Varanasi, 67 years later...

Varanasi, 67 years later...
Mr Kripalani in front of his birth place.
PHOTO: Uttam Kripalani

SIXTY-SEVEN years after he last visited Varanasi as a five-year-old, Mr Uttam Kripalani took a tour of the city, said to be one of the oldest cities in the world.

It was in Varanasi that Mr Kripalani was born in 1944. His family had moved there temporarily from Kolkata.

World War II was raging and Kolkata was witnessing several riots in those days.

There was also fear that the Japanese would bomb the city. So, while Mr Kripalani's father stayed behind in Kolkata to take care of his business, the rest of the family moved to the Radha Soami Bagh temple complex in Varanasi.

The family stayed in one of the small residential apartments within the temple compound.

When Mr Kripalani's mother went into labour on May 18, 1944, his older sister ran to fetch a cycle rickshaw.

It was a dark night and raining heavily when his sister, then 14, got them to the hospital. That sister is now a doctor (Padma Lahiri) living in Kolkata.

Mr Kripalani moved to Singapore in 1976 when he was posted here as the divisional manager of the National Insurance Company. In 1982, he left the firm to start his own company Galaxy Insurance Consultants and sink roots in Singapore.

He became a citizen in 1993.

During his recent visit to Varanasi in December 2015, he was pleasantly surprised to see the home where his family lived still intact.

And so was the hospital where he was born. He also visited the Broacha Hostel where his family stayed for a while before they moved into the apartment within the temple complex.

His uncle was the warden of the hostel, which is part of the Banaras Hindu University founded by Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya in 1916 with the support and encouragement of Dr Annie Besant, a British supporter of India's self-rule and social activist.

Said Mr Kripalani: "There is a story that the Raja of Kashi offered land to Pandit Malviya to establish the Banaras Hindu University and told him that whatever circumference he can walk around could form the boundary of the university. It appears that Pandit Malviya walked for miles and this resulted in the campus being one of the largest not only in India but also in the world."

The part of Varanasi where Mr Kripalani was born was taken over by the British in 1781.

And there is an interesting story of how this happened. In 1778 the British demanded Rs500,000 for three years from Maharaja Chet Singh, the ruler of Kashi (another name for Varanasi and Banaras).

The maharaja paid the amount in the first year and then expressed his inability to do so in future. The British governor- general Warren Hastings was upset and slapped him with a fine of Rs100,000.

The maharaja paid the fine but refused to pay the yearly amount demanded by the British. General Hastings then led an attack on the royalty of Kashi and seized the Baradari or pavilion situated in the Madhodas Bagh.

At present, the Baradari is known as Radha Soami Bagh (where Mr Kripalani was born).

What is believed by many is that during the skirmishes at the Baradari between the British and the Maharaja of Kashi, General Hastings took refuge in a well situated within the compound of the Bagh.

This well still exists and is tucked away behind the magnificent Radha Soami temple.

It is covered with corrugated iron sheets and is surrounded by the residences within the former Baradari, where a stone edict bearing an inscription reads: "In the winter of 1781, the first governor-general of Fort William in Bengal Warren Hastings seized the area behind the wall of this garden."

Mr Kripalani also recalls an incident that happened when he was five. He and his family had moved back to Kolkata soon after his birth but returned to visit the place when he was five.

The family hired a long wooden boat to watch the immersion of the statues of Goddess Durga along the Ganges River, a ritual that is carried out after 10 days of Durga Puja.

In the pouring rain, the boat sprang a leak and nearly sank. Hearing the cries of those in the boat, other boatmen in the area rescued them and took them near the Manikarnika Ghat.

This is one of the main cremation centres and Mr Kripalani recalls seeing eight to 10 bodies being cremated or waiting to be cremated surrounded by mourners.

It was quite traumatic for him and he had occasional nightmares for some time.

Said Mr Kripalani: "The Manikarnika Ghat has not changed a lot and the same scenes etched in my childhood memories still prevail."

But he saw changes at the Assi Ghat where India's prime minister Narendra Modi had started a cleanliness drive on Nov 8, 2014.

"From pictures seen before, there appeared to be a definite improvement in the general feel of the place, compared to the other ghats. Also there was easier accessibility to the place, due to better roads and carparks near the ghat," said Mr Kripalani, rounding off his impressions of the place of his birth.

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