Singing in Dark Times—a Manual for Encoding Dissent

First published in The Maynard

Talk in whispers
But make them so low-pitched
That no one can hear
Them. Not even the person
You whisper to.

Clever one-liners are
Good. Check your
Ambition in using them, though.

Satire works well, too. It’s
Always safer to quote a dead or
Well-known writer.

Post music, lots of it,
Songs of protest and of
Love. Also post jokes and
Photos of food, cats, your
Toddler. Who doesn’t
Deserve a break from Aleppo’s
Bombed Children and India’s
Suicide-committing farmers?

Hide. Behind symbols
With multiple metaphors. Open-ended
Totems of ambiguity.

Amid the word-pelleting
From different camps, watch
Out for “Nation building,”
“Anti-national,” “Greater good,”
And “Patriotic.” Loaded missiles
Before which your feeble,
Weightless humanity must
Shiver in defeat.

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Retracing Dandakaranya

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First published in Indigo Lit
For Titti

I search for your footmarks
In the arid, rocky terrain. The
Agility of your feet eludes mine.

The jungle notes you left behind
Shriek with trauma. Of green groves
Uprooted from rivers, thrown amid
Stones and cacti. Yet I sleep restfully. The
Shrapnel that ripped apart your
Nights doesn’t touch me.

Half a century later, the cracking
Earth has smothered the laughter
Of the Adivasi girls you met. The
Mountain still burns the same. With their
Heaves. And the lava of their rage as mining
Corporations show them their two-penny index.

The desert retains some of
Your tears– corroded, insoluble.
Those refugee girls you taught? They
Must be doing well by now. So I tell myself.

But look, how like them, like you,
I’m still looking for home. The
Albatross refuses to take flight.

Dead Man Talking — Hassan Blasim’s short stories

The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq
Hassan Blasim
Penguin
Translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright

 

What is left when a place dies a thousand violent deaths?

A million stories sprout over the graveyard. Each narrator is a Scheherazade (of One Thousand and One Nights), except none of them is compelled to tell a tale for fear of being killed. Some of them have already crossed over to the other shore and even the 18114111-_uy475_ss475_ones living know death to be staring them in the face. Yet the emotive force — mind-bending and magnetic — of the voices echoing through Hassan Blasim’s short stories forces the listener/reader to be pulled into their universes — macabre and enigmatic as they are.

I felt the sharp stab of Blasim’s storytelling knife in The Corpse Exhibition — the very first story in the collection. Written in the backdrop of the Iraq War, the story puts a chilling spin on the practice of displaying executed bodies in public. The narrator, evidently the boss of an organization curating the corpse exhibitions speaks in a clinical tone to a prospective new hire. The emphasis on the aesthetics of displays — one of the top pieces the boss cites is that of the corpses of a breastfeeding mother and her child both naked placed under a dead palm tree with not a trace of wound — layers the story with a degree of perversion that’s so disturbing it is riveting.

Read the rest of the review here.

Sunset and Moonrise in Kumaon

First published in Five2One

A film song carries the
background score of
the hills and the

weight of its sunsets.
An opacus swallows
friends’ Laughter.

The moon is a
torn heart tonight.
What price

The bondage of
togetherness —
Fleeting or longer?

My head in the middle
of a sun-slathered snowy
Himalayan range. A spectre

locked in eternity. Do the
Treacherous cliffs
Have elasticity of memory, too?

Behenji

First published in Stonecoast Review

When I first heard
It, the word didn’t
Sound endearing or like
An appellation. Behenji
Was a crude joke reserved for
Those girls who
Wore salwar-kameezes,

Tied their hair into
Well-oiled, tight ponytails
And spoke no English.
Behenjis stood on the other side.
Always on the other side,
Huddled among their own,
Away from us

Convent and
Public-school types. Did
Behenjis cringe the
Same way at those
Dirty looks as did my school friend
While uttering “Mohalla” when
She shared her home
Address with me?

Behenji was
The weird look my
Friend got when he
Asked for Mayawati’s
Biography at a bookstore.
“Inhe Behenji chahiye,”
The store boy sniggered
To his co-worker.

At a diaspora party,
I’m the salwar-kameez
Sporting odd one
Among a bevy of
Desis in short dresses.
I see how easy
It is to become a
Behenji.
 

[Behenji, literally meaning sister, has come to be used as a pejorative term for traditionally-attired, less urban-looking young women across educational institutions in India.]

The Starling’s Song

ss_frontcover1The Starling’s Song

B.L. Bruce

Black Swift Press

Available on: Amazon.com

Review by Bhaswati Ghosh

For those of us who live it every day, urban life can be unforgiving in its demands. Yet, there are release buttons that can help us slow down and turn towards the natural world and its rhythms. This movement isn’t as much a result of curiosity as it is of a desperate seeking — whether to find the missing pieces of the jigsaw of modern living or to simply let go of the puzzle altogether. The Starling’s Song, a recent poetry collection,  constructs a fine floating bridge to negotiate that distance — between nature’s tranquility and human restiveness. B.L. Bruce makes us walk on that now-steady, now-wobbly bridge with Feel, her very first of the three dozen or so poems in this chapbook.

Were you here I’d point out/the coyote’s tracks through the sand,/the distance between where/each paw fell,/tell you he was running. I’d reveal the place/where, beneath the dune grass, the gull’s/body lay torn open and hollowed, say/to you, This, this is how I feel.

Bruce’s piercing vision captures and reflects images from the non-human, organic realm with a rare crystal sheen. But this eye isn’t limited to being a camera; by juxtaposing nuances from the world of plants and animals, the poet is able to find clues to anxieties peculiar to the human condition.

I’ve not yet discovered my gift/of bearing, not yet realized/a power to propagate, to nurture.//I cannot understand myself,/but know the fawn abandoned/when the doe is hit on the highway,/the keening of quail, the scream/of the cottontail’s young/as they are taken by the red fox. (Mothering)

This undercurrent of disquiet is what takes The Starling’s Song to a different level, beyond the genre of mere nature poetry. While Bruce’s brushstrokes of imagery are luscious enough to hold the reader in a spell,  it is her layering of emotions and memories, especially uncomfortable ones, to those images that makes them quaver with loneliness and heartache in strangely soothing ways. In Waiting, she says,

Mist moves/to the edge of the forest,/catches the last, dusted light, keeps/joining the woodsmoke./ I am waiting/for you, for the sound of you/on the road, on the doorstep.

In her poems in this collection, clearly written from the vantage point of delicious proximity to nature, Bruce doesn’t stop at exploring the self and its relationship to others through an intimate association with the world outside concrete walls and human organization. Nature isn’t always a peaceable therapy to help reconstitute memories and make sense of them; it can be equally pain-inducing and cruel, based on what the mind reads of it in a given moment. Bruce’s Picker is chillingly reminiscent of Seamus Heany’s Blackberry Picking in its desolation and disturbed unraveling of the seemingly innocuous and even joyful act of berry picking, as

I am bending low/over row after neat row/of red, ripe strawberries.

Turns to…

…I remember/the mushroom picker’s daughter./She watched a man get sucked/into the maw of a machine that/sorted and weighed the day’s pick.//From a window above,/she looked on as the machine/spat out the man’s blood…

Now, overripe berries/ooze in the August sun./I weigh them, put them/in baskets, and drive home/where I’ll wash them,/boil them, add sugar,/and make jam.

None of the poems in The Starling’s Song is too long and brevity certainly seems one of Bruce’s key strengths. The shorter the poem, the more punch it packs. Blood and Seed are two such examples that are able to carry enormous weights on their slender shoulders. Ripe with muscular strength, these poems eschew the need for strong-boned superstructures.

I eat a pomegranate/and think of you,/delicately, patiently/separating peel/from seed. With my tongue, suck/the tart juices/from the kernel,/spit out what’s left. (Seed)

What strikes the most about the poems in The Starling’s Song is the rawness of the word imagery. There isn’t a lot of coating going on, nor is there any attempt to ensnare the reader with mysterious metaphors or complex philosophizing. Instead, there’s a refreshing starkness — of both scenes and the longings and aches they echo within the human mind.

And yet, even the pain — with all its stabbings– has the ability to redeem a certain kind of peace, as Bruce discovers and relays in Chorus, the penultimate poem in the collection.

Even now the arresting silence/in your absence has a music to it.

Dispatch: Love in Hyderabad

First published in Global Graffiti magazine

Bhaswati Ghosh

“…She would always remember Paris as the most beautiful city in the world, not because of what it was or was not in reality, but because it was linked to the memory of her happiest years.”

Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera.

Cities are where history and contemporaneity, spaciousness and congestion, overwhelming wealth and astonishing poverty collide with each other more recklessly than anywhere else. One can live in City A for a long time and despise it and yet get entranced by City B in just a few months. That probably explains why I always remained a passive resident of Delhi, the city of my birth and my home for more than three decades, yet fell in love with Hyderabad, where I lived for less than four months. And the charm was almost instantaneous.

This was also the city where I found love.

Hyderabad welcomed me as a nervous, just-married bride, whose groom happened to work there. The extent of my idea of this southern city until then was summed up in tourist book images—Golconda Fort and Charminar, a rich Muslim ethos and possibly an equally rich cuisine. I knew too that the city was the latest hot-spot on India’s map. But as I would soon realize, this was but a fraction of the fortune that Hyderabad encompassed within its precincts.

The more-than-four-hundred-year-old city didn’t waste any time in bewitching me, in making sure that our bond, even if short-lived, wouldn’t, at least in my memory, be short-term. The charm began with an expanse of calm, placid water that soothed my psyche, left near-parched by Delhi’s unforgivingly dry landscape. The first sight-seeing trip I took with my husband, even as I was still opening up to him, was a launch cruise on Hussain Sagar Lake. The 16th-century blue-green lake’s historic trajectory took it from once being a source of irrigation for the city to the venue that now held the largest monolithic statue in India—Buddha, sculpted out of a single piece of white granite stone. Even though his back was to us, I suspect the Wise One smiled as we stepped onto the launch boat and proceeded toward him. Could he “see” how the mists of scepticism in my heart dissolved—with each unruffled wave we crossed—and were then replaced with the clarity that love brings?

Another stop on this trip was  Birla Mandir, a Hindu temple in the vicinity. As we crossed the road, the temple announced to us its presence from atop Naubath Pahad, a hillock. Boasting an architectural blend of Rajasthani, South Indian and Orissa styles, the temple’s large premises are divided into territories dedicated to different gods of the Hindu pantheon. As we peregrinated from one deity’s court to another, I saw quotations from several holy texts, including those of Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and Sikhs—though Islamic verses and symbols were conspicuously absent. More captivating views were in store. As we landed on the marble-laid main courtyard of the temple, the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad smiled back at us.

For B, my husband, the best part of this trip was yet to come. No sooner had we stepped out of Birla Mandir than a small bust, situated by the side of the temple, drew him. It was the sculpted bust of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, India’s champion for the rights of Dalits—people whom the caste-dominated Hindu society has shunned, humiliated and oppressed for centuries. Ambedkar also played a pivotal role in drafting India’s constitution and instituting in it equal rights for all citizens—irrespective of their caste or religion. B has been greatly influenced by Dr. Ambedkar’s scholarship and upholds his rejection of the Hindu caste system.

The temple, with all its stunning architecture and deities born of human imagination, soon receded from our consciousness. It was ironical yet appropriate for Ambedkar’s image to be placed close to a canon of the Hindu religion—a temple housing many of its popular figures. While Dr. Ambedkar’s egalitarian vision is yet to become a reality for the Dalits of India, it was heartening to know that Hyderabad’s Birla Temple is open to people of all religious faiths and social strata, including Dalits. Just as B found meaning in this visit, I was taken by the numerous street-side stalls selling vermilion, coconut, bangles, sacred red threads and an assortment of curios promising to please the temple gods. I am not too religious, but a profusion of colours and smells never fails to draw me in.

Birla Mandir was the last of our divine excursions. After this trip, I focused on setting myself up in a new house and exploring my new surroundings.

* * * * *

When I first stepped into my husband’s “flat” at “At Home Apartments” in the Kondapur neighbourhood of Hyderabad, it appeared to me to be a spruced-up version of a bachelor pad. There were just two rooms: a large bedroom and a smaller room that doubled as the sitting room and kitchen. Two single-seater sofas and a table completed the furniture in this room. For cooking, we had been provided with a microwave oven and a few utensils.

The spacious bedroom more than made up for any inadequacy of the sitting room-kitchen. The best part of this room was a large window right behind our bed. The view beyond this window—tracts of cultivated fields stretching into a limitless horizon, a few buffaloes grazing the land, the tent of a farmer who worked on his field, a small Hindu temple—magnetically allured me. Our flat was on the fifth floor, the top-most in the building, and because of its strategic proximity to the green expanse, it offered a rare panoramic view of open space—increasingly a rarity in Indian cities. Living on the top floor came with another reward—we were closest to the terrace above, where we would spend hours—lured, awed by and photographing winged wonders.

I would soon learn that one didn’t have to run to the terrace to enjoy bird-watching in Hyderabad. They were everywhere and in amazing diversity. Every morning, upon waking, we just had to look out of our window, and there they were—bee-eaters, parakeets, sparrows, doves, kingfishers, the ubiquitous crows and other unknown tribes. Seeing them hopping from one tree branch to another, collecting meals, chirping or just flying around for the sake of it, ensured that we never had anything other than good mornings.

During my years growing up in Delhi, the visibility of smaller birds like sparrows had gradually dwindled. In Delhi’s frightfully shrinking avian habitat, the survival of small members became increasingly threatened. So when I saw birds of different breeds and sizes happily grazing the Hyderabad skies together, my heart was aflutter.

What added to the joy was the existence of a small swamp a few meters away from our apartment. I strongly suspect this marshy patch brought me closer to B, as it revealed the wide-eyed-wondering bird-lover in him. We would routinely stop at this spot to watch egrets and herons, red-wattled lapwings and little cormorants making good use of the prized cool patch in the midst of newly-constructed skyscrapers that surrounded the marsh. Excited by our daily finds of new birds, we soon headed to a place that would make our wonder graduate to speechless amazement—the Hyderabad Zoo, definitely among the best in India and rivalling the likes of Australia’s Taronga Zoo.

The thrill of these discoveries notwithstanding, at home we still didn’t have a proper kitchen. And food still remained a primary necessity. Since the microwave wasn’t useful for much beyond making instant noodles, we had to scout for food sources outside. For our very first dinner as newlyweds, B took me to Hot Rottis, a small eatery perched on top of a shop in the nearby marketplace. The place offered a mix of south Indian and north Indian (mostly the latter) homemade food and no bells and whistles. For 45 rupees (less than a US dollar), you could have rice, lentils, two types of vegetables, yogurt, pickles, salad, a dessert, and, of course, the name of the shop—hot rottis—freshly made Indian whole-wheat flat breads. This joint catered well to serve the dietary needs of young people from North India, mostly IT professionals who were a long way away from home—geographically as well as in terms of food culture.

Hyderabad turned out to be a food heaven, not unlike the eastern Indian city of Kolkata. Like the latter, what makes Hyderabad a food lover’s delight is not just the mind-boggling heterogeneity of foods available, but the high affordability quotient—one could enjoy well-cooked, hearty meals with no substantial loss to one’s pocket. So while Hot Rottis and its rival Drumsticks sustained our daily dinner needs, a veritable culinary carousel would see the two of us hopping from one restaurant to another throughout the city.

For us, the best flavours were the ones that were exclusive to Hyderabad, no less associative than imposing structures such as Golconda Fort or Charminar. Two of these were desserts: the first double ka meethha—a pudding of bread, milk nuts and saffron. We found it on the menu of most restaurants, some that weren’t even serving food from any part of India. The other very Hyderabadi dessert, khubaani ka meethha, made B its life-patron with the very first tasting. Dried apricots concentrated into thick, syrupy sweetness, give the dessert the ambrosia of halwa and the lightness of fruit. A perfect dessert to share after all those meal mountains we had internalized, rather literally.

However, the greatest edible reward from Hyderabad was haleem—the signature dish that sweeps over the city’s collective tongue during the fasting month of the Muslim festival of Ramadan. Haleem is one of the many items served during iftaar—the breaking of the daily fast during Ramadan. The dish, however, tastes every bit as good even if one doesn’t fast before digging into it.

We discovered haleem on our way back from Golconda—the fort of many forts that makes one marvel at its grandeur: the stories of devotion, literally carved on its walls. Ram Das, a certain Hindu official at the court of the Muslim king Tana Shah, was imprisoned in Golconda Fort for misusing funds to build a Rama temple. Even in his despair, Ram Das’ devotion didn’t diminish. His carvings of Hindu deities Rama, Lakshman and Hanuman still remain on the walls of his prison.

Having traversed the fort’s enormous breadth and after climbing up and down its steep terrain on an appreciably warm day, it was relaxing to sit inside a taxi for the ride back home. Mid-way through our journey, B asked the driver if he knew where good haleem was served. “Sure, saab, I will take you there,” said the driver. Soon, we were in front of Pista House, arguably, the best haleem makers in the city. The two boxes of pounded wheat and mutton, stewed into a smooth paste, smothered with ghee and topped with fine ginger juliennes easily rank among the best things I’ve ever eaten. Haleem was also just what the doctor would have ordered after a long day of trekking through a fascinating yet inexorable fort.

In spite of the breathtaking sights, natural bounty and the scrumptious food, Hyderabad had its own contradictions. It seemed a place where the new nudged in to make its way beside the old.

The city appeared safe enough for young, single women to move around. At the same time, most women dressed conservatively. And while there was a steady inflow of IT-employed youth from other, more cosmopolitan cities, Hyderabad’s own youth remained reticent to profess love in the open. What else could explain the recurring clandestine rendezvous across the city? Cupid seemed to be on overdrive here, what with young couples snuggling up to each other the moment they found a moment. Or a suitable crevice.

We first spotted them in the lush, verdant botanical gardens, rich in flora of a flourishing variety, inviting birds of various stripes and songs. As well as hearts floating on air, above bodies swaying on the grass. The ingenuity and dedication of these wild young hearts was commendable. Inside bushes, behind a big tree, tucked away in alcoves, they bloomed as resplendently as the dahlias and daisies in the garden.

We also saw them at Durgam Cheruvu or the Secret Lake, a lake-forest spread over sixty-three acres. The lake remains deceptively true to its name. None of it is visible from the outside, and one has to walk a fair distance to enter the lake area. Inside, it’s a magical world, complete with pristine waters, hills and rocky formations, and recently installed art in the form of sculptures and rock art.

Just a few minutes before, B and I had been on a very urban road, and then, suddenly, we shared this space with the most enchanting butterflies; humming birds donning stunning yellow, electric blue hues, bulbuls; red-breasted lemon hibiscus; a blushing purple-pink gulmohar variety and other spell-inducing flowers; and even fruits like the pomegranate and the custard apple. As we wound our way through the rocks, we spotted many a dark, damp spots, sheltering insects, moss, the odd creeper. And the snuggled duos.

Climbing up, all the way to the top, we discovered the most stunning view of the green-gray lake. We also found hiking trails that scared me and thrilled B. Just when he had finally convinced me to climb down one, we saw a couple sitting right next to its base, behind the curtain of tree branches. We quietly retreated.

In Hyderabad, love abounded. As the Buddha’s compassion, as the co-existence of a structure of Brahminical Hinduism and its greatest critic, as the pigeons coo-cooing inside the magnificent ramparts of Charminar and the burqa-clad women buying flowers and bangles outside it, as the haleem slathered with ghee, as the apricots transformed into sugary sin, and as love birds, peeking, sometimes glaring, from crevices, hills, open markets. How could I have remained love-less here? In less than four months, I had been smitten. By B. And by Hyderabad.

Text and photos ©Bhaswati Ghosh