The (non) Surgical Immersion

A Parsi goes to Varanasi to discover quiet in chaos and comes away wonder-struck by the theatre of excess spirituality

My father in-law passed away earlier this year. He was jovial and healthy but succumbed to a sudden heart attack at 74. At his prayer meeting, his friends remembered him for his kindness, compassion, and ever willingness to be present for those who needed him. The packed room was partly occupied with the cricketers of yesteryear, as he had played the Ranji Trophy league representing Mumbai in the 1970s. The legendary Sunil Gavaskar, a dear friend of his, remarked, “Avi  (Avinash) was a big hitter of the ball, but almost religiously got out in the 70s. It’s ironic that he chose to depart life at around the same age.” Other cricketers from his Dadar Union Sporting Club squad spoke of how they admired their captain for his fierce passion for the game on and off the field.

“We have to celebrate his life and not mourn it,” I insisted, when it was decided that we would go to Benaras to immerse his ashes in the Ganga. “We’ll make it a weekend trip,” I told my wife and brother-in-law, who is a scholar in the Brahmanical practices of the Hindu religion. On the flight, I asked him why the city had three names. “Varanasi is derived from the amalgamation of a tributary of the Ganga called Varuna and a ghat of the Ganga called Assi Ghat,” he told me. “And why Kashi?” I prodded. “In the Mahabharata, the city is referred to as Kashi, from the Sanskrit root verb kaś, to shine. It was then renamed by Akbar to Benaras, the City of Light.” I made sure my basics were covered. “This place has several thousand temples,” I was told, “and to some, it represents the entire universe.”

When we arrived, we were greeted by Aakash, our local hustler who would show us around. He also had all the necessary mandir contacts. He adorned an olive-green cap and wore a woollen muffler around his neck, the rest of his face being kept warm by his overgrown beard. “Welcome to Benaras is my new website,” he told us after dumping our bags into a well-maintained Innova, which rode through the winding narrow by-lanes of the city threating to graze another car, human, or animal every few minutes. “Also on Instagram, sirji” he showed me his phone, asking me to scroll through the reviews of his previous clients. The city is fraught with deities, ponds, and streams, thousands of them, representing tirthas – crossings between this world and the other.

We had to walk from the main road to our hotel, as the inner roads could barely manage a two-wheeler and a few pedestrians at a time. The city had the sacred scent of spiritualty; we were ensconced in mysterious fragrances from the time we got out of the car to the time we reached our Hotel that was a cute hole in the wall with a balcony view of the Ganga. “The place where we usually stay was sold out,” my brother-in-law explained, saying that we’d have to make do with this. “It’s perfect,” I replied as I stared at the majestic river; placid but powerful, echoing a cosmic capacity. “It’s the energy she holds which makes the river so special,” my wife explained as we saw a boat carrying the mortal remains, tiny birds fluttering over. “People who die here gain moksh,” she told me. “Salvation and freedom from the cycle of rebirth,” she explained, when she figured the Parsi in me didn’t understand what it meant to be liberated. “Which married man does?” I wanted to quip, but instead remarked, “How strange that a city of light is also the city of death.” “You have to go through the darkness to be able to see the light,” she explained. Everything in this city was overloaded with meaning.

After freshening up, we walked through a series of stony alleys, which led us to the steps skirting the river. Dogs dodging the shivers warmed themselves on heated logs of woods. A blue boat and a saffron priest were waiting for us to perform our ritual. We set sail just before sunset. It was so cold that one could not only hear but also see the prayers emanating from panditji’s mouth. In a sombre ceremony, with love in their hearts, sorrow in their eyes, and yet gentle smiles on their faces, Mr. Karnik’s children immersed his remains into the river in one of the oldest cities in the world. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

“Modiji ne yahaan Gangaji mein snaan kiya,” Aakash pointed out the new stone embarkment built on its banks and praised the man for refurbishing the area around the famous temple. We chose a less fancy spot on the opposite side of the bank to absolve ourselves of our sins. “And now we can start afresh,” I said in jest.

Aakash had arranged for VIP seats on a boat from where we soaked in the famous Ganga aarti. Maroon robed priests whirling a multitude of diyas, whose flames crayoned attractive patterns in the winter fog, made for a good visual treat as masala lemon tea warmed our insides. Little children dressed as replicas of Shivji smeared our foreheads with vibhuti to further destroy our sins.

The next morning, we paid homage at the Buddhist temples of Sarnath on the outskirts of the city, a calmer version of what we had experienced in the by-lanes of Benaras. The Buddhist temples are softer and gentler.

Their style of worship is tranquil and not torrential, different from what was about to greet us at the Saptarishi aarti at the Kashi Vishwanath Temple that evening. After a series of security checks, we entered the holy hallows. Seven priests adorned the idol of Lord Shiva amidst bells and prayers that reverberated to a crescendo bouncing off the temple walls. Once the aarti was over people jostled and toppled over one another, pushing and pulling as the security tugged and released devotees just enough to be able to venerate the Shivling, the most energized representation of Lord Shiva there is in the country. Aakash had his ‘setting’ with the priests, who gave us a more civil darshan, but I still came out a little frazzled from the entire experience. “What’s the point of bribing priests to be able to be blessed?” I asked my wife. “Because the God is real, even though everything around it may not be,” she justified.

“Manikarnika Ghat is the main burning ghat in Varanasi,” my brother-in-law walked us to the place, knowing it was something I was keen on seeing. Cremation grounds are traditionally placed outside the city gates, to the south. In Kashi, however, they burn at the centre of all life. Over a dozen funeral pyres were lit up in flames, crumbling and crackling in front of our eyes as people wheeled in more dead bodies amidst chants of ‘Ram naam satya hai.’ “Over a hundred people are cremated here every day,” Aakash told us as I moved closer to the flames just to keep warm. “All the fires are lit from this one source that stays always burning,” he said, pointing to a flame in the corner. “This is the gateway to heaven,” he spread his arms wide, waving away the smoke that engulfed grieving relatives as we couldn’t help but contemplate the fragility of life and the finality of death. Profane yet sacred. Impersonal yet compassionate. Grungy yet ethereal. All in simultaneity.

Besides being the city of death, Benaras is known for its street food. While during the day we dunked our fingers in hot kachori sabzi and gulped down thick lassi, the afternoon was spent savouring roadside tea with ‘caesarean’ toast: bread that’s slit through its centre and filled with white butter, warmed over a coal fire and then sprinkled with chaat masala. Divine. We ate our final meal of the trip at the traditional Jaipuria Bhawan and filled our tummies with delicious vegetarian food followed by hot jalebis and gulab jamuns from the road. “Street food in Benaras is something to die for,” Aakash told us. I wondered if the pun was intended as we made it safely back to Mumbai the next morning.

Travel well, Mr. Avinash Karnik. I’m glad we gave you the farewell you deserved. Thank you for all the memories.

25 Comments on “The (non) Surgical Immersion
  • Dr Mahavir Gajani says:

    Well written article. Literally felt for 5min as if like I am on the streets of Kashi.
    Eager to read the next one.☺️

    Reply
  • Eusebio Aranha says:

    This city has been on my bucket list for quite some time.

    Reply
  • Mina says:

    Love your writing Dr. Turel! Vivid and vibrant that makes me live vicariously through your adventures

    Reply
  • Arun Pushkarna says:

    An emotional article for me Mazda. Having known Avi, I was in step with you in this article. You said it well. We celebrate his life, while we mourn his passing.
    And your summation is spot on – you certainly gave him the farewell he deserved.
    Hugs to you, Chanda & Chaitanya.

    Reply
  • Rohin says:

    Very eloquent Mazda. May his soul rest with joy !

    Rohin

    Reply
  • Sunaina N Saraf says:

    Gm sir
    Sorry to hear about your father in laws loss
    Rip 🙏
    It’s so touching to see a parsi folllowing indian tradition
    Sir what an amazing varanasi trip u had
    Keep up the good work always
    Regards
    Mrs Sunaina Saraf

    Reply
  • Vipul Shah says:

    Dearest Dr Mazda Sir…….

    May the SOUL of your FIL rest in absolute peace…

    Non surgical immersion Piece is little HAT KE than your regular OT experience which proves your super speciality in different Subjects…..

    I have brief encounter with Shri Avi & was overwhelmed by his ever friendly nature….

    Please keep on traveling more to enlightening readers with your Travelogues too …..

    RIP AVI SIR 🌹

    Reply
  • Dr. Rafat Ansari says:

    So sorry to hear about ur loss doc! May his soul rest in peace.! Literally took me back to the childhood days of visiting Benaras…Ur a champ in handling people on n off the table, it’s a truly mesmerizing article.May God heal the hearts saddened by the loss!

    Reply
  • Anuradha says:

    Dear Mazda

    A very touching tribute to Avinash and well deserved. He will have a special place in our hearts forever. I could reminisce my trip to Kashi through your immaculate prose. Blessings always

    Reply
  • Mahashweta Biswas says:

    Beautifully written. You brought back memories of our visit to Kashi with Avi in 2022 where we all experienced the spiritual glory of Kashi. Even little Meher & Khursheed were with us enjoying Benaras, boat rides on the Ganges. You have given Avi along with Chaitanya & Debashree a beautiful tribute & a farewell. He will always remain with us. God bless your soul Avi

    Reply
  • Dr Upma Jaiswal says:

    Beautiful homage to great father -in -law, Mr. Turel. My son is a neuroscientist unlike his father who is a neurosurgeon and an alumni of JJ hospital Mumbai .
    I always forward your writeups to him. .

    Reply
  • Temitayo says:

    Accept my condolences Dr Mazda. We take solace knowing he has gone to rest and is in a better place. May his soul Rest-In-Peace.

    An intriguing piece, as always.👌

    Reply
  • Vispi says:

    Dear Mazda,
    Firstly my sincere condolences to u n ur family on the sudden loss of your FIL. I had no clue that he was your FIL. May his soul rest in eternal peace.
    Your piece on the Varanasi trip was brilliant as always. Also it has induced me to go there for a visit.
    Will get in touch with you for the guides no.

    Reply
  • Marzin R Shroff says:

    Your article so beautifully captures the journey to Varanasi, the rituals, and the essence of life and death in this sacred city. The personal anecdotes add a touching layer to the narrative with the vivid descriptions, from the narrow alleys to the Ganga aarti, create a rich tapestry of the experience.
    Thanks for sharing in your inimitable style

    Reply
  • Marzin R Shroff says:

    Your article so beautifully captures the journey to Varanasi, the rituals, and the essence of life and death in this sacred city. The personal anecdotes add a touching layer to the narrative with the vivid descriptions, from the narrow alleys to the Ganga aarti, create a rich tapestry of the experience.
    Thanks for sharing in your inimitable style

    Reply
  • T George Koshy says:

    Very vivid descriptions and apt use of words..”fragility of life and the finality of death “..thanks and please keep writing Dr Mazda

    Reply
  • Bruce Blewett says:

    Hi, Mazda I am sorry to hear about your father-in-law but what an amazing way to say goodbye. I looked up Benares and I saw that it is close to the Nepal border. 😀

    Reply
  • Rita Singh says:

    Sad yet beautiful this writing of urs. Benares is an intriguing city. Very holy and significant to those who understand her origin, her spiritual stature yet only chaos and untidy to those who don’t..I too had a taste of the place last year in the holy month of shravan when devotees from all over the country gather their to worship kashi vishvanath.The hustle and bustle was beyond words. My respects to the departed soul .U all his children played ur part well in giving a fitting fare well.

    Reply
  • Gloria Msampha says:

    May the soul of your father in law rest in perfect peace.

    Reply
  • Setu Ram says:

    Beautiful eulogy & spiritual quest by the Ganges
    God speed Mr Karnik

    Reply
  • Dr.Sukhmeet K Kalsi Consultant Family Physician, Counseling Psychologist ,International Life Coach says:

    May the soul of your father in law, Mr Karnik find peace with the Divine.
    And with regards to your excellent write up,as usual,you have walked us through the streets. I literally felt I was a part of your journey.
    Thanks for sharing your experience

    Reply
  • Chaitaniya A Karnik says:

    Thanks so much for coming along with us. It was lovely to spend the weekend together and that too after long. My father admired you and you have repaid his admiration in equal measure. It’s been great to have you as family.

    Reply
  • Meeta Brahmbhatt ( Counselling Psychologist) says:

    May the soul of your father in law rest in divine bliss. Very well penned down Dr Mazda, I actually felt as if I’m at Varanasi, dedicated to Shiva, also known as “ Lord of the Universe “

    Reply
  • Jagruti Mistry says:

    Gripping.. excellent read! Thanks for sharing

    Reply
  • Sunita Masani says:

    Maroon robed priests whirling a multitude of diyas, whose flames crayoned attractive patterns in the winter fog
    Lovely descriptions graphic and engaging 😍 pics as well
    Thank you Mazda

    Reply

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