Humans of Varanasi

’The collection of stories is independent that they can be pulled open on any one page and read as nuggets to be savored on their own, yet are interdependent in that they cross boundaries to become a setting for the “Humans of Varanasi”,’ writes Kashiana Singh.

My first question as I reflect on Birdsongs of Love and Despair is Why Eleven? Why are there eleven stories included in the book, why not ten or nine? But let us park that question and we will come back to it towards the end. 

The title of the book is the reason I was drawn to it. Birdsongs have a mystery to it, a come-hither quality. These eleven tales make up Mishra’s repertoire of birdsongs and each is unique in its vocalization and form. If I were to evaluate them for a common chorus, it would be that of a haunting desire for the past. A longing.

Before jumping into the world of these stories, a brief introduction as to how I have approached the rest of this introspection. 

As someone who has been bred on protocols of corporate crisis, project management and organizational change, I like to packetize things for ease of my own list trained brain. So, to stay with that flow, let me start with the bottom line on top reaction as I read Birdsongs of Love and Despair with a reviewer’s lens… or spectacles! 

Just like in regression therapy or NLP or any of these life altering reflective techniques, the coaches/aka facilitators ask you to recap what are the first few things, words, objects, scenes that come to mind – I decided to write down the five words that stayed with me as I put down Vivek Nath Mishra’s book and made a small journal entry as to why that word was important for me in context of the book. My logic was that in combination of the left brain’s instant recollection of the word itself and the right brain’s reasoning of the why I should have a pretty stirring summary of the book in hand. 

Here is what I gleaned –

Word 1 – bougainvillea, page 17

I think of the bougainvillea as a testament to hardiness, sustaining difficulties and being a survivor. In the story titled Anklet, it symbolizes resilience of the characters but is it also about the resilience of Varanasi has it has moved through centuries of human caravans moving through it? 

Word 2 – courtyard, page 21

The courtyard, reminds me of the place in my grandmother’s house where we discovered hidden treasures in open brick walls. In the story Of Windows and Cages the courtyard becomes a haven away from the noise of the neighbor’s television. But that is not the only respite that the character is looking for. Vivek’s heart is with the father as he cringes when the son complains about the house being too small. Is it the heart of the city complaining about the modern reconstruction destroying its soul?

Word 3 – dhrupad, page 44

He repeats the word 5 times in two paragraphs, it is as if the raag itself is wanting to come alive on the pages. The contradiction described as the daughter tugs the kurta, and the wife feeling suffocated from the incense sticks and the young boy’s performance leaving the central character is mesmerizing. Is it confessional? Autobiographical? The answer is not relevant but the fact that the writing leaves one with these questions is testimony to the sincerity of the storytelling.

Word 4 – ghats, page 71

River front steps used for performing for rituals and ceremonies inherent to Varanasi referred to in this story as the symbol of peace and grounding for the deaf and mute man. The ghats served as the central point that brought the father and daughter together – their common ground. Is the writer reminding us about the ghats being the ultimate common ground for all of us when we heed the obvious physical end? Is there an untold tale that is very relevant to our times within these pages?

Word 5 – droplets, page 98

The precision of these lines, as I describe later stayed with me like an aftertaste that lingers long after. The droplets shining in the sun on his body is an essential descriptive prose that define Vivek as a writer and will be one of his oft quoted lines in the future. It marks the quality of a writer who is paying attention. 

Birdsongs of Love and Despair is set in Varanasi which is the spiritual capital of India but more importantly it is a city of juxtapositions. At its peak before Greece, in existence before the birth of Christ, a place that has been called the holiest place on earth and one that can evoke extreme love or hate. Vivek Nath Mishra seeks to interpret the city through the lens of his character pilgrims. 

The Gardner with a mysterious past can be said to be Kashi? The protagonist in this story is interpreted differently by everyone who interacted with him. Mishra collects these experiences with a sincere lens of an observer, no judgement – simply an outside in view.

“My mother believed his presence in our house was a result of someone’s evil or envious gaze. She presumed his ominous presence would have some pretty serious repercussions someday”

That terse recollection may very well be the author’s provocative message about how Varanasi has often been a witness to dominant rituals for the widows within the ritualistic sub culture of traditional society. 

Overall, there are deep roots to the past, to a city meandering throughout the story, the author keeps these roots mostly beneath the surface except when he intentionally allows the reader to delve into them, just for a moment. He allows a peek into the dichotomy of her soul through the dichotomy of his lead figures.

The Weight of a Demise talks about the “peculiar relation between me and my dreams” It is remarkable at how simply Mishra weaves the illumination of Varanasi alongside the chaos of its dimensions and it comes alive in this story. “My memories have faded with time but like a scene from a movie, memories flash in front of my eyes sometimes” 

It makes me think of the author as also being a playful photographer – is the camera’s eye talking to the author’s lens as he pens the Weight of the Demise? 

It is odd that the only character we do not see in the set of stories is that of a boatman – In the Toy Seller he ends with the lines “He was like that happy, serene, ever flowing river, I always wanted to be” Is Mishra himself the boatman who rows his characters through their life journey’s and thence to their ultimate destination – the ghats?

Pitch Dark paints the picture of a gigantic door of yellow color and walls that were high upto ten feet of more. He goes on to say,“ We used to go there only to pluck some guavas from the tree that was inside the premises but its branches, stretched out to the street” The beauty of Vivek’s writing is in how he resurrects images from his own growing years in the city, everyday images of living within the city. His observation about the “old woman who used to sit there at the steps of the house” are both photographic and poetic at the same time. 

Equally significant to the collection is The Toy Seller, a story with shades of the classic Kabuliwallah. The obvious pathos in this story related to the central character is not a new theme but touches the reader due to the heartfelt representation. Central to the author’s writing is the man next door voice which is both appealing and sometimes unnerving. One waits for something grander, larger to happen but that is not what Mishra has set out to do in Birdsong’s – he is just nudging the reader to listen to the protagonist’s lives. He takes us along their tales of pain, fear, insecurities and weaves through the lanes and by lanes of schools, tall gates, and vendor stalls as he does so. 

Or perhaps these are our stories? 

Mishra’s muse is ever present in a very multidimensional way. 

However, it is never an in your face presence. Varanasi flows along the margins of each story, sometimes as the old woman, the yellow door, the ghats, the Ganges herself, the rituals, the libraries, the Swamiji. It is a spirit and once in a while the reader can pause to inhale it in but it does not impede the process of enjoying the unfolding and enfolding of these eleven narratives that make up Birdsongs of Love and Despair.

Vivek Nath Mishra is an engineer and knows how to draw the cause and effect of a story together. This is obvious in the storyline and the fact that they have a conscious drawing of an arc. As he grows into his writing self, this will become more natural and less practiced which can sometimes be the cause of a slight bumpiness you experience when you are reading the book from cover to cover at one go. That was my one cause for pause during the introspective review of this book.

My favorite passage from is from Devotee – 

“I loved watching him bathe. He would mutter his prayers and shiver like a child at the first touch of water. I would lose myself in the time, seeing the tiny droplets shining under the sun on his body, as if it encapsulated the huge sun” 

These are such palpable lines. They appeal to me for many reasons besides that they are pure poetry. These few lines clearly etch a representation of the intrinsic question of time and life that is at the crux of every musing. This is not just a piece of great writing – crisp, clear and bright just like the droplets that shone on the Swami’s body but also a great philosophical dilemma. 

The collection of stories is independent that they can be pulled open on any one page and read as nuggets to be savored on their own, yet are interdependent in that they cross boundaries to become a setting for the “Humans of Varanasi”. Humans in the form of a son, a father, a lover, a young adult, a grandmother, a learned man, an old woman, a young bride, a retiree. They emerge like subjects.

Inspired by the extraordinary qualities Mary Oliver who is called a poet of observation, I would not hesitate calling Mishra demonstrating in a few of these passages the qualities of a writer with the lens of daily witness. His daily witness is unpretentious, it presents itself in these stories of daily existence yet is gently nudging us into conversations about broader contexts. He is careful, very careful lest he disrupts the birdsong of his city. It is clear that he wishes not to disrupt the flow of life along its ghats as he stands there waiting, witnessing. 

Is that where he is finding his next collection of stories? 

I will wait eagerly for it. For “like a true Banarasi he should know the shortcut to everyplace!”

Meanwhile, maybe there are eleven stories because eleven is believed to garner the energy forces from the microcosm and macrocosm both? 

The cover of Birdsongs of Love and Despair like most of Hawakal Publisher covers has a photograph of the ghats that directs the gaze inwards. To the cover, here is my reflection – 

fidgety nightfall
parched sparrow fluttered
lingering ghats

Kashiana Singh, 51, is a management professional. Her poetry collection, Shelling Peanuts and Stringing Words is written as a participant and an observer. She is from India, now lives in Chicago, and her contributions have been featured in The Narrow Mag, Tuck Magazine, Best Poetry, Fox Poetry Box, Women’s Web, OnMogul, Literary Yard, Modern Literature, and elsewhere.

Read more on Bengaluru Review :

Coming-of-age story of India as a country

In Pictures : When night engulfs the ghats of Benaras

Reading Ambai and running into oneself : Fiction never lies



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