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

Varanasi Walks 1: Ghats of Varanasi

I planned the Varanasi Walks series over a year ago. As the name suggests, it consists of several titles, linked by the theme of walks in Varanasi. Instead of searching for a publisher, I decided to self-publish the series. It was possible, thanks to amazon.com. I published the first title of the series as a kindle book first. That first book was about the ghats of Varanasi. The choice of the subject was not at all accidental. I had done over two dozen blog posts related to various ghats of Kashi (https://rajnishmishravns.wordpress.com/page/4/?s=Ghat&submit=Search). I had also done a blog post on all the ghats of Varnasi/ Kashi a long time ago (on February 19, 2014 ):

https://rajnishmishravns.wordpress.com/2014/02/19/varanasi-ghatscape/

That blog was actually a comprehensive list of all the ghats that I had visited and photographed myself. The structure and treatment of the post was skeletal only and I felt the need to give it a body, some flesh and a better and fuller treatment. So, I wrote Ghats of Varanasi.

The product description reads:

Varanasi is one of the holiest cities of Hindus and one of the most picturesque places on the face of earth. For over a millennium it has attracted pilgrims, travellers and tourists from all over the world due to various reasons. One of the highlights of any journey to the city has been its magnificent ghats, with their majestic buildings and the serene view of the crescent left bank and the holy Ganges. This book is about the ghats of Varanasi. It is the first volume of the series titled Varanasi Walks.

Its table of contents gives a fair idea of the structure of the book:

Preface

Introduction

The Southern Periphery

Around Kedar Ghat

Around Dashashwamedh Ghat

Around the Manikarnika

Around Panchganga Ghat

Around Trilochan Ghat

The Northern Periphery

List of Ghats

Glossary

References

So, the book of walks begins from the Southern end of the city’s defined periphery and proceeds towards its ancient northern end i.e. the circuits keep moving from the confluence of Holy Ganga with the dry river Assi to that with the river Varuna. Thus the book takes you from one puranic confluence to another, between which lies Varanasi. In fact, there’s an apocryphal etymological link between the name of the rivers mentioned above and the naming of the city. They say that you get Varanasi by combining Varuna with Assi (Varanasi = Varuna + Assi). Ghats of Varanasi structures various city walks in a chain of circuits centred at key ghats: Assi, Kedar, Dashashwamedh, Manikarnika, Panchganga, Trilochan and Adi Keshav.

There were many readers who were neither familiar nor comfortable with kindle format. They needed the touch and the idea of materially holding the ‘book’ in their hands. So, I published the book in paperback format without any change in the textual content.

gp

 

Kameshwar or Durvaseshwar Mahadev, Kashi Khand

The Kashi Khand of Skand Mahapuran has narratives that give full coverage to the story of origin of the idols of various gods and goddesses, especially of the various lingams that prominently dot the cityscape. In its eighty-fifth chapter there is the story of how Durvaseshwar/Kameshwar Mahadev came into being. As the name suggests, Lord Shiva bears the name of his devotee here. He is the ‘Lord of Durvasa‘. For those who do not know much about the sage famous for his irascibility, fiery temper and powers, rishi Durvasa directly originated from Lord Shiva. He is a great devotee of Lord Shiva and is full of praise for the city of Kashi as he reaches there. He likes the city and starts his austerities to please his Lord in order to get a boon he wants. Time passes but the sage has no success.

Irascible as he is, he decides to curse the city that does not bring the fruits of his devotion and austerity to him. The fire of his anger envelops the sky, and since then it looks blue. The ganas of Lord Shiva who reside in his beloved abode get agitated and angry and take countermeasure by creating a huge wall all around the city that does not let even fire pass. The world burns and Kashi is breathless. Lord Shiva is pleased with the powerful sage and appears before him (I will not digress and write of another lingam that came to earth at this point of time).

On seeing his lord Durvasa becomes aware of what he had done. He is full of shame and remorse to have thought of cursing Mother Kashi, but Lord Shiva is happy with him and asks him to ask for his boon. The sage asks for only one boon, that the lingam he established there fulfills the desires of the devotees, hence known as the Lord of Desires, also that the water of the pond may have similar powers. Lord Shiva was pleased with the selfless sage and called the lingam Durvaseshwar before granting the sage his boon. He also declared that the most auspicious day for the devotees to reach there would be the thirteenth day of Pradosh that coincides with Saturday.

Kameshwar Mahadev, Varanasi

This post began when Mr Saktibrata Sen posted a question on my blog “Madhyameshwar: The Lord of/at the Centre, Varanasi”. The question was:

Hello, I need help to locate the Kameshwar or Durvaseshwar Temple. I tried for 7 continuous days and failed. Can you please, please help? I have heard that this temple was once a seat of many a classical Hindustani performances by Ustad Faiyaz khan

I knew nothing of the Ustad mentioned, but I knew I could give the exact location. So, I searched. For the temple I searched the great Pandit Kubernath Sukul’s Varanasi Vaibhav and Dandiswami Shivanand Saraswati’s Kashi Gaurav, and for the maestro, Wikipedia and youtube.

Varanasi Vaibhav gives the location of the temple as:

a. The Old Temple at house number A 2/9, near Macchodari (p 222 and 384)

b. The New Temple at house number K 30/1, Ghasitola (p 384)

There is also the mention of Kamkund that is not there any more.

The most auspicious day for darshan, according to the Hindu calendar is Vaishakh Krishna 13.

Kashi Gaurav gives the location of the temple under the circuit covering 42 great Shivlingas. it’s at the eastern side of Macchodari, at A 2/9 in an eponymous lane: the Kameshwar Lane.   

This same lingam is known as Durvaseshwar. Why? There’s a long narrative in the Kashi Khand of Skand Mahapuran regarding its origin and nomenclature. That narrative will be the subject of our next post.

 

Banaras vs Boredom

Regular writing is dependent both on habit and need: the habit of writing every day, or the need to earn a living through it. So, it’s difficult for me to go regular. I take the occasional walk on the path of writing. That brings us to the present subject. A strong urge to write, or a strong subject to terminate into that urge, is all I need to begin. The present subject is my painful consciousness of the comparative boredom, colourlessness, soundlessness, sightlessness and odourlessness of my constitutional walk. Day after day, day after day, I walk one of the few fixed circuits for around twenty minutes, i.e. two kilometres. More than once have I felt an intense surge of helplessness, accentuating the contrast between the ghats and lanes of Banaras and boredom. From my place in my city Banaras to Dashashwamedh Ghat is around two kilometres, and I never used to go for any kind of constitutionals in my city. Yet, I regularly walked my ghats and lanes nearly every day, more lanes during the flooded months and more ghats normally. The same ghats and lanes, the same circuit, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, and never boring – not even once. It’s unbelievable: the contrast is, or unreal. The rush of pilgrims and the regulars in the mornings and at evenings would be the same too. The addas too never changed (not even today have they changed, and I thank Mahadev for that). Yes, there’d be the same shops and road-side stalls from where fruits, vegetables or other such FMCG would be purchased. And yes, there would be the same people to exchange a hearty Mahadev or a Ram Ram with. A short digression about “Mahadev”: As Lord Shiva, or Mahadev, i.e. the great god, is the Lord of Kashi, so his name becomes the shorthand for Hail the Great God or Har har Mahadev. Although for the readers of the Naga trilogy, Amish had derived it differently, but the people who have been using the same customarily for as long as they can remember, it is exactly as mentioned in the previous sentence.

Fundamentally speaking, if boredom has any kind of relationship with unchanging environs, Banaras should be just as boring as any regularly walked circuit. The facts in hand, although, point towards some weakness inherent in the causal link. When in Banaras, I actually look forward to a repetition of features and occurrences on my daily circuit. It has now taken a ritualistic turn, and just like the rituals associated with places and occasions, the novelty of repetition and the variety of sameness, can only be accepted with one place, and there’s no such place outside Banaras for me. The Romantics have been criticized for their escapism, so has been Yeats in his Innisfree poem:

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

BY WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
Source: The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (1989)

Alienation in industrialized urban setting, with its normative migration, drives people away from their place of origin. Many respond well, and gel well with the socio-cultural environment of their place of transplantation. It has something to do with the age of uprooting too. The younger the sapling, the lesser is the shock, and the better the chances of acclimatization and naturalization in the new environment. The degree of attachment to one’s roots and the origin and the mode and the motive of uprooting are amongst various factors that determine the intensity and persistence of the shock. The daily rhythm of life and the availability and use patterns of leisure time are also very important determining factors. I miss the past rhythm and leisure time utilization of my life, and prefer it over my present state’s rhythm and pattern. I also miss the complete and unchallenged ownership of the time available – my time – that has now been heavily compromised.

Past time and place, in a very indistinguishable manner, have become one, courtesy the way our mind looks back and recollects. [The Prelude: looking back, recollection in tranquility, Nature, joy, sense of loss etc.] Brain thinks, and the heart only pumps blood. Both the clauses in the previous sentence are wrong, partially, and partially correct too. If and when a body part or organ functions without taking commands from the brain, especially when the time for or the need of analytical response is limited or instant, it does what actually is brain’s job. Then, it may be said to be performing brain’s function. Therefore, the relevant question must be to ask: why is the same brisk walk different in Banaras? Twice or thrice have I launched myself on the daily routine kind of walk, with diligence and consistency too, always getting mightily bored in the process. Driven from within, I do stick to the boring routine, like I am doing nowadays, but I don’t tell myself the lie that I am enjoying it. The moment Banaras flashes in my mind, and that happens very regularly and definitely, my walk turns sour and mechanical. Mine is no Wordsworthian loss of joy, for the moment I enter my city, the joy returns. Mine is a simple case of single mindedness. I have probably committed somewhere in my mind to consign happiness to Banaras, or have made them interchangeable in my personal vocabulary. Yet, I also am aware of the fact that walking along the Ganges is a treat: visual, aural, even olfactory.