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TFQM - APRIL 2012


TFQM - APRIL 2012

THE FOUR QUARTERS MAGAZINE

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APRIL - AUGUST, 2012


TFQM - APRIL 2012

DISCLAIMER All opinions expressed by the authors in their work published in this issue of The Four Quarters Magazine are their own. The magazine and the publishers do not accept any responsibility for those at any time. Copyright for their respective works rests entirely with the authors. The collective rights for this issue of the magazine rest with the executive editorial team of the magazine.

PEER REVIEWERS (April issue, 2012) Ananya S. Guha Ashok Banker Marten Weber GUEST EDITOR (April issue, 2012) Nabina Das EDITORIAL BOARD Arjun Choudhuri Arjun Rajendran Asmita Boral Gargi Talapatra Shuvasish Sharma Vasundhara Chandra CORRESPONDENCE submissionsFQM@gmail.com (Submissions manager) fourquartersmagazine@gmail.com (Queries/ FAQ) WEBSITE www.fourquartersmag.com PUBLISHERS HUMMING WORDS

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Faridabad, Haryana http://www.hummingwords.in/


TFQM - APRIL 2012

EDITORIAL Nabina Das

POETRY

Adil Jussawalla, Ananya S. Guha, Anindita Sengupta, Arjun Choudhuri, Elena Botts, Francis Raven, Hemang S. Desai, Jonathon, Kevin M. Hibshman, Kyoung Ey Kim, Michael Haeflinger, Mihir Vatsa, Minal Sarosh, Nitoo Das, Prerana Choudhury, Robert Bohm, SĂŠbastien Doubinsky, Sheetal Sivaramakrishnan, Sumana Roy, Sweta Srivastava Vikram, Talicha J., Tenzin Tsundue

TRANSLATION (POETRY)

Naren Bedide

PROSE (MEMOIRS)

Debjani Sen, Samarpati Sanyal

PROSE (NON(NON-FICTION)

Sumana Roy

PROSE (FICTION) Ashok Banker, Aruni Kashyap, Janet Mason,

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Kulpreet Yadav, Nikesh Murali, Priti Aisola, Rumjhum Biswas


TFQM - APRIL 2012

EDITORIAL While I sit in front of my laptop screen and start typing out this editorial, I don’t find it frivolous at all to confess that The Four Quarters Magazine (TFQM) made its appearance to me through the social networking website Facebook. While purists may pout at that, I am comfortable in admitting that my discovery of this new journal of literature, opened up a treasure trove of new and old writers I savored, and brought me closer to some writers I already knew in the virtual world. A lot has been written in the first editorial of TFQM about the way this journal has been conceived, designed and distributed with an aim to spread literature beyond borders and boundaries and at the same time, bring it closer home. The fascinating part is, TFQM straddles both tradition and digital modernity – it maintains the rare distinction of being simultaneously a print and a “downloadable” issue. As the guest editor for this issue, I will straightaway address the wealth of reading material TFQM has brought again to our discerning readers. It was my singular privilege to go through brilliant submissions as well as solicit a few. Choices were not easy. The highlights of this issue are two writers of different genres that we are privileged to publish. And is it a coincidence that both of them permitted us to use their unpublished, under-revision work? It happens only in the happiest of fairy tales! It is a matter of great privilege for us that Adil Jussawalla, the veteran Indian poet who made a stunning comeback after 35 years with his poetry collection Trying to Say Goodbye, has very generously contributed a few poems from his unpublished manuscript for young readers. These are poems that take the flight of fancy with a lighter heart. And not just younger readers, for adult readers too, Mr. Jussawalla’s language and metaphors work like magic. In fiction, we have one of India's first crime novelists in English returning to the genre after a 20-year gap: Ashok Banker. Again, to TFQM’s great delight, Mr. Banker allowed us to have a sneak peek into the rough drafts of his forthcoming book Blood Red Sari, and use an excerpt from what he terms “a militant feminist action thriller”. This tantalizing excerpt will keep our readers thirsting for more; first of a four-part series titled The Kali Quartet, this is a story that spans continents and brings a host of female protagonists together in a crisscross to delve deeper into contemporary notions of feminism, crime thrillers, and literary insights. I must mention we have a special contribution in the Translations section for this second issue of TFQM. A few choice selections of Dalitbahujan poetry in Telugu translated into English by Naren Bedide certainly adds a refined perspective to our presentation. A body of literature that proliferates notwithstanding the mainstream’s own sluggish pace and, at times, the latter’s refusal to heed “other” voices, this translation selection should encourage all poetry-lovers to think poetry as resistance to both language and social “reality”.

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Nabina Das Hyderabad, March 2012

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I thank the TFQM editorial committee for standing by me through the selection and editing process, and express my gratitude to the peer review committee, whose able guidance helped me shine the diamond better. Arjun Choudhuri as the main instigator among The Four Quarters Magazine’s editors earns my deep appreciation. I hope the pleasure that I derived in steering the journal will reflect in our readers’ satisfaction in savoring the creative fare.


TFQM - APRIL 2012

POETRY

ADIL JUSSAWALLA

Thoughts of an EightEight-YearYear-Old Girl I wish the Great Indian Family like the Great Indian Bustard were nearly extinct. But it isn't. Its Great Wings flap over my food at table, and me who eats like a mouse. I wish a Great Arab would kill me. Better still, I wish a Great Arab would kill my Great Indian Family as he does (despite the laws) the Great Indian Bustard. Visiting Relatives The Limca's tepid, the servants stare, my mother keeps blowing her nose. , Enter uncle and uncle, wingless and blind for lack of sunlight. They go bzz bzz against curtains, against portraits, against mirrors.

How do they do it?

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while a ceiling fan whirs bzz bzz bzz bzz above them.

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bzz bzz


TFQM - APRIL 2012

Imagination It's a glass of rum, a noose, a fuel that burns the rags round wounded heads. It's a history, a planet's precipitate. Call it the great ship Liberty, men, women and children, women and children first.

NOTE: These poems are from an unpublished manuscript called The Right Kind of Dog, poems for younger readers (between the ages of eight and eighteen).

ANANYA S. GUHA

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In the night there happens things that are unearthly. I only hear barking, and clamour of outside. Inside there is a rhetoric of meanings, words tumble out of alleys. Winds play havoc on swindling trees. The grass grows by inch. The morning sun will awake to this night's stupor. The night narrates stories of hovels. Burnt out, it offers mercy in slums. Pot bellied. Are they children or adults. Winter is not nightmarish. Nights are, days of reckoning. The roads take us to Syria where something happens, bombarded out of sleep nations make catcalls. Actually nothing happens, except that the meandering river is red. I ruminate on night's imponderables.

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Night


TFQM - APRIL 2012

How is it like in Egypt or Syria? Is it the same night which darkens ghostly apparitions? Is it the same night which with comforting arms, sidles close, for nocturnal dreams? The night is a forest. I walk its thicket of jungles. Windows In this winter I simply sat and stared at windows misty, they said : more than the cold is dangerous the wind. More than the wind are the skies. More than the skies is the water. More than water are mountains. More than mountains are the dust. More than dust is the noise drumming inside. More than the noise are people. More than people are countries. More than countries are leaders.

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Why? I asked tremulously. Because the wind replied, They all die, leaving emptiness of spaces. So wipe tears... And you will understand that a rainbow coloured deer lives in myths. Hold hands of a stranger and Love will forbid. Do not lament, weep in salty tears. Saying this, the windows shut.


TFQM - APRIL 2012

Possibilities Possibilities must blow across the land. Winter must end, and street cars will get respite of the fog. Mists will unfurl spasmodically. Winter will saunter. Clammy hands will hold. Belonging. The wind will fly masts overhead. You and I we know. In this knowing winter will evoke last thunder of a waning cold. Soon schools will re-open. Soon little children will clap hands adding to the onrush ( of traffic). You and I will go. Will go, to that nether land not where mermaids haunt but outlandish possibilities, of love.

ANINDITA SENGUPTA SENGUPTA

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Fashion it rough, rounded by human hands. The swill of tea will pale its glaze in small doses like a child sucks colour from an ice lolly. Embrace this. Fading is a form of art. Think of diving, how sound recedes until breath buds in each ear like a formed being or post-orgasmic ebb, the hushed descent from whiteness to world, wide flood tides ceding to car honk, the low of a cow, a cry. Love your creation, but not like a child. When you let go, it may crack. Or you may. More like a lover who comes and goes in the night. Lightly. Trusting it to the universe.

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How to Make a Cup


TFQM - APRIL 2012

Grihapravesh

(after Dancing on Glass, 2010) In the city of revolving doors, he begins to swing on your own hinges, cyclic and unceasing. His voice tins with neon, mobile phones ringing, pleasesir, doyouhave a minute? And the shop-soiled gold of mid-day sleep. The walls are swathed with mould. The windows allow no light. Sometimes he wakes to potholed streets, raucous gospel from the nearby church. Fists of smoke rise from garbage dumps and curl round his wrists like cuffs. Sometimes he walks past pots, baskets, cane twisted into lingering shapes. The ways in are also the ways out. The displeased afternoon draws itself in like a child pulling up knees. Faces in the mirror replace his own. He plugs his ears against paeans of escape. He stumbles into evening on prayers of rain.

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so foul they shuffle miles to the next tap. Sounds of water slap over our house. In the balcony, an owl sunned, folds wings. We fold lists—cell phone, fridge, car, the next bandage on frantic hearts. Fingernails scratch at glass. Give me a meal without voices at my ear. Give me a deal. Give me 6 am at Cant: a dog snuffles the rails, a woman sleeps, her face an uncovered bowl buzzing. A whole tepid, torpid ocean rises in my mouth. I leave for snowfall and daffodils. I return with hair fall and a body that breaks into snowflakes. Familiar sky licks rain into my ears, licks children into the sea, licks a schism through the centre of this world. Fold them into silt, eyes flat and grey as the horizon. It’s too early for this conversation. It’s too early for stories. It’s too early for winter too but rain sputters to cold. Families line up on the highway, faces white in the headlights of passing cars, pixilated, dissolving under my finger. We thumb keys, stutter into Facebook. The ocean is a bull, humming. Like Thelonious. Like Goa. If packets of food fell from the sky, would I grab yours? A woman squats outside her hut, counts the children she’s buried. Twelve. The ocean heaves in under our doors, brine, salt and mud.

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The Smell of Water


TFQM - APRIL 2012

ARJUN CHOUDHURI On Reading Piers Pasolini’s “Mi Contenti” Contenti” In the smoothing of this Sunday night I'm not sad just because I am not asleep beneath the showering moonlight.

(Is this all that there is? Absolute randomness as one sees, resolute in both attendance and fear?) I am sad because my heart is not fair my eyes do not reflect the stare of the damned and in my hair clench these my two hands.

(And this is what fear is? The fear of the tear that flows like a river is due to this?) Young man, I'm sad, yes, with my shared sorrow of a Sunday night, I'm sad with this darkening light I'm sad, but I'm yet to know if I am alive.

(Nothing more exists in the fine line of democratic vision that this night paints and draws into me.) I am not used to the loneliness of Sunday night. BoneBone-house When shall we go home? The silence is the answer the answer that does not wait, the answer that never comes.

of palm and becoming.

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The answer flies around in a cycle of water and sound, never living the warmth

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When shall we go home?


TFQM - APRIL 2012

All that is there to see and all that is there to be is all that is there to see and all that is there to be. So many words left unsaid. So many days spent in the dark. So many memories caged now. So many days to spend in hand. What shall we do, then? Forget? Or forgive? Or as they all do, simply live? Red Ontogeny 1. Imagine this bed as a lotus in red, and the heat of it the pistils thereof. Your limbs and mine, four and four nine. Since together we breed a new arithmetic. Of red and inert pain, this lotus bears main, petals like your hair wafting in the air stuffy and puffy with erect exertions.

Imagine so soft

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imagine, imagine as the pollen strikes you with me imprinted all over like glue.

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Imagine this lotus forgetfulness joy liberated valour and your own coy,


TFQM - APRIL 2012

the lotus of the lot of love and favour guilty like prayer. Steep world this, stiff panegyric, and stiff like the lord who dangles above us, with rood and iron, or catholic fuss. Imagine my love that drips like oil, steady, unflinching, from a vial to a lamp. And steady like the flame you hold in your name, your name unknown to all who have grown tired of me, my precious, my little known gracious. Let them wonder in raining blunder, and wonder how I walk the line or the curve, and wonder how it is in our world of bliss, our world of joys and lotus-eating toys. Imagine, imagine and wait till the dark when all things curious will at our loving hark.

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Drink as you will of my supple swill, and now let me turn you as you burn

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Imagine this bed, waiting so red, pulsing and beating, my vampire heart!


TFQM - APRIL 2012

like the swinging of a censer in a church lonely built. 2. There was this flower that grew in shower and storm. There ended the norm of spring and bower or lonely tower. With all the blossoming it took to make it sing, the blossom of the hour drew blood from our veins, and from there, that membered air, the dismemberment of all the firmament began, and hence was this our spring born of this our king, this our flower, offence drowning every petal, those colours of metal, in a bath of ornery white. And that was a sight! White covering steel. Steel made of white.

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Petals soft as members of a class of flowery embers.


TFQM - APRIL 2012

ELENA BOTTS Lingering the vehicles burn through the night the air smells of condensation at three, dawn is not apparent at four, the world conjectures, rises, is lifted by the stars at five, the world lives in the cool-blue backwaters from which the humming exhaust-exhaling vehicles burn through the night maybe dawn is not apparent but it is held waiting in the hued peaches dreaming on the trees the floodwaters when they surged forth and twisted the roots dislodged the rocks washed wide the streambeds tunneled through the dirt rearranged the world the impact still spreads the spirit lingers in the heavy brass date hung upon the wall for each thing is represented in all places as through unique interactions all things are connected and expressed uniquely and infinitely

FRANCIS RAVEN

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behind the page, awfully ready folded incompletely, but still don’t you remember that day

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Origami


TFQM - APRIL 2012

we used to fold those so carefully seen behind that screen? Your silhouette gender ready, inclined, so relax this let out the seams so we could, this aerodynamic guess it’s true, how paper ages yellows, I’m sure you’d do the same for me, narrowed into what could be said behind another word said by another not even your fold to begin with at least you’re cute enough to attempt a finish, neatly no grubby hands to ache against a crane but a harsh move will crush or decide to leave, a final finish in decision what to take against new spaces what we buy is the way we live behind another’s fold, in supposed closure of another’s word.

HEMANG S. DESAI The Last of the Molars

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Father said it gives maximum trouble, teething and unteething Due to its basic problem with roots It doesn’t easily strike nor extirpate Which summed it all for my generation In ripped jeans and starched khaddar Who with a toehold on the last step of public transport buses Dreamt of taking Silicon Valley in stride

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Of pretty many things That got pretty much late in my life The latest is the last of the molars, the seat of wisdom The peek-out moon in mouthful of sky Swallowed again and again As if in a hermeneutic circle By the severed head of Rahu As soon as she is spawned out of his neck


TFQM - APRIL 2012

Who experimented with personal truths Through proxy servers and social networking sites And came like practical conclusions to unproved theorems Out of universities that peddled wares in second’s bazaar Like a scaredy cat in queue to springboard It forwent its turn for the one behind Until I’m past a decade and a half’s wait for pain Stuck out like a milky miniscule ulcer It enjoys the orgasmic laps of my well-meaning tongue Which sincerely hopes it’ll grow up to be a straight But even if it turns deviant And breaks through my cheek to be a colossal tusk Would it be burly enough to rescue The earth from the bottom of cosmic sea Or out of its cheap ivory Would be carved out yet another porcupine Of self-doubts. Antigen

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impeccable rows of ants scuttling on the mirror-polish of white might bite queasy eyes until a gutsy on a dusty eve flies in your face as you peep into deeps of side mirror it opens its cosmic mouth confusing time splintering space crumbling mounts ripping surface chained trees converted flowers tadipaar-ed birds of midget desires slashed left hands posted on crossroads and you in a fairy-tale village pouring shit overhead washing your sovereign right to place

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ants unearth the flipside of glossy glorious marble floors hollow core of dark in sand’s heart impossible to be blocked with sweetened liquid cement dash of dry turmeric darning needle with dazzling shaft of light impossible just as it was to gag athletic orifice of my vanishing granny paralytic amnesiac and leaking family secrets, racy scandals and stories of origin of anavil brahmins weaving ingenious web of intrigue sewed us together and tore us apart


TFQM - APRIL 2012

or gang-raped by her teachers your daughter’s frozen face ants don’t keep an account of high investment of sleep made in the equity of death nor are they sucker for sugar cubes lemon juice stray piss sea of ants rise in a full-moon tide sting you sharp under your foreskin salinate the holy river of sweet dreams unruly companies of ants of no-moon night stomp landmines under memory carpet pose a question mark to your thumb impression an exclamation to bated breaths a comma when you flop on the back of a bus ticket wounded exhausted epiphanic

JONATHON Water Strung And on that vast and holy day Where sun was fallen through the sky In water strung our conscience lies And water strung our histories. The calcium of past defeats Shall sprout a hollow in the stone Blood and tears in amber pockets The places where we shed our ground.

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The thread is long and pure and strong And if we met our ancestors They would smooth our rounded skulls And kiss the stalks of our fingers.

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Commencing with an errant word The world began by pointed stars Before our footprints cooled in ash In water strung our DNA.


TFQM - APRIL 2012

Then at the tribal founding fire Would tell us stories with their hands Would crouch like panthers on the haunch Then sleep like angels in the womb. The Sheet Music Rain could I have simply seemed upon my own existence the way a shepherd happens on the scrolls or sunshine sprays an only child laughing in a waterfall of light. when I was sapling young a world lay at my tiny feet I played in the sheet music rain and climbed the elephant sky loving in an emblem of words. and then I ran my native seed chasing old confusion ‘til the dawn and spent it dumbly on the wind I met her in the morning lie a captured heart and wounded shell. time finely cracked my carapace in soothing tones so ever clear and now I live beneath the cloud where all the data seems to go the crystal in my breathing head.

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I looked right through the internet this vast archival scroll of memes and wondered where the fun had gone that sprayed her sunshine on our souls and waited for the birth of sleep.


TFQM - APRIL 2012

KEVIN KEVIN M. HIBSHMAN Hijra

(Inspired by A. Revathi's book: The Truth about Me) Am I not woman? You see my sari, my jewels, the ring in my nose. Tonight at the temple I will dance. My eyes will smile. Years of brutality I cast off like a scarlet veil to the wind. My goddess has given me a hard road but I walk on hot stones, barefoot with the men calling insults from every angle, my head unveiled and held high. I will not deny them blessing even as they deprive me of hope. I am Revathi. Doraisamy died years ago. Do not deny me those ashes. I wept as he melted in the flames. I am woman and have payed my guru accordingly. Do not mock me at the vegetable market. I have done nirvaanam, paid penance for the betrayal that is my flesh. I shuffle through the mean streets of Bangalore and am abused in tiny rooms by your fathers and brothers. I fear nothing. The goddess has given me wings and I shall lift myself above and beyond all hurt and disappointment. Tonight I sing at the temple and beauty is truly mine. Careful Careful with the Sea The boy was enthralled He surfaced too far from shore A siren claimed him

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The sea is female Unpredictable yet wise Source of life she is

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Tossing lyrical She is full of deception Sucking undertow


TFQM - APRIL 2012

Further Note on Time Venusian tea room. The air thick with blooming colors as if we were sitting inside a lava lamp. Words wait. Upon being seated in very forgiving chairs, We mutely appraise the mind-weaving atmospherenot taken by absorbent thought-sponge but emanating sympatico. Our own artifact selves gifting the arena with near-perfect and pulsating presence. A tryst with time? THIS time IS time for ALL time. The ALL and ONLY time. The combustible, laughingly-pertinent, ever-lustful, know-able NOW. Heavy air presses the ceiling down on me. The mirror MOVES, It does. It vibrates. I see it as portal between dimensions. I lie back and it shimmies, shines, dingle-dangle dances. It does. Nothing makes sense like it's supposed to. I wish you all would keep to your cages. Wm. does something TO time. Is he magician? He bends but mostly slows it to his whim. He almost exists outside of time's mindful restrictions. He makes time jealous. He seems to have made peace with the idea it has of itself. It is only a shrine he visits semi-regularly. 10th Anniversary Poem for William I was there when your father died. Christmas Eve and the snow turning to slush. Sad to have never met him although I sense his presence in you.

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Remember that scorching summer afternoon on some errand deemed necessary? It was stifling heat and hard to breathe by the roadside waiting for the bus. I would have sold my soul to Satan for a sliver of shade.

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I was with you when your mother passed. Lying in state looking like the angel she was in life. So lovely I cried and cried.


TFQM - APRIL 2012

You were with me when my spirit broke. Sobbing in the bathroom and chain-smoking. I felt rejection pierce my skin like the tip of a poisoned arrow. Venom racing to stop my heart. You stayed beside me when the others left to pursue misadventures of every persuasion. They too were seekers who never knew to search my depths for kinship and a clue. We held together through earthquake weather, all the living and dying of what now seems like a blessed lifetime lived in a coveted inner sanctum. A love cocoon we somehow spun out of spurious fibers.

KYOUNG EY KIM The Shepherd's Reply to the Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd Both Philomel and love grow old; Every word is too hard to hold; But love grows strong despite all time, And thee dear nymph are still my prime. Time will once again pass to bring, The new flock to rest down in spring; The sun will calm down the rivers, The rocks will not rest in shivers. I will pull fine wool every year, With thee beside me as my peer; My old tongue, my overused heart, Is always here to never part.

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That is how I prove to thee, Old and not young as I might be. Like wine that ages every year, Fine dress from best wears just as fair.

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My gowns, my scoh, my petunia, My henin, midi, althea, Are still there only much older, Growing again with fresh odor.


TFQM - APRIL 2012

Maybe my candor did not reach, the first time amidst my keen speech; But my love is now here to prove, Come live with me and be my love.

MICHAEL HAEFLINGER The Woman Who Talks To Horses the woman who talks to horses says she can talk to birds mostly penned in the yard who spread their feathers brightly for criminals just before they get beheaded and the man who hang the ropes across the fire to dry nods in the rocking chair he moved here for the women until his hair thinned and stayed for the sea air Going Away Party her smile is a bag of lightning bugs on a bedside table

tonight she watches coals in the grill go

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but tonight her laugh is an open bottle of tequila

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tomorrow she goes home where the chamber of commerce welcomes visitors at the city gate with stacks of dead bodies


TFQM - APRIL 2012

from white to red to white to red Spring Day smell of cooling chickpeas, something real including being tethered to the machine stealing other people’s ideas taking advantage of days like today rather than hiding cursing the air and how it smells before rain turn off the stove and go to the park before they lock the gates again when you get back chickpeas swimming in cumin and basil lukewarm shedding skins like winter coats.

MIHIR VATSA Outsiders in a Metropolis There was no sleep in their eyes tonight. Some limbs lay tangled with shivering legs, clutching the corner of a filthy blanketremains of that aging wool. Bleeding cracks on their numb faces drew atlas of the state they travelled from.

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They drive rickshaws in Delhi, and live under flyovers,

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(These are the people who lost their lands in the flood of Bihar.


TFQM - APRIL 2012

among shit eating dogs and flies.) A Thin Yellow Sari A thin yellow sari, wrapped over a red petticoat, bakes the Christmas cake, arranges steel plates in the living room, serves tea scented with the sweat of Darjeeling- never visited, never seen, but felt the touch in ‘89, inside the red petticoat hiding under a thin yellow sari.

MINAL SAROSH Skin Isn’t skin like patience, growing till it can grow no more? And then, wrinkling back, is impatient again, like a child. And, this always reminds me of grandfather, rocking edgily, back and forth,

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shrinking in his chair, on the wrinkled verandah, sinking with the flawless orange of the mocking sun.

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between me and my father,


TFQM - APRIL 2012

Skull Anger is a bony skull, with no eyes to see reason, nor a nose to smell the cinders of ego. Alas! We don’t even have ears to take back the words. Spectacles And when will you stop using a lie, so constantly, as spectacles? It’s just distorting your face. Leaving the pure vision of truth with sunken eyes, charcoal lined, completely unrecognizable, within its myopic frame!

Haiku 1. passing moments… till you think of clouds the sky seems still 2.

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silent crows a row on the parapet wordless strangers


TFQM - APRIL 2012

NITOO DAS Ladakh Travelogue I What Phunchok said Thrice we asked his name. Thrice hat-disguised, he muttered nothing. And we called him nothing. Namelessly, we wheeled through monologues. We bleached worlds and touched no-breath stops. Dandelion snow, swift mustard: he uncovered all. Magician without smiles, he saw all. Even my tears mirrored in his eyes and Buddha beneath the birch. Meditative like water, his navigator genes syncopated the sky. Much later, we knew his name and gave him money for his gifts. And Phunchok still said nothing. II

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Their yellow beaks are disclosures. Stains of swift colour on birds as black as my closest thoughts. I cannot look away from them. I overlook the Buddha. He waits for me as I climb stairs, pass monks, spin by wheels

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Lamayuru Choughs


TFQM - APRIL 2012

to follow their shadows on walls. Acrobats all, they blacken the sky and call me onward. Comecomecome they say and loop all around me--black with dots of yellow, so black they troop blind. Their beaks copy lunar land. Their bodies copy the Buddha’s flight. Do you gossip with Him? I ask them. They look nowhere and everywhere and say: We painted our beaks to please Him. Don’t tell anyone, especially not Him. Then they sweee-ooosweee-ooo-ed me away and pointed their yellow beaks towards Him. III Khardung La My breath squats somewhere near me. A quick flap of a red flag signals loss at all caesurae. A road with the width of life seizes me by my throat, pulls my lungs out, jerks inside my mouth and spills me into the sky. Erase my fears, Buddha: I scream. But in all that white, my whisper is speckled with fiction.

Spiralling upwards towards static snow, icicles like spears,

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higher.

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I can only scrape away the skin of my arm as I scale higher and higher and


TFQM - APRIL 2012

a jumble of wind and horror, I desire fireflies, grass, the sanctity of earth without white. IV Rocks near Pangong Tso A stack of slate by the lake reveals a staging. Screening secrets of deft hands like birds pecking at their sorrows, the rocks show contours gauged against blue. They sculpt a pause of choosing, picking, carrying, posing. A totemic accuracy angled and weighed without shake or tear. Gently curated from the base upwards to construct a stoic step of ten. Someone had judged the mountains and duplicated them.

PRERANA CHOUDHURY

Pastiche It is an island here with a strange tune playing. They sleep on wooden cots by night, the little children who look like variegated dwarfs, wearing onesleeved black motleys. By day they rush to the cliff and fly like flamingos. They fill the sky like ink thrown between the pages of a book with thread. They smell of disaster, of unborn nausea, yet why do they dance the club with a promise?

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You can drink that. That’s all that shall keep you going here.

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Here, the rules flow in diagonals. Carved out arrows shoot out into soft barks of tender apple trees. When the smell pervades, someone drops by in sly and leaves behind a flask of warm syrup.


TFQM - APRIL 2012

I Talk to the Willows of WallabyWallaby-Roo I begin with a talk And I shall end with a nod to the strings Of your walking shoe In a flip-flop way, we do knick-knackers Atop a zoomba drum, atop your corned sole There’s a puckered melody when I pretend the skies are green Green, a pruning green, the green of an English garden But I want that dusty, out-of-sorts mud to plod my sunken ways Toenails sticking out they have edges like cyclone You could cycle, let us sleep tonight in the forest Morning cometh, shall you wake me up on a stream? I shall talk and you will sing.

ROBERT BOHM

Dogs at the Threshold - A Sequence

For my brother-in-law, Anand "Dada" Kirloskar, 1930-2010. In honor of death

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Although omnipotent, its body is weak. I notice how it pushes forward, wobbling as it goes, miraculously draining life from everything it sees.

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I lift up cancer by the armpits, turn it toward its walker, smile.


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Each day is the same. After turning it toward the walker, I place its hands on the rails. Once this is done, it pushes forward slowly & keeps going, on and on. At night, seated at a table, it eats. Curry gravy dribbles from its mouth. After it falls asleep in its chair, we maneuver it into bed. Look how it rests so peacefully in spite of its arduous life. In the morning I lift up cancer by the armpits. It's going on a journey, we must see it off. Amazed By Its Power to Outlive Our Grief

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I study it, how wrinkled & with hair in its nostrils, it grins all the way to the front doorway where it stops, gazing out at gulmohar & eucalyptus. Even death loves life, especially the art of taking in a scene & bidding it goodbye. But it's not going yet. It can't resist preening a little more for the camera. It's still daylight, after all. Nothing to worry about now, though, no need to expend more energy, to cook something for later. The bits of food between its teeth will be meal enough for it tonight. After that, it almost will be over, given how the body takes to fading away like a falcon takes to flying.


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So Many Comings & Goings 1 Outside the window, a sun-baked melon rind, like a thought whose meaning has dried up, hangs from barbed wire. Vimal placed it there days ago when it still had fruit on it, something for the birds to peck at, as, in fairytales, they peck out stepsisters' eyes blinding the girls for the rest of their lives. 2 At 7 a.m., revving his engine on the other side of the bathroom wall, a motorcyclist cuts across the field. Later, the buttered bhakari tastes good with my morning coffee. Everything is different now. Someone is dying. Perched on the crab apple branch, the drongo's a day older. 3 To the southeast Karnataka's new commando force hunts guerillas near Nandagudi.

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Like chemotherapy drugs in search of whatever kills the will to live, the guerillas are merciless, weakening the whole state in order to flush out death, then gun it down wherever they find it.

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The guerillas, meanwhile, migrate in & out of jungle hiding areas, boldly invading more districts each day.


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4 So many geographies, so many maps. Who was Vasco de Gama? Who Lord Cornwall? Who my father? None of them ever found me. Yet here I am in plain sight. Only my brother-in-law took the time to hunt me down & identify my addiction to dressing up the truth in clothing that revealed what was between its legs. He called it "Sexing whatever haunts us." He also had his own story to tell, about once drunkenly finding falsies under a crossdresser's blouse in a Munich beer hall in a corner too dark to be illuminated by Vedanta philosophy. "This" he explained to the other customers "is what maya is all about, the confusion between one thing & another!" No one knew what he meant. Or cared. Over the years, in spite of our differences, it was clear we were similar in this: disenchanted with us or not, our small audiences faithfully attended our performances, sitting rigidly in their seats, waiting in dread of what would happen after we stirred the pot & got things going. From The Kitchen & Out The Front Door

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I've visited such locations, know how centipedes feed on spiders there, how silverfish gorge on mold. Meanwhile random other insects swarm

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Like fingers scraping furrows in the earth for planting bean or cauliflower seeds, I insert my hands in his armpits, feeling my way into what's there, his t-shirt wet with sweat & acrid enough to please the kinds of creatures that breed in damp cellars & places where wood rots.


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around them in the dark, crawling over each other like ideas in a mind with no notion of how to control what it thinks. Such places teem with life & hidden order. When Dada and I finally make it through the front door into the dirt yard, we inch forward, the walker clanking stones, the morning-glories gone for the day, and him, no matter how slowly we proceed, refusing to stop until he gets to the front gate from where he can see (better, he believes, than from anywhere else) roads that remind him of how he got here all those years ago. But why he came, that's the question which bothers him. His eyes fill with tears.

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After kicking gift horses in the mouth for over 60 years, Dada yells now for more pain killers, then when his sister gets them berates her for bringing too few. Her face tightens as she looks to the side. Sensing he's gone too far, he stares at her, using his best weapon: an impish grin. But she's bored now, everyone is, no one's charmed by him anymore, not like, in the stories he still tells, the German girls whose panties he removed years ago while Bessie Smith sang scratchily on a record player in the background. Not one knew then about the booming factory he'd inherit in the future. Now you can't leave the house without seeing it to the left of the front door, all the machines gone, the roof caved in, the power boxes connected to nothing.

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The Presence


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Dogs At The Threshold In his chair, barely awake, he says "I remember snow. The white flakes at night were nice the way they fell on the Isar" then changes the subject "The Shiv Sena is right. Belgaum should be in Maharashtra, not Karnataka." Now he's quiet, cocking his head just a little as if listening to something only he can hear, maybe the silence's hum, bluesier than a shenai player's improvisation in a wedding song. It's past 9:30 & dark. The dogs have been yelping for more than 5 minutes now. He's asleep. His wife Kunda goes to the screen door, stands, looks out while the dogs continue barking. A few minutes later, with Kunda still at the door, staring into the dark, the dogs quiet down, the silence suddenly stretching further than thought can reach. Any Sign Will Do

Where is he? A minute ago he was here.

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Unlike hers, his slenderness is almost saintly, thinner even than a morning-glory stem, so thin that if he were a border the 2 sides it divides wouldn't be divided, but united, one.

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His shoulders, slender now. Like Sulochana's when she was young. Slight as a flower stem then, she shivered in a breeze on the border between one place & another.


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No one can find him. What time is it? What day? I go out the gate, up the path, through the village. Sulochana is nowhere to be seen, she's still teaching at the school. The last time I saw her, I couldn't take my eyes off her large hands. Poetic Will

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He meets death the same way he reads the newspaper each morning, flinging lucid barbs this way & that. Looking up from one more omelet he can't stomach, he gazes through the back window at fieldstones catching fire in the day's new light. Like old milling gear & drill presses sold as scrap metal, one idea after another rattles around on the back of a disappearing truck. "I'm the one dying, so I'm the one in charge," his body-language says defensively. He believes it, so much so that for longer than anyone thinks possible he keeps disappearance's pain at bay. If he has to, he swears, he'll prove the world's a pebble stuck in buffalo shit at the bottom of the pond up the hill, anything to make the know-it-alls grab their stomachs & puke on their sandals. Even after the pyre's lit, he burns slowly just to show the spectators who's boss.


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SÉBASTIEN DOUBINSKY Spontaneous Combustions: 5 NonNon-Haikus 1. drizzle drizzle drizzle taking the kids to school head empty of all thoughts -fatherhood 2. a bird flies into a cloud -I disappear 3. what we think we remember: a book a film a kiss a girl a boy what we actually remember: ourselves remembering 4. to stutter is to become langua ge 5.

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flash-floods in the night - 20 000 lightenings but no illumination


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SHEETAL SIVARAMAKRISHNAN The Washerwomen Each day by noon they passed By my house to theirs in the mountains Bundles of lives washed and dried Heaving them on their firm hips Stains of sin and soil all cleaned up. Women of honest kind Encased in white mundus and colourful blouses Their breasts, quite square and shapeless A sweaty treasure trove. Bits of money and little treats. The love of their slaving heart a greedy wolf, I waited everyday to smell the sun in their clothes And the little orange lozenges they brought A love of clean kind.

SUMANA ROY Anger

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Anger is her surfeit: Anger is deposition, a nail-scoured tombstone on a rain-sewn cemetery. Her ear’s a war wound ripening cave,

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Anger is his loss: Anger is middle, a sandpaper door between navel-deep edges. His tongue’s a holy book-slitting oar, splashing madness. He spits out blister-seeds. He is fire-hawker, lava-gardener, in the end, scraped-knee monk. Anger ends, as it began, like a surprise.


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nesting stalagmites. She collects wet paper kites. She is retreating-snail, love-bombed spider, in the end, Egyptian queen. Anger begins, as it will end, like an excuse. Lunch Lunch is a walking stick that carries the broad-leaved day. It is superstition. "It's one already!" Her voice's an empty ceremony. Lunch is school uniform that has lost its spiny starch. Every stanza's a dull refrain. "It's getting cold!" Her voice's grown a stubble. Lunch is a salt painting that has become a fresco. It’s a duet about a lantern. “It’s too bland!” Her voice’s a winter window. Lunch is a firewood breath that they take twice. It’s a geography of waste. “It’s sour-sweet!” Her voice’s dew on stone.

SWETA SRIVASTAVA VIKRAM

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For those affected by the India-Pakistan partition of 1947 and the rest of us, who continue to be impacted due to the ongoing political unrest.

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One nation


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I did not bury bags of bones and memories of unborn desires sixty years ago, I get it. Villages of flesh and smiles became orphans at borders, humans murdered by their own as myna raped little worms, I am told. We all jumped in the well, solidarity fought the black night. Religion lived in music, not on branches of brain, I have read. Today, the river of hate floods our ancestral homes, years ago we drank promises of non-violence from it, I can’t comprehend. How much is too much loss? How many birds must lose feathers before the soil feels satiated? I ask. I hope we kill our differences – make a nation of us from the nation of me and the nation of you like we were before.

How do you define desire?

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A bleeding pen, narrating the color of the night, hoping horses would stray into the pages and birth words: round, flat, tart, romantic—anything to save the page from barrenness.

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A ladybug caught— between the net and the glass, trying to spread its wings with every little ounce of red in its being, even after the harsh rays of reality trap it in a parallel world.


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A child imagines tasting cups of sweetness though the tip of her tongue is a slave to the scar— a reminder her life is filled with shadows of the days she won’t see—when doves will swim and the sky will burst into flames.

Ancestral request The clairvoyant smelled spirit through shells and stones occupying her hands of sixty plus years. Her eyes, like unexpressed kisses fluttering inside a lover’s heart, traveled a distance that could be measured only by a sailor trusting the moonless sky. I watched her with glasses of skepticism as she let out a smile and then a sigh sweet as the nectar of immortality and suddenly started uttering: “I see an old man. He wants you to never stop dancing.” I didn’t blink at her vagueness, and she fell into a hole of silence before rivers of my past bled out of her mouth and described my paternal grandfather: handsome like dark honey, sweet like the perfume of youth. She didn’t hold herself back—revealing chapters stored inside my jar of history that no one had heard, she stole the key to my lips and opened doors to my tears hidden inside chambers of loss.

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I believed nothing mattered to the dead, but was I wrong? Maybe I have come into the world to carry on the desires of my ancestors. That’s what the clairvoyant said.


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TALICHA J. America I hear they say America is land of the free Home of the braveBut I’m not brave enough to believe I’m free. They’ve just exchanged the ropes once used as nooses For gag orders tied around tongues. Advertise freedom of speech, Televise equality, yet Fail to follow through. Here in America , they will chew you up, Spit you out because they can. Correction, because YES WE CAN! Our roads may be paved but it makes no difference Since our hearts are gravel. We expect privilege, Assume platinum spoons in mouths are our birth rights And equate self worth by the digits in bank accounts. Oh sweet land of liberty, We weren’t grateful for a land so fair and Now your alabaster cities have been dimmed by human tears.

You’ve been a brutal teacher, America. Never grading on the curve

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America , I’ve heard you say you’ll leave no man left behind And in a sense you haven’t. Instead you’ve placed them before yourself… When levees break When quaked earth breaks When taxes don’t take breaks You’ve kept your word. Tear down bridges to little boys’ hearts So the journey to manhood is a battle. Set fire to little girls self esteem So every time they look into mirrors All they see is scars.

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As a nation we are not humane, Not to our fullest potential Show more respect to our pets than our peers Place more value on ornate material than it’s worth. And it has all been said before but, It seems as though it has yet to be heard.


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No extra credit for over achievers Only the cheaters really succeed. If the world placed a magnifying glass Up against the American flag Would they be able to see How faded the hearts within the fifty stars have become? Would they be able to tell that your broad stripes Could never be regarded With the same assurance of safety Broad shoulders provide? Tell me, that dream of yours, Was it always designed just to be a dream? A false hope of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, Because most of your people have been trapped In an American nightmare With no dream catchers to capture The pain, failure and defeat you’ve implanted in our sleep. America , your beauty quickly turned into conceit Likening you to that mean girl in high school that People only respect out of fear, You sicken me sometimes. Then I remember, it’s because of what I’ve done, What we’ve done as a nation That’s molded you into your current state. Yet we don’t take responsibility Instead we place all our hopes and dreams Into a new man every four maybe eight years And judge, blame and prosecute them Within the courts of our hearts.

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America , do your children disappoint you, The same way most of us claim to be Disappointed by you? I hear they say you’re land of the free Home of the brave, But I’m not brave enough to believe I’m free Because every right you’ve given I’ve relinquished All for the sake of saying I’m free.


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TENZIN TSUNDUE Horizon From home you have reached the Horizon here. from here to another here you go. From there to the next next to the next horizon to horizon every step is a horizon. Count the steps and keep the number. Pick the white pebbles and the funny strange leaves. mark the curves and cliffs around for you may need to come home again. Refugee When I was born My mother said you are a refugee. your tent on the roadside smoked in the snow. On your forehead between your eyebrows there is an R embossed my teacher said.

I am born refugee. I have three tongues, The one that sings is my mother tongue.

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The R on my forehead

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I scrubbed and scrubbed, on my forehead I found a brash of red pain.


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between my English and Hindi the Tibetan tongue reads: RANGZEN

Freedom means Rangzen

spacespace-bar A PROPOSAL pull your ceiling half-way down and you can create a mezzanine for me your walls open into cupboards is there an empty shelf for me let me grow in your garden with your roses and prickly pears i'll sleep under your bed and watch TV in the mirror do you have an ear on your balcony i am singing from your window open your door let me in i am resting at your doorstep call me when you are awake

EXILE HOUSE

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Changmas – a tree usually planted for fences; flexible and flourishing.

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We grew papayas in front of our house chillies in our garden and changmas1 for our fences, then pumpkins rolled down the cowshed thatch

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Our tiled roof dripped and the four walls threatened to fall apart but we were to go home soon,


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calves trotted out of the manger, grass on the roof, beans sprouted and climbed the vines, money plants crept in through the window, our house seems to have grown roots. The fences have grown into a jungle, now how can I tell my children where we came from?

TRANSLATION

TELUGU POETRY: TRANSLATIONS BY NAREN BEDIDE

NOTE: The selections here have been collated from a series of translations of Dalibahujan poetry in Telugu at the literary platform “The Shared Mirror� (http://roundtableindia.co.in/lit-blogs/).

For a Fistful of Self Respect (Kalekuri Prasad's Telugu poem 'piDikeDu aatmagauravam kOsam'; from the collection 'daLita kavitvam- 2'.)

I don't know when I was born but I was killed on this very land thousands of years ago

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I don't know the karma theory but I am taking birth, again and again, in the same place where I had died My body dissolved in this land And became the Ganga Sindh plain When my eyeballs melted as tears Perennial rivers flowed across this country When my veins spurted minerals This land became green and showered wealth

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punarapi jananam punarapi maranam


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I was Shambhuka in the Treta Yuga Twenty two years ago, my name was Kanchikacherla Kotesu My place of birth is Kilvenmani, Karamchedu, Neerukonda Now Chunduru is the name that cold-blooded feudal brutality Has tattooed on my heart with ploughshares From now on, Chunduru is not a noun but a pronoun Now every heart is a Chunduru, a burning tumour I am the wound of multitudes, the multitude of wounds For generations, an unfree individual in a free country Having been the target Of humiliations, atrocities, rapes and torture I am someone raising his head for a fistful of self-respect In this nation of casteist bigots blinded by wealth I am someone who lives to register life itself as a protest I am someone who dies repeatedly to live Don't call me a victim I am an immortal, I am an immortal, I am an immortal I am the poison throated one Who swallowed the famine so that the world may have wealth I am the sunrise standing on its head It was I who kicked the Sun on the head To make him stand erect I am the one stoking slogans in my flaming heart's furnace I don't need words of sympathy or tears of pity I'm not a victim, I'm an immortal I am the fluttering flag of defiance Don't shed tears for me If you can Bury me in the middle of the city I'll bloom as the bamboo grove that sings the melody of life Print my corpse as this nation's cover I'll spread as a beautiful future into the pages of history Invite me into your hearts I'll become a tussle of conflagrations And rise again and again in this land. Beef

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Beef beef The meat I have eaten since my cord was cut The meat that has risen as bone of my bone The meat that has raced as part of my blood; When you drove me far from the village When you found even my footprints untouchable When you couldn't even see me as human

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(Telugu poem 'goDDu mAmsam' by Digumarthi Suresh Kumar; from the collection of Madiga poetry 'kaitunakala danDem')


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What stood by me And brought me here was beef; When you bragged, presenting your side, Your forefathers drank ghee Undertook many exploits and so on It was only beef which stayed with me Stood by my side; When its udders were squeezed and milked You didn't feel any pain at all When it was stitched into a chappal you stamped underfoot and walked You didn't feel hurt at all When it rang as a drum at your marriage and your funeral You didn't suffer any blows When it sated my hunger, beef became your goddess? White Gold (G.V.Ratnakar's Telugu poem 'tella bangAram'; from his collection of poetry 'maTTi palaka')

The man who sulked with land stuck his head into the sky The pesticide that couldn't kill the pest swallowed the man A lifeless form is putting the furrow to sleep The hut with the broken supporting pole Mother, children like Palmyra leaves in a storm

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Those (aatma)hatyas touch thirty tens

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Like hunger has many causes Deaths have many, many needs


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The hand that fed is searching for the morsel The sweat that flowed in the field is drying on the grave A headless body attached to its neck a tree that had shed its leaves The overflowing tears became questions that walked The kind-hearted leaders say it is the cotton farmer's fault Unable to offer a gulp of water they offer advice: wet your throat with pesticide or liquor. Dr.Yendluri Sudhakar, poet, professor and researcher, travelled to the USA in 2002, on the invitation of a Telugu association (ATA). The collection of poems 'ATA janikAnche', a journal of sorts in verse, carries his impressions from the trip. The short but eloquent poems have no titles, only numbers signifying their place in the collection.

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Who cleaned cotton in this sky? Who wove this sky-sari? Who placed those cloud-pots there? Who washed

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108


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this moonlight-scarf so white? Who made those two ear-rings, one for each ear, for the sky-maiden? 109 Listen, if you think I'm not being sarcastic: There are among us too those who nurse prejudices about colour They gather like ants around white gur But as soon as they see blacks they run away like bugs in the sun.. What is the difference between the wadas here and the ghettoes there.. 106 When I walk in Chicago Martin Luther King's word flames' roar rings constantly in my ears like a slogan Moses! If he split the Red Sea Martin Luther King created a black ocean out of scattered waves He still reverberates in race supremacists' hearts as a blacker slogan

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In Pittsburgh Venkanna* appeared Without a visa Babas Babis Have their own lobbies In every home Spiritual hobbies

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However hard I searched Wherever I looked I couldn't see my Yellamma+ I didn't meet my Maisamma * Venkanna: refers to the deity Venkateshwara, or Balaji, of Tirupati. +Yellamma, Maisamma: popular Dalitbahujan deities, village goddesses.

PROSE - MEMOIRS

DEBJANI SEN

A HOME YET TO BE (Part 2)

(Continued from the previous installment)

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The pine branch I had brought back from Shillong a few days back is no longer there. I noticed that the dry bark had withered further and was in the process of dislodging itself from the branch. Finding the solitary cone looking forlorn on the equally morose-looking pine branch, I decided to throw it away. It made me realise the futility of this practice I had made of recreating my childhood home by bringing back things from the past into the present, in this case, this pine branch from the hills of my past. The process of putting up a home coursed its own subtle way through my life. Talks of my getting married began unusually early. The pretext of my father’s prime age and illness further aided its swift execution. Torn between a feeling of hurt and confusion, I succumbed to family remonstrance. My would-be husband, a veterinarian, was then working in the Garo Hills District of Meghalaya. I derived inspiration or consolation or may be a little bit of both from all the story books I had read till then, and

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I look at the pine branch I’d brought back during the trip to Guwahati last week. The needles are droopy, sad, as if they are morose at being parted from their wild hills. And I wonder how right it is to pine for something which is no longer mine, so to say. But I cannot say goodbye to it, while the shelter I live in now, its walls bound with mortar and concrete, is yet to become my home, and this town where we came to in search of a home, my hometown. -


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remembered, especially books by Gerald Durrell, and based on those I began to build up an image of my home to be. It had not been long since I had left my childhood home, and so the images from there overpowered that latter image that I had conjured. I did not dream of the man I would be married to or my life thereafter but I certainly consoled myself with the candy floss image of my home, a complete Polaroid picture with flowers and potted plants and a nice decor. There was an extra bit to my fanciful thinking and that was a baby elephant I thought I could have as a pet. Garo Hills those days used to be a haven for elephants and I thought I could have one without any difficulty. In the days to come, through many an inescapable situation, and due to a host of unpleasant circumstances, my dreams were shattered, trampled over most unkindly and soon the chiaroscuro of images I had conjured in almost Eastman colour vanished and everything had turned black and white. My dreams of creating a home suffered a serious setback. It recoiled onto itself and beat a hasty retreat. I learnt my first lesson that homes cannot be built on dreams. Then along came my daughter and unfortunately it took quite some time to acknowledge her presence with joy. This made me think seriously whether I wanted to make a home after all. I decided that despite the cross I would have to bear, I would provide my daughter with a home, a proper one complete with a father, grandparents, uncles, aunts and all. She was the first wonderful thing that happened after my dream of having a pet elephant vanished into thin air. As a babe in my arms, my daughter resembled Mr. Spock, my hero from the Star Trek series. Of course she almost immediately lost that appearance as she continued to grow, as do most babies. Yet when I held her she was as comforting as my childhood home, warm and tender. My home revolved around my little daughter and slowly I settled down in the process of making a home for her. But then the process was halted when my husband suddenly resigned and joined the same services in the neighbouring state. So one fine summer night we set out in a truck with my daughter in my arms as the vehicle coursed its heavy body out of the Garo Hills into the South Bank of the Brahmaputra Plain and then onwards through the Khasi and Jaintia Hills into the plains of Barak. As I sat inside the truck I recalled the events which had accelerated this displacement from home and land altogether. Months before, we had been happily planning the Annaprashana, or first rice eating ceremony, for our daughter. Our people from our home town would be there with us to celebrate it. Just a few days before the celebration, a skirmish broke out between two local ethnic groups, and like always it was given a communal colour. Like a whirlwind, differences cropped up between the tribals and nontribals and this soured the hitherto harmonious relationship between the various groups of people living there. My husband on returning from a workshop instructed me to start packing as we were going to move house. Those were not the days for professional movers and so I got down to the work with a kind of heaviness in my heart, for by then, I had become fond of the ridiculously extravagant ways of the Garos and the simplicity of the Hajong and the Kochs. By then I no longer dreamt of a home that had colours, nice decor, flowers and of course a baby elephant. I just longed for a day without disagreement and some peace. Well it seems I was destined for peace after all. That is what I got to see when I headed for the place when my husband was posted, miles and miles of rolling paddy fields and in the middle stood the establishment. My brother-in-law had mischievously given me a fictitious description of the house. He described it to be a beautiful bungalow with a swimming pool. What I got to see was a small pond with murky water an ideal eco-system for frogs, tadpoles, microbes but human. The house had sprawling half a dozen rooms spread all over, with veranda connecting them. The eye-brow raising element was that the toilet was a hundred meters away from the main house and the place was sans electricity and running water. A small waterhole was dug out and a bamboo mesh curtain was placed around it in an upright position lest some passenger on a solitary bus to Hailakandi should glimpse me drawing out muddy water. The evenings were just right for ghost stories, the ones my maternal grandmother told me or the ones I read on rainy evenings back home. The silence and darkness of the night was broken by the march of the

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Once again, with pots, pans and all, we moved to the new home on a farm. The ambience was rustic, but beautiful. The house was nothing compared to the sprawling bungalow that I was used to, but it was a comfort zone tucked away on top of a hillock, hidden by a curtain of tall trees. My son spoke his first sentence there and my daughter a three year old, played her first mischief there. The hardships of family life would be forgotten by their various pranks. The domestic chores were grueling, for my lifestyle was rudimentary. I would start cooking on a clay oven, fed by logs or fallen branches. Very often my kitchen would provide food for the workers on the farm and the stream of visitors, mostly officials we had frequently, during day time. The members of the family who stayed in the town, often trooped in to experience the goodness of farm life and fresh farm food. The life on the farm provided me with enriching experiences. When I look back, I feel as if I have lived all different stages of life itself there. I lived close to nature and with people at the grass root level, the workers on the farm, their families who toiled in the field, or grazed the cattle or worked in the tea gardens adjoining the area. I had seen their sweat, not beads that are teased out of the pores in the fancy gymnasiums today, but the body salt that streamed down in rivulets when they laboured with their heart and soul. I provided comic relief to them, when I would call out a couple of them. They would not know whether to be relieved or sad. I would call them to shift the heavy furniture of the house. After doing the usual chores, I loved rearranging the rooms. It irritated everybody but me and for a fortnight not more, I was quite content with the change. Among the cluster of trees that worked as a green screen, there stood a tall, sturdy Neem tree, with roots sprawled on the red earth. The roots before diverging made a hollow, a natural carved in seat. After my usual chores, I would settle myself in it, with a book, sometimes reading it or looking at the deserted road. Occasionally a bus would roll by, the driver honking the horn mechanically at some phantom pedestrian. Very rarely a solitary person would alight and walk in to the farm land, oblivious of my gaze and disappear into another path leading to the farm house or the hatchery or the office. I would go back to my thoughts confined to kitchen affairs, soured relationships, allegations and expectations. I would be relieved of it by the call of a strange bird or the call from inside the house. In the course of years all the forces of interaction on the farm together morphed all of us into a large family - children, workers, dogs, cattle and all. Once in a while I visited the homes of the workers living in the land adjoining the tea gardens, a few kilometres away from the farm. This particular person whose house I was invited to was a kind of a sardar or the head of the community living there. His home was a combined effort of mud, brick and tin. Surprisingly the homestead was looked after by the person himself, his daughters and a little help from the female members of the extended family. His wife plucked leaves in the garden in the day time and

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peasants and village drunkards on their homeward journey from the local haats. The lantern light did little to inspire positive thoughts and days and nights trudged by as I geared myself to bring my son into this world. Our plight caught the attention of a senior officer of my husband’s and he generously offered his official residence in a properly inhabited area. Thankfully we had electricity, though no water supply and were dependant on the water supplied by the water bearers. May be the electric lights lifted my spirits and I put in some efforts in trying to give the house a homely touch. In the summer the incessant rain was a welcome and I used to place two huge basins like the ones in which community food is cooked, to collect rain water, running down the roof. Once the basins were full, I would haul the huge basins and fill the drums with rain water. This is how day after day, my drums were filled and we had plenty of water for everything. A brief spell was spent in experiencing the hospitality extended to us by the senior officer. Another brief spell was spent in the quarter amidst the field, the only positive touch to it was the electricity- the house and the hospital had been given electric connections after all.


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puffed biris and drank country liquor in a dark room after dusk. It fell upon the sardar to serve us the food he himself had cooked. I was taken aback by the act of sheer independence on her part. I was truly fascinated by their earthy homes, the mud walls baked by Sun and time, the shelves of planks or mud, plastered by mud and cow dung. I breathed in the air, heavily scented with earth and for once allowed it to overpower the wild scent of the pines of my child hood home. My head remained dizzy with the scent of the earth, the sudden breeze with the whiff of burnt twigs or wood, the whispers, the sound of the cricket and the sight of the shadows of human contours, as we headed back on the Bajaj scooter to the home on hill-top curtained by trees. Autumn was beautiful on the hilltop residence. It came whispering down the blue sky, skimmed the tall trees and slid down the creepers on the tall carpet of grass. It was time for a break and a short vacation in the town at my in-laws place. The meandering Barak was somewhere nearby but I never got around seeing it, for being there meant to be inside the four walls of the house. Soon it would be time for us to return to the hilltop residence. Though primitive with little modern amenities it was a joy to be back. Almost immediately winter would drop in, the mist kissing every hillock, the wet land, the farm land and our cabin like shelter. I can still feel the surge of delight run through me when I remember how when I opened a small wooden window and looked out on early winter mornings, the mist would glide into the small garden and linger among the flowers. Every morning a poppy would raise its head and unfurl its fragile petals as if to greet me and for a long minute I would be enveloped in my dream like existence a cabin hilltop residence, my children snuggled in the layers of blankets, my husband on his inspection round, the labourers staggering in through the blanket of mists, my home far away in the clouds and the familiar John Denver song playing in my head. I can even hear it play in my head right now as I write this.

“I hear her voice in the morning hour she calls me, the radio reminds me of my home far away and driving down the road I get a feeling that I should have been home yesterday, yesterday.”

SAMARPATI SANYAL

A GAMUT OF UNSEALED MEMORIES (PART 2)

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The rains had set in. The village was swamped in the growing waters of the monsoons. Staring into the distance one could discern houses amidst it all, like boats on a river with lanterns flickering in the night. Those were farmers’ huts, apparently quiet and meek, but inside many of these hovels, a host of fanatics were brewing a batch of pious terrorism. The water level was rising minute by minute, and so was our tension. The protective fencing round our straggly residence had been woven with bamboo chips. The abundant growth of bamboo shoots in the plantation behind where we lived assured that at least some building material never was scarce. Our habitation had been planned for the accommodation of more than thirty adults. Many of

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them had died, and many had left seeking shelter, and safety elsewhere. Now the volume of dwellings remained the same, but the number of dwellers had been reduced drastically. Our father was perhaps the only significant man of some stature there. We were no force, but a mere bundle of souls, in case there was any assault. And we, the children, only amassed more fears. We had no Hindu neighbours. The Muslims and us, we lived adjacently without being identical. Father was in such distress, that he hardly slept by night. The echoes of his wooden slippers treading noisily on the rude floor penetrated the still curtains of the children’s sleep like the light of the hunter’s moon. As it is, peace and mistrust are strange bedfellows. And an unfamiliar mistrust had made its abode in Father’s mind. His life was mortgaged to his religious culture. In those days, we learned how they, the hunters of us deer-like escapees, were infused with passion like maenads. A fantastic magic of religious identity in politics made them a menace to the Hindus by and large. It seemed that we had died before our deaths. We had become cowards, as the definition goes. Even a youthful banana plant shaking its head in the wind in the stifling darkness outside filled us with panic. The shrill, intermittent chorus of Allah-hu-Akbar echoing in the dark cavities of the night congealed our blood with a strange fear. That chorus in an ideal atmosphere proclaims forth the greatness of God, but in that situation, it served only to intimidate the Hindus. The proclamation of God’s excellence seemed to charge our moribund hearts with a bottomless desolation.

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There was this aristocrat money-lender named Abani Khan. He was handsome and stodgy. We were fascinated by him simply because parched rice soaked in hot thickened milk made up his evening meal. And then there were the date-palm preserves that Abani Khan preserved for consumption throughout the year. In our motley surroundings, he was a sort of a rara avis, an exceptionally significant person. That same Abani Khan was stabbed to death during a boat journey. By the time his body was discovered, it had partially decomposed. Probably the assassins had been hired by some disgruntled debtor of his who did not want to be made to pay up their debts to the wealthy moneylender. In his death the debt was annulled, and though it was a gruesome murder, and the victim was an important man, the killer was never taken into custody. The incident terrorized the Hindus of the locality for they felt there was no one to assure them of security and protection. And this was, at that time, the land of East Pakistan. The Khans were almost a conglomerate family of several households. Some of the families had money as well as education. Some had money but no education. Some of the lesser relatives in the familyconglomerate had neither any money, nor any education to speak of. Those who belonged to the third category owing to their innate emptiness and arrogance were tyrannical in nature. They were used to receive habitual obedience from the masses. There was this incident that occurred in the local market in central Ramnagar; when it happened I do not remember now but it was long before the Partition happened. Some of those bankrupt Zamindars went rampant inside the market doing harm to property and produce. But they were never brought to book, though the people did not at all admire, or accept their hooliganism. It was probably this sort of high handedness that proclaimed and attested to the tyranny of the Hindu elite in stark terms. The Islamists organized the generally downtrodden Muslim classes without exception, into which the poor Hindu populace merged. The Central Market was shifted to a place where the Hindu high society did not hold sway. It was popularly named Natunbazar, or the new market. The Khans shunned the market but there was a group of the mischief making elite who did not give up their old ways. Random incidents like the one before perpetrated by the upper caste Hindus were often seen to occur. The Muslim League was making headway owing to the decadence of the Hindu upper crust and the unification of the Islamists. Kasem Ali had been appointed our teacher to initiate us in both the vernacular and English alphabets. Mother had already made us familiar with them. We used to practice writing letters and

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numbers with the help of tamarind seeds, and considered a sort of a play as well. Kasem Ali was a sprawling middle aged gentleman with a stubble covered face. He shaved once in a blue moon. He was a man of infinite patience and had a generally sweet disposition. Every child of the house who could walk steadily and talk correctly was sent to sit at his feet and learn. The new entrants to his study soirées made more noise than actually learning anything of consequence. There was a wooden low platform of prodigious expanse in the middle of the hall. It was spread with a matching mat. Kasem Ali sat in the middle bolstered with a large pillow. Kasem Ali master did us up to the elementary level. His method taught us everything to do in our head. Later, when we had grown up a bit, it was Ramesh Saha, known as Mastermawshai, who taught us. Ramesh Saha was a teacher in the local school, but he used to stay with us in our house. Our grandfather succumbed to a fatty tumour in his back. Mother also died at an early age. Grandfather had been a medicine man of sorts and he had had a pretty substantial income. Instead of being called Zamindar Babu he was called popularly Daktar Babu. His death created a financial crisis while my mother’s death caused a moral vacuum. Father had been running the family by borrowing money from his father’s, our grandfather’s treasury. And I believe that Grandfather had allowed himself to be filched. After his death, our associated establishment split up quite fast. Mother’s death made it a sort of hollow space in the house. The number of servants in the house diminished radically, and even though we still used to have guests, they came quite infrequently. The distant places that I dreamed of from the upper storey of our inner residence remained to me unvisited. I grew up under restrictions. Nature was so bountiful surrounding our house that human companions were never an emotional necessity. Even after Grandfather, our father preserved that lofty seclusion of our residence. After mother’s death some neighbours did come to visit us, though. But the boys I had read with in school never came to play at our residence, though off and on we did use to play together somewhere outside the house. Kasem Ali was ageing. He had gout. Which often rendered him incapable of moving about, and as a result he remained absent for days at a time. And when he did come to teach us, he could not remain seated long in one posture. He limped about in the hall where we used to have our rudimentary classes and listened to us reading aloud. However his suffering from arthritis was cut short by an accident. He slipped and fell into a roadside ditch while returning home from our house. Though he did not die from the fall, he was severely injured. He persisted a few days in a semi-conscious state before he died. During his last few hours he muttered something which suggested that he had been forced to have a fall. Father was worried at this turn of events. And we definitely missed our old teacher. But after dusk his absence had a deterrent effect on our movements. The cause was simple: the power that had been locked within the body was released into the outside. Kasem Ali had loved us as his charges and students. Why should we have forgotten him?

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The Hindu underlings had already been alienated from the Hindu main stream by the vainglorious upper caste Hindus. Much before the Partition, the Hindu strength as a whole became by and large insignificant because it constituted primarily of the rotten upper class and the repressed lower castes. We were a single Hindu elite family whose tenants were poor Muslim share-croppers. It was a precarious juxtaposition of neighbours. Our neighbours suddenly turned against us. The Muslim inspiration for solidarity anchored in the masses became a terrible power threatening the existence of the Hindus. In those days of tension, religion became a tag of sorts. It turned into a brand. A part of the population was marked as Muslims for all practical purposes. In those fearful days, the Muslims shouted

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and declaimed their religion out of doors, often as a threat. The religion issue became so volatile that it effervesced instantaneously, and bubbles of energy confined within the communal vessel evolved into a horizontal power and wrecked the very existence of the Hindus in East Pakistan. The Hindus were sent scurrying across their homeland towards the frontier beyond which an unknown land lay with some unknown standard of freedom and security fluttering in the air.

PROSE - NON-FICTION

SUMANA ROY

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“Chicken’s neck” is a phrase that is bound to put vegetarians off. But for those who live inside it, as flies do in ears of cows, it is not a matter of choice; or ethics. Birds inside cages don’t sing freedom songs. Honestly, they don’t even care. As we don’t. I live in the Chicken’s Neck – the Siliguri Corridor – a stretch of land that connects India’s north-eastern states to what is called its “mainland”. It’s a narrow strip of land, varying between twenty and forty kilometers in width, with the countries of Nepal and Bangladesh lying on either side of the Corridor. Like most children growing up in small towns, we were just happy to see our town live as a forgotten acne mark in the map of our country. Growing up increased its sense of importance – just as a parent gradually becomes a surname, my small town came to become a metaphor, on the map and otherwise. From dot, a prick of indifference, it became a “Corridor”, an architectural term for passageways, for barter and flight, a collapsing of all divisions. For corridors always connect. But “Neck”? Necks are corridors too, but so often, things get stuck there, as do fish bones and people, when both transgress and become illegal immigrants in that space. Growing up at a time when air travel had still not become inexpensive, plane journeys were rare picnics that stand out in our maps of childhood. Most often, we had to be content with watching planes take off from airports on television. One such occasion was an advert for the airline Cathay Pacific. I knew the words of the male voiceover by heart – “Today people travel between countries as they once did between cities”, and so it went. I failed to understand why travelling to countries was considered more important than travelling to cities. I lived in a town where I could reach Bangladesh and Nepal in about ninety minutes. Calcutta, the nearest city, was six hundred kilometers away. Bhutan was four hours by car on a mountainous road, and China, always the eyebrow to the eye, never too far off, certainly not from a

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weekend’s gateway to the neighbouring state of Sikkim, only a hundred kilometers by a road that runs parallel, for most of the journey, to the beautiful emerald river Teesta. How, then, does it feel to live in a place – and “corridor” is only a spatial euphemism – which is enclosed by international borders on all sides?

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Here the border’s water … The Indo-Nepal border is a bit of an oxymoron: there is, at least to the eye, no border. But borders everywhere are perhaps like that – they are marks that birds can’t see, grazing cows can’t sense, and which men hunt for only as symbols on their children’s maps. The only things that can recognize borders are perhaps automobiles – like women in burqas who lift their veils only in familiar places, thus carrying two sets of faces, cars acquire new numbers – and number plates – at borders. At least, at the Indo-Nepal border. As National Highway 31 wriggles itself out of the mess that is the city, it becomes shyer, losing girth at first and then, in the presence of yellowing green paddy and maize fields, and carpets of tea gardens on either side, it becomes almost adventurous. In no time, Naxalbari arrives, the place that gave its name to the violent Maoist uprising by labourers, first in Bengal, then in tribal pockets all over the country. When I first visit it, it’s an unremarkable village town, where not a souvenir survives of that violent movement of the late nineteen seventies; a string of English medium schools, with names that can come only from taking a crash course in Christianity, lead us into town, and this is followed by an ageing officious looking building that announces itself as the police station. It’s painted brick red and when my brother and I make a joke about the colour of the paint being the only survivor of that era, my father gives us an admonishing look. We wait for him to tell us about Charu Mazumdar, the revolutionary who started it all, but he doesn’t. My mother is relieved: she’s heard the story one time too many. I have too, without anyone telling. For when one of my favourite professors taught us E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India in college, I sat there, half-listening to his lecture and thinking more about his father, the leader, now dead, allegedly killed in jail by the West Bengal police. It is of A Passage to India that I think a little later, as we leave Naxalbari (my mother having lost any interest in the town for she, by her own admission, had come here looking for some “museum of blood” as a memory of that bloody revolution) and its oldest school building that warns, “Stick no bill”, without, of course, in the style of all bureaucracy, specifying the punishment. Old abandoned mills and railway tracks, both complaining of neglect, are soon washed out of our sight as the car takes turns, in what seems to me a method in arbitrariness, and a signpost arrives. And we are relieved – for a few moments away from the written word scares us, this generation and its reliance on crutches of information. Galgalia 20, Panitanki 5: it announces. Distances have begun to decrease, and as these names of places, the first onomatopoeic, mimicking the flow of water, and the other with the Nepali word for “water” in it (“Pani”; a tank to hold water would be the literal meaning), arrive, the expectation’s been abetted without our realising it. The border therefore arrives like poetry – sensed from afar, like the sound of water, its lost-world shine in the darkening afternoon, it is the fruition of an anticipation. For we knew, without really knowing, that there was and always will be a border. Aberration in the ritual of welcome in the age of paper verification: we need no passports for India’s border with Nepal is “porous”, the men in uniform look at our faces and then at the colour of our car, and deeming both fit enough to cross into the neighbouring country, they show their assent by slapping our driver on the back. It is not a friendly pat. The poor fellow is startled, but he only asks, in the driver’s cryptic, “Ours or Theirs?” “Ours, ours,” begins my mother without knowing. Then, as if further convincing was necessary, she points to their uniform in the rear view mirror, “that’s our uniform, can’t you see?”

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The confusion with binaries continues for this border’s a coin with two faces: what was “Security Check Post”, we discover by looking back from the other side, is also “Swagat Dwar” (“Welcome Gate”). In the meantime, our car’s acquired a new number plate for fifty rupees: the first three letters standing for Mechi in the Devanagiri script, followed by the number 1068. It’s white on a square green plate, and for a reason that I will never understand, it seems to make our driver happy. The border, and all talk of it, is only optical rhetoric, my mother concludes, until we come to the Mechi. Mechikhola: the sight of the unremarkable river, one that divides or joins, depending on one’s late perspective, makes my brother throw an eraser he was carrying in his pocket into it. It’s a bit like a child’s sacralia but my mother lets him off with a half-hearted scolding. And the Kali bridge: unremarkable except for its name, which usually supplies the prefix to the name of a temple. We would have forgotten it altogether had not our driver taken his hands off the steering wheel and folded his hands into a prayer. For after the intimidating signboards of the “Department of Immigration, Kakarvita, Jhapa, Nepal”, the conglomeration of polysyllabic words scaring us like obese dictionaries, and a casual survey of shops titled “Impex” in Dhulabari (literally “the house of dust”), we buy only a packet of a candy called “White Rabbit”. My brother and I chew it hard to see whether it tastes any different from candies in our country, and whether it really is the sweet meat of Nepali rabbits, my parents fight a little as they usually do, whenever they are in a new place. I have visited the Indo-Nepal border in Kakarvita many times since. I know that Indians who have chosen to live in Nepal are called “dhoti” while those who think of themselves as the original inhabitants of Nepal call themselves “topi” (the hat), thereby elevating their status through this clever sartorial symbolism. I have eaten many White Rabbits since too. I know that India is perhaps the only country in the world that has a regiment dedicated exclusively for a foreign country and that Nepali soldiers defend Indian borders against Pakistan. And this, perhaps, one of those rare instances where a border is a bridge, and a bridge a border. Only I will never quite understand why there should be borders between the two countries. Perhaps like the white chalk-like academic marks on a Brahmin’s forehead, they are necessary – a country’s caste marks.

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Here the border’s land … My father’s family came from Bangladesh to India in 1947. My father was born in August, just five days before independence. He likes to believe that he scared the British away. He has, expectedly, no memory of the place where he was born in but it is other things he “remembers”. These are, of course, late acquisitions, like going through one’s “baby book” in adulthood, but these acquisitions are, in no way, innocent. They have made my father the person he is today. First, a few of my father’s stories: Bangladesh was then East Pakistan. My grandparents, young, almost illiterate, a child hanging from each of their necks, became “Indians” overnight. They would never understand its significance, or even if they did, it was way too insignificant compared to what they thought they had lost. And that, by their account, was a lot – land, love, and lives. But they were not the only ones: this forced migration of people from one part of the subcontinent to another, all because a line would be drawn through farms and fields that had been theirs till yesterday, affected thousands like them. All their life, they tried to do what was expected of them – to forget, and in it, they failed miserably. I grew up on stories of relatives being raped by neighbours who overnight, because of that accident of history, became “Pakistanis”, of gold being smuggled inside underwear, of houses burnt or occupied and taken by force. And yet, in spite of all this, my grandparents never ceased to believe that had they stayed on in what would later become Bangladesh, they would have been happier.

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It irritated us, their stories, their attachment to something abstract and invisible, their indifferent acceptance of this new country’s customs, and most of all, their lack of enthusiasm for the political systems here. They treated their ration cards with contempt, they paid taxes on their property unwillingly, and they reserved their praise for India (though I cannot remember them ever using the name; it was always “this country”), however qualified it might have been, for another life. It would have been a mixture of curiosity and contempt that made me ask my uncle to take me to Bangladesh. I must have been a child of nine or ten then, small enough to be carried, along with my brother, on a bicycle. We had no idea about passports and visas – the only paper we had any use for at that time in our lives were our annual report cards. And memories of those we left behind when we visited our grandparents in Hili, the tiny frontier village-town at the Indo-Bangladesh border. It was supposed to be a secret, this visit to Bangladesh, a promise made to uncle. We combed our hair neatly and wore our best holiday dresses, this knowing all the while that a visit to Bangladesh would change us forever, that we would come back as different people. We were even scared, though it was only a joyous nervousness, that our parents might not be able to recognize us when we returned. We didn’t go too far. We couldn’t go too far. After uncle had shown us houses where the border had divided the kitchen, so that the rice was cooked in Bangladesh but eaten in India, and “Indian” cows grazing on Bangladesh land, an Indian husband with a Bangladeshi wife, jewellery shops selling Bangladeshi gold ornaments, things which might have interested adults but about which we felt not the slightest curiosity, he took us to the abandoned railway station. I still remember two rail tracks running parallel to each other, and the three of us holding hands and walking on it, until we came to another station. Two signposts, black on yellow, a few feet away from each other: Hili (India), Hili (Bangladesh). Just as there are two Hilis, I like to believe that I had two sets of paternal grandparents, one I shall never meet, the people my Indian grandparents would have been had I been Bangladeshi. I do not think about it too often, but when I do, a few of my grandmother’s afternoon stories come back to me. The stories haven’t survived, only the fear that her ghosts from Bangladesh brought into my Indian summers still do. And her words, her joy at torturing her “Indian” born grandchildren, “In no country in the world would you find as many ghosts as you do in Bangladesh. And what their varieties …” It was perhaps these ghosts that I wanted to see when I pleaded with my father to take me to the Indo-Bangladesh border one evening many years later. The Indo-Bangladesh border is less than an hour by road from where I live. Leaving the peak of the Kanchenjunga shining behind us in the November sun, my father drove through Fulbari (a suburb whose name literally means “a house of flowers”), we took a road that we had never taken. In a few minutes, we had reached the border. In Hili, I had seen and met Bangladeshi policemen who had shaken hands with me, I had seen Bangladeshi trains puffing dark smoke like old smokers, and I had met an old woman, hunched and toothless, whose words I did not understand, who my uncle said spent her day in India and night in Bangladesh. In Tinbatti, I saw nothing. I saw no one. The sky grew dark, then heavier. I waited. Even the ghosts didn’t keep their appointment. My father switched on the headlights of the car and stood still. And yet, nothing happened. Nothing moved. That is my strongest memory of the Indo-Bangladesh border. A dark and brooding silence. And a waiting for ghosts.

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Here the border’s a gate … Bhutan is one of the happiest countries in the world. I think I discovered this on television, in one of those rare moments when there was a temporary pause in the reporting and documentation of bloodletting on screen. It must have been a breather, something like the weather report, but what I remember having carried from that evening was the discovery – or was it creation? – of a new memory.

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Like a child doing a match-the-column exercise, I tried to excavate smiling Bhutanese faces, equating, as I had been taught, by whom I did not know, happiness with smiles and laughter. I made myself stand outside the beautiful open gate outside the Bhutanese city of Phuntsholing, its Buddhist designs of flowers and animals in white and blue and yellow on a red background. It is the only time I have seen a border as gate – perhaps it is this Zen-like indifference to entry and exit that explains the happiness of the people of this country. Or perhaps the concluding plea of their national anthem has been granted – “May the people shine like the sun of peace and happiness”! Phuntsholing was an expensive city, and my father, a banker in a nationalized bank before economic liberalization, could only afford to buy us pencils and sharpeners and water bottles, all three moulded in the childhood shapes of dolls and mice and generic animals. I have no memory of eating any meal in Phuntsholing, and I do not understand why that absence continues to occupy such a significant position in my memories about the country. Rolling the Buddhist prayer wheels, sitting on the lawns of its temples (an unfamiliar experience for a small town Hindu child like myself, who had never seen a temple with a lawn or garden – all these invisible spaces in Hindu worship, left vacant for playful gods!), waiting beside a queue while my father paid bills and bought tickets, and not for once being pushed or scolded by strangers as I would have been in India. Pets, I have often heard being told, are like children, only they are children who never grow up. The relation between India and Bhutan has long been the relation between a pet and a child. One has grown up while the other has, like a pet, become more used to the domesticity of a life of dependence. Signs of this relationship survive in the names of places that took me from the Chicken’s Neck to Bhutan. Jaigaon is the last proper town on the Indian side of the border. Like all frontier towns, it is unremarkable, drawing as little attention to itself as ticket counters do in theatres. My father often came here on work, and the name of the town had thus gradually become a part of the family’s consciousness. When I first learnt to sing the national anthem, and I must admit that I learnt it much later than children do these days, I began to think of it as the place from where the poetry and the song had emerged. Children’s epiphanies are difficult to explain but its sincere corruptions are retrospective delights. When I stood outside the Bhutan gate, as it is called, I held my brother’s hand and burst into the anthem: Jana Gana Mana Adhinayaka Jaya He. My parents, caught between confusion and fun, let me sing the entire song, and when, at last I arrived at the climax that I’d been waiting for, the crescendo of “Jaya He, Jaya He, Jaya He”, I began looking in two opposite directions, at what was in front of me – the Bhutan Gate – and what lay behind, Jaigaon. There was a reason behind this: Jaigaon, I’d broken up into two parts – “Jai” and “gaon”. “Jai” means victory and “gaon” village, together “the village of victory”. The “Jaya He” of the national anthem, celebrating the conglomeration of states that India would become (for Rabindranath Tagore died before the British idea of India could become a reality), was an anticipatory and prophetic hailing of the United States of India, and the “jaya” in it was a felicitation and celebration of that idea. Goaded by mishearing, I’d allowed Jaigaon, that town whose biography was to be a footstool to its country, to become a place from where these sounds of victory would erupt. “Jaya He, Jaya He”. But all around it, as if gagging those conch shells in the voice, was the kingdom of silence, the quietest country in the world. That is my most definitive memory of the Indo-Bhutan border, of leaving Bhutan and its border as I’d found it – intact and unchanged. The people of the kingdom of Druk, because television was banned in that country then, had probably never even heard the national anthem of any other country besides theirs. While theirs celebrated their “precious sovereign”, ours did the “Jana Gana” – the King of Druk versus the “janagana”, the public. When I sat beside the window on a bus that would carry us back to the Chicken’s Neck, I began to wish that I had brought a broom with which I could have swept away my footsteps and the trinket sounds of “Jaya He” back through the gate. And I learnt that open gates need not always signify openness. Gates, especially those that do not support hinges, are museums in their own right. They embalm divisions, they are living corpses of separateness. The Bhutan gate is, in that sense, the strictest border – it will allow no converts. No “Jaya He …” for Buddha and Druk.

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Here the border’s a wall … Maps of India are Made-in-China. And both countries know that. And no one seems to mind. And … there could be a series of “ands” after that, but like “ands” which hold so much in balance, which link without dissolving, like straws and necks, the Chicken’s Neck in the map of India looks less like a staircase and more like a temporary makeshift podium that could crumble and collapse during a stampede. And, like most “ands”, it has its double, its mirror opposite, as it were. For far away to its left, to its west, is the Pakistan Akhni Chicken’s Neck, also called the Akhnoor Dagger, a narrow strip of Pakistani territory that extends into India, in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, the de-facto Indo-Pakistani border on the west side over which India now has control. Necks, therefore, are geographical metaphors that give the English expression “stiff-necked” a completely new meaning. For there’s China. Gangtok, its name meaning a “hilltop”, is the capital of the Indian state of Sikkim. I have no memory of my first visit to the town. And even if I do, it’s a pattern of repetition, as of spotting clouds in the sky so that one is never sure which cloud one began counting first. I did not know the meaning of Gangtok then. My brother and I, in a way that is common to children, broke up a word into possible Bengali components and looked for some hidden meaning in it. “Gang” we conveniently took to be the English word, that suffixed by “tok”, meaning “sour” in Bengali. A rowdy violent group was fine, but how they could be “sour” was difficult to explain, and so like children who had lost use for their toys just before falling asleep, gave up ownership of such an interpretation. We found no gangs in Gangtok, and that was more disappointment than relief. So when the tourist guide told us that he would take us on, what he called a “Seven Point” sightseeing tour, my brother and I took no time to conjure up an unfinished version of Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven gang. Our dream had come true – the gang would at last be found. Whether it was sweet or sour was inconsequential. Gangtok was – and is – a city-town. It is a city only in its ambition, in every other respect, it is like a small town schoolboy who thinks that kicking a ball into the goal makes him the best footballer in the world. One road runs through the town like a river, giving its buildings a social gradient and throwing into its sky a ribbon of afternoon conversation. This road is called M. G. Road, modern India’s friendly colloquial for Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation, who, like Dhritarashtra, the father of a hundred sons in the epic Mahabharata, has given birth to a thousand streets and alleys and roads in the nation. Much later, when I would visit Gangtok again, in my early twenties, I would wonder how this tiny state that was only as Indian in time as I was (both of us having been born as Indians in the mid 1970s) had chosen Gandhi to keep guard over the capital. Gandhi had been dead for more than a quarter of a century and the country, then trying hard to adjust to new ecosystems of power and a violent Naxalism, both of which were completely non-Gandhian, had turned the Mahatma into a mantra. Saying the word – the name – made the Indian feel powerful, even though it necessarily didn’t. The M. G. Road in Gangtok must have found its name in the same spirit of self-fashioning. It was, in many ways, ironic that we rode on Gandhi’s back to see the Chinese border. What could we have expected to see? I cannot remember. I do remember what I felt years later when recording a voiceover for an Indian Air force video. Sweating in a tiny recording studio (the air-conditioner had stopped working and the whirring of fans would disturb the soundtrack), I’d watched the snow covered peaks of the Himalayas and learnt the names of a hundred different “passes” that only men in uniform can spot. The blinding whiteness of snow and the absence of any human in the frame, except, of course, the invisible cameraman in the helicopter from where the film was being shot, had, for an instant, made me eager to spot what they technically called an “infiltrator”. A Chinese infiltrator: I was curious for the sound of the word in the frame, it rhymed with “traitor” and I wanted to use it. I didn’t get the chance to, for miles and miles of snow hid men and the boundaries of their land from themselves and from me.

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Nathu La Pass: the name of that pass, one of the legitimate entry points in the Sino-Indian border, so French and foreign, stayed with me. The “La” and it’s fashionable twang, added to the allure of border crossings. When my father raised his children on his shoulders, the twin rounded peaks of our heads the mouth of periscopes eager to swallow all sights in view, the three of us and my short mother standing on her toes looking in the direction advised by the tourist guide, what did we really expect to see? Where? Where? The air was nervous with tourists’ queries – where really was the border? The mist gathered over our heads, our earlobes stung from the sharp scratching cold wind, but we stood there clinging to wet straws of hope. “Where’s the border?” someone asked again. Neil Armstrong saw it from the moon, and you can’t see it ten feet away, coaxed the guide. Oh, it was visible from the moon, and not from India? my mother asked. That evening, a group of Bengali tourists searched for the Great Wall of China with torch lights and search lights, even with match sticks and cigarette lighters. But they didn’t find it. That was where China began and India ended: the border story. But it’s one we could never begin reading.

PROSE - FICTION

ARUNI KASHYAP

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In the spiteful seven-hand high soil-verandah of 102, all the men from the village had gathered. All the women in the village knew their plan. They knew that there was an early morning meeting at 102. They were called by Monoram Bora to discuss ‘important matters’ associated with the prestige of the village. If they weren’t discussed, there wouldn’t be relief camps during the next flood. Even if there might be, this village would be treated as Tejimola had been by her step-mother. It’s better to die than get yourself ground by your step-mother, like Tejimola. Even the dam, to stop the mighty river water from hugging the village, wouldn’t be re-re-built next summer. For some strange reason, the government officials came to construct the dam every summer, just before the monsoons, and would write to the “higher authorities” that the rains were the biggest hurdles, you know, how unpredictable the rains are in this part of the world, so much has been lost, we need more money. Old men in the village would discuss

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with creased foreheads – why couldn’t they start work during the dry winters, when even the paddy fields cracked like heels of farmers in harsh winters? Nobody knew why. Nobody had bothered about who those ‘higher authorities’ were, as none of these women had stopped their men from attending the meeting. But 102 was bitter. Talking about the army, Horokanto’s mother had grumbled bitterly, “You don’t have to be tall, slim, attractive, you only need a hole and they would come chasing you!” Eighty-year-old Binapani-pehi revealed her betel-nut stained teeth, laughed, and added, “Those green-clothed men with guns were laughing and pointing towards me while I squatted behind the shrub near the road to release myself. I screamed, ‘Oi young men with guns, what you want to see? Come, I’ll pull up my mekhela and show you my grey pubic hair.”’ Many women exclaimed, gasped, “Binapani-pehi is so shameless, she will make people turn in their graves!!” Binapani-pehi’s fiery-foul tongue was well known. With a sneer of her nose, or with a slap on her thigh, it seemed as if she could rock the whole village. People say she used to sing beautiful Bihu Songs when she was young. She had marched in the processions of the Freedom Struggle, shouted slogans till her green neck-veins were visible. One day, with the pretext of searching “Freedom Fighters”, some white policemen had entered her house and raped her. Some people said there were ten of them. Some said there were five. But what was certain was that she had almost bled to death. Nobody married her. She gave birth to a very unusually fair baby with blond hair and green eyes. Her family members shoved fistfuls of salt into the baby’s mouth and killed it as soon as it was born. She had stopped singing after that. Legends twined around her like vines around a tree trunk. But people didn’t forget her legendary talent for singing songs. Some old men and women in the village even whispered that when she used to cook, sweep her floor, weave in the loom, she used to sing unknown, rare, painful, forest-songs. They were so lovely that the dog listened with several folds forming on his forehead-skin and skylarks swarmed the courtyard like ants on sugar cubes. After those alien white men committed “those unspeakable atrocities” on her butter-coloured body, let alone songs, her voice wasn’t heard for years. Her family refused to let her live among them. She was transferred to a house in the backyard garden, away from public view. She cooked and lived there for the rest of her life. It was there that she wove indecipherable dreams on clothes, sang harmonious, but unmelodious songs. She had a dog, Ronga, but he came only to eat remnants, and slept with his nose planted into its asshole. Things don’t change— things like time; and things like a dog’s habit of smelling its asshole all night; certain things only happen again and again. Nobody knew if that was the reason why Binapani-pehi remained so unmoved about the spiteful meeting at Bora’s house. Was it because she knew the lives of people remained unchanged, irrespective of the colour of flags of different regimes (the British and the Indian) or symbols of different political parties? Nothing has changed since Independence. The river continued to swell, people continued to inhabit wrecked dams every summer. Every year, villagers spent sleepless nights thinking about the impending floods, and dreaming about a full granary, a full stomach. The floods didn’t stop. The struggle for freedom didn’t stop: unarmed, armed, procession-ed. Couldn’t Binapani-pehi at least spend some of her strong words for those men who had threatened them to not walk out on the streets tomorrow? But the women were not afraid. If eighty-year old Binapani-pehi wasn’t afraid to say “go back” to the white-foreigners, why would they lag behind in their own country? Perhaps, that’s how they could bring some justice for Bhumika who was raped and killed by the army. Rupalim pledged to lead the procession along with Mastoroni-baideo and Binapani-pehi. She had assured them that she would always remain by their side. Mastoroni-baideo was the schoolteacher’s wife. He taught Assamese in the village primary school and he wanted to sleep with Rupalim. He tried to seduce her by promising to fund her higher education in the city. That was a few months ago. She had refused, after which he aligned with the ‘102-men’ out of

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spite, to chalk out plans on how to stop the procession. He told them everything that he had learnt from his wife. But one day, Rupalim discovered that their plan was leaked by Mastoroni-baideo. Alarmed, she told Bornali, Bornali told Monica’s mother, Monica’s mother told Kontilou’s mother, and finally it reached fiery-tongued Binapani-pehi. Mastoroni-baideo cried a lot when she was scolded.

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In that village, in that stream, at ‘102’, the sun gradually grew older. The toxic dialogues of Monoram Bora, the member of the ruling party who couldn’t win in the last elections had come to a halt. The fifty or more men who had assembled there nodded their heads. They said, if the foolish women go out tomorrow, a mountain of problems would fall on the village (they didn’t specify from where). Monoram Bora said, “It’s true that the army did something wrong. But we should have been careful too. This is not the first time that such things are happening in the country? I know, our sons have taken up arms and have gone astray, but do you think the government would keep sitting with their hands folded? In their silly fight, we all cannot die. We have to survive, isn’t it?” “Yes yes, we all have to survive.” “We have to survive; what if they don’t build our bridge, out of spite? What if we are not given food in flood-relief camps next year? All of you will die of these foolish beings’ actions! It’s all organized and coordinated by the government and if our village does something that they don’t like, we would have to die hungry in flood-relief camps next year. All of it is because of these nonsensical creatures!!” Monoram Bora’s house was built on the highest part of the village. It was never affected during floods. During floods, he would give shelter to some people at this backyard-garden, but women never felt assured in his compound. Every year during the floods, he took some utensils as mortgage from the villagers to give food in return. During winters, he organised large feasts for every random occasion and didn’t invite the people whom he disliked. Who could go against Monoram Bora? He helped them issue ration cards, without which it was impossible to get free food from the government shops—subsidized kerosene and rice. He took a bribe of five-hundred rupees (only) to issue them. Before losing the last elections he used to charge one thousand rupees. But after he was defeated by Sodanondo Borthakur from the opposition party, he understood that it was difficult for the poor villagers to pay such a hefty amount. So he charged them five-hundred rupees (only). People assured him that they would vote for no one other than him, in the next elections. Monoram Bora wanted to defeat Sodanondo Borthakur from the regional party in the next elections. No one dared to go against Bora. He was the richest, the most powerful person in that village. His influence extended like yellow wild parasitic creepers to nine or twelve villages. Even if some people resented his sway they had to obey him due to their children’s demands; after all, there weren’t many days in one’s life that one gets to eat mutton and mati mah’s dal with sticky, reddish, sleep-inducing bora-rice, until one is full to the neck—a feast awaited most eagerly by the children of the village along with the teenagers, and the Bangladeshi immigrants who were hired to work in the fields. The people believed that he knew everything about the government. That he knew what they might do if the people organised the procession. He didn’t tell them about the strict orders which had been sent to him from top-rung leaders of the party. He was to ‘take care’ of the people in his constituency. If that protest march reached the District Commissioner’s Office, the party would definitely not give him the ticket in the next elections and Sodananda would win again, or Bhringeshwar would get the ticket instead of him, since he maintained good relations with the ‘inside people’ in Dispur. To the people who were sitting in the courtyard of 102 (some socially conscious women who didn’t like Binapani-pehi and company had also joined the gathering by now), he told what might happen if the women marched out in a procession the next day. They got illuminating knowledge from him. Finally, they knew why Rupalim was raped by four soldiers. So they went home, told their women that it

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was Rupalim’s fault that she had been raped—a good girl from a good family should be staying miles away from the army; but she went to argue with them when they dragged out her adolescent brother. Some of them didn't want to argue about Rupalim because they had a soft corner for her. So they chatted about Bhumika. ‘It was Bhumika’s family’s fault; no one leaves a young attractive girl alone at home during such bad times.’ “That low-caste Rupalim—just because she is able to read two letters and has passed two exams, she thinks she is a leader?” Monorom Bora had questioned and made a face as if someone had slashed his face with a razor just then. “I had warned her father Dhoroni not to send her to college, but he didn’t listen to me. Now look - no one will marry her!” *** Far away in another corner of the village, in an unmarked place, a regular gathering took place every morning—fiery tongues ruled there; so fiery that if some men reached there by mistake while searching for wild limes and jackfruits; they would scream in unison, “What has happened to you? Have your balls tholorke-tholorke dropped down like ripe mangoes?” In one of those gatherings, amidst the clings and tings of aluminum tumblers where they washed rice, washed clothes with Janata soap and smeared the foam of Lux soap on their faces, they decided: we

have to do something. But this we have to do something had a history—of blood and fireflies; of lost innocence. Nobody knew what exactly propelled them that made them think we have to do something. May

be it was Bhumika’s blood which they saw or maybe it was the meeting that Rupalim had unofficially called. But before they had decided to do something, something had happened. No one knew what exactly it was, but all of them had felt it, sensed it. What had they felt? What? May be they had felt the wind. Heavy. When it passed through the earlobes of women who left their earrings at home in lemon-water bowls before coming to bathe at the stream, it was as if it played a mournful song near their ears. One may speak about the red soil. It had rained the previous night, when they had decided to do

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Some people said it was apt; when someone dies, it drizzles irrespective of the season. So there was red soil in several parts of the stone where they sat and bathed, washed dishes and rinsed rice; and they noticed the red colour that clung to their feet like alta. One of them must have thought, “this is Bhumika’s blood.” That day, the air was heavy. The red soil also reminded them of the blood on Bhumika’s bed; the nail marks over her body, her bitten off underdeveloped breasts, skin on her nape. Her mother had blamed herself for running out of the house with her daughter-in-law to save her son from the jawans who had taken him away for interrogation, and for fainting when she saw her daughter’s body. When people saw a red stain proudly annexing its territory — the white sheets of the bed every minute like red ink on a cotton-bed sheet, they asked each other, “How many more young women and men will be killed in this manner?” Last month, all three daughters of Mr Patgiri were gang-raped by a group from the combing army. Anima, Ronjona and Bobita. In three different rooms. The parents were thrown out of the house. They ran here. The wind slapping them. They ran there. The wind pulling their mother’s hair. Patgiri went to the police station but they refused to come—the soldiers have special Powers, the police said. Anima hung herself. She was found dead with a long neck like the necks of dead ducks killed for meat. People pressed handkerchiefs and cloth on their noses when they broke open the door. A strong

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stench of shit and urine floated in the room. Ronjona tied a steel pot around her neck and jumped into the river after about week later. Bobita is still in a state of shock. Someone standing beside Bhumika’s mother asked, “How old were they?” Nobody knew. But everyone knew Bhumika was in the fourth standard. Slowly, the news engulfed the people who had gathered at Bhumika’s house that night. They had started to scream. Bhumika gasped for breath for about half-an-hour before dying. “The government wants to kill all the rebels. Already several top leaders have been killed.”—Men who read newspapers spoke softly with creased foreheads. A wail gradually engulfed the house like the calls of angry nest-broken crows. The wail became shriller every minute. It awakened the crows, brown skylarks and white and ash-coloured doves that were sleeping in their nests. They encircled the house like vultures just the way journalists came to write about dead people and blast sites. Soon, all wails merged into one. No one knew which were the crows’ caws and which were the women’s wails. The crows were wailing. The people were cawing. Everyone remained hungry that night. Weeping, hungry children with streams of phlegm and crusts of snot were silenced with rice left over from lunch. They surrounded the house that was full with people with white crusts of dried tears around their eyes. Every family poured water on their hearths that night. The hearths hissed like snakes. Moth-white snaky coils aimed towards the dark night sky. It must have awakened Monoram Bora. People still say, he had called up the party office and bargained that they must let him contest the next elections if he was able to stop a protest march and the filing of an FIR. It would malign the ruling government. If it reached the Assamese papers, the English papers would know, too. And if it reached the Assamese and the English papers, someone would write to Amnesty International. It awakened Rupalim too. When the fair and tall Rupalim walked out into that star-studded night to Mastoroni-baideo’s house, dogs barked at her, the wind ruffled her hair, twigs of parrot-green kaminikanchan shrubs pulled her cotton clothes. A few months ago, the schoolteacher had met her one evening after Operation Bajrang had been halted. Cicadas’ songs wove a dense loneliness in an invisible loom. She was coming back from the village stream. He said, he was very concerned about her, was worried what would happen to her bright academic future as her father would never be able to afford it. He assured her, she could study further, do her MA in the city if she wanted to. He and Monoram Bora would fund her education. Both of them make frequent visits to Lakhimpur for work, so they could keep meeting her whenever it would be convenient for her. But Rupalim knew amidst this ‘If You Want’, what mattered was the ‘What We Want’. Rupalim slapped him. She trembled; poured the whole pot of water brought from the stream on his body. And even on this night, when the winds ruffled her hair, and the twigs pulled her clothes, she wasn’t scared. There were soldiers patrolling the village main-road. She took routes which they would never know. It was her village, but infested by olive-green hounds suddenly. After a long knock, when Mastoroni-baideo opened the door, Rupalim said, “Baideo, I haven’t been able to sleep after little Bhumika died. We have to do something. Let’s go to Binapani-pehi’s house.”

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Beside the weaving looms with which rural women draw dreams on clothes, a meeting was held. ‘Something has to be done. We will go and meet the District Commissioner.’

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They complained. They had never been to the city even to shit. How could to they go, stand and shout slogans? Who would write the banners? Even if they were written by someone else how would they read them aloud? Moina’s mother said, “I know the roads in the city well. Last year, I walked around the whole city when we didn’t get the right kind of thread at our regular shop.” Junmoni’s mother added, “Yes, yes, my elder brother stays there too.” Her eyes glistened like sunlight reflected back by black marbles. More than a suggestion, it was a sense of pride that came across when she spoke, “We will inform him of our arrival; he can make some arrangement for tea. After submitting the letter to the officer, we shall go and sit in his house. He has a big house. There are tubelights in his drawing room. The doorbell sings—pi-pi-pi-pi-piya–that Hindi song?” If Dhonti’s mother had not shaken her thin frail body and replied, Junmoni’s mother would have continued to speak, roping in the cost of the sofa set, the colour TV and large dining table made from teak-wood into her conversation.—“Ish, why would he bother himself so much? So many of us! The whole village will be going! Junmoni’s ma, it will be very unfair on them.” Nauman commented, “What’s the problem? After such a long walk, won’t we need a place to freshen up? Otherwise we will collapse! Don’t we have to cook, clean and weave after reaching home?” Rupalim moist eyes became red. Binapani-pehi pulled her petticoat up to her knees and started to make the best use of her sharp tongue. “Losers! Will something good ever happen in your accursed lives? . . . The whole country is burning and you are behaving as if we are going for a picnic!”

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After the meeting, after the decision to do something was taken, it rained. There was dampness around the village. Old men felt like picking the hail stones that had fallen with the rain and became thoughtful and nostalgic. Children dug further into their mother’s chests for warmth. Young sisters and brothers who shared beds hugged each other. Some old people spoke about the autumn rain that came without warning, the cawing of crows at night; they reminded each other about the big-earthquake which made the chests of rivers shallow forever and caused floods. They discussed how animals and birds behaved strangely before the earth rocked in 1950, when the ‘Big Earthquake’ happened. Land moved like waves, waves in the river-flooded villages that stretch on the river banks. Forests sank down, gave birth to lakes instantly during the big earthquake. Hills cracked like nuts, and rivers descended from there. “Something unusual will happen.” “Something unusual will happen.” The next day, near the stream, all the women agreed one by one that something must be done. They looked at the sticky red-soil under their soles and realised that that could have been their own blood or their daughters’, sons’, sisters’. They told each other as Rupalim told them about Lobhita from Sibasagar, “That girl, she was alone in the house that afternoon.” Moina’s Mother screamed, “What is happening in this country?” Junmoni’s Mother remembered exactly what Rupalim narrated after reading the papers, “Those dogs barged into the house and dragged that girl to the thickets behind the house. Later, when her parents came home and didn’t find her inside the house, they searched everywhere in and around the house for about two hours and found her lying in their backyard fishery, breathing heavily. Before dying she said, there were six of them. She had one of the badges in her palms with a name inscribed on it. That was the only proof; the Officer in Charge threw it into the dustbin and said it was inadequate evidence and refused to file a case.” Why wouldn’t Rupalim cry?”—Rupohi extended the statement, “Even Rupalim went through a similar experience.”

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They became quiet. Though Rupalim’s father, her brother, Mastoroni-baideo and Gandhian Freedom Fighter Binapani-pehi had gone along, the local police station refused to file her complaint. They had said that they didn’t have adequate proof. They would have to furnish a doctor’s certificate. They went to the doctor, he said, bring the first information report. They went to bring the first information report. The Officer in Charge was not there. When he came back after many hours, he laughed, “This girl who can walk for four miles and move round and round is a rape-victim? Tomorrow you all will say that a cow has climbed a tree; and you’d expect me to believe it. Get out!” Rupalim wrote to all the major newspapers and women’s organisations in Guwahati, Dibrugarh and Sibasagar. Her news was published and Binapani-pehi spoke to all the reporters. Cried. They published Binapani-pehi’s weeping photo but not the one when she was angry and had screamed slogans such as Bharat Mata Ki Jai, Jai Hind and Gandhi Mahatma Zindabaad to ensure that Rupalim, who she had seen growing up, achieved justice. The reports were published. People who didn’t know how to read or write gathered around people who knew how to read and write and urged them to read aloud what they had written about Binapani-pehi and Rupalim. Binapani-pehi called the reporters ‘dogs’. She asked how dare they publish her weeping photograph but not her clenched-fisted one. She vowed to slap them if they ever came again. Some people said, “It’s good, after all people will get to know even our Teteliguri Village has a Gandhian freedom fighter. Have you seen how proud those Maloybarians are after one of their farmers won the government’s award for good farming?” Monoram Bora called groups of people to his house. Served them lime-juice with rock salt, and served them aromatic paan too. “Look how they have maligned our village? Who will marry our girls now? Rupalim will get compensation from the government and become very rich. Binapani-pehi will receive Freedom Fighters’ Pension. Both of them want publicity and money.” Everyone said “Such a shameless dirty way to get ‘Publicity’.” But none of them knew what ‘Publicity’ was, since it had been said in English, not Assamese. Some women discussed what ‘Publicity’ could be, in the stream while bathing and concluded with firm conviction, “It’s a very expensive nose-ring Guwahatians wear, like our golden citipoti-necklace. Guwahati is a very rich city. All women in Guwahati wear Publicity...” Horokanto’s Mother placed her face in her hands and wondered aloud in a sad tone, “I wonder why old Binapani-pehi wants to wear such expensive ornaments at this age?” Rupohi shed some tears, twisted her face in a sorrowful expression and spoke, “Why are you all jealous? She hasn’t married and has lived a widow’s life, if she wants to wear it, let her wear it before she dies. She has a golden heart!” They all agreed. They had realised that certain events just happen again and again. Salt. Green eyes. Blonde baby. Rupalim. Bhumika. After butter-coloured Binapani-pehi, it was Rupalim’s turn.

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Water was boiling from long ago. For that riverine-village, trampled by mighty floods each year, the saga had started on the day when a butter-coloured girl in the village gave birth to a child with blond hair and green eyes. Things didn’t change at all, much like the dog’s unchanging habit of thrusting its nose into its asshole before sleeping. But to change things we have to do something. For that, even without a tea-break, they were ready to go to the city and demand justice. Mastoroni-baideo was given the responsibility of writing a very strongly worded letter. While writing, she had stopped, had bitten her lips and cried, “How can I forget that little Bhumika? She used to play Brides and Grooms and Kitchen-Kitchen with her clothdolls in my courtyard.”

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All the women and several men and young teenagers in the village signed it, gave thumb imprints. All the men who didn’t go to the malicious 102 signed it, pressed ink-drenched thumbs. It became longer and longer. As it grew, more and more pages were added, it became a history book of oppression and it if it would have been a little longer, the story of a blond child with green eyes killed instantly by having fistfuls of salt shoved into its mouth would also have been part of the story of the letter. The ‘We-Have-to-Do-Something-Procession’ was also a green eyed baby. Even if it was so, they knew they wouldn’t allow fistfuls of salt to be a shoved into its mouth that day. Power-hungry Monoram Bora wanted to shove in some salt, too. Even this lunatic river, forever confused about its path, changing it every four-five years, would shimmer with the confessions on its fish-scale-waves that all of them came out of their tiny, unimportant matchbox houses like bees, crows and ants. Junmoni’s mother emerged late. With bruises on her face. “Can you come along?” others asked. “Yes of course, what’s the point of living like this? Let the soldiers kill me too.”—She wept. Before leaving, Junmoni’s mother shouted out at her husband who had not come with her, had beaten her up for taking part in the procession against his wishes, “You will really repent for the rest of your life in case we die.” Junmoni’s mother noticed it only after reaching the District Commisioner’s office that even Junmoni’s father was among the people. When she said her head was spinning, he patted her head with water poured on his hands from a plastic bottle. She had blushed, “What you are doing in front of so many people!” She had complained. In Chariali, at the end of the village, twenty young men who worked for Monoram Bora stood blocking the road with lathis in their hands. Binapani-pehi screamed, “Come, you want to fight me! Mahatma Gandhi Ki Jai!” (the young girls smiled sheepishly saying “yooo” when they saw her being so melodramatic) They bowed their heads and said, even we want to come, please take us along!. Some miles later, they were joined by Patgiri’s youngest daughter Bobita who didn’t commit suicide. She held her placard high: Indian Army, Rape Us.

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That day, near the District Commissioner’s office, there were thousands of people. But still, there were people. People with a letter. When the police tried to stop them, they screamed. Women picked up stones and threw them at the government servants. Binapani-pehi’s chest took the first bullet. Before dying, she cried, “Jai Hind!” After all, she was a freedom fighter. Some people say, the District Commissioner was writing a letter to the Chief Minister’s office when she was killed and the people were demanding justice. Their screams shook the walls; some glass in the windows broke—maybe due to stones thrown indiscriminately. Or maybe due to bullets fired randomly. But glass broke, his tables shook, and a cup of strong brown Assam-tea suddenly stained his expensive white suit bought from Fancy Bazar in Guwahati. It had cost him ten thousand rupees and a twelve hour long travel in an air-conditioned car. The sky around his office was covered with a thousand cawing crows. People wondered for years from where they came. People say, when something unusual happens, animals and birds behave strangely.

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ASHOK BANKER

THE KALI QUARTET BOOK#1 - BLOOD RED SARI - AN EXCERPT

SECTION TWO

Chi Kou Ri ψ

Red Dog Day

赤口亦為「赤狗日」,是一個不吉利的日子。傳 狗 「 」, ,故 , 宴客;另外,「赤」字含「赤貧」之意,外出沖犯赤狗會帶來貧窮。如一定要 外出拜年,可放一道化口舌符袋於身上,以化解口舌。 The third day after the Chinese New Year is known as chì kǒu (赤口), directly translated as ‘red mouth’ or, when the symbol for poverty is added, as ‘red dog day’. chì kǒu is also called chì gǒu rì (赤狗日). chì gǒu means ‘the God of Blazing Wrath’ (熛怒之神). It is generally accepted that it is not a good day to socialize or visit your relatives and friends.

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Thiruvananthapuram Zoo had been one of Anita’s favorite places to visit as a girl. She had only come once with Lalima but they had held hands and walked around for hours and it had been one of those idyllic days that you remembered forever. Unlike most zoos in Indian cities, it was a sprawling enclosed space with woodlands, lakes, large patches of lush green lawns that could have done with more frequent mowing, beautiful old museums with Raja Ravi Varma paintings with scandalously clad women from puranic epics that school kids giggled at while their teacher shushed them, and the animals actually looked like they were alive and healthy. Unlike, say, the Mumbai zoo where she had thought the beggars on the street lived better than the animals and where crowds stood around haranguing and harassing the creatures all day. She tried not to think about that long-lost summer day but the image of two young girls, innocent of life and with an universe of possibilities ahead of them, refused to be completely dismissed and around every corner she saw something that reminded her again. The lawns were much better maintained now and the general standard of cleanliness and upkeep was impressive. She spent a moment reading a notice that informed her that due to the increased erosion of forests and fauna, the zoo had changed its mission to focus on conservation rather than recreation. There was even a website url provided. She limped slowly around, trying to ignore the pain in her toe that even a handful of painkillers hadn't been able to numb. The lawyer was over an hour late and looked like a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown. His hands shook as he greeted Anita at a bench between the giraffe and zebra habitats. “Madam, I cannot stay long,” he said in a quavering voice. He was dressed in a typical lawyer’s black suit, crumpled and creased with sweat patches around the collar and arms. He was thin and short and wore steel-rimmed spectacles, and a faint mustache darkened his already dark upper lip. “It is not advisable to be seen with you, ma’am. You are in lot of trouble. Very serious matter.” She gestured to the bench and sat without waiting for him. “Varkala police?” “Yes. There is a full-state alert for you. I am in contact with department. I enquired after you mobile-phoned me.” “What are they saying I did?” She asked casually, watching a group of nuns and novices by the giraffe enclosure. “Committed murder?” “They say you are a terrorist. Alert is under Counter Terrorist heading. It is serious matter. There are traffic blocks for you.” She resisted the urge to quip that gee, golly, gosh, she was thrilled to bits to have traffic blocks. For li’l ole moi? How rad! Instead she tried to ignore the throbbing in her right toe and said, “Lalima Mukucundan hired you?” He hesitated a moment, then nodded. “She was not my regular client. She was referred through an associate. I only undertook one task for her, payment was made in advance.” “In the event of her death, you were to send me a set of documents by courier?” He shook his head. “I do not know what was in the packages. They were already pre-addressed. I only had to hand them to the courier and send them.” Anita sat up a little straighter, careful how she put her weight. “Packages, you said. How many were there?” He frowned. “I am not supposed to divulge details. I only agreed to meet with you, madam, because her instructions clarified that if you contacted me, I was to pass on one more item to you personally.” Anita blinked. “What item?” He glanced around as if checking to see that no giraffes were peeking over the wall to eavesdrop. “This.”

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He handed her a small square envelope. She took it. It felt empty but it was sealed and the neat hand-printed letters were in Lalima’s hand—she could tell even though they were printed. She slipped it into the back pocket of her jeans, wincing as the movement pulled at her neck muscles. He noticed her wince but didn’t seem particularly interested in her injuries or pain. He was already starting to stand up. She reached out and caught his arm, pulling him down. He sat abruptly and looked dismayed. ”Madam, I…” “How many packages?” She asked roughly, keeping her voice low. The nuns and novices were drifting past. A pair of the younger ones stared at Anita and the lawyer, Anita’s hand still clutching the lawyer’s elbow, and one whispered something to her friend who giggled, covering her mouth. Anita waited till they went past then said quietly, “Answer me.” She squeezed his forearm hard enough to hurt. It was his turn to wince. He hesitated then said almost sulkily, “Four.” She nodded but kept her hand on his arm, tight, as if he were a bird that might flit away. “You say you don’t know what was in the packages?” He shook his head. She believed him. That was the point of using a lawyer, to keep the contents confidential. Lalima must have picked him after checking him out. The very fact that he was so scared told her he was honest. “I need the names and addresses of the other three recipients.” He started to protest but she punched him hard in the left kidney. A group of Asian tourists drifted past. She leaned in closer to the lawyer and smiled at them. One of the men smiled back but then noticed the bloodstain on her tee shirt collar and frowned. She waited for them to pass by. The lawyer had doubled over. When he straightened up, with Anita’s help, his eyes were wet. What a fucking sissy. “I…” “Shut up and write them down now,” she said harshly. “I don’t have time to fuck around. Do it or I’ll tell the police that you’re involved with me and we’re planting bombs across Trivandrum. You’ll spend the next five years trying to explain your innocence.” That threat worked better than the violence. Reputation was more precious than a kidney in these PR-dominated times. Image was more important than truth. “Madam, they are not in writing,” he said. “Lalima-madam instructed me not to write down anywhere.” He hesitated. “But the courier company receipts are in my satchel.” He gestured to the leather case on his lap. Anita let him open it and he rummaged through briefly before pulling out four rectangular receipts on cheap paper. She glanced at them, saw her name on one and noted that all three of the others were women too, and put them into her back pocket as well. She looked at the lawyer. He looked disgusted suddenly, as if he had done something really venal. “What?” She asked, challenging. “She was my friend, you know. They killed her. I’m sure of it now. That’s why she hired you to send out that package to me. She knew that I would come and try to find out what happened to her. And I will. I won’t stop until I find out everything and get the bastards who killed her. I don’t expect you to understand that.” The look of disgust faded gradually, reducing to a milder expression of disapproval “Police will catch you anytime. They say you attacked your own family and shot your brother because he was trying to stop you from blowing up a church.” She raised her eyebrows. “Blowing up a church? Killing my brother? Not bad. Although you’d think a terrorist would be more ambitious than that. Does anyone in Varkala even go to church anymore? What if I just ended up killing the padre and two deacons? Would anyone even cry?” He crossed himself. “I will pray for you.” She sighed. Monu Varghese. Of course he was Christian.

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“All right, get the fuck out of here.” He stood up but didn’t walk away at once. After a moment he looked down and said, “Jesus Christ will show you the way.” And then walked away quickly with neat mincing steps, leaving her searching for a quick and dirty retort and finding none.

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Nachiketa had never been happier to see Advaita’s face as she was that day. Advaita was one of those stern-faced women who wore a giant black bindi (or red at times) high on her forehead, dressed only in Fab India saris, lots of silver accessories and had a tattoo on her right bicep of Kali stamping on Shiva, her tongue lolling, trident raised. The tattoo had faded over time but her intense glare had only become more intimidating as she had gained weight and age. Even the fiercest of Delhi Jats and Sardars stepped off the footpath when she came striding along in her block-heels, all five-feet-nine of her (plus three inches of heels), 107 kgs and as broad as a barrel. It was difficult to believe she was married with three grown children: novices to Delhi activist circles sometimes made the mistake of assuming she was a lesbian and learned the hard way that she was not. The ‘hard way’ being a bitch slap delivered to the left cheek with the full force of that ‘dhai kilo ka haath’ and all those silver bangles. Addy, as her friends called her, was energetically heterosexual and was rumored to have slept half the eligible men in South Block— and most of the ineligible ones as well. Her husband, a Special Officer currently assigned to the Law Ministry spokesperson, was either an ignorant cuckold or a willing one, nobody knew for sure. Addy breezed in and berated nurses, doctors and the rest of the Burn Ward staff in the hospital where Nachiketa had been shifted early that morning from AIIMS. Once she was certain that her friend was receiving all possible treatment and care, she settled down imperiously with a flurry of hand-woven silk in a plastic chair beside the bed. Nachiketa asked her to have the oxygen apparatus removed and with Addy giving orders, it was done without complaint. Nachiketa breathed a sigh of relief, then coughed several times, glad to be off that wretched thing even though she knew she needed it. The medication they had given her earlier on arrival was almost wearing off and she was aware of the extent of her burns now, as she hadn’t been when she had first regained consciousness at AIIMS. “You are strong, bete,” Advaita said, reaching for her hand then thinking better of it after she noticed the bandages. “You will survive. It is what we women are built do to: survive the abuses of men.” She added a few choice abuses in Punjabi, delivered in a matter-of-fact tone. Nachiketa had once heard Advaita tell her three grown sons—they had been teenagers at the time—that all men were bastards but hopefully the fact that she had breastfed them till they were two years old each would have instilled some sense of shame in their chauvinist heads. As it sometimes did, fate had seen fit to grant her only male offspring, three of them. Nachiketa wondered how they survived Advaita on a daily basis. They talked for a while about Shonali and the tragedy of her death and then about financial and legal implications of the fire. Addy assured her that she had already started doing as Nachos had requested when she called and was arranging for her cases to be handled by another law firm. The Collective would take over all her matters until she was well enough to resume work; although most of what they did would have to be seeking extensions and filing motions for extensions, caveats and sidebars, and so on. The Collective was a group of Delhi women lawyers engaged in their own private practices who took on a certain percentage of pro bono work related to women’s issues. Only a few were full-time on such matters, Nachiketa herself being one. They were heavily overburdened at all times and it was all they could do to keep up with their workloads. Even if they had to actually deal with or argue one of Nachiketa’s cases, it would be several months before they could rebuild the files and study the cases well enough to take on the matters. And with even her computer burning down, along with all her back up disks and files, rebuilding the case files was itself the biggest nightmare that faced Nachiketa’s practice right now.

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“But don’t worry about all that, bete,” Advaita said soothingly, patting the bed sheet in the vicinity of Nachiketa’s arm in lieu of her usual patronizing thump. “Your first priority: get well get strong get back in action.” “Addy, there’s something else I want you to do for me.” Nachiketa asked her to fish out the envelope that she had told Rajendra Powar to place on the side table near her bed. Advaita did that, her bangles and accessories jangling and clanging as she bent over. She had a roll of fat as thick as Nachos’ arm around her midriff but despite her excess weight, she still gave off a powerful predatory sexual aura. She straightened up holding the manila envelope and dusted it off, sniffing in disapproval. “Forget all your clients, bete. Right now you are the one who needs help. This is no time to think of work.” “No, Addy,” Nachos said hoarsely. “This isn’t work. This was sent to me just before the fire. I think it’s the reason why they attacked Shonali and tried to kill me too.” Advaita frowned, her bindi dipping into the deep folds of her forehead wrinkles. “So you know the attackers?” “No. I don’t know who they were or why they attacked her and burned the office. But I’m sure it has something to do with this package. The man who called me on my cell when I was driving mentioned it. They must have searched the office for it and when they couldn’t find it, they called me and threatened to kill Shonali if I didn’t give it to them. But they had no intention of letting us go. So they set a fire-trap for me and when I was in the office, they tried to get rid of me and Shonali’s body and this package as well. The only reason they hadn’t found it was because it had somehow fallen under the table by the door, the same table I took shelter under to escape the fire. I must have hit it with one of my wheels somehow and knocked it there.” Advaita frowned, weighing the package upon her large palm. “What is inside, bete? Why so important?” “That’s what I want to know,” Nachiketa said. “I need you to take it and look through it and tell me what you think. Can you do that for me, please?” “Of course, bete. I will take it home and look at it afterwards and—“ “I mean now, Addy. I need you to open it and look at it now along with me.” Nachiketa raised her bandaged hands. “I would do it myself but…” Advaita looked at her watch. “I have a South Delhi Women’s Committee Meeting at 5, but there is some time. Can I not take it and look later?” “Please, Addy. It may be important. The people who did this are out there, they got away scotfree after raping and killing Shonali and almost killing me. I need to do this now. Please? For Shonali’s sake?” Advaita nodded grimly. “Okay, bete. Let’s do it now.” She tore the flap of the envelope open and began removing the documents from the envelope.

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She survived the jump, landing on a corporate-sponsored median about five feet off the ground. She killed a bed of flowers, rolled over some imported grass turf and was already on her feet, jumping the railing with the brightly colored corporate logo and into the street. She ran before a WBST bus—the driver honked angrily—and down the first turn. Several minutes later, she looked back and was sure she wasn’t being followed. She found a small hotel nearby and went in at once. If they did come after her and try to trace her flight from Phoolbagan the last thing they would expect was for her to check into a hotel. Even if they did, there were probably two hundred hotels in Biddhanagar, all catering to the constant flow of business travelers on account of the BPO and IT boom. She found a room with a street view, took a hot shower,

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and made a few phone calls. She kept expecting her cell to ring at anytime, thinking if they could sic municipal authorities, police and trained American assassins onto her, they must have her cell number too. But nobody called apart from the usual telemarketers. This she knew because she habitually added any telemarketing caller to a contact named JUNK in her iPhone. That way she didn’t have to listen to the automated recordings offering her caller tunes or the same tired call center execs from Noida hard selling her special offers. Her iPhone stayed surprisingly silent the entire day making her wonder if even her friends were avoiding her. Then again, all her friends were people at the gym and after yesterday, there wasn’t much more to know. She slept in the next day, waking late around noon. The man she wanted to see was a hard man to get through to and when she did at last, she was told that he would see her that night. She was given a location and time. There was no question of asking it to be earlier. She spent the day watching television and getting restless. She would have used the hotel gym but didn’t want to be noticed: an Indian woman in a Phoolbagan hotel gym working out would have been a rarity even in these enlightened times. There was nothing on the news about her, the gym, the shootout…nothing. How was that possible? In a world with a hundred news channels chasing after the most insignificant scrap of gossip, how could a shootout at a brand new metro station go unnoticed? It told her, again, that whatever this thing was, it was huge. She started to go through the package again several times but didn’t get much farther than she had the night before. When the figures began blurring, she gave up. Finally, she settled on the hotel bed and watched an entire Arabic movie on an international movies channel followed by half a Mongolian film. Then it was time to get moving. She showered again, wearing the same jeans and tee shirt from the night before. She had hand-rinsed them in the sink that morning just to get the sweat smell out, and asked for them to be ironed. It was the other reason why she hadn’t been able to step out of her hotel room all day. She had had to wrap a towel around herself each time room service came and was glad the waiter was an old Bengali holdout who didn’t seem very interested in her state of dress or undress. He didn’t seem to care much about his tip either. She guessed he must be an antique among the young hotel staff. Coming out of the hotel, she saw a cab going past at an idling pace and hailed it. “Dharmatala,” she said, getting in. The taxi driver, a young Bangladeshi immigrant with a picture of the Ka’aba on his dashboard and as much knowledge of Kolkata geography as a Patiala Sikh just arrived in New York, almost turned the wrong way on Chowringhee Road. She corrected him in time. “Lower Circular Road, turn now.” Instead of turning, he slowed to a crawl and said, “Jagdish Chandra Bose Street.” She said, “Yes, yes, same thing, turn here.” “You want go Dharmatala, no?” “Dharmatala Road, yes.” “This go to Lenin Sarani.” “Yes, that’s the same thing. Dharmatala Road was renamed Lenin Sarani. I want to turn here, please.” He shrugged as if implying that she had no idea what she was talking about but it wasn’t his problem. She was tempted to whack him across the side of his head and tell him that if he wanted to drive a cab in another country the least he could do is know the streets. In Kolkata that meant knowing the old names as well as the new ones. He argued again when she tried to make him stop on Chandni Chowk Street. “All closed,” he said. She wanted to tell him she wasn’t here on a shopping trip to pick up petticoat material. “Please wait. I need to check if the person is there.”

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He shrugged but switched off the engine and waited. She got out and looked around. The street was filled with stalls and vendors and shops selling bric-a-brac. This was a market area after all, as the Bangladeshi had rightly implied, but she wasn’t here to shop. Shakespeare Bazaar, which was what the area had been called when she was a child, was where the Professor lived. She was on full alert after the shootout at the Metro station. Her instincts told her she hadn’t been followed but she wasn’t reassured. Still, she had to do something. Sitting around in a hotel room in her bra and panty wouldn’t get her anywhere. This was definitely not about Marhabha and Tasneem or any politician with a grouse against her. This was about the evidence she had in the envelope stuck under her arm. And that meant finding a person who would help her figure out what that evidence really meant, so she could then figure out what she could do with it. The area had changed and she had difficulty finding the place. He said they had renovated recently. It took her a few minutes to realize that it wasn’t renovation but rearrangement. Some of the old vendors and stores had given way to new ones and the owners of the shops had repainted and refurbished their places, which made everything look different. She found the shop she was looking for at last and the narrow stairwell beside it. She had called ahead, using a public call phone after she had put a safe distance between herself and Phoolbagan station, and he had said to look out for the green staircase. This was it although the naked yellow bulb hanging from the ceiling turned the parrot-green into blue. The staircase creaked as she went up, barely wide enough to let her walk straight. At the top she went down the only corridor to the door on the far right as he had instructed. The door on the left was open and looked out on a terrace. There were dark sheets spread out across the terrace with fish drying on them. She couldn’t actually see them but the smell left no doubt. She paused, remembering her mother bringing home big jars of Putimaachh and telling her how this was Shakespearean Hidol-Shidol. The way she had said it made it sound like manna from heaven. The way her mother fed it to her, mixed with rice balls in just a certain ratio, it was manna. She still associated the smell with her mother feeding her rice balls on the verandah of their Dakshineshwar house. She knocked on the door and it opened inwards. “It’s open,” said a voice. She went in.

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(The above section is a first-draft excerpt from noted novelist and poet Ashok Banker’s forthcoming book THE KALI QUARTET. We at the TFQM had the rare privilege of dipping into the exciting manuscript while the book continues to shape up. We are thankful to Ashok for according us this privilege - Editors.)


TFQM - APRIL 2012

JANET MASON

“ARE YOU MY FATHER?” The day he left it was quieter than usual, but when Joseph Vivienne Wood turned an ear to the silence, he could hear the slight rustle of autumn leaves and under that an orchestra of stringed and winged instruments tuning up to send him on his way. When he stormed out of the house, he didn’t bother to turn around to look back. He didn’t see his oldest daughter leaning out of the second story window watching his every move. But he felt her seven year old eyes staring into the back of his head as he stomped down the gravel driveway – down the hill that sloped away from the house with the general store in the front room.

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He knew what she was capable off – crawling up on the catwalk, walking along the edge of the walkway that he had built, stretching her arms out as if she were a wide winged blue heron, with one leg raised and bent at the knee, about to lurch into flight. He did not look back. At first he thought that all he could hear was the sound of his own blood roaring in his ears – but this was surrounded by a silence. And in the silence he heard harmonica riffs and the low register of guitar chords; the Charleston and the Saints marching in. The music was spiriting him away from his critical Yankee wife and toward a trail of Prohibition speakeasies, roadhouses, and juke joints; back to the South where he had come from, to the belly of jazz and Delta Blues, where gin flowed like water and the sound of shuffling cards was like the ruffled wings of pigeons taking flight. The South was the place that held the illusions and ghosts of his youth, where his stern Baptist hell fire father had condemned his only son to the flames of eternal failure. Joseph Vivienne Wood was going forward into a life where he thought he could be free. Several weeks before he left, seven year old Sarah Jane – “Plain Jane” as her mother called her -climbed out the window onto the catwalk that he had built along the edges of the roof, with a long slide to the ground. He had imagined her sneaking out the window and then creeping on her hands and knees along the catwalk to the corner and then up the slant to the top of the roof. She would have had to crawl past the tiny attic window and, just under the peak of the roof where the catwalk was flat again for several feet where it turned to the right and crossed to the back of the house where there was a railing. Then she would have had to hold onto the railing, squat down until she was resting on her heels at the top of the part of the catwalk that sloped all the way to the ground. He had done this himself, after he built and sanded this last part of the catwalk. He remembered standing at the top of the slide, which overlooked the backyard. His daughter would have seen the same thing: the white sheets that were always hanging on the line, the pile of logs with peeling bark that sat on the edge of the forest. And then a canopy of red, yellow, orange leaves as far as the eye could see. He was a grown man and looking straight down had made him feel queasy. His oldest daughter was only seven, but she was a spitfire. He had imagined her sitting at the top of the slide, squeezing her eyes shut, sitting back on her rear end and pushing off with the heels of her hands. The breeze on the way down would have ruffled her hair, the same shade of auburn as his. Joseph knew that the catwalk that she slid down was smooth. He had sanded it himself from top to bottom. Jane would have slid down and looked down at the cat walk in front of her that seemed to grow narrower as it slanted all the way to the ground. The unpainted wood was the color of sun on sand, with wavy lines going through it. She would have followed the lines with her hands, letting them rest on the raised wooden edges.

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Grooves, he had said. Splinters, said her mother. He had to admit that his wife was right. She usually was. The first time Sarah Jane slid down the catwalk, she had gotten a splinter in the heel of her left hand. She didn’t show her mother until after the heel of her hand swelled and turned a reddish black. He was in the kitchen when his wife grabbed her daughter’s hand. Then he when she told Jane to sit down and wait while she sterilized the needle, Joseph started to leave the room, but then turned around. He didn’t want to see his wife stabbing the needle into the fleshy part of Jane’s hand. But he wanted to see the stubborn look on his daughter’s face – the way that her lips pursed and the ball of her chin became tighter. He knew that she wouldn’t cry. The girl had courage. She was his through and through. “I told you not to slide down the roof,” his wife had said. She was still a young woman but the lines of her face were drawn. “You could have broken your neck. Your father should never have built that catwalk.” She stabbed the needle repeatedly – as if their daughter’s hand was a piece of meat being tenderized, like the Short Loin that she bought from the butcher on special occasions. “Promise me that you will never go up there again.” She pulled the needle out from her hand and this time there was a small brown sliver on the end of it. A splinter. Joseph watched as the child nodded, her hair falling forward. Sarah Jane resembled her mother’s nickname for her, “Plain Jane” with her auburn hair, the same shade as his, falling just below her ears in a bowl cut.

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Joseph knew that Jane would forget her promise immediately. The child didn’t understand what it meant to have a broken neck. She didn’t understand that if she survived, she would have to stay in bed for months and not be able to run to the one room schoolhouse in the morning. Joseph built the catwalk for practical purposes – so that he could repair the roof more easily. But the real reason, he had built the catwalk was so that he could have some freedom. Instead of being inside the house, or even in the yard where his wife could easily find him, he could escape to the catwalk. His oldest daughter must have felt the need for freedom, too. He imagined that the first time she crawled out of the window and up the catwalk she must have felt like a bird. Not a small one, a sparrow or a chickadee or even a chicken, like Henry or George, pecking around in the dirt near the well. No Sir. His oldest daughter would have felt like a hawk – with a wingspan that soared into forever. Jane had climbed onto the catwalk about a week ago. Joseph had been outside chopping wood and would have seen her if she was in the yard. She must have climbed out the window of her bedroom that she shared with her youngest sister, still a toddler. His wife usually kept their youngest with her downstairs, in the general store that they ran in the front of the house. He could see why Jane would rather be on the catwalk than in her room. The room was small and dark, with two small single beds and blue damask wallpaper with raised velvet flower petals rubbed smooth above the beds and along the edges of the room as high as the girls could reach. Jane had her own room until she was four and her baby sister was born. His wife told him that Jane said, “Get that thing out of my room,” about her baby sister. They had both laughed. Jane was a spitfire and it sounded like something she would say. But his wife loved a good story and was always making things up. Jane was growing like a weed. There was a big difference in a child’s life between four and seven. She would have had to kneel on all fours as she made her way along the catwalk under her window to the corner of the house and then up past the attic. The air she breathed would have smelled fresh and clean compared to the stench of the house that always smelled like day old cabbage and potatoes. It seemed to Joseph that his wife was always nagging him – so he played the wireless constantly to drown her out. He had built the radio from a kit. It was about the size of a breadbox, with a panel of dials in the front, and it sat on a small table in the living room. Joseph was the only one who knew how to operate it. In his last

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radio address, the President talked about his veto of the Farm Relief Bill. There was no other sound in the house as the President spoke. Outside there was no crackle from the wireless. Around him was the steady expanse of blue sky. The slow slice of metal splitting fresh wood met his ears in a steady staccato as he chopped wood. When he paused, he heard a Whip-poor-will and then a Phoe – be – be. Joseph looked to the peak of the roof where the mocking bird perched, with its black and white tail feathers twitching up and down. They lived in a place called Neshaminy, filled with Birch, Beech, Aspen, Maple. The leaves rustled as if the trees were whispering secrets to each other. Insects rubbed their legs together and hummed. One afternoon, he saw his oldest daughter lying in the tall grass on the outskirts of the yard – just before the forest. He had turned back to chopping wood and when he looked back at her – about twenty minutes later, she was still lying there, flat against the earth with her arms outstretched in front of her, her forearms propped up and her face resting on her fists as she stared at something intently. When he was a boy, he had done the same thing – lying in the grass for hours, staring into the two tiny bulging eyes of a praying mantis. There was a time – not that long ago – when the door to the store was always slamming. Customers came through shouting hello. Delivery men grunted under the weight of their wares – sacks of coffee beans, flour, the white rice that he liked so much because it was what he ate when he was a boy growing up in Mississippi. First the customers stopped coming so often. Then there were fewer delivery men. When customers bought something, his wife went behind the wooden counter to ring up their purchases on the NCR register. The register was mahogany brown with a window at the top that showed the numbers. Beneath the register window, rows of buttons lined up. The drawer at the bottom of the register popped open after the copper bell rang. His wife didn’t like him to touch the register. More than once he took the money and spent it on moonshine. He found out later that his wife was hiding the money from him in the pot belly stove that sat in the back of the store, its crooked flue pipe running into the back wall. The pot belly stove was made of cast iron. A few days ago, the temperature had suddenly turned cool and there was a snap in the air. He wasn’t one to think about saving money if he was cold. The little door on the front of the pot belly stove creaked on its hinges as he opened it. He took his match book out of his back pocket, struck a match, and threw it into the stove. The room was already getting warmer when his wife came up behind him, shrieking. Later he heard the children whispering, “Mama’s going to get a licking.” So his children knew what happened – which meant they knew that their mother hid the money from him. For all he knew the neighbors, the customers even, knew that his wife didn’t trust him. His wife grabbed a poker and in vain raked through the embers that were already turning to ash. The money was gone—it had vanished in the tendrils of smoke that faded into the chilly autumn blue. He would see to it that their Mama would get a licking. He didn’t think about the fact that his children might hear him or that they would grow old telling this story, when they were 50, 60, 70, the years dropping away as they remembered the worn leather strap that hung on the kitchen wall. Outside on the catwalk, the second time she climbed it, Jane must have crawled on all fours toward the rear of the house where the catwalk turned and sloped all the way to the ground. She would have heard voices drifting up from the front yard. “Ethel -- you in there?” called a neighbor who had walked past Joseph chopping wood. He heard the woman greeting him but he kept his back toward her, as he hoisted the ax to his shoulder and brought it down, slicing the air before it into the log. When he was done, he still hadn’t turned around. He ran a handkerchief across his forehead. He suspected that his wife was still giving her “friends” store credit even though he told her not to. There was a time when he loved being in the store – with the burlap bags of dusty coffee beans and the slippery smell of Veedol Motor oil in its black drum dispenser, with the red letters on the front. He remembered when Jane had

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filched some Lucky Strikes and Sarsaparilla and White Birch Beer soda pop for herself and her friends. His wife was livid and asked him to “speak to that child.” But he was secretly pleased that Jane had stolen the Lucky Strikes – that was the brand he smoked. “She’s green to the gills, already,” Joseph replied. “That will teach her.” Outside, under the clear blue sky, Joseph heard his wife call out. He turned around and looked to where she was pointing and saw his oldest standing on the catwalk, her arms stretched out to either side like a tight rope walker in the circus. But she was teetering on the edge of the house and there was no net to catch her. His wife was on the other side of the yard, hanging sheets. “Sarah Jane! What are you doing up there! Get down right now.” Joseph saw the child was thrown off balance by his wife’s words. Of course, the child was startled. She was minding her own business, as free as a bird, until his wife interrupted her. “Joseph, say something to that child – before she breaks her neck.” Joseph had turned around, his back toward his wife. He looked like he was going back to chopping the firewood, but he was thinking about what to do next. The last time her mother had asked him to “speak to that child” was when Sarah Jane had drawn a charcoal sketch – larger than life – of Hector and her nursing puppies on the parlor wall. His response had been to say, “That’s a very good drawing, Jane.” This time he turned back around and looked up to where Jane was perched on the catwalk. He paused as he stared up at the roof. Then he cupped his hands like binoculars in front of his eyes. He leaned forward as if he was on the bow of the Merchant Marine ship on which he had sailed to Philadelphia before meeting her mother. “Hello, Jane,” he shouted, holding his pose to for a long moment, before dropping his hands. With her arms outstretched to each side, Jane regained her balance and walked nimbly to the part of the catwalk that sloped all the way to the ground. He watched as she sat down and slid to the ground.

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The day that he left for good, he didn’t turn around. He didn’t look back at the house. He didn’t want to see his oldest daughter staring at him as he left. He got into the Model T, slammed the door behind him, made sure the hand brake was on, pulled out the choke and then turned the key as he stepped on the starter. The engine sputtered. He turned the key again. The engine turned over and put putted. Joseph breathed a sigh of relief. He wouldn’t have to get out and crank the engine. He could simply drive away. He didn’t want to know that his daughter’s world was falling apart and that deep inside her seven-year-old body, something small and hard, like the seed of a pomegranate, was starting to form, something that would grow very slowly until one day many decades later it would take her life away. As he drove away, on a dirt road, he felt as if something was tearing inside of him. He felt as though he were a tree with a low branch being ripped out of his trunk. Blood roared in his ears. He clenched the steering wheel and drove as fast as he could toward freedom. He didn’t allow himself to think about the fact that his wife would have to take the girls back to the city where she could find work. He didn’t think about the fact that his leaving meant that his oldest daughter would have to leave everything she knew – the house, the trees, the Praying Mantis, the one room schoolhouse where the teacher had accused her of “swearing like a drunken sailor” when all she did was to repeat what he said when he called the female dog a bitch. He didn’t know that his wife and daughters would come to invent their own stories about what happened to him. He didn’t know that his oldest daughter would always be searching for him -- every time a man wearing a fedora drove by in a black Model T that she would run after the automobile yelling, “Are you my father?”

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KULPREET YADAV

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The holiday ran into trouble when Raul was caught, as his girlfriend claimed, murmuring the name of her best friend Sarah, in sleep. He was woken up, confronted, and when he said like a stupid idiot that it was indeed Sarah he was with in his dream, Arti, his girlfriend was furious. So furious that he thought she would turn into a super-ghost, transform into a missile, shoot through the ceiling of their hotel room and escape through the roof ten floors above to travel to Delhi and search for the poor Sarah, pierce into her body and kill her. But it didn’t exactly go that way. Another thought visited Raul: now she looked more dangerous than a missile, resembling as she did, a human bomb that was readying to discover its untapped potential, to explode, to blast him into smithereens. He cursed the whiskey which clouded his thoughts. Oblivious that it was three in the morning, they had run outside, unable to solve their differences, she calling him a traitor and he begging it was just a dream. Standing at the edge of the valley, feeling the darkness breed more darkness, lamely watching the bizarre messages written by the fireflies all around them, Raul thought of an escape route. The sky hung over them like an inverted black sea. The trees formed and reformed shapes of animals. Raul felt scared. He watched one tree, felt the scare, turned his attention to the next, got scared again and turned his attention to yet another. It went on till he stood, shaking like a beheaded reptile. Raul was desperate but the drunkenness that he felt didn’t make things easier for him. It was weird but he thought he might die before her anger subsided. He knew he had to do something. So he mustered courage and murmured to Arti, “I’m sorry, honey. I’ll never let Sarah into my dreams again. I promise.” It sounded stupid, but he said it in a manner that he meant it. Arti smiled tenderly. He watched her, wonderstruck. In no time he was smiling too. She looked beautiful and he couldn’t believe his luck that she believed him. Within seconds, he exploded into laughter. She joined him and they walked back to the hotel, holding hands. But this was a temporary relief, Arti assured him as soon as they saw the hotel lights appear on the horizon and that curtailed the laughter. Bravely holding on his smile, he said he understood. As they reached the room he poured himself a large scotch, made warm bubbles in the tub and sat in it, the door left ajar. Ten minutes later when Arti appeared in the doorway naked as he had expected her to be, he felt a rare excitement. They tried to make love in the tub, spilled a lot of bubbles, and slipped a couple of times. Arti sprained her ankle; he twisted his arm. Finally in the bedroom, they made love like crazy, mindless animals in heat. At breakfast it began all over again. They were seated at the restaurant where smiling faces ate in silence at tables around them, and music played. “You like her, don’t you?” Arti was looking at him, the chewing halted halfway. Raul muttered an inevitable nothing, waved a hand to emphasize that nothing, smiled and continued eating. She repeated the question. He whispered yes without intending to, shouted no so that the yes could drown and watched with horror the effort fail. “Why?” Arti’s gaze was making him nervous. Her eyes had already watered.

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“I love you.” The whisper was slower, but he was sure it would reach her. She smiled, and said she would wait while he finished his food. So Raul finished whatever remained, ordered some more and drank more beer, totally unaware if their life as a couple would survive another day. It was late in the evening when Raul woke up, the curtains had been drawn and the room looked at him through the light from a dim night-bulb. He stretched, drank water, yawned and looked at the watch to discover that he had overslept. But Arti wasn’t there. He ran to the bathroom, to the balcony and halfway down the corridor in his underwear before running back in and calling her on the phone. There was no response. It was at that moment he noticed the note under the pillow. Since I know all about you and Sarah I have decided to abandon you. But I must tell you she’s a whore. Goodbye! Arti. Raul breathed easy and dealt with a few more yawns with better ease, opening his mouth wider, scratching his balls. He poured a large scotch and announced loudly in the intercom, “You can come in now, baby.” In less than a minute he heard the door open and he smiled, feeling like a willing pink earthworm about to be picked by an eager bird. He had arranged for Sarah to be at the hotel too, just in case he needed her. He laughed at his own smartness. But when he saw Arti come in, looking equally sexy in Sarah’s clothes and walking towards him with that hungry look in her eyes, he wanted to die. He did. The bullet that got into his heart didn’t hurt. He smiled and whispered, already in dream, “I love you, Sarah! Sorry, Arti. I love you both.” Then Raul closed his eyes.

NIKESH MURALI

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The Kollam Passenger was for lesser mortals because it was a rusty and old. Not that it really mattered. But for people like myself, who wanted to go out in style, there were better options. I walked away from the window and joined the tools of my trade at the table, to work on the rest of the letter. I briefly opened my wallet to glance at her photograph that I had snapped at a friend’s wedding. We were in Harippad at his ancestral home, under the watchful eyes of his dead forefathers, who stared down from their garlanded black and white photographs high up on the walls. The small house could barely contain the throng of relatives and friends, and the crowd had spilled onto the forecourt. That was when I glimpsed her leaning on the wooden railing of the verandah, her eyes fixed in the distance as it contemplated the beauty of paddy fields and the little streamlet that flowed silently by its side. I barely had half an hour to draft the note before the express that was to be my salvation would rush in to deposit its human cargo on the platform, and then continue on its hasty journey up north. I wondered whether its steel soul coated in brown paint wept in pain over its thankless labour.

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It was addressed to no one in particular. She would have enjoyed reading it though. She always loved reading my earlier drafts the most because she said she could feel my warmth in the crossed out words, underlined sentences and annotated paragraphs. She had labeled me a minimalist writer, I didn’t mind it, because she always kissed me passionately after pointing out minimalist trends in my writing. I think she would have said the same thing about what I had crossed out and rewritten many times over now: I have taken one of the northbound trains. Don’t bother looking for me. I am… She loved this city. She spoke to the landmarks during our evening walks and enquired as to how they were faring in the face of unrelenting abuse from people, birds and pollution. She would squeeze my hand when we approached the statue of the Velu Thambi Dalava, who stood in frozen grandeur in front of the government offices on Statue road, and I would halt, giving her a few moments to stare solemnly at the sculpture. She brought back the lingering sights, sounds and smells of the temple, the fish market, the flower shop and other destinations in the city whenever she returned home from her forages. That is how I knew she was back, for she was a silent creature. When she walked, it was almost as if she was floating on air, so I presented her a pair of gold anklets and listened to its sweet complaints all day as she paced around the house. I walked through the same city a few days ago without her, and every turn, every corner, every street, every landmark had lost its colour and her favourite statues and trees spoke to me in dreary tones, as if her absence had finally compelled them to communicate with me. It was like attending a séance hosted by an inanimate psychic who translated your loss in indecipherable tongues. Another train arrived at the station. I got up from my seat and watched it from the window. Human insects from distant lands vacated its innards and spilled onto the cemented platform, and even as they progressed in a chaotic fashion to the exits, another swarm of limbs rushed into the half empty hive. The noise was unbearable. It felt like I was back at that dreadful hospital ward again. I covered my ears when my mother-inlaw wailed and screamed her name. I felt several hands trying to comfort me, and my head pounded as I slumped onto an empty bed. I braved a quick glance at her lifeless hand that protruded from within the white sheet. I closed my eyes to wish the nightmare away, but when I reopened them, it was still a world without her smiles. The passenger train blew its horn announcing its departure for Kannur. I went back to the note, decided to stick with the simple message and signed it. I placed an empty glass on top of it. For some reason I kept thinking of the smog that covered the city every morning for several hours, hiding everything that was emaciated and failing from the sight of vultures that flew tirelessly above it in circles. My digital watch announced the time with short beeps. I had to start my journey to the tracks. I didn’t bother closing the door to my room and I wished the receptionist a good night on my way out of the motel. I nodded when he asked me if I was going out for dinner. He recommended the Kairali Bhavan Hotel next to the Kali Amman Kovil for its fine lentil curry and appam. I walked along the tracks, gazing up at the night sky, trying to identify constellations. I couldn’t remember the names of most of them. But she always did and she tried to teach me, and when I failed miserably every night in my attempts to recall them for her, she would tell me that when we had our ten kids, I would never remember their names, thanks to my appalling memory. The minor vibrations and the distant sounds of its imminent arrival sharpened my senses, as I lay on the track, waiting for it to violate everything that was delicate and sacred in me. The sounds grew louder and the tracks shuddered and groaned as the headlight of the locomotive pierced the gloom and approached my resting place. And in those final moments I wondered what they would say about the note - the fools that devoured my fables and wrote many critiques with scalpels.

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I have taken one of the northbound trains. Don’t bother looking for me. I’m at peace with myself and my past. I told her once that we would make a pilgrimage to the Himalayas. So that is where I am headed, to the silent mountains, to witness the purity of snow. It was my masterpiece.

PRITI AISOLA

PATALA VINAYAKA

(The following excerpt is from a work of fiction. It is in the form of a longish email. Uma, a woman in her mid-fifties meets Leela, a much younger woman at Ramanashramam in the temple town of Tiruvannamalai. Both have their own trials to face and sorrows to come to terms with. They strike up a friendship. In Leela, Uma begins to find the daughter she lost many years ago to a fatal fever.) Leela, here’s another story for you:

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We had just finished seeing the main temple of Srikalahasti. Shankar, and our friends, wanted to have a cup of tea before heading back towards Tirupati to catch the evening train to Hyderabad. I told Shankar that I was going to look for the Patala Vinayaka shrine which we had missed seeing. On our previous visit, three years back, I recalled visiting the Patala Vinayaka shrine. But the memory of its exact location had vanished from my mind. That evening there was a cloudburst and I had rushed to see the shrine in the downpour while the others had made a dash for the car. For some reason I felt that it was outside the main temple but that’s not true. It is in the second courtyard of the temple, about thirty feet beneath the surface. This is said to mark the level of the Swarnamukhi river that flows by. As I walk farther away from the main temple and the small shops with their snacks, tea and refreshments, I see a small white-washed gopuram in front of me. And to my left is an uneven mud path leading to a doorway. Something tells me that this is not the way to the Patala Vinayaka shrine but I am curious. A little fearful too. Four saffron-robed mendicants stand along the pebbly path with their begging bowls. All of them look weather-harried and a bit scary with their bony burnt-brown faces, jaundiced eyes and unwashed hair in a top knot and long wayward beards. As I approach the doorway uncertainly, a man rushes up to me and asks what I am looking for. I ask him if that is the way to the Patala Vinayaka shrine. He doesn’t answer my question but says that he knows all about the shrines within and he will be my guide. My instinct tells me that the man is a hoax, that I mustn’t step inside, but my curiosity about the place gets the better of me. We go under the doorway and I try not to look at the man whose appearance is making me apprehensive. Dressed in a shabby white shirt and a threadbare veshti, he is thin, almost bony. Creased and burnt by the sun, his facial skin stretches over his high cheek bones. Through slit-like eyes, he tries to read my expressions, my body language. Though taut with anxiety, I pretend an interest in his narrative about Srikalahasti. By now I know that I am in the wrong

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place. I can beat a quick retreat but an obstinate need to defy my own fears and see the whole adventure or misadventure through has taken hold of me. To our right is the Manikarnika Devi shrine. We enter it and a fresh-looking young priest recites a devi stuti, does the aarti. I am relieved to see him. The goddess looks beautiful and still. I’ve been foolish, venturing inside alone. Please be with me, divine mother, I pray. I place some money in the brass puja plate and we leave the womb-like security of the shrine. I look around me. Trees, dry shrubs, wild plants – the entire place has an air of decay and neglect. Its silence wears gray and keeps a tremulous bony finger on its shriveled lips. I shove this image out of my head and follow my dubious guide who is explaining the significance of Srikalahasti at rattling speed. I hear nothing. I hear my fears. We cross a threshold and before we go up a short flight of steps, my guide points to a pile of thick coiled rope, touches it reverently and says that it is sacred because it is used to pull the devi’s chariot with the utsava murti. Then in the next breath he says, “With what confidence you have come along with me to see these shrines! No one else will do that.” My heart sinks. I pretend not to have heard his comment. I can still turn back but something impels me to go on. We climb a few steps and reach a raised platform like a small stage. On the rock surface that forms a backdrop, are colourful sculptures in low relief depicting stories from the Shiva Purana. He begins to narrate one of them and I tell him that we need to rush as my husband and friends are waiting. He pauses before one Shiva sculpture. I tell him that it shows the Bhikshatana murti and the rishi patnis. The execution of the Bhikshatana story in stone is not very agreeable. It has none of the austere charm of the depictions I have seen in other temples. In fact, there is something low about it. He is astonished that I recognize the sculpture. I don’t like the look on his face. I have robbed him of a chance to tell a juicy story. I turn around decisively to go back. He stops me. “Now that you have come till here, how can you go back without offering worship at the Panchamukheshwara lingam?” He sees my hesitation and urges me to follow him. We go up another flight of steps. Against a hillside and a picturesque pile-up of rocks and boulders, is the small shrine of Panchamukheshwara. “I have seen it. I am going back.” “Won’t you listen to the significance of this lingam and say a prayer? It will take less than two minutes.” I am angry with myself for being so curious. I feel helpless and foolish. He urges me to peep in and look at the lingam. It is a beautiful one. I try to silently pray or chant but even a simple Shiva shloka has evaporated from my memory. “I must get back right now,” is drumming inside my head. My guide begins his explanation of the lingam’s significance in a sing-song declamatory tone as if he is rehearsing for a performance. His self-involvement gives me a breather. I can catch uneven scraps of the recitation. The lingam represents the panchabhoota sthalas, the five main Shiva kshetras, each embodying one of the five basic elements – air, ether, fire, water, earth. The top surface of the lingam is Srikalahasti, the vayu (air) sthalam. To see the third face of the lingam, to have a darshan, one has to rest against the rock surface and bend low or sit on a shallow seat carved into the rock. He insists I do this. After that I tell him peremptorily that I need to go. He starts reciting a prayer to Shiva and some shlokas in praise of Shiva. Seeing me make a move to go down the steps, he grabs a few flowers from the narrow window ledge of the shrine and showers them on me in blessing. To get rid of him, I give him a ten-rupee note. He protests. For such an elaborate tour of this place this is nothing. Suppressing my anger and helplessness, I give him another ten-rupee note and quickly scramble down the steps and heave a sigh of relief as I finally reach level ground. I hear him repeat several times, “You are brave, exceptional. No one else would dare to come alone like this.” I could’ve slapped him. I should’ve slapped myself. As I am striding across the front portion of the Manikarnika shrine, he stops me. “You have to do a pradakshina, see the sthala vriksham and the Shiva shrine at the back.” Fuming within myself, I see the sthala vriksham. I have a vague recollection that it has three trees at one spot – perhaps two neem and one bilva. I peer into the Shiva shrine. It feels dark and gloomy. A voice calls out to me to step inside and pray. I ask from the threshold, “Just tell me what Shiva is called here. I am in a hurry. I have to go.” A raucous voice snaps, “Go away.” My self-control snaps. Irritation and fear is writ in bold on my face. My guide says, “It will only take two minutes.” “No,” I say with surly resolution and rush out of the temple enclosure.

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I did not find the Patala Vinayaka shrine but I felt that I had journeyed into Patala and re-surfaced. Wonder how you will respond to this story, Leela. Write to me. Much love, Uma

RUMJHUM BISWAS

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See that young girl walking in jeans. She is having two fully grown bosoms that are jutting out like very ripe mangoes. No shame she has wearing tight T-shirt. These days all the girls are like that. I wonder what kind of daughter-in-law she will make. Certainly not like my very own daughter-in-law. I remember when she first came into our house; how she bent down to touch my feet. Her blouse was a low cutting blouse, only little, for after all she was a decent girl from good family; her parents did not create problems with our demands for the marriage. They smilingly took our list and did not try to cut down. Mind you, we were not asking for dowry. No. Not at all. We were only giving them the list of gifts to our family members and what they should do in order to be most hospitable to us during the marriage ceremony. We did not utter a word about money or gold or anything like that. We are also very decent family and our son is doing a very good job in a computer company. Yes, he has been to foreign countries also, for training-shaning. My daughter-in-law’s father and mother behaved well. Even though we did not demand, they gave decent gold jewelry and good saris and utensils and furniture to their daughter, plus good saris to all our female relatives and dhotis to the men. They provided good food and good hotel accommodation. We also took good care of them when they came for the reception. Of course being the boy’s side, we are not obliged, but because we are cultured we were very hospitable to them. Even afterwards when my daughter-in-law’s family used to come, my wife would prepare very good food. My daughter-in-law also helped her in the kitchen. I had nothing to complain about. A young, fresh-like-a-morning-flower woman was in my house, and she was being most respectful to me. She was bending down to touch my feet and I could see her mangoes. Yes, she was always giving me many opportunities to see, because she was so respectful. I was giving her my full affection, almost like a father, but my better half was getting angry. She started finding many faults with daughter-in-law’s cooking. So just to make her more and more angry I used to ask for second helping. So daughter-in-law was giving me; she was bending, her head covered, and ladling the food into my plate. Oh what a fun it was to see two women fighting for my attention. After two years when grandson came, I would be passing by with my head bent, but from under my spectacles I was seeing how much in full bloom my daughter-in-law had grown; motherhood had made her full to overflowing with beauty. Sometimes her sari was getting wet with milk. What sweet milk it must have been. The honey smell of new milk was around her all the time. One day she even forgot to button her blouse! Ah! I felt like taking out my dentures immediately and putting my mouth there. The last stage of man is back to being a baby, so my needs were nothing but a natural outcome of time. Nevertheless I controlled my desire and asked her for tea instead. She immediately went into the kitchen and made me hot sweet tea. She was a good daughter-in-law. I was happy with her. But my wife was jealous. Women are always jealous of each other. That is their nature. Men should be strict with the

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women. But nowadays men are losing their manliness in front of their women. This country is going to the dogs. Now my son and daughter-in-law are living apart from us. They have bought a smart and brand new apartment at the far end of Kolkata, where all these big big IT firms are coming up. I have heard that this part of Kolkata is the latest posh locality. Nowadays Ballygunge and Gol Park are shabby old places. My son is also having brand new Ford car. It’s a very big car. All this is very fine. I want my son to succeed. But why live so far away? But I am not the only one. All my friends are in the same predicament. At least my son is still in Kolkata. Others are having NRI children. They are proud, but very sad also. This habit of staying away from parents was not there in our time. You will say that our old traditions are breaking. But I say that women cannot tolerate one another. Yes, that is the real trouble these days. Mother-in-law and daughter-in-law always fighting; like alley cats they are at each other’s throats. Everywhere you go, this is the same story. Women are like that only, but nowadays the men have become weak. No control over family. What is happening is happening. The world is changing. But I am missing my grandson. That will never change. Previously, every morning I would take him with me when I went for morning walk. That time he was just a six month old baby. I was free to show my friends that indeed I was proud grandfather of a boy. I would open his pant to show them. My friends would kiss him in the soft manly part. I was also kissing him. But one day my son saw, luckily not me doing it, but my friend, and he was getting very angry. “Why you have allowed your friend to do this nefarious activity!” he was saying many times. Nefarious activity? What new thing is this? I am his grandfather how can I do anything nefarious to my grandson? My ear drums were bursting. My pressure was going up. My wife was not able to make him understand that in our generation this is done. It is also a custom to take a picture with your naked grandson on your lap so that the whole world can see the permanent record of your son’s son, and how your seed lives on for generation to generation. My father also had one each of both my sons. The framed pictures used to hang on a wall in his room where he could see them from his bed. It is very normal. You must be proud of your grandson’s soft manly part. You must show to the world that your son is capable of giving birth to a son. But these days they are having too many ideas in their heads. They are going against tradition and all the things we were proud of. Now they are living in a separate house. Sometimes they are inviting us. Like guests. Yes, I have become a guest in my own son’s house. My wife and I are going and sitting in the drawing room. Daughter-in-law is serving food and we are playing with grandson under her supervision. They are buying presents for us. But what is the use of all these things? I am only wanting my grandson. Now that he is older, of course I will not need to show his manly part. Of course neither my friends nor I are going to kiss or fondle him there. That requirement is over. But I am still active. I could have taken him to school. I could have taken him to park. I could have told him so many stories from my childhood. This is how our history and culture is passed on; from grandfather to grandchild. But who listens to an old man? Nowadays I am doing my morning walk up to this park every day. Then, I am sitting here and watching traffic and people. Sometimes my friends are joining me. But today I am alone with my thoughts and that girl’s mangoes. And also her vanity bag. I have observed that these days girls and women are carrying vanity bags of many styles. They are also keeping many things inside the bags. Sometimes, I am thinking that girls and women are keeping their whole possessions inside of their vanity bags. We, the manly type men, are not like that. Only one wallet, and for going to office one portmanteau bag. The portmanteau bag was for keeping important files and Tiffin box. Coming back home time it was also safe place for bringing home pencils, rubbers, pens and other small stationery items from office. Children were small at that time, why to waste money on buying school stationeries? So I was bringing home these things. This was normal practice, open secret. It was part of our undeclared salary in those days. But these days the companies are not declaring anything to their loyal employees. My son is telling that it is all cost to company. The company is only seeing how much you are costing inclusive of perks. I cannot imagine how much these modern companies would have charged me for my pencils and rubbers. I

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am understanding fully well how difficult life is nowadays. But we are also having some more comforts. The TV channels are many and so there is entertainment choice. And everything is colour. I am liking my news channel and National Geographic the most. The Discovery Channel and History channel are also very good. My wife is watching only Bengali telly-serials. I am not complaining as long as she is keeping her mouth shut. Only problem is when there is cricket match. After so many years of being married to a man, why she is not knowing what cricket is to us? I am absolutely not understanding. But modern day girls are little bit more understanding. I am sitting here on my park bench and hearing young school girl type girls talking about how handsome Dhoni is and how cute Sehwag is. I don’t know how much cricket they are understanding but they are at least not creating trouble for us men by wanting to see telly-serial during match time. Nowadays our own Saurabh, our Bengal’s pride, our Gaurob is not taking centre stage. But he is still the big dada of Indian cricket. I am blessing him many times in my heart. Our Saurabh is the only Bengali standing who is bringing self respect to our land. O what a land Bengal was. What do these young peoples know? They are knowing nothing. They have not seen the tiger Bengal. They have no idea what Bengal was in British times. Capital of India! They are not knowing that the best industries were here. The best artists. The best writers. Best singers. They are only knowing Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray. That is very good. But Bengal was having so many other luminaries also. In all the fields. Ah, but what is use? What is use in thinking of past glorious days? Now Bengal is tiger without any teeth. Just like me. I am needing false teeth to chew fish and rice. I cannot eat corn cobs. I cannot eat guava. The monsoon is coming but bringing me no joy. There was a time when I was stopping at one particular Bihari man’s trolley to buy tender corn cob which he was then roasting on a small portable unoon with smoldering coals in it and he was fanning it to keep the coals from burning out, and the light green leaves of the cobs were in a soft pile on the wet road. A cow or two would munch the waste. The unpeeled cobs would be piled high on his trolley on one side and the unoon at the other end and yellow lemon pieces on enamel plate and rock salt in a jar in between. I remember the smell of the tender cobs, roasting and the blue smoke rising. Right next to him would be the Guava woman sitting on her haunches with her basket of fresh green guavas and also some rock salt in a jar. I would be buying four or five guavas and asking her to slice one. She would be cutting it neatly and sprinkling rock salt on the wedges and then putting the lot on a sal leaf. After this all I would be needing was a hot cup of tea, but for that I had to wade through calf length dirty water for the gullies of Ballygunge were having poor drainage; yes, even today there is water logging all over Kolkata. Now that life is gone. That house in Ballygunge is sold to builders for tall apartment building in which I am owning one flat but I am not staying there. I am giving it on rent because the prices of necessities are going up so high that I am constantly needy. Now that my son has moved away, he does not think he should look after this old father of his who worked so hard to send him to good school and engineering college. I don’t know why in this country we are so son-crazy. Everywhere I see the daughters are more dutiful. The sons always follow their wives. But I must not say bad things about my daughterin-law. Initially she was a good daughter-in-law. My wife is no saint, but I have to defend her. I have also grown old. My teeth for cracking walnuts are gone. Sometimes I am thinking it is better for me to suck milk from a bottle. Better it would be if I could suck it from a woman’s breasts. I would love to become baby once more, no responsibilities, and everybody loving me. My wife’s breasts are dry. Besides she will be shocked if I make my desire known to her. She will think I am indecent man. Why are women so difficult? I have seen how slowly and slowly she has pushed me away after the children were born. Even night time for me was a duty for her. Are they not having any desire? But as soon as daughter-in-law is inside the house they are feeling insecure. I was still prepared after retirement to satisfy her. But she was not liking it so much. I could tell. What is the use? I could have spent money…at least such type of women would have pretended to like me. Of course I have never visited those types of places, ever. My colleague Ghanshyam Das has. But I am a man of very good character. I will never betray my own lawfully wedded wife. Looking at mangoes does not mean I am

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climbing the tree and stealing them. Anyway now I have to go home as the sun is very hot. I will drink a cup of tea made by Dipta, our new maid. Now that my wife is having many arthritic pains and other female ailments, we are keeping this girl. She is a young girl who has come from Diamond Harbor to earn money in a respectable way in Kolkata. I am happy to give her shelter. And she is very respectful to me.

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The last issue of the magazine had a few typing errors for which we are apologetic to the aggrieved parties. Arunabh Saikia’s short story “Shiny Polka Dots On A Red Rag Of Treachery” was published in that issue but his name was somehow omitted from the contents page. Luke Prater’s poem “Villanelle Rewrite” was actually supposed to be titled “(BUT MAINLY SMALL!)”. We apologise for this error and also others that might have been there but which haven’t been brought to our notice. We shall attempt to make sure that something like this does not happen any soon.

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APRIL 2012  

April issue, The Four Quarters Magazine

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