The other Varanasi: weavers tell a sorry tale

Two tales of a city: As Modi Mania throngs the streets, helpless weavers stand by the wayside, staring at depleting fortunes

ajay

Ajay Singh | May 3, 2014


Weavers of Varanasi at work: do they have better days coming?
Weavers of Varanasi at work: do they have better days coming?

A day before Narendra Modi was to file his nomination in Varanasi, I called up my young friend Shahid, who is from the weaver community. “How can we meet, as the entire city is expected to come to a halt tomorrow?” I asked. I was aware that all markets and schools were going to be closed and an unprecedented security cordon was thrown around the city.

“You know, Varanasi is a labyrinth where roads never end and you will always find a way to your destination by traversing through uncountable interconnected lanes and by-lanes,” Shahid said rather metaphorically. “Don’t worry. I will reach you at 7.30 in the morning and take you around this complex cobweb of lanes which is called Varanasi,” he said with finality.

At the appointed time, Shahid reached the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) guesthouse where I was staying. I hitched onto his Pulsar motorbike and rushed to the university gate called ‘Lanka’ from where Modi was to begin his journey by garlanding the statue of Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, the founder of the grand educational institution.

Though Modi’s arrival was delayed by nearly three hours, crowds gathered at the crossing were nearly hysterical. So we decided to look for the ‘other Varanasi’ that exists in a maze of gullies, and rather inaccessible to an outsider.

Negotiating these lanes requires the skill of a gymnast. We rode towards Bazardiha, a locality largely of Muslim weavers. Overflowing sewer lines and dense population made it clear that this place did not exist on the map of the civic authorities. Clatter of powerlooms could be heard all over the place till we reached a spot where silk threads of saris were prepared.

People seemed engrossed in their daily life, oblivious to the frenzy that gripped the urban and modern parts of Varanasi. Soon a group of weavers gathered around Shahid, who explained how yarns taken out of the silk raw material were used to manufacture the famous Banarasi saris.
“But life is very difficult here. Workers get barely Rs 100 a day,” said a weaver working on the yarn. “We are hit by depression as there are no buyers for saris,” said an elderly man whose words found endorsement from others. “Life has become difficult. We can hardly get two square meals,” said a frail but young weaver in an agitated manner that betrayed desperation.

“Since my childhood, I have seen no change in the life of Bazardiha, one of the filthiest clusters in Varanasi,” commented Shahid. “The economy of this place is also ruined by the IPL,” he said as others nodded in agreement.

“What has IPL to do with the lives of weavers in this city?” I asked, a bit surprised. “A substantial chunk of money earlier used for silk trade now gets diverted to betting on teams,” Shahid explained.

Locals admitted that young boys who work in the industry tend to spend more time and money on betting than in their work. “Some win but most lose money,” they pointed out, adding that betting is an addiction that saps the energy of the younger generation. It aspires for a better life but looks at the future with certain amount of trepidation.

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As we drove through Bazardiha, Madanpura, Godowlia, Dal Mandi, Lahurabir, Teliabagh, Nadesar, Cantonment, and returned to the complex lanes of Lallapura, there appeared a complete contrast in the life of interiors and exteriors.
At times we encountered the road show conducted by Modi and his supporters who had virtually taken over all the arterial routes of the city. At the Sanskrit Mahavidyalaya and Kashi Vidyapeeth, the roads were blocked by exuberant Modi supporters who carried banners with the slogan, “Achchhe din aane wale hain (good days are ahead)”.

At the Mint Building Crossing, where Modi was to garland the statue of Swami Vivekanand, we waited for nearly three hours in scorching heat to watch a rather melodramatic reception of his cavalcade. People dressed as gods and goddesses surround the streets while thousands poured petals from the rooftops as Modi’s cavalcade reached the venue on its way to the collectorate, where he was to file his nomination.

Realising the mood of the crowd, Modi got down from the truck and walked nearly 50 yards to garland the statue and briefly mingle with the crowd. It was hysteria on the streets as the cavalcade moved on.

But far away from this orgasmic display of euphoria and exuberance, we returned to the by-lanes of Lallapura, another locality of weavers, and finally to the house of my guide and friend Shahid. His 70-year-old father Abdul Kayoom Ansari is a living epitome of the spirit of Banaras and has strong political views.
Ignoring the exuberance flowing barely a few yards from his home, Ansari predicted, “It will not be a cakewalk for Modi as Kejriwal and Ajay Rai cannot be easily counted out.”

Aside from his psephological indulgence, Ansari had a few other points to make. “We have lost deshbhakti (patriotism) and fallen into the trap of foreigners to discard those working with their hands,” he said, referring to the gradual marginalisation of handloom and handicraft artisans.

“Modi talks about the Gujarat model but the reality is that in Surat handlooms and powerlooms are ruined,” he said while talking about his visit to the city to buy a powerloom. He bought second-hand machines from Surat and improvised upon them in Varanasi to produce a design that cannot be replicated even by the Chinese, who of late have been making inroads into the Banarasi sari market of India.

What Ansari says is an expression of the inherent strength of Varanasi. Their capability to innovate and find a meaningful turn in the labyrinth of life is reflected in this innovation of designing machine by illiterate artisans that is obviously an improved model over Surat in silk sari industry.

“But Surat has better urban facilities and is now an affluent city,” Ansari added.

Does not Varanasi need better facilities? The answer lies in the great betrayal by public representatives, irrespective of their political affiliations. Will Modi be an exception? While Ansari and those living in the complex interior of the city are keeping their fingers crossed, the other half of the city is ecstatic with expectations of “achchhe din”. Perhaps a day-long travel in the complex gullies of this holy city reveals more ironies and paradoxes than irrational exuberance that spilt over on the street on May 24.

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