Pain and Paradox: a review of Banaras And The Other.

Review by: Sutanuka Ghosh Roy

Banaras And The Other
Author:  Ashwini Kumar
Page: 95
ISBN: 978-93-82749-56-1 (Paperback)
Edition: (2017)
Published by Paperwall Media& Publishing Pvt. Ltd. Mumbai. India.

        Ashwani Kumar is poet, author, and professor of Development Studies at Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Presently, he is Senior Fellow of Indian Council of Social Science Research. “Banaras And the Other” is his second collection of poems after his first anthology ‘My Grandfather’s Imaginary Typewriter’ published by Yeti Books. Banaras (officially Varanasi) is one of the oldest cities in the world. It is perhaps one of the few sites that have witnessed continuous habitation from ancient times. Even during the lifetime of the Buddha, it was a flourishing city. No wonder that it evokes images of the universal, the timeless and the cosmic, and is deeply embedded in the consciousness of an average Hindu. The book under review is actually set out to demystify and de-romanticise Banaras. Banaras, thus, continues to remain a case study of the challenges to be met in any attempt to archaeologically unearth the past religious traditions of a living city that claims a primordial antiquity. While discussing Banaras as a Hindu, Buddhist and Jain holy city, one should not lose sight of the fact that Muslims have resided in the city since at least the 13th century.

       Ashwini Kumar’s Banaras And The Other is thus a welcome addition to the body of Indian English poetry that seeks to enhance one's awareness of the past and the present.

Sutanuka Ghosh Roy
        The book has a taut structure and is divided into five sections---Banaras, Nostalgia of Ugly Days, The Architecture of Alphabetical Order, Myths Monsters and Fake Heroes, and Submission to the Good Barbarian. The poet begins with an “Overture to Banaras by Jatin Das”. The lead poem “Anatomy of Baranassey As Told by Major James Rennell”, seems to embody a paradox. The protagonist Major Rennell, Surveyor- General and author of Bengal Atlas (1779), is a historical character whose fictional journey from Lat Bhairav riots of 1809 to electoral insurgencies of Hinduvta in 2014 illustrates the ‘pain and paradox’ in contemporary India as K Satchidanandan mentioned in the blurb for the book. It is a cartographic poem, mapping rising cases of Xenophobia, Islamophobia and homophobia.
Bathed in sun and salt,
draped in white loin cloth,
she enters the perineum
of the sanctum sanctorum of
the buffalo-horned masked ascetic God. (p. 3)

We are all aware that lately Banaras has become a political fantasy for Hinduvta politics. Ironically, the more swatches (clean) it becomes, the more exclusivist and intolerant it is. References to real persons and events are purely accidental and imaginary. But they are rooted into the ‘fissured, schismatic scenarios of 21st-century India’ as Ranjit Hoskote has noted.
We were warned by the famous local bard,
“One half of the city lives in water:
the other half is a dead body(shava)” (p.5)

Ashwini is using Banaras as a site and text to expose the fake spiritual gurus and corporate spiritual trainers. In this poem, Hinduism is a deeply engrained living faith without any ethnic markers or cultural barriers; it is a fluid, mellifluous universal music of love and peace. In contrast, Hinduvta is a politics of religion and state power.
A new republic had dawned on the holy town.
With black ink on the index finger,
unbaptized Hindus, prime-time anarchists,
part- time secularists and the
famous Internet Baba had assembled
on the banks of the polluted Himalayan river,
and promised to clean accumulated ancient filth. (p 5)

Appearing in most grand, seductive, perhaps sexy ways, these new-Gods(?) preside over an illusory world of ‘lies, more lies’, and command so-called ‘cobalt truth’ in various parts of the world. Thus Ashwini’s reference to the ‘great leader, in golden Afghan jacket limited-edition watch and Deccan rubber shoes” is allegorical and metaphorical. It alludes to the phenomena of return of primordial patriarchs leading irrational and uncontrollable blood-thirsty mobs in their pursuits of power. This phenomenon of ‘great leader’ has been focus of recent writings of Pankaj Mishra, TabishKhair, Basharat Peer and others. Thus Banaras works at multiple levels; it is part historical, part mnemonic and mostly fictional retelling of Banaras, the seat of Lord Siva and the most holy cremation ground of Hindus. Banaras is also imagined as a beautiful woman whose sensuous, divine love has been immortalized in thumris sung by Siddeshwari Devi, Rasoolan Bai and Girija Devi and other great singers.

Everyone, including junkies, smashed their looms in Shiva’s city
And hid themselves in the ninety-nine epithets of Allah (p 7)

Banaras resists binaries because it has many selves, eternal and ephemeral, primitive and modern, ascetic and hedonistic at the same time. It is sublime and filthy, sexual and so deeply spiritual. For the poet, Banaras is not only the seat of Lord Siva but also ‘Kaaba of Hindustan’.

        Ashwini further dedicates a poem to his mother, from the next section—Nostalgia of Ugly Days--, in which he recounts a personal spiritual experience. As a young boy he had witnessed,
Beneath the underground sky,
She stored terracotta of tall men with
Dry mutton kebabs,
Whenever seven old monks,
Snakes slithering
Through their adulterous flesh, visited our house,
They found her making love to the Sun God at the Golan Heights. (p.13).

        The next section---“The Architecture of Alphabetical Order” -- capture the various moods of the poet—personal and political, memories and nostalgia. “Myths, Monsters and Fake Heroes” deal with mythical characters and contemporary parodies. There is an intersection, if not altogether a confluence, of Eastern and Western traditions in the practice of writing poetry, Ashwini curiously inherits both the traditions through the mediations of colonial and global cultures one after the other. In this context if we read Ashwini’s Banaras which is a book of prose poems, we are indeed reading an example of the said intermingling. It is to be noted that it is not only the mixing of Eastern and Western literary traditions but also mixing of prose and poetry, the mixing of Indian and Western cultures. “Yudishthira’s Kala Kutta” (dedicated to Arun Kolatkar) belongs to the lineage whose ancestor had link with The Mahabharata. The poem highlights the change that colonial period has brought into India. Dog is considered to be man’s best companion since ages.
………….We came here
With our  five brothers. Four of them had no
Names of their own, so they were called by their
Employers: hawker, barber, tailor, bangle-seller.
Only Yudhistira, who never lied,

Followed his family name and occupation…….
……After years of struggle in fag-ashed denim trousers,
Without any worldly possessions,
The brothers fell one by one on the road to Himalaya.
Only Yudhistira’s black dog Bruno,
Survived the hardships of displacements (p 54-55)

    In “Something is Rotten In the State of Denmark” he juxtaposes King Yayati, the first King of Pandavas with Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, the result is a mischievous irreverence. “Job Interview At The Clinic of Doctor Fautus” is sarcastic in tone. “Brihannala in Dadar Ladies Bar” is a poem which is perhaps the best poem in the entire collection. The poet writes,
…I don’t want to become Arjuna, again,
A blind carnivorous beast who
Killed his own cousins, nephews and
Teachers in the age of darkness (p 68)

He thus dexterously sums up the essential teachings from The Mahabharata, which provides its readers with the ultimate philosophy behind life and living.
Today, nobody knows my whereabouts,
Some say I am still working at
Dadar Dance Bar.(p 71).

 This poem can be compared to an image, and the reader must possess the eye to comprehend the original piece of literature through the image. One is immediately reminded of Plato’s “Theory of Forms or Ideas.” It is a morsel that can be masticated for long. Just like writing, reading too is a lonely pursuit until there is “illumination”:
Others say I was last seen doing fusion pole dance
in the holy gardens of Addis Ababa. (p 71)

The last section of this collection –Submission To the Good Barbarian” and the last poem “Fascism, Fascism, Fascism”, works its way where words are absent and makes space for loudness of thought. Ashwini not only replays the affront but also makes the moot point, almost in the manner of a metaphysical conceit that effects a shock,
The idea was to arouse hatred and
thirst for blood to gain insight into the innocence of our evil
actions (p75).


 In a way the poems in this collection have no stable poetic forms and often migrate in unpredictable and whimsical ways. It is paradoxical in nature---physical and mystical like conjoined twins. Ashwini’s poems blur prose-poetry boundaries and create something like hybrid spaces where one does not worry about the craft in the conventional sense. This is what poets call the highest form of beauty in which “what eats is eaten, / and what is eaten, eats/in turn.” (Taittirya Upanishad)!

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