My mother is now a memory. But memories of the August afternoon I cremated her in Banaras remain fresh. There are pictorial reminders, too, of that afternoon, hidden in some forgotten folder, but I have no desire to access it.
My mother died on 28 August 2009. I received the news in Chennai, flew to Delhi the same evening, and the next morning took an Indian Airlines flight to Banaras to cremate her. She would have turned 59 on 31 August.
At the time I was an unpublished writer. Chai, Chai was still in the press — I had no idea when it was going to come out — and I had just begun work on Tamarind City. The road ahead, as a writer, was still foggy. But while waiting at Manikarnika Ghat that afternoon, watching several pyres — including hers — slowly reducing into ash, I resolved that I must do a Banaras book someday. The thought transformed me from a grieving son to a writer who was collecting material. Her death was no longer a personal tragedy but an event I was going to report.
About a week later, when I was in Kanpur, killing time as I waited for the 13th-day ritual, the advance copy of Chai, Chai arrived. Shortly after I returned to Chennai, my head tonsured, the book appeared in shops and on October 15, a formal launch was held. At the time I worked with Times of India and my office was barely two kilometres away, and on my way to work I had to cross the Balaji temple on Venkatanarayana Road. When the manuscript was still with the publisher, I would tell Lord Balaji: “If Chai, Chai sells 10,000 copies, I will get my head tonsured at Tirupati.” And now I was telling him: “Since you already got my head tonsured, make sure it sells 10,000 copies.”
Chai, Chai went on to become a blockbuster. Then came Tamarind City, in 2012, followed by the Calcutta book, Longing, Belonging, in 2014. Banaras was forgotten. Finally in October 2015 I set out for Banaras and spent nearly two weeks there. But that was when the idea of the border book struck me: 70th anniversary of Partition was nearing and I realised that if I had to produce a timely book, I must start right way. The Banaras notebook was put aside and I began working on what became Gazing at Neighbours, published in August 2017.
I could return to Banaras only in December 2018. Thereafter, no looking back. The notebook I had put aside filled up in no time. By now I had relocated to Calcutta, where I had finally set up a proper study. I would be at my desk by 9.30 in the morning and write till lunch time. As lucky charm I would wear a shawl gifted to me in Banaras by the writer Kashinath Singh. Once winter melted away, I placed a piece of cloth — sent to me by a well-wisher from Banaras after he got it blessed by Lord Vishwanath on Shivaratri — on the backrest of my chair.
The book got done in six months. It should be out soon. This is the fastest I’ve done a book. Perhaps because of the discipline. I had firmly told myself two things: 1. To write at least 400 words a day; and 2. To not reproduce stuff already known about Banaras.
Since we are into August, when memories of that afternoon make their annual visit, I find myself somewhat amazed by the timing. The book is going to mark 10 years of my mother’s death — and also 10 years of my becoming a published writer. As if destiny demanded this timely tribute.