Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Where Even Present Is Ancient: Benaras by Maitreyee B. Chowdhury

The Blurb

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.



I am reading Maitreyee B Chowdhury poetry for the first time. I started reading it without any pre-conceived notion, without any expectation. Living in the USA, I have always stayed away from any projection of India as a poverty stricken country. A dried up tap with a child's woeful eyes staring at you or a farmer's wife looking dolefully at the drought struck field. I wanted to always project young India, happy India, rich India to the outside world  Some of you might cringe at my statement and even call me a daft to live in a fool's paradise, but always projecting India as a sad place is becoming demeaning to me as an Indian living abroad.. [I can see the bricks coming my way :P]

But Maitreyee gave me a reality check. Am I happy about it? No. 

I have been to Benares as a child. I remember the morning chants, those hollow eyes of the Rishi's- ash smeared and now I know the glazed look, which then depicted isolation and now depicts Hashish. I remember a small girl dressed as Durga who instilled in me an emotion of jealousy, for she was looking so pretty and so important blessing others. Today I feel sorry for her plight. 

Maitreyee has brought out the pathos of Benares in every line. She depicts Benares as she sees it, - hears it. The chants, men as somnambulists roaming in the streets -either lost in their faith or submerged in the world of Hashish. 

He is the Sadhu 
whom no one owns… 
Not even himself- 

Another picture that rises vividly in her poetry is that of the Lingam. Shiva's eternal power. Maitreyee has woven lines, subtle yet passionate when she mentions the hold Shiva has over the worshippers. In a few of her poems, Shiva is worshipped as the image created by us humans-

I met Shiva today, 
walking on the road. 
Loincloth and expression complete. 

While in some lines the sensuality of Shiva is so well depicted that one is stuck at the thoughts of the poetess- her sense of realization that what is so quietly omnipresent in Benares cannot be ignored. 

A story, 
For every road. 
I see Shiva in every corner, 
Strong, erect and enormous. 

The third aspect is Ganga. Our holy river? Depicting her as a woman, a representation of fertility, a carrier of all our sins. I don't know why, but whenever I read these lines the song of Bhupen Hazarika's 'Ganga Bhehti ho Kyon" hummed in my heart. The feeling was surreal. Thank you Maitreyee for that. 

Lastly, the people of Benares, the culture; and above all the constant hammering of faith which will make even a non- believer stop and take notice. The way Hinduism is depicted in Benares is nowhere else. One thing that did strike me while reading all the poems... Am I supposed to envy the brilliant, cultural life of Benares or feel sorry for those who have to constantly smell the burning flesh? 

Like Maitreyee has so aptly said :

I’m trying to meet Benaras, 
the one that is written in the books, 
photographed and talked about- 
I try to hear her, 

So am I ! 

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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  1. Thanks for a very interesting review Rubina. Also glad to know that the book made you do a rethink on India and how it has been presented :)

    1. Thanks Maitreyee. But I am still sticking to my modern India presentation - out of sheer stubborness. Very thought provoking lines.

  2. I agree on your thoughts, Rubina
    But then again this city is ancient yet shows off the present india :(
    However, loved the way Maitreyee showcased it!

    1. Thanks a ton Ruchira. I too loved it. Made me pause and think a lot. To me Banaras represented early morning aloo and karchori with jilebi thrown in. Running to the temples gathering prasad, and above all the shopping a the local markets. How frivolous I sound na ?