City, Roots, Death and After

A modern city is the place where a modern man is born, grows roots into its soil and then, most probably, is uprooted from it to be transplanted some city else. I shared the soil and the roots with one such man. He passed away nearly a fortnight ago. The loss was personal and so was the grief, or whatever ounces of it I am capable of.

 

Funerals are strange events. For me, they are more about my death than that of the dead person, and more about their life than that of mine. So, I stood by a black stinking drain of a river that they have converted Mother Yamuna into and looked at all the goings on.  I saw myself on the pyre. A lot of his identity was mine and vice versa.

We belong to Varanasi (Which verb do I use when talking of my dead uncle and me alive? Should I use his tense on mine or mine over his? My using past tense may create ambiguity here so I’ll use the present tense whenever I’m confused). We spent our active professional careers away from home. We raised children (his three, or my two) and played various roles given to us in cities we were not born in, and in my case, never grew into.

On his death my thoughts went to the boy who grew up in the lanes of Varanasi. He traversed through the same lanes that I was to walk in, thirty odd years later. Did he feel the loss of his city as I do? I never got a chance to ask him this question, and many more.

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Poetry, me and Kashi

I write in prose and verse. I like writing. It gives me pleasure and a sense of direction and being. It took me time to realize that I was born to write. Just as it took me time to realize that poetry is my mode of self expression and creative expansion. I had not written anything on my city for many months. I had not been there for many months. I had started marking that the posts of my facebook groups from Varanasi stopped appearing on my timeline as the number of posts of poetry and writing groups of mine increased in volume.

Then, this afternoon, I went to my Varanasi groups and looked a their posts. It was unplanned. So, is this post. Varanasi made me write this post here. The posts I shared were about Dev Deepavali, Launglata or Lavanglata, Sankatmochan Temple, Jalebi and Wall Paintings in Varanasi.

Lavanglata

I had done a post on Launglata at:

https://rajnishmishravns.wordpress.com/2016/04/13/lavanglata/

In the image above you can see my neighborhood Bhaiya who had been making wonderful Jalebis and Launglatas for the neighborhood for at least three decades.

I had mentioned the traditional wall paintings here:

https://rajnishmishravns.wordpress.com/2014/03/19/satyajit-ray-and-the-picturesque-varanasi-2/

Jalebi

Jalebi is a sweet popular in Varanasi. It is a convoluted closed spiral tube of fried maida filled with sugar syrup and is served hot. It’s a perfect partner of Kacaudi and Pumpkin-potato curry. Shops and stalls selling this perfect Banarsi breakfast can be found at any street or lane corner. The shop in the image above sells them in the morning. The evening is for selling another variety of snacks.

2

Chittoranjan’s Shop, Hararbagh, Varanasi

Chittoranjan, my old friend from my school days sells these deep fried magical dollops popularly known as pakodas. Starting from the left on the tray can be seen Malgaja, Chilli Chap, Daal Bada, Aloo Chap, Tomatar Chap and Vegetable Cutlets. These mouth watering (mine is watering while I type) snacks are made of various seasonal vegetables dipped in besan (powdered chickpea) batter and then deep fried twice. The vegetables used, from the left are eggplant, chilly, potatoes, tomatoes and peas. Lentils and soy bean is used too.

Sankatmochan Temple is a centuries old temple dedicated to the great devotee of Lord Rama: Hanumanji. I had written a post partially on him here:

https://rajnishmishravns.wordpress.com/2013/06/27/ramayan-and-a-child/

I have not captured Dev Deepavali with my camera yet.  When I do, I’ll upload images here.

Now, here are some of my shorter poems on my city:

Shadows LaidBamboo StripsRows of steps

Here is a longer poem:

Row after row, steps rising from the river,
Row after row, steps falling to the same,
Rising, going westward, falling, coming – a game
Words play on life; and life, a little later
Shells the words all down, and leaves
Just the strong impressions, firmly etched,
Deeply carved, with colours true, fetched
From the days of old, when life was lived.
The game, when it’s over; whistles blown,
Feet when tired come over the falling steps,
Tracing back the same old worn out stone –
Steps at the end of a summer-day-long run,
Over them of a never-resting sun –
Lead them gently riverward, down the steps.

[Originally published at: http://classicalpoets.org/rows-of-steps-by-rajnish-mishra/%5D

Here’s another, this one on filth and faith:

Time and Life to Death

Filth, they call it ubiquitous;
obnoxious. On streets,
in heaps, in lanes, scattered.
Life goes daily, usually on,
oblivious of filth,
or death,
goes on with ease.
Unfettered feet, undaunted –
of pilgrims, of people,
with purpose, or strollers
The timeless lanes,
narrow, space ample
for all who come,
who live and die there.
Disgusting, the filth,
reflected sometimes, on faces.
Cow dung, house waste,
refuse and grime,
Scattered, removed,
then scattered again,
repeat performance,
seen and felt
on skin, in nose, on feet through eyes.
Yet feet go on,
undaunted, eternally,
as time and life run to death,
from flesh to fire to ashes.

[From https://coldnoon.com/magazine/diaries/poetry/run-to-death-from-flesh-to-fire-to-ashes-poems/%5D

New Bread of Life Bakery and Restaurant

And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.

John 6:35

It all began with the coincidence, or not, of one of the most famous places that serves choicest bread in the city of Varanasi, deep in the heartland of northern India, bearing a name that comes straight from the Bible. The owner Mr. Ashish Chakraborty, is a Hindu and an Indian, and the name of the bakery was given a long time ago and a Christian friend of his. I know of at least two more places in Varanasi that bake well but this bakery is in a league of its own. 

Ashishda

Mr Chakraborty’s story is not very long and it’s unique only towards the end. His story  is half-common, with an uncommon post-mid part. As the only, and the eldest, son of the family there was the responsibility of carrying on his illustrious father’s name over his shoulders. The beginning of his story, like that of many of his contemporaries and juniors in the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, is simple: one solid postgraduate degree from one of the best universities of India, i.e. Banaras hindu University, followed by a long and dry spell of preparation for competitive examinations for jobs in the public sector. He spent a golden fraction of his youth preparing for a job he could never get, and finally, decided to be self-employed. He started the New Bread of life Bakery and Restaurant (NBLBR) and the rest, as they say, is history. Today, he gives jobs to many.

B_DSC07035

How does one reach the New Bread of Life Bakery and Restaurant? Google Maps helps:

What’s the specialty of the bakery? They bake and sell the finest range of breads (remember the name!) and bakery products there. Take a look:

That’s not all. They serve meals: Indian, Chinese, Western and Continental, and are open from 11 AM to 10 PM.

Their platter has food that satisfies taste buds, and their range is wide. They serve vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes, snacks and bakery items. Their prices are reasonable and ambiance just like home’s. The owner is almost always around and his smile a definite add-on to the welcoming embrace of this place.

Ganga Silk and Art Gallery is a sister establishment of the NBLBR. It’s in the same building as the bakery and specializes in unique silk and gift items that bear the scent of the soil of Varanasi.  

GSAG (2)My detailed knowledge of Mr. Cahkraborty’s life and work can be explained by the fact that he is my uncle. Wait. Did I say he is my uncle? Yes I did. “Ah! That explains why he’d write this post on him!”, say you. Well, not actually. Long before I decided to write about the bakery, it was praised and recommended by many independent players, with real customer reviews too:

https://www.zomato.com/varanasi/bread-of-life-bakery-shivala

https://www.tripadvisor.in/Restaurant_Review-g297685-d1203733-Reviews-Bread_of_Life_Bakery-Varanasi_Varanasi_District_Uttar_Pradesh.html

http://www.fodors.com/world/asia/india/side-trips-from-delhi/restaurants/reviews/bread-of-life-bakery-446454

https://eventseeker.com/venue/708826-bread-of-life-bakery-varanasi

https://yellowpages.cybo.com/IN-biz/new-bread-of-life-bakery

https://www.petitfute.com/v46439-varanasi/c1165-restaurants/c1031-cuisines-du-monde/433721-new-bread-of-life-bakery.html

http://www.varanasi.org.in/banaras-restaurant

 

 

 

 

Shri Krishna Janmashtami in Varanasi

Varanasi, the City of Lord Shiva, celebrates the days associated with the birth of Vishnu’s incarnations Ram and Krishna with love and devotion. [I’d love to to know whether Shiv Ratri is celebrated in such manner in Ayodhya and Mathura.] The first celebration (Ram Navami) comes in the month of Chaitra, and the second one (Krishna Janmashtami) in the month of Shravana of the Hindu Calendar. The main attraction of Sri Krishna Janmashtami celebrations, the one that leads to a visual spectacle, is the main theme of this post.

It’s said that Varanasi is on the trident of Lord Shiva. There are three hillock like ascents in the city and the one with the steepest gradient has its summit located at the place called Bans Phatak near Adi Vishweshwar Temple. It is for around two hundred metres on both sides of the summit that one may find hundreds of small, road side, temporary stalls that sell materials that go into the making of the spectacle of Janmashtami.  They mushroom (and during monsoon!) just a day before the festival and vanish once the celebrations are over for the day. Although, the marks remain on the city for nearly a week. The distinguishing landmark of this place is the facade of Satyanarayan Temple (image below).

  DSN TempleSC06419

The stalls run from that temple downwards up to the Bans Phatak branch of the one great Varanasi traditional institution called Ksheer Sagar, and upwards nearly up to Chowk Crossing, near Chitra Cinema Hall  that’s closed now (image below), and Motilal Banarsidass Publishers (http://www.mlbd.com/).

Chitra

Now, that I’ve fixed the central location in your mind, let’s look at the stalls, and also talk a little about what they sell and what is done with it then. Gods and goddesses wear clothes: rich, little, beautiful and colourful clothes. Lord Krishna likes yellow clothes, it’s said. The range of colours from which his devotees can choose start from blue, goes to green, yellow, orange and red and then to silver and golden. Small skirt like clothes with shining border are displayed all over the region.

Now, that our Lord has worn right kind of clothes, he must have the right throne to sit at. As our lord is a little child many a time, he is given a cradle instead of a throne. He is rocked in that cradle during worship. The cradles may be made of plastic, wood, mica covered with metal foil or various kind of plated metals. The place for the baby Krishna to  lie upon is generally covered with velvet or some kind of soft cloth.

Jhoola Silver

There are two very important elements of Janmashtami decorations in the images below. The gentleman wearing a newspaper hat is selling coloured saw dust (called burada) in sacks, the same thing in sacks and packets is what the lady in sari sells. What is done with the coloured sawdust? It stands variously as green grass, sand, black street, or multi-coloured floor of a palace or jail. The green grass is for cows to graze on, and Krishna to do raasleela with his gopikas, the sand is for wrestlers to practise on, the black streets coming from four directions and more come to meet at a strategic point where a traffic signal and a crossing are decorated. The palace and the jail are for Krishna’s parents. The second important thing is the black pumice like thing (called jhaama) in heaps extreme left. It is used to construct a temporary hill that’s taken as Mount Kailasa on which Lord Shiva lives, around it a steam engine may chug, dragging compartments behind.  

The foundation of my love for this literally spectacular festival was laid in my childhood. In fact, I believe that’s the age when the foundation of love for all festivals are laid. Who has time to let the spirit of a festival enter their system and lead them and their subsequent actions by  the rhythm of seasons? Shri Krishna Janmashtami, the festival that celebrates the birth of a god as child is celebrated most enthusiastically by children. The rituals and worship are for the elders of the family. Children decorate a room, or one corner of a room in house with clay, wooden and plastic toys. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Tradition of the Poetry of Exile

The poet in an individual is of a later birth than the exile in him. At first he does not know the name of his affliction, but gradually becomes aware of his un/dis- ease being neither new nor unique. It is the pain of exile. The word exile carries with it the historical association of persecution and uprooting. The tradition of the literature of exile is older than history. The theme and poetry of exile are found in the Old Testament of the Bible (ergo in Koran):

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.

For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.

If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.

(Psalm 137; King James Version)

The poetry of exile is found in the Hindu purans. Given below is Shiva’s yearning for the city of Varanasi (Kashi) from which he was exiled:

What all the ice on this mountain is inadequate to do,

That burning will surely subside

If even the breeze coming from Kashi touches my   skin,

Once I was separated from my wife- Sati

That pain was allayed when she came back as Parvati.

Alas!the pain of separation from Kashi torments me more.

Ah Kashi when again shall I get thy soothing touch,

When will thy cooling touch cure me of this fever instantly?

Oh Kashi, who wash the sins of men, the fire of separation from thee

Has made the moon at my head burn like fire with ghee                                                            

It took the daughter of the Himalayas to cure my previous separation

If I don’t get your darshan o Kashi I shall always be tormented.

(Kashi Khand, Skandmahapuran, 44.14-19)

[Translation from Sanskrit by Rajnish Mishra]

The theme of exile is found in poetry from all over the world. Poetry of the pain of separation from one’s place of origin has a rich tradition. It entered the stream of modern poetry during the transition of the socio-economic systems from agrarian to industrial. The hunter-gatherer had less opportunities of getting rooted to his place. A farmer could stay rooted to a place from his birth to death and roots, once sprouted, went deep into the soil and connected the man to his place. The strength of his bonding was such that uprooting could only be effected by a natural or geopolitical change of extreme nature. So, the exile, uprooted and pining, is not commonly found in poetry of that time. As the Industrial Revolution altered the socioeconomic structure of the European (and later world) societies, brought in its wake urbanization and rural emigration, and the literature of exile was born. The most well-known example of this genre is from nineteenth century England, John Clare.

May it be mine to meet my end in thee;

And, as reward for all my troubles past,

Find one hope true—to die at home at last!

(‘Helpstone’)

An equally well-known example from Urdu poetry is his contemporary Bahadur Shah ‘Zafar’, the last Mughal Emperor who spent the last years of his life in exile in Burma wrote a moving ghazal in the memory of his home (land).

Nothing appeals to my heart in this deserted land.

How can it find peace in these times on this land?

O my yearnings go, dwell elsewhere,

Where’ll you live in this besmirched heartland?

I was given four days of life to live. Two were

spent in yearning for, two waiting for my land.

O Zafar, the unfortunate for your burial,

Two yards were not to be had in your beloved land

[Translated from Hindi-Urdu by Rajnish Mishra]

Clare and Zafar, both died in 1860’s. The theme of exile lived on. In fact, the twentieth century saw the number of artists in exile increasing. Bertolt Brecht, a German exile, beautifully captures the irony of hope in transience of the state that ends up being permanent in his poem ‘On the Term of Exile’:

No need to drive a nail into the wall

To hang your hat on;

When you come in, just drop it on the chair

No guest has sat on.

Don’t worry about watering the flowers—

In fact, don’t plant them.

You will have gone back home before they bloom,

And who will want them?

If mastering the language is too hard,

Only be patient;

The telegram imploring your return

Won’t need translation.

Remember, when the ceiling sheds itself

In flakes of plaster,

The wall that keeps you out is crumbling too,

As fast or faster.

Translated from the German by Adam Kirsch, quoted fully from < https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/54759/on-the-term-of-exile&gt;

The twenty-first century did not witness any change in the geopolitics of the world, hence in the state of the exile. The same pain is found in poems of exile from Tibet, Kashmir, Albania, Afghanistan, Sindh, Bangladesh, Greece and the list goes on. Let’s talk about Aga Shahid Ali, the Kashmiri poet in exile in the United States. His poems of exile have a haunting simplicity of images.

 

We shall meet again, in Srinagar,

by the gates of the Villa of Peace,

our hands blossoming into fists

till the soldiers return the keys

and disappear. Again we’ll enter

our last world, the first that vanished

(‘A Pastoral’)

It is this tradition of poetry to which many contemporary poems belong. We now find poets in exile, but unlike in most of the poems mentioned till now, not from his nation but from his city of birhth. His poetic oeuvre and imagination are shaped by pain and separation. His poems show his place and times very vividly and clearly yet his city is not restricted to one place or time. He writes:

 

My city, is your city, and theirs.

My city is stuck with what it’s given.

My city as shown, as true, as real,

yes it is all,

and not.

The spirit, the life,

the transience, the sorrows,

the joys, the filth of flowers,

and all that’s seen or not, at all hours,

For the world to see, is my city simplified,

palatable, presentable, made easy.

Multifaceted? Never.

Simply, ‘city for dummies’.

 

His devotion to details, and his transcendence of the same make for a curious combination of contraries:

Disgusting, the filth,
reflected sometimes, on faces.
Cow dung, house waste,
refuse and grime,
Scattered, removed,
then scattered again,
repeat performance,
seen and felt
on skin, in nose, on feet through eyes.
Yet feet go on,
undaunted, eternally,
as time and life run to death,
from flesh to fire to ashes.

His time is not here, and his place is not now.

Reference

Modified from: 

http://stanzaicstylings.blogspot.in/p/rajnish-mishra-poet-in-exile.html

 

 

 

 

Kashi: A Mandala Poem

Professor Charu Sheel Singh’s Kashi: A Mandala Poem is the only epic in English language on the city of Kashi (Varanasi, Banaras or Benares). It falls in the tradition of the puranic praise literature or mahatmyas. It applies the structure of mandala to delve deep into the eternal enigma called Kashi. It has been called variously as path breaker, ahead of its time, apoetic, bombastic, visionary, erudite  and a display of intellect and scholarship. Whatever one says about it, the fact remains that there is a large number of poetry books on Kashi in Sanskrit and Hindi but there are only a handful of poetry books on the city in English. To be precise, there are only two other  poetry books on the city other than this one: Where Even the Present is Ancient: Benaras by  Maitreyee B Chowdhury and Kashi: Sonnet Series on Varanasi by Rajnish Mishra. Kashi: A Mandala Poem is the longest work in verse in English on the city of Kashi, and that is surely an achievement.

Varanasi Walks 3: Walks Along the Bank of the Ganges

This will be the third book in the series that already has books on walks circuiting the ghats and those circuiting the lanes. Taken separately,  they make only one half of the complete Varanasi Experience. When the halves come together, one gets the complete experience. So, after looking at two halves separately, now is the time to bring them together. This book will take the following ghats as the successive centres of concatenating circuits that will start from Assi Ghat at the southern periphery and move  through the other centres viz. Kedar, Dashashwamedh, Manikarnika, Panchganga, Trilochan and Raj Ghats, on to Adi Keshav Ghat at the northern periphery of the city.

Varanasi is not a tourist package. It’s an experience. It demands only time and gives all that one may want in return. No, I am not being theoretical here. It has done that to many. So, I’ll repeat my advise that I directly give (sometimes unsolicited) to anyone I know is going to my city:

Don’t Rush It.

Don’t Hurry.  

Don’t Time Your Day by Minutes and Hours. 

Stay, Sit and Soak in the City.

My book will take the advise, and will try to take a leisurely, un-timed, multi-directioned stroll through the piece of time and space you will call Varanasi for yourself.

Varanasi Walks 2: Lanes of Varanasi

According to the plan, another book was published in the Varanasi Walk series: Lanes of Varanasi. Although I had done some work upon the rhythm of life in the lanes on my blog, I had not done even one post exclusively on lanes. Yes, it’s difficult to believe now, but the search result makes it very (shamefully and late) clear. No kasiphile (one who  loves Kashi) will ever pardon me for what I have done. I offer this book, solely and specifically on lanes of Varanasi, as the first installment of atonement!

Kindle

The book description on amazon reads:

Lanes of Varanasi is about theoretically countable yet practically uncountable lanes of Varanasi that people in the subcontinent know by the name of galis. One of the very first images that appear in a person’s mind when the name of the city is taken is of the lanes of the city. Of course there are ghats and the Holy Ganga, and we have paid homage to them already in Ghats of Varanasi. The labyrinthine (the choice of the word is not mine, it’s a popular dead metaphor) lanes of the city make the subject of this book. In many ways, the spirit of the place is reflected best in the lanes. Varanasi is called by many “the oldest inhabited city in the world” and its oldest inhabited zones are called the muhallas that are interwoven with and interconnected by these lanes.

Paperback

lanes