Kashi Ka Assi by Kashinath Singh is an epic novel that brings out the life and times of Assi – a neighborhood on the southernmost ghat at Varanasi. It was the epicenter of life in Kashi – where people used to come and spend their ‘fursat’ or free time. There would be professors, student leaders, religious gurus who would consume their poison and speak their mind in a language that best describes their opinions and feelings. However, the onset of globalization and the opening up of the economy coupled with the rise of communal identity took away the free speech from the inhabitants of Assi. The foreigners who landed in Varanasi to either make it their home or to learn the ‘so-called’ Indian Culture. They ended up changing the very thing they came to Kashi for – including the very fabric of human relationships.
Dr. Singh describes Assi at one place in the book as ‘Jambudweep ka Dilli’ which can roughly be translated as the center of the universe or rather power center of the universe. At another place, he says ‘Jahan Pani, Wahan Prani, Jahan Ghaat, wahan Haat’ roughly translated it means – wherever there is water, there is life and wherever there is ghat (human habitation) there is a market. A concise way of defining the world. And Assi is one such ghat where the Pani and Ghat both exist making it a complete ecosystem in itself. Assi becomes a microcosm for India. And no matter where you live you would be able to relate to the changes that are mentioned in the book.
The highlight of the book is its ‘fakkad’ language. You have to talk to a few Banarasi people to understand what this word means. It is their carefree way of speaking with confidence. The language is rustic. And uses a lot of cuss words, but still, you never feel it goes overboard. Or somewhere it gets balanced with a very strong narrative. In fact, Dr. Kashinath Singh in the very beginning mentions that this book is not for those who can not take this language. This is how people at Assi speak. And this is what conveys what they mean – no sugarcoating and no mincing the words. Having said that you would enjoy the language or appreciate it only if you understand those words and the context in which they are used.
This requires a good proficiency in Hindi. Poetry is sprinkled throughout the book. And Kabir often makes an appearance.
Dr. Kashinath Singh is retired head of Hindi department at BHU. I assume that means he has spent all his active life in Kashi. And has probably been part of the lively discussions that form the core of this book – Kashi Ka Assi. Some reading on the internet tells me that most of the characters in the book are based on real people. Many of them were unhappy when the book came out. And Dr. Kashinath Singh received many a death threats for opening up Pandora’s box with Kashi Ka Assi.
A story of a Brahmin Family
I loved the story of a Brahmin family where it gets ready to accept a foreigner as a paying guest in the house. How the Brahmin or the head of the family who used to curse anyone who allowed a white person in their homes changes his mindset first. This is of course based on the calculation of the money that would come home with the foreigner. Then he goes on to convince his wife who has more than one reason to not accept a foreigner. And that too a woman at home. He then goes to the extent of moving his temple to provide an attached bathroom for the guest. This story very subtly yet strongly conveys the change that the foreigners wanting to make Kashi their home brought with them.
The last story that talks about the loss of ‘laughter’ – something that was the cornerstone of Assi mehfils was lost is very poignant. In other stories, you see the politics and its relationship with the common man. And yet at the same time their innate understanding of how it works.
The book brings alive Assi in Kashi through various characters, their idiosyncrasies and more importantly their association with each other. It would remain a chronicle of the times that are not going to come back soon. It is about the times when people mattered and people interacted – even if they fought more than they showered love on each other.
Kashi Ka Assi can mean the Assi that belongs to Kashi – the city or the author 🙂
A highly recommended read.