Day 5, and mornings being reliably predictable in their occurrence, it was morning once again. I had determined that I would visit the Ramnagar Fort at Varanasi. It is located somewhere on the bank opposite my hotel but my view gives no hint. It, and its museum, is the repository of the history of the Kings of Benares. The fort is also a residential palace of the Kashi Naresh, the Maharaja of Kashi. Kashi Naresh is considered a descendent of Lord Shiva, and during the religious occasion of ‘Shivrati’, the Kashi Naresh is the chief officiating priest.
I will go there on an autobicycle, a three-wheeled motorised taxi that those of a more hurried disposition refer blandly to as ‘autos’ or ‘tuk tuks’. I would consign myself in trust to the autobicycle’s anonymous but obliging driver, for I did not have the slightest clue where the fort actually lay, just that it was somewhere over there on the other bank. I had no map, I’d simply heard its name mentioned, and jotted it down. I’d even misspelled it but the driver was quick to acquire an understanding of my goal. Like the frenetic and indefatigable Mr Toad of ‘Wind in the Willows’ fame I would allow myself to be conveyed headlong back through Varanasi’s congested traffic, at whatever breakneck speed such a little three-wheeled machine could achieve. The driver invited several friends to accompany us, purportedly so as to balance the autobicycle on the thoroughfares misshapen road surfaces. My particular autobicycle was coloured green and yellow, colours that within the Hindu caste system denoted Vaisyas, these being traders, merchants and scribes, as well as sadhus and miscellaneous others who had relinquished caste and family to lead a spiritual life. But I did not know if the choice of green and yellow meant anything of consequence with respect to the city’s autos.
My ‘Mr Toad’ would have been proud of our progress. “Hoot, hoot” went our little horn. I, we, were on a mission. My driver didn’t mind, I was paying 400 rupees for the privilege, but he was potentially selling his life cheaply, I thought. I was risking giving mine away at a loss. No ‘pro bono’ in our transaction here, those rupees were coming out of my pocket. Thus to my destination we ploughed headlong on, the grim nature of our onslaught sending all in scurrying flight before us. Cows, holy men, children, all fled from our approach. Onward we forged, in our indestructible autobike, my purpose unrestrained. Then I saw the bridge that crossed the Ganges and that gave the road link to the entry gate to the Ramnagar Fort. I had not anticipated the precarious nature of the road infrastructure. The Persian king Xerxes had built something similar when, centuries earlier, he had had a keenness to invade ancient Greece and destroy her impudent city states. He lashed boats together with stout cables so as to ford the waters of the Hellespont, but this beast was of an altogether making. The bridge was constructed of giant metal pontoons all open at their top, rickety planks on top of these, and metal chains of debatable trust at the sides; presumably for safety or to bond the whole contraption together. There was a certain functional plasticity to the structure, for it had an inclination that was freely given to express itself in twists and bends, these in several directions all at once, the fluidity of its yawed movements bettered only by that of the brown Ganges below. At the far bank any pretence of a sealed road surface had given way to a well-rutted track made of compacted dirt and sand. In fairness, it was the initial stage of a new access point, but it looked as if it had been too long in the making. The angle of its downward approach to the bridge did not project confidence, and I would have to ride back the same way. However, ‘Me’ and the little autobicycle would have to cross that pontoon bridge for a first time before I concerned myself overly with the return crossing.
And so we, in company with hundreds of other game commuters, all on foot or held within or upon cars, pushbikes, motor cycles and trucks, proceeded forwards, taking our chances on this snaking bridge amongst traffic that was attempting to cross in both directions. It was all push and shove. The bridge jarred and moaned as we clattered across, I, my driver, and our little vehicle jostling and barging ahead with the best of them. “Hoot, hoot” I bellowed in happy imitation of my fictional frog hero and the auto’s horn, “Hoot, hoot”. Pedestrians foolish in their alarm and fright, cast themselves recklessly into the waters of Mother Ganges, bicycle riders faltered in their balance then tipped sidewards, and truck drivers gripped their steering wheels through fear of imminent destruction.
No they didn’t. The trucks moved for no one, least of all some weird foreign tourist thinking he was in ‘Toy Town’. They came on, and they didn’t budge. There was insufficient width on this thing for any of us to safely pass, there was nowhere to go. I averted my gaze from the traffic, trying to find calmness in the vision of the river peacefully flowing past. Until we were there, at the Ramnagar Fort; admission Rs150, and no photos permitted inside the fort’s museum.
The fort gate is pink. It reminds me of the colour of the flesh of the guava fruit wildlife steal from my solitary tree. The building is typically Mughal in style, built in the 18th Century of creamy-coloured sandstone. Rugged in coats and scarves, guards stand idly about or sit in small groups attentive to one another’s discussion of some matter I cannot understand. The grounds are pleasant enough, wide and spacious, but with few trees. There is an old cannon on display, and blue-green coloured doors face out from the surrounding buildings. But the landscaping within the walls of the fort is otherwise a marshalling of clipped lawn, with little decorative feature of any outstanding note. In one corner is a public convenience, strategic in its location and timely in its finding. Public conveniences loom large in the mind of travellers here. At the entrance to the museum sits a watchman on guard. He is attentive to the hegemony he holds over this place, and instructs with authority through the economic manipulation of a single directing forefinger; ‘No cameras, no loitering’. The place has a pervading gloominess. The watchman at his sentry point, where tickets are inspected and counted, gives the only clue to the continuation of life within, and of residual function. The place is like the middle reaches of Mervyn Peake’s gothic novel ‘Gormenghast’, where the old rooms of habitation have not yet fallen fully to rot, but have faded from precise memory. Gormenghast; a complex of buildings so vast that its furthest points are no longer known, no map is kept of them, and between these and those newly occupied stands a maze of rooms half used, half abandoned. The owners have moved on, those that remain are quite possibly dead, but no one has gone to check.
In this Gormenghast, this Ram Nagar Kila, are the hoardings of a lost majesty, from a time before real power was ceded to the new-born Indian Republic; inlaid swords, rifles and daggers, ceremonial spears and assorted knives, each one standing timeless and held captive within a macabre pre-Indian Independence assemblage of royal artefacts. In sad relief rest paintings of departed nobility, their canvas grimy and cracked, and alongside these were positioned black and white photos of long-gone visiting rulers. Those dignitaries have mausoleums somewhere. Wind back the clock less than 70 years, and these were people who held power and influence over many. But among the photographs I saw none of Mr Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi or those of his wife, Mrs Kasturbai Gandhi. It was like looking into a crypt. In a black recess of a narrow descending stairway sat a small carved turtle. The watchman was far away, and my pocket camera rescued the turtle from its lonely oblivion. The dim passageways of the fort, the diversity of stuff treasured by successive and past princes now corroding, their faded labels of descriptive text nibbled by animals that ventured there at night, the fabric of sumptuous garments and carriages frayed by time, the animal trophies, mange-ridden, their sorrowful eyes of glass blind to life, and the rows of old cars and gilded coaches and palanquins now shrouded by dust – it was hard to imagine them when worn or carried in matters of stately pomp. They were accoutrements meant to convey the height of wealth and power with and in which rulers paraded. Now there was not wealth enough to maintain their exhibition. It was neglect due to cause of reduced circumstance, though wealth there still was. It was a morgue.
This place, this scene in its grim collective decrepitude, reminded me of Miss Havisham, a significant character in Charles Dickens ‘Great Expectations’. A wealthy spinster living alone in Satis House. Dickens describes her as ‘the witch of the place’. She was not. In the book she is in her mid ‘50’s but in contemporary films Miss Havisham’s character is usually portrayed as much older. Her long life away from sunlight has aged her unfairly, and she is said to have looked like a cross between a waxwork and a skeleton. As a character her mother died when her daughter was a baby and her father, a wealthy businessman, spoiled her as a result. Upon her father’s death Miss Havisham inherited his wealth. She fell in love with a man, a certain Mr Compeyson, a bounder and a noisome ‘toe rag’ of the first order, who swindled her of her riches. She received news of this on her wedding day, and was left standing at the church altar. In humiliation and heartbreak she had all her clocks stopped at the time of the news of her betrayal. From that moment on Miss Havisham remained alone in her decaying mansion, never removing her wedding dress, the rotten wedding cake uneaten on the table, this still set as if awaiting the arrival of the wedding guests.
The character of ‘Miss Havisham’ was believed to have been modelled on that of Eliza Emily Donnithorne (1827-1886), late resident of Camperdown, Sydney. She was jilted on her wedding day and spent the rest of her life in a darkened house, her rotting wedding cake left on the table, her front room permanently left ajar in case her groom might return. Dickens was to encourage two of his sons to emigrate to Australia, but he never visited there himself. Australia figures in many of his works, that of ‘Great Expectations’ notably among them. I was born in Camperdown, too late to know Eliza personally. There was a women’s hospital there once, my birth certificate is a minor witness to its existence, however, unlike the edifice of Satis House that is held timeless on the pages of Dickens book, and that of the Ramnagar Fort in which I momentarily stand, my hospital has been demolished. It is a memory, but odd that I should find association with this fort by way of such an expansive ramble through time and place. Things overly thought about. It had all engaged me and I had a mind in a future manuscript of my making to attend to the tragedy of Miss Havisham. I will right the wrong that she has too long endured. ‘The Lady in Waiting’, an apt enough title for a working draft, usable, though spontaneously thought of on a morbid and surreal whim as it was. I would have that Compeyson character dragged from the dark recesses of Dickens ‘Great Expectations’ in which he too long had safely hidden, there allowed to slink and snigger. He was not going to sit forever in darkness like my little stone turtle stuck up there in one of the fort’s cold recesses. ‘Payback buddy, enjoy your karma!’ Highlighted amongst my lines I would pen the arrival of a mysterious parcel, of off-white calico all firmly sewn about its edges, safely and efficiently delivered courtesy of India Post, the postal stamps still intact. There within Miss Havisham finds a divine ‘vajra’ thunderbolt, sent by Indra, Hindu king of heaven. So armed, with just purpose and firmness of spirit she strikes Compeyson with the vajra through his chest, no heart chakra sufficient to rescue him from the fatal blow of Indra’s weapon. Compeyson is left to rot, like the wedding cake upon the table, so long the altar to his betrayal of Miss Havisham’s fair character, now resurrected by me, to an age somewhere in her late 20’s and sent regularly on my autobicycle to Bondi Beach in search of a good tan; she needs to get out more. The cleaners can take away Compeyson’s bones later. I know a man who makes ‘biochar’, a soil enhancer made from charcoal. It imparts better growth rates to your vegetables. He can throw Compeyson’s bones into his fire pit to increase the phosphate content of the product. Maybe there is release in that.
Come to think of it, whilst the cleaners are about it, I’ll send them round to the Ramnagar Fort museum to give the exhibits a good dust off. I’m sure the guard will keep a watchful eye on them. I was running ahead of my purpose, and had strayed terribly from the plot of my manuscript. I’d also exaggerated a little. I needed sunshine. I moved from the atrophied and dimly lit hall in which I had stood too long, into the light of the fort’s courtyard. I was approached by an Indian family, all dressed in their best finery, no dust, no frayed hems, their children eating cake. They smiled, and asked for a photo. They said India was doing badly against Australia in the cricket. I didn’t play cricket, but expressed sympathy and wished them better in the return match.
Just time to visit Pilgrims Bookstore, offices also in Delhi and Kathmandu, and widely acclaimed by travellers with experience of Varanasi’s diverse book marts. I figured ‘Pilgrims’ had some hand in the making of the reproduction postcards I had bought the day before; ‘Eve of an Eclipse of the Moon, 1825’, ‘Munikurnika Ghat, 1831’, ‘View Westward from Ghoosla Ghat, 1831’ amongst others. I hoped I had purchased the whole set, as I had repaid the insistence of the vendor with a thorough search of all that she had on offer. I don’t think she appreciated the level of disarray to her goods that my eventual choices of purchase left her with. I heard that there was a facsimile reproduction of the book from which the images on the postcards had been taken. Each postcard was proudly stamped with ‘Pilgrims Book House’ in bold typeface on the reverse side, and so I surmised that to this store I should go, in a ‘great expectation’ of my own. There may have been just such a facsimile edition, but I failed to see it upon the shelves, and my inquiry to patient members of the store’s staff found additional frustration, for on this occasion I found no bridge of shared language. I spoke Australian relatively well, but their erudite fluency in Hindi was lost to me. I also took the opportunity to search for ‘Birds of the Indian Subcontinent’, but Pilgrims ornithology section was wanting in its range, neither soft nor hard bound versions of my quarry being on offer. Finding no alternative treasures, I placated my disappointment by buying a respectful postcard of Buddha intoning a woman to bring him rice from a house which has known neither death nor sorrow. It was the only copy Pilgrims had on the rack. Throughout my travels in India I failed to find another one, not a second example anywhere. I think there is a lesson there.
The afternoon progressed to a balmy evening, and I returned to my room. The refuse, that in the morning had littered the alleyway that gave entry to my temporary residence, had disappeared. Instead, the pavement was wet but spotless, miscellaneous wrappings and animals waste now replaced by small puddles of an aromatic white liquid of an obviously antiseptic inclination. In my absence this day, someone had worked very hard.