Where Even the Present is Ancient: Benaras (A Book Club Review)


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.


My Thoughts
Poetry is the sublime power which can show the stark truth in few strokes. This book is collection of such poetry. The book is inspired from Benaras or Varanasi, and mostly is the juxtaposition of life and the scenes of Benaras. But it’s not merely the story of experiences of the poet in Benaras; it’s the acceptance of many facts and lies we speak about life. Poet has captured the moments she saw and her understanding is reflected in these verses. As she says in her first poem:
Sometimes Benaras seems like a poem,
A long lost one, at that.I see it from a distance,
Walking across time and space,
On the edge of tomorrow
painted in history.Stories hovering in time,
Lost somehow in the lanes
And hovering as if
Just beyond the surface.

I am a Hindu, but then there are many things which make me question the traditions we follow. The poet, at times, seem to be similarly perplexed by those rituals (or maybe it was just my interpretation of the words fueled by my own confusion.) while at other moments, she was completely satisfied to bow to these rituals.

Like in poem ‘To Vishvanath’, these simple four lines capture the crowd vying for entering a temple. I haven’t been to Kashi Vishvanath temple (or Benaras), but then this crowd is one of the reasons I haven’t.
‘Vishvanath’ I had come
your doors were closed however-
With people, full of you
and yet themselves.
Another line which describes Hindu rituals so well is:
Divinity is cheap, I think
And so is living-
It is only the dying and the dead,
That become priceless.
I think my favorite lines in the poem were which describes the face of “religious” places like Benaras:
In Benaras,
you open a gate,
a God pops out.
You touch a wall, a God stares back,
nameless, faceless,
Orange and passionate.
The poet has traveled and captured Benaras at all moments, 1:30 a.m., 3:00 a.m.,5:00 a.m. She has captured myriads of emotions as well: death, religion, love, heartbreak, poverty, contentment; all of them beaded with the thread of Ganga.
What I loved

I loved that author hasn’t shied away from the reality of the place. She hasn’t tried to glamorize the place or show only the positive points. She has shown the place as she saw it– sometimes a solace, sometimes a pain.

What I didn’t like

 The poems have descriptions in the end to explain the meaning of Hindi words used. Although the meanings indicated are correct, I don’t think they are sufficient for somebody who doesn’t know anything about these rituals/customs/traditions to understand the poem. Since I’m aware about all these things, I could get what exactly the poet is saying, but not everybody will get all the poems.
Overall Opinion
 These poems touches the heart and leave one wanting to read them once more. It’s a thin book of only 78 pages, but you’ll want to read these 78 pages again and again

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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