Cutting Through Mountains to Build a Statue

An excerpt from Somendranath Bandyopadhyay’s My Days with Ramkinkar Baij where the sculptor and painter shares with the author his experience of sculpting the Yaksha-Yakshi statues that stand outside the central bank in New Delhi.

Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh

Kinkarda’s innocence amuses me. He is oblivious to the gigantic cost of cutting through a mountain. I know that once he had to pay the price for this inexperience. Recalling the incident I say, ‘You did do a major work by cutting stones later, though. In front of New Delhi’s Reserve Bank.’

‘Yes. The Reserve Bank governor had provided me with a lot of conveniences. Their only request was “Do something”.

‘I made Yaksha-Yakshi. Many people call it ‘Kuber’. Arre, why should it be Kuber? It’s not Kuber. It is Yaksha. They aren’t even husband and wife, but brother and sister. Yakshi. Had it been the wife, she would have been called Yakshini.

‘In Bharatpur and Sanchi, I had seen ancient Yaksha-Yakshi statues. Their limbs were broken. I also studied a few of those at the Patna Museum.

Yakshi holds the territory of land and agriculture. And Yaksha reigns over wealth. Kuber is above them. You must have read Coomaraswamy’s book; that contains everything.

‘You might have noticed that I’ve placed a discus in my sculpture’s hand. That was my idea. Addition. It’s a modern-day machine and is symbolic of industry. I got the idea for the flower and paddy cluster in Yakshi’s hand from the old statues. You know what Yaksha held in the ancient statues? A mallet. And a bag in the left hand. I have placed that too. Money bag. My Yaksha is completely modern – with a machine and a money bag. And is it possible to have the money bag and not have a fat belly? Yakshas do have protruding bellies, my dear. You must have seen ancient Yaksha statues. My Yaksha has it too.’

Read the rest in The Wire.

 

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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.

 

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.

Nirmala Boudi and the Bureaucracy: By Amiya Sen

First published in Humanities Underground
Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh

Nirman Bhavan–the foundation for which had been laid by the late Lal Bahadur Shastri–is now an imposing structure. As the older Shastri Bhavan became too cramped for space, many such buildings –each associated with a ministry –added to Delhi’s splendour.

I had some work with the director of Nirman Bhavan. Though not a government employee, I have to to rub shoulders with senior government officers from time to time for the sake of my business.

The sight of Nirmala boudi at the reception on the first floor shocked me. With a vigorous gesticulation of her hands, she argued with the reception officer in chaste Hindi.

“Listen now. You can’t stop me from coming here, whether I make ten visits or twenty. This office is for the public after all. We’ll come whenever we need to.”

The reception officer tried to reason with her with a resigned look.

“I’m not stopping you from coming here, Madam. All I’m saying is if you call us before coming, it will save you unnecessary trouble.”

“Necessary or unnecessary, that’s for me to decide. Now, will you please issue me a pass?”

Even as she said those words, Nirmala boudi almost grabbed the huge register opened before the reception officer, Mr. Bhandari. Turning the register towards her, she entered details like name: Mrs. Nirmala Roy, purpose of visit: allotment of house etc.

Mr. Bhandari had no option but to prepare a gate pass and hand it to the woman standing in front of him.

I needed a gate pass, too, but my destination was different from Nirmala boudi’s. I had to meet the director of the state office, whereas Nirmala boudi wanted to meet the additional director.

I watched the scene quietly, standing right behind boudi. As she turned back with the gate pass, I blurted, “What brings you here –haven’t you got your quarter yet?”

Clutching a huge file close to her chest, Nirmala boudi said with a busy look reflecting off her glasses, “Come outside –I’ll tell you.”

I didn’t want to get late, but Nirmla boudi could be hard to ignore. At one time, we were both residents of the same village in Bangladesh’s Bakharganj district. Nirmala boudi was the eldest daughter-in-law of the Roy family, and I, the youngest son of Hemanta Gupta of the Gupta family. Our houses were adjacent to each other –a bamboo bridge over on a small canal served as a shortcut to go from our house to theirs. This is a unique feature of Bakharganj or Barisal district, filled as it is with canals and streams. Villages, all surrounded by water, appear like islands, complete in themselves.

At the time of her marriage, Nirmala boudi was fourteen and I, a ten-year-old, studying in class five in the village school. As per village customs, Atin da, Nirmala boudi’s husband, was my brother. Based on his grandmother’s wishes, Atin da was married off to Nirmala boudi as soon as he earned his graduation degree at twenty-two.

Being next-door neighbours, it didn’t take the two of us too long to get acquainted with each other. The Roy family had big gardens flanking both sides of their house. I would gather whatever fruits were in season –mangoes, Java plums, berries, guavas, elephant apples, custard apples, velvet apples, grapefruit, jujubes, cranberries –and run to the Roy household. They were a joint family and the house would always be full of people. Luckily, the family elders and servants lived on the ground floor. The upper floor was almost entirely reserved for the family’s young brigade –married or not.

With a whole stash of ripe and unripe fruits, I would stealthily climb up the staircase to the first floor and sneak into the southern room, allotted to Atin da after his marriage. The moment she saw me, Nirmala boudi’s eyes would gleam with delight through her veil.

As I was friends with the boys of the Roy family who were closer to my age, it was easy to get introduced to Nirmala boudi. She happened to be the youngest — the same age as us –bride in the entire neighbourhood. We always kept a share of whatever we collected for Nirmala boudi. All this had to be clandestine, though, given how conservative the Roys were. A daughter-in-law was almost like a prisoner in that house, denied any contact with outside air or light. Naturally, the young Nirmala boudi took to our group.

On summer afternoons, when the older folks enjoyed their siesta or were busy doing something else, we would drag Nirmala boudi to the terrace balcony and reveal our loot. Out came from our pockets treats like raw mangoes, berries, grapefruit, green chillies, a knife, salt and the like. Some of us would even bring freshly cut banana leaves to use as plates. Five or six of us sat circling Nirmala boudi. She would peel the fruits, make a delicious mix with the available ingredients and pile them on the leaf plates. Our feasting would ensue.

These sessions continued even as we grew older. The menu had changed by then, though. On sleepy afternoons, escaping the elders’ glances, we would have tea parties inside the closed doors of the Roys’ kitchen, located outside the boundaries of the house. Although some of the adults drank tea, the beverage was strictly prohibited for children. Nirmala boudi made us not only this forbidden drink; she made for us something that was even more strictly off-limits –omelettes made from hen’s eggs, which she served us on banana leaf plates. She wouldn’t have it herself, though.

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Nirmala boudi had another talent –she was an accomplished card player. Some of the other boudis played cards, too, but their scope would be limited to the game of Twenty Nine. Nirmala boudi played Bridge with us. She came from a family where sports and arts and culture were highly valued.

It’s difficult to imagine that young bride of more than forty years ago by looking at this fifty-plus bespectacled, file-clutching, sari-draped woman.

A government servant, Atin da quickly descended to the lower middle class after losing all his land, property and wealth in East Pakistan. With his retirement, the family landed where it was expected to –in deep waters. But Nirmala boudi is a master in making the impossible possible. Back in the village, one hadn’t been able to read her that well. Once in Delhi, she zipped out of her old shell like a bullet. She sat beside her children and opened books and notebooks to study. From A, B, C, D, she went up to matriculation, then completed her B.A. Next, she rushed towards the job market. Atin da had retired by then. The feisty Nirmla boudi didn’t stop before finding herself a job at the Ministry of Rehabilitation. Her age posed a bit of an issue, but she got past that challenge by getting hold of Indira Gandhi or the president. With Atinda’s retirement, they had to vacate the government accommodation allotted to him and move to a rented accommodation. He had large payments to make –mostly to clear the debt he incurred for his daughter’s marriage a year ago.

Read the rest in Humanities Underground.

Of faces and portraits: Ramkinkar Baij

I recently had the opportunity to read from “My Days with Ramkinkar Baij” on the occasion of the launch of “Could you Please, Please Stop Singing?”, Sabyasachi Nag’s book of poetry at the Art Gallery of Mississauga.

In this excerpt, Baij talks about the essence of portraits and the fodder faces can provide to an artist. He also discusses his own treatment of Tagore for sculpting a bust of the poet.

Here’s a video recording of the reading.

Balika Ashram — Abu Hasan Shahriar

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Translation: Bhaswati Ghosh

– 6 –

Open page forty-nine of the heart:
This is a river of sorrow; it flows from the mountain of hurt

Now go to page one hundred and thirty-two of the eyes:
This is the story of a bicycle; a boy’s pakkhiraaj horse

Turn to page ninety-two of the chin:
This is a monsoon poem; painted in the watercolour of her first kiss

Pause on page one hundred and sixty-nine of her hair:
A night ballad, this is where Chandrabatis bloom

Let’s move on to the end then:
This is a moth-eaten chapter, never to be retrieved.

Image: Painting by Rabindranath Tagore, source: https://www.pinterest.com/DoraGrant3/art-east-indian/

Aranyalipi — Notes from refugee quarters, by Amiya Sen

[This is an extract from “Aranyalipi,” Amiya Sen’s nonfiction book-length account of refugees from East Pakistan who had been rehabilitated in Dandakaranya, a region that includes parts of Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. The Dandakaranya Development Authority was created by the union government in 1958 to assist refugees from Pakistan. This excerpt appears in Muse India’s Literature of Refugees issue.]

Dear Su,

…I had no idea about DaAmiya Senndakaranya. After crossing a hundred and forty-five miles of hilly terrain between Mana camp and Raipur we reached Kondagaon–high above the plains. Yet, even at that point, I didn’t realize we were at the forest’s gate. This was the entrance to the heart of the Dandakaranya project. I had imagined the real Dandak forest lay deeper inside. This was a dense settlement of thousands of people–little Bengal, just like little Andaman.

Jogani astounded me. This was the first planned village as part of the project, about six or seven miles from Kondagaon. In July 1959, the village of Jogani was established with 88 families and a total population of 392.

Although we are now urban dwellers on a mass basis, the image of a village is well etched in our hearts. It is rare to find an individual who hasn’t seen a village or lived in one for at least some time. But what a village this was! A few drab-looking tin houses sat in an area cleared off the forest floor. No other human settlement was visible through the gaps of the scattered shaal trees lining the nearby area.

A few broken houses dotted the landscape. Many of those rehabilitated here with government aid had already left the village. Jogani’s land is sterile; it doesn’t cultivate any edible crop. I was told that only two or three families had been lucky enough to receive arable land. The rest of the land was left unclaimed at the time of my visit. Those who left the village didn’t do so without giving a fight to the infertile soil. Along with their menfolk, women too had taken up crowbars to rid the soil of shaal saplings and weeds. For days on end, many of them ate grass seeds to curb hunger. At last, helpless and defeated, they drifted off this settlement.

There is soil-testing laboratory in Jagdalpur, Madhya Pradesh. Apparently, all peasant refugees are allotted land only after the soil is tested in that lab. But Jogani tells a different story–it doesn’t seem like the soil of this village was ever tested. This could be the first step of an experiment with agriculture-reliant refugees.

Those who have stayed back in the village depend on jobs or labour. Take Jaladhar Sarkar, for instance. He came to India in 1954, from Bishwambhapur village in Srihatta district. After living in a camp for four years, he has been rehabilitated in Jogani with twenty-one bighas of land. He and his two sons support a family of six or seven by working as peons and construction workers. The land they received lies fallow and unused.

In 1960, a loom had been opened in Jogani. It still exists but has lost its sheen. Work goes on at an irregular pace. Whenever the products made there accumulate, there is a pause in the work of daily wagers.

Currently, the only employment generator around Jogani is Borgaon Industrial Centre, about four or five miles from the village. Men and women from Jogani walk every day to work there. Among them, the daily wagers are the most disadvantaged. The work, low-paying as it is, doesn’t come with the guarantee of being available all through the year.

It was a Monday. The village, if one could call this desert-like place that, looked totally deserted. Besides shaaland mahua trees, there was no sign of green anywhere. Not even a pumpkin or bottle gourd patch that one saw in Mana’s camps. Mana has water, it has canals and ponds. Here, tube wells exist. Had paddy or any other crop grown on the land, the villagers would have pumped out water to cultivate some vegetables. But where is the time for that now! Every morning they must run to Borgaon in search of work. If only that could fill their bellies! But then, it’s possible that that the soil here is indeed barren.

I met a few people–none of them evinced any joy on having received land and a house for free. Actually, they got the money for their houses as a loan, which they needed to pay off once they were settled. But what settlement and what pay-off? With no place to go, they continue to stay here, in spite of all hardship. But they are not un-enterprising. They toil hard to make sure their children receive education. They would take up any work that comes their way. But the opportunities are so limited.

The very first step of the Dandakaranya settlement left me disappointed. In comparison, I was pleased to see Bijapur as part of my present trip. This was situated in Bastar too, but as a transit camp, not a village. As of March 15, 1965, 67 families stayed there.

There were only two tube wells in the entire camp. But a spot of green welcomed one to every hut. Bottle gourd and pumpkin vines climbed up the roofs of huts. Mounds of mahua flowers were spread out to dry in front of several houses. These would be boiled to make jaggery. This settlement was forest-dependant too. But the dense cluster of huts and the camp’s consistent population had imbued it with a lively atmosphere. The camp dwellers effused optimism. They dreamed of ascending to a better life — of farmland, house, agricultural loan, and the victory roll of produce brushing against plough.

Life is at work, everywhere. Saplings pierce cracked walls to sprout. Flowers bloom on mountain tops. I have even seen fish germinating in the city’s makeshift drains.

I enter a hut and find a young mother carrying her infant on her lap. It’s her first born. The young father, though excited, is also a bit distressed. Nights in Bastar are still quite chilly. The child doesn’t have any warm clothing. In many homes, I saw just kanthas and pillows for bedding. No one has quilts or blankets. Almost all these people arrived in India following the 1964 riots in Pakistan.

In an instant, that cabinet stuffed with blankets in Mana flashed before my eyes.

I ask the refugees, “Didn’t you get any blankets?”

“No, didimoni,” say the men and women in unison. “We only got woks, enamel plates, a bucket and a few such things. These were given to us in Sealdah station. We didn’t get anything after coming here.”

“You all came here through Mana, right?”

“Yes, didimoni.”

The path to enter Dandakaranya is through Mana—the headquarters of all transit camps and work centres of the project.

According to government statistics, refugees over the age of eight are provided sixteen rupees or clothing worth that amount. The record doesn’t mention how many times this happens; possibly only once. The record also notes the distribution of blankets.

“Woollen blankets may be supplied at the rate of one blanket per adult, subject to a maximum of three per family.” [Estimates Committee, (B.C. No. 412) 1964-65]

The blankets were meant for last year’s riot victims. These refugees belong to the same category. Why didn’t they get the blankets then?

The dole money the refugees receive isn’t enough to cover even two square meals a day, let alone allow for clothes. But leave aside government funds and statistics; the stash I saw in Mana came mostly from donations meant for refugees. If those blankets don’t come to these unfortunate people, have they been filled in almirahs just for the purpose of being displayed to VIPs?

In Mana, expecting mothers received yet another benefit. When a baby was born, the mother and her child got a set of new clothes. The women of Jogani aren’t as fortunate.

A gentleman accompanying me said, “Don’t believe everything they say. These people here are no less sly; they might have sold off the blankets.”

I know it is easier being the devil than the lord. But looking at their faces, it appeared improbable that so many male and female devils had landed here from East Bengal.

For argument’s sake, even if one accepted the gentleman’s proposition, the question remains as to why these people sold off the blankets. One can discount those who have left the camp. But those who have stayed back know very well how indispensable blankets are during winters here. They are also aware that it is impossible for them to find any alternative sources of combating the cold weather. If knowing this, they still sold off the blankets, it follows they must have done so out of extreme penury.

The British robbed India to add riches to its empire. And we have robbed our own poor of food and shelter–in the name of freedom.