B=Benaras of Book “Where Even the Present is Ancient: Benaras”

“B” was one of the difficult choices in this list. I am living in Mumbai, and I wanted to cover Bombay. But more I thought, more I realized that the most of the Bombay that I read in the novels either was set in Bandra or in slums of Dharavi—none of the places I associate myself with.

But then, I realized I don’t want to write about Bombay. “B” reminds me of something else, someplace else—a place where I have never been, but yet I dream to go to. This is one of the few places in India which I want to explore. “B” reminds me Benaras and brings to me chimes of worship near Ganga river. Benaras is now named as Varanasi, but the book I am talking of calls it Benaras– Where even the Present is Ancient: Benaras. I do not think a lot of people know of this book, but I got a chance to read and review the book as a part of The Book Club. I did a review for the book in 2014, almost 5 years ago. But the lines of the poems in the book are still afresh in my mind.

The book starts its first poem by explaining what Benaras is:

Sometimes Benaras seems like a poem,

A long lost one, at that.

I know Benaras for Ganga, for a river that is known to wash away the sins of humankind. Even though I do not believe in such words, yet, sometimes, I wonder how much the river bears. Many times, I recall the lines from a poem in this book called “Meeting Ganga”

I meet Ganga today.

Still, amazing,

complex and terrifying,

melancholic, even sad at times–

her feelings hidden away in gentle laps

I thought.

For those who have sat near Ganga hearing the chants of “Har Har Gange” might get the above lines better. Benaras also means Gods and religion and that’s she describes as:

In Benaras, you open a gate, a God pops out.

Then the poem explores Manikarnika ghat and Assi ghat where the dead bodies are cremated/burnt. The book does not miss the evening prayer ritual of Benaras, the Maha arati on the Dashwamedha Ghat. She explains the whole ritual so simply in following lines:

Tourists shrieked, conch shells sounded

humanity applauded.

I lit a small lamp and let it flow

Into the unknown corridors of faith

I have seen so much of Benaras in these lines that it stayed with me even after 5 years. This is a book which put Benaras on my bucket list. And I haven’t been there yet because I do not just want to go there for one or two days. I want to meet the city like the author did, seeing all ghats, spending time with Ganga, watching Sadhus, finding that God hidden in every door, trysting with Benaras at different times to know it inside out.  I am not sure I will be able to do all these things, and hence, Benaras still remains on the bucket-list of mine, this Benaras where even the present is ancient.

It is sad that the book is not very famous. It deserves to be known. It deserves to be talked about. 78 pages and each page packs a punch!