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Benares, India: City of the Future

Asi Ghat in Benares is the last of the series of bathing steps that lead from the old city to the river Ganges. Eighty miles to the west lies the town of Allahabad, where for a few weeks early this year huge crowds of pilgrims met for the great Hindu gathering, the Maha Kumbh Mela, which takes place every 12 years. Now they were coming to Benares, presumably to wash away any sins they couldn't get rid of during their dips in the cold waters of the Ganges at Allahabad.

One morning, I watched their antique rituals—the invocations to the sun, the pouring of water from brass pots—from my hotel room. Later, I walked down to the small square where preparations were on for the three-day annual festival of pornographic poetry. I wanted to send a few e-mails to friends I had made when I lived in Benares in the late 1980's. The e-mails weren't really about anything: I only wanted to share my amazement at being able to send them from an Internet shack right next to a temple a few feet from Asi Ghat.

Anyone who knew Benares just 10 years ago, before the liberalization of the Indian economy, would have been equally amazed. No more than a handful of people owned a telephone then. Those who did, had a rotary-style, black, froglike thing that usually squatted in a corner of the living room, festooned with thick cables, often encased in embroidered cloth. It spoke of status and privilege, although it didn't really do much. It was often "out of service," and you had to wait many hours for a national or international call to come through. I still feel an old dread and weariness when my rickshaw passes a particular post office—a dusty, airless room, really—where I languished for entire days, trying to place a domestic call.

The ease with which you can now find, in the obscurest of side alleys, a little room where you can direct-dial any place in the world is still a cause for wonder. The phone booths, with their gaudily painted acronyms—STD-ISD-PCO—have become part of Benares's street scene, along with the rickshaws, the donkey carts, the mopeds, the mess of illegal power lines overhead, the stylish young men idling at chai stalls, and the lonely-looking confectioner ensconced before his sizzling vat.

To this colorful squalor the Internet shacks add even more variety. But there is a problem: Like most cities in the underdeveloped Gangetic Plain, Benares gets power for only a few hours each day. Generators are no help: they are expensive to run and cause serious air and noise pollution. And so a glamorous innovation must wait for the infrastructure to catch up.

The other tentative new thing is the indoor shopping mall. No one is quite sure whether Benares's conservative, upper-caste middle class, always more keen on hoarding than spending, would choose Benetton or Nike over cheap and not-so-inferior imitations in the bazaars outside. For now, the malls have more curious visitors than shoppers—peasants from nearby villages reverent before the marble floors and glass windows—but their white façades remain defiant in the heat and the dirt of the streets.

Some imports are of course more easily adapted than others. A pizzeria opened last year on Asi Ghat. I know the owners vaguely. A few years ago, they wouldn't have had any idea what a pizza looked like, and they still call it "piza." (A couple of Europeans who'd lived in Benares for a long time came up with the idea.) The cheese and the toppings were easy to procure; and the owners had always had a deep oven, to make tandoori rotis. The pizzeria turned out to be a success. It is now hard to imagine a crisper pizza in northern India.

Next to it is a temple. But you really can't get away from temples in Benares—or get away with selling meat and alcohol near the holy river. So the pizzeria must remain vegetarian and alcohol-free. But it's not as if everyone is observing the old sanctities. Recently, a respectable Brahmin resident of the ghat was caught pimping. Some foreigners were shocked. Yet Benares abounds in incongruities: the children playing at the funeral ghats, next to the slowly burning bodies; the devout bathers ritually cleaning themselves right where a drain empties itself into the river and not far from where the poet-pornographers cheerfully break every kind of taboo.

And things can only get more incongruous as the money from the high-tech economy spreads and a very old society begins to modernize. Fortunately, their open-ended Hindu faith equips Benarasis well for the new, quite mixed-up world. The Hindu chauvinists may win the elections, but their brand of austerity—always sitting oddly with the raunchy popular culture of Benares, the Benarasi devotion to bhang (cannabis) and recitals of pornographic poetry—now has to compete with pizzas and Benetton T-shirts. In this, Benares will continue to embody a peculiarly Indian mode of change: that Hindu ability to muddle through, to improvise without fear of contradiction, to slyly collaborate with, and then subtly alter, whatever is new and slightly threatening.

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