Guest post by Rekha Karmakar

This post, written by Rekha Karmakar who blogs at Tabulous Mom, is a tribute to Amiya Sen, my grandmother, whom the blogger knew as a neighbour in Delhi more than five decades ago.

Story of a woman born about a century ago

A rough sketch of the layout of a chummery in Lodhi Colony (New Delhi) in the 1950s, from my distant memory, where Amiya Sengupta’s and our family lived

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.

Amiya Sen

‘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.

Saturday Mornings at the Language Class

First published in Saaranga

The generosity of a weekend morning
and a teacher’s unlocked house. Her
trust in us, somewhat excessive. To
leave the property to a bunch of inquisitive
adolescents; there, less for language
learning and more for the telephone to
make prank calls with, just a few, before
the elderly tutor arrived. To then settle
down on the sofa like monastic disciples
awaiting ordination. With the trail of lessons
moving through villages, bullock carts and
heaving rivers, to let the eye settle on a
glass cabinet housing pretty dolls in
traditional finery — Japanese, Bengali,
Rajasthani. The teacher’s off-school
diversion. After the class — a walkabout of
everything from the classics and satire to
home-brewed verses on bygone Saturday
mornings — pottering over to the dining table
to uncover surprises waiting in neat porcelain
saucers. Tea cakes, cookies, seasonal savouries.
Bribes the teacher cooked to entice some
not-so innocent teenagers to bite into the
mother tongue just a bit deeper.

Photo by Designecologist on Pexels.com

How I Miss You

First published in Saaranga

I miss you like I miss the memory
of things I once couldn’t forget if
I tried to. Like the leaves of the tree
under which the market presswallah

wielded his heavy iron on the entire
neighbourhood’s rumpled crease.
Like the minstrel’s khanjani, portable
cymbals of wistful supplication. I

miss you like the absent compressor
of our dysfunctional refrigerator, its
garish orange paint a reminder of
a well-wisher’s gigantic kindness

in selling us her relic. When it no longer
cooled water or made ice, Uncle made
It his secret cabinet for stashing the
diaries no one could read anyway.

Not even him. I miss you like the boy
Uncle must have once been, con brio,
wanting to love, seeking home. I miss you
like the illusory promise in the songs we

bellowed in school praising our nation, a
sordid country of uneven ladders. I miss
you the way we miss things not exactly
lost and no longer easily found.

MY MOTHER’S HEIR

I have thought of redoing
my hair many times. Imagined
pretty curls, bought a curler that
travels with me to places and
comes back in the suitcase, unused.
Or that smart-look, snappy boy-cut
That bold and edgy women don with
spunk. At the very least make it
shoulder length and leave it
open sometimes? I hear friends whisper,
“Come on, try it, it’ll grow back.”
I know this is true because when
my hairstylist — the husband — cut it
shorter than I had requested, it actually grew back.
On YouTube, I ceaselessly watch videos to learn
the art of a French roll and the French braid. I vow
to practice and get them right. Then I
go to the mirror and pull my hair into
a plain braid. Exactly like
my mother has done forever. There is
Wisdom in knowing a single plait tied
Well can save you from many bad
Hair days.

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.

 

Balancing yin and yang in Coyoacan

First published in Cafe Dissensus Everyday

It’s the third day of our visit to Mexico City – also the first working day since we landed here. I’ve yet to recover from a severe case of food poisoning, but don’t want to spoil our plans to visit Frida Kahlo’s and Leon Trotsky’s houses in Coyoacan – situated practically at the other end of the city. We decide to take a cab, our first on this trip. The cab driver exudes the friendliness characteristic of his ilk and offers us candy and bottled water. And he brings us to La Casa Azul, Frida Kahlo’s Blue House – now a museum.

Only when we reach the gate do we realize our cabbie friend probably chose not to mention that the museum remains closed on Mondays. I’m too exhausted from the stomach bug but lurch on to follow my husband to Trotsky House, some six minutes away. Same luck there – a closed gate greets us. Having skipped breakfast, I’m as dizzy and disoriented as I’m disappointed at the wasted taxi ride. By now I’m so famished, I fear I might faint. We walk a few paces and notice a cafe and step inside. It’s a small place with no more than four tables. At one table, three ladies – all in their sixties — appear to be the only other customers.

One of them gets up and says to us, “Welcome, come on in. Please have a seat.”

As we make ourselves comfortable, she asks us what we would like to eat. “Tea, coffee?”

My husband glances at me and says, “Tea for you?”

I’m still a bit dizzy to respond, but the word, ‘tea’, stimulates me — this is the first time I’ve heard it uttered in a restaurant in Mexico City. I nod yes and manage to mutter, “And toast.”

“Tea and toast for you,” the lady says. “And for you?” she asks my husband.

“Cafe Americano,” he says.

His choice lights up her face. “Aha! Americano – that’s how we drink our coffee here!”

Even as black coffee forges that initial bond, the other two ladies convince my husband to have scrambled eggs with tomatoes and onions with black beans on the side – the Mexican way.

The lady who took our order moves to the kitchen to guide a young man managing the cooking. One of her two friends asks us where we are from.

“India,” my husband says and goes on to tell them how similar he finds India and Mexico to be, despite the two countries being situated on the opposite sides of the globe. The houses, markets, the trees and the people all remind us of home, we tell them.

The lady nods and says smilingly, “Yes, countries with beautiful people. Beautiful like women.” She winks at my husband and adds, “And like men, too.”

I notice some of my disappointment stemming from missing the museums is wearing off. The young man emerges from the kitchen with my tea. The bag of tea steeping in a cup of hot water is one I’m not familiar with but find refreshing, especially as I sip it with bites of the biscuit the ladies have shared with us – tasting exactly like Marie biscuits sold in India.

The motherly lady arrives with a plate containing my order. The two pieces of crisp, well-done toast, along with the black tea, are just what the doctor ordered for me.

She settles down with her friends as they ask us where all we’ve been so far.

“The Centro Historio (historical district), Zocalo, the National Palace to see Diego Rivera’s murals, La de Ciudadela – the artisan market…,” my husband rolls off.

The women suggest other places like the museums of popular art and anthropology.

We mention our plan to visit the Teotihuacan pyramids the next day.

“Oh yes, you must go there,” one of them says, adding, “be sure to keep your wallets safe, though.”

“Oh, we know that,” my husband says. “It’s the same way in India.”

“It is,” the lady who took our order confirms with a smile. She should know, for she visited India three years ago – Delhi and Rajasthan.

As we eat our breakfast, one of the ladies informs us the three of them are part of a tai-chi group. The maternal lady, who, by now we’ve figured out to be the cafe owner, happens to be their teacher.

“You have yin and yang,” says her chatty friend, pointing to my earrings.

“I do,” I say, pondering on the strange balances of the morning – the sickness and the comfort of the taxi ride, the closed museums and the restorative breakfast, missing Frida and getting acquainted with such an interesting sisterhood of Mexican women.

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“And I have this, too,” I lift my shawl to reveal Che Guevara’s face on my t-shirt.

“I saw that,” our chatty friend responds, her face suddenly grim. “I don’t like him,” she mutters.

I pull my shawl back up immediately and say, “That’s why I’m hiding him.”

Her grin returns.

This is the first conversation, a real conversation we’ve had since coming to this city of lovely Hispanic people. And been fed breakfast in true home style, complete with the right balance of humour, hospitality and Mexican warmth.

As we get ready to take our leave, the tai-chi teacher says, “You have to return to Coyoacan. You can’t leave without meeting Frida.”

“We will,” we promise.

The third friend, the quietest of them all, stops us as we move towards the exit. She insists on giving us a ride in her car to the central spot in Coyoacan.

Photo-credit: Bhaswati Ghosh

After the Party

First published in The Ham Free Press

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The lips of the bald man, as he speaks of the “Indians and Pakistanis” he sees at the tennis court, curves into a sly smile. My racism detector picks up the snigger that sneaks through his lament on the status of those work-visa immigrants whose kids get Canadian citizenship by virtue of their birth. After the party, I recall how he tried to herd folks from the subcontinent into “all those IT workers.”

As he keeps probing my husband on his career track, the soft September evening makes me gravitate towards the late-arriving “immigrant.” The Muslim lady from Delhi. We relay hometown bonhomie with hugs and she tells me about her Bengali family — the one from Noakhali she married into. Her geologist husband had shifted base to teach at Aligarh Muslim University. She followed his trail from Delhi to Dubai, where he worked. Later she would migrate to Ontario as a widow with her two children. After the party, I think how, like her husband, she, too learned to measure the worth of soil as she brought up her son and the daughter–now an engineer and a doctor–by cleaning and decorating the finger and toe nails of customers at a salon.

The evening lulls us with its whispers, broken only by the whistle of the kettle the hostess is boiling tea in. Most of the guests have left after ingesting the aromatic lamb curry and saffron rice. We are left, along with the mildly immigrant-allergic man and his wife–beekeepers outside their corporate lives. The over-milked, boiled-to-death tea arrives. The host talks about how the British left behind a legacy of high-tea in the Indian subcontinent. The beekeeper woman shares her knowledge of the same, gleaned off a British historical novel. Her husband asks me and my husband about the type of English we were taught in schools in India. I talk about how it was much different from the American English the internet would later expose me to. After the party, the incredulous, near horrified look on the woman’s face as I told her about a generation of Pakistani writers using the English language with a subcontinental flourish, flashes before me.

The Bulldozer (short story)

First published in Warscapes

I was sleeping when suddenly it started banging inside my ears, and I jumped up on the bed. As I looked out of the window, I could see the egg-yolk sun in the sky. Just then, Ab came running up to me, grabbed my arm and took me outside. Everything was broken all around us—big chunks of stones and concrete. As I walked out with Ab, I saw Umm standing outside the door. She was crying. Then I saw the fat blue bulldozer walking away—the monster machine that always smashed the walls of our homes.

When I came inside, I couldn’t find Husna on the bed. I dug under the pillow and bed sheet to look for her, but she wasn’t there. When I looked around, I saw everything mixed up on the floor. The calendar, the wall clock, which was broken, my favourite flower vase with Umm’s beautiful flower painting, Ab’s books, his glasses—everything was on the floor. I looked for my doll, but couldn’t see Husna in the mess. The walls were cracked and pieces of them were lying in the mix too.

*          *        *

I ran to Umm in the kitchen. She was boiling water for tea and making toast. I asked her, “Where is Husna? She’s not on the bed.”

“We’ll find her, sweetheart. Where could she go? She must be hiding somewhere in the mess.” Umm said with a smile, but I knew she was sad. The smile didn’t light her whole face like when she was really happy.

“Are we going to a new camp again?” I asked her.

“I guess so.”

“And my birthday? You said we will have a special celebration this time…” My voice cracked a bit as I said this, but Umm came closer to me, held my chin up and said, “That’s not like my Rasha. Of course, we’ll celebrate! We still have a week. Things will be fine, my angel.”

“Why do the bulldozer people break our homes all the time?”

“I wish I knew, Rasha. And I wish they knew themselves.”

I feel scared when Umm talks like that, when she doesn’t give me a straight answer and looks all so glum. So I asked her an easier question.

“When are we going to the camp?”

“Let’s see. Marouf uncle will come with some of his friends and tell us. Come, let’s eat something now. Would you go and call your Ab?”

So I ran back, then crossed the messy room on tip toes and walked out. There, Ab sat over some piled up concrete. He was holding his head in his hands. I went over to him, but his face was down, so he couldn’t see me.

“Ab,” I say, not too loud, “Come, Umm is calling you for breakfast.”

Ab looked up and held my hand. He squeezed them real tight. I found it funny that his palms were wet. I told him about Husna. He didn’t say anything, but hugged me to his chest. Then he got up, still holding my hand, and we walked back toward our home. Just before entering, I saw Husna’s head near the broken door. I quickly picked it up and started to look for her body, but couldn’t find it anywhere. I felt so terrible that I wanted to cry, but looking at Ab, I didn’t. He let out a big, deep breath.

At breakfast, all three of us were quiet. Just like we are every time the bulldozer people come and blow up our homes. Umm and Ab looked at each other a few times, then Ab turned his face away and looked out of the door.

Soon, Marouf uncle and his friends came over. Ab went out with them, and they all sat down on small stools Umm placed for them. I looked from the door—the faces of all the uncles were so sad, even though they never lost a doll like I did.

*          *        *

The new camp is so crowded. We now have just one small room in which we eat, sleep, do school work, and it’s the same room in which Umm has to cook too. And the stink from the open drains makes me feel sick in the stomach. There are no olive trees around either, and I miss those too.

It’s a new day, and Ab walks me to school. On our way, he stops before another crumbled building. That’s the hospital where he works. All the doctor uncles are his friends and give him medicines for free. I would be happier if they gave him ghraybehs instead, although I know nobody can make better ghraybehs than Umm.

Ab studied math at school and says he does counting work at the hospital, so they call him the accountant there. I count pretty well too, but the hospital won’t have kids as staff.

He looks at the broken hospital building quietly for some time and then turns away and slaps his forehead. I hold his hand, and when he turns around to look at me, I see tears falling on his blue shirt. The first time ever I see my Ab crying—I am so very scared.

I came back from school early—they let us leave because there were so few children today. Teacher Nabeeha dropped me and a few other girls back home. She is my favourite teacher, and I am happy she is also living in the new camp with us.

Just when I reach the door, I can hear Umm and Ab talking. Umm’s hand is over Ab’s shoulder and she says, “Don’t worry, Raed. It’s all God’s will. Insha’Allah, you will find work soon.”

“I guess God would want to employ us in his heaven only now. I don’t see any hope in this dark land.”

“Don’t say that, Raed. Look at our Rasha. Just a child. Is ten even an age to see all this? Yet she smiles, plays with her broken doll.”

I can tell Umm is going to cry any time now. Just then I think of my birthday and feel real sad. I guess we won’t have a party this year too. Last year I had fever so we couldn’t call my friends to play and sing songs. Umm had baked a yummy cake, though, and she also made such fantastic chicken fatteh and cream pudding that Ab and I were licking our fingers like we had never eaten food before.

I feel bad thinking about my birthday when Umm and Ab are so worried…

At dinner, Umm smiles and tells me, “You know what? Daddy has decided to come with a grand surprise on your birthday. And the best dress you’ve ever seen–a shawal at that. With embroidery as heavy as my lady has never seen. How is that?”

Shawal! I flash what Ab calls my “million candles smile” and hug him. He smiles and pats me on the back. He doesn’t say anything though.

I think of the new shawal as long as I am awake that night.

*          *        *

Ab has been gone for two days now—to get my new dress. I feel worried he’s taking so long to come back. It’s only to the next town he has gone. I ask Umm about him, she says, he would be back soon. But I know she’s just trying to make me feel good. Her eyes tell me she is searching for something real hard. She doesn’t tell me this, but I know it’s Ab she is looking for.

It’s my birthday today. Umm wakes me up with a kiss on my forehead. I smile to her, rub my eyes, yawn a bit, then stretch myself and get up. Umm asks me to close my eyes. Then she places something soft in my hands. When I open my eyes, I see a new doll! It’s a cloth one; she wears a pink frock with blue satin laces. So beautiful!

When did Umm make that? I never got to know even. I name her Falak and ask Umm if I can carry my new baby to school. Umm smiles and nods her head.

I walk back from school with my friend Diab and her Umm. On our way back, I only think of Ab and my new shawal. All my friends would come to our room for dinner tonight. Oh, can I wait that long?

But when I reach home, Ab still hasn’t come back. Umm is really worried and is crying. Hana aunty, our neighbor, holds her and says everything will be fine, Insha’Allah. She then gives food to Umm and me, but Umm only nibbles at the bread and keeps looking out of the door. I don’t feel like eating.

Just as we are about to finish lunch, I see Marouf uncle on the door. He has a few more people with him. I can see a big box. Marouf uncle has big strong hands–he is a porter and hauls heavy things every day. But I never thought one day he would carry a box with my Ab sleeping inside it.

Marouf uncle looks at Umm and asks her to come out. Umm scurries out, and I leave my plate to wash my hands. Then I run outside. I see Umm sitting on the ground, her head on the box. It’s a coffin, I now see. Umm is crying so loud and hard, it scares me, and I start sobbing too. I sit down next to her and ask her, “What happened? Why are you crying? Where is Ab?”

Umm holds me tight, and says, “He’s gone to God’s house, sweetheart…”

I know what that means. It means now Ab will never come back…ever. I never thought this was the surprise Ab was planning for me.

Marouf uncle tells Umm that Ab was returning with my shawal, when the police held him at the checkpoint. They asked for his ID card, and while he was still searching it in his pocket, one of them just took out a gun and…

Could You Please, Please Stop Singing? Book Review

Could You Please, Please Stop Singing?
Sabyasachi Nag
Mosaic Press
Available at: http://www.mosaic-press.com/product/could-you-please-please-stop-singing/

Review by: Bhaswati Ghosh

First published at http://www.citrusmag.com/#!bookwarm/ddvnt

It’s a sobering morning as I write this. My Facebook feed is flushed with faces wearing the French flag, quotes denouncing horrific events that shook the world, and raging debates on selective outrage. The world is reacting to the violence that has Beirut and Paris mourning hundreds of people — denizens and tourists — who lost their lives in serial bomb blasts.

Tired and benumbed, I turn to a different window on my computer screen — to read Sabyasachi Nag’s poems from his latest collection, Could You Please, Please Stop Singing?

When words — even prayers — do little to palliate the mind, “Mamuda’s Fries,” Nag’s first poem in the collection, brings me warmth with its textual imagery. It’s a simple poem on the face of it — about a father returning home with fries for his family at the end of a draining work day. The batter singes like the rest/of his walk. Yet, as he closes it off, Nag manages to frame in the poem an everyday family portrait that transports you to a comforting spot.

When the fries come,/they let them sit a while, radiant/on the puffed rice, then the stories/roll, greased, like the wheels/of a worn ritual.

What it is that we really mourn when mass attacks happen? The loss of life and innocence, for sure, but do we not also feel aggrieved for all the possibilities of “worn rituals” that are thwarted by the untimely ceasing of the rolling of stories Nag talks about? In trying to grapple with brutalities, somewhere we probably also feel the loss of the mundane sinews that bind the core of our daily lives – the smile that brings us home, the bric-a-bracs that feed our memory as comfort food does our palate.

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This soft pulse of relationships throbs throughout Nag’s poetry. The book is dedicated to his father, and it isn’t difficult to see why. The bond between a father and his son echo in many a poem. In “Sweat”, a father’s homecoming is celebrated by his son with games even as his departure is etched in sensory notifications – duffle bags, polished shoes, but also “Chewed betel from his breath.” And, of course, there’s his sweat.

The air will be naked soon./For one more day, his sweat/will linger in the wardrobe /and the laundry room.

In “Wheels”, a prose poem that reads like a journal signposting a father’s life cycle through five decades, from a hardworking man whose square shoulders evenly stretched under the weight of fish and produce he routinely brought home to compensate for long absences … to someone pulled down by gravity, stooped over the curved, steel handle bars of the red rollator, leaving nothing to chance, as always, trying his hardest to make the wheels turn, turn… Here, Nag at once encapsulates the mechanics of middle class life with a child’s exhilaration of having

him (the father) back from the trains and morbid news as well as the works of physiological aging, which, despite all denial or resistance, pulls one into its inevitability.

The wheel of bonding between the poet and his father keeps turning as Nag chronicles the growing up of his own son. The same wisp of endearment marks these poems, as also perhaps, the same yearnings and the gaps that separate them. Nine and he keeps his laces flailing./Is that an attitude thing? Nag asks in “Absent”, then answers, He thinks them– laces, have needs/to write on puddles, tangle with weeds/drag the dirt, sometimes swallow/pollen, ragweed, dander – be out of sorts. The father’s wonder and happiness on his son entering his teen years is poised by steady genealogical conviction. he leapt like a lemming almost into his own/

and all that hair on his legs and underarms/cannot convince me yet,/he will grow up to be much taller than me.

Like relationships, a number of motivations inform and bear upon Nag’s thematic range and expression. Food is a prominent trigger, and while reading some of the poems in this collection, I couldn’t help but admire the poet’s facility with cooking and the secrets the kitchen can reveal about life in general. How else could he know this about the “Fine Art of Chapattis”? Roll them to the shape of moon,/Mars, continents, faces of gods,/feelings, fear... and Serve hot and buttered, just when hunger/is in the same room as lust. In “Reasoning”, which sounds curiously similar to “seasoning,” Nag blurs the line between gods and devils, even to the extent of provoking one to examine whether there’s a line that distinguishes the two entities at all. Asafoetida is at once god’s flavour/and devil’s shit – attractive to moths/wolves, believers//There must be a reason –//why dharma and pot mix without particle blenders/temples polish stairwells with milk/and silver is smoked in myrrh.

Coming from Calcutta, where the urban poor share the cityscape with the richest of the rich, Nag writes about the subaltern often in Could You Please, Please Stop Singing? Even as he contextualizes the lives of the underdog, he remains sensitive not to smudge the dignity that is mostly denied to them. A poem I haven’t been able to shake out of me is “A City House Help Returns Home”. Self-explanatory as the title is, the poem reminds one of the many young house helps in India and the blank, tear-wiped look one sees on their faces. Nag doesn’t stop with mere observation, though. He seems to penetrate that vacuous look as he talks about a young boy returning home on a break from his city job. Between servings of gruel and green/chili, salt and a splash of mustard oil –/he’s scared someone will ask:/what brings ya back? Having posed the little boy’s dilemma — sad as it is — Nag answers it with words that strike like a whiplash: His little brother who/ works in the pickle farm,/his cousin who climbs coconut trees,/his friends who smoke the berry hives –/they know.

Could You Please, Please Stop Singing? is a very urban collection. The stress, grime and anxieties of city life are palpable, even viscerally felt in a number of poems. In “Through Uneven Slats — a Riot” Nag says, Rush for news, rush for bread,/rush around clots, rush past mangled hair,/rush through smoke, and smoke. “The New Enemy” speaks about the contempt for the urban poor in a language so raw, it hurts you with its force. Nag plays on Robert Pinksy’s line “A country is the things it wants to see” when he says A country is the things it wants you to not see./So a finger snaps crying out for a sledge hammer/itching to drive a nail into her bulbous head, smash her chiseled rib cage,/Whac–a–mole her deep into the shit hole/so she doesn’t slime back out again –

The spectre of violence – riots, terror attacks, even break-ins – punctuates the collection with uneasy periodicity, compelling one to acknowledge the political thrust that drives the poet. He draws this thrust from diverse sources – Badal Sarkar’s play “Ebong Indrajit,” the Indian mythology, world literature and more. The violence he talks about isn’t just external. In the poem that bears the book’s title, which, in turn is inspired by a line in Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “Hills Like White Elephants”, Nag denudes the violence that often rages inside the human mind. The poem, reflecting on the impact of the singing of a busker woman in a train has on the narrator, verbalizes the voices that speak within us – in turmoil and clamouring disquiet. In a train you are alone with a young busker./She sings of loveless nights, an endless moon–washed/river on the other side of the planet./ On hunches, supine/she touches her scummy finger nails to your knees,/shocks you with static.

Nag ends the poem with words that reverberate like the plunk of a train rolling on a track. Why does the train abruptly stop?/Why is the revolutionary walking out the door? The honesty of Nag’s poem lies in his not offering an answer. In its vulnerability.

And although it might sound sweeping, those very attributes – honesty and vulnerability – define the collection as a whole and make Nag’s a voice worth returning to.