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Chapter Three

The Nepalese and the Holy City

‘Banaras is not only a city, but a culture in itself — those who can sense and be part of it can experience its revealing consciousness,’ said Kamal Gupt, a local scholar. Brahma, the Creator of the Universe in Hindu mythology, is said to have remarked, ‘You balance all the heavenly deities on one side and Kasi on the other, and the gods will be lighter.’ The celebrated poet-seer Vyasa established his hermitage here. Tulsidas wrote his Ramacharitamanas here. Gautama Buddha gave his first sermon at Sarnath nearby. Kabir, Ravidas, Ramanand, Munshi Premchand, Girija Devi, Sitara Devi, Bismillah Khan, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Laxmi Prasad Devkota and a host of other great philosophers, and men and women of the arts and letters found inspiration in this holy city.

The connection of Nepal with Kasi is as old as history itself. Some of the rarest texts of the Skanda Purana preserved in Nepalese palm-leaf manuscripts, dated AD 810, are available in Kathmandu. It is ordained by the scriptures that the practice of yoga and even merely spending one’s last days in Kasi, will lead to moksha. Even before the history of these cities were recorded with exactitude, and until the mid-twentieth century it was the ardent desire of most Nepalese to visit Kasi at least once in a lifetime or better still, to ‘attain deliverance from the body’ in Kasi.

Kasi has always been the centre for Nepalese pilgrims and priests, but it also sheltered those exiled from the country. ‘Some days after Jung Bahadur took control of governance, he asked King Rajendra to choose a destination for him and the queen to settle down, outside of Nepal. The king replied, ‘there are many places of worship and for meditation in Kasi. The holy River Ganga flows and the God of Gods, Lord Vishwanath is there. Many Nepalese people have lived in Varanasi for generations. That is where I wish to go’. This is how in 1846, King Rajendra and Queen Rajya Laxmi came to live in Varanasi with their large retinue. My great-grandfather, the Raj Purohit and his son, my grandfather were part of that retinue’. Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, fondly remembered as Kishunjee, was born at an outhouse of the palace the royals built. He followed the footsteps of the family helping his father in the performance of religious rites in Banaras and Ramnagar, a town located in north Bihar across the Chitwan district at the palace of Mahendra Bikram Shah, alias Ram Raja. But once his elder brother, Gopal and he joined the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) in the 1940s, they were absorbed by the revolutionary spirit that engulfed India and joined the movement against British rule in India and the Rana oligarchy in Nepal.

Bhaswati Ghosh

Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim came to me rather unremarkably. In the dead of Canada’s fierce winter in January 2017, I had a sudden desire to read and cook from conflict zones around the world. I say sudden, but given the blood-stained cloud that hangs over Syria, Yemen, Iraq and much of the Arab world and parts of Africa, this couldn’t have been all that abrupt a thirst. The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq, Blasim’s debut short story collection, was one of the first books I borrowed from the library for my quest.

I didn’t make much of the simple black cover of The Corpse Exhibition, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright. Nothing — not its blackness or even a statutory warning on the cover (had there been one) — could have prepared me for what lay inside. Such was the emotive force of Blasim’s words that despite the macabre scenarios they pressed between themselves, I kept turning the book’s pages with hypnotic urgency.

The sharpness of Blasim’s storytelling knife stabbed me with the very first story in the collection, titled The Corpse Exhibition. Written in the backdrop of the Iraq War, the story puts a chilling spin on the practice of displaying executed bodies in public. The narrator, evidently the leader of an organization involved with curating corpse exhibitions, speaks in a clinical tone to a prospective new hire. The emphasis on the aesthetics of the displays — the boss cites as a prime example the naked corpses of a breastfeeding mother and her child, placed under a dead palm tree with not a trace of wound on their bodies — layers the story with a degree of perversion that’s so disturbing it is riveting.

By Monica Arora

Exit WestTitle: Exit West

Author: Mohsin Hamid
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Pages: 229
Price: ₹ 599

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Mohsin Hamid weaves a compelling saga of love, loss, identity-crises, immigration, personal and worldly conflicts and much more in his latest book Exit West. Set in “a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war”, it could be an allegory of any nation such as Pakistan, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan or another, perched precariously at the brink of civil war yet discovering pockets of peaceful life whilst turmoil lurks nearby. The story revolves around the protagonists Saeed and Nadia, and the reader gets instantly drawn into their world when they meet at “an evening class on corporate identity and product branding” and eventually end up having coffee followed by a Chinese dinner and start the process of getting to discover each other.