Final morning in Varanasi. With sorrow, I bid farewell to my new friends in the guesthouse, and to that view from the legendary Room Twelve. Soon I take a final walk along the ghats, and disappear into the smoke-wreathed city.
Bus-bound for Allahabad, I am seated next to a young man preparing for his civil service examinations. Insisting I share his earphones, we listen to Hindi love songs as the bus winds through dusty villages. Soon, I am starting to relax, and decide that Indian buses are not so bad after all.
Then we roar into a rickshaw.
Glass shatters. Metal bends. Yet we accelerate, and the driver does not stop until some twenty minutes later, when it becomes obvious we have sustained engine damage.
I am shaken, but my companion explains there was no choice. The driver left the scene for our safety. An accident on a rural road may end in vigilante justice. The driver will report the accident, he insists, but later. The family in the rickshaw is okay.
I am too shocked to argue.
We wait for a replacement bus, but my friend has other plans. He summons me to a rickshaw – which, after recent events I am not so thrilled about – and soon we are off to Allahabad once more.
As we cross a bridge into the ancient city, I catch my first glimpse of the Sangam. It is the reason I have come to Allahabad. One of the most sacred places in Hindu cosmology, the Triveni Sangam is the confluence of three holy rivers: the Ganges, the Yamuna and the Saraswati. In one of those gloriously Indian twists, only two are physical rivers.
The Saraswati is invisible. Metaphysical.
The Triveni Sangam is the location – once every twelve years – of the Kumbh Mela, the world’s largest religious festival, as millions of pilgrims gather to bathe in the confluence. 2016 is not a year for Allahabad to host Kumbh Mela, yet I have arrived in time to witness the annual Magh Mela.
After bidding farewell to my young friend, I ride on. But the journey is not quite over, as my driver finds himself lost in his own city. And, I suspect, not unintentionally. He takes an absurd amount of time to reach my guesthouse, for the pleasure of which he tries to triple-charge me. When I refuse, still paying well over the official rate, he follows me inside, and attempts to turn the stony-faced hotelier against me. Fortunately, the stony-faced hotelier remains so, and when I return from leaving my bags in my room, the driver is gone.
At this point, I am yearning for indulgence, which I find in the form of mutton kebabs from a famous Allahabad street vendor. For dessert, a box of Indian sweets, purchased from a man whose shelves brim with coloured treats.
As the sun sets, I leap aboard a cycle-rickshaw, and ask to be taken to the Sangam. My driver seems ancient yet ageless, with twinkling eyes and a Blyton-esque turn of phrase. Even as he grinds the rickshaw over hills and along traffic-clogged boulevards of yawning potholes he never ceases talking. The journey longer than I anticipated I pay the wiry old man a little extra, then offer him a sweet, which he practically inhales. I offer him another, at which the old man takes the box entire and grins: “Thank you, my friend. I will share these with my son and his son.” Laughing, I bid him goodnight.
I descend into the temporary metropolis, sprawled out across the mela ground. It is almost impossible for my Anglican mind to comprehend how this, the annual Magh Mela, might ever be considered “small”. As far as the eye can see are tents, campfires, preachers and pilgrims, newborn babies and wizened sadhus with dust-lined faces. I encounter only one other tourist, and feel adrift in a sea of night.
Although the sun has set by the time I reach the Sangam, the water has a lovely twilit glow, lamps strung along the riverbank. At rivers’ edge I sit to ponder all the prayers sung, spoken or whispered at the confluence for millennia. Even Jawaharlal Nehru, an avowed atheist, had some of his remains brought here. As the future dawned, it was vital, he believed, to listen to the rhythms of the past.
A young Brahmin from Bombay sits beside me, inviting me down into the river. The water here seems more tempting than in Varanasi. Yet I decline. This is not my holy place. Instead, I accept a blessing from the young man, and he anoints my head with water from the confluence.
The following morning I conclude my visit to Allahabad with a pilgrimage of my own, to the Nehru Family home, the Anand Bhavan. Here it was that Gandhi and Nehru plotted the downfall of the Raj, seeking to create a new India from the old. It is a testimony to their genius that one of the world’s great secular republics was conceived in one of its most sacred cities. Nehru’s atheism was a gift to Indian religion, for a faith that endures with state enforcement is no faith at all.