My essay Discomfort Food in Dhaka Tribune looks at food from caste and class angles through the lens of literature.
The first time the appearance of food in a book shook me was when I read Om Prakash Valmiki’s Joothan more than a decade ago. I read the book in English translation, which retained Valmiki’s original Hindi title. This wasn’t, in all probability, merely a stylistic decision; it seems to have been a necessary one. For, the word joothan, like its Bengali equivalent eNthho, does not have a satisfactory English translation. The closest word that describes it — leftovers — is way too short of what joothan actually means — scraps of food left on one’s plate after a meal meant to be thrown in trash. In the autobiographical book, Valmiki describes how members of the Chuhra community — the caste he belonged to — would be served joothan by their upper caste masters as wages for manual labour. Valmiki describes, in excruciating detail, how the Chuhras would collect the remains of the meals left behind from an upper caste wedding, dry the bits of pooris they collected in the sun, and how he had to guard those pieces from crows, hens, and dogs. These dried bits, half-eaten by other people, would be saved for the rainy season, when they would be soaked in water and boiled, to be had with chili powder and salt or jaggery.
My tribute to singer, Sandhya Mukherjee, published in Indian Express.
Sandhya Mukherjee came to my listening universe inconspicuously. Growing up as a probashi Bengali in Delhi in the pre-digital age, I didn’t have Mukherjee as part of my early listening experience in the way Lata Mangeshkar or Geeta Dutt had been. I was two years away from hitting my teens when Mukherjee’s voice — unmistakable for its lilt and lalitya, Sanskrit/Bengali for sweetness or charm — entered my world as we moved to Chittaranjan Park in south Delhi. No Durga Puja went by without listening to songs by two legendary Mukherjees — Sandhya and Hemanta — being blared on loudspeakers. The pandals of the late 1980s were venues for the screening of black-and-white Bengali films on giant projectors. This was also when I found Sandhya Mukherjee’s voice merging with the screen persona of Suchitra Sen, even as Hemanta Mukherjee’s did with Uttam Kumar’s who often played her romantic interest. As I spent the past few days listening to the breathtakingly wide range of songs Mukherjee sang in her long and illustrious career, I found that the ability to adapt — to artistic idiosyncrasies, situational peculiarities and the basic demands of a piece of composition — was what made her such a versatile and gifted artist.
Prof. Somendranath Bandyopadhyay taught Bengali Language and Literature in Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan during 1957–1991. His subject was mainly Rabindranath Tagore. He wrote several books on Bengali poetry, art, philosophy and literature. In 2011, the Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata awarded him the D. Litt. The following is my personal tribute to him.
1986 — A teacher’s visit
I am in Class 7 and we have moved to Chittarajan Park, South Delhi’s very own Bengali pocket, only a year ago. It’s 7 or perhaps 7:30 in the evening, a busy time for our family of six. I and Dada, my brother, are hunched over our schoolwork — homework, preparing for a class test and such. Dadubhai, my grandfather, is coaching me as usual. In the kitchen, my grandmother and mother, both tired from a day’s work at their respective offices, are hustling to get dinner ready. Suddenly, there’s a knock on the door. We have no telephone (cell phones haven’t been born yet) and aren’t expecting any visitors in particular. When the door is opened, two tall gentlemen, one of them in pristine white dhuti and panjabi, are found standing. The gentleman in white, the older of the two, asks for my mother, and when she comes to the door, she, and the rest of us, are startled beyond words. Professor Somendranath Bandopadhyay, her teacher from Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, where Ma went to study for her MA in Bengali, has come to visit her. The last time the two of them had seen each other was more than a couple of decades ago, while my mother was his student. Back in her student days, he had shown extraordinary compassion to help her get through a difficult academic patch.
They had kept in touch through letters, and that year, as a student of class 7, when I witnessed this incredible moment, I realized why my mother held this teacher in such high regard. Professor Bandopadhyay was visiting relatives in Chittaranjan Park and mentioned that he wanted to meet his former student, who also lived in the neighbourhood. The conversation that followed through the evening is a blur to me, but I remember helping my mother sift whole wheat flour through a soft cotton cloth in the kitchen to ‘make’ refined flour as Ma and Grandma got busy making luchi, a delicacy that had to be served to a special guest. I remember my grandfather, a man of few words, expressing amazed delight that a teacher had taken the trouble of tracing his student’s house and visiting her. I remember that we were all amazed. I remember how a teacher’s visit had changed the complexion of a weary city evening. Over the next many decades, we would receive letters from him on postcards with beautiful line drawings depicting flowers, leaves, and nature on them.
2007 — Visiting a teacher
After working for many different bosses for more than a decade, I finally decide to work for myself and become a freelance writer-editor. Working my own hours gives me the reward of finding more time to do the things that bring me joy — write, cook, travel. I plan a long vacation to West Bengal with my mother. We spend the bulk of our time in Kolkata, but also have Santiniketan and Bishnupur on our itinerary. At Santiniketan, when we seek accommodation at the in-campus guest house, we’re turned away, with no vacancy offered to us by way of explanation. We put up at a lodge close to the campus. That evening, when Ma and I visit Professor Bandopadhyay, now Somen Mama to me, she tells him about our lodging woes, and he chides her saying she should have called him right from the guest house. He asks us how long we plan to stay for, and when he learns it would be the next three days, he calls up the guest house to get us a room there. We move back into the campus, a pilgrimage for me, where she would wake up to, as she did in her days as a student, to the calls of doel, the oriental magpie and bou-kotha-kao, the Indian cuckoo. I would discover mornings that sounded sweeter than anything I’d ever experienced in my existence as a city-bred.
At Somen Mama’s house for breakfast one morning, his affectionate wife, Boudi to all students, and Maami to me, treats us to a deliciously elaborate spread, complete with luchi, torkaari, chop (croquettes), mishti and her signature vanilla pound cake that I’ve come to relish. We sit at the low jol-chowkis in the dining area of this aesthetically pleasing and inviting house as Mama talks to us about Tagore’s worldview and the radical relevance of the Buddha’s teachings. Now and again, a humorous vein emerges, and he breaks into a laughter — resonant, uninhibited, completely disarming. We drift back to the living room for tea and more stimulating conversation. He then brings a copy of his latest book — Shilpi Ramkinkar Alaapchari — that he signs for my mother as a gift. He gives me a beautiful pair of polished burgundy wooden chopsticks that he’d gotten from his visit to Japan. I spend some quiet moments in their beautiful garden outside, soaking in the prettiness of flowers — clusters of Ashok and hibiscus in several colours.
Back in Delhi, my mother reads the book and keeps nudging me to do the same. I politely keep telling her I will, until I can’t put it off any longer. I’m barely into the first paragraph when I realize I wouldn’t be able to put it down before devouring every last sentence, every last word of it. The book’s format is deceptively everyday — it’s a series of conversations between two neighbours. Only, in this case, both the interviewee — the artist-sculptor Ramkinkar Baij and his interviewer — Somendranath Bandopadhyay are so much in synchronicity that the reader couldn’t ask for two better conversationalists.
By simply describing the living quarters of the renowned artist who he found as his neighbour, Somen Mama, draws me in. I am transported to the Santiniketan of Baij’s student and work life, to his world of mud and plaster, of studying from other artists, both at home and globally, of his interactions with Rabindranath Tagore who encourages him to chart his own course without looking back, of deeply empathizing with and drawing inspiration for his work from the Santhal Adivasis living in the area, and most of all, of living a passionate, feisty, and fiercely creative life on his own terms. The book is not merely a gift to my mother, to us, I realize; it’s a gift to all who can read the Bengali language. I am so taken by it that I want to tell the world about it and excitedly write a blog post and translate a few favourite parts. Later that year, I send my proposal for translating this remarkable book to an international translation fellowship. It gets accepted.
2008-2012 — A teacher for life
I am back in Santiniketan with Ma to meet with Somen Mama, to give him the good news, to seek his permission to translate the book. He talks about having heard of a certain blogger from Delhi who had translated parts of the book; then he realizes that person is me. So far he’s only known me by my pet name, so it has taken him a while to make the connection. While we’re here this time, I ask Somen Mama, now my author, lots of questions regarding the book’s technical aspects. He takes out big tomes from his study and patiently answers each one of my queries. I also spend my time looking more closely at Ramkinkar Baij’s sculptures spread across the open campus — Sujata, Santhal Family, Mill Call. My seeing is now informed by the history and context of these iconic works, captured with vivid sincerity by Somen Mama.
I travel to Norwich, UK, the site of my fellowship and complete translating the book. Over the next year, I look for publishers for the book and fortunately, the book finds a home. A journey that began with my mother’s master’s education in Santiniketan comes full circle as my name appears below his on a book cover. Shilpi Ramkinkar Alaapchari becomes My Days With Ramkinkar Baij in English.
2022 — The final adieu
On a March day, we receive the sad news of Somen Mama’s final departure. It’s still difficult to think of him in the past tense. As I reflect on this wonderful human being and the fullness of his life that enriched so many of us, I know what I will remember of and receive as blessings from him the most — humility and grace, a childlike zeal for exploring new realms, and above all, a deep, empathetic compassion for those around us.
A new column about literary journeys I will be curating in Saaranga. This inaugural post starts with my own story.
At seven — an age when writing only means filling the school homework notebook with the dreary repetition of my handwriting — the joy of reading arrives at my door. It’s a hot morning of my summer vacations in New Delhi, and like on most such mornings, I’m preoccupied with some or the other holiday homework — tasks designed to keep children in line and make them more tolerable to their family members for two long and sultry months. A postman knocks on our gate holding that rare item — a parcel — that lights up our faces with barely- concealed smiles. As my grandmother emerges from the kitchen and opens the package with her turmeric-stained fingers, out come the precious contents — a book of Bengali chhawra or rhyming verses and illustrated Ramayana and Mahabharata for children in Bengali — books she had ordered for me through relatives in Calcutta. The fun of words rolling into limericks and nonsense verse as you uttered them, of reading stories you didn’t have to write an exam for, of letting your mind fill with imagination what the words in the books left out — these must have been the initiation for me on the road to being a literary pilgrim.
The year I move on to middle school, I decide to switch schools. I’m glad I do, because in grade six, I find the teacher who would influence me the most in my life. Abha Das, a petite woman who wears crisp cotton saris and glasses on her small but penetrating eyes, doesn’t merely give lectures on the stories in our English textbook. She makes each one of the stories, which she takes days to finish, a riveting experience — at once an education in the craft of storytelling and reading with empathy and understanding. As she gives a lecture on E. R. Braithwaite’s To Sir with Love, she asks us to look back and think of the times we felt belittled because of our identity. By doing this — throwing us headlong at our vulnerabilities — she dissolves the distance between the narrator and us. Relating to the characters we read about in fiction in such a visceral way would help make me be a better reader even before I show any promise of being a writer. One morning, I would find the teacher waiting at the end of our morning assembly line. She’s there to thank me for a birthday card I’d left on her desk in the staffroom with a poem titled To Ma’am with Love. Her teaching would turn my joy of reading into a deeper love for words. I would now notice their intonation, their music, and recognize their inherent power to breed both love and violence.
Even as Abha Ma’am enthralls us in school, at home, too, another petite woman — Amiya Sen, my grandma — remains a force I can’t ignore. She’s a grandmother like every other, doting and endlessly patient, yet she’s more. I see her go to work at an office when no other friend’s grandmother does. She stitches the best frock dresses for me every Durga Pua and knits me sweaters with the most exquisite patterns every winter. She reads — books, newspapers, magazines, my school textbooks, packets made from old newspapers — like there’s no tomorrow. And she writes. She writes after returning from work, she writes in between cooking meals, she writes after running errands, she writes late into the night after everyone has fallen asleep, she writes the first thing in the morning before anyone wakes up. She has no writing desk to fulfill this fetish; I only see her writing on the floor where she sprawls on her stomach to lie on a straw mat, her arms resting on a pillow. She would be my first example of what a full-time writer truly means — not someone who has no job and earns their living through writing, but someone who steals and grabs every millisecond of available time to write while carrying out the seven thousand and nine other responsibilities that eat into her writing time. At thirteen, I write my first short story in Bangla and show it to her with nervousness. With a warm hug of approval, she encourages me to write more. Two years later, before I’m able to grasp the full scope of her writing artistry, she leaves the world. And she leaves me clueless about fighting loneliness, about living with the scary beast of loneliness.
Three decades go by. I am far removed from the house I grew up in, the one that my writer grandmother built with her life’s savings and dreams. I now live with my husband in Canada where it’s cold for more than half a year. In the thirty years since my grandmother passed away and I passed out of school where Abha Ma’am taught me, I’ve carried more than luggage. I have lugged Grandma’s stories — literally and figuratively. I have with me a bunch of short stories she wrote longhand, to type out and prepare for possible publication. But I also have the stories she told me as I grew up — stories of her childhood back in undivided India, of her life as a young bride, of her coming to Delhi and learning the English alphabet from her children, of the heartbreaking and unrelenting tragedies she’d had to endure in her life, of the unceasing pain of being displaced from her desh, the native soil of East Bengal that she’d been estranged from with India’s division in 1947. Somewhere along the way, all of these make a story grow inside me, and I end up writing a novel. When Victory Colony, 1950, my first book of fiction is published, I feel happy, relieved and sad at once. Like every new author, I’m elated to finally see my story out there in the world. Yet somewhere inside, it hurts me to realize that the one person I would have liked to read it isn’t there.
A year after the book is published, I have a dream featuring my grandmother. She is lively and as engaged with current events as she always had been, and I feel anxious anticipating her reaction to my novel. When I wake up, a bittersweet sensation tugs at my throat. I feel relief and yet I also feel an ache.
Perhaps that is what our literary wanderings are about — arriving at life’s crossroads, with both pain and joy staring at us. It is my pleasure to welcome you all to Saaranga’s new column on these journeys with authors — I hope you’ll indulge us and enjoy taking in the songs, dramas and scenes that forge our writerly paths.
This story is not about any female revolutionist, during the British period, who took up arms to fight for the country’s independence. It is about an ordinary humdrum housewife like our mothers and aunts who toiled in the kitchen and looked after their families.
I knew this lady since I was five years old though I lost track of her in course of time. One may wonder why I am writing about her after so many years.
To be very honest, my memories were rekindled by a story written by her worthy granddaughter Bhaswati Ghosh, who currently lives in Canada and is herself a writer. Her story about her grandmother Amiya Sengupta in ‘Memoir Excerpts: Excerpt from Till the River Runs Dry’ published in SETUMAG.IN brought back my memories about her.
Like many of my FB friends, I had not met Bhaswati, who, I suppose, is also an alumni of my school in Delhi. Once she wrote on FB about her maternal grandmother Amiya Sengupta, who would write stories in her copybook, some of which were also published.
‘Amiya Sengupta’ ? I pondered for a while as it rang a bell in my mind. I thought it might be the ‘mashima’ of our ‘chummery’ in Lodhi Colony in New Delhi. I messaged Bhaswati enquiring about her grandmother and was immediately confirmed by her that I was on the right track.
Why did it take me so much time to figure out who Amiya Sengupta was? Later it occurred to me it might have been because those days women were not usually known by their names. They were either ‘boro bou’/’mejo bou’/’choto bou’ (daughters-in-law as per hierarchy) or ‘so and so’s mother’ after their children were born. Amiya Sengupta was ‘mashima’/auntie to us and ‘Gita’s ma’ to others. Her eldest daughter Gita happens to be the mother of Bhaswati.
A few years after independence (in the 1950s), a group of young and daring Bengalis came to Delhi, with their families, to build a new India. My father, Amiya Sengupta’s husband Sudhir Chandra Sengupta and a few others were among them.
Away from home, these men were put up in ‘chummries’ along with their families. ‘Chummeries’ were two storeyed buildings used as a ‘mess’ for bachelor British soldiers during the British raj. Central govt employees of different states of India were temporarily put up in those buildings after independence.
There used to be a staircase in the middle of the building. On each side of it, there were five rooms in a row. These had a bed room and a small drawing room sort of space in front. Each batch of five rooms had three common bathrooms and three common toilets, which were kept quite clean.
Next to it, was the kitchen which was divided into five parts though none had a door. Food was cooked on ‘balti unans’ (coal fire ovens made in a bucket) or mud ‘unans’ built on the floor.
Quite often, I would sit next to my mom and listen to the ladies talking while they were cooking. It usually veered around recipes and always ended with talking about their ‘daish’/native land in East Pakistan as the memories were still very fresh. Amiya Sengupta, whom I shall, henceforth, refer to as ‘mashima’, always took the lead.
‘Mashima’ and ‘meshomosai’ stayed on the same floor, as we did, with their two children – a daughter and a son. They were a little older than my parents, who regarded them as their friend, philosopher and guide.
‘Meshomosai’ was very good in mathematics. Whenever I got stuck, I would go to him. Usually the first few sums of an exercise were solved in the class but the last few ones, which were difficult, would invariably be given as home task. Hence, I would have to go to him very often. ‘Meshomosai’ was very glad to help but on one condition. The condition was that I would have to pick up his grey hair for getting the sums solved. (His hair had become grey untimely). I, too, readily agreed. Now I realize I must have made him almost bald considering the number of times I went to him to get my sums solved. 🤩
In the meanwhile, ‘mashima’ did a diploma course in sewing. Not only that, she opened a sewing school at home where she gave tuition to the ladies of the neighbourhood. I always felt she was different from others as no one else, at that time, would ever have thought of adding to the family income by giving tuition in sewing though she was not in dire need of money.
My mom was one of her early batch of students and a favourite one too. My mom bought a Usha sewing machine, which was considered to be quite expensive at that time. But my mom made very good use of it by churning out innumerable frocks for us, shirts and shorts for my brother, blouses and petticoats for herself and pajamas for my father. After her children grew up, she stitched curtains, pillow covers etc.
A few days back, when I called my mom, she ruefully told me that she had sold the Usha machine to a man as she could not move her fingers properly to sew. Unable to control my curiosity, I asked her how much she had sold it for. She replied it was sold for Rs 200/-. She also told me that she had bought the sewing machine for Rs 125/-, by adding money from her saving. She proudly added that it was ‘Tailor’ model, the one which the tailors used for sewing. The other ordinary model was cheaper.
After a few years, we were all shifted to East Vinay Nagar (later named Laxmi Bai Nagar), where new quarters were erected for us. These were two storeyed buildings, having 2BHK flats, with a small balcony in front and a tiny kitchen garden at the back. Both our families were in the same block. The ‘chummeries’, we heard, were demolished later to make way for new buildings.
(After four decades of leaving Delhi, I went back to Laxmi Bai Nagar again but felt like Rip Van Winkle, without being able to recognize anything).
All the moms were very happy having a separate and self contained flat though it took some time to get adjusted to the new upcoming colony.
‘Mashima’, however, did not stop after getting a diploma in sewing. She appeared privately for Matriculation, Intermediate and B.A. examinations from Punjab University and lastly did M.A. in Bengali from Delhi University though her children were quite old at that time. She also started learning Hindi and appeared for Prabhakar (equivalent to Hindi Hons.). Hindi was promoted a lot at that time by the Central government to make it the national language of India. I do not remember if she took up a job at that time. But from her granddaughter Bhaswati’s writing, I came to know that later in life she had a government job.
Many decades have passed since then. I might have jumbled up many facts about her as I was myself a young school going girl at that time. I got a few inputs from her granddaughter too.
This story is not about facts but about the grit and spirit of ‘mashima’. Marrried at fifteen and coming from Barisal in East Pakistan, I realize now, she achieved a great feat. Very few women of her time would have ventured to appear for Board and University examinations from the scratch. Her family, too, must have given her a lot of support or it would not have been possible for her to do anything.
During summer, in Delhi, we used to sleep on the charpoys (portable beds made with strings), in the lawn, in front of our house. ‘Mashima’s family used to sleep just a few feet away from us. Quite often I noticed that she would read a book in the light of the lamp post that was just over her charpoy. Such was her tenacity.
‘Mashima’ had a passion for writing, which she did braving many odds. As per her granddaughter, ‘mashima’ has four books, many published articles and short stories to her credit. I wish her granddaughter Bhaswati edits and compiles them again.
One thing, I must say, is that she was very fortunate to have a granddaughter like Bhaswati, who delved into her writings and gave her due credit for it. I wish my granddaughter Kimaya also, at least, reads my post from my humble blog tabulousmom.blogpost. com when she grows up.
I pay my respect to ‘mashima’ through this post and wish her soul rests in peace.
I won’t let the sun set now. Look, I’ve broadened my shoulders and tightened my fists. I have learned to stand firm by embedding my feet on the slope.
I won’t let the sun drown now. I heard you’re riding its chariot and I want to bring you down You, the emblem of freedom You, the face of courage You, the earth’s happiness You, timeless love The flow of my veins, you The spread of my consciousness, you; I want to help you climb down that chariot.
Even if the chariot horses spew fire, The wheels won’t turn any longer I’ve broadened my shoulders. Who will stop you I’ve expanded the earth With bangles of golden grain I will decorate you With an open heart and songs of love I’ve widened my vision to flutter you as a dream in every eye.
Where will the sun go anyway It’ll have to stay put here In our breaths In our colours In our resolves In our sleeplessness Do not despair I won’t let a single sun sink now.
सूरज को नही डूबने दूंगा / सर्वेश्वरदयाल सक्सेना
अब मैं सूरज को नहीं डूबने दूंगा। देखो मैंने कंधे चौड़े कर लिये हैं मुट्ठियाँ मजबूत कर ली हैं और ढलान पर एड़ियाँ जमाकर खड़ा होना मैंने सीख लिया है।
घबराओ मत मैं क्षितिज पर जा रहा हूँ। सूरज ठीक जब पहाडी से लुढ़कने लगेगा मैं कंधे अड़ा दूंगा देखना वह वहीं ठहरा होगा।
अब मैं सूरज को नही डूबने दूँगा। मैंने सुना है उसके रथ में तुम हो तुम्हें मैं उतार लाना चाहता हूं तुम जो स्वाधीनता की प्रतिमा हो तुम जो साहस की मूर्ति हो तुम जो धरती का सुख हो तुम जो कालातीत प्यार हो तुम जो मेरी धमनी का प्रवाह हो तुम जो मेरी चेतना का विस्तार हो तुम्हें मैं उस रथ से उतार लाना चाहता हूं।
रथ के घोड़े आग उगलते रहें अब पहिये टस से मस नही होंगे मैंने अपने कंधे चौड़े कर लिये है। कौन रोकेगा तुम्हें मैंने धरती बड़ी कर ली है अन्न की सुनहरी बालियों से मैं तुम्हें सजाऊँगा मैंने सीना खोल लिया है प्यार के गीतो में मैं तुम्हे गाऊँगा मैंने दृष्टि बड़ी कर ली है हर आँखों में तुम्हें सपनों सा फहराऊँगा।
सूरज जायेगा भी तो कहाँ उसे यहीं रहना होगा यहीं हमारी सांसों में हमारी रगों में हमारे संकल्पों में हमारे रतजगों में तुम उदास मत होओ अब मैं किसी भी सूरज को नही डूबने दूंगा।
From womb to the world, I bring emergencies in my wake.
Ten days after I’m born, democracy in my country gets turned on its head; constitutional rights are left meaningless for all practical purposes. The Indian government has just declared a state of Emergency. While I have no memory from that time, people who do still recoil in remembered fear when talking of those “Dark days.” Of disappearances and forced sterilizations, of tortures, interrogations and blank newspaper pages – a way to refuse toeing the government line.
My mother has to fight her own emergency, meanwhile. Her marriage has just fallen apart and she’s back in her parents’ home in Lajpat Nagar in New Delhi. When I come bundled up from Holy Family, the Christian missionary hospital where I am delivered to Kasturba Niketan – the refugee rehabilitation colony where my grandmother works, my mother is in desperate need of a job.
Before that first house grows on me, the Emergency has been lifted and my mother finds employment. Her old employer – the library at Delhi University – takes her back, making an exception on its policy regarding rehiring former employees. Her pre-marriage work record helps as much as her post-marriage personal crisis.