Geoff Dyer's latest books include Yoga For People Who Can't Be Bothered To Do It and The Ongoing Moment (both Abacus).


Raga Puriya

Not just in Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganges, but in Camden, too, over the dank canal, the sun sets for the last time. It will be back but, as of yesterday, the world it returns to each day has changed. Not that – in London at least – it's anywhere to be seen. The sunniest July "since records began" has been followed by a monsoon August. It's raining hard now, hard enough to drown out – almost – the wail of the police siren.

I was in the Café Konstam near Kings Cross waiting for my eggs (over-poached, as it happened) when I read of the death of Bismillah Khan. It's a cycle ride away, Konstam, but there's nowhere nearer home that I like as much. To be precise I'd just sent back my cappuccino on the grounds that it was milky as a latte. I turned the page and there was his picture and a lengthy obituary. When the guy – they don't really have waiters – brought back my cappuccino he must have been able to see the mist of tears in my eyes. Bismillah Khan had passed away. He'd lived and died – aged 90 – in Varanasi (Benares).

Written in his native Buenos Aires, Borges's poem "Benares" is a tour of an "imagined city" which the writer has "never seen". He pictures this city vividly, hears "the voice of a muezzin" calling from a high tower. This strikes a slightly odd note since Varanasi is the epicentre not of Islam but of Hinduism. The confusion is all to Borges's purpose, however, for even while he conjures these "doubtful images" he acknowledges that there is also a real city whose "precise topography" is very different to the one he has imagined. But this city, too, has the quality of a hallucination, is "peopled like a dream".

Bismillah Khan was given a full state funeral in the dream-city. What a day that must have been, in a city where an average day is... where there's no such thing as an average day. In India flags were flown at half-mast and a day of national mourning was declared – but it was a day of mourning the world over.

I saw him play once, in London, but couldn't remember exactly when. The internet revealed that he had played here in November 1993. I consulted my diary for that year and saw that that was it: 22 November. Quite a week for Indian music: Ram Narayan (16th), Subramaniam (17th), Trilok Gurtu (18th). The concert, I discovered now, had been recorded (by the Navras label) and within twenty minutes I had downloaded it. That's the music you can hear now, in the background. The swaying shehnai, slinky, funky, spiky; the teentaal gallop of the tabla. Raga Puriya (to be played after sunset).

I remember him on stage at the QEH: a sprightly little guy with a white beard; ancient-looking even then, thirteen years ago. He gave a speech at the end of the concert. I couldn't understand a word – wasn't even sure what language he was speaking – but everyone who could was cracking up.

I also spent part of today looking, unsuccessfully, for a tape made by my friend Charlie (now estranged). A jugalbandi (duet) of Bismillah and the sitar maestro, Vilayat Khan. I have a CD of them playing Raga Yeman on another occasion (a Gramophone Company of India CD with no information about where and when it was recorded) but it's not nearly as good. It must be here somewhere, in one cupboard or another but, for now, it's unfindable. Home: a place where things are never lost and, as often as not, never found. In the 1980s, Charlie, another friend, Chris, and I used to get stoned and listen to music together. The number of things I heard for the first time, back then, at 4 Crownstone Court (my place in Brixton) and 133 Notting Hill Gate (Charlie's)! One of the tasks, as you get older, is to try to maintain a flow of things you are experiencing for the first time. The more time you spend at home the more difficult this becomes. Hence the need for travel, which constantly expands the area of the world in which you feel at home – thereby generating the need for further travel.

In February, to cut a long story extremely short, I went to Varanasi for the first time. What a waste of a life never to have gone there, never to have seen for yourself that such a place exists. There's how you imagine it and there's how it is – and the latter is so much stranger than the former could ever be. People said then that Bismillah was very ill. I remember thinking how odd it must be, to be a Muslim in a place where Hindus have all the fun. But by all accounts he liked it well enough. It was where he felt at home.

As for me, here... Well, it's where I live, it's where my stereo and CDs are to be found (except for the ones I can't find) and it's reasonably handy for several international airports. But it's not home in the sense of the place where everything converges, a place one has no desire to leave. It's not Varanasi, it's not Benares. Varanasi, home to Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, holy men, saints, hucksters, backpackers, ethnomusicologists – and, for as long as I was there, me! For now, though, I'm listening to Raga Puriya in a house I like, in a street I hate, in a city I don't much care for, in a country I've given up on. Not that it matters. There's a certain amount of wisdom in the title of another album of homely duets, by Charlie Haden (bass) and Hampton Hawes (piano): As Long As There's Music.

In the twilight, in London and Varanasi, the shehnai sways and dances; the shehnai holds sway still.



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