Where Even the Present is Ancient: Benaras
In an interview to L&C, Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury talks about ‘Where Even the Present is Ancient: Benaras’, her latest book of poems on Benaras.
Benaras (the ancient name for Varanasi)…where the chain of ghats (a ghat is a series of steps leading down to a body of water, particularly a holy river) are strung together with hundreds of year old imposing structures that take you back to an archaic world of mansions and havelis (a haveli refers to a private mansion, usually one with historical and architectural significance).
Look at Benaras from the terrace of a house located on the first few ghats such as Asi or Harishchandra Ghat or Kedar Ghat and you can see this 5,000 year old city look like a massive half-bangle hugging the wide, wide Ganga.
A trip to Benaras means dips in the Ganga, boat rides and plain idling on the ghats and the must-visit to Sarnath*… it’s a journey into the past, into a close encounter with the enigma and the ecstasy of this ancient, magical city. The experience stays with you, the inspiring, almost mystical feeling you get being there never erases from memory…
Benaras gives an impression that time has stopped ticking… where the galis (the serpentine lanes that serve as the veins of this city) and the ghats speak a language far removed from the mechanized metro life…
‘Where Even the Present is Ancient: Benaras’ is a book of poems by Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury on the sensuality, love and mysticism that Benaras evokes.
The book that tells the little stories that make us who we are. Maitreyee believes that Benaras resides in all of us Indians, in some beautiful often unknown way. She is the Sutradhar (narrator), in that she attempts to connect an India that many do not realize exists, and in that it is everybody’s story.
The author says that 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 instill the confidence that poetry exists in all of us, 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.
In an interview to Learning & Creativity. Maitreyee talks about her new book and her inspirations and experiences that lead to the creations.
L&C: Benaras has inspired many an author for its enigmatic and archaic charm of a world gone by. What was your inspiration to look towards Benaras for a series of poems?
Maitreyee: As a young girl I would often hear my father say, ‘not to see Benaras, is not to know India’, surprisingly this from a man who isn’t overtly religious. It filled me with curiosity and stayed with me for long.
A year back when I got the opportunity to travel alone, of all the exciting places in the world, I chose to go to Benaras. Everyone was surprised and in spite of my telling them I wanted to explore, no one really understood much about the pull that draws one to a place like this.
At that time, I did not know I would write a book of poems based on Benaras. The entire book happened in bits and parts, while in Benaras and even after I had come back.
L&C: Benaras has this incredible quality to attract people from all parts of the world. Some find it mystical, some crowded, some spiritual, and some consider Benaras to have retained itself in a timeless era. How did you find this city?
Maitreyee: I was warned by a photographer friend before I went there. He had said, ‘Benaras looks very beautiful in photographs, the stench is very real though.’
It is my personal opinion that the Benaras that I talk about needs a special eye to be able to be seen in that light. Otherwise it might be just another dirty Indian city.
There is a poem in the book called, ‘A foreigner in Benaras’. The poem is about discovering that while in Benaras, I often feel like a foreigner in my own land. I think the initial lines are explanatory, when I write –
I am the foreigner,
From the other India –
Sometimes more foreign
than distant lands.
I look at rituals with disbelief
With eyes full of contempt…
L&C: Why did you choose the poetry medium rather than prose for this book?
Maitreyee: My foremost expression is poetry. I not only write poetry, I live it..in many ways. Besides how else does one describe a place as complex as Benaras and the feelings it evokes in one. I have read prose books on Benaras too, many of them, but none of them touched my soul and the beauty of Benaras is all about connecting with the soul or else its very plain and I didn’t want to write a plain book.
L&C: Tell us about the poems – the little stories you have woven. Are they your observations about life that was, that is or your expressions of what ideally it should be?
Maitreyee: There is never an expression of ‘what should be’ from the person or the poet in me. I do not believe in such boundaries. Some have termed the book as a book of poems on Benaras. That is not true. The book is non religious and an objective view of the philosophy of the city, as I see it combined with that of my own.
L&C: There is poetry in every life, there is lyricism in every moment, but only that many of us don’t notice it. In our super-busy lives, we fail to smell the roses. Would you say your book is aimed at making readers see, realize and enjoy the poetry that is all around us?
Maitreyee: Like you said, poetry is all around us, you only need to feel its essence. This book of poems is simple in nature, can be understood by everyone and yet has layers if one chooses to delve deeper.
How one perceives it depends on the reader. In that sense the book is akin to what is said of the belief behind Ganga, ‘Mano to main Gangaa maa hoon, na maano to behta paani…’ (If you believe, I am Mother Ganga, and if you don’t, I am just flowing water)
L&C: Which places of Benaras served as your muse? The chain of ancient, historic Ghats? The serpentine lanes? The aroma of kachauri gali? The fragrant yet crowded Vishwanath Mandir gali? The tranquil boat rides on the bobbing waters or the mesmerizing Arati? For poets, particular moments serve as inspirations. Which moments did you connect with most profoundly?
Maitreyee: Its difficult to describe one particular place that has influenced you more in Benaras, nevertheless if I had to pin point it would be the boat rides I would take most mornings and evenings.
The boatmen would often sing songs and tell me stories about the city, different temples, etc that he had heard from his parents, tourists and grandparents. These are folk editions, one may or may not believe in their authenticity but they tell a person about how the city shapes up in people’s eyes.
Benaras also spoke to me in the small galis, I was especially fascinated by the little musical shops and often asked the shop keepers to play for me. At night I would wander in many of the galis in the nondescript temples and find faith far more real and strong there.
* Located 13 kilometres north-east of Varanasi, Sarnath is the deer park where Gautama Buddha first taught the Dharma, and where the Buddhist Sangha came into existence through the enlightenment of Kondanna
** Arati is a Hindu religious ritual of worship, in which light from wicks soaked in ghee (purified butter) or camphor is offered to one or more deities
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