Christopher came to India in 1972, hitch-hiking his way from London and fell in love with Kashi. He was 22 years old at the time. He was fascinated by Ramcharit Manas, the epic story of Lord Ram written in Avadhi verse by Saint Tulsidas. “I had read its English translation and wanted to read the original”, he recalls.
Christopher took up a room on rent in Assi, the locality on the left bank of Ganga where Tulsidas, the poet saint, had penned the epic poem in mid sixteenth century. It took him two years to complete the reading of the magnum opus. To meet his expenses, the strapping young Englishman gave tuition to school children in their homes.
“I used to criss-cross the town by foot, negotiating the network of narrow serpentine lanes. The crescent-shaped town parallel to the Ganga has a unique architecture. The inter-linked multi-storeyed buildings on both sides of the lanes make for natural air conditioning. One could walk from Rajghat to Assi, the two extremes of the town from northeast to the southwest, during the peak summer, under the shade and protected from the killing hot winds,” he recalls. “Not anymore, now that the rulers have started widening the lanes, demolishing centuries’ old buildings in their enthusiasm to make Kyoto out of Kashi,” says Christopher, who has given up his British citizenship to become a Banarasi.
“It is the life in these narrow lanes that thrived over time immemorial that gave Kashi the distinction of being the oldest living city in the world. It is the tranquillity, harmony and the happy-go-lucky attitude of the residents that made me choose Kashi over London. I have spent almost half a century here. Now, they want to transform Kashi into Kyoto and Ganga into Thames. I feel sorry for my children and grandchildren that they would neither be able to relish Kashi nor Kyoto,” he laments.
The famous ghats on the Ganga too have lost their peace as a result of reckless commercialisation with fast-food restaurants, shops selling trinklets and raunchy film songs blaring from loudspeakers creating a crazed cacophony. “Earlier, people would spend evenings on the ghats, sitting idly or simply meditating, looking at the serene waters of Ganga or gazing the stars overhead. It is not possible now. You would now have cruises and cargo ships to ferry tourists and goods. Tourists from all over the world came to Kashi to get the feel of ancient Indian civilization and not to see the frenzied commercial activities they have had enough in their civilised homeland,” he says.
The Ganga, too, has shrunk and stinks. “The river once abounded in dolphins and tortoise. The water was so pure that one could store it in a bottle for years, without it getting spoiled. I have seen devotees collecting Ganga water in small containers for use in religious rituals back home,” he says. Not only have the dolphins and tortoise disappeared from the Ganga along Benaras but taking a dip in the river has become hazardous to the health because of the high level of pollution. “Catching rashes on the skin after bathing in Ganga has become common,” complains Christopher who has stopped swimming in the river since long, which used to be his regular practice.
Christopher, a polyglot, who knows Hindi, Bhojpuri, Bengali, Sanskrit and of course his mother tongue English, works as the managing editor of Pilgrim Books, a publishing house that specialises in books on ancient Indian culture.
He lives with his wife, a son and a daughter and two grandchildren, near Durga Kund. “I have lived nearly half a century in Kashi but sincerely hope I do not have to die in Kyoto.”