Read other Immigrant’s Postcards here.
She is petite, her skin a burnished coffee tone. Ever smiling, this beautiful Ethiopian woman is a janitor and my friend. We chat about her weeknight chores and weekend plans. She tells me about her gang of girlfriends, the one that’s stuck together for 14 years, the one that meets every month for a potluck or a fun outing.
“No husbands or kids,” she tells me. The rules of the game are uncompromisingly clear. The women, all hardworking immigrants from Ethiopia, earn this–their day of leisure–and they wouldn’t let encumbrances of domesticity ruin it.
I point to her braided hair and request her to teach me how to do it. Not a problem she says, flashing her toothy smile.
The next time we run into each other, I find her extra animated .
“Did you see Survivor? On TV last night?” she asks me.
I nod in the negative. We don’t have cable, so I don’t get to watch that show.
“You know, there is an Indian girl in it. You’re from India, right?”
“Yes,” I nod.
“Oh my god–she is so good. She has a good strategy, she is smart…she knows how to get there. We are all wishing for her to win.”
I have no idea of the show she is talking about.
But I know she is right.
Survivor — that’s a game Indian girls of all ages play. A lot. With or without strategies. At home, on streets, in buses. And now inside cars.
Everyday and Some Other Days
Pooja Garg Singh
A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I were out and about to take in the last of fall’s sunshine and carmine-toned leaves. We posed with and photographed coloured trees, nestled our feet in dry leaves, tired those feet by walking miles in the autumn sunshine, and then relaxed them at a cafe that offered lazy views of the weekend downtown besides coffee and Bailey’s cheesecake. Two weeks hence, tree branches wear nothing or dead leaves, snow has replaced leaves on the ground and coffee will be no more than a homemade indulgence. That’s simply how the character of everydayness changes–across seasons and terrains, external and internal. In Everyday and Some Other Days, Pooja Garg Singh mediates the fluid space between every day and red-letter–or some other–days with unruffled ease. This is how she does it:
The year buzzards came to the fields,
She was out tilling a book in her hands
Next morning, when the dawn came
She was out in the charred fields
Sowing poems and reaping them — [ The Song of Everyday and Some Other Days]
Moments, slippery as foam escaping a kitchen sink, are arrested by Singh with a marked sincerity of tone and liquidity of expression. The mundane is her best, most trusted ally–in poem after poem, Singh demonstrates how the mundane of yesterday is never quite the same as that of today; how different sameness can feel in another hour, zone or mood.
For what seemed like ages, we held hands on the telephone
You fed me crumbs from morning mist, watercress at lunch
Poetry you read on the underground [London – New York]
And this–distances and their interplay with human relationships–keeps returning to the songs of love and longing Singh pens. This appreciation is visible in “Approaching Winter,” in which a trace of the unknown and fearful joins the love and longing. “Yesterday, Tomorrow” blurs the spaces between time–Nothing stirred behind the trees/But I thought I heard your shadow fall/It was this evening/Or so I think/But it could have been yesterday/Or tomorrow or ten years later/Or before. Curiously, the loss of physical nearness evokes a new kind of bonding, one that spreads itself over and also absorbs the larger universe.
If rains were our promise
I hear this distant gray rumble above
and a sticky mustiness overcomes my limbs
Does it mean you are coming home? [Homecoming in My Mind]
Interestingly, Singh is able to bring about this sense of memory-induced proximity even through the most everyday of images. In “Umbrella,” the protagonist looks frantically for a lost umbrella so she could pick her child up from the bus stop on a rainy day. Unable to find it, she runs out …soaking/-and terribly late. She chides herself for losing precious time/looking for that umbrella your father took with him/when he moved away with his things last week.
Singh’s canvas–personal on the surface–is at once universal in a way that offers an experience of the poet’s sensibilities that could possibly get refracted on the reader’s life lens in some other way. “Alzeihmer’s Fugue”, written from the perspectives of a father whose memory has betrayed him and his child, ends with these heart wrenching lines–I take more pictures now and I write more often/Hoping my son will find a way to me when he feels like an orphan.
Reading through the poems in Everyday and Some Other Days, I felt a tinge of wistfulness–a sense that in all of life’s ordinary stories, there’s something that still remains to be found. Yet, this yearning is not a despondent one, but the journey of a questing, curious spirit. I finished reading the book–cover to cover–at one go. But this isn’t a book that’s likely to sit on my bookshelf. It’s one that will hop into the car on my way to work, keep me company in the kitchen as I go through my chores and let me get through a dreary winter evening. It’s a book that fills me with a sweet yen–of seeing another book by the same poet.
Summer at Victoria Park
Originally published in The Boston Coffee House
dare oak trees,
shiny lights freckle
red and white flags swirl around
ice creams and screams.
The park’s a weekend museum;
a Ferris wheel of
Stuffed tigers, candyfloss—
extant signposts of
one keeps circling around.
Songs float in.
The office window’s
a truant whisperer.
a school boy’s and
an office girl’s secret
Winter Outside a Grocery Store
Originally published in Two Cities Review
The road is a messy
The weekend sun, a limp
slice of lemon.
It sneaks out without a whimper.
and is not missed.
I sit in the car, waiting
for you to return
necessary for updating
the week’s meal roster.
Three young men emerge
with their acquisitions.
Bottles of wine, local and exotic.
Another, a store helper,
battles the stabbing
arctic chill to
push a fresh batch of carts,
left behind by shoppers.
The store’s sliding doors open,
a mother and son come out
bearing yellow bags. Their
tired feet scurry through
An old lady
droops under the weight of two
bags–the weekly cross
she must bear for
Not everyone’s Saturday
is the same.
The year, 1997. Me, a freshly-pressed journalism graduate, itching to join the Indian print media. A dream that wouldn’t come to fruition. But I would get to scribble a few odd stories as a freelance writer. Ratnottama Sengupta, Times of India’s arts editor, would assign me stories on culture and literature–a “soft” beat I happily lapped up.
One of those stories was on Sahitya Akademi’s translation awards. U.R. Ananthamurthy was the Akademi’s chairperson at that time. What follows next is as hazy as the darkness of that early (or was it late) winter evening that swept the outside once the award ceremony was over. But not without light following it.
I don’t remember if it was part of my brief to interview him following the awards or if that was something I wanted to do. Nor do I remember how that interview was set up–did I ask him personally on the awards evening? Did I make a phone call to fix the appointment?
All I remember is I got some time to speak to him the next morning–he invited me to join him for breakfast at IIC–the awards venue and also his place of stay in Delhi. As I sat across him at the breakfast table, URA had enlisted his latest admirer. Given his stature, his manner of speaking–soft, respectful, involved–moved me at once. A light breakfast fare–idlys, coconut chutney, small uttapams, diced papaya–lay in the small table between us. He insisted I have some, despite my polite resistance. Introductions and breakfast over, we moved to his room for the interview. I had no recorder with me so longhand note-taking would have to do.
My knowledge of translations then was as limited as my knowledge of languages is now. As indicated above, my memory of our conversation is blurry. I do remember, however, the lambent beam of light streaming in through the window and the lush cover of green beyond it. When URA started speaking, his words seemed engulfed in a similar beam–gentle, yet radiant with insights and committed interest.
I remember him lamenting the fact that a lot of translation of Indian language works have to happen through a link language like English or Hindi. He wished there were more direct translations–from Kannada to Bengali, Marathi to Kashmiri and so on. His eyes lit up when he shared his vision of a day when school-going children in one region would learn a language from another region. And I wondered why wasn’t this happening already? Why could I not learn Malayalam or Assamese in school? And even then I understood, this wouldn’t just be about learning a new language, but also about making friends with a new culture and its people, if only through the solitary medium of books.
At the end of our conversation, I touched his feet (a mark of deference I extend with considered discretion). He smiled and said, “We need more bright people like you.Thank you so much.” Even though I didn’t believe that about myself, the warmth and sincerity of his tone, the genuine spark of hope in his eyes made those words credible to me.
So long then, Sir.
Image source: http://kvsas.by2coffeefilms.com/blog
My essay on the call of the road as revealed by The Motorcycle Diaries and On the Road, two modern road-trip classics. In DNA.
After the revelry,
a night commuter’s
Winds beat down
on the asphalt
mocking the drums
that blared moments ago.
UPDATE: The special issue on diaspora living, Here and There: The Diaspora Universe is now up at Cafe Dissensus.
Note: This submission call is on behalf of Cafe Dissensus.
About five years ago, I came to embody the etymology of the word diaspora, which comes from the Greek diaspeirein, meaning to scatter about or disperse. Marriage brought me to Western shores – first in balmy California and later to the Canadian shield in southern Ontario.
I find it interesting that the concept of diaspora has its roots in the earthly act of scattering, because the process of migration is one of dispersal on more levels than merely the physical one.
The drift across different points on a map can’t happen without cross-pollination – of habits and habitats, mindsets and memories. One learns to imagine the koel’s morning call in a robin’s song and see the blaze of gulmohar flowers in crimson fall colours. Diaspora islands germinate amidst fast-paced and crowded world cities even as the islanders strain to tread the tightrope between integrating and preserving.
I will be guest editing a forthcoming issue of Café Dissensus focusing on diaspora living. We will seek to explore through fiction, creative non-fiction, and audio-visual expressions:
1) The reality versus illusion of boundaries with respect to identities.
2) Inter-generational conflicts and contradictions in diaspora universes.
3) The challenges of “settling” in a new territory – societal, cultural, emotional.
4) The rewards of diaspora living – embracing new cultural mores, wider exposure to issues facing other communities, interconnectedness.
5) Translations of fiction and non-fiction work on diaspora.
Along with the written pieces, we are also open to audio-visual content. If you would like to do a short interview (5-15 minutes) with an author, a scholar, a faculty etc., please feel free to send that to us. Please send us an edited copy.
We are also looking to include photographs and artwork that explore this issue’s theme.
Your submissions should not exceed 1500 words. Please email them to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. Also, provide a brief bio at the end of your piece. This issue is planned for online publication on 1 July, 2014. Submissions will be accepted until June 25, 2014.
General guidelines are here.
Cafe Dissensus is an alternative magazine dealing in art, culture, literature, and politics. It’s based in New York City, USA.
[This is an extract from “Aranyalipi,” Amiya Sen’s nonfiction book-length account of refugees from East Pakistan who had been rehabilitated in Dandakaranya, a region that includes parts of Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. The Dandakaranya Development Authority was created by the union government in 1958 to assist refugees from Pakistan. This excerpt appears in Muse India’s Literature of Refugees issue.]
…I had no idea about Dandakaranya. After crossing a hundred and forty-five miles of hilly terrain between Mana camp and Raipur we reached Kondagaon–high above the plains. Yet, even at that point, I didn’t realize we were at the forest’s gate. This was the entrance to the heart of the Dandakaranya project. I had imagined the real Dandak forest lay deeper inside. This was a dense settlement of thousands of people–little Bengal, just like little Andaman.
Jogani astounded me. This was the first planned village as part of the project, about six or seven miles from Kondagaon. In July 1959, the village of Jogani was established with 88 families and a total population of 392.
Although we are now urban dwellers on a mass basis, the image of a village is well etched in our hearts. It is rare to find an individual who hasn’t seen a village or lived in one for at least some time. But what a village this was! A few drab-looking tin houses sat in an area cleared off the forest floor. No other human settlement was visible through the gaps of the scattered shaal trees lining the nearby area.
A few broken houses dotted the landscape. Many of those rehabilitated here with government aid had already left the village. Jogani’s land is sterile; it doesn’t cultivate any edible crop. I was told that only two or three families had been lucky enough to receive arable land. The rest of the land was left unclaimed at the time of my visit. Those who left the village didn’t do so without giving a fight to the infertile soil. Along with their menfolk, women too had taken up crowbars to rid the soil of shaal saplings and weeds. For days on end, many of them ate grass seeds to curb hunger. At last, helpless and defeated, they drifted off this settlement.
There is soil-testing laboratory in Jagdalpur, Madhya Pradesh. Apparently, all peasant refugees are allotted land only after the soil is tested in that lab. But Jogani tells a different story–it doesn’t seem like the soil of this village was ever tested. This could be the first step of an experiment with agriculture-reliant refugees.
Those who have stayed back in the village depend on jobs or labour. Take Jaladhar Sarkar, for instance. He came to India in 1954, from Bishwambhapur village in Srihatta district. After living in a camp for four years, he has been rehabilitated in Jogani with twenty-one bighas of land. He and his two sons support a family of six or seven by working as peons and construction workers. The land they received lies fallow and unused.
In 1960, a loom had been opened in Jogani. It still exists but has lost its sheen. Work goes on at an irregular pace. Whenever the products made there accumulate, there is a pause in the work of daily wagers.
Currently, the only employment generator around Jogani is Borgaon Industrial Centre, about four or five miles from the village. Men and women from Jogani walk every day to work there. Among them, the daily wagers are the most disadvantaged. The work, low-paying as it is, doesn’t come with the guarantee of being available all through the year.
It was a Monday. The village, if one could call this desert-like place that, looked totally deserted. Besides shaaland mahua trees, there was no sign of green anywhere. Not even a pumpkin or bottle gourd patch that one saw in Mana’s camps. Mana has water, it has canals and ponds. Here, tube wells exist. Had paddy or any other crop grown on the land, the villagers would have pumped out water to cultivate some vegetables. But where is the time for that now! Every morning they must run to Borgaon in search of work. If only that could fill their bellies! But then, it’s possible that that the soil here is indeed barren.
I met a few people–none of them evinced any joy on having received land and a house for free. Actually, they got the money for their houses as a loan, which they needed to pay off once they were settled. But what settlement and what pay-off? With no place to go, they continue to stay here, in spite of all hardship. But they are not un-enterprising. They toil hard to make sure their children receive education. They would take up any work that comes their way. But the opportunities are so limited.
The very first step of the Dandakaranya settlement left me disappointed. In comparison, I was pleased to see Bijapur as part of my present trip. This was situated in Bastar too, but as a transit camp, not a village. As of March 15, 1965, 67 families stayed there.
There were only two tube wells in the entire camp. But a spot of green welcomed one to every hut. Bottle gourd and pumpkin vines climbed up the roofs of huts. Mounds of mahua flowers were spread out to dry in front of several houses. These would be boiled to make jaggery. This settlement was forest-dependant too. But the dense cluster of huts and the camp’s consistent population had imbued it with a lively atmosphere. The camp dwellers effused optimism. They dreamed of ascending to a better life — of farmland, house, agricultural loan, and the victory roll of produce brushing against plough.
Life is at work, everywhere. Saplings pierce cracked walls to sprout. Flowers bloom on mountain tops. I have even seen fish germinating in the city’s makeshift drains.
I enter a hut and find a young mother carrying her infant on her lap. It’s her first born. The young father, though excited, is also a bit distressed. Nights in Bastar are still quite chilly. The child doesn’t have any warm clothing. In many homes, I saw just kanthas and pillows for bedding. No one has quilts or blankets. Almost all these people arrived in India following the 1964 riots in Pakistan.
In an instant, that cabinet stuffed with blankets in Mana flashed before my eyes.
I ask the refugees, “Didn’t you get any blankets?”
“No, didimoni,” say the men and women in unison. “We only got woks, enamel plates, a bucket and a few such things. These were given to us in Sealdah station. We didn’t get anything after coming here.”
“You all came here through Mana, right?”
The path to enter Dandakaranya is through Mana—the headquarters of all transit camps and work centres of the project.
According to government statistics, refugees over the age of eight are provided sixteen rupees or clothing worth that amount. The record doesn’t mention how many times this happens; possibly only once. The record also notes the distribution of blankets.
“Woollen blankets may be supplied at the rate of one blanket per adult, subject to a maximum of three per family.” [Estimates Committee, (B.C. No. 412) 1964-65]
The blankets were meant for last year’s riot victims. These refugees belong to the same category. Why didn’t they get the blankets then?
The dole money the refugees receive isn’t enough to cover even two square meals a day, let alone allow for clothes. But leave aside government funds and statistics; the stash I saw in Mana came mostly from donations meant for refugees. If those blankets don’t come to these unfortunate people, have they been filled in almirahs just for the purpose of being displayed to VIPs?
In Mana, expecting mothers received yet another benefit. When a baby was born, the mother and her child got a set of new clothes. The women of Jogani aren’t as fortunate.
A gentleman accompanying me said, “Don’t believe everything they say. These people here are no less sly; they might have sold off the blankets.”
I know it is easier being the devil than the lord. But looking at their faces, it appeared improbable that so many male and female devils had landed here from East Bengal.
For argument’s sake, even if one accepted the gentleman’s proposition, the question remains as to why these people sold off the blankets. One can discount those who have left the camp. But those who have stayed back know very well how indispensable blankets are during winters here. They are also aware that it is impossible for them to find any alternative sources of combating the cold weather. If knowing this, they still sold off the blankets, it follows they must have done so out of extreme penury.
The British robbed India to add riches to its empire. And we have robbed our own poor of food and shelter–in the name of freedom.