to me.

Why not make the report public since the study has been completed? Nandlal said that he has used a RTI to ask when the report will be given to him and the concerned department replied to him that they have asked the district magistrate to get him the report. It is okay if they are going to provide the report but I still do not understand why they tried to hide it? Why was it not given to the media? After all it is a big issue . So many questions again and the government and Coke both seem suspicious to me. Hopefully someday something will happen, but it is not sure when.

Finally the article is published here:
http://www.depers.nl/buitenland/497352/Coca-Cola-zuigt-de-grond-leeg.html

Widows in Vrindavan

I worked again with Irene who was doing her M.A. from Ca’Foscari University of Venice and her research topic was Hindu widows. I had already worked with her in October 2009 in Benares but this time she wanted to visit Vrindavan because she had heard a lot about Bengali widows living in Vrindavan and how important this city is for Hindu widows. I contacted my friend Yashu who lives in Vrindavan and asked him to help as I also did not know much about Vrindavan. He promised to help me and in fact he arranged everything- hotel, food and many interviews also.

Irene had already heard about Bhajan Ashrams (ashrams where chantings are organized) working in Vrindavan and she wanted to visit them and see if it was possible to interview women there. I had also heard about widows working at Bhajan Ashrams before but I had no about idea of how big and how many Bhajan Ashrams were there in Vrindavan. I think there was at least one ashram in each alley and few of them were really huge, having three-four thousand widows under the same roof.

These bhajan ashrams are run by rich religious people. They give Rs. 2 and a little bit of rice and a little bit of lentils to each widow chanting for three hours. They have two to three shifts of work. The first shift start around 8 o’clock in the morning whereas the last shift of work ends around 6 o’clock in the evening. Not just any widow can enter in any bhajan ashram and start chanting and then get some money. They have to get registered with the ashram first and then their timing is decided and only then they can work.

There are thousands of widows living in Vrindavan and most of them, over 90% come from Bengal and do not speak any Hindi. Some of them live in a government widow ashram, some of them stay at private ashrams, some of them have rented a room and  some just sleep somewhere on the road or along the river Yamuna. Over 95% of the widows living in Vrindavan make their living from working at bhajan ashrams and begging. All of these women go to bhajan ashrams in the day time and then beg in evening and morning time when there are more pilgrims going to the temples.

Vrindavan is also called city of temples, there are around 5,000 temples in Vrindavan and this city is considered as a holy place amongst Hindus so hundreds of thousands of people visit the city every year. And since people visit the city for religious purpose, people donate a lot of things which makes Vrindavan a good place for begging. It was very sad to see the number of beggers in Vrindavan. I think most of the widows living in Vrindavan are involved in begging.

We asked them why did they chose Vrindavan only and why not some other place like Varanasi or Haridwar as they are also sacred cities for Hindus. Most of them said that since Vrindavan is very popular amongst Bengalis, most of the Bengali widows come to Vrindavan. We asked them why Vrindavan is popular and most of them did not know the reason behind it but one lady who was not a widow told us a very interesting story about why Vrindavan is popular amongst Bengali people.

She told us a story of two brothers who used to work as a cashier at some king’s palace. Once they were working at the king’s palace and while working they ordered a glass of water with sugar but by mistake the servant mixed salt instead of sugar and gave the drink to those two brothers. They drank it and did not realize that there was salt instead of sugar because they were too busy with their work. But later when the servant realized that he had made this mistake by giving salty drink instead of sugar, he went to those two brothers to say sorry.

He told those two brothers that they he had mixed salt instead of sugar in their water but those two brothers did not believe it. The servant told them again the same thing and then these brothers asked the servant that if he had mixed salt instead of sugar then how come they did not feel it while drinking it. And the servant answered that since they were too much busy in their work, they did not realize whether there was sugar or salt in the water. Both brothers were shocked to hear this and this feeling changed their whole lives.

They thought if they would have worked with the same honesty to find the God, the way they had been working for the king, they could have found God. This was the moment when they decided to leave the materialistic life and devote themselves completely to the God. They left their job and came to Vrindavan, which used to be a jungle those days, to meditate and devote themselves completely to the God. They became so popular amongst people that the king of India decided to meet them. When the king came to see these brothers, they were sitting on a ghat along Yamuna river and meditating.

The king told to one of the brothers that he was so happy with their devotion to the God that he wanted to do something for them. He offered any kind of help or money they wanted. These brothers asked the king to get the broken stones repaired at the ghat. The king started laughing and went to see the ghat. But when he arrived there he found that this whole ghat was made of precious stones. These stones were so expensive that they were not available even in the palace of the king. At that moment he realized the supernatural powers of those brothers and immediately went back to them and said that he had realized his mistake of offering just anything.

He said that he was unable to give them what they already had but he still wanted to give something to them. He said to those brothers to that he would donate them all the land he could see from his eyes at once. One of the brothers stood up and looked around and finally all the land they could see from eyes by standing at one place was donated to them and this land is what we call Vrindavan now. So the people meant to say that the city Vrindavan was established by Bengalis and this is why it is so popular amongst Bengalis, very interesting story.

We could interview only ten women in a city where there were thousands of widows because most of these widows did not know any Hindi and I did not know their language. Anyways, we visited a government widow ashram also. There were two government run widow ashrams- one run by the central government and other one was run by the state government of UP. The ashram run by the central government seemed more organized than the state government one. It was new building with at least 500-600 rooms. There were about 2700 widows living in the same building.

We met a government employee there who was working as a helper. We asked for permission to take interviews and he seemed fine with it. He said that all the widows staying in the building come to him everyday in the morning time to get free grains which are provided to them by the government. He said that we could interview them when they come. We were just sitting there and I noticed a lady watching us from another building. She called me and started asking me why we were there and when I told her about Irene’s research she said that it was not allowed.  She asked us to go to the district magistrate and get permission from him.

It seemed really strange but we could not do anything. We did not understand why she was stopping us. Then we went to the biggest Bhajan ashram of Vrindavan but the same thing happened there as well; they did not allow us to talk with the widows there. Finally we reached to the state government run widow ashram and met the security guard of that building and explained the project to him. He was a really nice guy. He said that the officers were not at the ashram now and told us to complete the interview before she comes back.

I asked him why he was telling us to complete the interview before the officer arrives and he said that officers do not allow anyone to talk with widows living there. I asked why they don’t allow and he answered that since both of the officers working at the ashram were completely corrupt and eat the pension money which comes for the widows, they do not want others to know about it. I was really sad to hear this. He said that the government provides a monthly pension to the widows but these officers keep half of it for their enrichment and give only half to the widows.

He said that first of all they ask for Rs. 300 to all the widows just to get them their pension registration card and then they say that it takes about a year for pension to start when in fact registration is free and the pension is started within only a few days. He meant to say that the officers keep all of the first year pension money for themselves and then start pension from the second year and they give only half of it. We asked him how many widows were living at that ashram and he said about 300 which means these government officers steal Rs. 90,000 per month.

He said that they give a small percentage to other government officers also like the district magistrate and other people but most of the money goes to them. I was seriously shocked to hear all of these stories. I just could not believe how someone could take money of those poor women who work for only Rs. 2 and a little bit of grains everyday? Anyways, now I knew the reason why that other government officer at central government run widow ashram did not want us to interview women living there. It was very sad but this was the truth.

We realized that it was very difficult to interview the women living at ashrams so we decided to interview the women who live independently. We started visiting widows at their homes and started talking with women on the road or living in small ashrams. All of them had seriously sad stories. Most of them were married at a very early age and their husbands also died soon after the marriage. They were not allowed to study and finally they decided to leave  home and come to Vrindavan. Some of them left home because their children did not care about them.

We interview to a few Bengali women who said that they stay for about 11 months in Vrindavan, save some money and grains and then go back to visit their family and give all of their savings to their children. We noticed something really interesting- that idea of the reason of their widowhood is sin in their past life was not so popular amongst Bengalis whereas widows from North India had this strong belief that the reason of their widowhood in the present life is because of the sin they had done in their past lives.

Most of the North Indian people believe that the biggest discrimination with widows happens in the Bengal region but the Bengali woman whom we talked with said that they never felt discriminated. It was really strange to hear them saying this. I think that they do not see the discrimination; as a discrimination, they think that this is the way it should be. Anyways, we all know that widows are discriminated all over India, but the biggest discrimination is there in Bengal region.

We got to interview a few Hindi speaking non-Bengali women also. We asked them why did they choose Vrindavan and they said that since Vrindavan has a lot of Bhajan ashrams where at least Rs.2 with some grains is provided, it was a good option for them come to Vrindavan instead of dying at their place. It was a very interesting answer but I do not know to what extent it was true. We interviewed a few widow women who said that it is much better to stay at home and find a job rather than going to an ashram and living like a beggar. I liked this idea better.

We asked all the widows about the remarriage of widows and we noticed something really interesting that most of the widows who were close to 70 years old said that remarriages should happen but all the widows who were close to 40 or 50 said that remarriage of a widow a big sin. They believe that the God has given them punishment in the form of their widowhood life and they should respect it because if they do not respect it then they will go to hell and will become a widow again in their next life so it is much better to live like a widow in one life rather going to hell and becoming a widow again in the next life.

I think the reason behind older women believing in the idea of remarriages was they had already seen their whole lives and now they were alone and helpless so they they think that it is much better to remarry and have a family whereas young widows can take care of themselves hence they believe in living alone. Anyways, it is only my idea; I still do not understand what could be the reason behind it. After coming back from Vrindavan we decided to contact some religious person to ask him questions about what is there in Hindu sacred texts for widows.

We met a woman who had done her Ph.D. in Sanskrit and works as a katha speaker at several temples and ashrams in and out of Varanasi. We asked what could be the reason behind a woman becoming widow and she told us several interesting things about what is written about widows in Hindu sacred texts. She said according to Hindu texts if you try to disturb a couple or make them marry with someone else forcibly, this could also cause you lose your life partner in your next life. I asked her what if a man does it and she said that the rules are the same for men and women both so men can also be punished in the same way.

The second reason could be if you are married but you have relations with other people. There are two kinds of punishment for this sin- one is that when you go to the hell, you have to make relations with a burning iron body and the other is you could lose your life partner in your next life. She said that making relations while in the menstrual cycle could also be a reason of widowhood in next life. All of these reasons seemed genuine to me and made one thing clear that love marriages were accepted in Hinduism and there is a very hard punishment for not accepting it. I think the parents who do not want their children to marry with their girlfriend or boyfriend should think about it now, otherwise they could become a widow in their next life:)

After studying Hindu widows in Vrindavan and Varanasi, I have developed this impression that the widows who decided to stay with their family and find a job, even small, are much more happier than those widows who decide to stay at Ashrams or go begging. I do understand where did this idea of staying at ashrams and discriminating against widows came from, but the situation is very sad and corrupt government officers make the situation more sad. Again I see only one solution of this problem- education, education to women. I believe that if women are educated and have working skills, they can at least try to find a good job and live a better and happy life. But lets see when the government of India will become serious about education for women.

Dying in Benares

I worked with a photographer named Jane Becker from Canada. She wanted to photograph widows and hospices in Varanasi. Since I had already worked with a researcher from the University of Venice who did research about widows in Varanasi, I already knew where to take them. About two years ago I worked with a researcher from the University of Berlin who was interested in people who come Benares to die so I had some idea about this subject also. We decided to start working with hospices and ashrams first. I took her to an ashram near Assi ghat and we interviewed a few people and she did some photography also.

Next day I took her to another ashram where more than 2,000 people stay to live their last part of life. This ashram has a section for Sanyasis and a separate section for family people. The ashram was huge with so many people in there and there was a school also for Sanskrit studies. We visited this ashram but did not photograph. The next day we went to a place called Kashi Mukti Bhawan which really different than other places in Benares. Benares has so many places and ashrams where people stay to die but this place was entirely different.

Kashi Mukti Bhawan is owned by the Dalmia family. The idea behind founding of this hospice is that once Mr. Dalmia was visiting Varanasi and he visited so many ashrams where people stay to die. His grandmother also wanted to live her last part of the life in Varanasi so he decided to built a free temporary stay for the people who want to die in Varanasi. Kashi Mukti Bhawan has a rule which could sound strange but they offer only 14 days of stay. So most of the people come to stay at Kashi Mukti Bhawan are the people who are just going to die at any moment.

They do not allow anyone who is below 60 years old or looks like they are not dying. The building has ten rooms and when I went there only one room had people and the rest of the rooms were vacant. They have a temple also inside the building where they have puja going on most of the time. The manager said that until four years ago they did puja 24 hours a day but they decreased by a few hours because not many people come anymore. In the past all the rooms used to be full all the time but now sometimes they have only one visitor, sometimes two or three and sometimes just no one.

And if there is a person dying there, then the priest of the temple goes to the this person and reads Ram Charit Manas for him at least for five minutes at four different times in a day. The idea behind it is that if a dying person hears the chantings of Ram Charit Manas, then he gets salvation. We interviewed a woman staying at Kashi Mukti Bhawan who had brought her father all the way from Sasaram, Bihar to Kashi Mukti Bhawan so that her father could die in Varanasi and get salvation. We asked her why she chose only Kashi Mukti Bhawan in Varanasi, why not some other ashram and she said that all of her family members come to Kashi Mukti Bhawan to die, very interesting.

She also talked about the importance of dying in Varanasi but at the same time she gave some importance to Kashi Mukti Bhawan also. She said that Kashi Mukti Bhawan has an ideal atmosphere for dying. She said that Kashi Mukti Bhawan has chanting all day long and the priests read Ram Charit Manas for the dying person which makes it a special place for dying. We asked the manager why they allow only 14 days of stay and he said that 14 days are enough to die. In case the person is still sick and feels like they are going to die even after 14 days, they allow them to stay for a week or two more but usually people die within a week.

The manager said that in some cases people came and returned home by recovering from their sickness. So they came to Kashi Mukti Bhawan with serious sickness and felt like dying but they recovered and did not die. Well, in any case Kashi Mukti Bhawan seemed different than most of the other ashrams in Varanasi and I would like to learn more about it.

Widows in Varanasi

I worked with a student named Irine from University of Venice who wanted to study widows in Varanasi. She was more interested in prostitution of widows at widow ashrams in Varanasi. I asked her how she decided to chose this subject and she said that she watched the movie Water and got interested in this subject. I also liked the subject very much but I was not sure if I would find some widow to ask them questions about prostitution. But this subject was very interesting to me so I agreed to work with her. I did some research and found that there was a government widow ashram near my home.

We went there and found that there were about 18 widows living at that ashram. The ashram did not look in a good condition. There was a garden and free space but the building was not maintained well. It looked like a building built in early 1900. Somebody at the office told me that there was a rich pilgrim from Kolkata visiting Varanasi who met a widow somewhere at some Ghat and heard her stories which made him think about building a widow ashram in Varanasi. He built this building and gave it to the government and now the building is looked after by the department of women welfare for the government of Uttar Pradesh.

This is the only government widow ashram in whole Uttar Pradesh. There was a woman in-charge of the office. I explained her about Irine’s project and she allowed us to interview widows there. The Ashram was divided into two parts- one for the women who could take care of themselves and one part of the ashram was for the women who were not physically fit. The widows have to cook food for themselves. They get only Rs. 550 (US$ 12) per month by the government.

All the widows and the office in-charge told us that government did not send any money for the past three months so widows did not have any money at all. The office in-charge told me that there are few local people who are regular donors to the ashram and their donation and government money together keeps the widows alive otherwise only government money is not enough and I also believe it. Rs. 550 for one month, how can someone survive with that much money for a month?

The widows who are fit enough to take care of themselves live on the ground floor of the building and other woman who are too old and not physically fit live on the first floor. Government has provided a small gas stove to all the widows and each widow cook food for herself on her own. Ashram has a kitchen also where food is cooked for the women who can not cook food and cooking is done by a office staff. There is a washing machine to clean the laundry but I am not sure who does the laundry.

The rooms are big and there are four beds in each room. Irine wanted to talk about prostitution of widows at widow ashrams but I did not know how to ask widows about prostitution. All of the widows at that ashram are over 65, few are over 80. We decided to visit the ashram again and again, become friends with widows and office staffs and then see if something comes out. We asked about other widows ashram in Varanasi to the office staffs and they gave address of two other ashrams in Varanasi. One was very close to my place which is called Mata Anandmayi Ashram.

We went there and found that Mata Anandmayi Ashram is basically a school for girls to study religion. The peon at the office told me that there were over 20 widows also at the ashram but the manager of the ashram was so rude to us. He did not want to talk about anything. He just said that they do not keep widows at their ashram. I don’t know why he did not want to talk about their work but it was strange. We could meet or talk with anyone at the ashram but the rude manager and peon.

We went to one other ashram called Birla ashram at Chowk, Varanasi which was built by Birla family. There were about 20 widows living there but we could not talk with any widow the very first day. We met a crazy woman who was wife of some IAS officer. I don’t know how she had a room there, although she was not a widow. She told me that her husband had arranged a room at this ashram for her as she wanted to stay in Varanasi for religious reasons. She also did not want us to talk with widows at the ashram.

She asked me to come after few days because she wanted to talk with someone at the office back in Kolkata first. We talked with her for a while and then decided to leave for now and come back again. We went there after a few days and fortunately this crazy lady was not there this time. We met a widow but she was busy that day. She told me that most of the widows who live at Birla ashram work as cook at different houses. She told us that the Ashram doesn’t provide anything but a room to the widows.

I am not sure if the Benares office eats everything and doesn’t provide anything but rooms or this is how they work but it sounded strange to me because there were a few women who just could not do anything. When widows die, they inform the family and if nobody comes, they just cremate the body sometimes in traditional way and sometimes at electric burner. All of the women whom we met were over 60 which was a clear indication of change in the society.

The life stories of widows was really sad and interesting. Different widows had different stories behind leaving their homes and staying at the ashrams.Some of them were kicked out of their home by their own children, somebody was kicked out by their daughter in laws, somebody just did not want to stay with the family as they felt like they were an extra burden to the family. But there was something common in most of the women that they were married at a very young age. It was crazy to hear that some of them were married only when they were 6 or 7 years old.

If I remember correctly, I met over 5 women who were married at the age of 6 or 7 and their husband died when they were only 10. They just never lived with their husbands. We interviewed a woman from Chennai who was the smartest woman amongst all we women we met at both ashrams. When Irene met her first time, her first question to Irene was- who is the prime minister of Italy nowadays. She was married at the age of seven and then lived with her parents for four years because her Gauna had not happened. Gauna is a part of Hindu weddings which is about the bride living with her parents for few days or sometimes few years, depending on the family, even after getting married.

She said that she went to live with her husband after six years of her marriage at the age of eleven but she was again separated from her husband for an year because of some family tradition of her husband’s family. She was not allowed to sleep or even talk with her husband for one year, even they were living in the same house. She used to cook the food for her husband but would sleep with her sister in laws. She lived in the same house where her husband was living but she could not even talk to him and after an year her husband died.

She said that she just knew that her husband had died but she did not know what husband mean. Her parents brought her back to their house and she led her whole life living with their parents and sister. She said that after few years when she came to know that her husband was already dead and she would not be able to marry again, it brought her vairagya and decided to study and work. She could not go school for long time but she studied at home and started giving classes to students. She used to teach maths and science to the students of up to class 10th.

After her parents died, she went to live with her sister and stayed there for several years. But few months ago she felt like she was an extra burden to the family and decided to leave Chennai. She came to Benares to commit suicide. She jumped in the Ganga but was saved by a boat rower. The boat rower informed the police about it and police sent her to widow ashram. Now she prays everyday to die. Her story was really heart-touching but she was really a brave woman. She was just awesome.

She explained us south Indian tradition for widows which sounded a bit different than north Indian tradition. She said that once the husband dies, the widow is brought somewhere near the river and her hairs are shaved. She said that widows are made sit seperately and family and neighbours bring sarees and throw at widows face from distance. They don’t even come close to the widow and give the saree. Something seemed different in south than north which was widows in south India are allowed to wear either white or red saree whereas in North India widows are allowed to wear only white and I have not heard of people throwing saress on widow’s face but when I think of widow’s condtion, I feel like this could be possible in north as well.

We asked all the woman a common question which was why somebody becomes a widow because Irine had read that Hindu widows believe that they are widow because of some sin of their past life and each and every widow were agree with this idea. We asked if they think that a widower is also a widower because of some sin they did in their past life but here answer was different. Widows said that men have different life, they can be fine even if they are a widower so definitely they must have done some sin but their sin is not as big as a widow’s sin.

There is a very strong idea amongst widows that they must follow all the rules made for widows which are like not eating tasty food, not talking with any male, not going out, not wearing colored clothes, not getting involved in any kind of celebration etc. which means anything that makes a person happy. We asked all the widows about it also and everyone but that Chennai woman said that all the widows must follow these rules because this is the way they can fix their sins and if their sins are not fixed then will have to live in hell after they die.

We asked if widows should marry again and a few, hardly 3 or 4, of them said that they should but most of them said that a lot of widows marry nowadays which is really bad. They must follow the traditional widow life. Some of them seemed angry talking about how widows marry nowadays or how they dress in colorful clothes or how they go out. It was strange. But I noticed one thing that none of the widows were educated except one Chennai and one Benares woman and all of them were married at very young age.

One of the widows at government ashram who was from Bengal told me that widow life in Benares is crazy. They are discriminated everywhere. They are not allowed to participate in any wedding. Nobody likes to see them. If somebody sees them while getting out of their home, they get back into home again and rest for a while and then come out again. Because it is considered a bad luck to see the face of a widow. She said that widows are never ever invited to any wedding as it is believed that shade of a widow can make the bride widow.

All of the widows at the ashram were living there because of religious choice but it is hard for me to believe that it is real Hindu practice. I am sure that real Hindu religion doesn’t discriminate between men and women and gives extreme importance to women so I think that the ideas that widows at ashrams are following are also given by crazy Bramhins and Khstriyas of middle age. It was hard for me to believe how the widows are punishing themselves.

I have learnt a lot while working with students but one of the most important things I have learnt is that Brmhins, Khatriyas, English, Muslims or anyone who ruled India did serious damage and condition of women in India now is terrible, only and only because of them. I think only education can solve this problem but the way Indian government is providing education, it seems like it will take ages for women to get equal rights and come out of these crazy ideas such as following strict widow life and punishing themselves.

Tawayaf culture

I am hosting a FulBright scholar, Megan, who is doing her research from University of Pittsburgh. Her research topic is tawayaf culture. She has rented a whole flat and will stay till June 2010. We discussed a few things about tawayaf culture in Varanasi. I already knew that Lucknow was the most famous place of tawayafs.Varanasi has also been a famous center for tawayafs but according to Megan, it doesn’t exist anymore. I also talked with a few of my friends and relatives and they were telling that there are few places where tawayafs still perform.

Most of the people think that tawayaf is one other name for prostitutes but it is not true. They were highly educated women and and trained in their skills such and dancing, singing, literature and were very well respected in society. My friend Ravi told me that kids of royal families were sent to tawayafs to get training which included behavioural training, gazal writing and few other skills. The place were tawayafs used to live was called kotha and now kotha is also referred as a brothel which is also not true. Kothas were a place for tawayafs to live and perform.

Usually kothas had more than one tawayaf where one, the most senior, was the head. The head of the tawayfs was responsible for training other tawayfas. Usually kothas had a dance performance every evening where anyone was allowed to enter. They had male musicians who played different musical instruments and tawayafs were the one who performed dance. Alcohol was also served to special clients or sometimes to everyone. Sex work was also involved there but it was not like today’s brothels where someone pays Rs. 50 and sleep with the sex workers till he cums.

Tawayafs were expensive and I have heard that they had right to choose whom did they want to sleep with, so it was not like anyone could pay and sleep with them. Usually they had one special client who was very close to the tawayaf and this relationship was also not like a relationship of a sex worker and her client; it was something special. Tawayfs had children also and this special person would act as their father. Tawayafs were called at the palaces also perform and entertain the royal families. Whatever I heard about tawayfs made me feel like tawayafs were accepted and respected in our society but kothas were still a disrespected place.

There is not much information available about tawayafs but I have heard that there are a few places in Varanasi and Lucknow where they still have few kothas which run illegally. Megan’s subject is awesome but she is more interested in prostitutes now because she said that it would not be possible for her to write her thesis on tawayfas because there is not much information available about them. I want to know more about tawayfs and looking at Megan’s thesis if she writes something about them.

Research with laborers and construction workers

Now Adam wanted to talk with some labors who work at construction sites. He wanted to talk with different kind of labors like the one who work independently, the one work for some agency, the one who work under some contractor or the one who work for the government… I had seen a construction going on in my neighborhood and I thought it would be a good idea to talk with some labors there so I took Adam there and talked with two labors. Adam asked them several questions but something that was most interesting for me was the training for labors.

Adam asked them if they knew of some place where training is provided to labors or skilled labors in Benares and the labors said that there was a government training center for labors in Chunar. Adam asked them if they went there to learn and both of the labors said no. Adam asked would they like to go there and again both of them said no. Adam asked why people don’t go these training centers and they said since they are poor they can would not like to stay at some place and make nothing. It is better for them to work and learn so that they can make some money while learning.

Both of the labors said that all the labors, almost 99.9%, start working at a construction site where they carry the bricks or just help the skilled labors and someday they also become a skilled labor. None of the labors were happy with the money they were making. They said that labors make only Rs. 120 ($2.5) and skilled labors make only Rs. 200 ($4) per day which sounds terrible to me. India is also becoming an expensive place to live and I don’t understand how these people survive. �Sometimes when they are working under some contractor, they get less paid because contractor also gets a cut.

They said that most of the labors in Benares are Biharis or they come from nearby villages. Adam asked them what if they are injured while working, who pays for their medical bills? And they said that most of the time contractors make some pressure on the land owner and if the land owner agrees to pay, then they pay otherwise contractor takes care of it but usually they have to face trouble getting anything extra from the contractor or the land owner both. Something else that was very interesting to me was when they talked about why women are not skilled labors in India.

They said that skilled labor’s work is kind of risky sometimes because when they work on the outer walls, they have to climb up on the walls and there is only bamboos to support them. I think Indian women are more involved in risky activities than Indian men because it is women who cook on the kerosene�oil stove, I often hear about LPG cylinder blast in the kitchen and mostly women look after our kitchen, marrying an unknown person also seems risky to me… Women are often forcibly married to someone chosen by their parents and later they are harassed for dowry and in a lot of cases they are killed. I think these things are more riskier than climbing up on the wall.

Adam is looking for some contractors to talk with. I know few contractors in my are and I would ask them to talk with Adam. Adam was looking for a recommendation letter from VDA so that his grant could be easily passed by his university. We went to the VDA office and talked with a officer there and he asked us to meet with the Chairman of VDA. We met him next day and talked about Adam’s research. He said that VDA doesn’t do much construction because it doesn’t have much money. But he agreed to give a recommendation letter to Adam. He asked Adam to write the kind of letter he was supposed to give to Adam. Adam wrote the letter and the chairman asked his typist to type the same.

I don’t know what had happened but his typist took like more than an hour to type only one page. Finally we got the letter which was very valuable document for Adam’s research. VDA promised Adam to provide any kind of help Adam would like to have in the future, which sounded very strange to me because we Indians never hope for any kind of help from our government. Well, whatever, we got what we needed and that was the most important thing.

Research on secular philosophers and cremationists

Adam, PhD candidate, University of Chicago, came back to Benaers and stayed at my place again. This year he wanted to do some basic research about his upcoming research in India next year. He wanted to study Hindi as well but for that he had decided to go to Masoorie. Adam was interested in two subjects- labors at construction sites or Doams (the people who work at cremation place). Adam has come this year with his fiance, Megan, who is doing a research for her school, Smith college, Boston, about secular Indian philosophers. She just wants to collect some data about them.

She wants to visit BHU and see if they have any books available written by any secular Indian philosophers who existed in between 1850-1940. Megan said that she went to University of Maisoore also but could not get anything because there was no one to help her at the university. She went there several times but could not get any help and then she decided to leave Maisoore and came to Benares. She wanted to visit the BHU library and wanted to talk with some professors at philosophy department. I took help of my one friend who studies at BHU and he took us the university.

We went to the International Students Center first where we met with the officer who asked us to meet the head of the central library. We went to the central library and met with the head. Adam and Megan both were shocked to see the library of BHU. They said that BHU’s library was a way better than the library of University of Masoorie. They said that people were also very nice and helping at BHU. The asked Megan to write them a letter asking for permission to visit the library and after doing it, we were allowed to look at the books. Megan, Adam, my friend Ravi and I visited the library with few staffs of the library who were showing us around.

Megan found few books that were good for her research and wanted to get it xeroxed but actually it was impossible to xerox those books because those books were too old and pages were in terrible condition. So finally Megan had to write another letter asking them to provide digital format of the book. They asked us to come after 5 days and collect the book in digital format. After the library we went to the philosophy department and met a professor. He was crazy. He was more interested in showing his own research to Megan. He did not want to hear what Megan was doing.

He started showing the books he had written and started talking about himself and just did not want to stop or let Megan ask something about her research. Finally after hearing him for an hour, he asked what Megan needed. Megan told him about her research and he asked Megan to come next day so that he could research the philosophy department library but he had said that the library had a few books that would be good for her research. �After meeting him we came back to home and Megan said that it was a successful day for her research.

The work at BHU today motivated her to keep her research going on otherwise she had given-up after visiting University of Maisoore. I am happy for Megan’s research. Adam wanted to talk with a doam so I took him to Harishchandra Ghat and introduced him to a guy whom I had met while working with CBC’s documentary Myths and Might. We met at the Harishchandra Ghat and he took us to the electric burner where he works. I had never been to a electric burner but this time the electric burner was the place to interview.

We talked for few hours and Adam and Megan asked him several different kinds of questions about his personal life, social status, discrimination… Adam wanted to gift something to him so I asked the Doam where was the nearest sweet shop and the Doam asked us why we wanted to go to a sweet shop and I told him that Adam wanted to gift him some sweets. After hearing this the Doam said that Doams are not the kind of people who love sweets, they love alcohol. So we bought him a bottle of whiskey.