“Benaras is older than history, 
older than tradition, 
older even than legend 
and looks twice as old 
as all of them put together.”

— 'The Complete Interview', by Mark Twain

To Die in Benares, a collection of short stories by acclaimed thespian and professor of theatre, K Madavane makes the invisible visible. These tales, rendered in a variety of genres blending both tragedy and comedy, horror and human drama, reflect the writer’s profound meditations on death and helplessness in the face of fate. Each story defies the rational as death finds unusual ways of taking hold of its characters. Each peculiar death in turn, reveals a deep longing for Benares.

Benares or Kashi, where life meets death, is the epicentre of this fictive universe. It is not only the culmination point of man’s metamorphosis, it is the embodiment of the cycle of life itself. Ananda Devi, Mauritian writer and one of the major figures of Indian Ocean literatures, captures the essence of this grand paradox in the book’s preface: “Kashi gives life the better to retake it.” While man’s fate is a recurrent theme in literature highlighting socio-political or economical upheavals, Madavane on the other hand, provides a totally new perspective. To Die in Benares offers a peculiar insight into the physical nature of fate’s inexorable grip on man.

The body in the narrative

The book sets an example in aesthetic experimentation as the human body penetrates the narrative in its most unruly, unwavering and violent form. Its sensations, angst, pain and desires become palpable for the reader, owing to the connections drawn between our corporeal existence and social inequalities such as race and gender. The human body is not only a physical depository of ephemeral concepts such as memory, desire and fate; in this distinctive narrative, it is also a weapon of rebellion and dissent.

Compelling images of the female body bearing invisible traces of oppression abound in the book. In “Poongavanam or the Forest of Flowers”, the body of the nameless beggar woman, for instance, reeks of neglect, abandonment and ostracism. The women in Madavane’s stories are, however, aware of the dire need to “repossess” their bodies and do so in a bid to attain salvation; much like the docile Kamini in the titular story, who embarks on a final journey to get a hold of her own death.

It is one thing to talk of death and another to make a body vanish. The physical contact between the living and the dead in a sacred yet sinister setup pivots the stories between insanity, suspense, shock and poetic pleasure. Consider this rather unusual passage in “A Night of the New Moon”:

“Recover my skull
Or whatever is left 
Of my skull
For the milk ceremony.
And you, my son,
When you pour the milk over my bones
Make sure that you start
With my skull.”

What also stands out is Madavane’s curious experiments with form and structure: poetry, prose and dramatic writing interact playfully in the stories (in this respect, “A Nail on a Tamarind Tree” and “A Night of the New Moon” deserve special mention) while shifting time frames and varying narrative voices allow one to read each story from multiple points of view. Madavane the dramatist does not forget to give his readers a full sensual experience, and achieves this by often introducing ambient sounds and sensations.

City of destiny

The city of Benares blends in beautifully with this funereal imagery. The reader can see bodies heaped on the Ganga’s bank, feel the heat of the funeral pyres, hear the corpses crackling in the fire and smell burnt flesh from the ghats’ corpses. As the poetry of the macabre unfolds, the supernatural becomes tangible. Paranormal apparitions, premonitory dreams and mythical characters enter the narrative space, leaving the reader in a state of disbelief, fear and excitement.

Only myths can redeem the inexplicable.

Madavane explores the reality of the grip of fate on our lives. He provides a riveting image of the absurd by fusing mythical scenes – taken from Indian legends and mythologies – with narrative moments, allowing his readers to relive the most compelling mythical tragedies through his characters. Writing thus becomes synonymous with remembering.

A space for reflection on the creative process exists in each of the seven stories of To Die in Benares, like this one in “A Holy Cow in Varanasi”:

“How can memory be made to preserve the shades of an everyday life? How can the ridiculousness of a pointless encounter be replayed; how can the tragedy of a sorrowful disappointment be translated?”

Such reflective passages punctuate the book to remind us that it is not important what we remember but how we choose to remember.

The translator, Blake Smith, deserves special mention. His rendering of Madavane’s evocative images, insights and his singular narrative style, from French (with considerable Tamil inflections) into English, is admirable.

To Die in Benares, K Madavane, translated from the French by Blake Smith, PanMacmillan India.

Siba Barkataki is a UGC Post-Doctoral Research Fellow working in the field of Indian Ocean Francophone Literature. Her areas of specialisation are Indian Ocean literature, European Francophone Literature and Theatre Studies.