Tag Archives: Issue 7

INDIA SINCE 1947: AN ATTEMPT AT REDRAWING THE MAP OF INDIA

Debojit Dutta and Manjiri Indurkar

India Since 1947 : Looking Back at a Modern Nation Edited by Atul Kumar Thakur Niyogi Books (2013)

India Since 1947 : Looking Back at a Modern Nation
Atul Kumar Thakur (ed.)
Niyogi Books 2013
English Non-Fiction

Necks, they are an important part of our anatomy. They supply us food and air, these narrow passages that connect the head to the body are like catalysts, without them functions stop, people die. They seem like bridges, taking people across, making ends meet; what happens when these bridges collapse? The people on it, they drown; and nations, they lose war. I kept thinking about wars while reading Sumana Roy’s brilliant essay In the Chicken’s Neck which is a part of the anthology India Since 1947: Looking Back at a Modern Nation. When nations fight wars, these necks, these narrow passages, that supply everything from food to ammunition, keep those men sitting on those borders alive. Whenever I thought about these necks, I always imagined vehicles running up and down them. But I never thought about the people living in these necks. Are creatures even supposed to live in necks? Won’t they be obstructing the passage? Or are they insignificant viewers, spectators of a tennis match, watching everything, noticing everyone, on either side of the net.

The net seems like yet another euphemism for a line that divides people from people, nations from nations. Roy, who grew up in the small town of Siliguri, the chicken’s neck that connects the Northeast to ‘mainland’ India, talks about living in a town surrounded by international borders. From where going to another country was easier than going to another city. Roy, in her essay, travels to these bordering nations and leaves her footprints behind. They can be found everywhere, be it Nepal’s porous border, or Bhutan’s unwelcoming open gates; the ghosts of Bangladesh’s border, or the invisible border of China. Aren’t these but clever metaphors for our relationship with these nations? What is Bangladesh if not a ghost of India’s past, and who knows where India ends and China begins?

Roy, in her essay, journeys through these nations, journeys that end, where these nations begin, for it’s time to go back to the chicken’s neck and wait. Wait for another movement, wait and watch the passersby make way for them. Because in all this commotion, the infiltrators of this neck, the silent spectators, as long as they don’t block the neck, they don’t matter. Roy’s beautiful essay is a loosely stitched photo album, a collection of past instances where she’s the chronicler of her own stories. But if read carefully, one could notice how they are stories that we have heard before, read before, we have been, in some strange way, a witness to all the stories she writes about.

This essay is part of a collection of thirty essays, trying to reflect upon the modern history of the nation, edited by first time editor Atul Kumar Thakur who has managed to garner an impressive ensemble of writers. From Ramachandra Guha to Amartya Sen, from Jagmohan to Shashi Tharoor, from Bibek Debroy to Sunita Narain, each one here is trying to paint a picture of an India they have seen, and the India they hope to see.

Like Roy, another man who has spent much of his life surrounded by borders and unwelcoming neighbours, asks us to look behind before taking a step forward, to learn the lessons from history. He is Jagmohan Malhotra, the controversial governor of Jammu and Kashmir during the Gawkadal massacre. “Life and History are organic entities. They do not admit to sharp dividing lines. Past, present, and future are, in fact, inextricably enmeshed,” he says. Jagmohan, in his sharp and focused essay, talks about tackling the Kashmir problem by “instructively surveying the past”. Indentifying the past mistakes, understanding the minds that made these mistakes, and their motives behind their decisions, because that is exactly where the solution lies. After all, if the mistakes were made in the past, then, only the past can provide us with solutions.

Jagmohan, in his essay, brings with him, his years of experience and his understanding of Kashmir. This essay, titled Kashmir: Past, Present and Future, is a relevant history lesson, a first-hand account. However, it seems a bit rushed. The author, while pointing out the mistakes made in the past, and the measures that could have been taken, seems in hurry to reach a conclusion, the foreseeable future of Kashmir. “So far, unfortunately, the ‘spirit of Munich’ has determined the attitude of the Indian decision makers. A vague hope has been entertained: Tomorrow it will be all right. But it will never be all right. The logic of history is against it.”

Unlike Jagmohan, who ultimately resorts to cynicism, and paints a desperate picture of the beautiful Kashmir, there is Shashi Tharoor talking about the future of a brighter India, an India run by ambitious, intelligent and educated leaders from the middle-class.  The Indian middle-class has never before, been a topic of so much discussion and debate. However, the past two years have taught us better. The Indian middle-class, a breed of office goers, the nine-to-fivers, it was always assumed that they will only worry about their pay checks and their annual holiday, until Anna Hazare happened, and began the middle class revolution, or so the middle-class would like to believe.

Tharoor, too, perhaps inspired by the sudden interest shown by the middle-classes in politics, talks about having more and more leaders from the masses, “Leaders who we can look up to, and not keep finding excuses for.” Tharoor dreams of an India where it will not be okay for a politician to be a criminal, where the politician will be the emblem of all that is good, and all that is all right with the world. It is a beautiful dream, perhaps shared by every Indian. However, things go haywire when Tharoor points out that the process has already started. “We already have, in the current Parliament, several educated and bright young professionals of the kind of background that for many years previously would not have been found in politics—people with good degrees, a national vision, international experience, intelligent ideas and the capacity to articulate them. It doesn’t matter that a significant proportion of them are the sons of politicians: the fact that they are in Parliament brings a different standard to bear on the quality of our politics.”

It is true; it doesn’t matter if they are sons of politicians, if they are capable and educated it is all we need. Unfortunately, contrary to Tharoor’s beliefs, education is not directly proportional to capability. Tharoor’s optimism, without examples to substantiate his claim, borders on naivety, something, that is not expected from a man of his intelligence.

***

People, most often, while reading translated text, complain about what all got lost in translation. I, for one, often find myself cringing about bad translations; I always feel that most translations fail to do justice to the original text. But it is also true that without translations, I would never get to read any other language authors and therefore, however bad the available text, it is still better than no text at all. While it has always been about the text for me, Saugata Ghosh, in his eloquent and extremely well researched essay Litany of Lost Languages, talks about the need for translation, not to save just the text, but the language in which it was written, the culture that it belongs to, and the people who wrote it and were written about. It is not about what got lost in translation but what has been found in and through translation.

He journeys through the various periods and phases of English translations, how the master’s language eventually became the tool, the means to save the languages of those once ruled upon. “English still the unofficial lingua franca of our country, thanks to our colonial inheritance; the power of English language translation needs to be harnessed here as well to stem the rot.

As Ghosh rightly points out in his essay, we are living in times where most of us are losing touch with our own languages. Most people cannot speak in their mother tongue, English, increasingly is becoming the language in which we read, write and speak. In times like these, perhaps it is best to use the language to save the many others, because with a lost language, we lose cultures, we lose civilisations. Ghosh’s essay adds much value to the collection, for it leaves us with the hope of rediscovering an India that once was, the one that habituated many cultures, the one that spoke many languages, and took pride in it.

While Ghosh makes a case for English as a means to save our languages, Ramachandra Guha, India’s foremost historian, writes about the relevance of bilingualism and the lack of it in his essay The Rise and Fall of the Bilingual Intellectuals. Guha’s essay on bilingualism begins with an argument he was witness to in the Kesavan household (between B.S. Kesavan and his son Mukul) where the father calls the son paithyam (Tamil for lunatic) in a tongue Mukul has scant access to. The son of a multilingual, Mukul, unlike his father, can only seek comfort in one language─ English. It is from the Kesavan household, that we begin tracing the fall of bilingual intellectual.

In the course of the essay, Guha visits many such households, narrating stories of the relationship these individuals shared with the many languages they knew. The historian recollects Gandhi’s opposition to English in keeping with the fervent nationalism and anti-colonialism of those times—language, it seems, was like clothes to the man, neither of them exported from Britain would be acceptable—and about Tagore’s criticism of this idea.

Exploring how one language might influence the other in a bilingual or multilingual person, he cites the case of Harivansh Rai Bachhan: “Surely Bachhan’s Hindi verse must have at some level been influenced by, or been a response to, his doctoral work at Cambridge on W.B. Yeats.” A more striking example, according to Guha, is how Premchand’s Godan, “considered the very archetype of modern Hindi novel”, was first outlined in English.

It is a powerful essay, an apt start to the book, a one that forces you to rethink your monolingualism. It made me think of my grandfather, who could write, just as beautifully, in three languages, English, Hindi and Marathi, his son, my father, in the process of growing up, let go off one language, he chose Marathi and Hindi over English, and me, the most privileged of the lot, decided to pick what my father had left, English.  Guha ends his essay with an example of Ramu Gandhi, the son of Gandhi’s youngest son, who according to the author is “the most brilliant man to have walked the lawns or entered the bar or spoken in the auditorium of the India International Centre.” It, too, is a story of three generations of great men and women of the Gandhi family, who unlike me, chose to stay bilingual.

It is needless to say that Guha has dipped his pen in history and not ordinary ink while writing this essay. He has dug deep into the past to bring out examples of the bilingual intellectuals. The historian, also, laments a decline in the number of people who are ‘linguidextrous’, citing that most scholars, including himself, are confined majorly within the boundaries of one language alone, the ones, who unlike Ramu Gandhi, are responsible for the fall of the bilingual intellectual.

A collection as humongous as this one is a reviewer’s delight as well as nightmare. Within the 340 pages of fine print, this book promises to encompass an India of the past, present and future. It’s a book about a ‘modern India,’ and much like the nation state, the book lacks consistency of pace. While the reader will revel in the beauty and the depth of details of some essays—other than the discussed, Aditya Mani Jha’s Immortal Picture Stories: Growing up with Indian Comics and Sunita Narain’s The Decade of Environmentalism of the Poor are insightful reads for different reasons— there are others that leave you wanting for more. It is an attempt at redrawing the map of India, and it is a daunting task, taken upon by its editor. While there always is much to complain, there is also much to cherish in this collection, one that has something for almost everyone.

Debojit DuttaDebojit Dutta is a freelance writer and journalist based in Delhi. He has previously written for Motherland, Himal and Kindle. Some suspect he secretly writes fiction, evidences suggest he is fictitious.
Manjiri photoManjiri Indurkar is feature writer for a sociocultural magazine called Democratic World. A fledging journalist, her interests include reading, writing, and eating (words, mostly). She can be found at manjiri.indurkar.off@gmail.com
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KATHONIBAARI GHAAT

Mahim Bora

Translated by Rajarshi Kalita and Mukuta Borah

© Divya Adusumilli 2013

© Divya Adusumilli 2013

Those hills of coals lay heaped on the miserably eroded banks of Brahmaputra.  The viridian waves of jhaobon packed sandbanks were exposed now as the water had receded and were rippling as far as the eyes could see. The Brahmaputra waters almost reach the gravelled main road during the monsoons. Now, as the water retreats, one needs to get down a good way to the ghaat. Bamboo slivers and wasted fences were laid out on the sand, putting together a path for folks to move. The lone tea-stall revealed itself under a straw roof plonked upon split bamboo palings dunked into the sand. The sling-door made from patches of empty kerosene tins, that was once raised had now turned into be another roof running parallel to the main roof.  Underneath, once a couple of split bamboo are placed on the four bamboo posts, you get a fabulous “bench”. You can sit there and have a cup of tea; buy a bidi, light a cigarette, chat. I wasn’t doing any of these; rather I was intently looking at the sun that seemed to have transformed into a gigantic bowl of vermillion. The ferry would arrive at nine in the night, or that is what the rule is. I had reached the ghaat much before dusk set in.  And before my eyes, the teeny-weeny waves, with their teeny-weeny hands as if smeared themselves with the vermilion and ran off to see some mou-mel somewhere.

As if somebody has smashed every bit of the vermillion in anger over their bodies; somewhat was akin to a woman with a bare forehead.  My mind turned lonesome. Very few passengers could be seen. A couple of Nepalese were there, with their wives. A few labourers too, from the tea-estates. The vehicles from the tea estates that used to bring boxes of tea and take back coal have kept Kathonibaari Ghaat alive. The hazy smoke from the distant tea-mill has already begun blending with the darkness. The boot–a permanently moored boat where essentials for the ferries are kept–that looked like a black demon, the khalasis who worked there, the people of the labourer kind, the small family of the tea-stall and us, and the travellers, were all engulfed by the dark.

The chiming of anklets along with a whooping noise raised curiosity. A bullock cart was seen through the gaps in the straw and reed wall. The cart-driver descended and gently lowered the yoke to the ground. The couple of bullocks began sniffing at the few blades of grass here and there and it was then the green shade of the curtains in front of the cart came into view. Immediately the mind turned verdant and started rippling like the green curtain. A sprightly boy of fifteen or sixteen hopped down.

Along with the cart-driver, he brought down a tin-trunk, and kept it on the ground. After a lot of exertion and strain, the box boarded the head of the cart-driver. The boy took him away, showing the way ahead to the boot.

The mind started quivering once again. The figure that came out of the cart could be seen quite distinctly; because the last dangling particles of light were just disappearing, and stood facing the river, after tidying the clothes on the body. The boy and the cart-driver came close. Taking down stuff such as a hold-all from the cart, they dawdled towards the boot. My eyes followed them.

The boy and the cart-driver appeared after a while. After giving him some money for a cup of tea, the boy ordered him to tie up the bullocks, “Tell them that we arrived safely, do you get it?”

Settling that, the boy went back to the boot. The cart-driver gulped down a ‘single’ tea and a Kol-biscuit. He answered the question of his kind, the labourer passenger sitting near him in the shop. Ten miles to go.

The ten-mile journey of the cart began. The dim light of the lamp that was lit in the ghaat hung on for quite a long distance. On a curve, all of a sudden, it vanished.

The weak light of a candle flickered on one end of the boot.  It seemed that they too have selected that area. My luggage is also there. That area is the only comfortable part in the entire boot.  A hurricane had just lit up near the entrance of the boot. Another was in front of the shop. These three pegs of light robustly erected the tent of darkness. Splash! A loose clod from the bank somewhere ran off and dived into the water. Somewhere very near, right on the edge of the water, one could distinctly hear the cackling laughter of some selekona fish.  I looked at the piles of coal.  Like disguised demons of children’s tales, they advanced menacingly towards me.

My mind pined to go to my spot on the boot (or to know more about the new passenger?). I went ahead into the boot over the strong wooden cross-bridge. Inside the boot, as if all sorts of smells—of tea boxes, of paint, of asphalt, dried fish, burnt coal—had started a chorus after rinsing themselves in laupaani in the hazy darkness; as if somebody had opened a large wooden chest in front of your nose after a long time. This whiff of the flats is one of my favourites. The people from khalasi and other similar classes were busy finishing their meal before the ship arrived.

Beyond the spot I kept my luggage, the Nepalese family, after spreading the blankets, has begun singing a song of lengthy tunes. Further away, a few men, probably Santhals or Oriyas, have situated themselves in a circular fashion on a blanket amidst the railings and have started munching something very hastily. Perhaps it is roasted rice. And right near my luggage, having nudged my suitcase and my bed-pack just a little aside, the boy has spread out the hold-all, and by lying downon it he had immersed himself into an English cine-magazine under candle-light. The girl sat near the bed-head looking disinterestedly towards the paper.

Not knowing what I should be doing, I simply moved my suitcase. The girl looked at me. But she had to look for a while to see me through the candle light. What happened then was that I got a chance to momentarily spot her face framed by the candlelight. The boy too looked at me in a similar manner placing his magazine on his hand. When I bent over to shift my suitcase, the light from the candle licked my face as well.

The boy sprung up hastily. And the girl, well – she also pulled up her veil onto her hair-bun.

“Your suitcase? We’ve just kept it a bit aside. We’ll squeeze in, you spread your bed.”

I was taken aback by the ardent intimacy of his tone. I have been embarrassed quite a few times because of forgetting people too soon. No, that is not the case…I don’t remember seeing him anywhere.

“Oh no, It’s alright! Both of you (the veil!), I mean, you…. sit comfortably. I’ll manage.”

I had already hidden my bed-pack wrapped in a blanket (soiled now) behind my suitcase using finger-tricks. But how will I take care of the discoloured suitcase that has been turned into a sentry? By the way, he belongs to a good lineage; the roots lie in English steel, but who cares about pedigree? When he saw the two things being lifted, the lad shouted indignantly, “Are you planning to move elsewhere? That would really hurt us.”

The boy indeed began pulling in his hold-all.

“No, both of you rest yourselves. There’s no knowing when the ship’s going to come. There’s no fixed time. And sometimes it doesn’t arrive at all.”

“This’s exactly why you should stay here. There aren’t many passengers, and to top it, there aren’t any Axomiya folks. My baideo and I were discussing just that. Even if we could meet somebody….”

I realized that the boy was as scared as his elder sister. I had actually done this trick to remove my ‘vagamond-marked’ suitcase and the bed-pack. Now, my pack of clothes can peek through the veil. Having spread out the bed-pack, I sat in the direction of their feet.

“It should be time to get our tickets. Let me check. Where should I get the tickets for?” There was still time before tickets were given out. But I could find nothing else to ask.

“We’d be going to Jorhat.” The boy answered, sitting up respectfully.

“To Jorhat? But today’s ferry is going downstream.” I answered, pretending to be shocked. Because only the ginger-merchant doesn’t keep track of ships! There are no signs at all of them being so.

The boy was delighted to lessen the load off my mind. With the same delight that a boy from the fifth standard feels while explaining something to a boy from the sixth standard, he explained to me that they will catch the “down steamer” to Xilghaat, and then would reach Jorhat directly using state transport. “We must reach Jorhat by tomorrow. It’s essential.” The words and dialogues were drawing me. Though the the woman who seemed to be their daughter-in-law was sitting aside with typical awkwardness, a momentary glimpse of her face gave the impression that she too was engaged actively in the conversation. I was pondering over this perplexing quality of being able to turn oneself so “alive” without a peep from the mouth. She must have been married just a few days aog; there was a hue of turmeric on her skin that I could clearly notice even in the weak light of the candle. A fragrant stream of turmertic and oil from amidst her hair and the dulai. on her body has made a river-mouth in my nose.  She had a full face and round hands like longish balloons. The radiant yellowish complexion and the colour of the pat-silk made her look like a painted subject. Nowadays, such a build isn’t seen often.

Suddenly I remembered, the young man had asked me something, and is a bit discomfited too not having received an answer.

“Oh-oh, did you ask something about me? I’m also going to Xilghaat, my home’s close to Xilghaat.”

“Then it’s really good. The ship reaches Xilghaat within the night. Having met you would be of great help. Isn’t it, baideu?

Baideu was fiddling with the magazine.  Her ears were on our conversation.

She raised her head, and kept looking towards her younger brother affirmatively.

Someone had embossed the smile on her entire face with ripe colours. How would the forehead have smiled otherwise? Do the nose, eyes and chin smile too? Can such lush ebony eyebrows too beam so delicately?

It was time for the ferry to arrive just like other days. I stood up to go and enquire about it. The boy wanted to fish out some money to get the tickets. I checked him saying that the bell for the ticket has not yet been rung, and even if tickets are sold, I can get them with my own money. The money can be paid back later.

“If there’s still time for the ferry to arrive, could we have tea?” I asked, just as I was leaving.

The boy looked at his sister’s face. The sister groped in the hold-all with her fingers and said, as if to herself, “Where might be the flask?”

I heard her voice, for the first time. Sombre, yet endowed with softness a tad like butter –I am not really sure if such a description would fit the voice of a person.

The young man whisked out the flask. I went near the railing after taking the flask. A river-dolphin nearby popped its head to look at how advanced the night is. Somewhere, some soil eroded noisily into the breast of the river. The tired cadence of a madol is floating through from some faraway tea-estate.

There appears to be no hope of tickets being given. The ferry must have been stuck on some sand-bank. The ticket-master spoke out crossly. The last earthquake, it appears, has left a sand-bank in the ticket-master’s sleep.

The family of the tea-stall owner has finished eating. The children have lowered the things of the stall from a bamboo chang and were ready to go to bed. The plump middle aged shopkeeper was engrossed in a game of bridge along with three other persons after laying out a mattress on the front chang. One of them spoke out the moment I reached, “It’s already ten, need to go.” “This game,” another answered while shuffling the pack of cards. Nobody has seen me. I didn’t play spoilsport and began watching the game. “Heart one”, “Spade one”, “No trump”, “Two clubs”, “Three Diamonds”, “Double” etc started becoming like the sound of crackers. The game started and then came to an end. The part that insisted on the last game, i.e. the shopkeeper also underwent a lot of “down”. The three of them got up to leave after that. I realized, all three were employees in the tea estate – they play bridge here at night.

I was looking piteously at the face of the storekeeper which resembled a “spade” now. It was now that he became aware of me. “Do you need something?” He asked softly.

“I needed tea, but will you be able to provide?” I asked, glancing at the children getting ready to sleep. “Of course, I suppose the ferry won’t come at all tonight.” A small boy has already sprung to our side.

“One cup?”

I forwarded the flask to the boy, “Three.”

“Oh, you have your family?” The tea stall owner went on, “Tell us if you have any trouble. If you want to eat, we will arrange that as well. You can have tea, hot water or anything you need, even in the night.”

He was quite fat, swarthy and middle-aged. Gentleness could be seen on his face. Intimacy stirred the tune of his voice. I understood after a short conversation that the children were motherless. They were the only ones who comprised his humble household on the sands of the Brahmaputra.

The people of this world made me feel so good. So much of love, affection, sympathy! My mind felt warm. I expressed a few words of gratitude, paid for the tea and I returned to the boot after almost an hour. I got to know from the ticket master that there are no hopes of the ferry coming. Not before the last phase of the night. I advanced towards our spot through a narrow and gloomy path between two rows of tea-boxes.

The roasted-rice party was popping rice-puffs in their noses. We could hear the song of the Nepali family rising to the seventh scale once. The same has now reached the eighth in long yawns and sluggish stretches. The film magazine has also snoozed off comfortably on the boy’s chest. Having found the companion for the night., the poor guy is absolutely relieved now.

His sister sat on the side of his head, and must have been waiting for me. When she saw me, she raised him gently, “Varun, won’t you have your cup of tea?” There was no needless anxiety in her voice, no irregularity in her actions. I realized she was self-confident and also could lay trust in others. My hesitation reduced considerably.

“Varun”, I called out.

All three of us sat down for tea. I had already procured three earthen glasses from the shop. They brought out coconut ladus and two or three other food items from the suitcase. When I tried to go a little away with my portion, objections were raised. I was forced to eat where I was seated itself. “Spread your bed well, Varun, get the mosquito net up as well. You can sleep tight then.”

“Won’t the ferry arrive?” I felt as if both had asked simultaneously.

“What’s going to happen, Varun?” His sister asked anxiously. I wouldn’t have believed that anxiety can also make somebody beautiful. But why are they so anxious?

“Do you’ve very important work, Varun? In Jorhat?” The sentence slipped out of my mouth suddenly.

“We must reach Jorhat tomorrow, by any means.” His sister replied to me straightforwardly this time, though with a bowed head.

“We’ll think tomorrow what to do tomorrow, isn’t it, Varun?” Varun found a great ally in my words.

“Indeed so! Why does my sister keep on imagining needless thoughts? They have written, ‘No worry’.  You’re also a minor-pass; don’t you understand the meaning of ‘No worry’?”

“But what about ‘Come sharp’?” she replied looking at her brother, smiling a little shyly.

Bhinihideu’s a lily-livered person. He wants you nearby like he’s on death’s bed even when he has a headache. That’s why ‘Come sharp’.”

I saw in the candlelight that her entire face was flushed beautifully. “No worry, come sharp” – what mystery does lie in these words!

“Is there any ailment?”

“Bhinihideu had a cycle accident. In the hospital now, it’s been two days since we got the telegram. I wasn’t there; I just reached yesterday after my school had closed. It ‘s the time of leaves in the estate, “season time”, so my father too couldn’t get leave.”

Varun spread out the bed spaciously after my repeated requests. He raised the mosquito net three corners with a lot of effort. Baideu went off to sleep without a word. I got to know a little more about Varun’s family after a little chit-chat. My address was also noted down. Sometime later, Varun too fell asleep.

Kathonibaari Ghaat was fast asleep. Caught in the snare of slumber, the boot too started drooping drowsily. The annoying sound of footsteps somewhere, of the ticket-master or some khalasi, could be clearly heard right unto the end of the boot. Some soil from a nearby precipice crashed down.

On the other side of the Brahmaputra, a tiger is lurking on the path of its prey in the darkness of the Kaziranga (must be). Some mystery is lying and blinking its eyes in the distant sand-banks, amidst the kohua and the jhaubons, in the broad, dark waters of the Brahmaputra. A few stars have crowded together and are sneaking in quick looks to find out what the mystery might be. In the bank nearest to the boot, some laundry-girls with dishevelled hair are splashing clothes – “Sop-sop-sopath!” Dhet! Those are the waves!

The young man, or Varun, is in the ninth standard in the town high-school. What did he say the name of his father is? He works in the tea-house in one of the tea-gardens. Head tea house? Most probably so. It is ten miles away from the ghaat. It has been one and a half years since his elder sister got married.

She has been called back just after a week. It is a minor injury. But what about “Come sharp”! He cannot stay away from her. Very loving….if only this night had been one and a half years back! And I haven’t had a cycle accident now….dhet!

The candle fluttered out in the breeze. It felt good in the dark, but it seemed inappropriate. I lit the matchstick. Having found a half-consumed stick of mixer, I lit that up and extended the burning matchstick towards the candle.

I was startled. The voice of the elder sister. “One might get some sleep, in the dark.”

“You haven’t gone to sleep?”

“Dozed off a little. Sleep seems to evade me.”

Naturally. The candle stayed unlit. Resting on the railings, I kept on looking sharply towards the direction the ferry might come from. Candle-light won’t do, I must get the light of the ferry.

I didn’t know how long I stayed that way. Suddenly a commotion started. Words like “Ferry”, “Ferry”, “light” etc were accompanied by the bell for tickets and the thumping of people walking.

I lit the candle hurriedly. The sister had already sat up. She woke up Varun goading him with both hands. A startled Varun also woke up.

“The ferry’s arrived, Varun.”  As if, after a lot of hullabaloo and lingering I have brought information that’s like “A boy’s born”. I went off to get the tickets after asking him to roll up the bed.

I understood immediately that there has been some mishap as soon as I saw the face of the ticket-master. Signals have been received from the ferry that repair works need to be done. Therefore, tickets will be issued later on. The ferry was limping ahead towards us. Varun came and stood near me some time after. Once the news was broken, he went back to inform his sister.

Dawn was breaking out.

I went down to the bank. Some arrangement must be taken care of.  They must reach Jorhat today by any means. After the morning-deeds, I shook off the drowsiness with a strong cup of tea. I made them prepare three good cups of tea after getting them to fry fresh luchis. The ferry arrived and a couple of passengers alighted. I saw that Barun is coming down to the bank accompanied by another youngster.

Dada, dada, Mamu’s arrived. He’s come from Jorhat on the ferry. Didn’t I say so, there’s no need to worry.”

Mamu has arrived looking all worn out after the loss of the night’s sleep! A related brother-in-law of the sister, He is almost of the same age as Varun, maybe a little older. “What’s the news from Jorhat?” I asked looking at Mamu; it was Varun who replied promptly, “It’s good, since our departure’s getting late, he‘s sent to take back.”

“Take back? Why so?”

“If she leaves, I’ll take her; otherwise I thought I’d myself go back after the spree, and thus I came.” Mamu replied this time. “So what’re you going to do now?”

Nobou wants to leave, at any cost. Therefore, we’ll hire a boat and catch the first bus to Jorhat. The ferry’s stuck in the sand, something’s broken down. It’ll leave only after repairs. So, it’ll get late if we go by ferry.”

“In that case Varun, arrange for baideu to freshen up. Both of you go. I’ll get the tea brought in.”

Both of them left after Varun had handed over the flask in his hand. After allowing them time of an hour or so, when I returned to the boot along with tea and breakfast in the hands of a shop-boy, Varun’s sister was chatting merrily with Mamu after having her bath that morning. The shadow of worry that was during the night is no longer there on her face.

“My heart skipped a beat when I’d seen you first.”

“I’ve already said, if you don’t want to go, you can go back to the estate.”

“Oh no, both of you can come back after dropping me off. It’s nice that you’ve arrived. Last night a person really helped…..”

I had arrived. She drew her veil just a little more and her shyness simply turned her crimson. The shop-boy left after leaving the paraphernalia of tea behind.

“Where’s Varun gone?” I looked at Mamu.

“He hasn’t come back after having gone to freshen up,” the answer came from Mamu’s nobou. And immediately engaged herself in pouring out tea. Tea and breakfast was forwarded to me and Mamu.

“Not for me, I’ve just had some.”

“Have to eat again.”

Wow! I moved off a little with my glass of tea.

“The boat’s been arranged. It’d be better to wrap up soon. The tea’d get cold, don’t wait for Varun. Isn’t it, Mamu?”

“Ya, right now. The bus to Jorhat will reach Xilghaat at nine.”

The boatman from the West started rowing to the tune of Varun-Mamu’s song.

“Brahmaputra, Ganga, ma oooo,

Botaahe haalise gaon,

Mathura Puri-loi jao

Kaaxe sopai diya nao.”

The boat started shooting like an arrow on the waters downstream. I looked at Varun’s sister and Mamu’s sister-in-law (Mine? What of mine?). She is listening intently to the song of Varun and party. The smile which was wedged upon her face was rising and falling noiselessly to the rhythm of the song. And that vermilion mark! What a blazing red flame of fire is it! The complexion of the face in the morning sunlight has turned golden, nay, has taken on the hues of raw turmeric joints. The colour of gold is lifeless.

A picture of a happy home. Mother and father-in-law, brother-in-law, “Can’t even survive if he doesn’t find you” – a husband. That is why it’s “Come sharp.” “You’re also a minor pass-out, don’t you know the meaning of ‘no worry’?’” “Have to eat again.”….

Of my many days as a vagabond moving around among tea-gardens looking for a job this was a day that had come to me, a night out of my many nights – as the boat progressively approached Xilghaat, my mind increasingly grew more and more despondent.

Suddenly I saw that the vermillion mark on Varun’s sister is gleaming like blood. When she stooped her head over the boat a little, the sparkling reflections from the waves shot all across her face. As if the waves will carry off her vermillion mark after carving it up.

The boat approached the ghaat. Xilghaat.

The bus arrived as soon as the tea-chapter ended. Government bus, runs by the clock. This is where we part. Varun and his sister went and sat on the “second seat”. Varun was effusive in his praise.

“Do drop at baideu’s home when in Jorhat, you remember the address, don’t you?” Varun’s sister, with a warm look, also spoke out, even more than Varun. “And if you’ve to go through Kathonibaari ghaat, you must visit our home in the estate.”

It was not verbal formality; it was a call from the heart. The bus honked. The sister gently signalled a namaskar, raising both her hands to her forehead. I also gestured one in return. But Mamu?

Mamu has not yet got up from the tea-stall. I hurried to the tea-stall after informing the driver, to send Mamu. Mamu is scurrying a sewing-machine on a cigarette.

“The bus’s leaving, Mamu.”

Mamu braces up after throwing away the cigarette. “It has been a pleasure meeeting you,” Mamu kept on looking at me with an agitated restlessness. “Will definitely meet someday, the bus is about to leave – you go now,” I somewhat shoved him on. The horn hoots once again. Mamu is now perspiring in agitation. “Yes, I’m going, but how’ll I go? Kokaideu had a car accident and everything’s over the next day! My arrival is just a make-up.”

Mamu leaped on to the bus. The wheels of the bus, rotating rapidly, disappeared amidst the curves of the Kamakhya hill.

“Kathonibari Ghaat” (1955), Galpa Samagra by Mahim Bora. Ed. Hiren Gohain, Guwahati: Golok Raimedhi Smriti Prakashan, 1993.

Mahim Borah (1924 – ) is one of the most respected authors of Assamese Literature, especially renowned for his short stories. He has won numerous awards such as the Sahitya Akademi, Assam valley literary Award, The Sahityacharya honour, and  the Padmashree Award in 2011. He lives in Nagaon, Assam.

—————-

Rajarshi KalitaRajarshi Kalita teaches English Literature at Shyamlal College, University of Delhi. His area of interests include cultural studies, popular culture and popular fiction, colonial historiography, translation and North Eastern cultural history and politics.

—————-

Mukuta BoraMukuta Borah is a doctoral fellow in the Department of MIL&LS, University of Delhi. She is currently working on women writing on conflict from Assam She also teaches English literature and language to post graduate students of IGNOU. Her area of interest includes comparative literature, translation studies, ELLT, literature and visual documentations/representations of the diaspora and American literature.

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YATRA CHAKRA

Satish Singh

Translated from the Hindi by Abdullah Khan

Illustration : Avirup Ghosh

Illustration: Avirup Ghosh

The Circle of Journeys

Whenever we move from a village to a city
Or from a city to a village
Everything changes
Air, soil, water
Whisperings of new wind
The fragrance of new flowers

We move to a new place again
But old memories remain stuck
To our consciousness
Their fragrance and flavour intact

The winter morning
The garden-fresh sun just out of its hidings
My train stops
On a unknown platform
But the name of the city is familiar to me
I could barely read – “Patna”
On a wall stained with red paan juices

I am amazed at the deepness of the city
As I walk around
To explore the city

When I see ‘Agamkuan’ I wonder
How emperor Ashoka
Might have killed his 99 brothers
A psychopath must have resided in his body
Bloody dreams must have infested his eyes
He must have been a heartless man
With a conscience devoid of
Empathy or compassion

In my dreams
I see the River Ganges
Shrouded in darkness
When I woke up
I find the river is on ventilators

The filth littering the streets
The vehicles clogging the roads
The concrete jungle
Women walking naked in the markets
The shattered mirrors of grace and honour
The demise of thoughtfulness

In this age of rapid transition
The cool breeze no more sings the ballads of spring season
The moon no more sprinkles its golden moonlight
Rivers, winds, trees and humans
Have been deprived of the life giving rays of the early morning sun

Mankind is not yet dead
But is breathing its last
I have an overwhelming impulse to cry loudly
But I manage to control my feelings
I fear I will be branded insane

Will the flutter of the wind
Give melody to its melody-less whisperings
Will the courtyard of my house
Be fragrant with sweet memories of the past
When I set out on a new journey?

***

Satish Singh is a Patna based poet and freelance journalist. An alumnus of Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi, he writes for leading Hindi dailies like Jansatta, Navbharat Times, Hindustan, Dainik Bhaskar, Dainik Jagran, etc. He has also published one poetry collection.
Abdullah Khan writes on literary and social issues for a number of Indian and international publications, including The Hindu, Brooklyn Rail, The Friday Times and The Daily Star amongst others.
Avirup Ghosh is a PhD student at Jadavpur University. His research interests include visual arts, storytelling and ethics of representation.

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THE PICNIC

Digonta Bordoloi

Excerpt from the novel, Slow. About a family picnic interrupted by the sudden appearance of an elephant on rampage.

© Divya Adusumilli 2013

© Divya Adusumilli 2013

As winter receded, picnics arrived. But unlike our impromptu picnics in the Kohima woods, these were proper ones. To kick off the picnic season in Golaghat, our family always held the famous Bardalaye family picnic. But it didn’t stop there. After we returned to Kohima there was the joint Angami family picnic, the Agri Colony picnic, Dauta’s office picnic, the Kohima Assam Sahitya Sabha picnic, our class picnics, a huge school picnic… Picnics were about two things: enjoying nature and eating lots of food!

…After a few impatient shouts from somewhere in the bus, I made it to the bus, only to find that Riku and Babloo had both saved me a seat. Even though they both beckoned frantically, not wanting to offend either, I pulled myself up onto the engine flap and sat on the ‘cushion’ on top – a gunny bag filled with hay. Riku and Babloo both frowned. My seat was the best in the bus. I had a full view out the windscreen and the running engine warmed my bottom against the morning chill. We drove by harvested paddy fields, their golden-brown stumps resembling beds of long golden nails. Soon those nails would be uprooted and become compost for the next lush green crop. The bus drove on through plots of forest dispersed by patches of tilled land showing its red underbelly of earth – zipping past us like a red-green zebra crossing. After a few kilometres the bus turned onto a narrow road cut through dense forest. As we snaked our way along, branches and creepers from the surrounding trees blocked out the early morning light, and the bus fell into a lull. Suddenly my eyes grew wide, hopping over potholes, heading at break neck speed towards us, was a minibus. From all windows hands waved out at us; the legs of a fat white caterpillar, fleeing the beak of an invisible bird. To avoid a head-on collision both bus and minibus braked to a screeching halt. The caterpillar’s head jutted out through the driver’s window,

“Are you all heading to the Dhonsiri Sapori for a picnic?” He enquired, eyeing off the wading-pool sized cooking vessels, live chickens in bamboo baskets, and grains and vegetables in jute sacks all crammed on top of our bus. “…If you are then you better look for some other spot…”

At that, from within the minibus the pack of panic stricken picnickers chorused:

“Tell them about the makhona hati, the rogue bull elephant, roaming all over!”

“It has already trampled six people to death!”

“Apparently he loves crushing heads under his feet!!”

As our busload of heads turned and eyes widened, I could feel the morning stupor become charged. Then, cutting through the rising panic Probin-mama calmly announced,

“Ah, don’t worry, I’ve my rifle.”…

…In the absence of sunshine an eerie quiet quickly took hold of the bus. No one said a word, instead imagining that each thick hanging vine was an elephant’s trunk, seeing every gnarled tree as an elephant’s leg. The bus puttered on around countless curves and bends, turning the journey into an intense scene from a breath-stifling, heart stopping Amitabh Bachan thriller. As we sputtered deeper into the jungle, the path narrowed further as thick vegetation reclaimed its territory from the road. After a few more kilometres we all let out a collective sigh of relief as the sun reappeared and the road finally ended in front of an expansive sand dune that stretched off into the distance.

Everyone stumbled out from behind the narrow seats and stretched their crumpled legs. I wandered behind Riku and Babloo who were running up the dune. Hardly raising my breath I soon caught up with them and strolled past. Dashing to reach the river up the shifting sands was sending them backwards more than forwards. One day they might realise that it wasn’t always faster to run…

…Ma, along with Sagorika Khuri my aunty, oversaw the preparation of the tenga anja, the main ingredient of which was the twenty kilo fish. Younger aunts Minoti and Purnima assisted by chopping vegetables while discussing the right proportion of spices, and uncles Dhiren-khura and Anup began cleaning the fish. My cousin Lota, in charge of the dal, sat busy picking twigs, stones and other bits foreign to its five spices seasoning. Nironjon-khura complained as he trudged along with a metal bucket and fetched water from the river to wash the rice before cooking.

Then there were the preparations of the murgir jul. Biren uncle, a chicken farmer himself, stood killing the twenty odd local chickens, hitting the squawking birds with a stick, aiming just below their wings and above their hearts to kill them instantly. Biren Khura then passed them on to Moloy and Sagor khura who plucked, cleaned and chopped the birds into bite size chunks.

…Busy with cooking and anyhow accustomed to accidents like those, Ma was not alerted. Instead, Lota-ba, unflustered, escorted me coughing and spluttering to the edge of the jungle to change into the set of spare clothes that always accompanied me. Perched on a sunny rock jutting out of the slope, Lota-ba spread the wet clothes out to dry. Meanwhile I began to struggle into dry clothes that refused to slide against my wet skin. As I struggled with my second trouser leg, a loud crack, the unmistakable noise of gun fire, sounded close by. Stunned, my and Lota-ba’s heads swung around. While Lota Ba peered anxiously over the rock, I shuffled a step or two higher to improve my view.

Spotting the rogue elephant grazing peacefully some distance away, Probin-mama, my hunter uncle, unable to control his excitement, had fired a round into the air to scare it away. But instead of achieving his objective the elephant looked enraged! Lota-ba gasped as the angry elephant, ears flapping and trunk waving, charged straight towards Probin-mama and he, looking equally crazed, charged straight towards us. In a frenzy, Lota-ba took off down the hill at top speed, followed by gun toting hunter uncle shouting, “Elephant! Elephant!”

Then Lota Ba cried,

“The elephant’s caught me! O Ganesha, save me!!”

But despite the growing furore, from my vantage point I could see that the loose end of her flowing mekhela sador had caught in the branch of a tree.

I breathed out and laughed. The sun was starting to warm the skin on my bare shoulders when a whiff of warm moist air startled the hairs at the back of my neck. Perplexed but unhurried, I turned and after a moment to readjust my eyes saw not the trunk of a tree, but the trunk of the elephant, sniffing me, sizing me up. His head was equal in size to the rock I was standing on. As the air caught in my throat, the only other sound I registered was that of the elephant’s own even breath. In one smooth move the elephant slid his coarse leathery trunk around my neck, scuffing my skin as it went. In the midst of a strange clarity I knew that he didn’t want to hurt me and in that instant I promised that if he left my head and body in one piece, I would never hurt or kill wildlife again.

Silently, we shared our understanding. Droplets of sweat slid down my face and dripped onto the elephant’s grey coarse skin. I was transfixed, standing like one of the wooden pegs that I had seen elephants tethered to. The elephant was tethered to me, but his grip around my throat didn’t tighten, nor did I feel the trunk’s weight. He just gently flapped his ears and stared. Finally, his trunk unfurled, took a long final sniff and then that lovely beast turned and sauntered away.

Like the hero of a Hindi movie, I was given a champion’s reception. While I was supposedly fighting off the dreaded beast, others had been saving the partly cooked food, cramming the giant utensils into and onto the bus wherever they could fit. Determined not to let a near-death experience interrupt a good picnic, we drove until we found a less scenic but nevertheless safer location. Throughout the picnic and on our way back home, Probin Khura kept his rifle in its case. I heard later that from that day forward he never raised it to scare anything bigger than the occasional, annoying crow.

***

Digonta BordoloiDigonta Bordoloi grew up in the North East of India. In his early twenties, career dreams took him first to Delhi, then to Mumbai where he spent over a decade in the advertising industry. Escaping the corporate world, he landed up in Africa. After a year in Uganda, Digonta spent some time in Swaziland and Zanzibar, Tanzania, where he started writing Slow, his first novel. Digonta lives with his wife Susie, and they call Australia and India home.

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MEMORIES OF WAR

Chielozona Eze

© Divya Adusumilli 2013

© Divya Adusumilli 2013

Raising the Dead

If I didn’t tell you, you wouldn’t know.
Place your thumb on my heart – a scar.
Press a little harder – a grave.
In it repose the memories of war children
pretzeled by hunger,
children whose stomachs were globes.
I know them.
I was one of them.
I died my own death
when my mama groaned aloud for God to hear:
Please stop this war.

I am an undertaker.
Flowers no longer move my heart.
But where do I pour this handful of tears of the woman
calling on her soldier husband in the casket?

I am an undertaker.
But I am scared.
My eyes are now trained
on the many comatose, who hold on to the hope
that we would reach them a helping hand,
lift them from the graveyard of grit without gains,
the never-ending war of us against the weak.

In Search of my Father’s Dreams

The other day in the town’s arena,
a friend asked why I carried a placard
against wars, and hate; against the rape of girls.
Why did I shout like a noisy punk?

Of war and peace, friend, I’ve got this say:
My father died with half a dream in his eyes.
Years on we still tap in the dark for the other half.
He once told us in a tone of defeat:
If only I had gone to school I wouldn’t be this poor.
But God knows why he was poor.
We came back from the refugee camps.
And he woke up mornings with tears.
And he whispered: never again, never again.

I have been through the school of pain, dear friend.
I’m not the one that speaks when I speak;
Thousand tongues meld in my mouth.
For them I demand an answer.

My eyes search every corner for the other half
of my father’s dream. I’ll know it when I see it.
I’m sure it will know me.
Conceived in the dark night of fear,
it will find me in the open arena of daylight
where children dream with wide eyes.

Chielozona Eze PictureChielozona Eze was born and raised in Nigeria. He earned his bachelor’s degree in philosophy from St. Joseph’s Major Seminary, Ikot Ekpene, Nigeria, MFA (Fiction), PhD in Philosophy and Literature from Purdue University, Wet Lafayette, USA. He is currently Associate Professor of Postcolonial and Anglophone African Literature at Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago. He considers himself a poet and philosopher.

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THE BIRDS OF SUMMER HAVE FLOWN AWAY

Ragini Bhuyan

© Divya Adusumilli 2013

© Divya Adusumilli 2013

You should have been a matryoshka doll.
Then I could lift those masks
and watch you melt into nothingness.

The wind should whip me into oblivion
and blow these ashes away to far Alaska –
Grey flecks on a white sea.

I have not seen snow – so soft,
yet so cold. I imagine your brownness
swallowed by ice sheets.

Sometimes I think I hate you
the way everyone hates politicians
out of habit.

ragini2 Ragini Bhuyan is a Delhi-based journalist.

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