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
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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.

Togetherness and moist memories — two recent poems

Togetherness Formulae

(first published in Anti Serious)

Chatter until it’s banter
Shadow and
be shadowed.

Expect, so you can
accept. Sing at your
own risk.

Make play of work,
it helps keep scores.

Love, snore, engage, detach
Talk dreams and work woes.

Nibble together
on sunshine and serendipity,
aged wine and fish music.

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

Thirsty 

(first published in Open Road Review)

Birdcall will start soon. The room will gather
echoes of a backyard drifting across seas.

The moistness of memory blotches the seen, the felt,
making them apparitions of the once-seen, once-felt.

The neighbour plants bitter leaf to mix in her
tropical fish soup. The ocean surges in her dry throat.

Open the southern window. Hoard unending
afternoons before they get frost-bitten.

Let sleep hang in the air while a
spotted dove returns with stolen monsoon.