Book Review: Love and the Turning Seasons – India’s Poetry of Spiritual & Erotic Longing

I recently had the opportunity tot read “Love and the Turning Seasons,” an exquisite collection of bhakti poetry in translation from Aleph. I wrote about it in Kitaab.

Love and the Turning Seasons

Title: Love and the Turning Seasons – India’s Poetry of Spiritual & Erotic Longing
Edited by Andrew Schelling
Publisher: Aleph
Pages: 294
Price: ₹399

I left shame behind,

took as an ornament
the mockery of local folk.
Unswerving, I lost my cleverness
in the bewilderment of ecstasy.

— Manikkavacakar (9thcentury), Tr. A.K. Ramanujan

In a lover’s enraptured world, love is the breeze that strips one, quite simply, of the garment of shame. In reading Love and the Turning Seasons, the newest offering from Aleph Classics, a series that aims to bring new translations of India’s literary heritage, the reader is swept in that denuding breeze. Edited by Andrew Schelling, the collection of poems bears the slightly beguiling subtitle, India’s Poetry of Spiritual & Erotic Longing. I say beguiling because it would seem like the poems could fall in either category – spiritual or erotic. In reality, as Manikkavacakar, the ninth-century Shiva devotee tells us, the line between the two states is as diaphanous as air itself. For, in the “bewilderment of ecstasy”, who is left to distinguish between the flesh and the spirit? This seamless merging of the body and the soul is at the heart of this anthology of bhakti poetry, translated by various poets and literary translators.

Love and the Turning Seasons alights upon the reader as a songbird to take her across time and space – from the sixth century (barring the Isa Upanishad) right up to the twentieth, on an anticlockwise path beginning in the south of India and ending in the east. Despite the multiplicity of expressions of the bhaktas or poet-minstrels, informed as they were by specific cultural and regional parlance, what unifies them is their rejection of societal norms in their unwavering quest for the divine. These were among the first true radicals in the Indian context, repudiating, with delightful contempt, tradition and convention. Gender-bending, caste-subverting, these individuals lived and (even) died on their own terms and sang of the divine with ariose abandonment. As Lal Ded, another Shiva devotee from Kashmir said,

Who instructed you, O Brahmin,
to cut this sheep’s throat—
to placate a lifeless stone?

— Lal Ded (early 1300s), Tr. Andrew Schelling

 

The Sanskrit word bhakti means devotion and has come to connote intense, even blind idolatry, and in these troublingly skewed times, bhakta (devotee) has become a bad word, an uncomplimentary term for blind followers of certain ideologies, political or otherwise. As the anthology affirms through its diverse voices, the bhakti poets were anything but blind in their devotion.

Read the rest in Kitaab.

 

 

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.

BG2

“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

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…

Book Review: Rashida Murphy’s ‘The Historian’s Daughter’

First published in Cafe Dissensus

Title: The Historian’s Daughter
Author: Rashida Murphy
Publisher: UWA Publishing, 2016

The Historian’s Daughter could well have been titled The House of Secrets. Isn’t that what a “house with too many windows and women” is likely to be? The historian in question is the father of Hannah, the novel’s secret-digging young protagonist. Throughout the first-person narrative, she refers to her father as the Historian because of his real-life profession and her mother as the Magician due to her spell-inducing sweetness. Why then isn’t the book called The Magician’s Daughter? That’s a secret Hannah must accidentally come upon, and one that her creator Rashida Murphy guards with skilled control as she takes the reader on a voyage spanning familial and political upheavals and migrations across continents and personal mind maps.

Hannah’s fetish for secret busting is a natural function of her environment. History is the kernel wrapped in its homonym cousin – mystery. Both mystery and history flow freely in Hannah’s house in the hills, which she shares with her parents, older sister Gloria, brothers, Warren and Clive and her numerous aunts who come visiting and stay put for extended periods of time. Her historian father’s library – one he has inherited from his “despicable” British father – is the first depository that would trigger, and in time train, her sleuthing skills. A series of books on the English “conquistadors” of India sets her off on her quest to understating and even confronting the past, however unsettling.

The dramas and dark corners of family life dominate the early part of Hannah’s – and the book’s – world. While she’s happy to be under Gloria’s elder-sisterly wings and bask in the Magician’s affection, what makes her recoil at the sight of her father is a muddied phantasm the reader must, like Hannah, uncover in layers. This is also the part of the novel that brims with Persian fragrances – black tea with mint and carrot halwa; and with fables – of heroes Rustom and Sohrab, which the Magician reads to her daughters and of Rani, a less-than-heroic aunt dubbed crazy and living practically under house arrest.

The dynamics of this universe of chaotic delight changes forever when Sohrab, an Iranian young man – enters the scene. An acquaintance of Farah, the Magician, Sohrab bears about him an uneasy wind – that of the turmoil sweeping through Iran during the period of the country’s revolution in the late 1970s.

As with seeds that winds disperse all over the place, the lives of Hannah and her family get scattered, and Hannah finds herself in Australia as an immigrant. Transplanted without the nourishing support of her mother or sister, it is in Perth that Hannah has to find her own bearings. This is also where she finds love as well as a reason to return to the continent she came from – first in Iran in search of her sister, then in India to look for the Magician. Through it all, she must not only witness but also endure – hardship and the excesses of revolutions; cruel family secrets and the maturing of love, loveless hearts and an infant’s unbridled affection. The story in this part oscillates between physical and mental spaces as Hannah negotiates the distance between her present and her memories. The narrative feels somewhat jerky at times, perhaps not too different from the rugged emotional terrain Hannah herself treads through.

Through it all, Hannah also finds her own voice as a woman – one that’s not shaped or seasoned by the stronger women of her childhood. She’s funny and sharp, confident, and vulnerable – a mass of real flesh and blood. She is bold but her courage isn’t about an absence of fear. It is about running with – not away from – fear. She’s impulsive and a passionate lover, but most of all, she’s a baton-bearer of the two women who she first learned to love from – her mother and sister. This is what makes The Historian’s Daughter a remarkably feminist novel in the garb of a family saga. Rashida Murphy is clear about fashioning it so, whether it is by making Gloria prevent Hannah’s genital mutilation by their aunt; the girls’ mother staging her own silent rebellion; or Hannah’s firmness in chasing her convictions, regardless of self-doubt and social pressure. These are strong women who aren’t afraid to acknowledge their weaknesses. 

The Historian’s Daughter engages as much with its plot twists as with its honesty and narrative sweep. The language is crisp, the imagery vibrant, and the plotlines like stable trellises for the vines they support. This is Murphy’s first book and, for me, a wellspring of promise and anticipation. The malleability with which her love of history, research, politics, and storytelling meld into a whole makes her a writer to look forward to.

‘The Historian’s Daughter’ is available on: Amazon.com

Immigrant’s Postcard: The Game

Read other Immigrant’s Postcards here.

She is petite, her skin a burnished coffee tone. Ever smiling, this beautiful Ethiopian woman is a janitor and my friend. We chat about her weeknight chores and weekend plans. She tells me about her gang of girlfriends, the one that’s stuck together for 14 years, the one that meets every month for a potluck or a fun outing.

“No husbands or kids,” she tells me. The rules of the game are uncompromisingly clear. The women, all hardworking immigrants from Ethiopia, earn this–their day of leisure–and they wouldn’t let encumbrances of domesticity ruin it.

I point to her braided hair and request her to teach me how to do it. Not a problem she says, flashing her toothy smile.

The next time we run into each other, I find her extra animated .

“Did you see Survivor? On TV last night?” she asks me.

I nod in the negative. We don’t have cable, so I don’t get to watch that show.

“You know, there is an Indian girl in it. You’re from India, right?”

“Yes,” I nod.

“Oh my god–she is so good. She has a good strategy, she is smart…she knows how to get there. We are all wishing for her to win.”

I have no idea of the show she is talking about.

But I know she is right.

Survivor — that’s a game Indian girls of all ages play. A lot. With or without strategies. At home, on streets, in buses. And inside cars and university campuses.