THE FOUR QUARTERS MAGAZINE December 2012: Writing Memory ISSN - 2250 - 074X Only the copyright for this collection is reserved with the editors of The Four Quarters Magazine. Individual copyright for artwork, prose, poetry, fiction and extracts of novels and other volumes published in this issue of the magazine rests solely with the authors. The magazine does not claim any of those for its own. No part of this publication may be copied without express written permission from the copyright holders in each case. The magazine is freely circulated on the World Wide Web. It may not be sold or hired out in its digital form to anybody by any agency whatsoever. All disputes are subject to jurisdiction of the courts of the Republic of India. ÂŠ The Four Quarters Magazine 2012 Cover art - Arjun Mukerji Editorial board - Arjun Choudhuri, Arjun Rajendran, Shuvasish Sharma.
Published by Humming Words Publishers, Faridabad
in this issue GUEST EDITOR Bhaswati Ghosh GENERAL EDITORS Arjun Rajendran, Arjun Choudhuri. PEERS FOR THIS ISSUE Seb Doubinsky, Nabina Das, Ananya S. Guha, Anannya Dasgupta, Rupa Bajwa, Abhirami Sriram NON FICTION Abha Iyengar, Bhaswati Ghosh, Joyce Yarrow, Rahul Shingrani, Robin Leigh Anderson, Sweta Srivastava Vikram. POETRY Ankur Betageri, Arjun Rajendran, Astha Gupta, Avishek Parui, Avirup Ghosh, Biman Nath, David Morgan, Deborshi Brahmachari, Dibyajyoti Sarma, Gaurav Deka, John Sibley Williams, Ken Chau, Louie Crew, Louis Marvin, Luke Prater, Mihir Vatsa, Michelle Grabois, Nabina Das, Prerana Choudhury, Pamela Renner, Richard Murphy, Rizio Yohannan Raj, Steve Klepetar, Sudeep Sen, Sivakami Velliangiri, Tabish Khair, Valentina Cano, Virginie Colline. FICTION Akumbu Uche, Arjun Choudhuri, Jonaki Ray, Matthew Blasi, Michelle Wittle, Murli Melwani. BOOK REVIEWS Samyak Ghosh TRANSLATION Arunava Sinha, Asmita Boral.
Memory is a sunshine-washed courtyard we love to cavort about. Memory is the dark alleyway we avoid revisiting. The past is not just history; it is also geography, complete with borders, landscapes, difficult terrains and turbulent rivers; scenic islands and pastoral grazing spaces. As The Four Quarters Magazine completes its one-year journey, we thought what better way to commemorate the occasion than by tracing our steps back? And here we are, Writing Memory. As a writer, I am constantly guided by the mileposts memories present and represent. Present because we can turn back to them for hidden clues to the riddles we keep encountering in the ephemeral “now,” and represent because of the associative potency of memory. Given that, it has been a truly rewarding experience for me as the guest editor of this issue to read the many and varied entries on this theme. Matthew Blasi’s “Big Heart” is a layered story of memory, loss, hope and the inscrutable families formed by perfect strangers. “Big Heart” reminds readers how memory, or rather the impressions
formed by it, can be deceptive, sometimes painfully so. In “Intervention,” Murli Melwani cleverly deals with the process of “making memories” in “Sunday on a Green Lawn,” a story of quotidian romance unsure of its future and reluctant to let go of the memory pebbles gathered over time. Arjun Chaudhuri turns a riparian cartographer and takes readers on a journey through his home, hometown, and inner world by mapping the human and geographic nerve centres that have impacted both his destiny and destinations. “Nine Stones” by Jonaki Ray uses an interesting form to convey a story of broken dreams and scarred memories. Our nonfiction selections are marked by both sincerity and depth of narrative. Joyce Yarrow’s “Big Brotherly Love” highlights with sensitivity and remarkable detail the story of two siblings and their journey of growing up, facing challenges and becoming closer as adults. Robin Leigh Anderson takes us inside the painful cavern that memory can sometimes lead to, unless exorcised through the therapeutic process of social kinship. In the translation section, we feature Buddhadeva Bose’s play “Twentyfive Years After – Or Before”, translated from the Bengali original by Arunava Sinha and “A Dry Season,” a short story by
Tarashankar Bandopadhyay, translated from the Bengali by Asmita Boral. Like the zig-zagged, non-linear pathways of memories, our poetry section offers flashes, sparks and clues--to be relived and inferred by the reader. Tabish Khair retells nurse’s tales and brings to life a grandmother through “a starched and white sari, the fragrance of soap...” Sivakami Velliangiri’s traces the past through images of childhood curiosity, rural traditions and the mind’s riddles. David Morgan’s poems explore relationships fractured by memory and the loss of it. Sudeep Sen traverses the realms of memories--visual and imagined--in his trio of poems. Journeys also form the core of Deborshi Brahmachari’s poems, each set in a particular locale. Themes of alienation and distrust appear in Louie Crew’s poetry as does the transformative power of self-realization and empathy. And in “Conatus,” Avishek Parui evinces how trickles of memory seep into one’s present, changing its complexion forever. In the recent past, I have been intensely drawn to reading the reminiscences about two young women I never knew. The first woman had died during childbirth, leaving behind a beautiful baby girl and a sea of memories
for her husband--memories that he started reliving with his daughter by taking her to the same places he and his late wife had visited before and chronicling the journey in a blog. The second woman--a talented writer and editor--had died young and left her husband and big family of friends in shock and grief. As I read their memories of her--all collected on a blog--I couldn’t help myself wanting to read more, wanting to know more of this dynamic young soul who seemed to have been a magnet that drew people to her. While passing through the manylayered and labyrinthine pathways presented in this issue of The Four Quarters Magazine, I realized memories can also be the sunshine-filled courtyard we cringe to re-enter and the dark alleyways we are impelled to visit again and again. As much as it has been my pleasure to work as the guest editor for this issue, my journey has been enriched by collaboration. My heartfelt thanks to the magazine’s editorial board as well as our esteemed peer review editors for their astute assessment of the submissions. To the contributors for trusting us with their works. And to you, dear reader, for making it all so worthwhile.
poetry VIRGINIE VIRGINIE COLLINE HAIKU 2. cut grass on pink plates a feast of green beans for the doll's meal 3. he spins round and round trying to catch his tail the dervish dog
SUDEEP SEN BHARATANATYAM DANCER
for Leela Samson Spaces in the electric air divide themselves in circular rhythms, as the slender grace of your arms and bell-tied ankles describe a geometric topography, real, cosmic, one that once reverberated continually in a prescribed courtyard of an ancient temple in South India. As your eyelids flit and flirt, and match the subtle abhinaya in a flutter of eye-lashes, the pupils create an unusual focus, sight only ciliary muscles blessed and cloaked in celestial kaajal could possibly enact. The raw brightness of kanjeevaram silk, of your breath, and the nobility of antique silver adorns you and your dance, reminding us of the treasure chest that is only half-exposed, disclosed just enough, barely â€” for art in its purest form never reveals all.
Even after the arc lights have long faded, the audience, now invisible, have stayed over. Here, I can still see your pirouettes, frozen as time-lapse exposures, feel the murmuring shadow of an accompanist's intricate raga in this theatre of darkness, a darkness where oblique memories of my quiet Kalakshetra days filter, matching your very own of another time, where darkness itself is sleeping light, light that merges, reshapes, and ignites, dancing delicately in the half-light. But it is this sacred darkness that endures, melting light with desire, desire that simmers and sparks the radiance of your quiet femininity, as the female dancer now illuminates everything visible: clear, poetic, passionate, and ice-pure. Note: The line-end rhyme-scheme — a b a c c a ... d b d e e d ... f b f g g f ... — maps and mirrors the actual classical dance step-pattern and beat — ta dhin ta thaye thaye ta. Lefthand margin indentations match the same scheme and form. [Appears in Postmarked India: New & Selected Poems (HarperCollins)] DESIRE Under the soft translucent linen, the ridges around your nipples harden at the thought of my tongue. You — lying inverted like the letter ‘c’ — arch yourself deliberately wanting the warm press of my lips, it’s wet to coat the skin that is bristling, burning, breaking into sweats of desire — sweet juices of imagination.
But in fact, I haven’t even touched you. At least, not yet. [appears in Indian Love Poems (Knopf / Random House), Leela: An Erotic Play of Verse and Art (HarperCollins), and forthcoming in Blue Nude: Poems & Translations 1979-2014 ]
haiku a languorous kiss — the faintest smell of ocean — salt-lipped breeze, pleading — [Appears in Prayer Flag and Postmarked India: New & Selected Poems (HarperCollins)] CONCEIT Whether it is metaphysical conceit or human conceit — the oddity of image remains. [Forthcoming in A Pocket Full of Wry (Penguin) and Blue Nude: Poems & Translations 1979-2014] FLYING HOME I meticulously stitch time through the embroidered sky, through its unpredictable lumps and hollows. I am going home once again from another home, escaping the weave of reality into another one, one that gently reminds and stalls to confirm: my body is the step-son of my soul. But what talk of soul and skin in this day and age, such ephemeral things
that cross-weaves blood and breath into clotted zones of true escape. What talk of flight time and flying when real flights of fancy are crying to stay buoyant unpredictably in mid-air amid pain, peace, and belief: just like thin air sketches, where another home is built in free space vacuum, as another patchwork quilt is quietly wrapped around, gently, in memoriam. [Appears in Language for New Century (W W Norton) and Postmarked India: New & Selected Poems (HarperCollins)]
TABISH KHAIR NURSE’S TALES, RETOLD Because the east wind bears the semen smell of rain, A warm smell like that of shawls worn by young women Over a long journey of sea, plain and mountains, The peacock spreads the Japanese fan of its tail and dances, And dances until it catches sight of its scaled and ugly feet. Because the koel cannot raise its own chicks -Nature’s fickle mother who leaves her children on doorsteps In the thick of nights, wrapped in controversy and storm -Because the koel will remain eternally young, untied, It fills the long and empty afternoons with sad and sweet songs. Because the rare Surkhaab loves but once, marries for life, The survivor circles the spot of its partner’s death uttering cries, Until, shot by kind hunters or emaciated by hunger and loss, It falls to the ground, moulting feathers, searching for death. O child, my nurse had said, may you never see a Surkhaab die. AMMA Down the stairs of this house where plaster flakes and falls, Through the intimate emptiness of its rooms and hall,
I hear your slow footsteps, grandmother, echo or pause As they used to through long summer afternoons spent within The watered down four-walls of khus and fragile drinks Of ice, mango or lemon, the circle of water-melon crescents. Slowly you shuffle examining each new tear in the curtains Which will have to be mended when the first monsoon rain Provides a respite from sun, curtails the need for shade. Slowly on arthritic joints you move from room to room Marking the damage of the years, evaluating how soon The past will collapse or how long the present last. You never need glasses to mark the contours of your house Though you can’t see grandsons at a distance, once wore a blouse Inside out. Nothing has changed, grandmother, no, not yet; Though your collected steps never turn the corner into you In a starched and white sari, the fragrance of soap around you. And all the curtains have long been taken down. ALMOST A GHAZAL FOR MY GRANDFATHER’S GARDEN A flock of sparrows leaves the mehndi bush like a shudder. Two squirrels chase each other around the trunk of a kathal. Herons stand stilted like village ancients beside the pool. The soft coo of a pigeon betrays neither distance nor place. Parrots squabble on the bare top branch of the spreading gullar. Five orange trees hunch laden with unplucked and acrid fruit. The pomegranate plant still retains a cracked, crowned anár. Mango trees stand mute, lacking their summer voices of yellow. The ladybird changes from spotted red to a whirr of wings. Half-plates of dark mushroom jut from the fallen log. Grass is an intricate network of roads travelled by black ants. The earth below is a breathing skin, veined with dark roots. A dry green shell is all that is left of the snail and his tracks. Translucent wings are all that will remain of dragonflies.
Perhaps I should put my faith in the crow and the subversive rat. A bunch of builders measure out lines and angles from a blueprint.
AVIRUP GHOSH THE DEPARTED When death comes, unpersonified Devoid of metaphor, stripped bare Words assume absurdity, poetry vacuum; Requiems noisy sound, inversions yield not. Neither an elegy's faltered steps Nor a dirge's distant strains Can match the crooked drum-beats Of death. And death comes to a fly, an ant, a human, a moth Death comes for the archbishop, for the millionaire For you, for me, for the child that's being born As I write. But death never comes for him.
RIZIO RIZIO YOHANNAN RAJ FROM ATHARVAM CHARMS AGAINST FEVER 2 He Says to Us: There crouches the spotted beast of fever; she feeds on our darkest fears, resembles our most formidable defences. But we shall surmount our memory and her might; the enchanted seed we sow tonight among these rain-embraced layers of earth will sprout, and shoot up into a tree of unremitting potency: the heady aroma of its full dark roots will strike the mean beast down; its sap of molten gold will wipe away her hoary spots and cast
her anew, a creature of splendourâ€” shimmering mane, russet skin, supple limbs, open. And, then, its magnificent branches of questing will enter her, all at once, flinging her into a delirium, a strange peace. 4. He Says to Her: You are cold now, and deliriously hot again. Through the night, your mother-o-fever has teased me; her fury is drenched in covetousness, I swear. She is tormented that yesterday I wound my arms of love around you in the rain-lit woods, and then took your clothes off, one after another in an ecstatic dancerâ€™s abandon, letting your damp skin print its hitherto unrequited urges on mine, and the contours of your ancient body release enormous memories of want into my mouth; your toes plough the wet earth on my shin; your teeth eat the rain in my armpits; your fingers of cinnamon make love to my voice, your eyes lined with jade choke me; your pepper-vine hairs, aye, bind me in their scent. This damned fever seems your mother and offspring, at once: spoilsport! My tender bamboo shoot, my love, we have to cast a potent spell on her,
to save our burning desire to die from being trapped in any cold sanctum of deadness. 5 He Says to Himself: We shall wrap this fever in crimson and gold and dispatch it right away like a prized gift to yonder foreign folks that worship severity. They may treasure her in their gem-lined cabinets. Or, we may drape her in modesty and hand her over to our relations abroad as one would a gossipy maid; they need such scourges to sustain the memory of their bleak homes. Yet, we must know, she is a cat that can return to her favourite hearth, crossing nine streets of oblivion, and nine lives of remembrance, with ease. We ought to have well-wrought schemes to ruin her: For instance, if she arrives on an autumn day, let us squeeze her of her oil and mix it with perfumes, the unction of which must becalm our nerves. On a summer noon, no doubt, she can be turned into a ripe melon. We shall sink our teeth into her raw flesh and learn with our eyes what it means to be bitten. But we cannot be complacent yet; she can make a thunderous comeback on a rain-swing, or steal quietly into our winter breath, or into the sprout of our enlightenment. We must be ready with our most potent charm to ward her off: the proclamation of our desire, printed on our bare bodies in myriad shapes—a parrot’s beak, a tiger’s claw, a peacock’s foot, a perfect crescent.
nonfiction FINDING SOLACE IN MY PEAR SWETA SRIVASTAVA VIKRAM Every morning, without fail I check out my reflection in our ingenuous, gigantic bedroom mirrors to make sure no extra weight sneaked upon me while I was asleep. On those rare days, when I wake up feeling relatively thin, I get a second whiff of myself in the mirror next to the elevator in the hope that few pounds would disappear in those thirty steps from the apartment to the elevator banks. If only. If you are into people watching, you realize that most women walking down the streets of New York, slyly but surely, catch a quick glimpse of themselves on any object that reflects. Members of the male species might think we follow the ritual to make sure our rear end exists; au contraire, every time a woman looks at herself in the mirror, more often than not, she wishes for that obstinate pound to have magically disappeared. Funny story. The other day, my friend's husband went for his annual physical check-up. Upon returning home, he said, "I can't believe I lost five pounds. I wonder how I will gain them back." When my friend shared this story with me, I screamed, "He complained? Only a man could be sad about unprepared weight loss!" I don't remember being so weight conscious when I lived in India. You'd think I was younger then and more impressionable. I mean, I ate before I thought. Maybe I cogitated with my tongue. Oh, I was besotted with vada paos and Indian Chinese food, though there was a clear monetary demarcation—the
former was on my dime and the latter on my brother's since he was older and working. Greasy vada paos were a major component of my breakfast every single morning when I was in college. I remember rolling off my bed, brushing my teeth, and grabbing my buddies to stand in line for this sinful delicacy that lured me in with its voluptuous look. I could smell the smell of it on me. I remember when a cousin of mine moved to Baroda from Pune, it took him eons to adjust to life without vada paos. When my brother and I visited him, he and I stayed up all night to talk about his withdrawal symptoms. He said, “Didi, you are so lucky. You still get to eat Pune's vada paos.” My obsession with chili chicken was another story. I felt a compulsive desire to conquer it. If there was an AA version for chili chicken addicts, I am sure I would be an honorary member. This one time, my brother took my husband (fiancé then), my cousin, and me to Marine Plaza—a swanky restaurant on the water on Marine Drive in Mumbai. In those days, the stir-fry concept of Chinese food was a new introduction to the Indian palate. I love trying out different cuisines, but when it comes to Indian Chinese food, I am like a stuck record—I need my sodium, corn flour, and MSG-laden sin. I promptly said, “Bhaiya, I want hot & sour soup and chili chicken.” My brother beseeched me to broaden my taste buds beyond the usual. I reluctantly did because he promised to buy me my comfort food near home. Home was Santa Cruz east then. I lived with my brother and sister-in-
law in Mumbai for a year when I started working. Near their apartment, a small, homely, friendly Indian Chinese restaurant made scrumptious chili chicken and hot & sour soup. Even in seething heat, I would eat myself silly. I would sometimes drink sugar syrup, or as I called it, "Nectar of the Gods." I remember, once I binged on "gulab jamun syrup." My fiancé then was amused but ecstatic to find out that he was marrying a sugar junkie like him. I don't know if the "Lucknowi salwar kameez," a perfect disguise for the portliest of people, embraced me so well that I never felt the need to cave under peer pressure. Even my jeans and skirts narrated a sweet story about my good health. Perhaps my brain, then, wasn't ridiculously exposed to the world of nutritional content labels and the deceptive world of sugar-free and fat-free. Come to think of it, I did my postgraduate in nutrition, yet words such as “diet pills” or “low carb diet” or starvation never occupied my life. I was never a big eater or obese. I did fall victim to aerobics in bicycle shorts, walked all over town, but ate without continuous deliberation of “should I” or “shouldn't I?” As everyone said, “I looked healthy and cute.” With time and move to the west, the words “healthy” and “cute” have taken on a derogatory meaning in my dictionary. To me, “healthy” is a masked insult or another name for obesity in the politically correct world that we live in. Many of my friends and I are touchy about being addressed as “cute.” Babies, dogs, and cats are cute. It's not an appropriate adjective for a woman! In fact, the other day my husband said to me, “You should have been a
lawyer!” All he had said to me was, “You look thin in this outfit.” The cynical New Yorker in me quickly retorted, “Do you mean I don't look thin on other days?” My mother cracks up (not sure if it's a funny laugh or a worried, ironical laugh) every time I talk (maybe, preach) about losing weight. Here is why: We took my parents to Maine and New Hampshire on one of their trips to the US. Even before I ate any of the delectable New England clam chowder and crab cakes, I went for a swim and worked out at the hotel's fitness center. Remember the fear of the devious extra pound? A friend of mine once said, “Subway sandwiches are my guilty pleasure.” You can tell most of my friends, now, are fanatical about eating right and exercising plenty. These include both Indian and non-Indian friends. We like to work out until a part of us feels sore. Also, consumption of immoderate amounts of sinful food is a treat in our world, not the norm. What amazes me is that I significantly weigh less now than I was when we lived in India. I watch what I eat and how much I exercise, so why this obsession? My husband, like most other guys I know, is oblivious to the concept of “fattening foods.” His philosophy is, “If it looks good, eat it.” Sometimes I wonder about this transformation in me. Why and when was chili chicken replaced with Greek salad and vadapao perpetually eliminated from my life? Has the world become overtly conscious over time; has age made me disdainfully aware; has the change in time and place altered my attitude; or have I just started thinking too much about my pear-shaped body?
poetry PAMELA RENNER APRIL TENTH1 I Bits of pasteboard souls, feathers and rings. An earthquake in the backyard, preserved in aspic and brick. The city shakes free of its latest thwarted revolution, delicate, old wooden Tbilisi, with its iron heart, its garnet wine, lava-hot springs, fumes of sulfur water, threading down a thin cataract from the craggy cliffs of Avlabari spilling onto broken side-streets, bent houses wreathed in vines, crumbling bricks and laundry lines. Opposite Parliament, angry men mill, mow and elbow past. They are tired. Their eyes blaze with defeat and whiskey. I linger by the central square, sizing up the few who sleep here in shanties decked like prison cells. Once, I watched the man who led the charge. I caught a scent of his wild songs: unknown man, oleander and sweat. I caught the breath of his wind-swept songs. And as I sat by the television, police drove him out of his ken. He rose like a wild horse -- casting off his spurs -and rode into the fenced compound of the State Treasury. Twenty men beat him down. Twenty on one, breaking his body, while his spirit flew free. Oh, volcanic hatred is unyielding. while love bends like a poplar tree. II Flags gather. Feathers and rings, nipples and toes; an Easter cake, a Passover calm after the burnt offering. All is rude and relativist. Stone shields the old town beneath Narikala fortress. Flags ripple like bright bird wings. Bluebird, cardinal, crow: a Boston Tea Party in the streets: I have left behind the tree of flags, 1
April 9th is a memorial day for 19 pro-nationalist Georgian demonstratorsâ€”unarmed studentsâ€”killed in 1989, by Soviet Special Forces, an event that helped spur the downfall of the USSR. Georgian opposition leaders selected the 20th anniversary for the start of their 2009 protests against their own government.
too late for innocence but not for safety. Oh, a dim thin cloak twists across my eyes. I have flown away but my spirit stays, a half-wit. I have eaten the bread of slavery, the flat bread of our exodus in the desert. Sun baked the yeast of unleavened bread, this same sun streams over me. Sun parted the Red Sea and took me in, unfit for Israel, The first generation out of Pharaoh’s house; My mouth stained bright by dyed Cairo cherries, a girl meant for desert walks and minute poppies, strolling among rare cactus flowers. No recollection takes sap; I am lost. “With a strong hand, an outstretched arm…” I forget the rest of the prayer. “He took us out from Egypt…” With my stone-heavy memory, I forgot how to call out loud for freedom. III Once, I marveled at the calligraphy of leafless trees in Colchis, Filigree gates of turquoise-iron, against fields and orchards; The sudden voluptuous orange of a persimmon tree, leafless in late November, heavy with fruit. Would you like more marvels? Well then, megobari, old friend, Picture Imereti’s pointed hayricks – ShidaKartli’s dry desert riverbeds – where I walked with Tomasz across an intricate stone bridge built for a Georgian queen. The gold and green of grape pergolas; Bare wooden branches of vine, spindles after October harvest. Guliko and Kote, their firm tanned hands. (His were the comic two-stepping Odessa songs, played into morning— hers, the plums and pickles, the basil: glissando of Galaktioni’s verse). Guliko at her fruit cart, greeting the day on Kavsadze Street. Kote, coming down from his studio, victorious and gentle. These two I recall – harvest and art -- the earth and the intellect; the heart of woman and the heart of man. IV Picture the old deities in these parts, who came before the flood. They stayed on, forever stone-still: bronze gods
of viticulture and harvest. Each with a Dionysian part to play; Each with jealousy, desire or frogs in his throat. Theirs was the epoch before logical cause and humble reason: Theirs, the time outside of time. Faith lodged itself absently in grasses and thunder. Furze knit a lace of needles and shrub. Trees moved their branches, conducting wind symphonies. Here and there, the mountains hosted a wedding banquet; Here and there, a goat or sheep herd idled, still idles, in fact. Old men sing polyphonic songs until a bride and groom dance; Children break apart moon-shaped loaves of country bread, Crones pour pitchers of honeyed wine. A man with a great heart makes a toast. History threads its way through each village, inherent, like a quiet Elijah, who comes to taste the gold wine from his silver cup, inherent, I say, for a prophet never storms the door in a deep fever. He slips past into our midst. He sits at table, his face little and lithe, jocular. While time, forgetful of itself, is purely circular -Lodged fast in the seams of metamorphic rock, held fast in the core of lapidary rhyme. V Oh, the beautiful boys, the laughing girls, the old women of mountain villages. They left their thin cows at pasture, the splendid mornings, crowing roosters, and the nights of wild dogs and wild cars, of two-bit traffic police (collecting fines for reckless driving; for small passionless crimes). Come to the capital, now, while people stream into the streets, trailing new flags. Georgia welcomes a new leader and the people leave behind villages, tan cows and newborn bullocks. They come out to chew on sunflower husks, to weigh out sour green plums on pocket scales, and sell violets immense with deep color. They arrive to build a republic, carrying roses for their tall children, exorcising hope and anger. It is 2003. They are here to build a glass house of state in Georgia. Do not cast stones, America, your house is all fiberglass: a nice simulacrum, largely feigned. Now in sapphire Tiflis, the fundament hovers and havoc gathers. Recognize it? Black-eyed, whiskey-on-the-breath, I have betrayed this man, with my faint-hearted silence
after I knew he was beaten I dared not ask questions. I spoke too late. Like a hare, darting off from the sites of her hunters, I was not ruled by human fear but dazzled by blind instinct. For this I trip headlong into madness. VI And in the Tavisupleba Square underpass one late Sunday in spring, four boys, and one man with an accordion, strike up chords – I am drawn to their midst, I stand among new friends. They are playing blazing rock songs on electric guitars. Wistful interloper, I join them while they sing Pink Floyd and love songs by the Beatles, instead of Georgian polyphonies. Before they played, they asked if this was my favorite music. I answered, “Yes, why not?” As I said it, truth came into my voice, so we sang. We talked of Whitman, Eliot and GalaktionTabidze; I offered a truth, “Whitman is precious to us, in my country.” In this way, I sloughed off age-old sorrow, reclaiming the birth and breath I’d delivered up to chance. And in this way, I lingered with red-bearded Levan, mingled his love with my own, a full instant of deep peace, one language joining us together: weaving us tight as kayakers in skins of human metaphor.
nonfiction BIG BROTHERLY LOVE JOYCE YARROW On the night I was conceived I had no way of knowing I had ruined my brother Rick’s childhood. Our mother, Julie, had divorced Rick’s father when he came back from serving as a tail-gunner in World War. After getting pregnant with me, Julie married Bill, a handsome, brooding man she met while working in a munitions factory. Bill suffered from chronic depression and could not hold down a job. All they could afford was a
$24-a-month apartment in a tenement in the East Bronx. So, at the tender age of nine Rick was catapulted from the safety of the suburbs into a brutal war zone. To Bill, his stepson was a threat, the child of another man, and he felt compelled to defend his territory with his fists. As if that weren’t enough, my brother returned home every day from school to face off with a menacing cluster of barbarians hanging out on the stoop of our
six-story tenement. Rick learned fast that ‘excuse me’ earned him nothing. He gained entry only by fixing his enemies with a long stare and uttering the magic phrase: ‘get out of my way mo* fu*kers!’ If that didn’t work, he had no choice but to make a show of the knife sheathed in his belt. As the baby of the family, I was blissfully unaware of Rick’s travails. All I knew was that I had a tall, skinny-yethandsome brother, who lived a mysterious life outside the walls of our dingy apartment. I loved watching him comb his Brill-creamed DA haircut in front of the cracked mirror in the bathroom. I loved the way he tucked in his miraculously starched shirt umpteen times before he was satisfied he was ready for a date. It was Rick’s job to pick me up at ‘Bronx House’ – the after-school center – every afternoon at 5 o’clock. This meant taking a predictable route through the neighborhood that left him vulnerable to attack but I never heard him complain about it. He may have resented my being the ‘favored child;’ he may have hated the way I kicked up at his mattress from my perch on the lower level of the bunk-beds we shared, and he definitely detested my “f-*ing hamster” – the one that nibbled on the bars of its cage all night – still, he wasn’t going to let anything happen to his baby sister. One afternoon Rick brought home a gun. He did not let me hold it and if he had it would have covered both of my hands. I watched him stash the weapon in the bottom of the banged-up plywood wardrobe that dominated our shoebox of a bedroom. Staring at the chunks of pitted plaster on the dull pink walls, I got a bad feeling in my stomach. “Don’t tell Mom,” Rick ordered, gripping my arm for emphasis.
How flattered I was, at the age of five to be entrusted with such a big secret. That is, until I realized that Rick’s gift concealed a moral dilemma. Even toy armaments were forbidden by our mother, who seemed oblivious to the incongruity of preaching pacifism while residing on a block that boasted the highest crime rate in New York City. I spent a sleepless night, caught between the prospect of losing my brother’s love if I informed on him and being somehow responsible for his death if I failed to do so. In the end I ratted Rick out. And soon discovered that all my agonizing had been over nothing. He easily convinced Mom that the gun was a harmless replica. A potent first lesson in irony. As he grew older, it was Rick’s refusal to join a gang that got him into the most trouble. I was in my 30’s before he told me what happened. A brazen Fordham Baldy member handed my brother’s teacher a forged note claiming a family emergency required him at home (no cell phones in those days). They hijacked him when he came outside. Took him to the basement of an abandoned building and tied him to a chair. Tortured him by throwing knives, each one whizzing closer to his cheek. Although Rick eventually broke free and even did some damage to his captors on the way out, the trauma continued to haunt him throughout his life. No wonder Rick dropped out of Roosevelt High School as soon as he could and joined the Air Force. I missed my brother terribly—the confidences he shared (even after I betrayed him – Rick is the forgiving sort) and the way he bopped me on the head and called me ‘kiddo.’ I had lost the protective shield he provided and compensated by inventing a wild Mustang
pony that trailed me to school every morning. It wasn’t the same. When Rick was posted to Greenland, Mom and I baked cookies for him every weekend. He sent me a picture of an Arctic Fox, with a sign in the background, ‘No Photos – Security Area.’ Home on leave, Rick raised hell with his best friend Abe one night, knocking over every trash can in the Bronx and a few in Manhattan as well. He must have sensed my loneliness, because he gifted me with one of his short, sky- blue jackets—it came down to my knees—and a wide-brimmed Air Force hat, before returning to duty. I took to wearing this oversized gear wherever I went. At one point I was banned from the after-school program for refusing to divest myself of these talismans of brotherly love. This experience prepared me for other situations where I was called upon to stick up for my right to be different—by refusing to ‘duck ‘n cover’ during useless civil defense drills that offered the flimsy protection of a desk against nuclear holocaust; by slapping the face of the first person I heard utter a racial slur after Mom and I moved to the West Bronx; by attempting to drop out of high school when I discovered my true calling as a creative writer. Rick was my example, he never blamed Mom for being unable to protect him—he dealt with it. My brother finished criminology school the year before I graduated the High School of Music & Art. When he got engaged to a sexy, brainy, college student, Abe and I were convinced she had bewitched him. We hatched a plan to kidnap him on the day of the wedding, and then got too drunk to carry it out. The newlyweds drove to California to start a new life and escape the loan sharks who were hunting the bride’s father.
Forty plus years later, now the mother of a 6-year-old boy, I flew from Seattle to San Francisco for Rick’s quadruple bypass surgery. Over the years he had dealt with his health problems with the same defiance and me-against-theworld strategy that kept him alive in New York. Late that night he knocked on my door and handed over a stack of hotel stationery covered with his illegible scrawl. “I want you to hold onto these. Just in case.” I held back my tears and stuffed the papers into the pocket of my terrycloth robe. Seeing how upset I was, he added “Remember what the Zen master said when he was dying and the monks huddled around his bed?” He paused to give me time to collect myself. “No, what?” “Give me some money.” Next morning, walking from the hotel through the Tenderloin on our way to Starbucks, we passed a drunk spewing expletives and sputum on the sidewalk. Rick knew the guy was harmless yet tensed up so tightly I was afraid I’d lose him right there. It’s a big strain on the heart, carrying around all those dark memories from the Bronx. My niece, Diana joined us in the surgery prep room at Kaiser Permanente. We hovered over Rick, who had been sedated, or so they thought. “Time to go,” he kept saying. “It’s alright, we can leave now.” It was clear he was having second thoughts about the surgery and using all his will power to avoid going under. Suddenly he reached up and grabbed my shirt. “There’s no future, no past. Only this,” he whispered with a conspiratorial smile. Only then did he allow himself to surrender to the anesthetic. Rick survived the heart operation and lives in Maui now, about as far from
the Bronx as you can get. We talk every Sunday on the phone and whenever I ask him how he’s coping with his latest round of health problems he’ll respond with something like, “Have you heard about the guy who wakes up after surgery? The doc says, ‘the bad news is we had to amputate both your legs.’ Then the guy asks what the good news is and the surgeon says, ‘A patient in the next room wants to buy your boots.’”
It’s an old joke. Rick’s application of it to himself is what makes it funny. He’s gained and lost a lot during his lifetime. And he’s trying to tell me something. I may have ruined his childhood but I didn’t ruin his life. It’s as if he and I were put on this planet together to pass our troubles back and forth. And to find ways to laugh at them.
poetry DAVID MORGAN LE DEJEUNER SUR L’ HERBE The teacher wants to join the ghosts of his parents, shifting colours on grass, picnicking in his mind – but the door of the past is too brittle to open, counterpoising the Monet print here, when the lights in the classroom dim and he sits on a corner stool and reads in the paper about that girl gone missing, lost ten long days. There’s a door locked that won’t let her through. Murdered? Fled? The teacher thinks of his own daughter grown so away from him now, lost in another reality where her husband, the salesman, shifts laptops and Kindles in Luton’s Mall and her own daughter, too awkward to eat her lunch properly, too autistic to account for herself beyond the prison of personal space. His smile half regret, half reproach, he puts down the paper, strolls his classroom over to where, in the shadowy light, the Monet releases its subtleties, seeming to mirror back the eyes own searching. Into what? Not re-assessment, but something better, softer, some set matrix of located colour, which opening all doors invites the lost ones back, to luncheon on the lawn. DAD’S FINE Dad’s fine. He doesn’t want to see you. He’s warm and brave and immobile – caught between words. He rests comfortably in his room. The doctor shaved his head. Dad likes this doctor,
describing his humour as ‘elegant.’ The doctor cut into dad’s skull with a small circular saw. Dad smiled through it all, syllables suspended, should he wince, the needles adjust. Inside dad’s brain, the doctor had clamps, gauze, cotton and blood. No pain. The brain knows no physical pain. Completed, the doctor proclaimed a profound success. The portion of skull replaced; scalp stitched into place – everything tidied up. Dad’s fine. He doesn’t want to see you. Dad doesn’t know who you are … anymore.
RICHARD MURPHY A TIME TIME TO CROW Crow pecked at bulbus oculi one letter at a time until children fell under a spell, owned onyx in eye sockets, and saved the earned feathers and beak. Scouting to know, to become, fledglings practiced swooping and circled to convince the stain through loyalty and to prove puffed plumes ate. From parents to offspring throughout the generations snow and linen brought out the ink in all until black was bad and lilies, good and winter solstice a raven. Every other night sky opened common wings to land despite the street lights and neon, and so the universe progressed for one star. Then the flock split and spat a nut globe-size.
The way darkness claims mushrooms as instrumental to nature, so counterfeit cloud reminded the remotest grub that pitch perched a war a way among parking lot trash.
GAURAV DEKA THE WIFE OF THE LATE CUBAN SMOKER She awaits him, crushing ochre petals. smelling the skin of yellow earth and green iguanas. Inebriated, ambling on rose fields of nicotine. In soft Belizean breaths, she spins silent mariachi of pernicious memories, swimming in the eyes, of her Cuban Blue dogs. On mad fumeless dawns, they dance, howling garbled fricatives— grey Dionysian hymns. Her intoxicated Oriole heart, laments its last morbid history of Love lost to sticks, black and brown. and prodigal vapours, through silver tongued chimneys. She mimics, distorted pretensions; drawing ‘Life & Death’ out of her Copper Lungs. Like a snuffing dervish, Coiling circles and strings Of un-measured diameters, Around palates and molars,
Slithering through Amber-burned cavities; In this way, by pilfering the past, she slaughters a thousand nights, housing remembrances of smoke and mist.
nonfiction THE FORGOTTEN DIALECT OF WALKING ABHA IYENGAR As a child, I did not see my mother’s legs often. She wore a sari, and a sari reveals most other parts of the anatomy save the legs. But sometimes when she lay asleep her sari would move up and I would catch sight of my mother’s legs. Milk- white, thick and strong, with a smattering of fine black hair that contrasted sharply with the skin colour. She, of course, belonged to the pre-wax days. Yet her legs were beautiful for me, sturdy and strong, as she was. Dependable. * I am middle-aged now as I walk with my mother. Let me draw the scene for you. It is late evening, night will fall soon. We are strolling outside the house, near the garden, in the little area that forms the driveway. The air is cool, somehow here; there is a sense of peace. The air blows my mother’s hair off her face, and I watch her as I walk. She is thinner than she was. She could never be thin-thin, but she is thinner, it would be a compliment to her if it did not show up as a weakness. Being thin is not always a good way to be. Her
cheeks, though still as pink as when she was younger, have sunk in. Her eyes have crow’s feet around them. Her skin is taut and dry, and no amount of Nivea crème, her one and only beauty indulgence, can now restore its smooth elasticity. I walk with my mother, she walks with a stick. It has been a long time since we have walked together like this, with no purpose other than to walk and perhaps talk with each other if we want. She hobbles. I do not walk with a stick, but I hobble too, for my legs ache. My knees ache. I am getting there in the same space that she is in now: I see her and imagine myself as her. But my knees and legs are firmer, smoother than hers, natural. She is post-operative and has two straight gashes on the front of her legs, beginning from her knees. She has had knee replacement surgery on both her legs. She has suffered a lot to get here, where she is, walking with a stick. This walk with her is now memory, more recent, more tangible, I can see it clearly. *
Just a few months ago, she had stopped walking. That memory of hers of a few months ago is also clear. It is of her sitting up in bed and saying, â€œI am fine like this, I do not need to move. I have seen and done everything that needs to be done.â€? Mother, I had cried out inside, you need to move. How can you lead the rest of your life like this, in bed, a disabled woman? You have a choice; you can get your knees operated. I had found myself saying this aloud to her, eventually. She had not listened to me. I remember how she looked then, more filled out, big in fact, heavy. And her legs were thin, bony, dark brown like dead flesh, hairless and misshapen. They lacked muscle. They were unable to support her weight, and she was unable to move because of the knees giving up. They looked strange, those legs, as though they belonged to someone other than my mother. Her legs had turned renegade, turned traitor. And she was willing to follow them, accept the fact that they would not move. She was willing to become immobile for the rest of her life, or move on a wheelchair. She was willing to forget what walking was all about, the dialect of movement on oneâ€™s own. Her knees had been protesting for years, many years, but she had somehow moved. Propelled by her inborn will power, the help of pain killers, occasional spurts of exercise and physiotherapy when imperative, she had managed till now without getting her knees replaced. Also, because she hated the idea of strange metal in her body. She would tell us the tale again and again, of when, many years ago, when she was travelling in the US, she had had an appointment for knee surgery at the Johns
Hopkins hospital. All things were set and at the last moment, the day before the surgery, she had told my father that she did not want to go ahead with it. Now, my father was no more, and it was my brother she had to deal with. He convinced her to have the surgery, supported by me, of course. Eventually, she did listen to him. That is how she finally agreed to walk again. It was just a matter of days within which everything was set up and done. However, having the operation done was the easy part. Recovery was tough. Pain, medicines, hospital infection. Physiotherapy for two months. Then willing the self to make the body move. It was tough for us just to see her suffering, but we will never be able to determine the depth of what she went through. The price paid for having these working knees was not money alone, it was pain and endurance and a willingness to overcome the inherent resistance to the idea of invasion of the body. Of housing strange metal parts. Post operation, her legs were still brown, their colour no longer fresh. They were marked now with the straight cut and stitches of the operation, albeit healed, but there to stay forever. But they were working again. * I walk with her, and she walks. The air is gentle, it is a September evening. The grass in the garden is green, we are walking next to it, and the red stone of the driveway is smooth but not slippery. It is just right for the two of us. I tell her that I am happy walking with her here. I also tell her of how I think of my father when I am walking in this place. I used to walk with him here when
he was not well, a memory of him of ten years ago. He was frail, a heart patient, but he could walk; he had no leg problems. In fact, he could even sit cross-legged in bed, something my mother cannot do and even I cannot do anymore. And then I think back to the time when I was perhaps eight, and we were having a havan, and how I went and ran to sit cross-legged on the floor and looked at the elders sitting on the chairs and marvelled at them for doing so. Why would anyone sit on the chair when they could sit on the floor? The floor was always so much cooler and more inviting and fun. And sitting cross-legged was the greatest fun thing to do. I did not know then that the elders had no choice; they could not sit on the floor. Their bodies were no longer fluid and well oiled, their knees had rusted. I was so happy to be able to sit on the floor, cross-legged. That’s the word, cross-legged. So many memories just to do with the knees, actually to do with the body and
mobility, our taking ourselves for granted, our commitments to things other than the body and realizing too late that there is nothing like the real thing. * “It is not the real thing,” says my mother as she walks with me with her artificial knees. I do not see her smiling. Her face reveals that this is not as good as she had expected it to be. I smile at her and say, “At least you can move, you are not a vegetable.” She nods then. I do not know what thoughts course through her mind. Her stick tap-taps on the stone. All around us breathes the silence of the night and the smell of the flowers. And within me surfaces just gratitude that my mother is next to me, walking. Nothing remains for long and that is why we have our memories. They help us live and then relive many times over.
poetry LUKE PRATER THE SOLDIER, THE LADY AND THE PROPHET His sleep was stirred before the burgeoning of dawning sun. Year upon year he rose from a rude martial bed before the barrack’s early morning run: good cough, good smoke; first of many. This gentle Northern lad defied the constant warning signs that hacked at him in packets daily.
Never questioning, but wary of Sergeant’s friendly-fire, and a field of land-mines. Solace lay in early morning’s dawning peace, a mute elation wed with nicotine and tar. Supine he stayed. An old, well-thumbed copy of The Prophet travelled with him; Gibran’s words and Lady Nicotine were sanity amid the genocide, civil war, refugee camps; women and child rape-victims inseminated with hate and HIV, continents dark seas away with a dour NATO regiment. Sitting with ineffable inhumanity, a packet of fags, and an old, well-thumbed copy of The Prophet, the savagery skulked and crept into his skull beneath the standard-issue helmet. On return from service, he began to pen all that he saw: simple, truthful, botched backalley-abortion raw. Nightmares of the Congo’s bloody internecine ruin recurred, compelling him like some demonic Muse. Lady Nicotine his love-hate Queen, calming, clearing, reassuring. Overwhelmed lungs surrendered; asphyxiated bit by bit, no cards, flowers or relations sat by that rude, medical bed. Just an old, well-thumbed copy of The Prophet. MUD (MELANIE BROWN)
Where did you go to Melanie Brown? Did you ever return? Did your hands get burned? Nice to know you, Melanie Brown nice to show you around. Took your wanting wan nightgown pills, and rock CDs Ridgie, Ruth and me friends you made that term in town friends, they let you down? Left on sullied mid-heeled ground your looks, and college books. Travestied; too many cooks. That stinging, scuppered blue-eyed frown shakysmileme down. Do they still try it on, come round gangle, lank-haired boys surreptitious ploys to steal that sorry blue-eyed frown, like they did that term in town? Not a place of great renown fast-dance saloon cried, like Syd, for the moon we tried not to let you drown in pools of Melanie Brown. Were you flipped like half-a-crown hung up on highs and whys fed up being fed mud pies? Was there any joy that term in town before you went on down? Where did you go to Melanie Brown? Did you ever return? Did your tongue get burned? Nice to know you, Melanie Brown nice to show you round.
ANKUR BETAGERI GROWING UP
for S. (May god forgive himself for what he does to us.) It happens abruptly, one day your mother stops loving you. You who were swimming in the amniotic fluid of her love grow cold like a toy on the floor. You stand awkwardly, your hands joined in front of the crotch. You nod uneasily when your father introduces you to his friends you try to relate but they don’t make much sense. Girls snigger when you walk past, you wonder why, feel strange and weak, and the strange – a frisson – feels good in its excess. Your skies often cloud, clear, and cloud again. The streets turn you into a restless deer you want to run, graze, and run; but tiger eyes glare from every shop front, you look down, hesitate, and sometimes just freeze. Sunday cartoons feel silly, the afternoons are dead, you often sit in the water tank to shake off your dread. Evening drops a cloak of peace but its dagger stabs, and the pain is too sharp, and deep, for speech. Your body had begun to emanate a smell, it strongly affects the squirrels and birds. You pace the room and prepare to fly. You watch the dogs being carried off in a van. And one day a girl smiles at you. A lightning swallows your pain. Your heart’s a rose flung up in the sky. The rose becomes an eagle. The eagle, a cloud. And the cloud, as you walk, rains a song of bliss. And one day the girl, smiles no more,
you are once again in the world of want. It happens abruptly, and no one knows why, one day your mother stops loving you. STRANGE BROKEN CHILDREN Sad mothers give birth to strange broken children children who see the earth and feel a crack passing through it all the way to the horizon They are unmistakable, they have a hunted look in their eyes and their sadness is all pervading â€“ it stays in the smell of their books their pencil box, sweater and in the cool darkness of their satchel. They live in a silence heavy and mellow like the autumn and when you touch their cheek your presence shivers through them like watercolour on a blotting paper. They know what eternity is though they have no language to say it in but when they look at the sun filtering through the yellow almond leaves you know that they can see it. But sad children also give birth to strange broken mothers mothers who see the earth and feel a crack passing through it all the way to the horizon.
fiction A VISIT FROM THE TOOTH FAIRY AKUMBU UCHE We were running around, a bunch of friends and I, when I felt a sudden need to spit. Not spittle, but blood and something hard. I picked up my tooth from the ground, rinsed it and showed it to Nzele. If anybody would know what to do with a broken tooth, it had to be Nzele, the oldest child in our section of Rumuokwuta. "Was it shaking?" he asked.
"No!" I exclaimed, raising my shoulder to my chin for emphasis, "it just fell." "You know what you should do?" I shook my head. "Turn round and round seven times, then face backwards, close your eyes and throw it on top of the roof." Caveat: "But if a lizard finds it and swallows it, it won't grow back."
Just then I spotted an orangenecked agama lizard nod its head and scurry across the zinc. I wasn't so sure.... I don't know if it had anything to do with his being the landlord's nephew, but Nzele and his siblings were the only neighbourhood kids my mum did not scan up and down before granting them entry into our house. That did not stop her, however, from unleashing her anger at him whenever she caught him at his favourite game. Nzele had this freakish habit (his only shortcoming) of temporarily blinding himself. This deeply upset my mother anytime she saw him roll up his upper eyelid and draw down the inner skin to cover his eyeball. "Will you stop that? Where do you children learn such habits?" she would scream. I didn't want to risk her displeasure but at the same time, I didn't want to be suspected of playing rough play, or worse, climbing trees; but most importantly, I did not want to live the rest of my life with a gaping hole in my mouth. To my surprise, when I presented my tooth to my parents after we finished night food, my mother did not shout; my father did not flog. Very calmly, they began this long ekwurekwu about the different types of teeth - milk teeth and permanent teeth, molars, caners and scissors. It would not be until four years later, pencilling diagrams in Health Science class that I would comprehend what they were saying. At the time, I could not understand why teeth, of all things were causing me to miss Zebrudaya and Gringori. Interrupting my fiftieth yawn, my father said, "Put it under your pillow before you sleep." "Maka why?"
"So that the tooth fairy can give you some money for it." "You don't mean it!" My eyes were now as wide as saucers. "How much?" "When you wake up in the morning, you will see." True, true. I received a visit from the tooth fairy that night. When I lifted my pillow the next morning, a crisp red paper note greeted my eyes. "Tooth fairy gave me one naira, tooth fairy gave me one naira," I sang excitedly all day at school. That was how I landed in the Names of Noisemakers list for the very first time in my life. Still, the hot koboko I received for this misdemeanour did nothing to spoil my mood, and when I got back home, I gave a remixed version of my Sig tune to Nzele, this time adding "Mme, nto" (3x) as the chorus. Like an unfazed Naija Idol judge, he waited patiently for me to finish my ear-splitting a capella before commenting. "It's a lie." "It's a true," I retorted. "If you like, I can even show you the money, sef." When he rapped at my bedroom window an hour later, I answered his "Are you still inside?" with "My mummy said I should not play outside until I finish my homework." I was too upset and ashamed to say that I could not find my precious money. Since then, I don't think I have ever cried the kind of cry I cried when my mother came home that evening. Her arrival usually preceded my dad's by three hours so I gave her an exclusive performance. "Hehn, hehn, I can't find my money. Oh, oh, the one naira onye tooth fairy gave me (gulp, swallow catarrh) has loss."
"Where did you keep it?" she asked, stepping out of her car, one highheeled foot at a time. "I left it under the pillow. Hmmm, hmmm." "What this means is that you were careless with it and so the tooth fairy has
collected it back. Next time, give it to me for safe keeping. Ngwa, fichapu anya mmiri and carry my bag for me, okay?" “Okay.” End of discussion.
poems LOUIE CREW BABY, DIDN'T THEY EVER GET TO YOU? "Well, I remember once when I was a child..." (And for once I remembered to shut up): I was visiting Aunt Jesse in Florida; I must have been 9 or 10 years old. Maybe 12 or 13, I don't remember. One day at the playground, the boys teased me about the way I walked. “What do you mean? What's wrong with the way I walk?” “You walk like a girl,” they said, laughing. “'Like a girl? What's like a girl about the way I walk?'" They would not let me play with them. Embarrassed, on the way home I walked this way, and then that way, and then this way.... unhappy with any of them. Aunt Jesse saw me from the screened porch, but I couldn't see her. "Boy, what are you doing?" she said as she joined me in the yard. I lowered my eyes, looked to the ground, and said, "Ma'am?" "What are you doing?"
"Nothin." "But what are you doing?" "Walking." "Walking!?" "Yes ma'am, just walking." "Son, you been here how long?” “Eight weeks.” “I been watching you go over to that playground every day. You never walked like this! What you are doing now is not walking!" "Yes ma'am." “She put her arms around me and asked, 'Son, did they tease you down at the playground?' "Yes ma'am." "About the way you walk?" "Yes ma'am." "Son, God gave you the legs you have. And you've been walking on them pretty well until today. You can't be walking on nobody else's legs. God loves you just the way you are! You hear me?" LOST IN TRANSLATION Some sat shirtless in the hot October night. Over the loud fans, I could hardly hear myself when I read aloud the poem she handed me. I had never seen it, Bridges' "London Snow." I stumbled at the long string of appositional adjectives, I never reserved enough breath for the many participles
which end lines in the first half of the poem. Bridges forcefully, demandingly, mimics the falling, falling, falling of the snow. "But this is so difficult even for a native," I sweated. "Yes," she said. I had taught her two years ago, here at Chinese University, and now she teaches high school students in nearby Tai Po. "Do you understand manna?" I asked. "No,” she said. I told her about Exodus. "And now you can see how Bridges' `crystal manna' envisions the spiritual dimensions of the magic which the little boys enjoy as they taste the snow...." She looked blankly. "Have you ever seen snow?" I asked. She nodded up and down. "Really? In northern China?" "No, on a postcard." "Have any of your students seen snow?" "I doubt it." "But much of the poem depends on seeing a very ephemeral moment, that even some snowfalls bypass, the part when the snow has just made `unevenness even,' when no light has melted and begun to compact it. “You might take them a Slurpy from the Seven Eleven but that's not it at all. That's ice. That's compacted.... This is about snow the first thing in the morning, when no wind has disturbed it even slightly. “I remember watching Nigerians in Beijing go mad at their first sight of snow; they ran in circles grasping it as it swirled.
But that was dry snow. This damp snow rests gently......" She looked exasperated in trying to grasp how this could possibly help her students win the prize. "But why did you choose this poem for them to perform?! " I asked. Caught off guard, she forgot her usual deference and blurted: "I didn't. I would never. “The British will judge the contest, and the authorities have told us that the British are like this, that they long for the snows of home while they live here!" THE LONG ARC “Are you the same Louie Crew,” the email began. I did not recognize the sender. “... who used to live in Fort Valley and had a black lover?” he continued. After we integrated our neighbourhood there, a bishop accused us of causing a tornado. “Would one expect God to remain silent when homosexuals are tolerated?” he thundered in a national Birchite paper. That was a quarter of a century earlier. “Yes, and why do you want to know?” I asked guardedly. “I am so glad to find you,” he replied. “My family encouraged me and my brothers to threaten you. We called, we heckled, we threw rocks in the back towards your bedroom. “Dad liked to take us in his pick-up when we saw you jogging. He had great sport sneaking up quietly behind you and suddenly revving the engine.”
Many different people did that, I remembered. Who is this one, and why has he called? “I am so embarrassed, and I need your forgiveness. You see, I grew up gay and can't live with what I did to you. Can you possibly forgive me?” Ah, something I can answer with certainty: “You were forgiven long before you felt a need to ask,” I said; “from the same source of all forgiveness.” “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” he said, relieved and excited. “And you need to know,” he added, “my lover is Hispanic and my parents have accepted him into our family.” I not only believe in the Holy Spirit; I have seen the Holy Spirit happen.
fiction NINE STONES JONAKI RAY 1. The green wok, shining on the white cupboard, is what she missed the most. It was the first thing she had bought when she had arrived in the US. The $19.99 price, which converted to around a thousand rupees, seemed very steep. But, she had not been able to resist the whole idea of cooking elaborate curries and settling down to her new life. 2. Settle down were the words her parents, or rather her mother, would keep telling her. “It’s all very well wanting to study more, Jahnavi. But, what will we tell the relatives who are already talking
about it being too late?” Ma would say. “And what about studying later on? You could do that, but if you wait, you will not get any more proposals.” Somehow, in Jahnavi’s mind, these warnings were always accompanied by the piercing “Aloo, gobhi, matar, methi le lo,” cries of the vegetable vendors making their rounds through the streets of the colony where they lived. 3. The same streets were lit up by tiny bulbs set out by almost all the neighbors when Jahnvi and Ma made endless, frantic rounds of the darzi, the
beauty parlors, the caterers, and the jewellers. For it was Diwali time, and everyone was busy. But, Mahesh, Jahnavi’s future husband, was in town for only three weeks. And that was all they had to meet—once—and plan their wedding. “It will take time to get you into America on a dependent spouse visa, so it’s best we wrap this up, and get started the paperwork as soon as possible,” Mahesh said over the phone when she tried to get the wedding postponed. 4. Bapi, her father, had said, “Well, he seems like a good boy. But, if you don’t want, you don’t have to marry now.” But, even as he said that, he had walked away, already late for his daily commute to the diamond polishing office. Two large suitcases packed with silk, chiffon, georgette saris and lehengas, and the dazzling navratna set, newly released from the vault and polished to a fiery shine, made her try and forget Bapu walking away. 5. “He’s the best jamai we have seen so far in the family,” was the constant refrain from her relatives. As for her college classmates, “He’s tall, fair, and an IITian. You are so lucky, yaar.” And Mohit, her childhood neighbour and her partner in a few hurried kisses last year, did not say anything but kept looking wistfully at her. As if that would make up for his fumbling, “My parents would never accept a girl from another state and caste. I am sorry”. All through the saptapadi ceremony, while she walked demurely behind Mahesh, Jahnavi felt like singing, “I am glad, glad I am marrying before you. I am getting to go to America, live in a three-bedroom house, and in the land of my dreams. You can keep looking and feeling bad!”
6. The bitter orange juice in the American Airlines flight, the metallic tasting vegetarian food… everyone else seemed fine with it, while she had just not been able to swallow? And the long line, the questions at the immigration counter, the body search…she had stumbled out to the arrivals’ lounge, and Mahesh had seemed just like the Mills and Boons’ hero, waiting to rescue her. The house, with a prickly tree in the front (a hawthorn tree, according to Mahesh), was smaller than what she had imagined, but everything was dazzlingly clean. The supermarket was all that she had read about, and the pre-cut vegetables made cooking so much easier. 7. “The stars and ecstasy described in the Mills and Boons and the Silhouette novels had to be too much,” Jahnavi and her best friend Saumya had often giggled. Ma had just stammered and told her to do her duty. But nothing had prepared her for the pain. Face down on the pillow, desperately curving her shoulders into the bed, night after night, she felt that she was being carved like the frog in the biology dissection classes in the ninth grade. And the videos, the ropes, the “acts” reminded her of the circus performance she had seen with her friends once. 8. “Everything is fine here. So clean and nice,” was what she kept saying on her calls home. Ma would talk about the neighbourhood politics, the hiring and firing of the maids, the increasing prices of petrol and vegetables. Bapi, as usual, had nothing to say. Cooking matar paneer in the green wok, she kept telling herself, “Everything will get better. Things will improve. Perhaps I could talk to Mahesh.” The cigarette burns put a stop to that.
9. Those burns kept getting scratched by the prickly blanket on the bunk beds at the shelter. But she was always cold at the same time and kept shivering. Jahnavi had not stopped shivering since she had left the house in her red chiffon sari and the matching
leather handbag. The only thing she had taken with her was the navratan necklace. “Diamond, pearl, coral, cat’s eye, garnet, blue and yellow sapphires, ruby, and emerald—each of these nine stones are a blessing for you and will be lucky for you,” Ma had said.
poetry MITCHELL GRABOIS 86 86-year- old gymnast tumbles and twirls spins on the pommel horse Grey hair loosens from her bun She flies in a big dismount Her knees have never seen arthritis Her granddaughters are coming up scorpions in a jar stinging each other to death Everyone is in awe of everything
DIBYAJYOTI SARMA BIO DATA: PAGE 4 These are the tales from another life. We scaled the blue hills, to find the land of the rising sun, a band of sixty men to follow me and my grandfather’s sword; in the wilderness, we met the Savages, beautiful men, they did not know how to spin the yarn; for food we hunted wild boars and slept under the starry sky, huddling together; we were afraid of darkness. When the land under water found us
Our horses were dead We met a race of fishmongers Married their daughters and bred fish Riding the waves, I scanned The length and breadth of this land Under water. These are the tales from another life. He was the creator’s son, on the water’s edge He spoke to me: “…brother, it’s all yours...” I was weary and I liked his company His crystalline water and the fishes inside I built a hut, reeds for walls, palm leaves for roof Years passed My nails grew; my silk was torn and dirty… I walked naked, I had nothing to hide I wore the warmth of water, my companion He was my god, and I, his high priest I built an altar of stone, carved chariots on the walls In the darkness He slept and I sung him a lullaby We shared private jokes. These are the tales from another life. The nomads are here, came the tidings My friend, he did not know about the nomads Neither did I; they were tall like palm trees, their Blue eyes contained dreams of distant Seas, they carried weapons of steel Sons of sand and arid soul, they were Hungry for water. I was dying; an arrow with a peacock feather Pierced my heart. “My Lord…” “Run,” said my god, “you can fight the nomads...” But, how could I leave? “Then, come to me,” he said, “I’ll give you shelter…” I entered his waters, my grave beneath his placid love Waiting to be resurrected by the chanting of the opaque nomads. These are the tales from another life.
I did not die; could not leave the land, this air And soil, the sky and the water; I was made of these The grave of my friend’s heart couldn’t sustain me I was hungry for fire The chanting of the nomads disturbed my sleep Those wandering people They had decided to settle down. They rebuilt the temple, for their bedrooms, for Women and wine They lit the fire and invoked The sun in its coming; their chanting Reverberated the water, and I was alive. I was hungry for fire I was ready to return. These are the tales from another life.
(For Assam, my mother’s land, and for the river, Pagladia)
nonfiction THE VAGARIES VAGARIES OF BEING RAHUL SHINGRANI I walk out of the flat at seven, just as the birds of dusk retire to their leafy homes. The descending quiet brings hope; like a flickering light in a corner of my mind. I stumble down the steps and to the end of the lane where shapeless forms emerge from a dense fog. I face the road, staring intently at the black tar that recedes from my hurried steps. I reach the crossing and look up with a practiced expression - the hours in front of the mirror telling me how to hang my mouth, hold my eyes, and tilt my head. The cars scream by like deadly wasps; until the red light leaves them heaving and panting and craving for a sting. I cross the road and get
onto the pavement, away from the wasps, saved from their stings, for now. The feet are moving now, without the need for instruction. The black laces on my shoes jump to the left and then the right, directing the feet to safety like the whiskers on a rat. A salty mist invites the eyes to rise, above the ground, into the bleak horizon and then up to the cloudy haze. An abandoned leaf, separated from its home and family, comes fluttering out of the mist. I stare transfixed as it gaily flips on its back, revealing the yellow of a life that was, and on the other face, a green refusing to surrender. It settles on my coat, and asks me of my fears. 'There are many that lurk, but what they are, I cannot
remember. What makes you so happy? Is it because you fly free, away from the dark and into the cool breeze? Is it good to get away from the doubts or have you never known deceit? Can I also leave it all behind and just be?' A great big palace approaches, with fantastic arches as windows. The walls within are painted a bright blue, and the facade is washed in a yellow light. It is like a cake at a child's party—too delicate to be disturbed. There are policemen standing guard at its mighty gates. They look towards me with raised eyebrows—I hurry my step, they hurry theirs. 'What brings you here, grandpa?’ 'I-uh-um-uh am walking on this path, see. Uh, yes, walking to the park.’ 'The streets can get dangerous this late. You look like you're lost. Do you know how to get back to your family?’ 'Um, yes, correct. I will be heading home then. Thank you, sir.' I wonder what they make of the disappearing form, one with the winds like an apparition. The path leads me down a hill, to the center of town and maybe the Earth. A sudden breeze blows and takes away my hat, and it sways in the wind like a saucer thrown across a room. It glides over to a drain and lands upon a vicious stream, the stream rushing away into darkness, accepting it, embracing it. I
scuttle over and lift the hat, and can see the many masses that travel the stream. Little inanimate objects, racing away from old men who could not pick them up. The stream heads down to the river, then the sea and then the ocean, making insignificant that which once existed. A shapeless vegetable, yellow and weary, stares back at me. The hat sits atop blank eyes, floating with the ripples downstream, a face distorted yet whole. The park is empty, quiet. Everywhere is green, more than just the green of bushes and trees, this is a night's green that glows. This is a green that invites you to touch and see if it rubs off, to know if a past is so easily erased. I cross over to a clearing and sit on a bench. I put my hands in the air and laugh. It does not work. I lie flat on my back and stare, asking the misty skies for an answer. Nothing. I close my eyes and feel my breath. I still cannot remember. I chant, repeatedly and vocally, pleading with the energies for a spark of memory. Not tonight, not yet. I reach into my trousers for the blue pill and swallow it whole – wishing to forget that I have forgotten. She was my child, how can I not know her name?
poetry ARJUN ARJUN RAJENDRAN GANDHI IN PIETERMARITZBURG But the history is only a teaspoon; it doesn’t detail goosebumps or the colors of the moon. There's no evidence his overcoat was missing
buttons, or that he spent all night within a prayer; we’ll never know if his socks matched the patterns on his mind, or if he pitied his shadow. Did his gaze follow a rat, as it disappeared between his thoughts? Did he count his watch’s scratches, drink them into his conscience? There is no knowing if disgrace marched on his tongue the way he’d march for salt or if it sat unmoving, cordoned off by questions of all shapes and sizes, ogling with their new born eyes. DAWN GLOW it’s still dark; the sky is empty but the ground is orchestrated with balloons how impatient they seem, how eager to prove to themselves they can fly we see them burn into life, assume form like the wind inside an artist’s head every balloon is a marsupial; hands wave out gondolas as if from wombs the glowing is, at first intermittent, a language stamping the air with consciousness they rain upwards; souls leaving dawn’s body, fireflies betrayed by light they become seeds; scatter above fresh clouds, and germinate behind our nights
ASTHA GUPTA DROUGHT The sun has been packing its bags For long on the front porch. Why doesnâ€™t it leave? It has dried all his entreaties And now they lie under the adjoining Peepal Waiting to be swept away, Their gutsy lover will ride the northern wind. When he had shot arrows Coated with his singular pleas of love The pink stucco house had shrugged, Distracted between conversations With the passing herd of chompy cows, Their skin stretched taut like tarpaulin Across their zigzag bones, Carrying the daily sawdust news To be sprayed over rough greetings: Communal diary entries. Now he looks at the sky Reflected in the clay pot. Once absorbed in his roots like family, The water now retreats fast (in hatred?). The riotous fields are always greener In his dreams.
fiction FATHER LIKE A RIVER ARJUN CHAUDHURI CHAUDHURI 1. This is a map of beginnings. Or endings, if you please. Choose whatever suits you, and pleases the eye, for the end is not in sight. Leave the rest to the carrion eaters. No map is ever complete without the flying of scavengers. What is left after the drawing of lines on it, and after the dredging of lives beneath it is, after all, the only thing to love and care for, agonise after, and die with. Around ten that morning, while I was reading a translation of Kalyaanamalla’s Anangaranga, something happened to my sense of laziness. It changed. Sort of. And I decided that there would be no other better time to clean up my loft than that weekly unoccupied afternoon. And clean up I did indeed. The furrow to the furrow. Drawing in after the name. Drawing in the dust. Discovering things long ago left unseen, unmarked, intended for proper use later on. The later on which never did arrive in time. It was there that I discovered these loose sheets of paper in an ancient receptacle of wood. Loose. Very wayward. Like Medea and like Medusa. Or even like the Indra of the thousand cunts. Or the thousand eyes. Old and dusty pages. Not very old though. Just a few years old. From the time when my father died. And when Tuhina-pishi came to Silchar to talk to her pasts. Her uncles and her aunts. Her homes. Her ancestors’ bones. The streets which she knew from birth. And, I find that once assembled together these notes make up a sort of a map which is refulgent like the submissive
sun on April days as well as subversive like most labyrinths. A map which I can never use, fortunately, for anything substantial. No treasure. No divisional discovery. Nothing whatsoever. Therefore, I think the best thing to do is to let these grow on the page. And these, therefore, are the notes here. Born of white pages. Borne to your feet by white pages. And, remember that Equality in the heart is all. Of course, these were notes by my father who now is part of the world of the ancestors. He knew he would die and therefore he wrote nothing but these. Notes, as they say, are for goats. And here, again, are the notes. Or parts of the notes that were so dusty that I had to forget some of them. Or I did forget some of them because some of these notes were not meant to be remembered. 1858 to 1957 - The Hindu Family Act - HUF - 76 ITR 467 (SC) - The Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act 2005.Part of Ambica - Tuhina - To us To other coparceners - To sisters - NO Kolkata or Jodhpur Park - NO Shillongpatty or Club Road - To Mother goes Kolkata.(Here there was a set of inane and unconnected calculations which, for purposes leading to taxation and to concealment, I shall not reveal here)The notes ended with a brief rejoinder to my mother - “Laalee, be careful of D***, do not give up easily.” The secret to happiness lies in remembering. Remember this. Do not forget. And therefore I bring this map of maps to this white page of ours, you and I, Equality. The map that looks like a body is not actually a body but more a map than a
body. And did I tell you that my mother is named Laalee too? Laalee as in the red one. Often the name of beloved kine worshipped as Lakshmi in some parts of this huge tiff-and-tough land of India that is Bharat. Lakshmi, on the other hand, was also the earth. The earth that was hidden in the waters of the ocean by the Golden Eyed demon of avarice. And then was raised to the surface by He who was the Blue eyed Boar. And this river. This river called Bawrobawkro was fathered by him then. Fathered only like a river can be. And this map that follows is the one which leads to the understanding of Arjuna’s sorrow. In the battlefield of the sense. With the lord of the senses goading the horses of the limbs onwards into a discovery of the mind. Look on. There is still a way to be found out of it all, O Arjuna. And this is how Arjuna looked when he had that gross sounding fit of ecstasy on the field of the seeds of duty. Like a preta or a Bhūta hungry for parts of the yajna. The book of love lies in the lap of the Pad like the scent from the ripe glands of a musk deer. That odoriferous arrow of Rati which causes madness. Notes in one hand, I creep to the balcony and look outside. The sound of the rain seems to waft like a heady fragrance in the air. It is coming, now. This fourteenth of Boishaakh we shall see how the river meets its mother the Earth and salutes its father the Boar, now just another constellation dependent entirely on the whims of the clouds which support its strength. Waxing and waning. Like the Moon which was once cursed by a sage to lose its virility, and then regain it, over the period of the dark fortnight passing into the light fortnight. Such fortitude must be bowed to, it would seem. To be a man and lessen one’s manliness and yet be worshipped for
losing it all. Even though the gains come. The losses are also round the corner. Like Life. Also, you who read now in the gentle light of derision rising to the fore of your mind, you must know that in the world of stories, there are many beginnings, and endings. Therefore, forsake all plots. And surrender yourself to the might of the map. 2. Across the now invisible courtyard there lurks a narrow sliver of grace. White grace. Like the expulsion of white heat from the groins of this house. Broken though it is. Into two and two. The house survives in parts and the worship of the house does too. The first happens in my constant keeping together of this and that and all things that are for me my father, and my forefathers before him. The second happens when I labour hard to keep the thirteen festivals of the house alive in exact, excruciating detail. Samyak thinks I am a show off. And SO does my mother. And so also do many of my friends who know me and keep me at an arm’s length when I am in one of those moods. THOSE moods, remember. But you see that rushing sliver of white that just crossed the courtyard? That is why I do it all. That rushing sliver of white in the heat of the growing, young sun, the midday sun is the ghost of the neem tree in the tuft of trees just adjacent to my ramshackle study. Like the river Sarasvati, I do all of that, the conch blowing, the wine making, the flower differentiation, the food distribution and the monotony of the mantra, and the ringing, the twanging, the blaring, the caring and the sharing just so that the ghost in the neem tree doesn’t realise that its time is up and that it must disappear in
the haze of one random power cut that may plague the neighbourhood. In this summer or in many of the other summers yet to come, I will be the river. Sarasvati. She who flows with ease. The juicy one. Or the one strong in sap. While the heat grows stronger, year after year, I will grow sharper as a reed pen in my mapping of the passages that have built themselves into the periphery of the house. To the east is the past from the medieval family legend, narrating a remote ancestry from Kapurthala district in the land of the five rivers. To the west is part of the Partition era stories of many migrant extraneous family members arriving and settling as refugees for a brief period of time in the courtyard, just in Mahadeva’s line of vision. To the north is my dead father, corpse still swathed in pristine white. And to the south is the river of stories and myths that all of us one day shall become. This river called Bawrobawkro was fathered by the Blue-eyed-Boar. Between the north and the south is a line of connection. I am the body of that connection. My eyes are the day and the night of the connection. I draw the connection tighter, like a bowstring stretched taut just before the first twang in a battle or while slaying a couple of birds during fervent intercourse on a tree bough against the backdrop of the weeping Tamasa river. And all of it for my father, who, it should be known to you, never wanted me to be what I am now. A son of the past. My mother says so. And I know so. But what can I do? Roots that are deep must be held on to. Or the river breaks it all down into debris, and carries them off to goodness knows where. The Prince of Goodness Knows Where I am not, though. And however hard my father
would have wanted me to be a tree, I insist even now on being a river. And if not a river, then at least a connection between a river of growing, burgeoning myths and the corpse of my father, swathed in white.
3. Across the broad back of the flurried river banks, I watch the fiery red sun as it settles down to sleep, tired after a long day’s operose odyssey across the ocean of the sky. There is a splash in the river as it flows in the mind. And all that was aflow is set aglow in a rapt enchantment of sorts. Completion ends the day. And then we say here there is light in the night. Every night is a splendid sun. Every sun is a splendid night. After a long watch through the procession of hours, the sun blinks for a long moment. That is called night, the time of furtive spirits. Night time is precious, indeed. Since it is the time of spirits. Since it is when spirits become human. And what for? For nothing. For the day, probably? Now, to my immediate left is a long stretching broken down bridge, wending its way into the heart of the town. Between the bridge and my feet ranges a rough clump of ungathered stones sprinkled all over with scraggy grass clumps and drying droppings. Cows-goats-cats-dogs-mencrows-pigeons-rats-owls – all creatures of the hour – all of them can be traced here in a genealogy of shit. Every year, during the months of May and June, these stones, eternal residents of the banks, recede to the overflowing breast of the river which rises in spate then. Often, after the waters have returned from whence they had arrived,
there are interesting stories to be read on the surfaces of these stony faces. Once, during a flood relief camp, my mates and I had read such a legend on these stones while scouting the area as well-meaning volunteers. The waters had already left for home then, and the stones were ready to speak. We had discovered the rotting carcass of a bitch on these very stones. The poor thing had obviously been very pregnant but her time had come, truly enough. And she had died with her waters intact, resting in a watery grave. The scavengers had arrived in time so that the people in the houses nearby could return home sooner. The smell was keeping them away even after the waters had gone. And now to my right as I survey the scene and remember that incident, stands the truant Tuhina, fleeing the haze of Kali’s city of three villages. Tuhina is tall and willowy, with straight hair reaching down to her waist; hair that she usually leaves unbound, like the rivers that used to be. She is my father’s cousin, and therefore my aunt. But my father is dead. And Tuhina is my cousin too. But I am not my father, for I am not dead . For me, the word ‘father’, or the mantra-some pitr, is synonymous with annual offerings of cooked rice-balls and sesame seeds, pinda, a parole that ambiguously translates as ‘sphere’. I know the world that is only but an offering exchanged between the bones of the fathers and the living tired bones of the sons who are charged with the sacred duty of fathering more sons. Thus the equation of generations continues, like a lamp lit from the flame of another lamp. Tuhina is tired too. She wants to go back home to the town. There lies her heart, which had been torn away twenty years ago. It has come back to nest here, though, for a few moments of glad knowing. She nudges
me. I do not answer. The keys to the car are in my pocket. She cannot have them. ‘Be friendly,’ I tell her, ‘Watch the day end with me, and then we can go back home.’ Home is a word of paradise-like notions – Home recalls the lost worlds of knowing and unknowing – Home for me is the reek of the female warmth – Home is silence and supremely unrecognisable. We have heard of world emperors and world conquerors. But what if we knew that the world itself, through change and morphing, is an eternal emperor itself? Home then would be the empress. Home and World, ruling endlessly till the rebirth of time in one’s memory. The Emperor and the Empress, of known worlds and lost ones too. There would be separations too, of domains. Home - she would naturally rule that part of being that is eternally lost. Between the bridge and me is the cowering river, silent and meek, twisting its way into the heart of the nascent horizon? Between the bent river and me plays a horde of crows, shrieking, cawing. Between the crows and me is a pair of young boys, jumping-prancing half-naked in the heat, twiddling notoriously with an old bicycle tire and a pair of sticks. But I am far above them. I am standing on the hillock that suddenly rushes up after the banks end in a dismal sandy stretch. One of the boys is taller than the other. The shorter one is fairer, even in the departing light of the evening. The taller one is more composed and does not whirl around as much as the shorter one. The bicycle tire suddenly turns errant and rushes away towards the river where the sands are darkly wet and shrouded with alluvial waste. The shorter boy screams aloud and hits the taller one with the stick in his hand, all the while saying ‘Mine, mine,
and mine.’ Such is the vision of adolescence. You and I – we play. You play with what is mine. I play with what is mine, too. Only, I shall let you play with what is mine. The taller boy rushes away with his stick in hand. The shorter boy stands still for a moment and then rushes off to where his home is. Maybe his mother would rescue the errant bicycle tire tomorrow. Or his father would do it. Maybe, it would float away under the cover of the night and merge into the indiscernible sea of memories that forever meander and flounder and are rent asunder by occasional dreams. The boy would then sally forth on disturbed roads to look for another such shell, another bicycle tyre for another game. Tuhina glances awkwardly at me through her goggling glasses. She wants to go back to the warm crevices of the house where she knows she will be welcomed with a cup of tea. She loves tea. She is a daughter of Assam, and a stepdaughter of West Bengal. “Awporaajitaa,” I tell her. And she hits me with her handbag. Her vanity, I call it. The familiar handbag with the firebrand Che’s face emblazoned on its front. Though she has no revolutionary streak and loves to fast on Fridays. Tuhina is a good girl who likes to speak about me to her friends. The Awporaajitaa is a standing joke between us. When I told her of the etymology of the flower, she first reddened and then raged hard at me. I convinced her that it was all real. The cunt of the flower was white and its lips were blue. Too many countries having passed across it. But, Tuhina is a good girl. I am, on the contrary, a man who speaks to men. I am an ancient child who grows younger with every passing moment. My family calls me ‘Buro,’ ‘old man,’ though I call myself Chetan, the one who is conscious. But
then, that is a digression. Narratives do not grow well with digressions. Or do they? Tuhina is home now, after twenty years, as I have said. She had left when she had been three. Now she is twenty-three odd springs young. She dresses in red most of the time and loves to read “The Collected Works of Sherlock Holmes.” Holmes is not like other men, she sighs often. I sigh back at her and ask ‘Have you been on a date with him?’ She rolls her eyes and goes back to reading the “Signs of 22, Baker Street.” ‘Dumbledore,’ I call her again and again, until she throws her book aside in exasperation and embarks on a mission to kill my tongue with a singularly heavy pillow. She wears moon-like spectacles, which remind me sometimes of Richard Harris in the robes of Hogwarts’ Headmaster. She and I have been friends for years now. Even before we knew how exactly we were related, we were fast friends of each other. That discovery made no difference whatsoever. Alipore-New Alipore- New Market-Beckbagan-Camac Street-South City it had been in the city of the black goddess of time. For now it was Kalibaripaar-Shibbari Road-GorjonhaatPhatakpara-Shillongpatty here, under the auspices of the lost banyan-town Silchar. It was spring once again, and Tuhina will be twenty-four this year. The day she first re-saw Silchar, there had been many milling cars at the entrance to the town, waiting to begin their agonisingly slow movement, lost in the haze of the traffic. ‘Why Silchar? Why is the name thus?’ she had asked. ‘I am not sure.’ I had replied, ‘Maybe there is some relation to the fauna of the region. I have heard that there used to be huge herds of bison-like animals called ‘siel’ that used to roam the valley.’ She had half nodded to herself,
obviously unsatisfied with my explanation that I provided so furtively. The drive from the airport to the town till the auspicious gates of the family-house had been momentously silent, accentuated only by the crooning of Santana’s guitar. And a long drive it had been. Returns and reversals. Time and again such things happen so convulsively. Truth be told, I had been a tad bit fearful of how she would take the first meetings that had been scheduled to take place in my grandmother’s room. But the journey that had been exactly an hour long told me a lot of things and I stopped wondering. Whatever would be would be. From that day onwards I knew that the roads leading to the family-house in Shillongpatty would stay forever replete with the memory of Tuhina’s departing and eventual homecoming. 4. This is Kolkata. The land of bearded bard-prophets and dancing boys. Here I play with what is mine. Only, I shall never let anyone play with what is mine. Cars scurry forth and back towards into the lone island-like piece of earth where I stand, beneath the lengthening shadows of the odd banyan tree. That is odd, indeed. These days you don’t find banyans anywhere near the town, or where there is the least semblance of urban homeliness.
All that is gold does not glitter, Not all those who wander are lost; The old that is strong does not wither,
Not all those who die are lost; The new that is frail is all a letter, Rivers that flow are barred by the frost. And this here is the Bilwa. The tree of threes and the tree of fruits. During the ushering in of the goddess’ family every year, they cut off a branch with twin ripe fruits saying “here we cut thee off, here we cut thee, and here we cut.” Ah! Bilwa-tree of threes! What songs these are! The white page. The darkening page. The home of many trees of narration. The tree which is the home of narration. Let this then be a story, O Arjuna? Let me become Time, then? The devourer of worlds? The world's a word that can't be tolerated except in combination with lesser words like silence and peace, or in the absence of both. The devourer of worlds? Like this the body of a hanging face on the tree of the dead dog’s carcass? The name Arjuna, I will have you all know, as the learned professor Red let me know once, means ‘the effulgent one’. Shining bright. Like in the word Aruccunan. This is Tamil, of course. Like in the Latin word Argentum. Silver. Shining. Born under the sign of Phālguni. Also a class of near-Earth asteroids whose orbits are very Earth-like in nature. But, that is just another means of digression. Another nameless name-seeking. Useless to the core. Hopeless and unnecessary. But whoever said that everything in a story must be necessary? 5.
Deep roots are not reached by the frost. Ah! Bilbo! What songs these are! No. I say this. All that is mud does not fetter,
This is also Silchar – where confused cows abound. The principal of our old school, ‘alma mater’ is also a cow. The old cook in our house is a cow as well.
So many cows, bovine Silchar. At Gawrjonhaat every month during the monsoons and the summer, there is a three-day mass sale of cows. I went there once, only to find that there was nothing different to see. All of it was bovine. Cows with shit. Shit with cows. Generations of shit turned into patty cakes, for burning and to be burned. This is also Silchar of lost families and makeshift wooden homes. In the old part of the town, where the Maajonbari people still exist, one would consciously be able to notice a long of houses that are mostly wooden and diminutive in shape and size and structure. They resemble resting caravans more. Except for the Maajonbari houses. Those are more or less permanent shelters. The wooden houses I am speaking of dot the land around and in that area of the town. Just near them flows the great Bawrak. Floods are therefore a common thing for them. These refugee houses bear the brunt of the floods every time they happen. But I find it curious. The houses look like they are wearing skirts. Skirts that are tucked up, readied for an escape. I only conjecture, the settlers here did not build any solid, permanent dwellings because they never wanted to stay on in this godforsaken town-village. They had been looking at the stars when they had built their houses, stars that had rested on easier dreams. But their generations had passed on, and so had their successors. The stars kept shining brighter and brighter, but the dreams slowly faded away till suddenly, a time came when a future generation was ready to rush away at the drop of a hat. That had been before the millennial depression across the nation had begun.
6. And this also is the City of Fear. Fear that is Joy. All roads in the city lead to this watering hole, E said, while nudging open the door to the small, shrunken threshold of the café. The lowroofed entrance was lit with a shaded lamp that seemed darker than the darkness that encroached there. There was a lot of red on the walls and on the floor, I thought, or maybe it was russet, or maroon, or brown? The darkness made me too nervous to look at the ceiling to see how it was shaped and shaded. E stomped once to shake off the sleet that had crept onto his huge shoes which had, strangely, begun to resemble sampans, the recalcitrant laces taking on the appearance of wayward oars, stiff with sentient mud and street-like signification. If you are a tiger, or you want to be one, then come to the Blue Highway, and all things will fall into place, E continued saying as he beckoned me to follow him into the café. And I followed; I did, of course, with a misstep or two. E looked back once, or twice I think, to see if I was alright. But, it could have been more to ascertain if I was actually following him into the café, since I had not been much eager to be there in the first place when he had suggested it. On my way, I counted six tables, three on each side of the narrow pathway between chairs, with white, or once-white plastic covers stained with something, or was it rust, or something else? I did not stop to look, and hurried on behind E who was fast disappearing into the steady gloom of the café’s interior, becoming one with his darkness and the café’s darkness in emergence and immersion. There was just another customer there, a fair man with long, straggly hair and indeterminate age, and a
generally morose appearance. He was reading a book in the faint light that the lit niches above each table cast. It was a huge tome, almost a foot in length, and a can of soda in breadth, but the man handled it with great care, as if it was a treasured thing he had dared to bring out only because it was so dark in the café. And, in spite of the darkness, and the gloom, and the dimness, I could easily tell that it was a book once covered with a lot of dust, bought with not much dearness at one of the many book nooks on the Street of the Palm Tree. The City did yield such treasures to anyone who would seek it long enough or hard enough. I would know. I had looked far enough and hard enough and had seen many meetings between treasure and seeker. That I had not found any treasure must have been because of the fact that I’d not had the patience to look long enough. And that also even when it is I who think that I am. I, who think that I am everything, even Time, the maker of my own ends. I remember smoking up for the first time there, with E, on his insistence, and it was a bad experience, not the same as smoking a cigarette after a cup of tea, or a well-turned-out meal in the night or in the afternoon. Bengalis like well-turnedout meals, and even if I was not entirely a Bengali then, more a sub-Bengali, thanks to my mother , I did surely subscribe to the principles of meal and smoke like any other Bengali body and mind. But that was a bad smoking case to come off that day, or afternoon. And the conversation was about E and his ubiquitous whining about lost girls and grilled meat. This was also not very good. But it was bearable, you see, because of E’s company. E had this infectious goodness thing going on, and a sense of wellness that surrounded him like a sheath. Not that he was a sword
in any way. He wasn’t. Not the sharpest mind in existence, nor the brightest one, too, but definitely the most loving and caring friend. Not that I set much store by care or love, which are again, I insist, as ambiguous things as they come. That evening, when we left the café and walked towards the Similarity Mall at Hogg’s Market (I’d been curious about the underground parking thing that had recently been installed there, and I also remember very well how this was that year, which, curiously enough, was Year of the Iron Tiger, when hot passion met cold steel), E insisted on buying a pair of prayer flags to gift at the nearby Lama Mandir. He did, too. But, after we’d left the Similarity Mall and started heading towards the temple, E had fallen surprisingly quiet, which was something not familiar. He would not generally keep quiet most of the time, being busy with the formulation of opinions and the articulation of those as well. Of course, he had a load of sense in each of those abstruse commitments, all of it a vast series of language games in which no one in their right mind would contest him for a win. But, all of it was E, and that was how he stood tall with his darkness and darkling beauty. When I asked him why he was so quiet, he said nothing. We continued walking till we reached the Lama Mandir. It was dusk, nearly dark, and the sweeping breezes of August had already started their routine washing of the City. Great gusts that reeked of the muck and the musk of the great river Paapoddhaarini’s interiors wiped the courtyard of the temple as we stood there before the Pillar of Piety. That pillar, the resident bhikkhus had once told me, had been installed nearly a hundred years back. The lamas who had first built the temple here had brought most of the
pillar’s constituent parts into the City, part by part, bit by bit, after their long, arduous trek across the wastelands of Tibet. They had rescued as many remnants of destroyed chhortens which had been left wasted in the wake of Francis Younghusband’s belligerent 1904 expedition to what the British called Thibet. That was during the reign of His Holiness Ngawang Lobsang Thupten Gyatso Jigdral Chokley Namgyal, one of the bhikkhus had recounted to me that other time, along with a fervent expulsion of ‘May all grace be unto him.’ As I stood before the Pillar, watching E tie the prayer flags onto the metal reliefs that curled across it all like an endless, glittering snake, I heard the passing of that night into the past. And that was all it was, in that year of many shadows, the beginning of the century, and the ending of the millennium, and the beginning of the millennium, and the End of Days as they called it hanging right on top of our heads like the proverbial Sword of Damocles. That was when we had first visited the Blue Highway Café, both I and E. That is, both of us. Though we never really went back for a repeat. For the past had sealed itself with more power than the seals of Hermes Trismegistus. Rhetoric that I use here is just rhetoric, you must remember, albeit without the traces of pretension and logic that I usually am hard pressed to keep up with. 7. And what happened thereafter? E became something else, a waif, and a serf to my past. I never saw him again after that flag tying, for he passed into the archive of memories that we all become one day. He remains he, though, and even
now when I often cross the road towards the monument, I try to see him there, speaking into his phone as I remember him, cigarette in hand, its tip glowing in the shady complexion of the hour of the day. And where does he now lay? In the abscess that is the mind of twos and threes. In the receptacle that people have claimed the past is. But, most of all, he rests, silent, smiling, seated like a thunderbolt-wielding seer beneath the now taller pillar which remembers of cumulative piety, washed as it is by the breezes from the river Paapodhharini. Equality is all in the mind, you see. I see E now. He waits the coming of some other, random memory into the picture that I am trying to build. This map of riparian tensities. This river of beginnings, swirling like coffee grounds in a mug labeled “Dear Teacher.” I have too many of those now. I wish someone would gift me a mug which spoke of Equality. A mug of Lethe. And a mug of Phlegethon, too. Of Tuhina, let lesser be said. She became a stranger to me after she heard why the city had forsaken her. And her brother and her mother after her father. Of Tuhina I remember some things, though. Fifty things. And here they are. Listed, listless, listing. The green masses in the hanging cement boxes on the balcony have yielded a splattering of Awporaajitaa blossoms. Too much of sun, and sorrow, had, I'd have thought, caused those five-year-old seeds to forget how to sprout, how to speak. But the day has proved me wrong. And the green verdure spilling over like milk boiling on a clay oven has iridescent points of deep blue embedded in it. Clitoria ternatea, they call it. This flower of bodies. Also known in the devabhaashaa as "supushpi", "ardrakarni", and
"mohanaashini", the Awporajitaa is one of the most known flowers in Bengal, associated closely with the cult of the Mother goddess in the region. This morning, with my ubiquitous cup of Darjeeling in hand, I stood there in the balcony, washed in the balm of the sultry Kolkata weather, waiting for the rest of the household to wake up. It was then that I was reminded of the reason why I'd planted those creepers there in the first place. A certain mage of renown, learned in the lore of secret Goddess mysteries, had told me that the roots of the Awporaajitaa are home to the goddesses' naayikaas and shaktis, givers of bliss and wealth. Gullible me. I'd been in Kolkata then, and the first thing I did after this bit of information was to get hold of a few Awporaajitaa pods. I'd forgotten all about them. The excitement caused by the knowing of goddesses had disappeared, and fast, as it was. And now, with the surprising blue points, I find it all coming back to me. In a wash of memories, and a reinstating of curiosity. This has led to my re-reading of the Teerthachurhamani, and the Tantrasaarah of Krsnananda Aagamvaagish. The Pad agrees, I see. And so does my mood. Susheela Raman reminding me of swellings unwanted and danglings often so clumsy, Jodhpur Park, blue flowers, and red ones, 'jawbaar maalaa' bought at five rupees apiece, grape juice with floating bits of rapidly darkening pulp, bits of fiftyyear-old plaster dropping off the walls, Thhamma with her shadows, and Thhamma with her long-passed self, Gogol with his naughty smile, my new epithet 'Gogol-kaaku', Ashok Banker's graphic novel, the twin globes of sustenance wrought by my absent minded hands, Sarasvati on handmade paper, a tawdry Ratha from the dwindling
neighbourhood market, Reliance sprouts, vanilla fudge from Nahoum's, Awrkomawye, Krishnaashish, Awrnob Chhordaa, Debjani, Vasundharaa, Smitaa, Swawrnaali-Maatrka, asbestos sheets up above the head so high, old Kaali-fromKaalighat, Baba's smallish portrait, and his ashtray with the ten hearts engraved on it, marble floors streaked with green and black, British Council membership cards long lost, Max Mueller Bhavan bookmarks, the wallpaper with crocuses and roses, the fading picture of Jagadhhaatri on the northern wall of my bedroom, the inept water pump, and a picture of the Kind Mother-who-is-notred-but-green-with-envy-for-all-thingsred when she was not sick with Maati-ism. Tuhina is all of these. She is part of it all. As is E. As is the city. As is this ruined balcony of sorts. About the book of love I was reading. The Anangaranga. The Play of the Bodiless One. After some hermit decided to reject the mountain maiden. There's a story behind this text translated by Sir Richard F. Burton, the one which I was reading. The story which I had heard from my good friend V went thus. Sir Richard's wife was so disgusted by the text that she burnt the book a week after her husband died. Copies of the text survived, though; in spite of the good lady's best attempts to eradicate the 'filth' she supposed had addled her husband's mind. You know what I think? Maybe the courts of the nation should also exhort the citizens to behave like Kalyaanamalla prescribes in his texts instead of like the good girl named Furrow. Far, far away, as I speak, the waters of the Paapoddhaarini and the Bawrobawkro mingle to birth another new story. This also has no ending. It is only a beginning.
poetry AVISHEK PARUI CONATUS The sound of Mahaalayaa in YouTube mixed with the smell of lemon tea and the window scene of milk vans from Newcastle heading for the Big Tesco in Gilesgate to doll up the aisles of the mega-store for yet another day another way. And together with the orange suns of deferred time the mind crawled back to the smells of the city where limbs of clay were on their way to become goddesses that killed monsters. Memory is what happens when neurons make love at the back of the head across the folds of a semi-solid sponge that weighs less than a shopping mall guide. But between clock beats and sultry siren-songs when you sniff at that which signs the self memory is the mixture of lemon tea and YouTube songs and orange suns and old smells from a familiar city framing up with fragrant wood for the four days youâ€™ve known each year across winning smiles and womanhood. And the words on the white Word on the computer screen take you to the beginning of the Word that belonged to you and was you across a map of senses
that you came to know and love through lights, lives and losses with which your self was constituted. And as the fingers form a loop of letters that traffic between the brain and the screen and back again to the brain and its buzz you think there’s more to memory and words than neurons and machines… For faces will fade and meanings must go neurons will tire and then will grow slow but these words will merge with some matter with luck between those slits where the self lies and loves where goddesses grow from limbs of clay and moving milk vans mean a new day.
NABINA DAS ON DELAWARE: 3 POEMS 1. INCIDENT It was beyond midnight When the cars honked Mainly because the wind Was far from sylvan gray A shallow basin where Stars swam like busy fish Did someone want to jump Off from the Ben Franklin? Did someone lose their way And kept crying to the sky? We didn’t know who and why But we licked night’s sounds A siren seared the magnolias A voice churned up wet dust “Winnie, are you coming?” It asked
Before the night train cleaved through the rest. 2. THE PASSAGE OF TEA AND LIMES Rain invades the little room A lamp pores over written words books, pages, lines linger, just a little longer itâ€™s the rain from the Jersey shore that reads the Brahmaputra stories on my behalf over a storm window adorning the far view -soggy pigeons quiet inside AC coves, magnolia loose in the downpour before even the majestic bloom spreads against the Delaware riverine sky not even an aeroplane is found to loom This day is like the others when I roll-open-shut the blinds tells much about nothing merely the passage of tea and limes some worldwide web chatter about whoâ€™s still in the grace of simple oblivion, the ease of glossing over themes Rain, only rain can save the moment in its unique droplet only if I find it trembling like a berry on my naked arm or hair or the pigeonâ€™s neck or gone to the summer deck below as soon as it shed like the saddest line Neruda searched to write and wrote, so deep to utter and scattered in the interior of my dew -y breath Only the handmade swan and lotus candle from Michigan
ponders the night’s length 3. STILL LIVES 1. The two-pronged lamp is one of décor And a means of dispelling spurious void. Its yellow aura an ornate flower While the ocular middle a short-range star. 2. What the chair of the ribbed back Bones mulls on is its own solitude – No one to wipe the seat’s thigh sweat When she gets up and finally goes. 3. The candle of the twined vines Has a dream where she emerges Unscathed from the hour-long arson -Her house aflutter in the eternal melt. 4. For a lucky bamboo swathed in solitude The company is the air, not the gaze. The glass vial meanwhile collects sun, waterBorne moments of nameless levitation. TRANSFORMATIONAL Remember that open arena where the street theater people used to bring in their team and clap and sing and dance? There was a woman who always dressed in a long green dress and stood out from the rest. They arranged themselves under the orange fluorescent light of the building that bore the name of a northern queen. They sang loud and full of messages. I think she said the main lines every time we heard them. Once she pulled out her yellow scarf and waved it almost close to my face
and said I should look at my face in the mirror. I think she really meant it. I don’t think I saw my face in the mirror that night. Not until the next morning. Nothing was changed. Remember we were up through the night once laughing, telling stories only as an excuse to watch the sunrise? When the first spears of light came on, one our friend retreated into a sudden little truth. He said he must go back to his fold where praying was more important than watching the sun rise. He said he’d be punished if he failed to keep his creed. We let him run. I don’t know if he kept his faith that dawn. Even without him the sun still shone. I remember the Buddha in a conversation with William Carlos Williams about his red wheelbarrow about the rain -- white like a maiden’s eyes about the chickens that grouped around in dismay because the farmer wasn’t there and the farm was not talked about by anyone who read those lines. Who knows if the rain finally stopped or if the red wheelbarrow decided to roll itself on to the field -the oblong surprise about it has not yet changed. HOW TO WRITE IN A “DESI” TONGUE
Concocted from Allan Sealy’s ‘Trotter-Nama’ Go ahead, insert mangoes in your lines don’t be scared if they burst open try adding a sari border but do you even know a dhoti from a towel? Drat. An oriental-looking font? The schwa just stares at me, an inverted goblet of an ‘e’. Pictures of the Himalayas, rivers and godmen should come to our writing’s aid -Easy, just work on beards, dreadlocks and saffron shawls. Wait, I can shew; let me first look into the pot boiling on its own.
Things have changed in the modern norm Elephants are too expensive, get a Sardarji-cab. Agreed, cricket, cricket, cricket, till we drop. I can perhaps find the snake, a length of rope, and the charmer too, starved in silver moonlight, at a faraway railway junction. Meanwhile, swill the chhota peg, bring a jaded brahmin, an ex-king (now a politician), a chapatti-bearing chaprasi. And say, “There was a brown crow!” loud and clear in the elite babudom. Keep the tamarind seeds ground in the coffee assuaged by moist eyes, some high gumption – What else is Bollywood for? Glucose biscuits, a McTikki in the middle and if you’re adventurous -- abundant dekchis (patrons be seated in deck-chairs) in dust and perspiration and a backdrop of temples or mosques (we can use both). A god-and-love scene watched by a goat at the church pew, protests about (un)fair play, a boar frantic to find some tall grass they cut down for golf courses; similarly, dwindling tigers vs. famined land (does everyone not love a famine?). Also play up the prayer music. If this hasn’t delivered a modern Indian poem yet, go get that second mongoose or snake and to hell with your bared ankles on my page.
fiction BIG HEART MATTHEW BLASI
I went to Ray's funeral, my son Bradley in tow, matching suit and tie and everything. It was hot as hell, no shade except for a cluster of ugly peach trees wilted in the heat down the hill, and I didn't recognize any of the innumerable mourners. Front and center were women with loud dresses and purple eyeliner running down their cheeks flanked by big-
stomached boyfriends in biker leathers. They looked like Ray but older, more leathery than my brother had ever managed. But he'd only given it thirtyfour years. No telling where he would have ended up. By the time the preacher came out, we were all soaked and dying for him to get it over with. He was another
biker and not all there, reading from the Bible upside down and making up passages wholesale, whatever sounded good. In the valley of the shadow of goats, said the preacher. I forget. But Ray, I knew him. You did? Taught me to ride, he said and pointed down the hill to a cherry soft tail gleaming in the sun. The grave diggers came early and bowed out meekly to wait beneath the shade of a peach tree but the preacher had nothing more to say. He ducked out and so did the mourners, all but a tall Indian man with skulls tattooed on the back of his hands, who approached the grave and dropped in a carburetor and a fistful of spare change. I didn't want Bradley getting worked up so I took him back to the truck and started home. How about going in the pool when we get home? I said. It's dirty, said Bradley. I could clean it. He gave me a look, knew as well as I did I wasn't going to clean it. But right then I thought I might, just put on the swimming trunks and start shocking the green and awful thing our pool had become with powerful chemicals. Then in the evening shade we might take a dip, splash around in the chlorine fumes. But Bradley shook his head. Then a snack? Maybe a nap? Those bikers were nice. I'm sure, said I, though I knew nothing of Ray's friends other than they were bikers like him, a bizarre brotherhood of road mongrels with beer bellies and aversions to shaving. But nice. Ray always had loyal allies. The funeral
proved it. Ray had been doing 45 in a 25 and whooping it up on his Honda Nighthawk and hadn't seen the truck taking the middle line a little close. Maybe he tried to swerve, maybe the truck swerved. There were a hundred maybes and one result. Ray got smooshed. Ray was dead. A large Harley softail passed us and was in my drive when I pulled up. The skull man was meandering about my lawn, picking at the grass. He looked sad and windblown. Can I help you? I'm John Reindeer, said the man. Ray was like kin. Now you also. What, you want money? Drugs? Pardon? I got what you need! He climbed aboard his bike and was gone before I could get my hands around his neck. What had enraged me I couldn't say except that his parting tokens to Ray had been so strange. The whole thing was strange, the death, the accident, everythingâ€”unnecessary. I couldn't get my head around it. Like a man who went and laid in the road, expecting traffic never to come. Bradley was gone. I found him in the backyard waging brutal war with his action figures, no surrender. G.I. Joes were torn asunder, their legs flung afar. A bug man was impaled on a stick and two model cars lay crumpled in a head on. The boy was taking his uncle's death rather hard, red-faced and sweating in his good clothes. Go in and change, I said. They got to die. Are you channeling? What's this one's name? Shitstorm. I think its Snake-Eyes.
Not anymore, said Bradley. * I took off a week from work, then another. I'm a foreman for the power company, vested, twenty years in, and I had those two weeks coming plus some. I needed time, my boy, and cold beer. And I was doing exactly that, watching my son play in the drive, deep into whatever I could pull out of the cooler when John Reindeer returned. He parked his bike in the street and dismounted and by then I'd located the nearest weapon, a garbage can, and hoisted it over my head. I mean no harm, he said. Then be gone, goddamn it. Can we talk a moment? I'm trying to heal, me and my boy. I don't care for violence, said John. But if you have to fight it out I understand. I batted him with the garbage can and succeeded only in knocking myself over. John didn't seem to mind. He was good enough to allow me to grapple him about the legs and tire myself out before he sat on my chest. I'm bleeding, I said. Not at all. Where's my son? Bradley appeared beside John, the two of them gazing at me with sharp pity. In the end it was John who picked me up and deposited me in my lawn chair, John who placed in my hand a new cold can of beer. I was struck with remorse at the haphazard violence I'd used against him and bade him sit a while, while I made flabbergasted apologies. I'd like to see the bike, he said. His voice was calm and polite and
his long black hair was pulled back in a ponytail. He looked eleven feet tall standing over me, all firm kindness. Well, I thought. If that's what he wanted. I took him round the side where Ray's bike lay crumpled and rusting, the forks smashed sideways, the engine knocked clear out of the frame. Only the back tire remained intact, unblemished and smooth. It was a sorry thing and the sight of the motorcycle unnerved us both. I could see John looking at the bike, staring as if any moment the machine would up and try to drag its sorry ass down the road. I never rode, I said. Too dangerous. Not always. Well, just look. Howie, he said after some looking. Could I have one of your many beers? I was only too glad to take him back around front, put him in a chair beside mine, and give him a beer. He'd been good and true to his word as Ray's friends often were, and it was I who had been the royal shit. Plus there was something I wanted to know, had to know. The timing was bad but I didn't care. What was that at the funeral? I said. A carburetor? Ray could fix anything, said John. And the change? I owe him. We sat a while after those pronouncements and drank our beers. There was something quiet and steady about John Reindeer, nothing like Ray who had never known a day of peace in his life, traipsing about with his biker gang, odd jobs up and down the coasts of Florida
and finally back to Coconut Grove, where Mom and Pop finally passed the baton. By then he'd landed in some money trouble and as everything went to me, a nasty parting shot from our parents, I doled out to him as I saw fit. Which wasn't very much. He called me the week before he died, made a visit, asked for a loan. I was feeling very righteous and said no. Just no. Where was Ray going, speeding on a two-wheeled death machine? It was time to grow up, I'd told him. Time to put away the leathers, get a real job. Christ, he was two years older than me and pushing forty and there came a time, right about that age, where a man should put down the implements of youth for the yoke of age. Something like that. Point is, Ray didn't want to hear it. And maybe I was wrong anyway. It was our last big fight, over goddamn money. That's what will stick with me years from now. I believe Ray sent me here, John finally said. What's he say? Bradley asked. He was flogging a new group of soldiers, mouthing their shrill death screams. Takes time, said John. He ain't picking up when I call, I said. * John returned and spent his days crouched before Ray's ruined bike, prodding at some dangling wire, a roadscraped length of exhaust pipe. He was cataloging, preparing for something though I knew not what. We grew used to his presence, Bradley and I, and took a liking to the quiet and polite biker. I can fix it, said John. The bike? It's scrap.
I want to. For Ray. Like hell. What did Ray ever do for you? Very matter of fact John said, I got bad on drugs and Ray talked me down. Been clean since. Ain't that Ray. Doing everything for everyone else. You sound bitter. What did he do for me? I tried to get him out of that life and he just got dead. Maybe that was his life, said John. I had no reply, none social anyway. I hadn't much cared what Ray thought his life was and had in fact believed him to be mistaken on all accounts of its shape and form. What was so important out there on the road that kept him from settling down? He might have moved closer or come around more often. We might have fired up the grill come summer and maybe a year or two from now he would have retired from that haggard road life and we might have grown closer. Then at last we would have had the good days again, the big times like when we were younger. I imagined various family outings, me and Ray and Bradley, and I imagined that given time Ray would see that was what he'd been looking for too. But no deal. From there we made our way to the porch and took turns drinking and pouring libations to the dead. Little puddles of beer stood on the lawn. To Ray, I said. And Rex. Who's Rex? Guy who taught Ray and I to ride, John said solemnly. I understood this as a sacred thing, a bond thick as blood. Ray always had those kind of people, the
bonded ones, about his person. What I did not understand was the Ray who got John off dope, the Ray who inspired such serious love. My Ray, all he wanted was money to ride free, some of what was due him, but I was with Pop when he said Ray would just blow it on booze, wild times. He'd had a bad spell once on a lot of drinking that for some reason always stood out in our minds, a perpetual guilty sentence. We doubted his very fiber, all of us. I may have been harsh on him, I said. Ray never spoke ill of you. Never? John shook his head. Not once, he said. This sank in me like a stone. John sobered and left on his motorcycle, hair blowing in the wind. And later, thick on beer and alone with my boy, I was sick with the greater mysteries of Ray. Confronted with conflicting versions of my brother, I wandered the house and yard, working up a frenzy. I wanted all the Ray-ness to be gone from my life, John Reindeer, the ruined bike, the various effects delivered by the funeral parlor. Had he ever thought about the survivors, Mom and Pop and Bradley, me? I was in a hot funk, a boiling rage, and took it out on various equipments, punted the sprinkler heads, tore the patio screens. Bradley watched, stupefied. Dad, don't! he said. Back, son! Daddy's having it out with the spirits! I wrestled the barbecue grill, grunting and howling, ticking off the great sins of my brother. He'd just soared into the ether, Ray, without a glance back. Damn selfish. I had to wrangle it, subdue.
In the morning I had a pounding headache, par for every day that week, and knew it was time to take stock of things. Spread about the backyard was innumerable wreckage, the remnants of Bradley's destroyed toys, beer cans, wispy lengths of screen and astro turf torn from the patio, a busted lawn chair. I'd fought the barbecue grill into the pool, a black, dented egg of metal sitting at the bottom. These and other signs made a grave case that I was coming untethered. For instance, I had noticed about the house that week a growing number of neon plastic Frisbees placed about the roof, the shed, the interior of my truck. Also, there were an awful goddamn lot of bees about. I had citrus trees in back and some flowering plants, but this did little to explain the density of the insects until closer inspection of a Frisbee revealed that the disc was smeared with honey. I remembered committing none of these acts. In my head was a dangerous vacancy of spirit, blank and black spaces carved out of my skull. I had a kid, a job, a life. I was not goddamn Ray. I made breakfast for Bradley and I, burnt toast and lumpy oatmeal, and apologized to my son. I've acted the fool, I said. Damn right, said Bradley. But look you. This swearing business has gone on long enough. I want to help fix the bike. John may not be back. He will. One condition. Tell me of the Frisbees? You said not to talk about the Frisbees. Very well, son.
* John returned with parts numerous and mysterious, pistons and bolts, a drive chain and two shiny new exhaust pipes, and set to working on the bike. You really aim to get her running? I said. I could use a hand. I don't have a mind for this sort of work. There's only one work. That some mystic Indian shit? Mystic Ray shit. I stood there watching John pull apart the bike, and strike me down if I didn't feel as if I'd never known the man to whom he referred. Brother Ray the biker prophet, prowling wide America, dispensing wisdom from the back of his purple Nighthawk to folk gentle and otherwise. Was this the same Ray who blasted Credence growing up and embraced just as enthusiastically the angry thrashings of Metallica, Cannibal Corpse? The same man who taught Bradley the intrigue of water gun fights, who rolled about with my boy on his barrel chest, guffawing like some juvenile clown for the entirety of every rare visit? The very Ray who was always in need of a loan? How many dimensions could a man possess and still be just Ray? You should learn to ride, said John. Not a chance. Face the fear. Ride it out. For my part, I watched John Reindeer at work, no monkey business. In an hour he had stripped the pipes and most of the cables and had the good back tire propped against the fence. He was sweating, grease and dirt all over
his hands. When he pulled the gas tank he paused. I saw what he saw, a blood stain on the dented metal, a splotchy brown mark. He laid it aside carefully, slowly, and our eyes met. I had been drinking beer from the lawn chair, watching the man closely, and a great cold wave crested above me and bore down. I felt the chills and shuddered and rose and unscrewed the busted head light. I tore the seat off, the rubber grips on the handlebars. By sundown we had the bike stripped to the frame, old parts to one side, and new parts to the other. * John's bike was nothing like I imagined and I suffered great manly distress with him on the back, his hands on my hips. I did not trust bikes nor the sentiments of my neighbors who I glimpsed on occasion watching through the windows as John talked me through the basic operations of the bike, then slow power walks down the drive, and finally jerky stints from one end of the block to the other, no higher than second gear. John cajoled me, said I could no longer live in the shadow of Ray's accident. There are things beyond your reach, he said. But surely not road wounds? We have helmets. It's about guiding. Lean into the curves, don't turn the wheel. That first daunting ride had me in sweats. But by the end of the week when I returned to work I was confident enough to take John's bike about the neighborhood, even up to fourth gear, without him on the back. I understood then why Ray and his ilk rode such machines as the feeling of riding a
motorcycle was one of total freedom, even with the visor down on the helmet. All that wind blasting against you, the throttle in your fist, the lean in the curves. I felt a lightness, a shedding of some husk I hadn't realized was dragging behind. A new Howie, new skin, new hair, new teeth and eyes, capable of flying up and off those handlebars and perhaps lighting on yonder clouds to perch and nibble good golden sun. At every moment both terrible danger and the promise of true life. These wet, good feelings plagued me, warred with my dry pain. The work on Ray's bike progressed to the point where it once again resembled a bike. John's considerable skill was backed with my less considerable fumbling and of course money, a thing not to be undervalued. He got the chain on and the back tire along with a whole new engine via a makeshift crane we built from Bradley's design. That was my first glimpse of the boy as a kind of craft shop genius, something I'd never seen in him before. He was aglow with pride and that night while he slept I crept into his room and found several of his figures whole and unharmed. I sat beside him as he slept and was overcome with terrible protectiveness. This was all I had, I told God. You hear me? Touch it and I'll cut you. That night I set about recovering the grill from the pool, a task more laborious than I had imagined. In the end I had to climb in and tie it with rope, thrashing around in the muck, barely able to see even with the flood lights full bore. When finally I dragged it onto the deck it burped up great quantities of filthy water. Too, I discovered it had become home to creatures, a family of bright green frogs, big in the eyes and not at all anxious about my hovering near them.
All that remained to do on Ray's bike was the forks, the gas tank, fresh paint. A fine shade of purple had been chosen to match Ray's old shade, a dark violet that grabbed the eye. But when John arrived the next night and we started on the bike I did a stupid thing. I want you to take it, I said to John. I was thrusting soggy twenties at him, sober but with a lot of bad water clogged in my ears. Everything sounded muted and stiff, and John was looking at the money, then at me, and shaking his head. It's not about money, he said. You don't have a dime. Stop, Howie. Christ, you live in a motel. John got mad, the first time I'd ever seen him as such. He balled his fists and his lips scrunched up and for a second I thought he was going to knock my head off. But all he did was pack up his tools and get on his bike. He revved that engine loud and sped off and I was still waving the money and asking what was the goddamn problem. Before I knew it I was furious, tossing the bills in the street and kicking the mailbox and then I was in the garage and holding a power tool, this very serious belt sander I'd only had cause to use once or twice, standing before Ray's nearly finished bike. The thing was a danger, my bad reasoning told me. It killed Ray, would kill us all given half a chance. Better to pull it apart, piece by piece, bury it in the yard. But the more I looked at it the more I saw it. The angle of the handlebars, they seemed made to grip, to squeeze in a fist and hold on for all I was worth. Just lean into the curves. The bike wants to stay up. I stood there a good long while before Bradley summoned me back.
Dad. Yes, son? You shit. Okay. Get my keys and put your shoes on. We drove to the Knights Inn where John stayed but his bike wasn't there and no one answered the door. I called his cell and left long apologies, vows of eternal friendship. Then I went home and put my son to bed. Long after he was asleep I found myself before the ruined grill, taking it apart screw by screw, all but the frogs' home which I set beside the pool, unwilling to disturb any more habitats. John had been dead on the money: I'd always had the big fear, the need to pin things down, tighten the screws. It was Ray who pulled things open, showed everyone the big heart within. I called John one more time, told his voice mail I was lucky to know him, wanted him to be my friend. I asked him to please call me back. But John never called. He drove about town that night and according to the police report was hit from behind by a drunk driver in a Mazda Miata. He hurtled through the air and landed on his neck. They said there was no sensation at all, no pain, but I know better. In that moment he felt the promise of the handlebars come true, that weightlessness take over and lift him over the road. * We finished Ray's bike, Bradley and I. The forks proved hardest. More than once I spent an afternoon on the phone with a fellow from the bike shop in town trying to understand the arcane formula of mechanics. Then I got an invite for the funeral out in California, organized by John and Ray's old bike gang,
and wanted very much to go. But I was back at work and there was Bradley and his school and truth be told I didn't think my boy or I could handle another funeral in so short a time. I was raw inside, feeling scraped and bleeding, and though Bradley was recovering and much smitten with the frogs out back I could tell he wasn't all there yet either. I was contemplating all this and painting the gas tank when a grizzled old man on a massive Goldwing pulled up and stepped into my garage. The man's beard was long and white, tattoos up and down his arms. He had the skull on his hands like John, the snakes behind his ears like Ray. I knew him at once. You're Rex, I said. Wanted to pay my respects to Ray's kin. And a friend of John's. I was bad to John. Not according to him. That's a fine color. Ray's own. When it's done you might join us sometime. Like in the gang? Let's start with a ride, said Rex. I'm sorry for your brother. And John. Would you like to stay, have a beer? Wish I could, said Rex. He settled his Kaiser helmet on his head, donned his large black sunglasses. You riding the whole way to Cali? Rex smiled and sat astride his hulking Goldwing. In his face there lit a kindness both fatherly and wise. I knew then what they'd seen in him, Ray and John. I saw it too. Two days later, fueled and gleaming, Bradley and I took the bike for a spin. He wore a full helmet and a rugged Kevlar jacket as did I and we took it slow out past town, past the place where John
died, until we got pretty far out on the quiet roads where I could open up the throttle. Bradley gripped me tight but when I glanced back at him I saw him smiling under the helmet, tears in his eyes. I drove us to the spot, a nothing-special curve on the bluff above the river, and pulled over onto the shoulder. The guard rail was still smashed up, rusting in long streaks, and there were still pebbles of glass in the dirt under my boots. We had a good view, Bradley and I, so much I was almost sorry for what I had to do. I wasn't Ray or John and didn't have the big heart. But I could teach nonetheless. I could learn. Dad? Never, ever do this, I said. I took off my helmet and walked out into the road and laid down on the yellow lines where Ray had clocked out. For a moment there was nothing, no sound
except my blood in my ears. The pavement was warm from the day's sun, almost soft. I imagined I could sink through and find the place deep under the road where Ray and John Reindeer yet lived, a place of long straight-aways and bold, smooth curves, no potholes, no sand on the shoulder. Biker heaven, Ray once told me, had gas stations a plenty, and no cars ever changed lanes without their signal. I pictured them there, riding side by side, taking those curves with an easy lean, their hair blowing in the wind. I could hear Bradley calling my name but I needed just a moment more there with Ray and John. Then the low grumble of a car coming rose through the pavement to tell me it was time. Was I ready? I sure as shit was not. I scrambled up and returned to my son and he latched his arms around me tight as they could go.
poetry KEN CHAU TEN THOUSAND VISIONS ONE WILD DAY AFTER YOU LEFT For my baby Let me in, I wanna be your friend I want to guard your dreams and visions
Bruce Springsteen, â€œBorn to Runâ€? ten thousand terra cotta soldiers guarding the ten thousand rooms of heaven ten thousand coral seas ten thousand dreams of Samuel Beckett
ten thousand ricocheting kisses ten thousand fingernails painted the colours of our dreams and visions ten thousand constellations of desire ten thousand symphonies of your curves ten thousand ways of making love ten thousand chocolate éclairs ten thousand sculptures of our souls ten thousand front row performances of “The Promise” ten thousand speeches never delivered ten thousand generations gathered in the family room ten thousand experiments in vertical dreaming three hundred and fifty-one poems of desperation ten thousand stones sculptured and polished into an architecture of words ten thousand acts of forgiveness ten thousand spontaneous gifts ten thousand one-wild-day strawberries ten thousand of you singing the poetry electric with a poet ten thousand banquets of time time heals all wounds but time passes so slowly
LOUIS MARVIN AN ECHO PIECE in an old dusty tool you can still hear the echo of the strike, strike, strike in an old man you can still see the black hair fighting the grey, and his stern jaw that once gave orders of the life and death kind a beautiful woman, with the first wailing of her baby ringing in her ear, can hearcrying of a grandchild fallen in the garden the pop of the ball has faded from the crushing blow that could do the damage to that veteran twist, that veteran know how the rock and roll concert, with the heady atmosphere of pot smoke and screaming for a smashed guitar, is replaced by NPR and a cello concert at some college back east the fastest legs that glided to ribbons and medals, now has a cane tapping itâ€™s way in a three legged dance, careful not to slip on the rainy pavement today the birds we hear are the great-great-great grandchildren birds, with a song that echoes through the ages and welcomes that all-knowing sun the heat cooks the words, and they said and faded, â€œWe were here.â€?
nonfiction INTERVENTION ROBIN LEIGH ANDERSON November 21, 2001 “Sam tried to kill himself. Again.” Randy’s voice shook with emotion. Randy wouldn’t shake if an atom bomb exploded outside his door. But then, one ordinary September Tuesday in 2001 worse than a bomb had exploded the lives of twentyfive of my friends and our entire nation. “Where is he?” I didn’t recognize my own voice either. “Nancy and Jason are staying with him till his mom can make it down from Upstate.” Randy cleared his throat. “He told me not to call you. He said please.” “Please be damned, my dear,” I said. I shook off my anger. It wasn’t my good friend Sam that made me angry. “I can be there in ten hours.” Randy sighed. “Who knows what will help.” I knew. I hoped I knew. I leaned over and flipped open my business address book with my free hand. “Have Nancy call me from home later and we’ll work it out.” I couldn’t let there be a third try. Sam would succeed. “It’s almost Thanksgiving,” Randy objected. “We can’t ask you…” “God asked me,” I interrupted. “And have Sam’s mom call me once he’s asleep tonight.” I sat for a long time with my hand on the phone. The airline had said after my visit in October three weeks after the attack that they would fly me to New York any time we all felt the need for me to be there. That trip was physically
taxing on me so soon after orthopedic surgery, but my buddies needed me. I punched in the number and waited, then added the four-digit extension. A pleasant female voice asked for my emergency authorization code. “How may I help you, Ms. Anderson?” she inquired. I knew what I was asking of this beleaguered airline. My crippled legs and I would need a first-class seat to travel from Pacific to Atlantic coast the day before Thanksgiving, on a moment’s notice. I could hear fingers tapping on keyboard in the background. I had a confirmed reservation in five minutes and another 20 minutes to throw things into a bag before the airport shuttle bus left Santa Barbara. I boarded the plane in Los Angeles as the sun set over the Pacific. As the plane flew east, the sky darkened quickly. I stared out at the night, the dots of light below and the stars above. I couldn’t focus on them for the tears in my eyes. The words of Sam’s mother rang in my ears: “Sam never made it out of that burning building.” Hadn’t we done all the right things? The minute the last of my nineteen surviving friends was released from the hospital, we all gathered in Midtown Manhattan to remember the six who hadn’t survived, to share our thoughts and emotions. Before I’d left California, I’d called grief counselors to be with us for the weekend. For 42 hours we lived and breathed and ate and slept together, one wounded heart. I would not have left New York if I had believed anyone was in
jeopardy. The news of Sam’s first suicide attempt rocked us all to the core, Sam, steady Sam. After frantic calls across the country Sam’s family was convinced to fire the idiot psychiatrist who had prescribed SIXTY barbiturate capsules to a man who had endured such a trauma. Sam connected with another counselor. We called him, e-mailed him, those nearby knocked on his door and spent time with him day and night. Hadn’t we done all the right things? When Randy had told me that Sam had tried the first time to kill himself with street drugs, I could not wrap my mind around such a concept. I would sooner believe the Pope capable of scoring street drugs, but not Sam, not upright, dependable Sam. We hadn’t done quite enough. I closed my eyes so tightly they hurt as I tried to pray, to ask for the wisdom and strength to help my good friend Sam walk out of Hell. Nancy met me at the Newark airport shortly after dawn Thanksgiving Day. I was pleased to see that the scars on her forehead and chin had faded to fine pink lines. I was certain they were invisible when she smiled, but we weren’t going to be smiling quite yet. The ride into the city was spent in contemplation of the agenda of the day. We went to Nancy’s apartment so I could shower and change. At nine o’clock Sam opened the door of his downtown loft as I was raising my hand to knock. I snapped a smile into place. “I thought I’d spend Thanksgiving with my favorite tall blonde,” I said to his astonished expression. He looked like Hell, too, gaunt, pale even for a fellow Norwegian. “I was just on my way to my aunt’s” Sam said, not able to focus.
“Good,” I said, the false cheer holding. I slid my suitcase in the open door. “Let’s go.” Randy, Nancy, Camille, Tom, they had told me what to expect with Sam. His mother had cried for half an hour before I had to turn off my cell phone to board the plane. Yet I still wasn’t prepared for this ghost of a man who sat beside me for the cab ride from Manhattan to Brooklyn. My plan was underway. I only had to keep the momentum going. I engaged my infamous motor mouth and didn’t shut up until we were inside the home of his aunt and uncle. I hated sports, but this one Thanksgiving Day I was thrilled with the nonstop football. On cue Sam’s father, uncle, and two male cousins drew Sam into the living room where two televisions were blaring. I followed Sam’s mother, two aunts, and two female cousins into the kitchen and closed the door. I said the only silent prayer of thanks for traditional male-female roles that I would ever say in my lifetime. Sam would never venture into the domestic arena of the house as long as there were football games on the tube. We sat down in various corners of the kitchen and pulled out cell phones and lists. Dinner was in the oven and refrigerator and would be there at the appointed hour. We had more important things to do. No one missed an opportunity to keep the conversation going through dinner and into the evening. I combed my mind for something to say, anything to say to keep Sam occupied. I didn’t want this very bright man to have a moment to pause and question why I had flown 3,000 miles, something I would not do under ordinary circumstances.
I chattered like a baby bird all the way back to Sam’s loft. Sam was the consummate gentleman, and my mind raced as the elevator rose, how to get Sam to walk through the door to his loft ahead of me. He turned the key in the lock and I stepped behind him and pretended to cough. The broad door swung open as Sam turned his head to see what was wrong with me. I pushed this man who was a foot taller than me through the door. I put my hands on my hips. There was no getting by me. Sam turned slowly, aware that we weren’t alone. Three dozen people rose to their feet and faced Sam. His family stepped off the elevator and came into the loft, closing the door. Sam looked at each face, ending with me. He shook his head, walked to his favorite chair and almost fell onto the fat cushion, put his face in his hands and sobbed, “I need help.” I knelt down next to the chair and put a hand on his knee. “Honey, why do you think we’re here?” Forty-five people settled on the floor in a horseshoe around Sam’s chair. Nineteen fellow survivors, Sam’s boss who had been holding Sam’s job open all those weeks, several co-workers, Sam’s pastor and members of his church, friends, counselors, so many people who cared enough for this man to give up a part of their family holiday to be included in this outreach. I started. “Sam, you need to engage your mind now while we engage your heart.” I took his hand in mine. “I don’t care what we have to do, we’re not going to let you do this to yourself, not again.” One by one each of us told Sam how much we loved him, how important he was to us. We shared our
hearts and minds and tears. Halfway down the horseshoe, directly opposite Sam, was the CEO of his company, a man well known for his impeccable grooming and stiff manners. This man pulled loose his tie, tossed his suit coat aside, rolled up his starched sleeves, and crawled across the floor on all fours to put his head on Sam’s knee. “You can’t leave me, son, not after all we went through.” This very proper man looked up at Sam, tears running down his face. “You can’t tell us how you got down from that upper floor, but you did it. You can’t leave me,” he repeated, his voice cracking. “I need you.” From eight that evening, for almost eight hours, we cried and laughed and prayed and talked and even threatened a little. We ate the food everyone had brought and drank the flavored iced teas Sam had always loved. Sam listened, and he heard. Finally at 3:45AM Sam slumped back in his chair. “I’m exhausted,” he announced. “I need some sleep.” “Amen, brother,” Randy said, yawning. He rose to his feet and stretched. “I’ll tuck you in.” Sam looked up at his friend. “You don’t trust me.” “Not a bit,” Randy answered. Sam shrugged and stood up. The two men walked into the bedroom and closed the door. I ran my hands through my hair and sighed. “Now what?” Sam’s father asked. “Now everyone but Renee` goes home,” I said. “Renee` is more than Sam’s church buddy, she’s a psychiatric nurse,” I added to his raised eyebrow. “She’ll sit in the kitchen reading while I zonk out on the couch. I’ll call you if we
need you. Pray to God we don’t have to repeat this.” Randy soon reported that Sam was settled and hadn’t fought Randy’s search of the bedroom and bathroom. I was so tired I don’t remember falling asleep. I jerked upright when Sam threw open his bedroom door six hours later. “I’m hungry,” he announced as he strode past me into the kitchen. He opened the refrigerator to consider his options. “I’m going to make us a big country breakfast.” My usual morning fare consisted of a cup of yogurt and a glass of juice, but I promised myself to eat everything Sam put in front of me. He had lost 25 pounds in 12 weeks from disinterest in anything having to do with living. He was a great cook, but Nancy had told me that his cupboards were almost bare. The night before everyone had brought something on the grocery list I had compiled to restock Sam’s larder. I pulled on my robe and joined Sam in the
kitchen. Renee` picked up her things and left with a nod to me. Minutes later Sam placed a large plate in front of me and sat down on the opposite side of the table with his own plate. “You know,” he said, stabbing a fat sausage with his fork, “it’s less than a month before Christmas and I am way behind in the gift department. After we eat, let’s go shopping.” I looked at him with wide eyes. I realized that not many men knew the significance of such a suggestion. “You must be suicidal if you want to go shopping in Manhattan the day after Thanksgiving.” Sam thought about this for a second, then burst out laughing. He leaned back and reached for the coffeepot on the counter. Outside of the tall window behind him I could see the gray, rainy sky. The pale light that fell on Sam’s face was enough to let me see that his icy blue eyes were clear and sparkling with the life missing for weeks. Sam was coming out of that burning tower.
poetry JOHN SIBLEY WILLIAMS AND FEATHERS Exhausted and black like the sun’s worn soles I am content in being the forgotten corner room of someone else’s house walls painted forever in tar so the slightest kiss of light absorbs
HOLIDAY It’s our bones that dry and crumble and peek through our children’s curious toes mid-summer with the sun turning marrow to sand to the glass of a fractured mirror an expanse of family stretched raw over miles diluted by grains of ancestors and distance molded together for an hour into castles then flatted by our sons just before the sea arrives AND THE PERSECUTED BECOME: Imagine your life a misprinted calendar the ink of days running one into the next the months and years, meaningless numbers instead of bleeding nails and scratches on walls (Never again waking at the same time begrudging the same rectangle of sky that diverges so violently from the same dream of wings and a sea that doesn’t drown) Imagine climbing up from yourself setting fire to the pages that bind to wing and wave and like the gods finally becoming the sea others cannot escape
DEBORSHI BRAHMACHARI TRAVELLING AND FORGETTING MCLEODGUNJ Monks wrapped in red sky walk away through the mist, clouds of salvation and sacrifice. Smiles that remind you of faces you have seen a thousand years ago, in rain. Coloured flags of all colours, they fly like hippy flowers making a noise of the wind, and the wind chimes You can freefall like that waterfall, no room for vanity and shine high over that mountain rock white, where Tibetan flute breezes through the cold night.
KARIMGANJ 1. Green Mornings slow and silent, Sun shines through the curtains and it shades a memory in green. There is hope outside the window green fields and more inside, there is peace. Thoughts, they keep travelling through the wistful breeze. And so, Ma calls for tea. Milk tea. Brown biscuits and baked bun from the local bakery. 2. Afternoon is when sleep came breezing through the dizzy paddy fields, waving a lazy dream in my eyes. 3. The moon shines my terrace into a blanket of dreams. Sky-full of fireflies starlit the paddy fields. The horizon blurs into the mist. It sketches those Meghalayan Mountains facing the valley of Sylhet. The east winds blow gently from the banks of a river that flows between two villages. Politically, two countries . The river flowsKushiara flows endlessly through the winds of time. And it brings, the river sings, tales of a clay land where my roots lie.
AUROVILLE Amidst the eternal dawn where people never grow old a generation of love softly play. YOUR LITTLE ROOM (SHILLONG) Memories of Pine winds with childhood clouds floating across the Polo evenings, wrapped in little wet socks-steps that paint the floor, baby umbrellas that change colours with rain, and little wind chimes of tenderness and warmth. Grandfather stories' nights - windows open up to houses and shops on distant hills that sparkle like fireflies. Afternoons of Navy blue dreams and red tiffin box, hide in a wooden library of brown, warm books of love and hope. A little girl in a little room living Alice in wonderland in her head, and it’s raining outside.
fiction WINTER FREEDOM MICHELLE WITTLE There was snow on the ground. I touched it bracing for the cold bite. I felt nothing. I made it into a ball. The snow compacted itself more from my touch and became ice. The ice ball dropped to the ground without shattering. I was surprised to see snow, considering the last time I saw a season it was summer. Things were coming into focus. A metal barrier sat hugging the curve in the road. I could’ve benefited from a metal barrier. I saw a dirty white cross with my name it on; a teddy bear, shabby and missing an eye, and a candle burnt down to its stub sitting off to the right. Rosary beads dangled from the cross. I looked closer and saw the beads were mine; they had the same small knick in the cross and my initials were carved into the third bead. I heard the snow crunching down. Someone was coming closer. I
braced myself to run then thought better of it. I was already dead, what could anyone do to me now? “I think the spot’s around here.” “Probably where the cross is.” “Do you think his ghost is really here?” “My mom says it is.” Four teens out looking for a ghost—make that four teens looking for my ghost. I started wondering if there were others around. There must’ve been because why would these teens come here if there wasn’t someone else telling them there was something to see here. I turned my head to the left and the right, trying to make out any other shapes. Nothing was there. The girl with a pink coat was holding an unlit candle. She asked,
“How do we start this?” I thought that was a great question. How does one start contacting the dead? A boy, about fifteen years old with shaggy brown hair and tight black jeans said, “We sit in a circle of light.”They all lit a candle and placed it in front of their feet. They joined hands. The other two, another boy and a girl, started to giggle. The pink coat girl said, “I swear Deb, if you mess this up, I’ll punch you in your face.” “Chill, Steph. It’s a nervous giggle.” “It’s a ghost, Deb. It can’t hurt us.” The other boy, also wearing tight pants, asked. “Leave her alone, Mitch.” “Let’s do this, okay?” Steph cleared her throat and grabbed Mitch and Luke’s hands. The rest grabbed hands and she began, “We come from a place of peace and love. We are not here to be harmed or to harm. If anyone wishes to talk with us, we are here to listen.” I knew that was my cue to speak. I tried talking but no one moved. Mitch turned his head in my direction, but a bird also jumped a branch. “Did you die at this spot?” Luke asked into a hand held recorder. I moved to the recorder and whispered, I don’t know because I didn’t. If he would’ve asked did I die around here, then I could’ve answered yes. Luke continued, “Do you know you’re dead?” I answer him with a yes. “Did it hurt?” That question needed more information. Did what hurt? Death? I couldn’t say it did because I didn’t remember it. “Do you have a message you want to give to someone?” Lillian. I spoke directly into the microphone and repeated her name. I walked away wondering what became of Lillian. Did she get hurt
in our accident? Did I kill her, too? Did she lose a leg or an arm? Did she miss me? The questions rolled along in my mind and each one felt more and more painful because I knew if she was maimed, it was my fault. The four continued asking questions and I ignored them. I sat across the street to get away from their banter. The metal barrier had some wear to it after all. Those tire marks looked new, but then I guess a word like new is relative to a dead man. Deb took pictures. She flashed a camera right where I was sitting. When she saw the results, she shrieked. Luke confirmed she caught an orb. Great, I’m an orb. Mitch took the recorder and started playing it back. I heard Luke’s questions, but my responses were faint at best. They were all celebrating a job well done, catching a spirit on film and on the recorder. When, in the playback, Luke asked about the message, my response was loud. They looked at Steph. Mitch broke the silence. “He’s talking about your mom.” Steph put her gloves into her pockets. As I looked at her, I saw familiar features. Steph wiped a tear coming from her eye and answered, “Yes.” I understood I was looking at Lillian’s daughter. I ran to her and touched her hair. She shivered. Deb came between us and put her arm around Steph. “You’re part of the town’s ghost story. That’s so cool.” Mitch said. No one wanted that. “Let’s go,” Steph gathered her candle and walked in the direction they came in. The others gathered their things, followed behind her, giving her room.
I was tapped on the shoulder. I turned around. There was my mother. “Hello, son. It’s time to go now.” “Where?” She smiled and pointed up. Then she said, “You saw Lillian’s fine. Not
hurt or killed, and not mourning you anymore.” I felt relieved. I didn’t have to stay down here waiting in this place. Knowing Lillian was safe and I hadn’t harmed her freed me. I followed my mother into the bright nothingness.
poetry SIVAKAMI VELLIANGIRI MANJALIKULAM TO MANACAUD ‘’There was plenty of space.’’ I had lived cramped up and in Manacaud I had to un cramp myself. The sub-house ‘’Kunjaravilla’’-was the matriarch building and we, we remained at the annex. Plenty of trees, a thatch hut for the cook, a side verandah where you could spat tooth paste into running water amidst sweet smelling common roses and tendrils of creepers. Sacks of paddy would be parboiled, bales of cloth would be locked up and in the open ground the pyramid of atham flowers would be split apart with the bow of Parasuram on the tenth day of Onam. Any boy in the family could be Parasuraman. Easier than wielding the catapult. So there was no boy in the family, and that set them thinking. In this idyllic house my mother’s tummy started to bulge and I thought it was fat. Again there were two worlds, the inside and the outside. Movement like fish in a tank.
VALENTINA CANO THE VIOLENCE IN ME I happened to see him as I walked to class. A figure of smoke, undulating with darkness, he stood against a door, looking in. My eyes dug like nails into his hands, overturning the thoughts and vials of blood
suspended from my wrists. There was something I needed to say, a word to grind out like meat, but when I opened my mouth, my teeth fell out, tinkling to the floor like pins.
PRERANA CHOUDHURY THOSE SUGARCUBES WE BURIED IN THE SAND Counting sparrows, I caged one, feeding calyx A boat-ride will bring you home, palm groves will turn a shade autumnal, and sleep will creep in through blanket holes Knee-deep laughter on rains will warm the teapot while you tend the orchid tubs
-I love through opaque glass, blue ceramics and molten yoghurt Mounting glades, records will play in line, afternoons will smell of lemon peels If, on vernal feast, you burn the midnight wood, there will come a crowd on wheels, sounding like the jingle of coins And when, your feet, they sole on necklines, choral songs will greet the stage
We shall bookmark the route in flight. MIHIR VATSA FROM ARUNâ€™S DIARY ICE Today, there were things I wanted to show, tell; important thingsâ€” like winning the Junior Quiz, a nod from the headmaster, wounds from falling off my bike. Instead, I saw a cup full of tea being slapped against the kitchen-wall.
At that moment, things that I’d meant to say suspended themselves in the air, freezing into a strange shape of ice. It hung— like those balloons on my tenth birthday, and your twenty-first anniversary —and even though I tried hard to pull it down, melt it with a fire, or nudge it off the air, it remained unmoved, unbroken; unheard.
fiction SUNDAY ON A GREEN LAWN MURLI MELWANI The house was almost half-way up the hill and sitting in the lawn of December green he saw the hill rise higher and higher behind the house, turning a dark, then a darker shade of green, and ending in a fringe of bottlegreen trees standing brave against the arching sky. The sky was a sharp blue punctuated by stray fluffs of cloud. She sat on a cane chair opposite him, wearing dark glasses. She wore the pair whenever she came out of the house; her eyes were weak and the glare hurt. But now the winter sun had no glare and she wore them for a special reason: because she felt that her eyes were the only feature of her inscrutable face over which she had no control. She confessed she could do nothing when her eyes poured love, love for him. Of all the people, she didn't want her parents to see
the betrayal. And they were just a few yards away in the living room, behind a narrow porch opening to tall, wide doors. “I love you, Ranjit," she whispered and felt her whole being melt in that moment of inadequate expression. His eyes softened too. The words rose from hidden depths within him, "I love you, Lucy." Her name was Lakyntiew Marbaniang but everyone called her Lucy. She looked down the slope. Brilliant white walls and red roofs nudged each other through broken lines of pine trees. She knew that he was supremely happy, as he always was these Sunday afternoons when he came over. Both taught in colleges across the town square. To her parents it was still an academic calling on a fellow-academic, as
it really had been once, the staple of conversation their common subject, their teachers' problems, their relationship with students, topics to which they cleverly switched when either parent approached within earshot. She was still looking down the hill when he spoke, the words floating through a smile: "What proof do I have that you love me?" "No proof. And don't intend to give any. What proof do you give me?" "Who anyway told you I loved you?" "And who told you I loved you?" Although the sky was a porous blue, the sunshine metallic bright, the air was cool. By and by he felt his skin tingle beneath his double-knit pullover. "When you'll be married to the girl your parents arrange for you, you'll forget me," she said. "I may," he said. A whole rush of thoughts and images came into Ranjit’s mind. What his mother had said the other day. What Lucy had told him about what her father had said. And what so many others had said. But because they were unpleasant, he banished them. Banished them because Sunday didn't come every day and everyday he didn't sit in the sun watching the distant darkening hill slope, with Lucy dark-glassed before him. "You'll forget me when you're married to a man your mother approves of, a man from the same community, the same religion." "Perhaps," she said. "And you'll tell him he's got lovely hands like you tell me." "I may."
He held out his hands, palms downward. The fingers steady, selfconsciously shy in their plainsman’s brownness. The fingers were thin, rough, and slightly knotty. "They are beautiful hands." After a pause, she continued, “Your hands, they're mine." An impulse, quickening and throbbing, possessed him, and he longed to take her into his arms and crush her. “You'll tell him, the man they choose for you, to dress more carefully, more smartly,” Ranjit said "I may." "You'll nag to get him knot a tie straight." "You never know." Every Sunday they waited for the black shadow of the porch to move, shifted imperceptibly by the sun, from one side of the green lawn to the other. Ranjit contemplated its shrunken shadow under the overhead sun and knew that evening and the time of his departure were far away. His eyes strayed to her dangling creamy-beige legs crossed over the knee. The legs were shapely, muscular but not fat. The skirt rode high and cast a shadow on her flesh as the thigh tantalizingly withdrew within, a deeper creamy-beige shadow. That sensation of melting he had experienced earlier came on again, more intense, almost stifling. She was thinking how she felt whenever she indulged in her habit of scribbling “Ranjit” and then slowly adding "Lucy" above it on bits of paper, staring long at the words and then tearing up the paper. "And you will tell her about us," she said. "Why not?"
"And you'll whisper all those things to her? All those lovely things you say to me?" “Why shouldn't I?” Then after a pause, “Any objection?" A pause. "None," she said. A huge cloud coming out of nowhere cast a huge shadow on the hillside above them. He asked her to look at it, and as she turned her head to see, the same thought occurred to both of them: like the shadow that exists over us. The cloud moved rapidly, diagonally across the hill, leaving it clear, washed, and dark green again. As the sun re-emerged, Ranjit felt a shiver of warmth penetrate his skin. The dark glasses on her expressionless fair hill woman’s features were like a ribbon across a mannequin's face. He knew she was looking at him. "The shadow of the roof has moved," she said. "Don't try to change the subject. We were talking about ..." "I'm not." Two crows, black outlines in the bright afternoon, sailed downwards, wings out flat, unflapping. "How will you react when, if, we happen to meet. Years later?" "I'll introduce my husband to you. ‘Meet so-and-so; so-and so. Used to teach in the college across. My husband’." she made a small delicate gesture of mock-introduction.
"You? What will you say?" she asked. His eyes stretched away reluctantly from her creamy-beige legs crossed over each other. "I'll say, meet Lucy Marbaniang, sorry, Lucy whatever yourhusband's name will be." "And I'll ask you how many children you have, and tell you how many I have." "And both of us will know how happy the other is." After a long pause he said, "Our whispering might make the old beasts inside suspicious. Let's talk about the college." Ironical that the prejudices of community and state and religion hung over their lives in this so-called liberal society. "Right now I don't feel like pretending. How long are we going to carry on pretending?" The outline of the hill stood darkly, boldly, across the arching sky. A slight haze, muslin-like gossamercovered the fringe of the trees to the sky. He was happy: and feeling happy was like being empty of feeling. He sat watching the expressionless creamy-beige face with its dark glasses looking down at his thin, long, bony fingers and vein-woven hands in the cold brilliant sunshine, empty of feeling.
poetry BIMAN NATH “WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD” How is it that I don't remember the gloom or the dark clouds
from those stormy days years ago, or, that reptilian silence that had crept between us? What keeps coming back to me instead, is the memory of your turning the knob of the car radio, slowly, as we drove out on a rare holiday once, past the meadows, over insignificant bridges, and of your fingers stopping momentarily at a station as Louis Armstrong's voice burst in, singing 'What a wonderful world'. STEVE KLEPETAR WHAT THE OWLS KNOW Here is a hill to race down, a blind spot where journeys end. Some nights these woods are haunted by owls squinting darkly at the tongues of fools, tongues beating out the only messages they know: â€œme, me, me, me, me!â€? MOTHER, MAY I? Two giant steps and a corkscrew leap, your hands will end in lead. I foresee a marble in your
future, with a gray eye and cold glass. The adults passing our game know nothing, they have put away their eyes. Your father bangs his briefcase against a hollow leg, spits on the angle of red brick. He knows only your pigtails and your mouth. Your mother has played her hand of bridge, goulash simmers on the stove. Tomorrow is almost here, and nothing but air remains.
nonfiction ON DURGA’S MIGRANT TRAILS BHASWATI GHOSH A group of children--between six to eight years in age--sat on a dusty rug on the ground with drawing sheets on boards before them. After drawing out scenes depicting one of the three theme choices provided to them, they furiously pushed crayons over the pencilled sketches. My brother was one of the contestants of this on-the-spotpainting competition, interestingly called “boshey anko protijogita” in Bengali, literally meaning sit-and-draw contest. He drew a Christmas scene, having chosen the theme, “Your favourite festival.” A couple of hours later, when the results were out, he had real reason to celebrate-- he had won the first prize. There was nothing unusual about this except his choice of festival; the contest was part of a Durga puja celebration. Given that most of the festival
entries depicted the ten-armed goddess and her rejoicing devotees and a few portrayed Diwali, which would approach in less than a month, the judges must have been either too brave or too liberal to adjudge a Christmas image as the best entry. Was this because the venue of the puja and therefore the contest was outside mainland Bengal, in Delhi? I can’t really tell, for I was born and raised in what bona fide Bengalis call probaash--a sentimentlaced word for foreign land. As my brother drew on his sheet of paper, at a distance in the same pandal (puja venue) a stage beckoned me. This was a makeshift platform of wooden planks that came together with disciplined fervour during this autumnal festival every year. I was up there to recite a poem. At age five, my major challenge wasn’t
reciting the memorized poem; it was the preface to it--a namaskar (joining of palms), followed by announcing the title of the poem and the poet’s name. For me, pronouncing Rabindranath Thakur proved tougher than uttering the contents of the poem itself. In another two years, our family caravan bid adieu to the predominantly Punjabi neighbourhood of Lajpat Nagar to move southwards-- to Srinivas Puri, a government colony that boasted a better sprinkling of regional India. A handful of Bengali families scraped themselves off the neighbourhood’s surface to celebrate Durga puja at the colony’s community centre. My brother and I signed up as volunteers and reveled in our insider status. Despite being the focal point of the event, goddess Durga benignly remained in the background. For us, the excitement of arranging flowers and other worship items, getting together with friends, the chance to wear new clothes for three plus one evenings, far exceeded our sense of religious piety or devotion. And, of course, the competitions were there. My brother’s sit-down painting and my stand-up recitation had followed our trail. On the evening of Dashami--the tenth day when the goddess’s idol is submerged--something unexpected happened. My grandfather who usually avoided going to puja pandals, finding greater solace in poring over the words of the Upanishads or rationalist thinkers, went to the puja venue that evening to receive the customary shanti-jal or holy water, gathered from the river in which the idol is immersed. After completing the evening’s rituals, the priest turned to mingle with the devotees by doing kolakuli--an act in which two people embrace each other. As
the old man approached my grandfather for the same, they got talking and discovered they were from the same desh-a village in East Bengal they had to leave in the wake of the Partition. After nearly four decades, the arc of their migration or rather displacement had found a moment of redeeming embrace in probaash. Our journey continued. This time, the packed suitcases travelled deeper south--to Chittaranjan Park, C. R. Park for short--to our own house. From age 10 when I moved to this all-Bengali neighbourhood until the next two and a half decades, this final geographical movement within the city would form my most decisive and enduring impression of Durga puja. From the smattering of Bengali families in my earlier neighbourhoods, I had landed into a sea of Bengalis. To the outsider, visitor and occasional onlooker C. R. Park was “Little Calcutta.” This was an odd expression for the insiders--the neighbourhood’s origins lay in creating a space for the East Bengalis who had lost their land and belongings to Partition, the very reason my grandmother could buy a plot of land there. In every sense, though, this indeed was little Bengal if not little Calcutta. Most, if not all, shopkeepers in the neighbourhood’s four market plazas were Bengali. All things Bengali--from bonti-the vegetable cutter Bengalis use in the kitchen to fruits, spices and sweets from Bengal and a cornucopia of fish caught fresh in the Yamuna and brought to markets every evening--were available. The delicious deluge didn’t end there. Just like the number of market plazas, there were four different Durga Puja venues. For the first time, Puja began for us not on Shasthi, the sixth day of Durga’s arrival on earth, when the first worship of
the idol happens, but a month before that-with the building of the makeshift pandals stretching over expansive municipality parks and playgrounds. Two weeks before the puja date, the competitions began. My territory had expanded now--I could recite memorized poetry written by Tagore, Sukanta, Nazrul across four pandals and sing Tagore songs in as many. When just a week was left before the start of the puja, the cultural evenings began. This was the first time I had witnessed jatra--the popular Bengali folk theatre enacted on open stages in which actors do their singing themselves. From folklore to mythology to political satires-the jatras would keep us engrossed through the evening--in awe, jest or disgust. Barely a few days before the puja, the movie screenings began. At night, after everyone had finished eating dinner, we would go the pandal with newspapers-they came handy when the few chairs and rugs spread on the ground had all been occupied. The films--fading prints of mostly black and white Bengali films of the Uttam (Kumar) era were played on a projector. A man would manually run the projecting machine as the viewers chortled, sighed and mocked at the story playing out on screen--with glitched scenes, abrupt editing and songs that were out-of-tune in places due the damage in the show reel. My brother recalls that on one occasion, an outcry pierced the pandal premises as the crowd protested the abrupt ending of an Uttam-Suchitra starrer. The operator calmed the protesters down by saying one half of the reel had been left in another place and a person had gone to bring it back. The part eager, part drowsy crowd was instantly pacified. Such was the power of an old Bengali flick at a time when satellite television hadn’t yet arrived
in India, bringing with it dozens of regional channels. I was still in probaash, but one that Bengal had penetrated deeply. This included the Bengalis’ notorious trait for internecine splintering. Within a decade of my living in C. R Park, the number of Pujas had nearly trebled. This meant more pandal hopping within the neighbourhood, comparing the decorations and idols’ faces over gossip during the evening’s cultural shows-mostly featuring artists brought specially from Calcutta. This also meant massive corporate sponsorship. I remember one year my brother wrote the words “Next year, no Castrol, no Coke on the gates. Can we have our ordinary pujo back please?” on a t-shirt which he wore and went across different pandals on the last day of the puja. Wasn’t that how it all began? The glitz and the glamour, I mean. When Nabakrishna Deb of Shobhabazar Rajbari in Calcutta started the tradition of community Durga puja in 1775, Robert Clive was the chief guest and nautch girls from Muslim gharanas were brought to entertain him and other English invitees. I wonder what the bideshi Clive’s impressions of pujo would be like.
* A couple of decades later, I got married and drifted off the eastern shore in my journey of migration. North America redefined the meanings of probaash and puja in a way I hadn’t foreseen. The first taste of this happened in the Bay Area in California, where my husband worked as an IT engineer. Durga puja was a two-day affair, held not on the actual puja dates, but on the weekend closest to it. The
pandal decoration looked minimal as opposed to the ornate embellishments I had become used to seeing in C. R. Park. The goddess’s idol, too, had remained a constant for years. Bhog--the puja day lunch distributed so liberally in all our Delhi neighbourhoods, had to be bought here. Same with the cultural shows in the evening, all of which were ticketed--the most expensive one being the concert of a Bollywood singer. The drift continued--a year later I had floated across to Toronto as a landed immigrant to Canada. According to official data, Bengali is among the major language groups in Toronto.. So multiple Durga pujas were a given, although some organizers followed the weekend concept. Bhog was free, too, and so were the cultural shows. I could get used to this, I told myself. I had even begun visualizing joining the choir comprising women of assorted ages singing devotional songs at one of the puja venues. Instead I found myself volunteering in a Durga puja kitchen in a new city the following this year. Making ghee by melting butter, stirring a huge pot of khichuri (cooked rice and lentils) for the afternoon bhog and frying green chillies for tempering the food. In the summer of this year we found ourselves faced with a fresh migration notice on account of my husband’s change of job. We moved further south in Ontario to one of those cities with a deceptive name--London. After searching high and low for a Durga puja celebration in this predominantly Caucasian city, we found the only one that is held in a local Hindu temple. I contacted the organizers and signed up as a volunteer. After all those years decades of soaking in Durga puja’s Bengali ethos in
north India’s little Bengal, this year’s puja proved to be a curious case of reverse migration for me. Unlike in all the Durga puja worship ceremonies I have attended so far, the priest for the London, Ontario puja happened to be a non-Bengali Brahmin. The temple itself, part of an institution called Hindu Cultural Center, houses deities mostly worshipped in north India--Ram and Sita being the most prominent ones. And so the Durga puja was an awkward blend of cultural practices--the priest sang bhajans and aartis in Hindi, in praise of Ambe Ma, a name by which Durga is worshipped in much of India’s Hindi belt. But he read out pushpanjali mantras in Sanskrit as is the custom among Bengalis. On the first day, an old Bengali gentleman, evidently one of the organizers, gingerly asked the priest if a few women devotees could sing an agomonee gaan--one of the many songs sung to invoke goddess Durga. The most peculiar moment for me was on the evening of Navami (the ninth day) puja. Before beginning the worship, the priest took the microphone in his hands and started singing a Ram bhajan. In all my years of growing up in a Bengali neighbourhood in Delhi, I had seen many gods being worshipped at our local temple. Rama wasn’t one of them. In all my three and a half decades of existence, this was the first time I had heard a Ram bhajan being sung as part of Durga puja worship. Later, Bengali and Gujarati devotees got together to distribute prasadam. A few days after the puja, I received an email from the chief of the Durga puja committee. Besides giving a break-up of the puja expenses, the message also praised the efforts of the HCC, adding, “This is the only venue in South-
western Ontario where we can celebrate our festivals as Indians.” In my migratory experience, Durga has had to contend with forces of varying types and strengths--from a child preferring Christmas to her festival, Castrol and Coke to Rama’s paean being sung ahead of hers. For, over the course of her own annual migration to her father’s house on earth, she, like us, must contend with the globalised globe that thinks and lives outside the map.
* I await the day when I would run into someone from Delhi at a North American puja pandal on Dashami. I want to experience the kolakuli moment my grandfather did in his probaash all those years ago in what is now mine.
translated fiction TWENTYTWENTY-FIVE YEARS YEARS AFTER – OR BEFORE BUDDHADEVA BOSE
Translated by Arunava Sinha [A restaurant in an international airport. It must be assumed that the restaurant is huge, with a large number of people eating, drinking and moving about, but we can see only a single table and four chairs around it. On one of the chairs are an Italian ladies’ handbag of black leather with brass buckles, and a large, shabby, brown, bulging briefcase. On the back of another hangs two raincoats – one red, the other grey. The other two chairs are occupied by a man and a woman. The man’s hair is grey and unkempt, the fatigue of travel is gathered on his face, he is sitting slackly. The woman is middle-aged too, but still attractive, with a well-maintained figure, her face reflecting the aura of good health and make-up. She is dressed in a mossgreen nylon sari and a pale green sleeveless blouse. The man is in a blue suit – well-
tailored, but slightly crumpled. Longstemmed wine glasses are set before both of them; between them is a plate of savouries, with a crystal carafe of white wine on one side. The woman’s glass is almost full, the man’s, half-empty. The glow from a sloping blue sky and a sunny afternoon is visible through the glass window. ] Woman: (continuing, as soon as the curtain rises)… and that’s how the years go by. Sometimes in Cairo, sometimes in Prague, sometimes in Bangkok. Vienna or Washington now and then. And India, once in a blue moon… So you’re still in Calcutta? Man: Where else would I possibly live.
Woman: Why, weren’t you in Delhi once? I heard you had two stints in America too. Which means we could have met earlier too. (A little later) Why didn’t you let me know? Didn’t you know we were abroad? Man: But I had no idea exactly where… Woman: You could easily have found out with just a little effort.
Man: (suddenly vehement) But this is best. Meeting suddenly like this. Woman: Far too suddenly. (After a pause) Did you recognise me? Man: Of course, why shouldn’t I? Woman: I’m asking recognised me at first glance.
Man: Yes… almost. Man: It didn’t quite… occur to me. There was such a rush before leaving the country… Woman: Didn’t occur to you… in other words, you didn’t remember. (A little later, lightly) You had forgotten me, hadn’t you? Man: (sipping his drink, smiling faintly) You shouldn’t ask such questions, Urmila. Woman: I’m a simple sort; I say whatever comes to mind. Unlike you, I’m not… (Stops) Man: You’re not a brooding type like me. Old hat. Woman: How strange it seems, when you were in Boston in ’61, we were in Washington. Practically next door. (She pauses, the man doesn’t respond.) When did you visit Bangkok? Man: Bangkok? … ’65, in January. Woman: There you are. We were in Bangkok too at the time. You’ve been travelling so much, but not once did you enquire after us.
Woman: Almost…? (a little teasingly) Now don’t say I look just the same. Man: It’s not a question of the appearance. We often look, but we don’t see. When we do see, we recognise instantly. Though I don’t exactly know what it is that we do see. Woman: Riddles. Man: For instance, at first I saw a woman in a sari. The sari caught my eye the most. The woman was walking towards me, looking around her. I was watching the way she walked. Watching in the sense, I was looking, but not seeing anything. Her face, her expression, were all visible to me, but still… Woman: But still you didn’t recognise me? Have I really changed that much? Man: It’s not the appearance. I was saying that I could see everything, but somehow I couldn’t see you. And then… what made me recognise you was not your features, not even the way you walk, but
everything together, in a flash. As though a bulb lit up in my head. Woman: But you looked familiar even from a distance. Although I had assumed I was mistaken. But when you came closer, I saw… it really is… Chinmay. [An announcement is heard on the loudspeakers.] Woman: KLM coming in from Beirut. (Another announcement.) PanAm’s off to New York. Arrival and departure. Over and over. And amidst all this we’ve met suddenly. After such a long time. Man: (sipping his drink) Yes, after a very long time. Woman: Twenty-two… no, twenty-three… no, twenty-five… exactly twenty-five years after. In this airport restaurant… as though you fell out of the sky. [The man doesn’t respond. A few moments of silence.] Woman: And for such a short time. The two of us travelling in two opposite directions. (Pause) How does it feel?
Woman: Your wife… daughters… they must be very nice. Man: They’re very nice. Woman: Someone mentioned your wedding in a letter. We were in Cairo… Bijon’s first job outside India. Manju was born that year. Manju, my daughter. You haven’t seen her. You probably remember Bablu. Man: Bablu?… Oh, yes. I used to play with him sometimes. With a red rubber ball. Woman: Bablu is an established engineer now, he lives in Montreal. His wife’s American. Martha’s a wonderful girl. Man: Excellent. Woman: Manju’s married a German, she’s going to have a baby next week. I’m on my way to see them. (Pauses, the man says nothing) Karl, my son-inlaw, is very accomplished. He paints, he can cook, he plays the violin very sweetly. Man: Excellent. Woman: They’ve named their son Adim. Bablu and Martha. From Adam from the Bible. Do you like the name?
Man: How does what feel? Man: Yes. (Sips his drink) Woman: This… (Pauses, as though changing her mind) Returning home after a year. How does it feel? You must be excited, mustn’t you? Man: Yes… well… a little. (Sips his drink)
Woman: As a child, I always thought of grandmothers as old women. But now I see… that’s not the case at all, it’s perfectly possible to be a grandmother and live a normal life… Your daughter’s aren’t married yet, are they?
Man: They’re… getting ready.
Man: Did you hear… the sound?
Woman: And then – you’ll be a grandfather too. Our Chinmay.
Man: Indeed. (smiling) Living needs courage, Urmila.
Man: New York? But I suddenly thought…
Woman: (a little later) You’ve realised that a little late.
Woman: (eagerly) Tell me.
[The man looks out through the glass window. A few moments of silence.] Woman: (looking at the man out of the corner of her eye) Why don’t you say something? What are you thinking of? Man: It’s a beautiful day. Look outside. Woman: (after a single glance through the window) I wonder if there’ll be any sun in Hamburg. It gets so foggy there. Man: The sun – the blue sky – the mountain in the distance. I was thinking…
Woman: Pan-Am’s off to New
Man: As though the sound is going far away, so very far away… to a place where we may have been once upon a time, a place we want to go back to. Woman: (almost inaudible) Once upon a time… a long time ago… or was it just the other day? Man: But the people inside the plane cannot hear the sound. They’re wondering when they can take their seatbelts off, when they can smoke, some are reading their newspapers, others are sipping their fruit-juice. But later, somewhere else, when some other plane flies past, they’ll hear its sound – from a long time ago – which they had heard back then but not listened to.
Woman: (eagerly) Yes? Woman: Another riddle. Man: I was thinking that somewhere in the world it’s raining now, elsewhere it’s winter, and somewhere else, there’s a fog. But here, outside the window… it’s like autumn in Dehradun. Woman: (almost Dehradun… Delhi…
[The roar of an aeroplane outside. The sound is heard for a few seconds before fading gradually. The man listens closely.]
[A few moments’ silence. The man sips his drink. An announcement is heard on the loudspeaker.] Woman: Qantas is off to Singapore. A group of people leaves. Another group is coming up the stairs. They won’t wait long either…. What time did you say your flight was? Man: One thirty-two.
Woman: Mine’s at one thirty-nine. We’ll have to leave together. Man: That’s true. Woman: Mine’s leaving from Gate No. 21. Yours? Man: Mine’s probably… (pulls the boarding card out of his pocket), mine’s No. 22. Woman: Facing gates, then. We’ll go together all the way. Man: Not exactly all the way. Woman: (with a light laugh) I meant we’ll walk together up to the gates. Climb down the stairs, walk across the lounge, climb down another flight of stairs, and then side by side down a long corridor. Man: That’s true. Woman: As though we’re travelling together, as though we’ll get into the same aircraft and sit next to each other. Man: Yes indeed. Woman: It’s so strange, Chinmay. It’s so strange that two hours from now I’ll be in Hamburg, chatting with Manju and Karl, and you…
Woman: Bijon won’t get leave anytime soon, I have to go because Manju’s expecting. Her first pregnancy. Man: Why should that be strange? Woman: Oh for heaven’s sake – not because of that. I was saying that two hours from now I’ll be in Hamburg, chatting with my daughter and son-in-law. And tomorrow morning you’ll be in Calcutta – where your wife, your daughters, your family, are all waiting eagerly for you. Everything is all right, everything is running smoothly – and suddenly we meet. Man: That’s true. Woman: (glancing at her watch) We have thirty-five minutes more – nearly forty. And then, walking down a long, cool corridor – suddenly we’re separated, each to a different plane, on opposite sides. Don’t you find it strange? [No response from the man. An announcement is heard on the loudspeaker.] Woman: Air India arrives from London. SAS is off to Helsinki. The long table is emptied out. Three Japanese men are coming up the stairs. Two Arab women are coming up the stairs. The corner table over on that side is emptied out… interesting place, the airport.
Man: And Bijon? Woman: He’s in Ankara. Didn’t I tell you that’s where I’m coming from? I had to change planes here. Man: Yes, you did. (Sips his drink)
Man: Too restless. So many people, but none of them can be tied down. Woman: (smiling faintly) There’s no lack of things to tie you down. This is
preferable sometimes. Everything fleeting – temporary. Very interesting.
sausage) But you know what, I never think of age – I keep myself busy, I get about, I never let things get me down…
Man: Yes – nice – for some time. At the end there’s the arrival. No danger. Woman: (softly) It was you who were afraid of danger, Chinmay – not I. [The man lowers his eyes to his glass. A few moments of silence.] Man: (lifting the carafe, looking at the woman) You haven’t touched your drink.
Man: Never? Woman: As much as I can help it. Take us here, now – I seem to be doing all the talking, and you look as though you’re bent over with worry at the sight of an old friend. Back then too I used to say we had completely different natures. But how, in spite of that… (Stops) Man: Perhaps because of that very reason.
Woman: I will. (Spears a piece of cheese with her fork and lifts it to her lips) You aren’t eating anything.
Woman: What do you mean by reason? No one knows why these things happen.
Man: I will. (Refills his glass) Woman: People talk too much when they drink. You’re growing quieter. You haven’t said anything about yourself yet.
Man: Or, when it does, we don’t understand.
Woman: There’s nothing to understand. It’s a sort of madness. How else could I have been prepared to walk out – Bablu was just four, and I’d only been married six years.
Woman: We’ve been sitting here for nearly half an hour, you haven’t yet told me anything about me.
Man: That’s exactly what I’m saying. You can’t always keep yourself from worrying.
Man: (after a pause) You’re still the same, Urmila.
Woman: But how often does something like that happen in a lifetime! If you count the hours and minutes, how long does it last? All these things are so short-lived.
Man: What else is there to say, tell
Woman: What do you mean, the same? Man: You haven’t grown older. Woman: (with a smile at the corner of her lips) All these trite statements have turned stale. (Eats a small
Man: Are they really short-lived? Didn’t you ever feel afterwards that… Woman: There’s no ‘afterwards’. All these things live and die with the
moment. Tell me truthfully, how many times have you thought of me during these past twenty-five years? Man: It’s not as though I never have. Sometimes I even wished I could see you again. Woman: Which is why you never made enquiries while you travelled half the planet. Man: Exactly. I did not want to see you at home with your family. You’re a different person there – you’re a wife, a mother, an eminent lady. Woman: (throwing him a sharp glance) I seem to remember being the same back then too. Man: It was because you were that… (Stops, doesn’t finish) I had wanted to see you somewhere where you’d be – just you. I wanted to match you to the picture in my head. Woman: (after a pause) Are you able to match me? Man: I’m trying to. Woman: Meaning – you can’t? Man: If only you’d help me a little. Tell me – what were those days like, when you’d thought of walking out?
Woman: Such thoughts. As though something extraordinary was about to take place in my life. Something amazing. Man: (softly) Someone else was involved too, Urmila. Woman: Bijon. My worthy husband. (Laughs softly) Do I need you to remind me of him? I’m sure you didn’t think of me as an unhappy wife. Man: You wanted for nothing. I created the want. Woman: (drawing her words out) Oh… I…. see…eee. You went away out of kindness for me? Out of pity for my wellconstructed, neatly arranged, inflated, exaggerated happiness? You wanted happiness for me, Chinmay – you didn’t want me. (Laughs softly) Fine. Fine. [The man doesn’t respond. He sips his drink. The woman eats an olive absently. A few moments of silence.] Woman: You’re just the same. Your tie’s still crooked. Your hair still sweeps over your forehead. Man: (brushing his hair away) But – what did happen? What happened between you and me? Woman: You’re asking?
Woman: (looking at him coolly) I was prepared. You backed out.
Man: I know the facts, but what… what exactly did we do?
Man: I was asking what those days were like.
Woman: You’re asking? Asking me?
Man: I was occupied with what was actually happening. I didn’t understand any of it. Can you describe it? Woman: (smiling faintly) As if it can be described. Man: Why not. What was that room like? That town, that house, the scene outside the window? What was the garden like – the one in which you strolled at dawn while I gazed at you through the window? (Continues after what seems to be a moment’s reflection) Roses, weren’t they? Woman: (almost inaudibly) Dehradun – Hillview Hotel – where we first met. Man: And dahlias, I think. Or was it sunflowers? Woman: We met virtually every day, exchanged a few words. One day I discovered you were in the garden already. Man: I think I counted five different shades of roses. Red, white, yellow, pink, and the fifth… the fifth was halfway between red and pink – darker than pink, lighter than red (after a pause, ardently). Tell me what that particular colour was – did it have a name? Woman: We returned to Delhi together after the holiday. Bijon was working at the Secretariat, you were teaching at Delhi College. The light colour deepened gradually. Man: A solitary tree – directly in front of your Raisina Road bungalow. Was it a deodar or a gulmohar, or… see, I can’t remember.
Woman: I hope you haven’t forgotten Feroze Shah Kotla. The sunset on the Yamuna. Man: Didn’t a lot of birds flock to the tree at sunset? Or was that a different tree – was it in Delhi or Mussoorie or Dehradun? Woman: There’s no place on earth without a tree like that. Man: But that tree, which you and I would look at together. Those birds, whose cries you and I would listen to together. The things that lie beyond what the eye sees, what the ear can hear… see, I can’t remember. Woman: I hope you haven’t forgotten Qutub Minar on a winter afternoon. You and I climbing up, Bijon lagging behind, the staircase growing narrower as we climbed. Man: The smell of moist earth – can you tell me exactly what it was like? Like the smell of ancient stone, something that’s faded but still clinging to it. Woman: And at the top – such a strong wind, how large the earth seemed. I was afraid I might fall. But the fear was like a joy. Man: Tell me, Urmila, does whatever has happened live and die with the moment? Why can’t we capture it – that precise moment? The smell in the staircase – I seemed to get it a minute ago, but now it’s gone. Woman: The light, the wind, the smells – they were everywhere, just for me.
Seeing, hearing, speaking, not speaking – waves washing up continuously. But sometimes I saw a shadow on your face. Sometimes Bijon looked grim. Once it so happened that there was no sign of you for ten days. And then at a concert… Man: You’re right. Hirabai was singing… Jayjayanti, wasn’t it? Woman: You were listening with great attention, you turned pale the moment our eyes met. Man: Go on – and then? Woman: (looking at him coolly) You seem to think this is a story, that it has nothing to do with you.
Man: No, not many – one, just one – the one along which you and I walked. Bushes and hedges on either side, no one else on the road, no sound from any of the houses, we didn’t say anything either. But where – where exactly was it? I don’t remember. Woman: Surely you haven’t forgotten your flat in Daryaganj. Where the curtain was brought down on this drama. Man: Perhaps that road still exists, but we aren’t walking along it. So it doesn’t exist anymore. Even if we walk along it again, it will still not be the same road. And yet it feels as though we’re still walking along that road – you and I from back then.
Man: That’s true – it has everything to do with me, I was deep inside it at the time, that’s why I didn’t understand what it really was. How I felt – when I was listening to Hirabai with my ears, thinking of you in my head, I considered slipping away but I couldn’t avoid your eyes… how I felt then… I don’t remember.
Woman: You were startled to see me. ‘I was going to your house anyway, why did you come?’ I said, ‘I came to Chandni Chowk to buy something, I suddenly felt very thirsty.’ You brought me a glass of water. Looking at the glass, I said, ‘This won’t quench my thirst, Chinmay.’
Woman: You took me home from the concert. There was no more of hide and seek between us.
Man: Incredible! You shook your head the same way now, spoke in the same tone.
Man: I remember a road – narrow, winding, dense foliage on both sides, dimly lit – I walked with you on that road after darkness fell – when was it, where was it… (fervently) Where was that road, Urmila?
Woman: Do you remember your response?
Woman: There were many such roads in old Delhi back then.
Man: The same smile on your lips. That very moment seemed to be back – and then it vanished. Woman: ‘Let me go, Urmi.’ You were looking so forlorn. Poor thing. (Laughs softly)
[A few moments of silence. The woman sips her drink for the first time. The man is gazing at her steadily.] Man: And then? Woman: (her voice sharper) This isn’t a story, Chinmay, this is life. Red blood beneath the skin, a throbbing engine beneath the breast – which you were afraid of that day. (A pause) Tell the truth, weren’t you afraid? Man: Perhaps. Woman: I was ready with everything I had, you went back from my doorstep. I hadn’t imagined you were such a coward – so impotent.
[A few moments of silence. The woman sips her drink.] Woman: (drawing out her words) So… you melted at the tears in Bijon’s eyes? And as for me – whose happiness, whose peace, whose sleep you destroyed – you didn’t think of me at all? You really are generous. Man: I didn’t think of myself either, Urmila. I hurt myself too. Woman: What do I care whether you were hurt? I was roasting in my own hell. (A pause) So – you made such a big sacrifice – for Bijon! The same Bijon, who was toying with Rukmini Chauhan not six months ago – practically under my nose. Encore! (Laughs softly)
Man: Or courageous, perhaps. Woman: You could certainly say that. You do need a little courage to make advances to a married woman. Man: (after a pause) There’s something you probably don’t know. Bijon and I had a conversation one day. Woman (coldly): I see. Bijon. Man: There were tears in his eyes that day. Woman: Really? A tall, strong, powerful man – with tears in his eyes! Why, exactly?
Man: (in a pained voice) Why are you blaming Bijon suddenly, Urmila? Woman: You wanted to know exactly, ex-act-ly, what happened, didn’t you? Then listen. Man: You were in turmoil. Maybe you misunderstood many things. Maybe you imagined some of it. Woman: (sharply) Why should I have to imagine anything? Did I do anything wrong, for which I needed an excuse? Man: But if you blame Bijon you blame yourself too, don’t you see?
Man: That sounded cruel, Urmila. Woman: At least I’m crueller than you.
Woman: You mean to say that it’s wrong to want to punish someone who does something wrong?
Man: I want to say that whatever happened on its own. There was no other reason behind it. Woman: What if I say you were mistaken? Man: (smiling affectionately) Mistaken, Urmila? Were you pretending with me, then? [A few moments of silence. The woman takes a long sip of her drink.] Woman: (softly) Why be surprised if I did. You need to, sometimes. Man: Impossible. I never saw in your eyes what you’re saying with your lips now. I still don’t. Woman: (tenderly) You’re such a good person, Chinmay, such a good person. But still – listen. Just like some people catch a cold when they travel, Bijon had that illness. Sometimes it was Rukmini Chauhan, sometimes Jayeshwari Shukla, sometimes someone else. I was forced to think of a cure. Man: You shouldn’t humiliate yourself, Urmila. Woman: I was humiliated by Bijon. But the medicine worked. Man: You won’t succeed. Not even you can blacken the picture in my head. Woman: The picture in your head? Imagination? A beautiful, dazzling, wonderful dream? You’re right, you’re right. That’s all that a person like you needs. But I had a different sort of demand.
Man: (ardently) Then you accept that there was no pretence for you? Woman: (after a pause) How do I know – it’s been such a long time. Maybe it began with pretence, but that too was a delusion – it wasn’t really pretence but I was trying to pretend that it was, or perhaps pretence stretched out over a long period becomes real – or appears to be real. Man: (with a faint smile) There you are – you couldn’t call it pretence despite your best effort. The truth came out. Woman: The truth… how can I say that either. You left Delhi suddenly – I was in such a state. I thought I would die. (smiles faintly) But gradually – everything became all right. While you were there I used to think of Bijon as bad – horrible. But later I discovered – not at all, Bijon was quite nice, wonderful. And all the turmoil – it seemed to have been nothing at all. (A pause) No one knows how many different ways we fool ourselves. Man: No, Urmila, no. There you are – I can see that glow in your eyes again, as I listen to you it’s all coming back to me – all the roads and the rooms and the gardens, all the windows and the evenings and the nights – all that we had one day – that we still have – that continue to be, taking the you and I from back then along with themselves – we’re not aware of them, but it isn’t as though we’re never aware of them. Woman: (slightly miserably) Just memories. Suddenly – unexpectedly – now and then. They’re not enough to live with, Chinmay.
Man: But it feels as though it’s possible to return. Now and then – suddenly – momentarily. [A few moments of silence. An announcement is heard on the loudspeaker.] Woman: There comes your Air France. (Shifts in her chair) I feel a little sad, you know. Not for you or me – but for what happened. So many hopes, so much joy, such suffering – but eventually – nothing. Nothing? Man: What we had felt – still feel – is that nothing? Woman: Feelings? Beating heart, tearful eyes, missing someone? What do they add up to? I had wanted love in every sense, Chinmay. I had wanted from you every last thing that life can offer. Man: But… and what could have happened then, what usually happens… that’s nothing but routine. But the things that really happen are outside the routine. [An announcement loudspeaker]
a long time – a long long time. That’s why we can’t do without routine. Man: But still – this meeting today. This restaurant – the sky and sunshine and the glittering aeroplanes outside – this will go on too, taking along with it the you and I of today – it will go far, far away – to a place where we may want to go back someday. Woman: And now – back to our respective routines – let’s go back. [They rise to their feet, take their respective belongings and leave the table – ready to proceed. The handbag hangs from the crook of the woman’s elbow, the red raincoat is slung at her shoulder. The man carries the briefcase, his grey raincoat folded on his arm.] Woman: Hamburg in two hours, Ankara again a month later – my happy, married, family life – for which I am grateful to you. Man: I am grateful to you too, Urmila, for you have just taught me that what has happened once never dies.
Woman: My flight’s boarding too. Thank goodness. We’ll set off in opposite directions once again. Everything will fall into place again. Man: But still… what about this time in between, Urmila? We’ll have this too. Or, we will remain in this. Woman: Just a little time. It’s always just a little time. But we have to live
[They’re ready to leave.] Woman: [stopping as she is about to start walking] Just a minute. [They stop for a moment, look into each other’s eyes.] Woman: Your tie’s so crooked. (straightens his tie, touches his hair fleetingly) Let’s go. [Side by side, they begin walking.]
A DRY SEASON TARASHANKAR BANDOPADHYAY
Translated by Asmita Boral Laxmi is a capricious one, and one parched summer she just vanished from the face of this earth. This tale goes back four score years: when rice hit a low of five sikkas a mund. Peasants fell on hard times, and not just them, people the world over lost their minds. It was the Great Depression. They said most of the American banks had crashed. And the rest were soon to follow. Some consolation it was! The Zamindari was an ancestral burden, and now it seemed like a stranglehold: each year when the time came to deposit taxes, darkness would descend. The collectors would write to me how desperate the situation was, and how it was imperative that I be there! That year, it was worse. Reluctant, but not irresolute, I set out on the expedition. Fifty yards of salu, red linen, was bought. To be wound into thick turbans for Bhonda, Bhombal, Ganesh, Gadadhar, Gajendra... the chosen ones. And a cartload of sticks sent. Satish, the steward, was to carry a rumour of cartloads of men to be sent from Bhagalpur to wield those sticks. I followed last. My younger brother handed me a gun and some cartridges: Fire a couple every night. And one or two in front of the wretches-- in the day! I smiled. The wife said, "Why do you laugh? He is right! Nothing is beneath them! If they can skip taxes, they can rob, too!"
I daren't disagree with the Rani. Along came the gun. Orders poured in: sajne drumsticks for Pishima, a basket of chaalta fruits, and naalte leaves for the wife. My little daughter asked, "Baba, bring hairclips for me." Her mother laughed and said, "Your father's estate is larger than Kolkata; there are rows and rows of shops there." "The estate might not be so large, but its Rani is a commanding one, for certain!" I laughed. "Alright, alright, be on your way now. The day wears on, towards Saturn." But on my way out I stopped short. The obstacle was not brought on by the malicious Saturn, but my ten year old son. He had put on display an array of broken bicycles, tricycles, their wheels strung together by a rope! Rani Ma was furious. Saturn was progressing and the journey, interrupted! A bad omen! I skirted my way around the child but he was alarmed, "You'll break my rice mill!" This made me curious. "Is this your rice mill, Manik?" "Yes! See?" and he tugged a handle at the end of the line and all the wheels started turning. I realised he had got the concept of belting in his little head. I was impressed. I turned to the wife and said, "See how bright he is? He will become a good engineer. I will send him abroad to study." She said, "That's why I keep telling you to save money from now on. If the money lies with your subjects, it will never
grow. But you, you never listen! If it is 'no rain', today, then tomorrow, 'no, the crops have all sunk in the tide'. 'No value for rice', the day after. And you! Bent on playing Raja Ramachandra! Some day you will send me to exile, on their wishes!" "God forbid! This time I'll grab them with twenty arms and drain their blood!" Rani had a strange smile on her lips. My mirth dried up. She said, "You think that would make me very glad, don't you? What can I do, I am blind when it comes to my children's future!" This was not news to me. This, indeed, has made her selfish. "Why don't you sprinkle some affection on your wretched subjects? It will do them a world of good." Proudly, defiantly, she replied, "You think that does not happen? You know, we women are a mother’s breed..." I took it that her reading of novels has not gone in vain. She has internalised this idea. I turned to my son. "What should I bring for you, Manik?" Before he could think of anything he fancied, his mother prompted him, "Tell him, you must bring me money." It confounded me that it was for his subjects Ramachandra had been driven to banish his wife, Sita, to the forests! The cartload of sticks remained as they were. As I arrived, Bhonda, Bhombal smiled drily. The solution to everything would now be easy. My tenants, prajas, thronged around with folded hands, "You must forgive us the interest this time, Huzoor. We are starving. We couldn't but fail the last instalment; poverty is killing us. We've got the principal this time, but Gomasta won't accept it without the interest."
I realised one thing: we were both victims in this battle, Raja and Praja, the ruler and the ruled. The only winner who still got to wield a rod was the collector/ treasurer/ cashier. My Gomasta. In any case, since this was an eternal tussle, Raja and Praja both survived, winners or not. Their leader Gokul spoke: Huzoor, we are your children. We know how hard it is for you but for our sake, you must stay for ten days. At least till the taxes are collected, and the receipts given, you must stay. Gomasta retorted, "Why does Huzoor have to stay? You should ‘depaajit’ the money right away. I shall give you receipts. Do you know how much it costs for Huzoor to stay here? He has a huge retinue... so many mouths to feed! Can't you get that into your thick skulls?” With utter humility, Gokul answered, "Huzoor has come to his own land. We shall provide for all his comforts. We shall die of shame if our Raja has to pay for his meals here." It struck me as I washed myself, what kind of people are these? What race? What caste? Even animals can smell their butchers a mile off, and struggle to put distance between them. And these? They offer their necks while licking your feet! A carrier put down his load in the courtyard. Rice fit for divinity, vegetables, spices and oils, all were supplied. Then followed a man carrying fish: a Rohu, weighing five seers. Taking off his load, the man informed that milk was not far behind. Sifting through the offerings, the cook asked , "Where's the salt, Mondol?" Pat came the reply, "That, Huzoor must buy for himself. How can we feed our Raja our salt?"
Satish, the steward, taking in the vessel of ghee, buttermilk, asked, "Is the ghee well churned, Mondol?" I was feeling sick. Reeling under the burden of my sins, I retired to my room, but found no peace. As evening fell, I slipped away to the mangrove behind the office, and stood there, brooding in the darkness. I heard some voices: You'll die, you surely will, you wretched fellow! Zamindars should never be allowed to stay in the village. Shoo him off at once. I will set things right, understand? Even if all of you can't pay taxes, I'll see to it. I recognised the voice to be my own trusted Gomasta's. I felt ashamed and escaped to my room. Lording over people gave one some satisfaction, but such epicureanism felt like a stone around my neck. To while away the time, I took to hunting. It promised excitement, if not happiness. Slinging the gun on my shoulder, I set out. The village was overgrown with vegetation; gardens had turned into jungles. The foot of the trees was infested with weeds and creepers. Wild, strange, sweet-smelling flowers enticed one along the narrow pathway through these woods. From the heads of the trees hung creepers, like garlands. Thick clusters of rosary beads, deep red, blossomed on their climber shoots. Birds chirping overhead... I was drunk with pleasure. For man, beauty lies in the contained, the tame. Hence, forests give way to clearings, villages, and cities. Men rush to the cities, leaving the village behind. Could the reason be that away from this vast nature, they find a world in its miniature? Whereas here, only a bit portion of that expanse can be captured, leaving the eye thirsting for horizons, borders?
In the countryside, there is dearth of variety. But at some sudden hour when Nature, shrouded like a village belle, reveals herself in her unadorned simplicity, one stops short, mesmerised... And I was captivated. A silk-cotton tree, shimul, its boughs splashed with red blossoms, dazzled. A twittering flock of green pigeons, hariyals, had swooped down on fruits and flowers. I put a bullet in my gun and scanned around for a good target. And there it was, five or six perched in a row on a branch, that could be hit with a single bullet! I took aim, but lowered my gun again. Wrapped in such serene splendour, you cannot kill. It seemed since the beginning of creation no one has ever killed in such a place. I did not wish to spill blood there. I sat myself down on the grass under a shady canopy. Glad to be free of the excitement of a hunt. Feeling fortunate, grateful. In this village, everybody loved and respected me. I had no enemies, I envied no one. A sublime joy crept into my heart. I remembered all the great men who urged Ahimsa and felt a renewed reverence for it. Overcome with peace and love for my fellow creatures, I was reluctant to leave such surroundings, and surrendering myself like a child, I lay down in the shade, putting my gun aside. But then I remembered my truant subjects had been summoned that day. Gomasta had asked me to return early. The call of unpleasant duty shattered my tranquillity, and I headed back. Back in the office, I washed myself. Gomasta was converting coins into rupees after the day's collection. A man strode in with a smile, his palms in a namaskar: How do you do? How are things at the Rajbari?
I didn't know the man. But said, "Everything is fine. How are things with you?" Before he could reply, Gomasta said, " Oh, it is you, Raiballav! So you finally remembered your Zamindar!" I recognised him now. Raiballav was one of the 'panches' of the Panchayat council. His name has often cropped up in the secret list of disobedient subjects. He started scratching his head, hardly perturbed. The smile which was more a smirk, lingered on his lips. This did not go down well with me. He couldn't bother to refute the Gomasta's sarcasm, nor did he offer any excuse. There was not a shred of guilt on his face. The afternoon soured. I said, "So you are Raiballav!" Still in the same suave posture, he said, "Yes, indeed." "Aren't you one of the panch of the Panchayat?" "Oh yes." "But I've hardly seen you any of these days." "I have been away from the village since the very day after you arrived." "But you didn't come to see me the day I arrived, either. When the Zamindar comes to visit, it falls upon the Panches to provide him hospitality. You did not even come and greet me, let alone be hospitable." The reproach caused him no discomfort. "When one has to go abroad, there are so many arrangements to be made. Besides, the other Panches were there..." I was simmering. I said, "Have you paid off your taxes?" There is nothing like debts and dues to pull up a man and put him in his place. It was the best form of attack. I was
well aware of this truth. And it had immediate effect. The smile disappeared from his face. His head lowered, he answered, "No, sir." Gomasta proffered, "His dues date back three years, but Raiballav pays no heed to my words." I gave him a questioning stare. Rai looked up, a frown cringing his forehead. "It is because of poverty. One does have to pay one's taxes, though," came another smooth reply. My impatience was now brewing into a fury. But I did not let my composure wane. "What do you mean by that?" "I will pay the taxes, alright." "But when?" I said, letting the heat build up. "I can't pay them now. Let Baisakh come..." The man's audacity had me stumped. Gomasta replied this time, "It won't be Baisakh before another year!" "Yes, that's true." "You have all the money when it comes to getting B.A and M.A. degrees for your son! But nothing for the Zamindar!" Gomasta screeched. "Can't one have desires because one is poor? The boy has merit. He got a scholarship for his minors. One does wish to educate him! Once he becomes an educated man, he will go up in society. Then he won't have to sit on the floors like us!" said Rai, with a deep sigh. "But it is not to be. For lack of a meal. That's where I had gone. To arrange for everything... But, Babumoshai.." I was about to ask, "Did your son get a scholarship?" But before Rai could finish, Gomasta cut in, "Oh, that can't be! Your doors to heaven will be closed, then!
Now, as for the taxes, if you don't pay up this time, there will be a complaint against you." "What can one do? If there has to be a complaint, there has to be a complaint. I'll take my leave, now. Pranaam." He uttered Pranaam, but just did a namaskar and left. Gomasta hurried to me and whispered a reminder in my ears. I yelled to the Chaprasi, "Bring him back!" Raiballav returned, "What is it, Huzoor, again?" I said, "There is some business with you, indeed. The pond, Lakhraj Benepukur, that you use...my father gave it to your father for use during his lifetime. Remember?" Raiballav stood silent, saying nothing. I lost my patience: "Don't stay quiet! Answer!" He thought for a moment and said, "I don't know anything about it. I was too young then." His duplicity galled me. Gomasta retorted, on my behalf, "You must have heard about it, at least?" "What I have heard amounts to nothing. Unless there is something written somewhere, some deed, or testimonial..." What he said was true. But by then, my rage wouldn't listen to reason. I controlled myself with some difficulty and said, "From today, that pond is mine. You are not to walk along its shores again. Understand?" "If it is legally yours, then why should you let it go, indeed?" With that, he hastened away. My fury broke its reins. "Catch him!" I ordered. Chaprasi was about to leave but Gomasta stopped him, and said to me,
"Why breed trouble, Huzoor? He is not an easy fellow. Let him go where he wants. Tomorrow we will assume control of the pond. And once I complain about his dues, he will lose everything." My head was throbbing. Nothing seemed to pacify me. The sheer gall of the man! Until I did something about it, there was no quelling this rage! I brooded for a while and said, "Come, let's go take a look at this pond." It was dusk. I stood on the shore of the Lakhraj Benepukur. Gomasta showed me around the mangroves, told me how the fish would rise in the pond. But nothing entered my head. I was bent on punishing Raiballav; I wanted to roll his head on the ground beneath my feet. On the shore beyond, I spotted some women, their veils drawn; waiting for us to leave so they could bathe in the pond. I told Gomasta, "Come, let's be off." He said, "Won't you check the other shore, sir? The plants there are all grafted." Irritated, I scolded, "Don't you have any sense at all? Don't you see there are women waiting there?" It was past evening. I was still in a gloom. The events of the afternoon still bothered me. Lounging in an armchair in the office courtyard, I puffed on a cigarette. Gomasta was rounding up men to take control of the pond. Someone had been sent in the afternoon to inform the people. This messenger returned to say that none of the people would come by that evening; they were holding some meeting, a majlis, of their own. Gomasta frowned and let out a grunt. He was deep in thought, as if he
suspected something amiss. In spite of a heavy heart, I couldn't suppress a smile in the dark at his grave countenance. He ordered the men, "Four of you go and find out what they are up to!" I objected, "It is late!" Gomasta insisted, "Sir, you don't understand. Once they screw things up... Go on, you all! Who's there?" Voices from the darkness: "It is us, Huzoor!" Six men, all subjects of my estate, came up and sat down in the verandah. Among them was Raiballav. I was suddenly glad. He must have come to apologise for his behaviour, with the others in tow. I masked my satisfaction with some indifference. Gomasta rolled the dice: "So, what is up with you all? What are you cooking up this time?" Nobody answered. Raiballav spoke up, "We may be peasants, all, but even we have our honour to protect, Gomasta Moshai! Or are we to be denied that, too, because we are poor?" I sat up, erect, in the armchair. Gomasta, too, was speechless. He did not have a habit of answering out of context. Raiballav continued: "You make us do whatever you want. You pull up by our ears, we do not protest. But our women! Their honour must be protected!" A shiver ran up my spine. Who, among my men, would dare breach the honour of women? Gomasta, a bit flustered, screeched, "Who said women's honour was not to be protected, ever? Who did such a thing, ever?" "Who, indeed! Huzoor himself walks through our fields when returning from shikaar, he rambles along the shores and paths, all at odd hours during the day...Our women..."
My head throbbed with fury. I lost my calm. I shouted, "Tie up these fellows!" My men hesitated. I got my gun from inside the room and pointed it at my men, "I will shoot you all, first!" They did not have to tie anybody up. My subjects sat there, waiting. But Raiballav fled. But he was the one I wanted. And I had guessed right! It was Raiballav who had drawn their attention to my movements and given it a dirty twist. The entire village could go on strike over this! I was stumped at his crudeness. The serpent! The shame and dishonour that consumed me now was something I could never have imagined in my life! I ordered my men, "Bring Raiballav here! At any cost!" And to the rest of my sheepish subjects, I said, "Go on, go on your strike! Anybody who dares come this way, will receive a sound thrashing with shoes!" That night, the office was set on fire. I had dozed off, but rushed outside at the Chaprasi's call. By then, the flames were leaping into the sky. There was no dearth of hands, and I myself climbed up the roof. In the light of the blaze, I saw my Praja, too, had come and they stood there. I screamed, "Let my office burn! Any praja who comes to fight the fire, I shall kill him!" They backed off, and sat down. The damages were not much. Part of the roof of the verandah got burnt. But I was injured. There were burns on my leg, but in the excitement, I ignored it. I knew who had done it. I told Gomasta, "I want him. You must bring him to me. Understand?"
Gomasta did not object. In the morning, he engaged a few more men from villages nearby, Chaprasis who would not stop at anything. They would sever a man's head and bring it to you, if so ordered. Meanwhile, Prajas had gone ahead with the strike. Nobody even walked near the office. I did not send any summons, either. The list of complaints got longer. Gomasta was a bit worried, though, "But we do require the taxes! Please do think it over!" But I was not perturbed. The gloom that engulfed me, had lifted. With curious patience and shrewdness I was designing a tool of oppression that I intended to put to use. The blood of my ancestors raged through my veins. There are two sources of peasants' wealth: cattle and crops. These were targetted before anything else. Grazing cattle in the Zamindar's fallow lands became forbidden. I took away their right to irrigate their fields with water from the special pond, too. There were no overt methods adopted, no person abused, no confrontations. It was only Raiballav that I wanted brought before me. Chaprasis searched for him day and night, but he was nowhere to be found. I heard he had fled the village. Rumours flew. If someday it was that he had gone to the police, then another, that he had approached the magistrate himself, with his grievances. To counter this, from Benepukur, the very pond that was in dispute, Rohu was caught and ten seers of it sent to the Inspector, with my compliments. He expressed his appreciation through a letter. After a couple of days, one of Gomasta's informers brought some news: Raiballav and his family will not stay in the village any longer. He was trying to sell
off his property. He won't be Praja to anyone. I could taste defeat. I told Gomasta: This sale must be stopped by all means. Find out who the buyer is. Issue threats, if need be. I thought I'd tell my younger brother to keep an eye on the office of the Sub-Registrar. But taking everything into consideration, I refrained. I had sent no word of this, the fire, the burns, the dispute, to my family. If I sent a messenger, there was no way he would escape the interrogation of my wife. And then, all hell will break loose. She has little judgment in these affairs; she will come storming onto my doorstep in no time at all. Gomasta had an idea: We will get hold of Raiballav's young son and get him to tell all. Blood was throbbing in my veins; I agreed immediately. Five of my men went to fetch him, like a pack of hungry wolves. It was not their habit to return emptyhanded, but that is what they did. There was nobody to be found. Raiballav's wife and son, too, had left the village a couple of days earlier. My impotent rage put me in agony. That very day, my brother arrived on horseback. "You, all of a sudden? Is anything the matter? Is everything well?" â€˜Everything is fine, but Boudidi has fallen ill. You must go home right away, I will stay here.â€™â€™ My heart stood still. My first thought was, this must be the ill-effect of Prajas' desperate sighs, of Go-Mata, cowmother, going hungry. At that very instant, my anguish knew no bounds, perhaps it made up for penance. My brother could guess the state of my mind, for he said, "There is nothing to fear, she is only slightly ill. But you know her. The
slightest thing happens, and she wants you there with her." I felt relieved. Relating the situation and all that had taken place, I said to him, "Come what may, put an end to this quarrel." My brother assured me, "Don't worry, everything will be alright." He loaded the gun in the palanquin: take this back. I said, "No, keep it. It is good to have a weapon in troubled times." "Yes, that's true, but I don't have Boudidi's permission for it. She wouldn't believe me when I said I'd only kill birds with it." "No, you must keep it. One can't always listen to women!" "No, Dada, take it back with you. She will stop talking to me otherwise. And since all will be settled with the Prajas, why worry?" I did not even have the strength to worry anymore. In my head, I was begging forgiveness from all my people, all who I had oppressed. As news spread of my departure, my prajas came to see me. As I was leaving, Gokul did a Pranaam, and said, "All of it was our fault, Huzoor. We failed to see things clearly. Please forgive us, your children." The burden of my guilt weighed me down. I wondered how curious their feeling of guilt was! In my troubled times, they are feeling remorse for their own deeds! Arriving home, I went directly to the bedroom. My wife was not there, I turned to leave, and found her entering with a glass of sherbet in her hands, smiling. Hale and hearty she seemed, and I knew I had been tricked. There was no sign of illness, and her well-washed hair lay spread on her back. This new-age Sita
had heard of the tussle with the prajas, and fearing for my life, prodded me back, sending brother-in-law Lakshman into the jaws of danger, instead. Gravely, I said, "You are ill, I heard?" Shamelessly she smiled, "Oh, yes." "There doesn't seem to be a shred of sickness here. What does this mean?â€™â€™ "Drink your sherbet, first. Wash the wound in your feet; I have prepared an ointment for burns." I set aside the glass of sherbet, "Tell me first what all this means." "What is the point of you staying in the midst of all those disputes?" "A more selfish, mean woman..." "...you have never seen, have you?" she snatched the words from my mouth. "No, really, I never have!" Her lips trembled, and I realized that is what the selfish do. They win, with tears. Before those tears could melt my resolve I walked off to my office. I would return by the same palanquin that I had arrived in, I decided. Nayeb, the caretaker, was at work. "Let my things stay in the palanquin. I will be off, right away," I told him. "Chhotobabu will resolve everything, you need not go back there," he said. At some distance, Manik was playing with a boy. Seeing me, the boy splayed himself on the ground in a pranaam. A village boy, of ten or twelve years. I asked Nayeb, "Who is the boy?" "He is Raiballav's son, my lord." "Here?" "He will attend school from here. Rani Ma took pity on the boy, son of our Praja. He is a good boy, got a scholarship for his Minors."
The world seemed to spin before my eyes. I was trembling with fury. Harshly, I said, "Merciful goddess, isn't she, your Rani Ma? Do you know what she has done?" Manik came to fetch the boy for play. Nayeb said, "I know, I have heard everything." I retorted, "Why, then? Was it necessary to humiliate me? Rub my nose in the mud?" "My lord, we hadn't known anything. Rai Mondol hadn't come, either. He was running about to sell off his land. His frightened wife came with her son and fell at Rani Ma's feet, crying. It was she who told us everything. Till then, we hadn't known." "What did she say?" I was curious to know what she might have said, wife of the serpent as she was. She told us everything, my lord. Even about the fire. At last she fell sobbing, "Ma, will my son be punished for his father's sins?" Rani Ma felt sorry for them, and took them under her wing. I did say, though, "Bouma, is this the right thing to do?" She smiled, "Is Rai Mondol alone your praja? Is this girl, this little boy, not so, too? Why should one suffer for the other's sins?" With nothing to protest about, I fell silent. Encouraged, Nayeb continued, "Then Rani Ma said to me, Your Babu was talking the other day of his wish to send Manik to England, for his studies. He would be crushed if things do not turn
out his way. But that boy's blessings will ensure your Babu's wishes come true." My bruised ego was yet to come round. I said, "What she has done is fine, but what if Raiballav now brings in the police, accusing us of kidnapping his son? What will you do then?" "My lord, the rascal did come here. The very next day, in fact. Angry, demanding back his family. Rani Ma did not let him enter the house. They went outside to talk to him, and his wife threatened to hang herself. You should have seen him howling, then! Rani Ma had just finished her puja; he threw himself at her feet. She was furious! She said, Don't think you scared me into bribing your son with meals! You, I can never forgive!" He kept crying. He lay here for a day without food. After that, Rani Ma thawed. "On behalf of your Babu, I forgive you. But see that this does not happen again!" He boxed his own ears, rubbed his nose and said, "It would be the last time, Ma, the last time I misbehave. But Babu is so angry with me, if he gets hold of me, he won't spare me! There was no strike in the village, either. The Prajas are afraid to approach Babu; they are so scared of him!" Then Rani Ma said to Chhotobabu, "You must go there at once, dear brother, and send him back. Tell him I am unwell, or he wouldn't come, the obstinate man!" I did not want to hear anything more. All I could see was her eyes, wet with tears. I hurried back into the house.
book reviews SAMYAK GHOSH
Dear readers, we have introduced a new book review segment in this issue. This was an idea that was fostered by an passing suggestion that one of our friends made during a conversation about future TFQM activities. We thought it would be a good thing to make some space for this in every issue of the magazine from now on, since a good literature review segment in a magazine like ours always works to ensure the furtherance of further reading all around. In this, it would be necessary to mention our gratitude to Professor Ananda Lal of Jadavpur University for sending us a number of publications from Writers Workshop for the book review. Owing to an obvious paucity of space, we were able to include reviews for only two books from there. In the future issues of the magazine, however, we would like to present a more extensive book review segment, of course. Our calls for submissions from now on shall also possibly include a book review category as well. Details will be available soon on the TFQM Facebook group page and on the TFQM website as well. We are also much thankful to Samyak Ghosh, our newest team member for making this review possible in so less time. - Editors SLAVE (Poetry) Nileen Putatunda, 2011, Writers Workshop, Workshop, Kolkata Nileen Putatunda’s book of devotional poetry reminds the reader that the composition of prayers in verse has not yet become something in the past. Set against the backdrop of contemporary India gripped firm by the claws of development and globalisation, Putatunda explores his unfailing faith in the divine. His poetry is an exercise in knowing the various layers of the individual soul that constantly seeks spiritual succour in the throes of an existential crisis. One of the poems in this collection, perhaps the one that reads the best among the rest, is “Balaram” where Putatunda through a scriptural analogy tells the story of an equally marginalised youth, like Krishna’s brother, who sees his dreams of a better and brighter future spoiled in a country that cares less and less for peripheral individuals.
Putatunda’s verses often bear a striking brevity and economy of thought leaving the reader with just a question or an idea. His poems in this collection of spiritual verses speak incessantly of the human subject as being caught in the quagmire of the contemporary world, the only way out from which is through divine submission. His obeisance towards ‘Thakur’ (Ramakrishna Paramahansa), ‘Maa’ (Sarada Devi), Aurobindo and Vivekananda are expressed time and again in his poems replete with Vedantic ideas. One of the recurring themes in these poems is the confusion of the human mind torn between the pleasures of the material world and the bliss that one can achieve only by renouncing those and submitting at the feet of the divine. The speaker in the anthology is enmeshed in a search, that which will lead him beyond the worldly
and this as he expresses in his verses can only be through submission. Putatunda’s book of poems is a slave’s journey through
the inner recesses of his soul all the while seeking the Lord and his blissful touch.
ARRIVING SHORTLY (Poetry) K. Srilata, Srilata, 2011, Writers Workshop, Kolkata K. Srilata’s book of poetry reads as an archive of women’s experiences and travails in a world increasingly bent on thwarting their voices. Divided into seven sections, this anthology presents to the reader the lives of women from varying social and class backgrounds. With grandmothers, little daughters, war-crime victims, abandoned mothers, mothers who could never be mothers, sisters who could never remain sisters as life progressed, lonesome women arriving in unknown lands, women sans homes, women sans families, women sans fathers, women sans love, this anthology is a collection of the scraps that remain, as the poet sieves through the fragmented lives. Focusing heavily on social practices, ritual and beliefs, Srilata at times creates verses that speak of agony, anguish and the helpless cry of a spectator who can enter these lives through experiences of her own. A sense of cultural rooted-ness dovetails the poems, across sections and themes, as the poet succeeds in imparting the flavour of her land, her soil, her people, her customs and significantly at a lighter moment their cuisine in the poems. The small section
titled, “The Unbearable Lightness of Verse”, reads as a deft exercise in searching for poetic elements in the banal, the so called non-interesting and therefore light. That the poet belongs to Madras and that wherever she goes, whichever land she inhabits, the home as a silent referent will overbear her thoughts, appears as a significant theme in the section named after the title. The tone in most of the poems is conversational, highlighting the commonplace and the ordinary that embellish her poetic ruminations. In a later section in the anthology Srilata tries to explore the meaning of poetry. What it takes to be a poet in war-torn Iraq, what creates the lyrical gait of a poem, how they turn into thoughts, metamorphosing in shapes that evoke companionship, sorrow, surprise, confidence and hope of a meaning that frees, as she finds, lines of poetry, “descend/like song birds on bare trees”. Arriving Shortly, the author’s second anthology of poetry, thus explores her experiences both as a watcher of and an insider, into lives that often remain unsung.
THE FOUR QUARTERS MAGAZINE DECEMBER 2012
WRITING MEMORY www.tfqmagazine.org
This is TFQM's first anniversary issue. Editors: Bhaswati Ghosh, Arjun Choudhuri, Arjun Rajendran, and Shuvasish Sharma.