On a sunny November afternoon in Varanasi last year, I was standing under the shade of a huge neem tree in the courtyard of Mumukshu Bhawan guest house (‘’House of Those Seeking Salvation’). As I listened to the sound of prayer coming from a nearby room, I was accosted by a short woman holding a large packet of namak para, a crunchy ribbon-like snack made of flour or semolina, common in North India.
“I won’t let you in unless you eat some of it,” declared the octogenarian, almost admonishingly, after I told her that I wasn’t hungry. Her wrinkled face broke into a tender smile as I pulled out a piece of the fried snack and savoured its salty flavour. “One should keep eating at regular intervals,” she said, looking at me affectionately. I wanted to ask her about the prayer I was listening to, but she hurried out of the courtyard.
The lodge’s manager, Manish Kumar Pandey, later told me that Saraswati Aggarwal was a widow with no children, and had come here from somewhere near Varanasi around four years ago after her husband died.
Fellow resident Gayatri Devi from Rajasthan, who had been at the lodge for more than five years, has a son and two daughters living in other parts of India, but they rarely visit her, she told me, as we later sat on a wooden bench in the courtyard talking about everything from her family to my family to her life philosophy and women’s rights. She had a warm smile and looked happy to talk. “Things change when your kids get married,” she said.
Sati Devi, who sat beside us on the bench with a blue woollen shawl wrapped around her shoulders, nodded silently in agreement. She, too, had been living at the guest house for five years. “I have no complaints though,” Gayatri Devi continued. “When I die, I hope they will come to take me to the pyre.”