Two Lights: Flash Fiction

First published as a part of a contest in The Clarity of Night

“Coffee?” He exclaimed, without waiting for my reply, then jived his way to the kitchen, a song on his lips. I smiled. The rugged terrain and the daily dance of death had failed to harden him.

I finished the painting with a smudge of blue. He joined me, holding his drink. For an infantryman fighting seven thousand miles away, a four-day trip back home was luxury.

After discussing his health, the kitties, and the weather, I told him about the divorce and Mark remarrying. Was he upset for being kept in the dark? His lips clipped with unsaid words. Was it the heat when he yelped at gulping a large sip of coffee?

Caffeine over, he was back to his ebullient self. “Let’s see how the masterpiece looks.” He placed the canvas on the wall. “I’m gonna steal this one once I start living on my own. Make sure you sign it.”

“It’s yours,” I said with a weak grin.

“Well, aren’t you a sweetheart?” He hugged me.

Then, he gave me the gift; two beautiful crystal lights. He positioned them at the ends of the chest, just below the painting.

Three days later, a day before his nineteenth birthday, I received his death notice. Today, he would have been twenty.

I stepped into the room that had remained unlit for a year. I turned on the two lights and glanced at the painting.

“May the light shine for you, my son,” I whispered, before a lump blocked my throat.

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Flickering embers in verse: Of venereal sores and poems that kill: The fiery legacy of Namdeo Dhasal and Amiri Baraka

First published in DNA

 

By delving into the poetic oeuvres of Namdeo Dhasal and Amiri Baraka, two towering voices representing the marginal, one comes closer, in a somewhat unsettling way to the lives of the oppressed and the outrage such an existence can cause. With both poets, the blaze of words often leaps off the printed page to singe the reader — with guilt, violence and even catharsis. The similarity doesn’t end there.

Dhasal, the Marathi “underground” poet and Baraka, the Black Arts revolutionary poet, playwright, music historian, find much of their literary ammunition in the life and surroundings in which they are rooted. Poetry for them isn’t about romanticising in tranquillity. Nor is it separate from activism.

“…we want ‘poems that kill’./ Assassin poems, Poems that shoot/ Guns.” — Black Art, Amiri Baraka

Dhasal echoes this idea of poetry being a weapon of protest, without caring much for labels such as political or social poetry. . “…As long as there remain contradictions and conflicts between individual and collective life that affect my feelings, my poetry will be about them,” he says. This rootedness, a sense of where they come from is the constant even as the two men evolve in or deviate from their affiliation to different ideologies over the course of their lives.

In Pur-Kanersar, the village where Dhasal was born and spent part of his childhood, even water — elementally unrestricted — had been divided. The up-river portion of a small river that ran through the village was the exclusive reserve of the privileged castes while the village’s oppressed untouchables were allowed to draw water from only the down-river part.

“Upstream, the water is all for you to take/ Downstream, the water is for us to get/ Bravo! Bravo! How even water is taught the caste system.” — Water, Namdeo Dhasal.

Though separated in age by more than a decade and born in different countries, both Dhasal and Baraka represent larger traditions within their own milieus — traditions of oppressed and dehumanized peoples. Their dissent is not theirs alone — it is a pastiche, if a dissonant one — of the anguished cries, pent up for centuries, within millions belonging to their tribes.

This irrepressible need to break the silence and galvanize the voices of the silenced led these two iconic men to establish socio-political platforms. Disillusioned with the existing framework of racial discourse in America, Baraka became a founding member of the Black Arts Movement, which would lead to many an African-American artist gaining traction in that country’s literary thoroughfare.

“We are beautiful people/ With African imaginations/ full of masks and dances and swelling chants/ with African eyes, and noses, and arms/ tho we sprawl in gray chains in a place/ full of winters, when what we want is sun.” — Ka’Ba, Amiri Baraka

Dhasal’s watershed moment would arrive in 1972. That year Golpitha, his first collection of poems, broke new ground in Marathi poetry, by smashing linguistic and idiomatic barriers, written in, what Dilip Chitre, Dhasal’s long-time translator and friend calls, “an idiolect fashioned in the streets of the red light district of central Mumbai, and from the Mahar dialect…his (Dhasal’s) native tongue.” In the same year, Dhasal also founded Dalit Panther, an organization on the lines of America’s Black Panther, to politically unite Dalits.

The poems in Golpitha sear with rage against suppression on the one hand and the helplessness of those on the receiving end of such systemic oppression on the other. In a tone mnemonic of Baraka’s outburst in Black Art, Dhasal unleashes his furore on the page in Man, You Should Explode.

“F**k the mothers of moneylenders and the stinking rich/ Cut the throat of your own kith and kin by conning them; poison them, jinx them”

Using ostensibly brazen and often crude language, the long poem lambasts symbols of effete aesthetics cherished by the privileged castes and calls for a complete breakdown of existing civil and social norms and structures. All this upheaval isn’t without hope though — in the form of the resulting implosion.

“After this all those who survive should stop robbing anyone or making others their slaves/ After this they should stop calling one another names — white or black, brahmin, kshatriya, vaishya or shudra;… One should regard the sky as one’s grandpa, the earth as one’s grandma/ And coddled by them everybody should bask in mutual love.” — Man, You Should Explode, Namdeo Dhasal

Both Dhasal and Baraka are credited with developing new lexicons geared towards and representing their particular audiences. They both played a seminal role in redrafting the manifesto of their respective agendas — equality for Dalits and that for Blacks.

“If you ever find/ yourself, some where/ lost and surrounded/ by enemies/ who won’t let you/ speak in your own language/ who destroy your statues/ & instruments, who ban/ your omm bomm ba boom/ then you are in trouble/ deep trouble/ they ban your/ own boom ba boom/ you in deep deep/ trouble/ humph!” — Wise I, Amiri Baraka.

Indeed Baraka and Dhasal have both been pioneers in carving out a space for literature from the margins. However, they too had other influential figures to guide them in their quest. If for Baraka it was Malcolm X, whose assassination triggered the Black Arts Movement, for Dhasal, the overarching impact of Dr BR. Ambedkar, himself a Dalit and a champion of equality, is a constant. Time and again, Dhasal invokes Ambedkar in his poems, lamenting how much of what the visionary statesman dreamed still remains unfulfilled.

“You are that Sun, our only charioteer,/ Who descends into us from a vision of sovereign victory, / And accompanies us in fields, in crowds, in processions, and in struggles;/ And saves us from being exploited.” — Ode to Dr Ambedkar, Namdeo Dhasal

Rooted yet restless, armed with deep convictions yet manifesting puzzling contradictions, these two poets of protest have come under criticism for their debatable ideological stances from time to time. Baraka’s pronounced homophobic and anti-Zionist utterances have unsettled readers and critics as much as Dhasal’s support for Indira Gandhi, the Shiv Sena and even the RSS shocked his friends and admirers.

For all the controversy both these poets courted, the depth of their words — smouldering embers in verse — makes them not only significant but indispensable chroniclers of the history, trauma and defiance of the repressed. Even if that entails disturbing refined sensibilities.

“I am a venereal sore in the private parts of language.” — Cruelty, Namdeo Dhasal

“My color/ is not theirs. Lighter, white man/ talk. They shy away. My own/ dead souls, my, so called/ people. Africa/ is a foreign place. You are/ as any other sad man here/ american.” — Notes For a Speech, Amiri Baraka

The fabled crop of winter

First published in DNA

For the past two years, from the time of my intercontinental drift to North America, winter hadn’t coiled me in its viper-like grasp. I had thus brushed off warnings of “bitter, brutal Canadian winters” as hoax spun by hyperbolic weaklings. Then, the winter of 2013-14 happened. Like a nightly creature that keeps its movements hushed, it pounced on me — surreptitiously and with a bloodthirsty vengeance.

Curiously enough, while I found myself abjectly underprepared to deal with the onslaught of the season’s icy blows, my imagination experienced an odd and even mystifying boost. A spruce tree coated with the first dust of snow became a young-at-heart old man for me. A pine tree, resolute in its evergreen dignity, seen from the window next to my seat at work, became a trusted companion when all the other trees surrounding it bared their branches. Snow-covered cupped hedges appeared as giant ice-cream cones ready to be licked clean by overgrown kids like me. As my mostly unimaginative mind ran wild with wintry metaphors, I began digging into winter in fiction.

To my delight, I discovered that this bone-numbing, grinding stone of a season has moved many a storyteller’s creative muscles. In The Snow Man, O Henry sets the winter scene up in the countryside amidst a menacing snowstorm. Arguably not in league with his finest short narratives, the story nevertheless resonated with me — because the narrator’s disdain for snow equalled mine.

Of all the curious knickknacks, mysteries, puzzles, Indian gifts, rat-traps, and well-disguised blessings that the gods chuck down to us from the Olympian peaks, the most disquieting and evil-bringing is the snow… [The Snow Man, O Henry]

Interestingly, the story opens with this sentence, “Housed and windowpaned from it, the greatest wonder to little children is the snow.” Going by the number of times schools in our area shut down this winter owing to snow-related danger on the roads, I suspect I know why children love the white stuff as much as they do.

At the same time, the prospect of snow days can prove to be a jolting annoyance in the routine lives of stay-at-home parents. Winters were frustratingly mild in North Carolina, but the year I was in the fifth grade we got lucky. Snow fell, and, for the first time in years, it accumulated. School was cancelled, and two days later we got lucky again. There were eight inches on the ground, and, rather than melting, it froze. [Let it Snow, David Sedaris]

By late November, snow had enveloped every house, building, tree and park in the laidback Ontario town where I live. My city was a white-hooded mischief maker; even street signs hid behind pillows of snow, conning rush-hour traffic. Amnesiac fields of snow quizzed me, “What is the colour of green?” In the eyes of Dominican-American author, Julia Álvarez’s young protagonist, snow resembles something much more sinister. At the Catholic school she goes to after immigrating to the United States, her teacher draws a picture of mushroom cloud on the blackboard to explain the consequences of a nuclear war in the prevailing Cold War environment.

Then comes the girl’s first snowfall. The months grew cold, November, December. It was dark when I got up in the morning, frosty when I followed my breath to school. One morning as I sat at my desk daydreaming out the window, I saw dots in the air like the ones Sister Zoe had drawn random at first, then lots and lots. I shrieked, “Bomb! Bomb!” Sister Zoe jerked around, her full black skirt ballooning as she hurried to my side. But then Sister Zoe’s shocked look faded. “Why, Yolanda dear, that’s snow!” She laughed. “Snow”. [How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Julia Álvarez]

Between December and February, the winter of 2013-14 unleashed its redoubtable fierceness. A massive ice storm hit parts of Ontario, knocking out electricity and bringing entire cities to a standstill.

Arctic gales blew mercilessly as did blizzards and snow squalls. It was no longer just a matter of battling nature’s forces. Despite being wrapped under layers of clothing, the promise of central heating and the luxury of a fireplace, I recoiled as the cold pulled me into its vortex.

This was a chakravyuh no limping flame, no pale sun could touch. In a visually arresting winter story by Tobias Wolff, three hunting friends brace not just frigid shrapnel but also the frosty chill of mind games and human bitterness.

The wind was blowing into their faces. The snow was a moving white wall in front of their lights; it swirled into the cab through the hole in the windshield and settled on them. Tub clapped his hands and shifted around to stay warm, but it didn’t work. [Hunters in the Snow, Tobias Wolff]

Wolff’s story is a rough territory where the dense vegetation of a forest and the cutting arrows of winter contend against the complex equation between the three hunters. It’s hard to tell what stings the skin more — the slap of blowing snow or the barbed comment of a comrade.

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This feeling of being left cold at a deeper, psychological level is portrayed superbly by James Baldwin in Sonny’s Blues, the gut-wrenching story of a young musician struggling with addiction, and the “icy dread” his older brother, the narrator, feels at various points during their interactions.

“It’s terrible sometimes, inside,” he said, “that’s what’s the trouble. You walk these streets, black and funky and cold, and there’s not really a living ass to talk to, and there’s nothing shaking, and there’s no way of getting it out — that storm inside…” [Sonny’s Blues, James Baldwin]

As winter continues to exert its inexorable grip where I live, usurping spring, threatening to blot out even summer, I wonder what is it that ticks a writer’s fancy in the wintertime.

Is it the result of forced solitude — months spent cooped-up inside? Or is imagination the only escape, the only coping mechanism, when the daily reality is that of zero-visibility on the roads, a mountain of snow to shovel before work, and watching one’s step all the time to avoid slipping into ice?When hope, optimism and anticipation all fade before the determination of this year’s winter, I take refuge in Oscar Wilde’s words in The Selfish Giant, a story he wrote for children.

One winter morning he looked out of his window as he was dressing. He did not hate the Winter now, for he knew that it was merely the Spring asleep, and that the flowers were resting. [The Selfish Giant, Oscar Wilde]

Ma’s return journey

A version of this poem first appeared in Trainsorm-An Anthology of Alternative Train Poetry

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The envelope flitted
between your fingers,
before you
tore open the invitation.

Not unbidden, nor unexpected,
yet at once an exile,
self-imposed.
An escape
(freedom seemed so selfish then)
from Father’s disciplining,
Mother’s drudgery,
the dampness of never
having enough.

For three nights,
the train, Typhoon Express,
ruled by mosquitoes
and with snails for wheels
chugged along.
You crouched on the
frozen bunk, the warmth
of Mother’s shoulder
and hearth fading
into smoky ether.

At the university,
squirrels and bou-kotha-kow tweets
would share your
open-air classrooms.
Friends’ banter,
a professor’s insults
and another’s excessive kindness
kept you in balance.
On stormy afternoons,
you foraged for green mangoes,
mirth, berries and
songs.

Half a century later,
friends flew away,
and all but the
benevolent professor
crossed over to
the other shore.

Here you are,
looking out of a train window–
paddy soaking in muddy water
and goats tethered to mud houses,
roots–slippery, shifting–

–on your way to exchange
the tears you left behind
for age-old, old-age laughs
with the kind professor.

Secrets and memories

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
Alice Munro
Penguin Canada

First published in DNA

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As I unroll the reels of my life’s movie, the stories of my mother and grandmother, two women who shaped my growing up unravel before me. All three of us have lives distinctly different from each other’s. Yet, when I look closely, I see we have all been shape shifters — slipping into moulds we scarcely anticipated, not necessarily with ease or delight, but always with the readiness that our circumstances demanded. In Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, Alice Munro’s collection of nine short stories, I found many of our comrades — women across small towns and big cities juggling domesticity and the rigours of the professional world — slipping into and out of moulds and bearing the consequences of their actions with or without grace.

The book derives its title from a counting game young girls play with the names of potential boyfriends. Yet time and again, Munro’s adult protagonists prove that their lives need not remain constrained within the clusters of hateship, friendship, courtship, loveship and marriage. Like an ocean’s waves that don’t adhere to a boundary while undulating, the women of Munro’s stories don’t hesitate to spill outside the defined perimeters of their existences.

In the opening story, which shares the book’s title, Johanna takes the bull by its horns, torso and tail, when unbeknownst to herself, she falls for a prank played by two young girls. The girls write her love letters on behalf of one of their fathers, who lives in a different province. Johanna finds not just emotional succour in the letters, but true to her working-class industry, she smells an opportunity to banish her status as a pitiable spinster once and for all.

Johanna’s success in achieving what she sets out to establishes the book’s tone. In Munro’s more-real-than-real-life stories, women are not always in control of their destinies — sometimes by choice and at other times, without any. But what arrests the reader is their remarkable refusal to be pathetic, sympathy-arousing creatures. And they accomplish this with utterly ordinary, non-awe-inspiring actions.

In Floating Bridge, my favourite story of the collection, Jinny, a cancer patient, steps into the light — metaphorically speaking — even as she is engulfed in darkness. Thanks to a stranger, a young man, she walks on a floating bridge for the first time while her husband socialises with the same man’s family. But that’s not all. Jinny also receives the youth’s passionate kiss as he guides her steps on the bridge — an affection without any nomenclature, a fleetingly eternal moment of breathtaking freedom.

“What she felt was a lighthearted sort of compassion, almost like laughter. A swish of tender hilarity, getting the better of all her sores and hollows, for the time given.” [Floating Bridge]

Weaving inter-generational tapestries that span not just months or years but decades isn’t an easy act to pull together in short fiction, but Munro achieves this with the effortlessness of a teenager’s unabashed giggle. Even as the characters and stories swing back and forth in time, one is left amazed and bewildered by the author’s ability to carry the innocent reader through her intricately mapped-out territories. This is brilliantly evidenced in Family Furnishings, a story that interlaces family drama, the female protagonist’s brisk, nonconformist quips clashing with the deep-set conventional thinking of other family members, and finally intrigues and secrets that make the reader see the same character in a completely new light.

In this collection, Munro explores the idea of fidelity in marriage in more than one way, with no easy answers or moral positioning for the reader. And not all trespassing, if one could call them, happen in a blatant, deliberate manner. Stories like Comfort, What is Remembered, and The Bear came over the Mountain show how ephemeral and impulsive a moment of ‘stepping out’ can be at times. And not necessarily sexual in nature either.

“Ed Shore puts an arm around Nina. He kisses her — not on the mouth, not on her face, but on her throat. The place where an agitated pulse might be beating, in her throat.” [Comfort]

Memory can be a treacherous, manipulative and even therapeutic poultice. We realize this while reading the layered narratives of Nettles, What is Remembered and The Bear came over the Mountain. In What is Remembered, Meriel cherishes the sole pulsating whiff of an extramarital affair that breezes through her long married life, yet she wants to remember things differently than the actual sequence of events that took place.

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Transitions — geographical and otherwise — often form the metaphorical motif of Munro’s stories. Nettles, Queenie and Family Furnishings, chart the perplexity-ridden phase between young adulthood and grown-up in Munro’s spade-is-a-spade candour.

“I know exactly how old he was because that is something children establish immediately, it is one of the essential matters on which they negotiate whether to be friends or not.” [Nettles]

And it is this sense of negotiation, the constant trading of emotions, personal space, the necessity of belonging — that guides Munro’s characters, especially her women. This is not always easy or even plausible and must be done on the sly, but the women that we come across in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage aren’t shy of doing so.

“Young husbands were stern in those days…What a lot they had to learn, so quickly. How to kowtow to bosses and how to manage wives. How to be authoritative about mortgages, retaining walls, lawn grass, drains, politics…It was the women then, who could slip back — during the daytime hours, and always allowing for the stunning responsibility that had been landed on them, in the matter of children — into a kind of second adolescence. A lightening of spirits when the husbands departed. Dreamy rebellion, subversive get-togethers, laughing fits that were a throwback to high school, mushrooming between the walls that the husband was paying for, in the hours when he wasn’t there.” [What is Remembered]

I came to Munro as a reader with her first book of stories, Dance of the Happy Shades. Every story in that anthology charmed me as I read about young girls and women at crossroads, getting a taste of the bitter truths of life and coming of age. In Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, I met women who had already come of age and were mature and daring enough to dance and even miss a step or two on the paths that beckoned them.

Whenever I read Munro, I am seized with both the thrill and dread of a scientist in a laboratory, who discovers the minutiae of organic life under a microscope. Munro turns the spotlight on lives around us with such astonishing alacrity that it is but impossible not to find strains of one’s own living reality in her stories. The modern-day fables in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage hold a clear-as-daylight mirror to women’s lives — imperfect and rocky, but never without the possibility of a spark, a fresh leaf and a redeeming edge.

The Rendezvous by Bhaswati Ghosh (flash fiction)

You never approved of it as a meeting point; I always found it interesting.

After all, the whole city’s lovers would converge in Victoria Memorial, Nicco Park, or even the not-one-bit romance inspiring Moidan. I found my intensive coaching for the IIT entrance test to be a boon. Stealing those few minutes by the graying walls meant we weren’t thrown amid that snuggling, juvenile mass of couples in public places. For me, this secret (or was it, with the housewives peeking out of their first and second floor windows?) meeting with you every alternate evening worked perfectly. Until Baba appeared on the scene, that is. Not in my wildest dreams would I have imagined him passing by this stretch, catching a glimpse of me tapping on books, waiting for you.

“What were you doing in that neighborhood?” He asked me at dinner that night.

“Umm, where, Baba?” I looked as startled as I felt.

“In that lowly North Calcutta area. What took you there?”

“A friend lives there,” I muttered.

His caustic glare didn’t escape my eyes. The son of a sugar magnate, I wasn’t supposed to step into a North Calcutta ghetto. His look scared me he would find out. He did. For three months, we didn’t talk.

One evening, while trotting toward the gray walls, I saw Baba talking to some people. He had met your parents afterwards. A month later, he blessed us. At our wedding.

I still love those leaking pipes lining our gray, you know.

First published in The Clarity of Night “Silent Grey” short fiction contest.

Satirical Films Have a Lot to Say About India’s ‘Baba’ Culture

First published in The Wire

Stills from <em>Mahapurush</em> and <em>Ab Ayega Mazaa</em>.

Miracles, magic, superhuman powers, grand events – the works. Divine grace hides in samosas, the answer to fatal diseases in pranayama routines and relief from brutal office stress in pricey retreats and workshops. Science is debunked, its “helpless” limits made to capitulate before extraordinary and divine-blessed powers. The stories of many a spiritual guru in India would make for cracking comedy if it weren’t for the tragedy of real masses of converts being swindled in broad daylight, mostly of their own volition. As the court case involving Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh unravelled recently, I returned to Mahapurush (Satyajit Ray) and Ab Ayega Mazaa – two films that satirise ‘babadom’ at its hilarious best.

Based on Birinchi Baba, a story by Rajshekhar Basu, one of the greatest Bengali satirists, Ray’s Mahapurush shows how babas appear in many stripes to take care of every kind of gripe. In a discussion among three men – two chess players and their friend who is in search of a baba who would rescue him from his broke status – there’s mention of Mirchi Baba, a godman who gives his followers hot chilli peppers for curing all their distress and Radio Baba, who taps into electricity from the sky and turns it into sparks to combust any problems his disciples face. Not too long ago a real baba, who used to prescribe remedies involving the distribution of hot samosas and muffins among folks, went bust. The darbars of Nirmaljeet Singh Narula, Nirmal Baba to his followers, were a lesson in the incredible human capacity for suspending disbelief in front of a guru who sits on a gaudy throne and dishes out barkat (Urdu for abundance or blessings) via samosas, gol gappe and wearing ties, as if the sky were dispensing showers in the monsoon. Babas in India disseminate their abundance in different ways. Ramdev does it via kapalbhati and Patanjali, the efficacy of both of which have been questioned; Singh in the form of drugs and liquor rehabilitation, and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Jaggi Vasudev by elevating the appeal of that elusive elixir called a “heightened state of consciousness” into something of a corporatised business model.

Read the rest in The Wire