Toward the end of our stay, Gerard asked three locals that we knew quite well a question. All three were born and raised in Varanasi, more or less the same age, mid-40s, and more or less the same status.
“In your opinion what is the biggest change in Varanasi since you were a child?”
Without hesitation, all three gave virtually the same answer.
“There is a great change in the mentality.”
“In what way?”
“Most people are only interested in making money these days. And many don’t care how they do it. Sense of morality has eroded. People used to be more caring and not just for their own family. And there was more interest in our culture.”
“How do you mean?”
“As a child, we had classical Indian music concerts all the time, and people came to Varanasi to learn that music. Now it barely survives.”
“But the Dhrupad Mela was very popular?”
“Yes, but these festivals only happen twice a year.”
All three of them had expressed the same opinion in a slightly different way. When Gerard raised the question of pollution —
“Pollution is pollution and it’s coming from everywhere, not just Varanasi. It’s the mind of the people who have changed.”
It certainly was not the answer we expected — pollution, corruption, overcrowding, broken infrastructure etc. –not what we heard. Of course, we only have a nine-year perspective on change in Varanasi. But our experience with the people here would not elicit such a response. Even the merchants have greeted us with warmth and friendliness. You could think that it’s just based on making another sale but then why would they invite us to their family wedding, anniversary, and Holi party — have lunch with us, give us lunch and endless clay cups of chai. After thinking about what we heard, our reaction was: we like the city now, but it really must have been wonderful 25/30 years ago.