Shukla Ji – the highlight of our Banaras trip!
I do not have the skills of a travel blogger. Hence, I will skip the finer details of our Kashi trip and defer to the numerous travel writers who have narrated their experience of Banaras so eloquently. I am however, tempted to make a brief mention about one aspect of our trip - Shukla Ji, our auto rickshaw driver in Banaras. For some strange reason, we are quite fortunate to chance upon at the minimum, one engaging person on each holiday trip who, without making any special effort or doing anything extraordinary, ends up adding a distinct flavor to our vacation making it interesting and memorable. On this trip, this particular man was Shukla Ji.
On our first day out, our guide recommended that we hire an auto rickshaw to visit the various places in and around the town; the streets being too narrow and crowded for driving around in a SUV. We agreed. The guide made a telephone call and thus, arrived Shukla Ji on the appointed time in his impeccable auto rickshaw. As he greeted us warmly with folded hands using smaller part of his mouth, the paan (betel leaf) and its juice occupying the larger part (with some also narrowly escaping out of one corner), a gamucha (thin cloth used as a sweat towel in India) carelessly hung around the neck, hair trimmed to the shortest and eyes bright and intelligent, Shukla Ji caught our attention, interest and scrutiny straight away.
Not a bit dissimilar to a typical character from Banaras a fine writer would describe using experience, imagination and words, Shukla Ji makes a perfect dramatis personae. What made him interesting were his characteristics that stood out pertinently in our conversations with him. Rustic yet polite, unassuming but proud, comical but not insensitive, boastful of Banaras but equally objective in his perception of the city, plainly innocent but street smart too, Shukla Ji earned our admiration in the first few minutes.
Over three days, our conversations with him ranged from the history and traditions of Banaras to the current day political and governance issues, and he surprised as well as impressed us with his knowledge, wisdom and acumen. He had a very logical explanation to why he voted for Modi even though his heart was with Kejriwal. We noticed he held high respect for the Raja of Kashi (whom we saw during Ramleela) and his legacy but remains equally a believer of democracy. He knew who made the best lassi in town as confidently as he was aware of his views on each subject except for a brief nonplus moment when he could not offer a convincing explanation to why caste dictates were necessary in elections.
The moment we told him we wanted to visit the places associated with Kabir Das, Tulsi Das and other places related with Ramayana and other legends, his eyes lit up and his chest inflated with pride. “ No one likes to visit these places anymore. Every visitor wants to visit temples, watch the aarti and go boating. I will take you to all the places.” He turned into our guide-cum-driver from that moment onward overshadowing our original guide who tagged along and was fully remunerated by us notwithstanding. We remain grateful to our guide for introducing us to Shukla Ji. Shukla Ji recited dohas of Kabir as ardently as the poem by Subhadra Kumari Chauhan on Rani Jhansi. When he forgot the verse and my wife, Asha Barmola sang out the unfinished verses, he nodded his head in admiration. Always eager to learn, he kept prompting us to share our knowledge of the places we visited in Banaras. In Ramnagar, where we stopped for rabri lassi on his suggestion, Shukla Ji suggested we walk to the house where Lal Bahadur Shastri Ji was born. Asha remembered that it was also Lal Bahadur Shastri Ji’s birthday on that day, and suggested we should buy candles to lite on the wall of the house, Shukla Ji promptly sent the guide to fetch some candles. He felt touched. “No tourist visits his house”, he said sadly. He asked the guide to click his photo together with us, with the candles and the house in the backdrop and requested it be sent to him. The picture of Shukla Ji, with folded hands can be seen on my timeline.
Shukla Ji, you will always be fondly remembered and mentioned whenever the reference to our Banaras trip comes up.
I strongly recommend you stay at Granny’s Inn in Banaras (https://www.facebook.com/grannysinn?fref=ts) . The place is operated by our friends, Manish Sinha and his wife Shilpi Singh. A lovely home stay, Granny’s Inn is perfectly located. Shilpi’s mother, Asha Ji who manages Granny's Inn, is a very warm and affectionate host. Kashi, the caretaker makes lovely food. Through the guide Mayur Jaiswal, you can access Shukla Ji.
Shukla Ji is a simple man who has earned our admiration. I prefer we do not make a spectacle of him!