Tag Archives: Issue 4

Women Only

Gopa Nayak

Everytime I wear the gorgeous white dupatta that was bought as a souvenir in Imphal, I cannot but remember the face of the lady who sold it to me. She seemed to be in her late sixties and had such an adorable smile that I could not help touch her beautiful face in admiration. It took me by surprise that there were hardly any men in the market. The buyers as well as the sellers were all women, be it in the typical Manipuri clothes shops where I bought the dupatta or the readymade shops which sold goods smuggled across the border to the more traditional market where women sold dry fish, vegetables and things required for a Hindu puja – fresh flowers, beads, and trinkets to store and wear the sacred thread. The stall which specialised in garments displayed tops preferred by the younger generation as well as traditional Manipuri attires still preferred by women of all ages. The cardigans and sweaters and woollen blouses sat alongside the Manipuri red, white and black woollen shawls. Quite often, I found three generations of women in charge of a shop, a fact that never failed to amuse me for the exchange of selling tricks passed from one generation to another. In Ima Market, I had the strange feeling of a women-only world – women as sellers and most often women as buyers. It left me curious about how it would feel to see this translate into the rest of India.

Gopa Nayak Photo
Gopa Nayak writes in both Odia and English on themes that vary from women’s role in society to theft in the London suburbs. She has recently come back to her home town of Bhubaneswar after her long sojourn of thirty years outside Odisha. She has a DPhil from the University of Oxford and is currently teaching English in Bhubaneswar.

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A Full Night’s Thievery

Mitra Phukan

© Divya Adusumilli 2013

Modon Sur was of course as well aware of this custom as anybody else. Gradually, it became ridiculously easy for him to lift jewellery from tables near the bed. He felt the need for further challenges. Cautiously at first, therefore, and then with ever greater degrees of confidence, he began to lift the pillows from beneath the heads of the sleeping beauties themselves

The late forties of the last century.

The air was clean and the streets uncrowded.  True, there were very few cars in the town, people preferring mostly to walk it to nearby places. At a pinch, they would cycle to work, or perhaps take a ricksha. Even so, there was an air of spaciousness about this little town of Rupohi in Western Assam that was not seen in too many places in the rest of the State, even at that time. The British, who had moved out only recently, had left the town with a legacy of parks that fronted the broad and beautiful river, enormous fields where football could be played, and was, with gusto and skill, and large, spacious bungalows that gave the elite quarter of town an air of gracious charm.

It was still a town where people had appellations based on their professions. Himadri Dutta, the doctor whose jolly exterior hid a fierce determination to keep Yama away from the town, was known, inevitably Himadri Daktor. Or sometimes, if the person referring to the middle aged medic was much younger, he was called “Daktor Babu.” Lawyers Prasanna and Tridib were known as Prasanna Ukil and Tridib Ukil. Teachers in the school were known as This Mastor or, if a woman, That Mastorni. The policeman was naturally Daroga Babu. The merchant selling groceries in the largest store in town was known as Ajoy Dukani, literally Ajoy the Shopkeeper. This was because the town was not yet crowded enough to have more than a few people of each profession.

Of course it wasn’t as though the town consisted of upright and learned people only. Like any other self respecting town, there was a thief as well. For having a local thief was a marker of the affluence of the town itself. Those neighbouring villages and little townlets that did not have a known thief were looked upon with pity by the people of Rupohi. Poor things! They were not deemed to be prosperous enough to support a full time thief, somebody who could proudly sport his own designation of “Sur”. Thief. Of course there were cattle lifters and grain pilferers in these other towns, but they did not really count, for theirs were deemed to be petty thieveries.

Modon, the official thief of Rupohi, therefore, held a position, if not of honour, exactly, at least of recognition in the town. Modon Sur. That was the name he was known by, and he never objected to being hailed by this handle in Rupohi’s marketplace. “Oi Modon Sur, do you know anything about the disappearance of the chair from my veranda last week?” somebody would shout across from the fishmonger’s shop. Modon would put on an injured air, and say, “Chair? Wooden chair? What would I do with a chair, Dada, I have only a hovel, where will I keep it?” And his demeanour would be so humble, so convincingly honest that it would not even register with the victim : if Modon Sur had not taken the chair, how did he know it was a wooden one?

It wasn’t really true, though, that Modon Sur lived in a hovel. His residence was a hut on the outskirts of town, beside his paddy field. For Modon Sur, in spite of his designation, was only a part time thief. Rupohi was not large or prosperous enough to support a full time one.  And after all he could hardly expect the townspeople to support him, financially, in a more direct way, through donations and handouts, for instance, just because they were honoured by his presence there. In any case, he had a wife and two young children to support, and thievery in a place like theirs was still a chancy business.

Modon Sur hadn’t been born or brought up in Rupohi. He had only settled down there because the paddy land was available. In the village where he had been born, he had been quite a successful cattle thief. Still, he hadn’t started practising his original trade in Rupohi till the time his crop had failed in the third year of his residence there. He had wanted to become respectable, and in any case all these night shifts were taking a toll on his health. He had heard the big educated people, sitting on their verandas in their bungalows talk of this many a time while he lurked in the bushes nearby waiting for an opportunity to enter the house and go about his work. Night shifts for nurses and people like them were ruining their health. Well, he too was a night shift person, though like many in his profession, he had a day job too. These days, he only practised his craft in order to keep his skills honed. He didn’t want his thievery skills to turn rusty. After all, who knew when they would be required?

Even now, so many years after settling down in this friendly town, he only stole things that he was almost sure that the stealee, the person he was stealing from, could replace without too much trouble. Things such a pira, a wooden stool left outside the kitchen, or perhaps a few brass utensils that had been left out to dry in the sun, and been forgotten by the careless new cook’s assistant of the house. Modon Sur’s forte was lifting clothes from the clothes horses, the wooden alnas on which were placed the gamosas, saris, dhutis, panjabis, and other articles of clothing of a family

Modon Sur was  thin of build and dark of colouring, as befitting one whose work required him to blend into the night. He also had a philosophy, a doctrine, about the justifiability of his alternate profession. A thief like him, he believed, was highly beneficial to society. His work made people careful. Without the disciplining effects of his thievery, housewives grew lax and left their clothes outside on the line at night, even though it was well known that doing so brought in evil spirits into the house. It gave Modon Sur a feeling of pride that women feared him more than they did evil spirits. He had heard matriarchs telling new and foolish daughters-in-law of the house, “Bring in the clothes, Bowari, it’s almost dark, can’t you see ? While you sit and idle away your time with gossip, Modon Sur will come and take away all the clothes…”

He was in the thoughts of menfolk, too, he knew, as shadows lengthened and lamps were lit and the evening prayers were chanted in the domestic shrines at dusk. Bicycles, left leaning against a wall of the front verandah, would be brought into the inside courtyard of the house, and chained securely to the guava tree near the well. Shoes left lying carelessly here and there would be brought into the inner verandas, near the bedrooms of the responsible people of the house.  Even though he only came out on moonless and sometimes rainy nights to purloin from homes, his shadow lay on the homes of the town every evening.

Every true professional has an area of expertise in which his mastery remains unchallenged. In Rupohi itself, for instance, Jiten Mastor’s knowledge of the history of the area was immense. Himadri Daktor’s ability to chase out all kinds of aches and pains afflicting the legs and feet of men was acknowledged to be second to none. Similarly, Modon Sur, too, had an area of expertise. His skill in lifting clothes from alnas was widely respected. If the clothes horse was near a window, it was an invitation to Modon Sur to come in and take away all the stuff that was piled on it. And even if the alna was at the opposite end of the room, several yards away form the window itself,  it was but the work of a moment for Modon Sur to poke in the special iron contraption he had himself invented, and pull out the muga mekhela sadors, the paat kurtas, the eri shawls,  and decamp. Sometimes, bags and jholas too, would be left hanging there. These would be a bonus for him. Clothing fetched a decent price, but if the jhola contained a purse with five or ten rupees and maybe a few annas, he felt that he had earned his keep for a whole month.

The strange thing was not that Modon Sur was never caught. After all, many thieves roamed the land whose skills were of such a high order that they always eluded being caught. The really amazing thing, the one thing that anointed Modon Sur as a master, was the fact that he always seemed to have a watertight alibi. He could never be nabbed and put behind bars for the disappearance of the butcher’s bicycle because, why, that very night, at,  in fact,  that very hour when the bicycle was likely to have disappeared, he was seen at a Naam Kirtan congregation at the other end of town, singing soulfully to the image of Krishna and keeping time with the cymbals in his hands.

How did he always have this kind of an alibi? It was a secret that he took with him to the grave (metaphorically speaking of course…he was cremated, with full honours when he died thirty years after the events that will presently be described here :  a highly respected, even prosperous farmer who came to be addressed with respect. By then, the appellation “Sur” had dropped off from his identity. )

But we are getting ahead of the story. Another thing he was careful about was not to have any of the stolen goods in his home, or shed. He took the purloined stuff straight to his contacts in the other town from which he had emigrated here, who were waiting just outside the town’s boundaries to receive the goods. It was this kind of clever planning that earned Modon Sur the admiration of even those who were the targets of his thievery.

In the largest official bungalow of Rupohi lived the town’s Magistrate, he who was in charge of the administration of the town. Not a Collector, because Rupohi was not the headquarters of any district. Still, the simple townspeople held the Magistrate in great awe, because, even though he was a brown skinned person just like themselves, the people who had lived in that house before him had all been Sahibs and Memsahibs, who had gone back to their island across the seven seas after Independence. Some of that awe that they had vested those whites with rubbed off on those who lived in that house for a long time.

The current incumbent of that rambling red bricked bungalow was Animesh Choudhury, who had been posted to the town just a couple of months before the events of this story. Tall of build and imposing of demeanour, he brought dignity and a great reputation for fairness and efficiency to his post. But more than even this was the fact that he brought to the town his large family, consisting of his wife and six daughters and his small son. The daughters ranged in age from twelve to nineteen, and the son was only five. Even though the eldest two were married, they were often at their parental home, for their husbands were on transferable jobs and they liked to come and stay with their parents while the husbands settled into their new postings and arranged their quarters before sending for their wives.

The girls caused quite a stir in the little town. Though there was quite a good girls’ school in Rupohi, they were tutored at home by a series of teachers who came in from the school in the evenings. However, the girls were in the habit of taking the air on the river bank every evening. Though their large lawns fronted the river, the view was impeded by walls and hedges. All six girls therefore went right out of their gate, to the concrete promenade that bordered the river, without fail every evening. They usually took along their little brother with them, and often sat for a while in one of the parks adjoining the riverbank while the little boy played.

The girls were of course beauties. How could they not be good looking when they came from such an aristocratic lineage? Tall, not thin, but not fat either, and with skins that glowed like the setting sun in October, they would stand out, singly, in any crowd of people. In a group, they were simply devastating. When they went to watch the Durga Puja celebrations that year, their beauty, whispered the awestruck townspeople, rivalled the Devi’s herself.

And their clothes! It was said they went to Calcutta especially to shop for the latest fashions. Instead of the simple muga and paat and cotton mekhela sadors that the townspeople wore, they put on beautiful silk and muslin saris brought from Calcutta. Their blouses were bordered with fine lace, and their hair was always uptwisted in the latest fashion in chignons. As for their jewellery…ah! Of course the Magistrate Sahab was a rich man, but even so! It was said that his wife herself came from a family that was so prosperous that they had gifted her a huge black trunk full of jewellery of purest gold when she had got married. And probably the girls had added to that storehouse, for their necks, wrists and earlobes twinkled and gleamed and glistened in the light of the setting sun on that river bank as they took in the fresh air.

In short, they were loaded with jewellery. And costly apparel. Enough to get any self respecting thief’s hands itching.

Of course Modon Sur was only a petty thief. Still, it wasn’t as though he hadn’t, in his time, pinched a gold chain here or a finger ring there, selling them in the market for a sum that was in fact less than that of a cow in those days. All that gold was really inviting. And it wasn’t as though they would miss the stuff. There was that huge black trunk stowed away somewhere.

Besides, (and here one falters in telling the story) the fact is that Modon Sur rather enjoyed some of the perks of his profession. One was the feeling of power that pinching even a small an object as a cushion from a cane chair gave him. The other was, frankly, more shocking, especially in those prudish days. In fact Modon Sur himself never actually admitted it even to himself, but…the fact was, he enjoyed the sight of all those women in the houses he had come to burgle, lying supine on beds, their clothes all awry, delicious bits of their body exposed, and even more delicious bits hinted at…In fact, many a time Modon would come away without having actually burgled anything, but quite happy nevertheless at the sight of the sleeping girls and women of Rupohi. Of course in no way was this any kind of disloyalty to his wife, to whom he was quite devoted. But he felt it was quite all right to ogle the prostrate bodies laid out so invitingly in the houses he visited at night. It was like staring, open mouthed, at the women he saw in the bioscope that came to town occasionally. They, like the women he burgled, were from a different world.  He would never have dreamed of touching them, except in the line of duty, as it were.

Still, here was a double bonanza! And added to it was the extra thrill of actually going into the lion’s den and decamping with the loot. Delicious! The Magistrate’s house had two durwans, of course, who were supposed to guard the gates, and the house, taking it in turns. But that in itself posed no problem for Modon Sur. Many of the big houses had durwans, but in his experience, they were creatures of habit, and as prone to sleep-wake cycles as the rest of humanity. It was just a question of studying their schedules for a few nights, and planning accordingly.

Of course stealing jewellery was a totally different challenge to that of lifting bicycles. Modon Sur realized that he would need to hone his skills in this department further. This actually suited him fine. It was only February now, and quite chilly at nights. The fog from the river crept into the town at night, laying its damp fingers on everything. It sidled into homes, as well, making people sneeze and develop the sniffles. Everybody in Rupohi kept their windows closed at night in these months. It was only after Bihu, in mid April, when the sun took on strength again, that people began to sleep with their windows open. Luckily for people like Modon Sur, electricity had not yet come to Rupohi at that point. When it did, he was sure that people would sleep with their windows shut even in summer, when instead of punkha wallahs, this thing called “current” would make fans twirls around on ceilings making rooms as cool as though this was January, even in August.

So that gave Modon Sur a couple of months, if not more, to plan a heist that was shaping up to be possibly the biggest heist of his career. Big, in terms of risk, glory, and spoils. If he could sell off the gold at a decent price, he thought he might retire from his night shift career. Perhaps though he would keep a couple of pieces of jewellery for Senehi, his wife. He would not be able to give them to her immediately, of course. Perhaps he would bury them in the earthen floor under their bed, and take them out only after the Magistrate had been transferred to another town, which would no doubt happen in a few years’ time.

In the meantime, there were two areas of research that he had to conduct. One: did the punkha wallah pull the rope to swing the cloth punkha on the ceiling even at night? Modon Sur was almost hundred percent sure that he was sent off when the women went into their rooms to sleep. After all, no woman liked the idea that the punkha wallah could at any time climb up and peep into the room of sleeping girls and women. Most women were prepared to sacrifice this comfort for privacy. This bit of information was easily got. Modon Sur sent out a few feelers to those professional punkha wallahs whose job it was to tug at the ropes that manipulated the cloth fans above the main rooms in the offices of Rupohi. Within a week, without drawing any attention to himself, he was in possession of the information that the punkha wallahs at the Big House were all sent away at seven in the evening. In fact, none of the bedrooms had any provision for punkhas at all. And also, all the help – armies of them, excluding the durwans – lived in a large complex that was connected to the main house through a pathway. They, too, retired there for the night after cleaning up after dinner. This happened by nine thirty, ten at the latest. For Rupohi was a town that went to bed early in those days.

Secondly, and more important: did the women take off their jewellery at night? True, there were thieves who pulled chains from women’s necks, but Modon Sur was not one of them. Purloining, not robbery, was his job description. Well, he would take along his contraption, he thought. If he found that the jewellery was not accessible, he would make away with the clothes on the alna . That too would satisfy him, if not monetarily, then at least from the point of view of professional pride.

And so it happened that for a few months, the more prosperous villages and the little towns around Rupohi began to report a spate of jewellery thefts. Nothing much, to begin with. A small gold chain left carelessly on a table near the window. Perhaps a ring, kept under a pillow while its owner went out to the outdoor toilet at night.

Modon Sur’s greatest asset was his total calmness. He had nerves of steel, which ensured that his brain worked alertly and coolly even as he was lifting a chain from right beside a sleeping girl. Besides, his fingers were deft, and his steps light. In all cases, without exception, it was only much later, when Modon Sur was safely back in Rupohi, making sure he was seen in the shops or in the fields by potential witnesses, that the theft was discovered in the village or town an hour’s journey away by bullock cart, when its owner went in to make her bed, after her bath.

Gradually, as Modon Sur’s confidence levels grew, so did his boldness. He began to purloin jewellery in ever more risky situations. In the heat of Rupohi’s summer, most girls and women kept aside their jewellery while they slept, in order to be more comfortable. After all, even the purest gold chafed terribly against skin made even more tender in the horrendous humidity of Assam in summer. On the other hand, it was considered inauspicious for the house if its daughters and daughters-in-law went about with necks, earlobes,  wrists and fingers bare of gold. To get around this, therefore, they usually took off their jewellery last thing at night, and pushed it under their pillows for safe keeping. In any case, it was considered the sign of industriousness and good breeding to make one’s own bed in the morning, even if the household had many helpers to do the other work. There was therefore little risk of some maid purloining the gold in the morning if the mistress forgot to wear it after her morning bath.

Modon Sur was of course as well aware of this custom as anybody else. Gradually, it became ridiculously easy for him to lift jewellery from tables near the bed. He felt the need for further challenges. Cautiously at first, therefore, and then with ever greater degrees of confidence, he began to lift the pillows from beneath the heads of the sleeping beauties themselves. After a few such missions, he was able to judge to the last inch where the jewels were likely to be kept, at which precise angle and point they would be located. Usually, for some reason, they would be located almost directly under the flowers embroidered in red, green and blue at the corner. (Here it must be mentioned that it was the fashion in those times to sleep on pillows whose covers were embroidered by the women of the house themselves). It became the work of a moment, eventually, for Mondon Sur to locate the jewels under the pillow. And in any case the beds were always pushed against open windows in those days of summer, in order to catch every cooling breeze from the river that came that way.

Once or twice, if the chain around the sleeping girl’s neck was a thin one, and if the girl herself was alone in the room and was, in addition, a slender specimen of womanhood, Modon Sur even went so far as to snatch the chain from around the said neck. This was a new thing for him. He knew it was much more risky to snatch a chain from a neck than it was to pick it up from tables and from under pillows. Still, such was his confidence in his prowess that he attempted that feat with aplomb. By the time the girl in question realized what was happening, and called out for help, he was already quite far away from the scene of the crime. Even so, he had decided not to attempt this again, even if things seemed easy. It was just too risky.

And so, these days, he only lifted from under pillows and from tables and beds.  It was only after he had put away the jewels in the jhola that he always carried slung crossways across his chest that he allowed himself to indulge in the perks of office. If the girls and women were pretty and lissom, he let his eyes linger over the curves of their bodies, before finally making off. Of course there was nothing of the voyeur in this action of his. Rather, Modon Sur’s eyes took in this offering of female beauty spread out before him much as an art lover would a painting by some great Renaissance master.

. In the meantime, he also familiarized himself with the lay of the land, as it were, in the Magistrate’s compound. This he did by sauntering past the gates every evening, his demeanour casual-seeming but his eyes taking in every detail of the house as it was visible to him. He also located a fine, mature mango tree near the back wall of the house. The long, leafy and sturdy branches of this tree spread out over the wall itself, and hung low over the adjoining lane. Fortunately, this particular lane was deserted not just during the night, but also during most of the day. Modon Sur spent many an evening fruitfully employed, up on the mango tree, gazing at the grounds and the house before him. Here too, the bonus was that he could take home some choice mangoes for Senehi  and the children every night.

IN a few weeks, Modon Sur knew almost as well as the occupants of the house themselves which rooms were occupied by the girls, and which by the Magistrate and his wife. He had of course no intention of disturbing that personage himself during his night’s work. That would be tempting Fate. He also familiarized himself with the habits of the two guards. The day guard was not really of any interest to him. However, he was not surprised to find that the night guard would give a couple of turns around the compound, and then doze off in the guardhouse. He would wake up every now and again with a start, and start banging his stick against a wall or post, shouting something unintelligible all the while. After which, he would go back to sleep. Modon Sur had surmised right at the beginning that the guards would not pose any problem to him. And now he was only proved right. Thank goodness though, the Magistrate was not a dog lover. There were no dogs to wheedle over and feed sleeping draughts to in this particular house. With guard dogs, things became more difficult and time consuming. Not impossible, no, but difficult.

The decision that he was ready to “work” at the Magistrate’s house came to Modon Sur, quite suddenly, one night. He was on his way back from a heist at the neighbouring town. It had been a good night’s work, one of his best so far. His jhola was chinkling satisfyingly at his side, full of gold ornaments, and silver anklets. Besides, he had come across a plateful of pithas too while he was going through the rooms. It had been standing temptingly besides the kitchen window. Munching on them as he cycled back to Rupohi, Modon Sur was filled with satisfaction.

It was a beautiful night…not moonlit of course, for that would have not been suitable for his work. As a person whose toils made him think in ways that were different from most other people, Modon Sur’s notions of natural beauty too were coloured by his line of work. So, while others extolled the virtues of a “purnima” night, lit up by the silvery beams of the full moon, Modon was happiest under a dark, “Amavasya” sky, moonless and shadowy. Indeed, others would not find it easy to find their way home in this darkness, on a night as black as coal. But Modon was not a successful thief for nothing. Whistling softly to himself, he rode his cycle back quite confidently through the narrow mud lanes of the area. He could see in the dark, and relished the aromas of the night flowers all around him, as well as the soft breeze against his skin.

That was when the idea came to him. He was having a run of good luck. Like all thieves, Modon Sur too was highly superstitious. He believed that when luck, Fate, Bhagya, whatever you called her…when she smiled on you, she did so for a certain period of time. And when she looked somewhere else, or began to frown at you, then the bad luck, too, came for a fixed amount of time. Certainly, this was a time when Bhagya Devi, Lady Luck, was smiling on him. Why not take advantage of this, and strike at the Big House this very night? The conditions were just right, and he himself was as ready as he would ever be. His footfalls had never fallen softer, he fingers had never been nimbler. In a flash, he made up his mind. Yes, Tonight would be The Night.

The lane at the side of the house was empty, as usual, and quite dark. Soundlessly, Modon leaned his bicycle against it, and prepared to climb the spreading branches of the mango tree. The jhola, with its burden of gold, thumped against his side. Besides, it made that chinkling sound at every step he took. And in any case, the buttons on the jhola still left gaps through which the smaller gold items could slide out. He realized that it was not really practical to carry it around with him as he proceeded with his final heist.

Impossible to leave the jhola on the bicycle.  After all who knew better than him, how the minds of thieves worked? Even a person who was deemed honest would bend his morals if he found this bag with its precious burden lying unattended in that dark lane. Modon decided to take it into the compound with him, and leave it leaning against the tree. He could pick it up on his way out.

Carefully, making sure that nothing fell out of the jhola while he climbed the tree, he went across the wall, and then climbed down the other side. He had made this trip several times before, and was, by now, very much at home here. Still, he moved around silently as he prepared for the work ahead.

First, he took the jhola off from his shoulder, and leaned it against the tree. Then, taking off his sandals, he tied them together and slung them around his neck. This was part of his preparations. All the while, he kept a look around the compound, which now lay under the blanket of darkness. If his eyes hadn’t been used to it, Modon would not have been able to make out a thing.

He began to move quietly away towards the girls’ bedroom. Glancing back once, he saw that his jhola, with its precious burden, had fallen to its side. He came back again, and picking it up, stood undecided about what to do. What if a stray animal came up and scattered its contents…yes, he made up his mind. Taking the jhola, he went to a nearby golonchi bush. The plant was now in full flower, its creamy blooms seeming like soft stars in the darkness. Carefully, he fastened the jhola to one of its branches. There. It was safe from the inquisitiveness of animals now.

In a couple of minutes, Modon was at the window of the room which he had rightly surmised to be the girls’ room. It was in fact like a dormitory. Large and tall ceilinged, Modon could see, by the light of the hurricane lantern that burned dimly in a corner, that it was a kind of dormitory. Each of the five beds was placed against a window. Four of them had one occupant each, while one had two girls sleeping. The youngest two, he surmised, dismissing them. They were unlikely to have much gold on them.

The women were certainly sound asleep. He could hear the even breathing of the six ladies. It was a strange sound. He had never, truth to tell, seen so many females all stretched out, somnolent, in one room. Resisting the urge to stare, he looked around.

The windows had the usual iron rods placed horizontally across to deter people like him. No problem there. His practiced eye judged that he could easily put in his arm to scoop up whatever was left lying around.

But where was it? The loot, where could it be?

And then, suddenly, he saw the pile. A pile of gold that gleamed even in that darkness, heaped up carelessly on the table next to one of the girls. She was probably one of the older ones. Silently, Modon moved to the window beside her bed. Yes, he would be able to reach the table, he thought, quite easily. No doubt she, this older daughter of the Magistrate, had thought that by placing her sleeping form between the table full of gold and the window, she was protecting the pile. Well, in the morning, she would find out how futile it had been.

Modon rolled up the sleeves of his dark coloured shirt, and flexed his fingers. All right then. This was it…He put in his hand, and slowly, moved it towards the table. Quietly, with practiced ease, he grasped the pile. Almost all of it came up in his grasp. Carefully, swiftly, he started to take out the pile.

And then…

Reba, the Magistrate’s eldest daughter, was spending some time with her parents and sisters and brother. Soon, it would be time for her to return to her husband, who was even then shifting from one town to another. In the meantime, it was wonderful to be able to giggle and laugh with her sisters and parents, without a care in the world, as though she had no responsibilities …

That evening as usual, all the sisters took off their jewellery and put it on the table beside Didi’s bed. It was quite safe there. And of course it was too hot to sleep with it on. All those chains, rings, bangles …and those earrings! How they made their skin itch!

The girls, as was their habit, talked and giggled well into the night. It was well past eleven when they drifted off, one by one, their murmurs dwindling to occasional whispers, and finally dying out altogether. Reba was the last to drift off to sleep.

She awoke a couple of hours later, fully alert. She wasn’t sure what had woken her up, but she knew there was something. Without stirring, she listened. She heard her sisters’ even breathing. Everything seemed all right there. But something…

She remained quiet, but opened her eyes a crack. Not fully, but enough to see her surroundings. The light from the lamp in the corner showed….ohmyGod…Krisno, Krisno! Ohohoh!

Reba stifled the instinct to scream, and watched, fascinated, as the dark and hairy arm slowly came in through the window. Like a rabbit hypnotised by a cobra’s hooded stare, she watched it lift up a fistful of jewellery, and then start to take it out carefully.

OhmyGod. She should do something. She should…ohmyGod what if no sound came out from her throat, like in nightmares….? What if he throttled her or something…?

The hand was almost out of the window now.

It was the sight of her thick gold mangalsutra dangling from the hairy hand that brought her to her senses. Her mangalsutra, given by Probir  during their wedding just two years ago. And this thief, this robber, was actually taking off with it, that too, right under her very nose! Literally. And what would Probir and his mother say if they knew she was sleeping with it off her body? She was supposed to wear it night and day. Indignation coursed through her being, displacing the fear at last.

Modon’s concentration levels while at work on his “night duties” were always high. His brain seemed to work in high gear, and all his senses, his antennae quivered alertly. He was focussed, at this moment, in drawing out the fistful of jewellery through the gap in the iron rods of the window without disturbing the sleeping owners. Yet he was aware also of all the other things that were happening in the room. The sleeping forms, the even breathing of the six girls, the shadows thrown by the lantern…he was conscious of them all. What he did not realize, though, was that the woman on the other side of the wall was now awake. To say he was startled when the woman decided to take matters into her own hands would be a gross understatement. He had in fact never been more astounded, frightened and shocked, all at the same time, ever before in his life.

Reba’s scream, “Sur! Sur!” came out shrill and strong. But it was not that which stunned Modon so much. It was the fact that she simultaneously grabbed his arm. And right after that initial scream, she bit down hard on it.

Pain coursed through Modon Sur’s arm, radiating upward in agonizing waves. Of course his fist automatically unclenched itself. The jewels fell in a shower on Reba’s body, but she continued to clamp down with her teeth on his arm.

There was turmoil everywhere. The other five sleeping forms had of course woken up at the first scream. Through the pain, Modon’s bewildered mind registered that after the first surprise, they, too, were now screaming at the top of their lungs.

“Sur! Sur!”

“Kon aasey! Who’s there?”

“Deuta! Ma! Come quick! Something bad is happening…eeeee!”

“Eeeee! Durwan! Where are you? Eeee, bring your lathis…”

“ Help us! Help! There’s somebody inside the room!”

“He’s murdering Reba Didi!”

Of course this was not technically correct, but possibly they could not see him as he stood outside in the dark. Through the fog of pain and shock, Modon’s mind registered this fact as a ray of hope. All was not lost, not yet.

The noise levels in the room were horrendous. Five women, screaming at the tops of their lungs, unnerved Modon Sur completely. The sixth still had her teeth around his forearm, but even she was uttering high pitched though unintelligible sounds.

Modon’s instincts, honed finely over a lifetime of thievery, took over. With a supreme effort, ignoring the pain, he shook his hand free from the woman’s mouth. He could feel blood dripping down from it, but he blocked his mind to it. Quickly, like the shadow of a fleeing bat, he ran back to the mango tree. Without looking this way or that, he was up and then over, in a moment. His cycle was as he had left it. Mounting it in a trice, he turned around and pedalled off into the dark.

Behind him, there was pandemonium. The Magistrate and his wife were told the whole story when they came rushing in. At first, there was consternation when the lamp was turned up and Reba’s bloody mouth was seen. However, it soon became apparent that the gore was not hers. The screams had subsided, but the girls were still sobbing hysterically.

“Such a huge man, Ma!” moaned Rina, the middle girl. “A monster, I tell you! Black as coal, with eyes that were full of blood.  He was wearing nothing on top…such muscles, Ma, one flick of his wrist to Reba Didi’s neck, and she would have been like a chicken. Dead in a minute.”

(Here, let us fast forward twenty years. Rina has now become an acclaimed writer of fiction. Possibly this childhood trauma has had something to do with it.)

The room filled up quickly with the help, who rushed in, pell mell, into the house. The sight of the blood on Reba’s face was enough to send two of the maids into a dead faint, while a third fell on the floor with a thud, screaming and thrashing her feet around. The staff became so engrossed in this little side drama that they gave it their full and fascinated attention.

The durwan, disturbed by all this noise, woke up at last, and began to shout, “Jaagte Raho! Jaagte Raho!” automatically, groping for his stick and topi.

(Here it must also be mentioned that though the Durwan was in great danger of losing his job, the intercession of his – the Durwan’s – weeping wife, who fell at the angry Magistrate’s feet the next morning and refused to let go till he relented,  saved the man his salary. The Durwan retired many years later on a full pension. Till the end of his days, he recounted this incident proudly. It is a trifling matter that in the recounting of the tale, it was he who caught the famous dacoit and rescued the six damsels from all kinds of horrors. Perhaps if he had been literate, the Durwan, too, would have been a noted fiction writer.)

Of course there was no question of sleep. Reba had a full and complete bath, while the others took turns to count the jewellery. It was all there, thank God. By the time they had all stopped chattering and counting, dawn was breaking.

“But how did the man come in?” wondered the Magistrate. Followed by his fluttering brood, he walked out, in full majesty even though he was wearing his pyjamas, following the trail of footprints that led to the mango tree.

“Ah!” he said, not without admiration. “So that’s how the thief entered the house! Mali!” he called the gardener. “Make sure that no branches cross over the wall any more. Lop them all off!”

Turning on his heel, he was walking off when something in the golonchi shrub caught his attention. A jhola! A dark, buttoned bag, hanging from a branch. Curiously, he walked up to it, and unhooked it. The chinkling sound that it made could be heard even above the excited chatterings of the women of his family, who had all followed him out.

The Magistrate opened the buttons, and peered inside the jhola. Fistful after fistful, he took out the gold jewels. Balas, bautis, chains, jhumkas, even a slim waistchain emerged. The women watched, stunned into silence.

“Obviously, the thief came here after robbing some other homes,” he said, in his most impressive tones.

IN the silence of the dawn, not even a bird chirped. Finally, Rina, always known for her boldness, stepped forward.

“But Deuta …now that it’s here with us, we should keep it, na? It’s ours now, na? That’s the law, I’m sure…”

The Magistrate turned and looked at this child of his loins. With a voice like thunder and eyes that sparked lightning, he roared, “No, it is not the law! Teaching me the law, are you? This will go with me to the office, where it will be held securely till the real owners are found. Real owners, do you hear! From wherever it has been stolen. Now we have to find out who the thief is…should be easy. After all, he has Reba’s bite marks on his right arm.”

But Modon Sur was not caught, then or ever. For he had taken the precaution of having a bad fall before entering his own home that night. The bite marks on his arm were now unrecognizable, camouflaged as they were by the injuries he had incurred. Not just his arms and legs, even his face was bruised and bleeding when the Arm of the Law came in next morning to question him.

And only Modon Sur, out of all those people who figure in this tale, ever talked about it to anybody else, ever.

Mitra Phukan

Mitra Phukan is an Assamese author, translator and columnist. Her first novel The Collector's Wife (2005), is set against the Assam Agitation of the 1970s and 80s. A Monsoon of Music (Zubaan Books, 2011) is her  recent novel.

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‘The placeness of this place’

Arzuman Ara

Dirty Love Sampurna Chatterjee Penguin Books, 2013 245 pp, INR 299 Hardcover Fiction/English

Dirty Love
Sampurna Chatterjee
Penguin Books, 2013
245 pp, INR 299
Hardcover Fiction/English

Sampurna Chatterjee, in Dirty Love, weaves her stories into a complex narrative web bringing in many aspects of Bombay life. At one level, these stories are personal narratives and together, at another level, they become the story of the city. Dirty Love is a collection of 29 stories about the denizens of Bombay. Bombay has been a city of dreams and aspirations as well as of pain and loss.

Dominique Lapierrre’s City of Joy and Vikram Chandra’s Love and Longing in Bombay are narratives about life in big cities with small dreams that people cherish and how they move forward in life picking up broken pieces of shattered dreams in a faceless world of the maddening crowd. Dirty Love is not a long narrative about the city but a collection of stories that tell tales about misfits, loners, drifters whose lives are surrounded with the stink of garbage heaps, smell of rain soaked streets, of fish market and meat shops. And yet, there is the seeking for love in these abject conditions. Love becomes a dirty word without its joy and elevating feelings. Love in such conditions does not wear the colours of dreams, carry the fragrance of flowers and is not comforting; it is smelly, fleshy and dirty to Sampurna Chattarji.

There is a lyrical quality to Sampurna’s stories. When a poet turns fiction writer, fiction also becomes poetic. This may not be true for many poet-fictionists, but Sampurna Chattarji has indeed made fiction poetic

The stories explore the life in and around this maximum city, of teeming crowd, overpopulation and shrinking space. Yet it is a city that fires imagination and fills colours to dreams in fashion, selling Bollywood dreams in rags to riches stories, and in capturing the restlessness of the corporate world for more wealth. It is also a city for those who live on the fringes whose lives are disrupted by bandhs, communal hatred and violated by the brutality of terrorist attacks.  In the face of all these, both enabling and disruptive, life in Bombay goes on where space and time meet cruelty and fragility of life. People lose identities and become part of a faceless crowd, and the teeming crowd swallow up the city as if they drop from the sky. The resilience of the people of Bombay is remarkable, for they make the city in spite of the beauty and horrors of existence.

The Insect boy loses his name and identity like many others who are known as “Indiamap”, “Pantshirt”, “Balloonist”, “Mayur”, according to the things they sell. In the story, the spacelessness of Bomaby is contrasted with the vast expanse of the sea. The dispossessed Insect boy derives solace from the sea. If the life of the dispossessed and homeless stirs us, the life style of the rich in the story ‘Gentle Folk’ appals us for their double standards. In this story, Atul becomes a nameless entity, reduced to just “Watchman,” as he is never called by his name. The story, ‘How far away is faraway?’ is Kafkasque like other stories where people become “insects”  living lives of “dead habits” for survival and wish to vanish away. In such a city even a hidden “eighteenth-century tunnel” that becomes a space for “clarity” could not save itself from encroachment and the narrator in ‘An Ancient Memory of Pillage’ points out “only a motherfucker loves Bombay” (p. 187).

The stories delve into the psychic interior of the characters. Stories such as ‘Madam, Photo?’, ‘My Revenge on the Beast’, ‘Three Women in a Restaurant’, ‘Nobody Loves a Rat’, ‘Release’, ‘Seeing Things’, ‘Strange Place’, ‘On This Planet’, ‘Dirty Love’ and ‘How far away is faraway?’ explore the minds of people with sensitivity and empathy.  In the story ‘Madam, Photo’, Sreya’s relationship with her husband and his friends is depicted by mapping her mind through the eyes of a street photographer. ‘Three Women in a Restaurant’ reveals the mindscape of three loners who look at each other sitting in a restaurant and have their own understanding/construct of one another. The stream of thoughts reveals their professional and personal lives, and their pain and loss. The story ends with a suggestion of gaining selfhood in a world of cruelty and insensitivity in the city. In an ironical way, the story ‘Release’ depicts the mental condition of a mother who feels dejected after giving birth to her only son, after three daughters. The loss of the son during the immersion of Ganapati brings a sense of release in her. ‘On This Planet’ explores how a cyber relationship through a social site arouses expectations and emotions in two human beings in the virtual planet. ‘No One in the Gondola but Them’ peeps into the psyche of a man and a woman who share the same seat in a shuttle. ‘Seeing Things’ similarly, explores the solitude and loneliness of the narrator through an intricate patchwork of mind. Most of the characters in this book feel lonely and alienated while pining to escape their mundane existence.

Complexity of human relationship is sensitively explored. Love becomes metaphoric, “You are a piece of longing on my tongue. If I can say ‘you’ without revealing myself, love will be possible…. A long-lasting love” (241). But the everlasting love becomes dirty, for there is no guarantee of it in a world of disappearing human bonds. In unforgiving conditions, Chattarji humanises love without any grandness and glory. Even if dirty, love, finally, is the only means of becoming and the only way to restore humanity.

There is a lyrical quality to Sampurna’s stories. When a poet turns fiction writer, fiction also becomes poetic. This may not be true for many poet-fictionists, but Sampurna Chattarji has indeed made fiction poetic. Some of her phrases and sentences are remarkably poetic with a shade of  powerful imagination, e.g. “ancient comfort”, (p.3), “I have nothing to prove, neither birdness nor humanness” (p.3), “A high pained laugh” (15), “The placeness of this place” (p.47), “My memory is paper” (p.50). She has employed a number of narrative styles.  Her style is edgy with a blend of the real and the unreal in a restless linguistic play and stylistic vigour. On the whole, the stories are successful in an interplay of light and shadow that makes life meaningful to some and meaningless to others in Bombay.

Arzuman Ara

Arzuman Ara

Arzuman Ara is Assistant Professor in English at the English and Foreign Language University, Shillong Campus.

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Mapping the Horizon

Guwahati Gaze  Mitra Phukan  Bhabani Books, 2013  352 pp, 320 INR

Guwahati Gaze
Mitra Phukan
Bhabani Books, 2013
352 pp, 320 INR

Mitali Goswami

What does one think about as one gazes into the horizon or at the surrounding cityscape? What are the questions and concerns that arise in one’s mind and pass into oblivion as one goes about ones routine of activities?  Does one pause and ponder and then take the trouble to articulate ones concerns? The answer would mostly be in the negative for most of us. But there are always exceptions to the rule. One such exception is the column, ‘All Things Considered’ by the multi- faceted writer, novelist, columnist and classical vocalist Mitra Phukan, who has just published her latest collection after the success of her two novels The Collector’s Wife (2005) and A Monsoon of Music (2011).

Guwahati Gaze is a compilation of 50 essays from the aforesaid column, published by Bhabani Books. These 50 essays are selected, albeit reluctantly, out of a total of 130 or more articles that the writer has published in her fortnightly column over a period of five years, from 2007 to 2011 in the Sunday Reading supplement of The Assam Tribune. They reflect the writer’s concern about Assam, about its changing face and socio-economic transition over the years, its cultural ethos and quintessential characteristics and qualities that set it apart. It is a penetrative gaze, not overtly critical, but a tongue in cheek, witty and ironical one, that goes deep into the social and psychological dynamics of the state of Assam and the Assamese people. Born out of “an urge to communicate and a need to share experiences with others”, this volume is evidently a labour of love, penned thoughtfully for that community of readers who form her world of virtual friends. Interestingly  the writer abdicates the all knowing authorial position and formulates the essays as a series of what she terms, “conversations” that make them so easily readable and comprehensible, making them almost a two way communication between reader and writer. No matter how transient the newspaper column tends to be, some impressions seep deep down to the reader’s consciousness and become, for reader as well as writer, a process of self discovery. This collection, while gazing at Guwahati and thence outwards to the world, provides a strong vantage point not only to assess oneself as a social being but also to enjoy God’s plenty and variety as they filter out of the writer’s consciousness, experience and creative imagination.

The compilation is divided into four sections, ‘We the Asomiyas’; ‘Guwahati Guwahati’; ‘Melodies and Tongues’ and ‘Modern Life’, and each of these sections — succinct and witty at the same time — take up different aspects for discussion. ‘We the Asomiyas’, offers penetrating insights into the Asomiya psyche highlighting in the first essay  ‘The Asomiya ABCD’,  the particular traits that characterise the Assamese community, as for instance the love for Bihu and Bhupen Hazarika,  the fetish for fish and the gamosa, the problems of insurgency and influx and so on. The list could go on but this A to Z of the Asomiyas offer a good enough bird’s eye view of the community as a whole.

Mitra Phukan

Mitra Phukan

In the same section, in her write up entitled ‘Modern-Day Cruelties’, she raises certain very pertinent gender related issues like the restrictions on the participation of widows in auspicious occasions or again on food, attire or even the application of the dot of sindur by the priest after any ritual or worship where the widow is studiously left out — reminding her again and again of her loss. Written in a somber tone this essay brings to the fore issues that are normally swept under the carpet.

The Great Indian Urinal’ , from the section ‘Guwahati Guwahati’,  delves mock ironically into the propensity of the general  passers-by to use the street corners and walls of the city as convenient places to relieve themselves. Phukan enlivens the telling all the way with her characteristic humour. The writer’s keen observation is evident in pieces like ‘A Women’s Walk’ and ‘The Shillong Connection’ in the first of which she dwells upon the subtle changes that have occurred in the ways in which women walk or stride as the case may be. In ‘The Shillong Connection’, she speaks of the close and nostalgic connect with Shillong that many Guwahatians feel even today, recreating thereby an era and a feeling that many can still identify with.

The Hindustani classical vocalist surfaces in the third section of the book entitled ‘Melodies and Tongues’, where she takes an inroad into some of her pet topics, language, music and musicians makes for an interesting read.  The vagaries of modern life, lightened considerably by the grace and goodness embodied by the subject of  an essay like ‘The Anonymous Compliment Giver’, form the subject matter of the final section.

The book starts with, and is peppered throughout, with a close, much needed, scrutiny of the typical behaviour and thought patterns exhibited by the Assamese people, highlighting both the positives and the negatives in an easy conversational style, using everyday examples and parallels. It is a telling that provokes an introspective journey and carries a few  serious messages  in the garb of an easy going manner.

Collections like these bring to mind the foretelling of thinkers and critics like Georg Lukacs and Theodore Adorno, who have prophesised that of all the genres of literature, the essay, particularly the cultural-philosophical essay, with its tentative and skeptical spirit and freedom from dogma, is most likely to be the reigning form in the modern age. The essay, in short, was — and perhaps remains — the ideal form for ages of transition and uncertain values as we are passing through now. As such, the book gains significance and makes interesting read  for the serious and casual reader alike. Unlike a novel, it need not be read from cover to cover and hence can be read over a period of time without losing the thread of thought. Considering  the time constrains that modern day people live and work under this is indeed an added advantage.

mitali goswamiMitali Goswami is a translator and critic. She teaches English at Handique Girls’ College, Guwahati.

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The Caravan: Mother’s Market, Imphal

Deepika Arwind

At the time we visited the Ima Keithiel or the Mother’s Market in Imphal, Manipur, in 2010 this historic collective of women was in flux. What had remained the largest, and perhaps oldest, women’s market (run mostly by women of the Maiti community) in Asia, in its chaotic but organic form, was now about to be shifted to a concrete structure built by the government. Whispers of what the new market would have in store for them went around: would the unorganised vendors who sat outside the earlier market be taken in? Would they share the new structure with  male traders from other communities who are richer and more influential.While the women of Ima Kethiel was in the midst of these discussions in November of 2010, Sonia Gandhi came to Imphal. She was there to inaugurate the new market – which the women would only come to occupy a few months or so later. As curfew had been declared in Imphal the day she was coming to the city, the women of the market stayed the night at the Keithiel, so they could walk from the market to the grounds where the inauguration was going to take place, instead of risking travel during curfew.They transformed the market into a space of their own, with mosquito nets and mattresses, playing or singing in groups through the night, eager to hear Sonia Gandhi speak. The following photographs are from days before and after this inauguration, inside and outside the market, perhaps the last few of the market in its erstwhile form. 
 

This photo-essay was part of documenting the research Swar Thounaojam, playwright and director, was doing in Imphal for her play Lucky Lobster, awarded the Robert Bosch Art Grant 2010. She was attempting to investigate what the role of Meitei women in Manipuri society truly was. While they are glorified as being an empowered lot, being the breadwinners of their homes, they are still subjected to oppression and violence by men, the state and non-state forces. 


Deepika Arwind

Deepika Arwind


Deepika Arwind is a writer and performer based in Bangalore. She won the Toto Funds the Arts Creative writing Award 2011 and was awarded the Lavanya Sankaran Fellowship 2011 at Sangam House, an international Writer's Residency. Her poems and stories have been published in several national and international magazines and journals. Currently, she is making her a debut as a director with Nobody Sleeps Alone, a play she has also written. It will open in Bangalore in June 2013. 
 

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The Thirties and Other Poems

George Szirtes

George Szirtes

The Thirties

It was the Thirties once again. Shop doors
opened on hunger and long queues for soup,
the poor, clothed by the same half-empty stores,

stood round in doorways in a ragged group;
the unemployed were drunk in railway stations,
rumours of war played on a constant loop.

The Furies were running out of patience
reduced to muttering curses and the lost
were lost in their own preoccupations.

In feral offices, the running cost
of living was calculated down to pence
by those who needed least and owned the most.

Imperial glamour was the last defence.
The cinema played all-out games of doom
on borrowed power. Even our dreams were dense,

crowding us out of every empty room.
We threw each other out for lack of rent
We were the bust remains of what was boom.

And knowing this, that none of it was meant,
not quite precisely as the world turned out
but as a fanciful presentiment,

was of no consolation. None could doubt
what was happening. The sea was emptiness
out of which light emerged. One distant shout

and it was here, the water’s fancy dress
of time as tide, the crowds along the street
jostling to hear a demagogue’s address.

Where else was all the troubled world to meet?
Why was the water rushing to the door?
At whose damp walls were the loud waves to beat?

© Divya Adusumilli 2013

© Divya Adusumilli 2013

So he lay…

So he lay naked on the bed and she drew him
in coloured crayons and her own skin shone
in the light of the low window and they were alone
in the house, so when the current passed through him

he slipped her out of her top, a moment’s work,
and skin met skin in the soft heat, her back
sliding down to the point where the rough track
of bone swells into plump flesh where lurk

the demons they were hoping to invite
so they should turn the body inside out
into that central universe where a shout
is enough to bring on rain, or sun, or night

or the end of breath like an answering cry,
with the landlady’s knock, since she was passing by.

Spleen
After Baudelaire

I’m like the king of a rainy country,  rich
but weak, now young cub, now a toothless bitch.
I’m through with books,and poems and  string quartets
I’ve sold the horses, shot the household pets.
Cheer up? Not likely, board games are a bore
and as for ‘the people’ dying by my door,
fuck them, and fuck that guitar-wielding clown,
who’s worse than useless when I’m feeling down.
See, here he is – that’s me – stuck in his bed,
the girls can put on sex shows, give him head,
go girl on girl, no point, it just won’t work,
nothing will jump-start this junky royal jerk.
The quack who brings him pills and knows a trick
to harden flaccid aristocratic dick,
may as well bring blood and the Roman Baths
the kind that suited those old psychopaths.
No good, he’s dead in muscle, nerve, and brain.
It’s all green Lethe and that bloody rain.

George Szirtes is a Hungarian-born British poet. He writes in English and also translates from Hungarian. One of the best contemporary poets, he has won many prizes such as the Faber Memorial Prize, T S Eliot Prize, Cholmondeley Prize, among others. Szirtes teaches at the University of East Anglia and lives in Norfolk, UK.

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Dead Birds Haunt

Tiamerenla Monalisa Changkija

© Divya Adusumilli 2013

© Divya Adusumilli 2013

Tonight too, I lay awake listening to echoes of dead birds’ songs, sung long ago;
these songs, that were once joyous celebrations of living
constantly drum the inner cores of my mind underscoring my past
— the days I took pride to serve our ‘traditional delicacies’ to family, friends and tourists
bragging “We love our wildlife best on our dining tables”.
Today I’m modern but that’s all and the tourists have stopped visiting my empty land
— a land as empty as I am.

Tonight too, I lay awake listening to echoes of dead birds songs, sung long ago.
these songs of dead birds, once joyous celebrations of living
are now constantly haunting lamentations and recriminations
that drum the inner cores of my mind underscoring my past
— the days I thought I could never go wrong.

Tiamerenla Monalisa Changkija

Tiamerenla Monalisa Changkija

Tiamerenla Monalisa Changkija is a poet and writer, born in Jorhat, Assam. She studied at Patkai Christian College, Chumukedima and did her BA and MA in Political Science from Delhi University. She is the editor and proprietor of the Nagaland Page, an English  daily. Her books include Weapons of Words on Pages of Pain (1993).

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A Nation Not Of Woman Born

Uddipana Goswami

© Divya Adusumilli 2013

© Divya Adusumilli 2013

One night long ago, at the stroke of the midnight hour, when half the world slept, India apparently awoke to life and freedom. But it was a freedom sampled and (to be) sullied by a handful of people. It was the freedom of a nation conceived and delivered by a few leading men. For the new India only had so many ‘fathers of the nation’, no mothers. Its systems and norms were also thus shaped by the patriarchs. Any wonder then that in this nation, women still cannot walk in the streets with their heads held high, their minds without fear? That honour killings still take place? That five year olds still get raped with impunity?

Yet, that is only one part of the tale of the patriarchal Indian State. The other part is best expressed allegorically. While working on some folk literature recently, this allegorical tale came to me – the story of a man and his two wives. In Axamiya folklore, of the two wives of a man, one is always the lagi or favoured and the other is the elagi or unwanted/ill-treated. Their children are accordingly loved or unloved, owned or disowned. Now, if the nascent Indian ‘nation’ (I have my reservations about the applicability of this label in this context) be the man with two wives, Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) at one end and the Northeast (NE) at another could very well be cast as his two wives. J&K would then have been the lagi wife, wanted to the point of being held back forcefully, and the NE the elagi – accepted only because a few powerful men intervened on her behalf. (The collective memory of the Northeast still has not forgiven Nehru for handing the region over to China while reserving only his heart for the people here.)

The wives in the folktales are usually passive, accepting the agency of fate and their husband. There were pockets and periods of passive acceptance in both the NE and J&K. But the twists and turns in the realpolitik are never as two-dimensional as the plots and characters of the folktale. With changing political equations and policy shifts, passivity in our tale often gave way to armed resistance and civil disobedience. But periodically, insurgency and political activism also allowed for co-option into the system, and sadly, even mercenarism. Meanwhile, the genuine problems remained buried under a pile of money, and anytime a voice was raised to address the real issues, it was drowned in either drum rolls or a drubbing. For the husband in our tale is as unmoved as the husband in any folktale – he does what he has to do: use money, might or magic charm to keep the wives where he wants them to be. And we all dance to his tunes. Save a few. Thank heavens for them. Thank heavens for people like Irom Sharmila!

This issue of Northeast Review is dedicated to Irom Sharmila Chanu and her relentless struggle against the patriarchal presumptions of the Indian State that continues to impose oppressive laws like the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) on the people it claims to be its own. In ‘The Tin Trunk’ then, we have special features on Manipur – where the iron lady lives – and on Kashmir. Both regions could quite rightly and eloquently sing to the Indian State: ‘Your Constitution Has Nothing For Me’.  Sumana Roy has more on this special feature.

In our regular features, we are thrilled to be bringing our readers poetry by some of the greatest living poets today – notably K Satchidanandan and George Szirtes. As usual, new voices and old find place in our fiction and non-fiction selections. And finally, we salute the greatness that was Chinua Achebe.

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When I think of Chinua Achebe

Mildred K Barya

Tribute to the Pure, the Good that was Chinua Achebe (6 November 1930 – 21 March 2013)

Chinua Achebe sketch

When I think of Chinua Achebe, I think of the pure at heart. In his work and writing, he was committed to one thing; he willed one thing—the Good that is Literature. He did not fear anything. He wrote courageously, and taught with confidence and compassion. He did not deny the rage he felt in his defense of African culture. He challenged assumptions and misconceptions, and thus came to be known as the grandfather of African Literature, the trailblazer, because he was willing to take full responsibility of that which he believed without any double-mindedness.

He knew his path, and walked it with steadiness. He did not falter. He did not budge. As a curious writer and reader, there were times when I doubted and disagreed with ‘his truth,’ but I acknowledge that he was earnest in his biddings. When I read his response to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a part of me did not agree that all the darkness referred to Africa, and was symbolic of only what was the African continent and its cultures. However ambiguous the title, I felt a sense of the darkness that was inside the brutal colonialists, and a deeper darkness that was largely the whole enterprise of the ivory trade and dehumanization/degradation of humans—mostly the Africans. Yet, it was Achebe’s unflinching stand that made me admire him, even when I disagreed. It was his commitment to write from deep within him that made his books remarkable.

He was an ancestor long before he became one largely because of his presence as a spiritual figure, guide and counselor. At the time I read him, which was early high school, I got the sense that he was dead like Shakespeare, Dickens, the Bronte sisters, Bessie Head, and other writers I liked then. Growing up in rural Kabale, Uganda, hemmed in by the mountains every which way, in the absence of internet and the encyclopedia, it was hard to know what lay beyond the mountains, beyond the landlocked-ness of my country. I was in a world of myth and storytelling, and legends were made everyday when we exchanged pleasantries or retired by the fireside after a long day in the gardens.

In Chinua Achebe we found a way of expressing what we felt, how we felt, just by stringing together his titles. When asked how life was, in a casual reply we would quip: ‘Things have fallen apart, therefore—Life is no longer at ease’.

My world had no witnesses, although storytellers like my dad claimed absolute truth to having been there as the story was happening. There sometimes meant at a hyena’s wedding to a crocodile, a marriage break-up between the tortoise and the lion, or the village chief having a quarrel with his neighbor. Dad described scenes in great detail as if he’d truly been there, and at the end of the story he would have a coda like, ‘I only left after all the wedding guests had eaten. Here I am now,’ or ‘when the priest said you may now kiss the bride.’ The real was so mixed up with the surreal, and ridiculous as it may sound now, I was gullible and believed everything as the truth. So when I read Achebe, the template of stories being real and true was already established. I read the Bible too, almost all of it, and started wetting and sharpening my machete against the stone so that if the bad guys in the Bible came for my family or friends, I’d be read to slice off their ears. I identified with Peter, and one of my favorite scenes was with Jesus overturning the goods in the temple. I was ready to be an anarchist in the name of justice, and most of the African/World Literature I read dealt with social injustices and a search for an ideology that could embrace all. I wasn’t content with Pip finding a benefactor in Dickens’ Great Expectations. That was too neat and I wanted a revolution. Stories of struggle against colonialism fired me up even though they felt far from me. I had never seen a White person, so I began to think that maybe all stories were imagined, but where were the imaginers? One thing I knew is that no one in my life had ever met a writer, so I assumed all writers were dead. My desire to be a writer sprang from that dread that soon became a certainty, and my next quest was to discover how to die in order to write. Death has taken on many symbolic meanings since then.

Achebe’s books, like his titles, were relatable and made a big impression on many of us as students in high school. Teenage life has its own conundrums, and in Chinua Achebe we found a way of expressing what we felt, how we felt, just by stringing together his titles. When asked how life was, in a casual reply we would quip: ‘Things have fallen apart, therefore—Life is no longer at ease.’ Then we would laugh, and move on. It was a response that did not call for details, but rather to be left alone. Sometimes it wasn’t even necessary to complete the sentence. I particularly liked saying only the first part, and the person asking me how life was would improvise: ‘oh, I see, life is no longer at ease.’ Achebe therefore didn’t only give us wonderful stories but also fed us with a new language in which we created our perfect scenarios.

Now that he is gone, now that I know he was alive when I first thought he wasn’t, dead is sad but seems okay because the people who love you will continue to have you in their lives and imaginations, whether you can be seen there or felt here. What is real, true, and survives, is the storytelling, since it is the only thing that turns us into witnesses of amazing worlds that we can only imagine. Achebe blessed us with those worlds. May his afterlife witness more wonder that even a master storyteller hasn’t imagined yet. Peace.

Mildred K Barya

Mildred K Barya

Mildred K Barya is the author of three poetry collections: Give Me Room to Move My FeetThe Price of Memory after the Tsunami, and Men Love Chocolates But They Don't Say. She has also published short stories in various anthologies. Currently, she teaches creative writing at Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham, and maintains an active writers resource blog at: http://mildredbarya.com/

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An Outsider Imagines His History

Anurag Rudra

(For Didibhai, who shares my delusion)

© Divya Adusumilli 2013

© Divya Adusumilli 2013

In your letters you had written of forests and nymphs;
And the mighty Barak creeping against the muddy
flesh of her lover’s back. You had written of metaphors

blooming like krishnachuras and how you held a simile

in the cusp of your hands. And when for the first time you bled
this earth turned sweaty and limp; we garlanded you with
the fragrant blossoms of poems.Eighty summers ago, my great grandmother crossed the river in a tori;
it had been raining for eight days. At night, when she turned
fish eyed from fever, they had nothing but the boatman’s
toki to wipe her with.

Now this is home; and for a melody, I have the cries of these alien

birds stuck in my head like an uncomfortable piece of shrapnel.
Back home, the betel-nuts are still ripe; her love still festive
as the songs of gypsies. But now, this is home. Like a gangrenous
scar, you have weeded me out like a telltale foetus from your womb.Strangely, my ancestors no longer visit me.
No longer do I dream of that old house in Karimganj,
its coconut trees and snakes.
No longer do I hear grandma wail when my unborn
sibling haunts me in my dreams.

Only when I do think of Maa
does the earth tremble a little.
And it rains

Anurag Rudra

Anurag Rudra

Anurag Rudra is a writer from Assam. His writings and poetry have been published in Muse Inida, Kinaara, Gloom Cupboard, The Glasgow Review and Tehelka Magazine among others. He currently lives in Guwahati and can be reached at anuragakarony@gmail.com.

 

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