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.

 

Book review: How I Became a Tree

First published in Cafe Dissensus Everyday

Title: How I Became a Tree
Author: Sumana Roy
Publisher: Aleph Book Co.

PrintI was in primary school when I first heard trees talk. On my way to school every day as I sat by the window of our school bus, leaf-laden branches of trees sashayed as the bus zipped past them. I was convinced this was the trees’ way of sending me off to school with a bunch of good wishes. On still, humid days, when my green friends didn’t seem as enthusiastic, I feared about the mood of the day facing me. Though brief, this moment of intimacy with the trees lining the one-way separators on South Delhi roads, was crucial for the emotional subsistence of a lonely child like me. For Sumana Roy, the necessity of this bonding – with plant life, with trees, swaying or still – is so acute that she wishes to morph into one. And sort of does. How I Became a Tree is the story of that astonishing transformation.

But why this overwhelming desire to become a tree? Roy’s discontent with her human form is not so much biological as it is psychogenic. The two corollaries of modern life that disturb her most – excessive noise and speed – are the very things trees counterpoise with defiant ease. Early on in her intuitive journey, the author discovers tree time – a moment distilled in past- and future-less clarity. Trees teach her to let go of her slavish relationship with conceptual (man-made) time and relax in the moment. She notices the impartial kindness of the tree – equal in its dissemination of oxygen, shade, flower, and fruits to the gardener as well as the woodcutter.

The need for association with nature isn’t new. For long, it has been the favoured route for those on a spiritual quest. There are extensive records of sages and philosophers renouncing the material trip to go inside forests and sit by lakes, in search of answers only solitude can retrieve. What makes Roy’s quest deliciously different is her part-lover, part-parent, and part-playmate relationship with trees. She even becomes a tree sleuth – recording their “vocalizations” – “I had, in frustration with industrial noise and human verbosity, mistaken trees as silent creatures. My experiments with the sound recorder had brought about a new realization – that trees shared a natural sound with people.” She engages with trees in other interesting ways – by getting X-rays of tree trunks and by turning dead trees into sculptures. All these experiments grow deeper the roots of Roy’s conviction about the interchangeability of trees and human figures. She begins listening to human voices in relation to their tonal proximity to the sound of leaves in the wind. Her own skin becomes the bark of a tree and she imagines her bones getting rearranged for her to acquire a tree form.

In loving trees, Roy doesn’t forget the shadow world. In fact, by her own admission, her relationship with trees is shaped largely by their shadows. In a chapter curiously titled A Brief History of Shadows, she rues how shadows are unceremoniously left out of history books and archives and, through personal reminiscences and her reading of Roy Sorensen’s Seeing Dark Things: The Philosophy of Shadows, she eloquently makes the case for studying shadows for the things they can reveal. For me, though, her observation of what tree shadows withhold, or rather, erase, is of even more stunning import. “…The shadows of trees obliterate specificity, the colour of bark and leaves and flower and fruit. Just like the shadows of humans do not reflect race, class, or religion.”

As her disenchantment with modern industrial routine grows, the author is compelled to examine the stitches of mythology and scriptures, literature, philosophy, and art – to find threads of the human-tree convertibility phenomenon. Greek and Roman mythology tell her how women turned into trees to escape violence, human violence. Reading these episodes chillingly remind one, as they do Roy, of young Dalit women being raped and then hung from trees in present-day India. But she also finds “sahrydayas” (Sanskrit for soulmate or sharer of the soul) – humans who have shared her own kinship with trees. One of them is the artist Nandalal Bose who, while articulating his thoughts on drawing trees, remarkably compared their features and even personalities to those of humans.

Then there is Rabindranath Tagore – with both his extensive work with trees in Santiniketan and his personal anaclisis to plants. Like most plant lovers, he misses his plant relatives when he’s away on a trip and writes letters to human caretakers to look after them. It is only natural then for the universe of his writing to be populated by plant metaphors. Roy sees in his works illustrations of trees becoming doubles of humans and gardens turning into both accomplices in aiding stolen love and partners in avenging lost love. The chapter, “Studying Nature”, brings to the reader Tagore’s organic vision for spreading the joy of nature among the students of his school-cum-university, Visva-Bharati. The focus of the nature study module isn’t so much on the science of ecology, as Roy discovers, but on fostering an easy kinship with nature from which the industrial machinery threatens to pull the children away. “What his students inherited through his course was a sense of trees as participant, friend, and neighbour, in the ongoing drama of life…,” concludes Roy with endearing empathy.

For a tree lover in the pursuance of her treehood, the journey cannot be complete without entering a forest. Part VII of How I Became a Tree, titled “Lost in the Forest” was a personal delight for me. I have experienced several lost-in-the-forest moments myself, richer in the losing every time. Roy’s own love affair with the forest bears this out with succulent relish. She argues how the very act of walking inside the forest has to be an act of total surrender – one must intentionally lose oneself when surrounded by the “paralyzing restfulness” of a forest. She returns to Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s forest-centred novel Aranyak to unearth the mystery of man’s tense relationship with the forest. It is at once a place for finding repose as it is a resource to be exploited. Staying inside a forest all by herself enables Roy to experience the commune of trees, their shunning of individual prominence. In this, she recognizes her own treeness, given her indifference to fame and its exhibitionism.

Roy finds more soul sharers – as a plant parent in the polymath scientist, Jagadish Chandra Bose – who conducted numerous experiments to prove plants can feel and communicate; in the Buddha whose persona is essentially inseparable from the Bodhi tree under which he’s believed to have found enlightenment; and in poets, philosophers, and photographers who saw embedded in the barks and branches of trees reflections of their own self. And that is how Roy eventually turns into a tree. She imagines herself to be the Ashoka tree – A-shoka, sorrowless, as she segments the tree name.

On a personal note, Roy has taught me to love plant life in a deeper, more joyous way. Shortly before I wrote this, my partner took out a leafy indoor plant to the patio to feed it sunlight (as Roy would put it). The delicate plant died from the sudden shock. I have mourned the loss of plants before, but this was post How I Became a Tree, and I bawled my lungs out. Then, once the tears let up, I remembered I had once snipped a part of the plant and placed it in a jar of water, where it grew roots. I brought that part out of the jar and planted it in the pot that now carried the dead roots. It was almost as if someone had nudged me to do this – to bring the plant back to life.

That’s when I realized Sumana Roy isn’t merely a tree; she’s a plant whisperer.

How I Became a Tree is available on Amazon 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.

Dear Spring

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You might hide behind the clouds
and sprinkle snow in place of sun
But the birds, they can see you fine,
come out, there is no place to run.

True, the trees are still all bare
and the ground is missing shades of green,
but birdcalls herald happy tidings
and sing aloud, “Spring is in!”

Seize this day while you can
show us how to make it right
the things you need are easy enough,
tulips, fresh sprigs and sunlight.

Afternoon Meditations

A year ago, as a potential resident of London, ON, I spent a gorgeous summer afternoon in Victoria Park. My husband was coming to the city for his final round of a job interview, and I tagged along, just in case we didn’t get a chance to visit the city again. Sitting in this expansive park that afternoon, I contemplated what it would be like to live in London. As I complete a year in the forest city, here are my impressions from a summer ago.

London

A children’s festival is in progress in Victoria Park. I sit on a bench and see squirrels and birds engaging in mini battles over morsels.

Squirrels scamper in ceaseless motion–climbing up and down trees, scurrying across the grass, pausing in wonderment for a few seconds before taking off again.

Dogs, kids in strollers enjoy free walks, rides.

Church bells ring; lunch-goers emerge from offices, heading to big and small eateries to satiate the hunger god.

A man sprawls on the grass, reading a newspaper.

Beside me, on the bench, the pages of a national daily flutter in midsummer’s breeze, letting go of the heaviness of yesterday’s news.

Under a tree, a girl sits alone, ear-phones plugged into her natural audio sockets.

I turn behind and find a brown squirrel looking at me intently.

A young couple sleeps on the grass, embracing each other, oblivious of the world around them.

Alien Winter — II

“Let my love like sunlight surround you
and give you illumined freedom.”
~ Rabindranath Tagore

Sunshine isn’t an easy paramour.

In my hometown,
it spills over in
volcanic excess–
scorching land,
human bodies,
cattle and crops,

even as it gently
rocks the hills
with its undulating dance
on terraced tea gardens.

Yet in this frosty city,
it plays hard to get.
Deaf to pleas,
appearing on whim,
the hometown beau
avenges yesterday’s curses
by spurning today’s
advances.

Sunshine is a tricky lover.

Also see Alien Winter — I

Alien Winter — III