Where Even the Present is Ancient: Benaras is a book that seeks to tell the little stories that make us who we are. The author believes that Benaras resides in all of us Indians, in some beautiful often-unknown way. The author is the Sutradhar, in that she attempts to connect an India that many do not realize exists, in that it is everybody’s story. Radha, Krishna, Ganga, Benaras and Me are all characters in this deluge of poems.
This attempt at telling the story of the ancient, of love and of faith is to instil the confidence that poetry exists in all of us, everywhere, all that is needed is to smell its fragrance.
To those outside India, the book does not seek to be a representation of what India is or was, but a whiff of what it also can be. It is an attempt to ask people to see the little stories that govern all of our lives, stories that we often don’t see, but those that are important.
The audience for this book might be strewn across the globe, for faith is not religion-centric, it is people- centric and often without dimensions.
In poetry there is no beginning, no middle, nor no end. Like faith it is everywhere, it is omnipresent. The book affords no answers, nor no questions, but if you listen and read carefully you will see new things, a new beauty perhaps, one that has been silent so long.
Where Even the Present is Ancient: Benaras, much like the city has many layers. It is almost like the poet is the city, exuberating different shades of it through her words. Each poem is complete in its story and still leaves a lingering feeling, of wanting to see more, experience more and you hurriedly would move on to the next.
This is the first time I read Maitreyee and generally I like poets who paint through words. Maitreyee paints magnificently through her words; as colourful as the city and as grey as its shades.
There were many pieces that literally left me breathless (I always have a physical reaction to good poetry), there were many that made me skip a heartbeat, there were some that made me sit up, and there were some I went back to again and again. It felt like I lived a life through this book. I made a mistake of trying to read it in a hurry and immediately realised I won’t be able to stop once I start. I read it through two nights and still feel didn’t do justice to the soul of it.
Some of my favorite poems/ lines are:
A Fisherman’s Ganga
A fisherman sat nearby
Perched on the helm of his boat
Looked at the skies,
And spat some Benaras
Into his Ganga.
The parallel between the spat and Benaras is absolutely brilliant. Who can carry more Benaras in themselves than a fisherman and his inner core?
The Cry of Death
While the son bargains on Chandanwood price,
the Purohit chews on the fragrance of Benaras.
The smell of flesh,
in everyday gutters,
The poet has so casually spoken about the cycle of life and death, that it hits you deep. What would be the charm of the place where life and death are so normal? How would you so casually live where smell of death is as normal as smell of food, rather more normal than smell of food?
Even the present is ancient
In the long nights of sleeplessness,
sleep sits across like cows…
In random splendour
like pale ghosts
from yesterday's history.
Nothing describes the city better than the first two lines of this poem; Banaras is indeed ancient in present. It is glowing in the lights of yesterday’s history.
An Invasion so Complete
This poem left me wanting to know more. What was the story? And what was the end?
The Benaras Market
Divinity is cheap, I think
And so is living-
It is only the dying and the dead,
That becomes priceless
The stanza hits hard. Infact the whole poem does. Another one of my favorite;
You touch a wall,
Shiva grows in your hand,
Somewhere along the road,
lazy and ignorant
of worldly woes,
Chunnu the dog
Lifts his leg on both,
delicately and methodically.
A territory marked for each
The deity and the dog, the worshipper and the worshiped are lost and found in the line that is blurred.
And I would like to sum up with my favorite work from the book;
A God Every Minute
A man emerges naked from the waters,
leaving his entirety,
as if to Ganga.
There is no loincloth to cover his shame,
Or the lack of it
He sits then on the ghats
And minute by minute,
Becomes God and his incarnate
It is absolutely brilliant. So many things are conveyed in so less words. It speaks about the charm of Ganga and Benaras; a place where a Sadhu emerges every minute; a river that absorbs all the sin, minute by minute, and covers the distance between God and the human. It dies little by little and unites the soul with her deity.
About the Author
Maitreyee B Chowdhury is a web columnist and creative writer. She is author of Reflections on My India, a book of Indian traditions and spirituality in parts. Maitreyee is also author of Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen- Bengali Cinema’s First Couple and Ichhe Holo Tai, a bilingual muti media presentation of poetry. Maitreyee is featured amongst other Indian writers such as Gulzar, Shashi Tharoor and Deepti Naval in an anthology of Indian writers Celebrating India.
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