Tag Archives: Issue 8

THE WORLD IN MY HANDS: A FAST-PACED NOVEL

Roksana Badruddoja

A fast-paced, richly detailed novel about politics and corruption in Bangladesh, it falters while giving life to the women characters

The World in My Hands Kazi Anis Ahmed Vintage Books 2013 English Fiction/ Paperback Binding: Paperback Price: Rs 299

The World in My Hands
Kazi Anis Ahmed
Vintage Books 2013
English Fiction/ Paperback
INR 299

K. Anis Ahmed’s debut novel The World In My Hands is a fast-paced fictional account about the treacherous terrain of political turmoil and corruption in Bangladesh.  As Ahmed moves back-and-forth between emotion and reason and reason and emotion, his intellectual formations about his country’s partisanship is deeply reflected in the lucidity of his prose and the clarity of his narrative. Simply put, Ahmed refrains from oversimplifying the nature of political conflict in general, and in specific, the polarized and nationalistic experiences of contemporary Bangladeshis within the context of globalization.

Ahmed’s sharply written novel with detailed and thoughtful language includes multiple voices – often in opposition through Hissam and Kaisar – to reconstruct the military-backed Emergency in Bangladesh. Hissam is a newspaper editor on the verge of a long-awaited promotion and Kaiser, his old college friend, is now a wealthy property developer. Hissam and Kaisar find themselves on either end of the political violence, rupturing their personal loyalties to each other. As a sociologist, I deeply appreciate the ways in which Ahmed deploys the personal story of Hissam and Kaisar’s diverging paths and breaking friendship to reflect the larger or meta-narrative of a country torn by politics and violence. Hissam and Kaisar’s shifting personal ties and loyalties are mirrored in the change that sweeps the political landscape and Panduan land. Ahmed writes, “It was hard to know [whether] one should stay put on one’s presumed-to-be-safe perch, or take one’s chances and float like a dinghy on the swelling waters” (42). Here, the multitude of movements of voices and experiences of a singular political event helps to create a fast-paced environment for readers. It is no wonder that Bapsi Sidhwa argues that Ahmed’s novel is “palpabale” and Tabish Khair, “gripping.”  Shashi Tharoor’s words – “…Ahmed’s pen will hold the reader’s attention [until] the last page” – are also apt. Simultaneously, Ahmed was able to insightfully create moments of softness during the military-backed Emergency. He does so by introducing Natasha, who is married to Kaiser and is Hissam’s friend since adolescence and his lost love. Natasha’s role is to mediate Hissam and Kaisar’s disparate ideological stances.

Herein lies the weakness of The World In My Hands. As a feminist South Asian diasporic scholar, I find that Ahmed’s female protagonists – Natasha and Duniya, the American woman Hissam falls in love with – are redundant and monolithic stereotypes of South Asian and South Asian-American women. Ahmed simply ignores the gendered nature of culture within the South Asian Diaspora. Drawing on a restructured version of Chandra T. Mohanty’s notion of the “Third World Woman,” I argue that Natasha represents the “good” South Asian woman who is a wife, a mother, a good friend, and a philanthropist bound by familial ideologies. Hissam can share things with Natasha that he is not able to share with any other woman, even Duniya, the woman he is in love with, sexually involved with, and is engaged to. Yet, Natasha’ and Hissam’s intimate friendship never crosses the boundaries of her marriage to Kaisar. In Hissam’s imagination, he is in love with Natasha but he never sexually fantasizes about her admist his pornographic collection. And this in turn is precisely what feeds his love for her. Natasha is the respectable South Asian woman who cannot be touched in any way – socially, politically, and sexually. Natasha, then, is a non-sexual entity with no desires but to protect her family. A reality that is not realistic of the lives that most women lead in South Asia. In juxtaposition to Natasha, the reader is introduced to Duniya, a Kazi Anis Ahmedhighly sexual American woman – available for male sexual consumption – with a toned, muscular body who symbolically represents the white, savior model and possesses the national mobility to move between Bangladesh and the United States freely. Her name is perhaps indicative of her magnanimous and phantasmatic positionality as an American. What does the division between South Asian women and South Asian-American women imply here? The relationship (or, rather, lack there of) between Natasha and Duniya is based on spatial and cultural differences rather than forging areas of commonalities between the two women. First, in constructing Duniya as the American woman, Ahmed, much like Jhumpa Lahiri in her novel The Namesake, simply ignores the long and problematic process of South Asian immigration and that the second-generation have found the promises of unmarked citizenship elusive at best. In this context, it is difficult to understand the ease with which Ahmed claims that she is an “American.” The second area of contestation includes Jasbir Puar’s Masala-itis rebel imagery clichés about “westernized” second-generation South Asian-American women, that the “second-generation” are overly and overtly sexual and rebel against their own cultural heritage. Here, Ahmed quickly dismisses Hissam and Duniya’s engagement as a significant life event for Duniya and Duniya quickly fades away from Hissam’s narrative. Ahmed simply does not allow Duniya to showcase the emergence of her own complex identities and cultural practices. Neither Natasha nor Duniya are able articulate their identities at the intersections of a constellation of loyalties that are multiple, contradictory, constantly shifting, and overlapping. Ahmed does not even give us a brief glimpse at the lives of real South Asian and South Asian-American women in the context of race, class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, culture, and religion. Natasha and Duniya simply fall short. Perhaps this was a liberty he thought he could afford by constructing male characters at the center of the novel.

Nevertheless, the strength of The World In My Hands lies in the ways in which Ahmed is detailed oriented. They ways in which he allows his readers to experience Hissam is cavernous. We are privy to Hissam’s procrastination, writer’s block, boredom, loneliness, and his collection of pornography. By intricately developing Hissam as a struggling journalist, Ahmed is able to introduce us to larger ideas: the social constructions of history, power, and morality. As a journalist, Hissam has the power to architect how the world will receive and understand the unfolding of the Emergency. Hissam shapes “truths” from myths, and in this way, he carries the ability to plant the seeds of what is right or wrong, that is, morality. He constructs “patriots” versus “enemies of the state.” The readers see this abstractly as Hissam tangles with possible newspaper headlines. The binary construction between patriots versus enemies is concretized when Hissam’s desire to be the editor-in-chief paves the way for a shattering moment that implicates Kaiser into choosing between life or death. In this way, readers learn the notion of mythical history, that history can be molded in a variety of ways where some narratives are pushed to the top, becoming hegemonic national stories while others are forced to the bottom as the counter-narratives. My point here is that novelists often tightly focus on the development of their characters, leaving little room for readers to understand the larger lessons that can be learned from the story or stories being told. Ahmed artfully bridges this gap. Finally, as post-colonial scholar, I could not help but smile at the moments in which Ahmed satirically jabs at the imperialist “west.” Hissam’s collection self-help and –improvement books like The Power of Yes and How to Get to the Top and Stay There is a case-in-point. Despite his problematic treatment of South Asian-American women, like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ahmed is wonderfully unapologetic to “western” readers.

Ahmed’s tone is forthright about a topic that provokes anguish for those who experience political instability, hartals, power struggles, and corruption intimately in their daily lives. Hissam represents this frankness. And, through Natasha, Ahmed’s tone is also compassionate about political conflict. While I have pointed out significant shortfalls of Ahmed’s work, it, nevertheless, represents a first of many works critically assessing Bangladesh’s forty-three years after its momentous birth. Indeed, The World in My Hands is a refreshing addition to the inadequate partisan discourse on political strife in contemporary Bangladesh.

Roksana BadruddojaDr. Roksana Badruddoja research in the areas of race and ethnicity, sexuality, gender, religion, and culture, and how these impact South Asian-American women, has been published in numerous peer-reviewed journals. These include the National Women’s Studies Association Journal, the Journal of the Association of Research on Mothering, the International Journal of Sociology of the Family, and the International Review of Modern Sociology. She is the author of Eyes of the Storms: The Voices of South Asian-American Women (2012) and the editor of Bittersweet: Decolonizing the South Asian Diaspora (In Press). Dr. Badruddoja’s new research lies in the field of “Mother Studies.” As an emerging scholar of “Mother Studies,” she is attempting to expose the fissures between the ideological representation of motherhood and the lived experience of being a mother.

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OLD MAN RIVER

Uddipana Goswami

Saving Blues Photo : Nitoo Das

Saving Blues
Photo : Nitoo Das

The old man river – Burha Luit, Brahmaputra – is my soul. I am him, he is in me.

He taught me about the breadth of love by the way he embraces and enriches all on his way.

He showed me the depths of humility, flowing as he did so calmly above the turbulent undercurrents.

He led me along the lengths of fortitude. He said to me: We do all of us have to run the course, despite all that dam our direction.

And he moulded my mind along his length, breath and depth.

But he, my old man river, did too instil in me the righteous rage to face the torrential rains that tear at my breasts ever so often.

Sometimes I wonder if he shouldn’t have been an old woman.

***

This issue of the Northeast Review is dedicated to the Mighty Brahmaputra. Sumana Roy has more on the Red River. Meanwhile, our search for young writers continues in Moina Mel.

In keeping with the eclectic approach that we like to bring our readers, we are also proud to announce the publication of a three-part series by Neville Maxwell on Katherine Mayo and her Mother India. This issue of NER carries the first of the three. We like to look at it as the prelude to our next issue focusing on women writers and their many concerns.

In our regular features, we have an essay by Rini Barman focusing on poetry from northeastern India; fiction by Mildred K Barya and Vineetha Mokkil; poetry in three voices; and reviews of some very interesting books.

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FLOWERS FOR YOUR HAIR

Shruti Sareen

© Divya Adusumilli

© Divya Adusumilli

These starry violets
with their thin green stems
and their aster-y white brethren
How would they look amassed
in the jungle of your long black hair
green stems tendrils intertwining
and stars shining? Or should I give you
a bunch of those gorgeous butterfly-
flowers- deep orange, red and yellow?
They would stand brilliantly
against the dense blackness of your hair.
There are some fake light orange ones
they look like plastic when the sun
sines through them, no, I’d rather
not give you those. There are some
fallen flowers. Would you rather
have those, or freshly plucked ones?
What would you say to a bunch
of snowdrops, with that stray curl
you tuck behind your ear?
There’s a wealth of azure blue-purple-
-pink tufts in the far corner
I could give you those, a bit
of the sky. I could make a chain
of these white daisies with
blue-purple centres and tints of orange
and garland you with it. They bloom
with the sun and close at sunset.
There are some blue exotica
with rings of orange. I don’t know
if you’d fancy ’em. There are the
laughing orange and yellow nasturtiums
they droop. A bit flimsy for your hair,
I think, they might not stay put.
I wonder if you’d care for marigolds
in a bright and cheerful mood, on
a sunny day, there are pale yellow ones,
and orange ones ,I call them liquid gold.
There are way too many flowers here, I am
surrounded by them, scraggly pea-pods,
tall hollyhocks, foxgloves and what not
some mild, some tempting, some guarding
But if you’d wind that black mass
and tie it in a bun, I’d give you
just one single poppy, wicked-
crimson, intense-passion, its
pods bursting with black seeds
pregnant with opiate desire.

***

shrutiShruti Sareen studied in Rajghat Besant School KFI, Varanasi and went on to do English literature from Indraprastha College for Women, University of Delhi. With a keen interest in Indian Poetry in English, her MPhil looks at the depiction of urban spaces whereas she is currently pursuing a PhD on twenty first century feminist poetry from the University of Delhi. She also teaches at a college in the university.   She has earlier had poetry accepted by The Little Magazine, Muse India, Reading Hour, The Seven Sisters Post, The Chay Magazine, Ultra Violet, Kritya, Brown Critique, E-Fiction India, Thumb Print Magazine, Our Private Literature and  Vayavya. She blogs at www.shrutanne-heartstrings.blogspot.com.

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THE MYTH OF RE-CREATION

Sukrita Paul Kumar

Sukrita - endgame

ENDGAME

In the slaughterhouse
-as in concentration camps-
Live wafts of death-smell
fill all nooks and corners
slide up the cracks in the walls
entangle in cobwebs and
settle in little pits in the earth

In the slaughterhouse
Pores on the animal skin
are gaping wounds,
the hair stand upright in fright
Or lie supine in numbness

Why do the sheep climb up the walls
And the walls stand on top of the roof

Force-fed, fattened and fearful
Hogs, chicken, as also cattle
Each in full knowledge of
What lies in wait

The demons of death grow larger
As the green pastures,
azure ponds, flighty streams
awaken in the genetic memory
of all in the slaughterhouse.

One on top of the other
In the slaughterhouse
they run for their lives
within themselves
get slaughtered
again and again
while live wafts of death-smell
slide up the cracks in the walls.

THE MYTH OF RE-CREATION

The white of the bark
Is the frozen heart of the white
Turned white when Columbus
landed on the shores
Of what he thought,
the land of spices

The deepening red
of the leaves every fall  thence
Is not the sudden
blushing of the damsel
It is the blood of the Indians
rising from
The womb of the earth below
Forever pregnant
with the lava of unrecorded
genocide
Streams of leaves dropping as tears

Every inch savagely cultivated
Beauty a metaphor of atrocity
Moments of  joy
Pumped from lungs
on ventilators
Men and women in love
their hearts beating
on pacemakers

Staking  their riches
at our casinos
They will lose
Said the Chief each year
We’ll get our land back
With their money,
Let the season pass.

***

Sukrita Paul KumarSukrita Paul Kumar, has published several collections of poems in English that include Without Margins, Apurna, Folds of Silence and Oscillations. Her two bilingual collections are Poems Come Home (with Hindustani translation by Gulzar) and Rowing Together (with Hindi translation by Savita Singh). She was the Guest Editor of Crossing Over, a special issue of “Manoa” (University of Hawaii, USA). Sukrita’s major critical works include Narrating Partition, Conversations on Modernism, The New Story and Man, Woman and Androgyny. Some of her edited/co-edited books include Speaking for Herself: Asian Women’s Writings (Penguin), Ismat, Her Life, Her Times (Katha), Interpreting Homes in South Asian Literature (Pearson).  Currently, she is on deputation as Programme Coordinator of B.Tech Humanities, Cluster Innovation Centre, University of Delhi.

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GULMOHAR

Imran Alexander Batra

Imran's gulmohar tree

Gulmohar Tree

***
Imran BatraImran Alexander Batra is 12 years old and lives in Delhi. He loves stories in words and pictures and is learning to play the guitar.

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WHAT THE FUTURE WILL LOOK LIKE: PHYSICS OF THE FUTURE

Nithin Bagal

Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 Michio Kaku Doubleday 2011 Popular Science/Hardcover pp 416

Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100
Michio Kaku
Doubleday 2011
Popular Science/Hardcover
pp 416

What will the future look like?

It is a question that has plagued humanity for ages, and still does. With so many problems in the world, ranging from cancer to global warming, we wish that the future would bring solutions to our problems and our planet would be a paradise in which everyone were content and society functioned like a well-oiled machine.

Physics of the Future, by Michio Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics at City University of New York, takes a breathtaking look at what the world will look like by the year 2100, and answers questions that many of us, and I, have about our future.

Kaku analyzes several disciplines that play a key role in society today. He starts out with the future of computers and ends with a really fascinating look at what a day in the life of a person living in the year 2100 might be like. In every chapter except the last one he takes a technology or field and illustrates how it will progress and improve until 2100. He does this in increments, staring from present day to 2030, then 2030 to 2070, and finally 2070 to 2100. This method makes the book much more interesting because you see not only what it will be like in 2100, but how the technology or field got there.

You may ask how Kaku is so sure of his image of the world in 2100. All the technologies listed in this book already exist in prototype form, or are on the drawing board. This book is not just guesswork or dreams (or nightmares). It is a vision based on current science.

Another way to know that Kaku isn’t making stuff up is that he doesn’t think our futuristic world will be Utopic. Sure, it will be much better and advanced than our world today, but it will not be perfect. He says that global warming will overrun the planet and many coastal cities will be flooded, if not totally destroyed. He points to the frequent flooding in Bangladesh and Vietnam, “The worst situation is in Bangladesh, a country regularly flooded by storms even without global warming.” He also goes on to state that Vietnam’s land vulnerable to flooding contains half the rice grown in that country. Millions could be displaced or killed in both countries.

This book is a real eye opener not only to see what the future will be like, but to see what incredible technologies in use today. Although the information was really interesting, and it was really mind-boggling to see how technology in futuristic movies could become a possibility, the few too many references to movies such as Star Trek and Star Wars got old.

Another thing I enjoyed about this book was that Kaku didn’t just explain what 2100 would be like, but he tackled present-day problems and explained how things may or may not change. For example, cancer would not be cured, but we would be able to identify it earlier, and terminate it using nanotechnology. That really amazed me, knowing that there is a possibility cancer could only be as dangerous as the common cold.

I also enjoyed how he used the supreme might of the gods in mythology to illustrate how in 2100, technology could give us similar powers. “In powerful chariots, the gods of mythology roamed across the heavenly fields of Mount Olympus. On powerful Viking ships, the Norse gods sailed across the cosmic seas to Asgard. Similarly, by 2100, humanity will be on the brink of a new era of space exploration: reaching for the stars.”

Physics of the Future has changed my view of not only the future but also the past. Whenever I go outside, I see countless ways in which technology has improved in the past 100 years – ATM machines, the whole design and power of a car, phones, the widespread use of electricity, etc. As I do this, I realize that people in the year 1913 could not even dream about what the world would be like in hundred years. Similarly, I think that we will not be able to envision what the world will look like at the turn of the century.

All in all, this was a great book that I absolutely devoured. The concepts examined in this book made me really excited about the future, but somewhat weary too because along with the glitter of an advanced society, the world will still need to tackle challenges that are beyond our comprehension today.

***

Nithin Bio PicNithin Bagal, 13, loves SciFi and fantasy novels, as well as adventure and science non-fiction. He is an avid swimmer, and enjoys movies, music, and hanging out with friends.

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CONVERSATION WITH CROWS

Nitoo Das

A need to leave the water knows

Balance

Balance

Balance II

Balance II

Bifurcation

Bifurcation

Bifurcation II

Bifurcation II

Circular

Circular

Conversation with Crows

Conversation with Crows

Here comes the moon

Here comes the moon

Holding death

Holding death

Kites

Kites

Kites II

Kites II

Not one

Not one

Orality

Orality

Questioning the frame

Questioning the frame

Saving Blues

Saving Blues

The Hereafter

The Hereafter

The Hereafter

The Hereafter

The reply

The reply

Touch

Touch

***
Nitoo DasNitoo Das is a birder, caricaturist and poet. She teaches English at Indraprastha College for Women, University of Delhi. Her first collection of poetry, Boki, was published in September 2008.

 

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DIBRUGARH 1974 – BANGALORE 2014

KVK Murthy

All that remains is an absurd prophecy
by a fortune-teller on the bank – a laugh
to mark another weekend. And his care
for our step: a slip, and we would be
silt discharged a thousand miles off,
he said. The current giddied us, and where

we stood the water swirled west, the far side
missing as a memory. A mile, two perhaps…
Beyond, we guessed hills, history,
and somewhere east, forbidden, its wide
fabled swerve a dream inlaid on maps
consecrating a country.

Later, headed home we horsed
about those wives foretold, the dozen kids;
behind, that silent swell receded, set
on its inexorable Heraclitean course,
time keeping pace on tarmac-ed skids.
We were not quite twenty-five yet.

Four lifetimes now, and it returns
to niggle, a flame unexpunged by age
or circumstance: the perfunctory kiss
others wrested (adept of course) burns
like lover’s gall. That silly Sunday sage,

smiling wisdom, didn’t foretell this.

***

???????????????????????????????KVK Murthy is a retired banker living in Bangalore in perfect symbiosis with roaches and silver fish among books dealing largely with the 17th-19th centuries (by choice).

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SUEZ CANAL

Indira Goswami

An excerpt from The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar (Zubaan)
Translated from Axamiya by Aruni Kashyap
Touch Photo : Nitoo Das

Touch
Photo : Nitoo Das

Even today, as soon as her shift was over and she’d seen off the eight borkandazes who worked under her, Thengphakhri stood staring out at the setting sun as it played games on the broad chest of the Brahmaputra. The river looked like a pregnant woman with a blood red cloth wrapped around her. Thengphakhri stood staring, waiting for a special steamer to come in.

“Will Captain Hardy really come back? What if he doesn’t?” She thought, as small drops of sweat gathered on her forehead.  At headquarters, she had heard that several steamers had come and gone. Each had brought soldiers. The camps near the border of Bhutan were gradually becoming plump with them, she’d heard.

Thengphakhri preferred not to share her agony with anyone. But a faint line like a trident became visible on her forehead. Thengphakhri had much longer hair than other Bodo women and when she stood in the sun, it glittered like gold. It was just like the sheen on the skin of a gom snake, which leaves its burrow after a long time. Her beauty and personality mesmerised everyone. They had just one complaint: why doesn’t Thengphakhri speak?

She spoke barely a word or two throughout the day. Her grandfather Tribhubon Bahadur understood something of what went on in her mind even though she remained silent most of the time. What was she thinking? What does she want to say? He was almost like her mentor, just as Macklinson Sahib was her mentor in her professional life. Both could be cruel as well as kind.

Two large steamers were coming towards the river bank. They looked like two huge hippopotamuses.

Thengphakhri always followed Macklinson’s orders. It was he who’d reminded her that kindness was misplaced when she collected taxes from the people. She was a Tehsildar. Whenever she came upon a taxpayer who hadn’t paid his taxes for the third time, her borkandazes created a ruckus in the courtyard of that house.

“You can’t escape this time. Bring, bring all that you have for us!” they would scream.

Once when this happened, the poor tax payer who had defaulted, brought out everything he had in his house: pots, plates, glasses. His naked children carried everything  out of the house and left it all in front of her. She was sitting on a chair made of guava wood. She could not bear to look at the faces of the children and even that day she hadn’t been able to look at them. Macklinson Sahib too was present, just as he always was. He sat on his horse and observed her. On the very fi rst day he had cautioned her, “You won’t be able to become a good administrator if you are soft. If you don’t have a strong personality, there is no value in your beauty.”

He went on, “Remember, during my tenure, instead of getting substitutes in lieu of unpaid taxes, I have received the half-dead bodies of two of my Izardars. The borkandazes had to carry them on horses and bring them back to the tent. The tax payers wanted to kill those izardars.”

Thengphakhri had said, “Sahib, do not worry. In our society, people have great respect for women.” He had laughed loudly, “I have seen that! Yes, yes, I have! Thengphakhri, you are the greatest proof of that fact. When you stand in the courtyard of a tax payer’s home, there is pin drop silence. No one utters a word. Not a single word! A miracle, it is a miracle, did you know that?”

Thengphakhri photos 3After she was promoted to the post of Tehsildar at the beginning of her career, one of her borkandazes had cut open the body of a taxpayer who hadn’t paid for the third time with the bhakheri-sword that was lying in his own compound. Not a single word was uttered by Thengphakhri. Macklinson Sahib was sitting on horseback even on that day, watching everything. When he saw her face, he screamed loudly, “A Commander-in-Chief doesn’t show weakness and pity! That is not the true behaviour of a Commander-in-Chief. You must understand that a real Commanderin- Chief is made of stone. But you Thengphakhri, you are great!”

~

Thengphakhri stood up and stared across the river again. The sun was about to set now. The Brahmaputra had wrapped a blood-red cloth around her body once again. Red clouds covered the sky. They looked like the blood-stained feet of the priest who had entered the temple amidst the sonorous sounds of bells and conches. She craned her neck and saw that Roopsingh Dafadar and the other borkandazes were getting their horses ready. Roopsingh brought her horse to her

They would have to return to Bijni before midnight. Without a word, they mounted their horses and rode forward. The khat-khat sounds of the hoofs were the only sounds to be heard around them.

The borkandazes were completely silent. A little ahead, they saw a large group of elephants cross the road in front of them. This must be an elephant’s dandi. They rode slowly. The sound of crickets was clear. But what was that other sound? Was it a tiger? Her grandfather had told her that when the Mughals ruled Goalpara for about twenty years, they had killed around two thousand man-eaters. With great relish Tribhubon Bahadur would narrate how Mr and Mrs Michael had been crushed under the legs of  a wild elephant. Tigers ruled supreme from the borders of Ranpur to Bijni a wild elephant. Tigers ruled supreme from the borders of Ranpur to Bijni.

Once, there was a locust attack. God-knows-where they had come from. The whole sky was full of them. Villagers stood in front of their houses and stared at the sight. Everyone thought the locusts would go upstream but they didn’t. It looked as though someone had thrown a black net across the sky and it had spread itself over them. Gradually, that black net started to come down to the ground. That was the fi rst time Thengphakhri had seen the white mark on the wings of the locusts. It was because of this that the Assamese called them ‘kakoti’, giving them a caste status. She recalls all this very often, especially when she returns to the head offi ce with her borkandazes after work.

Hardy Sahib had taught her to ride a horse and use a gun. He had arranged the horse for her on his own. But anyway horses weren’t a rare thing. There were far more valuable things that Bijni sent regularly to Bhutan—dry fish worth fi ve hundred rupees, oil worth two hundred rupees, silver ornaments worth nine hundred rupees and eight tangon horses and totas worth eight hundred and twenty rupees. The British officers in the Company had bought those horses.

Hardy had brought her a handsome horse. He had informed her grandfather earlier that he would be surprising her with it. She smiled as she remembered these things but she hid her smile from her borkandazes. She did this because she had failed in her fi rst two attempts to mount the horse. When she had fallen to the ground a second time, she had held Captain Hardy’s shirt firmly with her hand. His shirt had torn immediately. Was he wearing a very old shirt that day? When she had fallen to the ground he had held her hair and pulled her up. Eeesh, those images are so clear in her mind. He had used her thick crop of hair like a rope.

How much he used to talk all the time! So many tales just about horses! Who had discovered the saddle, do you know Thengphakhri? When she couldn’t pronounce saddle properly, he had made her say the word twenty times. Each and every thing was clearly imprinted in her mind and she vowed that she would become an expert horse-rider one day. She would be able to ride the horse, and say ‘saddle’ properly.

Suddenly the borkandazes started to sing. They did so often to dispell their loneliness and to amuse themselves.

My dear, don’t cry, don’t cry,
We are not marrying you off to
Anyone but a Bodo man.
Not even a Garo guy,
Nor a Nepalese guy,
Don’t cry, don’t cry, my dear.

My daughter is as beautiful as a princess,
Her face oval and long like the leaves of star-trees
She is neat and clean, like my son-in-law’s silk,
O my dear daughter, the princess,
Who has a beautiful face like the leaves of tora-trees.

Thengphakhri’s procession moved ahead, listening to these songs and singing them. Memories from the past started to close in on her like a python, suffocating her with their weight.

***

Indira Goswami, popularly known as Mamoni Raisom Goswami is one of the most celebrated writers in India. Born in 1942 she has published several creative and scholarly works in Assamese and English. She has been honoured with the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1983 for the novel The Rusted Sword, Assam Sahitya Sabha Award 1988, Bharat Nirman Award 1989, Sauhardya Award from Uttar Pradesh Hindi Sansthan of Government of India 1992, Katha National Award for Literature 1993, Kamal Kumari Foundation National Award 1996 and in 2000 she won the country’s highest literary prize the Jnanpith Award. For her unparalled scholarly work in the field of Ramayani Studies she was awarded the International Tulsi Award from Florida University. Her ongoing pioneering efforts to bring peace in Assam through her crucial role in the peace talks between banned militant outfit ULFA and the Indian Government has brought a ray of hope to the twenty-eight years violence ridden atmosphere of the state. Words from the Mist directed by Jahnu Barua is one of the many biographical films made on her eventful life. In 2008, she became India’s first Principal Prince Claus Laureate, a prestigious award from Prince Claus Foundation, Netherlands, for her contribution to literature , culture and attempts to bring social change. In 2008, she became India’s first Principal Prince Claus Laureate.

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Filed under Fiction, Issue 8, Tin Trunk, Translation

Home, Where All the Stories Are Born

Kaushik Barua

© Divya Adusumilli

© Divya Adusumilli

1947: Kham, Tibet 

In the semi-darkness of Lhasang’s childhood evenings, his father Dadul enacted the life of King Gesar of Ling.

Dadul leapt and swirled, dodging arrows here, thrusting a sword there. The sleeves of his chuba, hanging well below his hands, rustled as they kept up with his heroics.

‘I am King Gesar,’ said Dadul, ‘sent by the gods to save the dharma. And to kill the enemies of the Buddha.’ He swung his sword in a wild arc.

The performance ended with Dadul swooping down to lift Lhasang into the air. Or it ended when both father and son were grounded as Pema, Lhasang’s mother, hustled them into the kitchen for dinner.

Lhasang was six when he first saw a Gesar performance outside his house. That was when the wandering drungpas who performed the epic visited their village. As soon as he heard about their arrival, Lhasang ran to the tent that had been set up for the bards. ‘Hurry up, Apa,’ he said to Dadul who followed, panting, behind him.

But when he got there, his enthusiasm was dampened by his first sight of the performers. They were so quiet, sitting placidly on the cushions.

‘But they look … they look …’ he turned to Dadul, ‘so ordinary.’

‘That’s because they’re saving their energy,’ said Dadul.

‘For what?’

‘For the evening. When they perform. Just wait, and you’ll see.’

That evening, Lhasang got to sit right in front, the children forming the first ring around the bards. Beside a bonfire, dried barley flour was sprinkled to make a temporary stage for the singers. The evening began with a prayer for the long life of Kundun. After the gods had been pleased, the drungpas began. Their shoulders were padded, heavy gold brooches hung down their chests. And from the crowns on their heads, four poles with flags shook in the wind as they leapt, their arms slicing the air. They were giants in the evening.

As the embers faded, Lhasang heard the whispers rippling through the audience. Those closer to the arena swore they saw hoof marks appear in the barley-tsampa powder as Gesar’s ghost joined them. Lhasang felt the chilly night close in. He looked behind him and saw Dadul, one eye fixed on Lhasang. Dadul smiled at him. Lhasang turned back towards the performance and peered through the flames, scouring the ground for Gesar’s presence.

Later, he admitted to Dadul that he was scared. ‘Remember Kundun,’ said Dadul. ‘He will always keep you safe.’

Lhasang heard that many of the drungpas had learnt the epic by magic. At home, he told Pema his theory: ‘They wake up from sleep and they already know all the verses. It’s a seed of magic in their heads.’

But Pema was quick to dislodge this idea. ‘All magic is nonsense,’ she said. ‘You see, sometimes real life can be more magical. Hundreds of times, the story has been passed from an old man’s lips to a young man’s ears. Each time one dies, another takes his place. Isn’t that magic?’

‘Actually, I don’t care if it’s magic or not,’ said Lhasang. ‘I still prefer Apa’s performance.’

Three hours by horse from his village, Riwoche, there was a monastery. But Lhasang had heard more about the Jokhang temple in Lhasa than about the Riwoche monastery. When people returned from Lhasa, the whole village sat around them as they stretched their arms to show how big the city was. It was bigger than the eye could see, they said.

‘Do you have to cross rivers?’ Lhasang asked one of the pilgrims.

‘Many,’ he replied, ‘but one sight of the Jokhang, and it’s all worth it’.

But Pema never allowed Lhasang anywhere near the river skirting their village. ‘You do not ever enter the river!’ Pema screamed and pulled his ear when she saw him step into the water once. ‘Do you want to be taken away by the naga spirits hiding there?’

‘But then, how will I ever see the Jokhang?’ Lhasang asked.

He often heard of villagers making the trek to the nearby Riwoche monastery. ‘The pilgrims there have big hearts. And they have bigger bags of silver,’ said Dadul. ‘You can sell them anything.’

Lhasang knew that Dadul went further than most, braving expeditions to different corners of the country. He returned from his excursions with goods that could again be fed into other travellers’ routes. All of Dadul’s merchandise eventually reached the large cities: Kathmandu to the south, Chamdo in the east or Lhasa across many rivers to the west. Often the dregs of his exchanges were stored at home, momentarily a treasure trove for Lhasang: tea from Yunnan dried into cakes and wrapped with yak hide, salt from the lakes of the northern Changtang plateau. And the most bewitching of his father’s hauls—rare gems like coral, lapis or turquoise—which in other hands and ears would have denoted nobility. In Lhasang’s palms, they were just bright seductive playthings.

The world seemed safe to Lhasang, but as Dadul and Pema reminded him, it was not. Their village was part of Kham, an eastern province of Tibet. And since nature refused all that humans needed, they had to steal from one another. Nomads who roamed Kham ambushed trading caravans, forcing a somewhat fair redistribution that a frugal geography denied. A good bargain didn’t guarantee a successful deal. A trader needed a sure foot and a surer gun. But Dadul never carried a weapon.

‘Why don’t you carry a gun?,’ Lhasang asked Dadul during one of his daily prayers.

‘Come here.’ Dadul patted his knee. He fished out an amulet hanging from his neck. ‘You see this?’

Lhasang held the cylinder; little paper scrolls were crammed inside.

‘This is from the Jokhang. The House of the Lord in Lhasa. All the gods that protect Bod, our nation Tibet, have blessed this. You must remember—if the gods want to protect you, then no human can touch you. And if the gods want you dead, then no gun can save you.’

‘All the gods? How many are there in Tibet?’

Dadul screwed his eyes closed. ‘I don’t know. As many gods as there are humans. But if you have to choose one, then choose Kundun, our Dalai Lama. The whole world knows his power. He watches over all of Tibet. The whole of our country Bod might be just a swamp, but he is the lotus. He will always keep you safe.’

‘Then how come you’ve never told me any stories about him?’

‘Because he has just been found; he is still a boy. There are many miracles that he will perform in his life, but we have to wait. Do you want to hear the tale of Padmasambhava tonight—the man who taught Buddhism to Bod?’

‘No, Apa, I don’t want to hear about any more lamas,’ said Lhasang. ‘Tell me about the man with the black cloak. The assassin.’

‘Lhalung Pelgyi Dorje.’ Dadul smiled and started. ‘The man who conquered fear. And killed the godless king …’

For Lhasang the boundaries of fear lay much closer, at the sight of the neighbour’s Mastiff, straining at a rope that tied him to the door. Thankfully his mother Pema was always available, clapping at the dog to repel evil spirits. Lhasang believed Pema could do anything, even transform the nature of things: she could whip clumps of yak hair into balls of fluff. She could transform yak milk into hard balls of cheese that he kept snuggled in his mouth for hours. Pema was his protector.

Lhasang’s play zone was restricted to their courtyard, under the sometimes watchful, sometimes vicious eyes of the neighbour’s dog. In fact, occasionally, if Lhasang was being too frisky and Pema was busy in the kitchen, she would bundle him into a blanket so he couldn’t disappear into the hills outside. She would leave him squirming inside the blanket, dumped on his mattress, for an hour or two.

‘That is no way to treat a six year old,’ Dadul said to Pema’s back.

‘What do you know about how to treat children?’ Lhasang heard Pema retort.

‘Well, I have one, don’t I?’

‘I’ll let him out when I finish cooking,’ Pema said and, from his blanket-world, Lhasang heard the ladle scratch the soup bowl. ‘You don’t know your own son, Dadul. He only pretends to obey, he never does. He needs hard love. Especially if he is to survive Kham.’

Thus Lhasang grew up between reality and stories. Pema rebuked him all the time: ‘Don’t go out alone,’ ‘Don’t tease that dog,’ ‘Don’t stand behind the mule when it’s eating.’

And Dadul fed him stories every evening: about Padmasambhava who came to Tibet from the Swat valley at the insistence of the ruler Trisong Detsen; who subdued the demons of the land, spread the words of the Buddha; who even convinced his consort—temporarily converted into a flying tigress—to give him a lift to Bhutan where he worked his wonders again. About Milarepa, who started his life with great evil but found enlightenment later; whose heart was as white as his robes and whose skin turned as green as the nettle tea he drank all day.

‘Why do you have to spend all your time telling him these fantastic tales?’ Pema sighed.

‘Because,’ said Dadul, ‘these are the saints who have created Bod. Who have shown us the dharma.’

‘Saints?’ said Pema. ‘Now Bod has more bandits than we have saints.’

Lhasang nodded at both of them.

For Losar, when the year was turning new, his parents took Lhasang to the nearby monastery. Their mules followed the river north for a few hours, first cantering along the road, then grappling with the slush of the narrow path where the river lapped the foot of the hills, and finally climbing a ridge from where they could see the Riwoche monastery. For Lhasang, it was a spectacular sight: a massive, squat building, like a giant wrestler crouching on his toes. The vertical stripes of red, white and brown on the walls enhanced the height of the main structure, but it was the breadth—spanning almost half a mile—that seemed extraordinary. There was a smaller second floor with a shingled roof that curved outwards. On top, in the centre, a spire-like tower rose from the roof like a lotus stem. And though he had heard of many wondrous buildings in the tales that filled his evenings, this immense structure now seemed very alien, even frightening.

Dadul swung Lhasang down from the mule. He was dressed in a chuba like his father, swathes of lambskin hanging down from both shoulders and tied at his waist by a leather belt.

They entered through the huge doors on the eastern flank into the monastery’s courtyard. It must look imposing even when bare; now it seemed endless, filled with a sea of praying monks in their orange robes. On the fringes the crowd pushed forward but still couldn’t detach itself from the walls.

Lhasang walked into the hall, and was lost at once in the all-embracing chaos of the monastery.

The crowd of the faithful had a life of its own, swirling like the ocean that the gods had churned for nectar. Darker clumps of chubas filtered into the lake of orange that led the chanting. Initially the three of them hugged the walls; even Dadul was taken aback by the thousands of people who had gathered. Guttural incantations bounced off the walls till echo and voice met midway.

As the crowd sank further into faith, Dadul shut his eyes. Pema, usually wide-eyed in vigilance, also shut herself off in prayer. Lhasang stood in front, his vision blocked by the grey–brown walls of people around him. He couldn’t figure out which way the crowd was moving, like the gods that he had heard no one could understand.

Soon, Lhasang had been swept away by a surge of the devout. There was no way he could move on his own, or find his way back. When he realized he had been separated from his parents, he looked to the walls for reference. He saw the statues and murals lining the hall, but no sign of Dadul or Pema. Among the numerous Buddhas, he saw the thousand-armed version of Avalokiteshwara, an eye embedded in each palm, all of them looking down at Lhasang’s despair. He felt sick; it seemed like the prayers were rising from everywhere. While putting on his Khampa warrior act, he could whip his hair around to his mouth, so long had his braid grown, and he could ride his horse into battle with a dagger clenched between his teeth. However, this bravado had melted. Soon the gods too seemed to be mocking him. You Khampa warrior! You little Gesar! You can’t even find your parents now? He clawed his way through the legs around him, but none of the lurching figures were his parents.

His screams for ‘ama’ and ‘apa’ faded into the chants. And the reverberations that shuddered through him gave birth to many fears: not seeing his parents again, never being able to find his way back home. He tried to remember home; maybe thinking about it would somehow bring it closer. He remembered the ground floor of his house, his feet shuffling through the straw, the four mules tethered to the central pole, chewing their fodder and shitting; he remembered feeling his way along the yak dung wall till he reached the inclined tree trunk, climbing the trunk to his parents’ bedroom, walking to the little corner where his mattress lay bundled.

Suddenly, Lhasang was back in the anguish of the monastery—a large hand had clamped down on his shoulder.

‘Are you Dadul’s little one?’

‘La-yin. Yes, I am Dadul’s son.’

‘We’ve been combing the crowd for you. Where did you disappear?’

The man had his hair tied in loops above his head, wrapped in a black tassel and topped with a silver nugget. A turquoise earring dangled from his left ear and was almost as long as his beard. His name was Dawa, he said, and he was a senior official of the region. He was part of the crew of searchers his parents had wailed into action when they realized the little hand holding on to Dadul’s chuba was not Lhasang’s.

‘Come, let’s go find your parents. They must be going crazy.’

Dawa grasped Lhasang’s hand and eased his way through the gathering. Lhasang held on tight. They searched all over the monastery, squeezing through the crowd, but couldn’t find his parents.

‘Where are Dadul and Pema?’ Dawa roared at the crowd.

A hail of replies followed.

‘They went upstairs.’

‘No, Dadul went up to the ridge.’

‘Pema was talking to the dob-dob lamas; they’re riding towards the river now.’

‘Bah,’ said Dawa. ‘I have to leave for the village. Tell Dadul I’ve found him and I’ll be taking him back home. I’m not leaving him here with all you lkug-pa, fools—you will lose him again. Tell them to come back, no need to scamper all over the hills.’

They didn’t wait for Dadul; Dawa was an impatient man. And Lhasang didn’t know what to say as Dawa explained, muttering under his breath, the need for communication in such times.

Dawa pitched Lhasang onto one of his yaks and they set off for Riwoche. While Dawa and the other men gripped the yaks with their legs, Lhasang’s legs stuck out on both sides, and he had to rely on the good temper of his ride for safety. Each time the yak hunched over to climb a slope, he had to grab a handful of its hair to stay perched. And when the yaks flagged, one of Dawa’s servants whipped out a large stone and pounded their behinds, and the beasts—mildly irritated—picked up the pace again.

When they crossed the bend in the river, Lhasang knew the village would sneak out from behind the next hill. And soon, despite the reluctant yaks, he would be home. Where he could sink, like butter in his morning tea, into the world where he belonged.

Excerpted with permission from Windhorse (HarperCollins India, 2013)

Kaushik Barua 2Kaushik Barua has lived in Guwahati, Delhi, London and Rome. He graduated in economics from St. Stephen’s College in New Delhi and subsequently studied international politics and economics at the London School of Economics. He is currently based mostly in Rome where he is working with the United Nations. Windhorse is his first novel.

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