Immigrant’s postcard: The braille of her voice

A series on my experiences as an immigrant in Canada.

I trDSC02203y to imagine my mother’s face when I tell her over the phone that I’m coming home. When I tell her I’m coming home for Durga Puja. I try to imagine her face during every subsequent transatlantic conversation we have. I grapple to picture the contours of her face as we talk — has  it grown a wee bit more cherubic ever since I told her I’m coming home? I ask her what she’s doing whenever I call her. She says she’s drinking her morning tea and I try to discern a smile in her voice, to distinguish it from the “tea drinking” reports she gave me every day until she learned about my visit. When she tells me she has asked for help to spruce things up around the house before I get there, I try to decipher the braille of her expression as she made that appeal. I trace impressions of jaws widening, eyes brimming up with sleepless excitement. We could Skype, we both have the tools, but we mostly talk over the phone. She knows how to see me through my voice, and the oceanic gulf that has kept us apart for the nine years since I got married enables me to see her the same way — through her quivers and monotones, her heaving sighs and squeals. Sometimes our phone calls trade in gossips and passionate debates. She cracks jokes on others. And on the government of the day. When this happens, I’m relieved in the knowledge that the weight of wrinkles haven’t yet buried that impish grin on her face. I see that, too. In the waves of her trills.

More of Immigrant’s Postcard
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Ahir Bhairav and 2 more poems

First published in Saaranga

Image result for black and white bird images

1.

AHIR BHAIRAV

Morningness bathes you. Grandfather’s
Arms rise skywards. The newspaper-man
hurls elastic-clasped, rolled-up
headlines into the porch. Mother
lights the stove to wake up milk.

Ahir Bhairav takes you to a place
so empty, it’s full. The absolute centre
of nothingness. The beginning of
all beginnings. A lighthole.

In a slowly-igniting corner of your mind,
your guru’s saintly beard unspools.
You can hear him talking about the sadhu
who devoted his life to the service of Bhairav,
the primordial sound. Your guru’s smile is
a cryptic message now.

Vilayat and Imrat lead you with strings.
Unscratched morning flows into
a cowshed. The uniraga sadhu still
befuddles, but with Ahir Bhairav, you
partake in a fraction of his madness, his
self-absorbed samadhi in the lighthole.

The school girl dreams. One day she’ll tune
her voice to the throat of the songbird
whose call mocks the cage of age.

***

2.

FISH OUT OF WATER

Water was the first traitor she came
To know. It didn’t drown her.
Seasoned traitors seldom do that.
She was the river’s sibling-child, knew
its mood swings, joaar and bhata
like she did her night terrors, throat-clasping.
Easy to forget once the grip loosened.

When father spread his net over
its body, the river heaved through
the mesh, packing fish into its giant
mouth. She should have known then
What it is to be thrown onto dry
Ground. Gasp. Wriggle. Writhe. Succumb.
Forget that water ever nestled your breath.

The river’s betrayal came not in abandoning her.
It did when it became a concrete mesh,
And she, a fish in the city’s sewage tank.

***

3.

UNTITLED

A long-dead poet brings home truths to the work desk.
Mid-day ennui seeks lunch break and a walk in the park.
Between flesh and flight, the girl chooses to ride the breeze
Like kebab smoke trailing the gallies of purani Delhi. Careless, footloose.
Another dead poet dreams of a new day on earth, a more womanly day.
Old wounds find new ways of festering. Congealed blood rejects washing.
Rain harnesses in megapixels tears that no longer wet hearts.

Back on the Bus

First published in Indian Express (Eye)
Canada, Delhi by DTC, Kalkaji to Netaji Nagar, south Delhi, North Campus, King County Washington, spirit community, indian express
Inside the bus, secrets waited. (Illustration: Suvajit Dey)

Riding a bus had become foreign to me. As foreign as waking up to noiseless mornings that could put nights to shame with their stark absence of light. Since migrating to Canada seven years ago, I had let myself happily slide into the snug comfort of a personal car to get around.

One winter morning, that ceased to be the case.

In the middle of December 2017, I found myself waiting for a public bus on a steel-grey dawn with mountains of stiff white snow all around me. A change in the work life of my husband, with whom I used to share a car to get to the workplace, had just shaken up my daily commute. This meant a not-so-minor adjustment, coming as it did during the country’s unforgiving, bordering on dangerous, winter. The bus stop nearest to our house was a good 8-minute walk, not the best idea in a period visited by frequent and violent snow squalls. The next best alternative was to leave early in the morning, an hour and a half before my usual schedule, so that my husband could give me a lift to the bus stop — the first of the two I needed to wait at — before proceeding to his place of work in a different city.

Standing there in the pitch dark of a sunless morning, an arctic chill cutting through my skin like a hundred hypodermic needles, I wondered if I’d be able to bear the regimen for too long.

My interest in the ethics of public transit, especially as it related to reducing carbon footprint, wouldn’t merely be put to test but seriously challenged as I became a daily bus passenger amid temperatures plummeting to -20C and below. At each of the two bus stops, I would have to wait anywhere between two-nine minutes. Then, after a half-hour bus trip, I would have to walk for another six minutes to reach my office from the bus stop closest to it. Enough time for a skin-numbing life lesson on the power of a single minute.
The Insider’s View

Inside the bus, secrets waited. There was warmth and ease, and not only because of the controlled temperature settings. The first time the bus turned a right-hand corner instead of moving straight on the road that led to my workplace, I sighed in frustration. This easily meant a longer commute than I was used to. Within moments, we were deep inside the sprawling campus of a university. A new world — of gothic buildings nestled in woods, winding roads and sidewalks and a river bisecting the eastern part of the campus — kept extending before my eyes like a poetic dream. Even the heaps of snow that blanketed most of the landscape couldn’t mask the beauty and magnificence of it.

Over the course of the long winter I would look forward to this — the most twisted — part of my commute the most. Tall trees across the campus, rendered nameless by their wintry bareness, framed the building structures with their filigreed branches. Looking at them I forgot clock-controlled time. For an instant, I would imagine what the place would look like in spring or summer. Yet, I was in no hurry for that visual to manifest. What lay before me sufficed, spectacularly.

Immigrants are notorious creatures of existential comparison. Riding the public transit inevitably brought back for me memories of commuting to college in Delhi by DTC (Delhi Transport Corporation) buses, necessary yet dreaded. The three years of my undergraduate programme required me to board a crowded bus from Kalkaji to Netaji Nagar, always late and often tilted with the weight of the humans it carried. My experiences as a female passenger in those three years made me vow never to ride a DTC bus once I had a job. I kept this promise to myself. From day one of earning a salary, I switched to Delhi’s ubiquitous paid personal transport — the autorickshaw. This was and felt like, a luxury, considering my paltry income. It also increased my respect for my mother, who had to rely on DTC buses for the entirety of her working life, travelling from south Delhi to North Campus. In Delhi’s hyper materialist environment, anything that cost you more indicated your ascension on the status-symbol ladder. If you could afford an auto, you would never look back at a DTC bus again.

Two decades later, as I ride the public transit at the other end of the world, the democracy of the act intrigues me. Beyond the obvious inclusiveness of wheelchair and infant stroller access, the bus here is what the suit-and-tie executive rides alongside the homeless bum with his overflowing cart of broken belongings. Its egalitarianism has liberated me from any stigma I might have been carrying for the public bus in my subconscious.
A Public Inn

Some of the closest friendships my mother enjoyed were forged in the public bus. As an introvert, I listened with envy to her stories of the in-bus sisterhood of working women. They shared everything, from in-law problems to kids’ issues, health worries and edible treats. Not having inherited her propensity for bonding with strangers, I have found books to be my most trusted bus buddies. Reading a book inside a moving bus is exhilarating. From Delhi to eastern India to rural China, the geographies I have traversed through the pages of the books I read seemed to take on a more active, pulsating life with the bus’s jerks and swerves. As I read, the distractions around me — the university students’ banter, the bus driver’s announcements, the view outside the window — taught me how the world of a daily passenger is both solitary and communal. The silent alliances formed are no less real than verbal ones. There’s reassurance in the mere act of travelling together, even if you don’t exchange a single word.

The daily bus route to my office, curiously numbered 13, didn’t merely help me survive the Canadian winter on an unyielding snow belt; it took me to a spot — aesthetic and emotional — where I ended up writing a poem on this journey. As I would discover, the public bus has its own community of poets and artists. Poetry on Buses is an initiative that encourages daily commuters in King County in Washington, the US, to write poems on their experiences on the bus and other modes of public transit. Their poems are then displayed on the local transit systems. In 2016, the project invited poems on the theme, “Your Body is Water.” The obvious comparison between water and public transport reminded me of own poem in which I imagine the streets on which the bus runs as a meandering river. In London, Ontario, where I live, a woman artist drew a series of sketches depicting life in the bus. She went on to post her illustrations at bus shelters around the city as a gesture of her appreciation for this mode of transport and its role in engendering a spirit of community.

The public bus is no longer foreign to me. It’s a mobile inn where I rest and recharge myself before the world appropriates my limbs and spirit.

 

What Manto’s ‘Das Rupay’ Tells Us About Sexual Violence Against Girls Today

Originally published in The Wire.

“She was playing with little girls in the neighbourhood alley.”

This is how Saadat Hassan Manto opens his story Das Rupay (Ten Rupees). “She” is the story’s young protagonist, yet, as Manto implies by introducing her with the generic third-person pronoun instead of her name, she could be any girl. Nearly eight decades after he wrote that story, she – the fictitious Sarita – seems to be gathering a disconcertingly increasing number of real-life sisters in India. As one comes across news reports of little girls being sexually violated – each more harrowing than the other – across the country, Das Rupay serves as an unnerving reminder of everything that’s at stake for and taken away from a young girl when she is raped.

Image result for manto with daughter

Pushed into the flesh trade by her mother, 15-year-old Sarita is more a little girl than a teenager. Like most little girls, she’s free from worries. She enjoys, like I did in my teens, playing with girls a lot younger than her. And from the slivers of her personal life that have filtered through the horrific news surrounding an eight-year-old girl’s rape and murder in Kathua, we know she enjoyed playing with her horses. More recently, in the case of an 11-year-old girl who was raped by a dozen-and-half men over seven months in Chennai, her mother blithely assumed her daughter was playing with her friends when, in fact, she was being sexually abused.

Back in my teenage years, not all neighbours appreciated my propensity to play with girls younger than me. Some found such “childishness” annoying. As Tagore, too, illustrates in his short story, Samapti, this expectation for a girl to relinquish her girlhood no sooner than she hits puberty is anything but atypical in the Indian context.

In Das Rupay, Sarita’s playing in the nukkad irks her widowed mother for a different reason. Her daughter is an easy source of income and she hates to keep Kishori, the local pimp – and the fat-pocketed customers he brings  – waiting. As a cover for her complicity in trafficking her own child, the mother makes tall claims like, “I’m thinking of enrolling her to the municipality school that just opened,” which her neighbours know to be a sham. Sadly, for today’s flesh-and-bone Saritas, the school building isn’t always a safe place. School teachers, older students and even a principal in Patna can turn into sexual predators, as recent news reports suggest.

Read the rest in The Wire.

At Ramkinkar’s House with Shakti (Memoir) by Samir Sengupta

Translated from the Bangla by Bhaswati Ghosh

First published in Parabaas

It must have been the middle of the 60s decade—or was it the beginning? I don’t remember the year, only that the days were of intense spring. The festival of colours had ended just a few days ago.

Shakti said to me, “Samir, let’s go to Santiniketan. The Khoai area is ablaze with Palash now.” Shakti had just crossed 30 and was neck deep in his Birbhum phase. Every year, his presence at the Kenduli baul fair was almost a given. He didn’t just have a personal relationship with the bauls who came to the fair, as Chandi Lahiri has written, he was intimately in touch with their family affairs, joys and tribulations. Nabanidas (Purnadas Baul’s father) was still alive at the time; after retiring from the post of peon in Sultanpur Sriram High School, he had built his akhra at the outskirts of Siuri town. Shakti would run to that place on a whim and return only after spending a few days there. He was dear to Nabanidas. Shakti was not acquainted with Meenakshi yet. He said to me, “Let’s go—I haven’t met Kinkarda in a while. We will spend a night with him; then go to Siuri.”

In those days, it used to take a long time to reach Santiniketan. There weren’t too many good trains, land prices in Santiniketan hadn’t started shooting up as yet, the rich of Kolkata hadn’t begun occupying Khoai to build houses.

By the time we reached the place, the afternoon had nearly slipped away. Just before Cinematola, there used to be a country liquor shop called Akorshoni; Shakti stopped the rickshaw there and grabbed a couple of bottles.

Next, he stopped the rickshaw in front of Ramkinkar’s house and said, “Wait; we won’t let go of the rickshaw yet. Let’s check if Kinkarda is there or not.” He used to go away to Jugipara at times. Acting like a detective, I said, “The door is ajar; he must be there…” Shakti looked at me and said with a smile, “Kinkarda never locks the door.”

“What? He goes away to his village without locking his door?”
“He doesn’t have any lock; Kinkarda, O Kinkarda…” Shakti started yelling from the rickshaw itself. A barefoot Kinkarda came out, tending to his lungi. “Arre, poet, you are here—come, come, I hope you have got something for me? Who’s that with you?”

As he picked up the jute bag from the rickshaw base, Shakti laughed and said, “I have brought stuff, Kinkarda. This is my friend, Samir.”
“Does he write poetry?”

I quickly folded my hands and said, “No, Kinkarda, I don’t write any poetry.”

Kinkarda rolled his eyes and said, “Then why have you come here?”

My hands still folded, I said, “To give company to Shakti and to see you.”

He just said, “Oh” and then completely oblivious to my presence, took Shakti inside the room, almost in a warm embrace. I guess he remembered me while crossing the door; he looked back and said briefly, “Come.”

I entered the house. The famous house that has been described by so many. The signs of poverty were everywhere. On one side was a string cot with dull, faded bedding. On top of the bedposts lay a folded, dirty, almost blackened mosquito net. A few painted canvases lay above the net. We learned that it had rained a few nights ago and water was leaking through a hole on the roof. An irritated Ramkinkar had woken up; put a few canvases atop the mosquito net and gone back to sleep. If water had to drip, it would fall on the canvases.

Ramkinkar squatted on the floor; we followed suit. Butt-ends of bidis were strewn everywhere. Kinkarda pulled out a few earthen tumblers from beneath the cot. As he used his seasoned hands to remove the tar-sealed cap, he called out, “Mungri, O Mungri…” A good-looking adivasi girl came and stood at the rear door. Ramkinkar uttered some instructions to her in a language unknown to us; the girl disappeared. He looked at Shakti and said, “I sent her to her village to check if she could fetch us some grilled pork.”

It was almost three in the afternoon. He never asked if we had any lunch or not; food arrangements meant that pork meat, if available. He poured the liquor into the tumblers with great care and presented them to us in a manner befitting a Japanese tea ceremony host.

The pork came and vanished; a rickshaw-puller was made to bring two more bottles, along with some roasted chickpeas; those were gobbled up in no time. Two more were brought by paying a premium—it was past ten in the night. I don’t remember anything after that. I just remember endless country liquor, endless bidi smoke, endless talk, endless songs of Tagore, sung in broken voices.

I don’t know what time of the night it was when my consciousness returned, triggered by severe thirst. The early summer heat of Santiniketan’s Chaitra, coupled with limitless tumblers of undiluted country liquor might have been nothing unusual for Kinkarda and Shakti. I was sheer lucky not to have suffered dehydration.

For a while, I kept sitting quietly. It was pitch dark and the place unfamiliar to me. I extended my hand and felt Shakti, sleeping unconsciously beside me. I couldn’t spot Kinkarda. But it seemed as if my life would ebb away without water—the body was so dry. Where could I find some water?

While still sitting I felt the darkness melting away a bit. How did that happen? Was dawn approaching? I turned back and figured a light in the shape of a small rectangular door—a lantern must have been lit somewhere inside. Could I find water there?

As I started getting up, extreme dizziness gripped me—it was impossible to stand. I sat down. The moment I moved a bit, the unknown world around me started swaying. But I had to drink some water. After a while, I gathered enough strength to crawl towards the door.

The door led to a verandah; on the left, with his back to the door, at approximately a thirty-degree angle sat Kinkarda on a stool, stark naked. He hadn’t noticed his lungi slip off his waist. Before him, on a high stool (I don’t remember if it was a turntable or not) stood an unfinished clay sculpture; the lantern was hung on a bamboo support fixed to the ceiling. His right hand held a small fistful of clay. Sitting on the stool, Ramkinkar stared at his work—motionless. A million mosquitoes were clouding around him, but he didn’t seem to notice. His eyes had a strange, blank expression—he looked on, but didn’t seem to see with his physical eyes. It was more of what Ramakrishna had called a yogi’s eyes—he had said that when a bird sits on her eggs, the look in her eyes suggests that she was looking, but not really seeing anything; all her focus remains concentrated on her eggs. Ramkinkar had the same look in his eyes.

Even in my semi-conscious state I realized I had trespassed. I had no business there; even if I died of thirst, this wasn’t a place to ask Ramkinkar for water. And even if I did, he wouldn’t be able to offer me any. I crawled back to the room and lay down with my parched throat.

It must not have been more than a minute. I saw Ramkinkar only that one time, nearly fifty years ago—yet it is one of the few visual memories that remain immortal in my petty life. After my death, if God asks me what I saw in the world of dust and clay, I will be able to say, “I saw your contender, immersed in his art of creation.”

Translated from Amar Bondhu Shakti (আমার বন্ধু শক্তি) by Samir Sengupta; published published by Parampara, Kolkata in 2011.