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.

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Who is Abani, at whose house, and why is he even there?

[In the words of Brajendranath Mandal]
Samir Sengupta
Translated from the Bangla by
Bhaswati Ghosh
Originally published in Parabaas

Half-dissolved, I slide into sleep
Amid the heart’s distant pain.
Suddenly, the night rattles my door,
“Abani, are you home?”

[‘Abani, are you home’ by Shakti Chattopadhyay]

I never got to know Shakti Chattopadhyay in person. Until the other day, I didn’t even know who he was. I’m a villager and make my living by growing potatoes and gourds. This year I planted tomatoes and chili peppers — the tomatoes did really well, I got about two and a half quintals per katha (720 square feet). Honestly, I didn’t expect such a good yield. Although it didn’t get me a good price in the end, I still recovered the cost and even made a bit of profit.

Kolkata is far from our village. You have to first walk nearly four kilometers through the fields. Despite many efforts, no roads have come to the village. Newly-wed brides have to enter the village on foot; the sick have to be carried to the hospital on cots like the dead to a crematorium. Even though our village is in the Hooghly district, it’s on its northern edge, bordering Bardhaman. As I was saying—see, this losing track of what I was talking about is a sign of my getting old—after walking the four kilometers, you’d better sit down at a teashop to catch your breath.

Next, you need to get onto a bus that’s usually so packed that even the roof is crammed with people and luggage. If you can somehow stay inside the bus by hanging onto an overhead rod for an hour and a half, you’ll reach Gudup station, and from there to Kolkata in another two hours.

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But tell me, where do I find the time to visit Kolkata? A farmer’s life is a busy one. My day starts early. People like you who only eat chilies probably have no idea what it takes to cultivate them. Imagine harvesting all the peppers from the plants. This is a young man’s job. But if you hire someone like that, you need to pay him well. The price one gets for the chilies doesn’t cover the cost of labour. So we have to get young boys for the job. These days one hears a lot of hullabaloo against child labour; apparently, it amounts to exploiting children. But if I didn’t hire them, the boys would starve that day. On top of the wage, I also give them a basket of muri and lunch. Is that worse than them going a day without work and food? Can one get education on an empty stomach? I don’t know. The politicians in our village say a lot of big words like “literacy” and such.

I didn’t study much — didn’t get the opportunity. You see, I had to accompany my father to the fields since I was five years old. I know my soil well. By placing a mere fleck of soil on my tongue I can tell you what would grow on it. I’m familiar with hundreds of weeds and can tell at least 70 types of insects. Back in the day, when it would start raining at the end of Magh, I would go to the field in the middle of the night to get drenched. I can’t do that any longer — the womenfolk don’t allow me to. But I’m a farmer’s son. My father used to say that if the farmer doesn’t bathe in the season’s first rain, the field doesn’t absorb enough moisture to hold the plow. One doesn’t use the plow that much these days; power tillers rented by the hour do the job. Still it makes me sad to miss bathing in the season’s first showers.

Read the rest in Parabaas.

 

In search of home and homeland: Seeking Palestine

Seeking Palestine: New Palestinian Writing on Exile and Home
Penny Johnson, Raja Shehadeh, editors
Olive Branch Press

Your mother’s face once sustained you. Now you have to strain your memory to trace its outline. The place you were born in you can’t return to, even if it were so you could die there. Y130225-seeking-palestineou can only be a nomad, an exile, or a refugee–never at home. Seeking Palestine, an anthology of nonfiction narratives gathers all these voices as it tries to make sense of the largely map-less Palestinian identity.

Susan Abulhawa chases this elusive piece in “Memories in an Un-Palestinian Story, in a Can of Tuna”. In her personal essay, the author best known for her novel, ‘Mornings in Jenin’ captures the breadth of a Palestinian’s nomadic condemnation. Her words–funny and shocking and tragic–tell how she was ping-ponged across geographies as a young girl. Thus, despite growing up in the US for most of her life, she says, “…I have come to understand that it (my life) represents the most basic truth about what it means to be Palestinian–dispossessed, disinherited and exiled.”

“Exile” is the permanent address many have been left with since the Israel-Palestine conflict began with the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. And so as poet and translator Sharif L. Elmusa etches in an essay combining his poetry and prose with river-like flow, not only their presence but even the absences of Palestinians are portable. To lug this presence/absence around, a Palestinian pays steep baggage fees. “I can only go inside myself / into the maze of the hippocampus / which is like going inside a pyramid / and finding the robbers had carted away / the belongings.// What will I shed this round / to complete my portable absence?”

Read the rest of the review at Armed with Amor.

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.

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.]