Tag Archives: Issue 9

A TREASURED SARI

Jyothsna Phanija

© Divya Adusumilli

© Divya Adusumilli

Ginette Harrison

Colours sketched caves on  the north face,
I can hardly see the searing light.
Melting ice-steps inside,
Exhausted   Gary struggling for breath,
I held his hand firmly.
Still, I can draw the physiology of this altitude.
He pointed at the ice, covering another story.
I saw through the ice-chimney alone,
Holding the Japanese rope,
Followed the footsteps.
I believed in the afternoon,
Will return the way to write my name in notebooks.

A Treasured sari

At her bridal evening,
She wears that treasured sari
Which was gifted along with a golden lotus and a sandal scent flower.
Layers of saffron folded, pallor glaciers flora fixed,
Snow scorched faces hidden in silver mirrors,
Mixed colours busy in listening the grasslands,
Coniferous designs, gibbous pearls architected,
Trigonometric calculations coiled around momo soft spices,
Shades of seasons enveloped, she walks towards the procession.
Sonata of tamur and teesta,
Enthralls the embroidered pebbles.

 

Sunrise

Sunrise with its usual lazy orographic eyelids,
Shades the pale sky where,
Misspelled signboards,
Heavy
Confusing maps,
eavesdrop,
when
Unreturned ones,
Amuse at their half forgotten memories,
Etched in the expeditions.

***

jyothsnaphanija photoJyothsna Phanija is a PhD research scholar in English Literature at EFL University, Hyderabad, India. Her poetry has  appeared in Melusine, Muddy River Poetry Review, CounterPunch, American Diversity Report, Coldnoon, Luvah, Kritya, Rædleafpoetry India,  and several others. Her short story has appeared in eFiction India and her research articles in Subalternspeak, eDhvani, Wizcraft, Barnolipi and in several books.
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THE IVORY CHARM

Parinda Joshi

Samraghni

A reticent, velvety darkness still loomed over when Mohanchandra Pradhan—fondly referred to as Vakilsahib or Pradhanji by loved ones—stepped out of his bungalow on a prematurely frozen October morning. The previous day’s snowstorm had cast a white blanket over the lofty Himalayan peaks guarding Rangpo, a secluded hill station in Sikkim.

“Chotu,” Pradhanji called out to the servant boy, hurriedly stepping back in, his spine stiff from the fleeting exposure to cold. “Bete clean out the pavement quickly. I mustn’t be late.” He blew air in his cupped palms, rubbing them together to generate heat and placed the hands over his ears first, then his cheeks. It wiped out the tilak on his forehead from the early morning puja.

The boy brought out plow and shovel and gingerly moved ice off the walkway, his face safeguarded in a monkey cap. Pradhanji stepped onto the hand-pulled rickshaw that had been waiting at the gate, his knees numb despite three woolen layers and a shawl, and directed him to the bus station. It was a twenty-minute ride through the town, naturally landscaped with the majestic, snow capped Kanchenjunga, alpine meadows, waterfalls, passes, valleys, perennial rivers and glaciers. Pradhanji had spent a lifetime here. Each solitary ride through it brought a sparkle to his eye.

The rickshaw pulled up in front of the bus station terminal where Pradhanji boarded a bus to Siliguri. It was circa 1965. An old acquaintance of Pradhanji from Siliguri had organised a regional farming convention and had insisted Pradhanji attend. The convention was an outdoor one set up in an outsized farm with myriad tents filling up the space. Farmers and vendors had gathered from the state to sell a wide assortment of plants and plant-derived products. Pradhanji was overwhelmed, a little lost even, never having been to an event of this magnitude. His acquaintance took Pradhanji on a quick tour and dropped in at a corner tent where a farmer was assertively selling petite apple trees to onlookers. “My friend owns a lot of land in the north,” his acquaintance disclosed unwarranted information to the farmer, pointing at Pradhanji. The overenthusiastic farmer jumped at the opportunity, spoke in one breath and divulged all he knew about apple farming. Pradhanji felt framed by the two men. A bout of discomfort followed. He wanted to turn away.

“These are specialty trees, dai. Wild apples, but not crabapples. Gooliyo. Mitho. They’re much sweeter.” The farmer badgered with his sales pitch. “They’re from Lachen. Our people say they’re so sweet because they’re ripened by the sunrays that Kanchenjunga reflects. I can guarantee that they would bear 140–150 kgs of fruit per year way before maturity.” He coaxed Pradhanji into trying a sample, his eyes bright and expectant.

Reluctantly, Pradhanji acceded to the offer and picked up two freshly cut slices. “Badhiya!” He uttered, savoring them. “These are as sweet as Imarti.”

“Told you, dai. These are specialty trees. You won’t find them easily.”

Intrigued, Pradhanji bought fifteen apple trees and brought them back with him to Rangpo, buying extra tickets for the entire last row in the bus, stacking them against the back of the bus, constantly safeguarding them.

Having recently inherited extensive farmland, Pradhanji was scouting for ideas to put it to good use. The living space he had more than sufficed his and his family’s needs. So he involved a cultivator friend and had all the pieces of land inspected. The friend handpicked the most fertile land for the apple trees and taught Pradhanji how to plant and care for them.

Even though still young and not spread out enough, the apple trees bore fruits the next spring. The farmer evidently hadn’t overpromised. Within the first month of fruit bearing season, Pradhanji reaped about ten kgs of apple. They were the brightest ruby red, the color of pomegranate, juicy yet taut, delectable, just like the sample one he’d tasted before. The word spread rapidly across certain neighbourhoods in Rangpo. First came the neighbours, then the relatives, then his son’s classmates; it was an endless loop. Pradhanji was ecstatic. Motivated by the joy he could share via homegrown produce, he had several other fruit trees planted in his orchard.

One fateful morning when Pradhanji reached his orchard, the sight he was confronted with startled him. About half of the apple trees had gone missing. Pradhanji winced. Being in denial, he scurried through the endless strip of land to see if they been miraculously shifted spots. No such luck. Pradhanji sprinted back to their original spots, his face jerking in random directions, trying to fathom it all. Upon closer inspection, the trees seemed to have been carefully uprooted. In a town he considered his extended family it was hard to imagine anyone resorting to this lowly act. Crimes, big and small, were almost unheard of in Rangpo. Pradhanji was puzzled but Badri, his hotheaded son, was miffed. “Find them and punish those thieves, baba,” he fervently appealed. A calm Pradhanji laughed. “Let them steal, Badri. It’ll give me an excuse to plant some more.”

Pradhanji tracked down the farmer who’d sold him those apple trees, made a trip to Lachen and bought dozens more. He had proof now that these were the finest in the region. And he had learnt the tricks of cultivation as well. But history repeated itself. More specialty apple trees were stolen from his orchard once again. The saga continued for months.

“Until when will we suffer, baba?” Resentment and disappointment on Badri’s face were hard to miss. Pradhanji comforted him, an easy calmness radiating from his forehead. “We’re not suffering, Badri. Leave the thieves alone. Let them carry on until they fill up their orchards. Eventually they’ll run out of space and stop stealing.” He reassured with compassion, warmth and pulled Badri’s cheek lightly to make him smile. “And it’s good for Rangpo in any case. More apples for everyone to eat. Right?”

Unable to comprehend Pradhanji’s philosophy and magnanimity, little Badri made a face and pulled a blanket over it.

***

Badri’s confidant and Pradhanji’s neighbour, a resourceful man, got the wind of the ongoing orchard theft. When the neighbour probed, Pradhanji simply avoided the topic and suggested everyone move on. But Badri egged on the neighbour and in less than a week, with much snooping around, the two thieves were brought in front of Pradhanji. Rakesh and Prakash, brothers, greedy, lazy, dressed in dhoti and sweaters, stood with their eyes lowered and asked for forgiveness. Badri watched from behind the curtain the shamed faces of the thieves. Munching on freshly plucked guavas topped with red chili powder, Badri was hoping for a colossal drama to unfold. Familiar with his father’s temperament, he didn’t expectsevere punishment but hoped that the barrister side of his father would preside and the thieves would get some scolding at the very least if not a warning or a threat. Instead, Pradhanji patted their backs and asked, “Are the apples any good?” They hung their faces low, their hands folded.

“‘Forgive us, Pradhanji. We are so sorry.” One of them spoke in a trembling voice, almost inaudibly.

“It’s all right. There’s no need to be ashamed. I’m happy that you shared the joy. But next time you need something, just ask.” Pradhanji warned with his forefinger.

Tears streamed down Rajesh’s face, big, relentless. Prakash’s lips quivered and so did his hands. Pradhanji placed a soothing hand on their shoulders, one after another, and blinked, forgiveness etched in his eyes. The men took off after apologising several times.

Just as Pradhanji was about to leave the orchard, the chappal on his right foot was stuck on to a sharp object from underneath. It disoriented him slightly. “O teri,” Pradhanji quickly stepped out of his footwear and attempted to pick it up. The shoe seemed stubbornly stuck.

“Badri, help me out bete.” Badri put the three eggs and four aloo paranthas from his breakfast earlier to work and yanked the shoe out with all his might.

Baba, look!” Badri spoke in wonder. “There seems to be a knife underneath.” Badri called out to the farm workers who came running with their tools; sickles, shovel and secateurs. The knife was stuck between two rocks in the soil and it took some time and effort to uproot them. Then one of the workers pulled it out only to find out there was more to it than just a knife. He cleaned it with his vest and handed it to Pradhanji. Pradhanji put the weathered object in his wide palm and narrowed his eyes to scrutinise it. It looked like an ivory keychain style pocketknife with a black nylon sheath. The ivory was scrimshawed with a shloka in Sanskrit engraved over it.

Kashm bal ashanktana bhushanam kshama
            Kashm vashikrute loke ka ki shmayna sadhyate

Pradhanji instantly knew what that translated to. Forgiveness is the strength of the weak and the ornament of the strong. When the entire world can be conquered by forgiveness, what can’t be accomplished by it?

The peach under eye circles on Pradhanji’s face turned a shade dark, his face somber. A wave of familiarity swept him over. It was a keychain owned his father. A family vacation, Haridwar, a small shop selling natural stones next to the river bank, the shopkeeper refusing to engrave a long shloka on the ivory shaft, his father being persistent; it was a distinct memory. Pradhanji ran a smooth finger over the shloka, a lump forming in his throat and closed his eyes, memories from yesteryears filling up his heart. He kissed the keychain and bowed his face to touch it with his forehead, paying respect, experiencing the magic touch of his father’s hand on his head blessing him, basking in the joy of this accidental phenomenon.

***

It had been three years since Pradhanji had lost the battle to diabetes but his presence was still palpable. On the dining table, in the black barrister coat that hung—slightly wrinkled—on his bedroom wall, in the wooden rocking chair on the terrace, in the foggy mornings at the orchard; he was unmistakably there. Just like the apple trees, Badri had taken onto responsibility at a young age. He looked after the land, his mother and his younger siblings, juggling it with his education.

One morning he came across an announcement in Sikkim Herald about a regional food fair in Gangtok. It caught his fancy and he set off on a journey to explore. That’s how he was built; impulsive and impatient.

It was a massive food fair with everything from dried Kashmiri chilies to dried Nepali lapsi and from Himalayan salt to Himalayan goji berries. Badri thoroughly enjoyed discovering the unique flavors, layouts and packaging. The fruit section had myriad products on display: juices, preserves, jams, stuffed rolls, dried fruit, biscuits. There hadn’t been even half an entrepreneur in the family but it got him thinking; what if he could start a small-scale business to make edible products out of apples? His orchards had about 600 trees now, 350 of which were the specialty apple trees. Nothing substantial was being done with the enormous produce other than selling it to the local wholesaler. He extended his stay in Gangtok by a few days and put himself on task immediately. He researched, found collaborators, distributors and charted out a plan.

Six months later, when his small factory sealed the first bottle of apple jam, he held it in his hand and wept uncontrollably. Pradhanji would have been immensely proud.

Soon the news of his factory, machinery and products spread all across Rangpo.

***

“Two people are here to meet you.” A laborer told Badri who was supervising one of the machines in his factory.

When Badri walked to the entrance, he nearly had an anger fit looking at Rakesh and Prakash, the apple tree thieves, who looked beat by the years.

“What the hell are you two doing here?” He hadn’t expected them to ever come face to face, especially on his turf.

“Calm down, Badri. We’ve heard great things about your factory.” Rakesh patted Badri on the back and smiled. Badri recoiled and shook his hand off. Unaffected by that physical reaction, Prakash continued his pitch. “The thing is, we also have large orchards with a huge throughput of fruits. We’d love to do what you’ve done. We were hoping to get some information.”

“Bastards,” Badri became a man possessed. “Wait till I show you.” He jumped into his jeep, scurried off to his factory, took a few men with sickles in his jeep and headed towards Rakesh and Prakash’s orchards. In a heartbeat, he had his men destroy the terrain. Every tree cut half way through the trunk lay lifelessly on the ground. Savagely brutal, his acts were giving him a closure he’d forgotten he wanted ever since he was a kid. Then he had his men pluck as many apples as were reachable from the fallen trees and throw them in a container. The brothers, unsuspecting, unaware, reached the disaster spot right then, their modest houses adjacent to it. The orchard was on a cliff. Badri yelled, snatched the container and tossed a huge chunk of fresh apples with all his might. From up above, it’d look like a trail of blood flowing down the hill. “This is what you get for stealing our trees.” He spoke with irrepressible rage to the brothers.

“You shouldn’t have done this.” Prakash, now in his fifties, said in a gloomy tone, collapsing on the damp earth, his hands cupping his head. His eyes were teary. “Your father had forgiven us.”

“But I hadn’t.”

***

Good times had modestly hinted at their arrival. The first shipment of apple jams and dried fruit was being meticulously prepared at the factory. Badri was as excited as a little boy with paper boats during the first shower of the season and nervous all at once. It had been an enormous learning curve with no expert eye to guide him. He’d taken decisions mostly based on hunches all through the process. The instruction manual stated that 100 kgs of apples could technically produce 50 kgs of jam or 10 kgs of dried fruit. He had about 2500 kgs of apples to work with.

He’d been waiting impatiently, walking around speedily in his undersized factory, keeping an eye on the machine that filled the jam bottles. Dried fruit had been extracted and packed in large brown boxes, numbered and stacked upon each other. Jam was all he was waiting for. He intently watched the small squarish bottles go through the assembly line, neatly laid out on the conveyer belt, equidistant from each other, mechanically stopping, being filled by cone like machine tips, being sealed and labeled. He picked up one bottle from the topmost brown box and read the label yet again. Dried Apple Slices, Pradhan & Son, Rangpo, Sikkim. He heart swelled with pride and a smug smile flickered on his lips as he stared at it.

There were still about a hundred bottles to go. All Badri wanted was to pack them in his jeep and drive off to Gangtok where he was to deliver it to the distributor. He’d been promised a two-year contract based on his first delivery. “Great taste, high quality packaging and the agreed upon quantity—none of those should be compromised,” his distributor had categorically warned. Badri had eagerly shaken his head in agreement, nodding, committing to it, on paper and in person. “I won’t give you a chance to complain.” He’d confirmed earnestly. A two-year contract was to include an extended product line in addition to jams and dried fruit, with a twenty percent profit margin built in. Badri was overjoyed. It’d bring prosperity to his home. It’d bring fame. And more than anything, it’d turn him into an entrepreneur. Then he’d buy more land, set up a huge factory, perhaps on the outskirts of the hill station. He’d have to talk to the zameendars about scouting some land.

“Badri dai Badri dai,” A laborer came running up to him. He seemed distressed, confused.

“All done?”

“No. The machine has stopped working abruptly. There isn’t enough jam in the machine. Still seventy five bottles to go.”

“What!” Badri retreated momentarily, then scurried inside.

Pretty soon, it was all clear. The complete story. His estimates had gone wrong. There had been enough fruit to fill all the bottles but he hadn’t anticipated the high number of rotten or damaged apples. Quality had to be maintained at all costs. He collapsed on the floor feeling numb, stoic. Inexperience had triumphed in the end. It devastated him.

Damage control! He’d have to talk to his distributor, convince him to buy the stock even with lower quantities. Strike some kind of a deal with them. He could do it. He was a good negotiator. Everyone told him that. A reduced profit margin would most certainly do.

He had all the boxes stacked in his jeep, jumped into it and hastily drove to Gangtok, not stopping even once for petrol or food, anxious thoughts on auto play in his head.

Three hours later, he stood in front of the distributor in his office overlooking the lake. “It’s not how we do business. I’m sorry.” The distributor was unsympathetic, inflexible, curt.

Badri requested, pleaded. Nothing. Dejected, Badri stormed out and jumped into his jeep. He banged his head against the steering wheel forcefully, repeatedly and sat there, defeated. The ivory keychain style pocketknife with the Sanskrit shloka dangled in the ignition catching his attention. A beam of sun reflected off the broad ivory shaft and pierced his eyes, blinding him briefly. It also brought along a thought. Those crooks could have been his cronies, his business allies… if only he hadn’t destroyed their trees.

***

Parinda JoshiParinda Joshi is the author of Live from London (Rupa & Co., 2011) and Powerplay (Fingerprint, 2013). She has contributed to anthologies as well as publications like The South Asian Times (New York) and GQ (India) on a variety of topics ranging from music, technology to trends that affect South Asians globally.

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MOUNTAINS AND MEMORIES

Ananya Bhattacharyya

DSC_3990-001

When I was a child, the five peaks of Kanchenjunga stretched across the vista, stirring awe, admiration, and exhilaration within me, especially on clear mornings when sunlight ricocheted off their surface, or when dusk painted them in pink or orange. Of course when I was self-involved or the weather was gloomy, the peaks were merely part of the landscape, not unlike the maple tree standing out against a backdrop of pine trees; the jewel-like scattering of cottages in the town below; the brooks and streams gurgling on dry days, transforming into frightening monsters on wet ones; the ridges of tea estates in the distance.

My parents taught at a boys’ boarding school in the Darjeeling district, near the town of Kurseong, and I grew up within the school campus. The best view of the Kanchenjunga from our section of the hill was from the “lower flat” of the school, an enormous playing field that can, without exaggeration, be called beautiful — encircled along the edges by tall pine trees and a grassy slope. The planners who built the school for the sons of British civil servants seem to have had the foresight to not plant trees along the section of the boundary in front of the Kanchenjunga, and so the peaks are framed on both sides by Cryptomeria japonicas (as my father, a biology teacher, tended to refer to them) or dhuppi, in Nepali. I seem to recall that on clear nights the Kanchenjunga shone silver-gray, its outline faint but unambiguous, shimmering, eerie in the stillness. Crossing the field in the dark was like crossing a lake of sand, with the otherworldly peaks watching.

Tiger Hill, which isn’t far from where we lived, is known for its panoramic view of the Kanchenjunga. At one time, relatives who were visiting us offered to take me there with them, but I didn’t want to wake up at an unearthly hour, since the plan was to see the peaks light up at the crack of dawn. I was young enough to believe my sleep was more important than seeing a more magnificent aspect of a mountain I saw all the time. Of course I regret it now. It would have been a chance to see Mount Everest too, though the mountain in front of it eclipses everything other than its summit.

Kanchenjunga, interestingly, was believed to be the highest mountain in the world for two decades in the 1800s, until the surveyor-general of India “discovered” Mount Everest in 1852. While Mount Everest is 29,035 ft. above sea level, Kanchenjunga, at 28,169 feet, is the world’s third-highest peak, and still retains an aura of purity and transcendence — in an age when cruises are organized to the Antarctica. Part of this has to do with its inaccessibility. While the overall fatality rate of Everest climbers is 1.3%, that of mountaineers attempting to climb the summit of Kanchenjunga is one of the world’s worst: higher than 20%.

In any case, despite the Kanchenjunga’s presence in my life and Everest’s absence, the latter too is embedded in my subconsciousness. The three houses in my parents’ school were named Kellas, Irvine, and Mallory, in memory of three pioneering mountaineers who attempted to scale Mount Everest in the ’20s. George Mallory participated in the first three expeditions undertaken. Dr. Alexander Kellas was to be a part of the first expedition too, though he died of a heart attack en route. During Mallory’s third expedition, which was Andrew Irvine’s first, Mallory and Irvine disappeared, not far from the summit. In 1999, a team found Mallory’s mummified body at 27,000 ft.; in all likelihood, he had suffered a fall. The duo’s camera, which may have recorded their journey, remains missing, and whether they scaled the summit is unknown. The school received from Mallory’s mother a compass that Mallory carried with him on his last expedition. As a kid, I was only dimly aware of this history. What I do remember though is my passionate feelings for Mallory house, which my parents were in charge of.

Today when friends post photos of the school on Facebook, I feel something akin to anguish. The past recedes further and further, existing only within a tenuous little corner of my mind. My mother and father are no more. That is of course the most painful change. But the school too is different. It is far more dilapidated. The path leading up to my childhood home is overgrown with weeds. The roofs of many of the buildings are in disrepair. The church with its once beautiful stone façade has been painted yellow. And, most jarring of all, the school’s solid wooden furniture has been replaced with plastic ones.

When I think about going back to visit the school, the town, the hills, I falter. Wouldn’t be simpler to treat the memories as sacred and let them be? Or should I be brave? Perhaps I possess the negative capability to absorb reality and let it coexist with the memories. If there is one thing I know, it is this: if I go back, I will feast my eyes on expanses of droopy pine trees. I will walk along the meandering road that connects my parents’ school with the sister school I attended, each bend of which is more deeply etched in my mind than the contour of my own hand. I’ll make my way up the hill to the scenic spot where my father once took me and my best friend and her little sister for a picnic. Weather permitting, I will travel to Tiger Hill as well, to see Kanchenjunga bathed in warm colors at dawn. If I’m fortunate enough to see it, the not-quite-satisfying slivered tip of Everest will be satisfying enough for me.

***

Ananya BhattacharyaAnanya Bhattacharyya is a Washington-based writer, whose essays and short stories have been published inThe New York Times,The Guardian, Phoebe, So To Speak, and Washington Square Review. She is an assignment editor at theWashington Independent Review of Books.

 

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MEMORIES OF KANCHENJUNGA

Sumana Roy

Kanchenjunga - cover

Painting : Mayank Chhaya

My memory of the Kanchenjunga is as old as my first memories of my mother. And that, of course, is saying something. Growing up in Siliguri, the Kanchenjunga was punctuation in the way I literally saw the world, both necessary and extravagant, a bit like mother’s love. It was a sibling I had to leave home when I took holidays, and when I returned to it, the reciprocity always came as a surprise – its sudden appearance in a train window, its glorious abhimaan from a plane window, and often, on Saturday afternoons, after waking up from an affectionate siesta, a call for a holiday with it. When my brother and I first learned to ride bicycles, it was to the Kanchenjunga that we wanted to go. Our parents did not stop us. I think of it now as the first lesson that the mountain peak taught us.

In this Tin Trunk on the Kanchenjunga, we have Mayank Chhaya’s cover photo, his Kanchenjunga. Sampurna Chattarji, who went to school in Darjeeling, grew up with the Kanchenjunga. Samraghni Bonnerjee grew up in Siliguri too, and having lived away from it during her university years in a tropical city, she returned to the mountains recently. Ruma Chakravarti writes about Satyajit Ray’s film, Kanchenjunga, and what the mountains do in that film. The Kanchenjunga has inspired Pooja Garg Singh and Jyothsna Phanija to write poems, Parinda Joshi and Anuraag Baruah to write stories, and the good doctor Subrata Ray to look for the mountain’s soul in a photo-essay, as he calls it, during his stint as a medical officer in Darjeeling.

***

Mayank ChayaMayank Chhaya has been a journalist for the past 33 years with extensive reporting out of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the United States. He has written two books so far, both biographies. The first was in 1992 about Sam Pitroda, who revolutionized India’s information technology and communications sector. The second book was the only authorized biography of its kind of the Dalai Lama titled ‘Man Monk Mystic’, which has been published in 24 languages worldwide since 2007 to critical acclaim. He is currently working on three more books, two movie scripts and one television series. He is also a regular poet in Hindi and Urdu and occasional one in English. He lives in Chicago.

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RAY’S ‘KANCHENJUNGA’

Ruma Chakravarti

When I began to write about the Satyajit Ray film ‘Kanchenjunga’, I admit that I reached for the DVD copy that I had. For a film that is about the kind of Bengali people that many of Ray film watchers today would know far better than the poverty of Pather Panchali  or Ashani Sanket, this  is not as widely watched. It is a story of the quiet changes that happen to families with time, so subtly as to often go unnoticed, but of great importance none the less. The events are set against the physical backdrop of Kanchenjunga, the second highest peak of the Himalayas. Ray uses the mountains as both prop and metaphor; showing the uphill struggle of some characters, the monotony of the existence of others and a heightened sense of confidence that various characters begin to enjoy as they conquer the mountain in their own ways.

The story depicts the last day of a stay in Darjeeling for a wealthy family. The film begins with an introduction to the family members who are dominated by the father, Indranath, played superbly by Chhabi Biswas. Biswas was one of Ray’s favourite actors and when he lost his life in a head on collision between his car and a truck five weeks after the release of this film in 1962, Ray was devastated and stopped writing parts for middle aged men; that quintessentially Bengali institution known as the ‘Bhadralok’. He believed that Biswas was one of the very few actors of the time who possessed the high degree of acting ability required to bring the character to life.

In the film, Indranath’s wife Labonya seems wearily acquiescent to her husband’s word being law. elder daughter Anima looks unhappy while her husband Shankar advises his sister-in-law Monisha to not marry a man without first falling in love; thus confirming the idea that all is not well in his own arranged marriage. Monisha is shown to be a timid girl who does not question what is planned for her. As the day progresses, an unrelated uncle and nephew duo are shown climbing the steep steps leading to the Darjeeling Mall. The older man is breathless and unable to talk after the climb which parallels his own life of hard graft. When they find the industrialist and his family graciously taking the air, the uncle attempts to remind Indranath that he was once house tutor to the only son of the family, down to the year of his employment. The contrast between the importance of this memory to the poorer man and Indranath’s inability to recognize him is as stark as the difference in their personal circumstances and is made worse by his desperate plea that his nephew Ashok be granted a job.

Indranath is a man whose Anglicized manner and clothing belie his close links to the patriarchal belief systems of the past. Having achieved success during the recently ended British period, he is regretful over their departure from India and derides the role of revolutionaries including his own classmates in gaining independence. He wants Monisha to marry a foreign returned man, Mr Banerjee, who is considered to have ‘good prospects’. He is unable to appreciate things beyond his own materialistic interests. He fails to see both his own and elder daughter Anima’s marriages as one-sided and unhappy and responds to his brother-in-law’s delight at finding a long sought after bird by asking whether the creature can be roasted for eating. He represents the sort of Anglophile post-colonial mentality that Ashok, a young character in the film, seems to be struggling against as a representative of the new order.

The film unrolls in the form of several conversations between pairs of characters as they take long rambling walks. At no point in the film are these characters more than a few minutes apart from each other. I felt the different stretches of mountain roads were almost an allegory for the different paths people take. The married couples have their conversations in situations where they are generally static. The younger un-married characters such as Monisha, Mr Banerjee and Ashok are shown walking almost constantly.

The characters are fleshed out through the film. Monisha’s prospective groom, Mr.Banerjee talks about his professional achievements and indicates his liberal lifestyle by referring to the company of women he enjoyed abroad. As he understands Monisha’s coolness towards him he shows an attitude which contrasts with her father’s intolerance. Monisha seems to come alive only while interacting with Ashok who tells her that he has turned down the job offered by Indranath; he mentions the fact that the mountain and their surroundings have enabled him to feel like a giant and that he might not have dared to say no had he been behind a desk in the city. Their friendship is a chapter left unexplored but a growing bond between the two is hinted at despite their disparate social situations. The bitter exchange between Anima and Shankar begins with a barrage of accusations by each. The conversation takes place as they watch their daughter and the surrounding scenery and covers problems that have taken place in the city far from the mountains around them. As they talk, they seem to grow expansive and attain a degree of forgiveness. They both agree to make another attempt at saving their marriage for the sake of their child who is shown constantly riding a horse through Darjeeling, in a possible reference to the set patterns that people will fall into. Labonya’s brother Jagadish is a keen birdwatcher who seems less worldly but understands the situation of his relatives better than they do themselves. As a result of his unspoken encouragement Labonya takes on the role of an assertive parent after years of blindly following her husband’s dictates. The scene where she is shown singing while sitting alone on a bench, seemingly to the mountain and for herself epitomizes for me her metamorphosis into a human being who does not need anyone else to tell her what to do or how to feel. The song is one by Rabindranath Tagore that speaks of the angst of being exiled and living in doubt and sorrow. The use of Rabindra Sangeet ties this film firmly to the soil of Bengal and is another of Ray’s skilful touches to indicate her traditional roots while speaking of the torment within her.

At the end of his walk, the father arrives at a previously arranged point, expecting to meet the rest of his family but no one is there. He is unaware of the changes that have taken place within the family as they take the first steps to free themselves from the boundaries he has set for them. As the mist lightens, Kanchenjunga is revealed in its full glory but Indranath is too pre-occupied with his thoughts to notice it or appreciate it, despite having missed out on this throughout his entire stay.

This was Ray’s first original screenplay and also the first film that he shot in colour. Colour has been used to great effect throughout the film. The brilliant skies, the dense grey mists rising out of the wooded valleys and the soaring mountain above all the human activity – all these create a mise-en-scene that is as far removed from the city the characters come from as is imaginable. One is able to imagine that each character has drawn strength from their surroundings and from the presence of Kanchenjungha, as Ashok admits to Monisha. The sound track is also instrumental in furthering the ambience of the location. The film makes great use of local folk songs to accompany the hand drawn credits which were done by Satyajit Ray himself. Background sounds such bird calls, the radio and yak bells serve brilliantly in setting various scenes.

It is a contemplative movie – quiet and slow, filmed as a series of conversations punctuated by sudden spells of activity; an ode to the spirit of progress and social change against the setting of the glorious mountains. It is proof of Ray’s expertise as a film maker that he manages to produce a film that engages the viewer with images as well as the dialogue which is imbued with multiple layers of interpretation achieved through attention to a multitude of details. The power of the film comes from both this and the sensitive performances of the cast. Ray’s remarkable achievement is in making us become deeply aware about the fortunes of this cast. We completely understand why it is necessary that the wife becomes a person capable of independent thought, or that the father is overthrown as the lawmaker of his kingdom and that each of the young people come to an understanding about their own roles in life.

Although it is shrouded in mist most of the time, we are constantly reminded of the presence of the soaring heights of Kanchenjunga as a symbol of the progress of India’s men and women as they step out of the shadow of the past and look to a more egalitarian future. The director has been quoted by Andrew Robinson as saying,

“The idea was to have the film starting with sunlight. Then clouds coming, then mist rising, and then mist disappearing, the cloud disappearing, and then the sun shining on the snow-peaks. There is an independent progression to Nature itself, and the story reflects this.”

He manages to convey this and much more throughout the film’s entirety, through a beautifully crafted ode to both human nature and the glory of nature that is Kanchenjunga.

***

Ruma ChakravartiRuma Chakravarti was born in Africa, had her schooling in India and has lived in seven countries. A high school mathematics teacher in her other life, Ruma is an avid blogger, writer and people watcher. Her interests include Rabindranath Tagore, reading, folklore and music, crafts, gardening and films. She currently lives in Adelaide, Australia with her family which includes three children, one dog and one rabbit.

 

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SEHNSUCHT

Samraghni

Samraghni

It is my earliest memory of travelling to Calcutta. I must be three years old. I haven’t slept all night on the train. When we finally arrive at Sealdah, I can see my grandfather standing on the platform. I alight, hug him, look around, and the first thing I ask is, “Dadu, pahar kothay chole gyalo?” [“Dadu, where have the mountains gone?”] I don’t remember if my parents laughed at me, but I certainly remember that my mood was inevitably spoilt for the rest of the trip. Growing up in Siliguri had assured me that regardless of whatever I do, and wherever I look out from, the mountains would be there to say “Hello!” From our main road-facing balcony we could see the Kanchenjunga every day of the year, regardless of rain, fog, or mist. Later, while attending college in Calcutta, I would talk about this very matter-of-factly, and watch looks of horror, disbelief, wonder, and envy on each of my friends’ faces. Initially I pitied them, for they do not know what they are missing; but I gradually revered in the schadenfreude that settled down.

Yet each of them, like true tourists, had systematically woken up at 3.30 in the morning on their visit to Darjeeling, seen the sunrise at Tiger Hill, and clicked many pictures with the Kanchenjunga at the background. My parents, who were probashi Calcuttans [expatriates], were slightly dismissive of their brethren who would wax eloquent about the Kanchenjunga the moment they would alight at NJP station. I—like a true mongrel belonging nowhere—was more vocal about my jeers at them. “That Kanchenjunga you see from my balcony, it’s mine; I see that every morning, every evening; I see it and the green hills from my school window. What do you see from Shyambazar? Bus number 78/1!”

My hamartia has been taking beauty for granted. When I first shifted to Calcutta, I would physically pine for two things: the sight of the mountains from the balcony, and the ringing of the church bells every Sunday. In my mind, the two were inextricably related. For, as long as the sun shone in Siliguri, I could see the Kanchenjunga from my balcony, and as soon as it would set, the Don Bosco church, very near my house, and in the same direction as the mountains, would turn on the red light at the top of the altar. I always thought that while one was out of sight, the other assured that it would be back soon.

Years later, I found a word in a foreign language that could attempt to describe this longing I felt. While looking at a print of Caspar David Friedrich’s Mondaufgang am Meer, my teacher introduced me to the German word Sehnsucht. Duden’s prosaic definition was “inniges, schmerzliges Verlangen nach jemandem, etwas.” I had trembled slightly as I translated it in English: an intense, painful longing for someone or something. I had finally found my word. Sehnsucht.

Many things used to happen while the Kanchenjunga slept in the 90s. The Doordarshan tower in Kurseong would be two pinpricks in the sky, like an inland lighthouse providing direction to the foothills of the Himalayas in Bengal, and for parents to point at it and say, “That is where the signal in your TV comes from!” With no white majestic mountain range to steal the show, one could look at ascending and descending rows of light, and the parents would explain again: “Those are vehicles travelling up to and down from Kurseong.” And so many other memories, tucked away in the twilight zone between real and imaginary: one day when the weather was exceptionally bright, you thought you could extend your hand and touch the Kanchenjunga; another day, by an exceptional set of circumstances which optics could possibly explain, you saw Kanchenjunga alternating between light and darkness.

I carried my Sehnsucht like a dull pain inside me for years. It was probably in 2009, when I was visiting Siliguri after a disgracefully long interval, that I failed to find the Kanchenjunga. For a few seconds, it seemed like a fantasy novel, or the beginning of rising action in a fairy tale: “And as the princess looked out of the window, she saw that the beautiful mountain range had disappeared. The wicked witch had cast her spell.” Maa came up to me and said that a new hotel had been built in the opening between the Bansals’ lavish sal, teak, and shisham trees, and the Kanchenjunga, which blocked our sight of the latter completely. Every other night there would be parties in the hotel, with Bollywood music blaring loudly, and I took it as a personal affront, a punishment that had been meted out especially to me for my nonchalance this long. I returned to university, this time to talk about Kanchenjunga with a sense of loss.

I am often surprised by the tendency of life to fit into fixed, definite patterns. In January this year, I learnt that I would be travelling to Darjeeling with other German teachers to attend a four-day seminar. Days before we left, I learnt that we would be staying at Hotel Windamere. I had an old print of the view from Observatory Hill (where Windamere is located), and while packing warm clothes I dusted the picture. Some research revealed that it was in Windamere that Satyajit Ray’s film Kanchenjunga (1962) was shot, and it was here that the cast had stayed. I was amused. On our first morning, my friend woke me up at the crack of dawn to show a beautiful silhouette of light around the Kanchenjunga (yes, it was there). Both of us rummaged for our cameras, and moved the lace curtain minutes later to find the silhouette gone. Yet life came a full circle two weeks ago, when I woke up at three in the morning, and walked down the dark lawns of Windamere, looking for friends and colleagues, who were all ready to go to Tiger Hill to watch the sunrise.

In the midst of frightened Calcuttans loudly invoking God to help them survive the bad roads leading to Darjeeling; in the midst of disappointment at failing to procure places inside Sunrise Point for being late; in the midst of the biting cold and wind mercilessly hitting the face; in the midst of fear that all will be ruined by fog creeping up at the last minute, I stood and wondered if I could really watch the Kanchenjunga wake up from such close quarters. While in school, I was an avid reader of Narayan Gangapadhyay’s Tenida, and the part in Jhau-banglor Rahasya, where the four friends go to Tiger Hill to watch the sunrise, had left me miffed with the author’s declaration that: “Finally the sun rose. How did it look? What plays of colours did it leave over the clouds and Kanchenjunga? That I will not say. Those of you, who have seen sunrise at Tiger Hill, know already. Those of you who haven’t will never know unless you see it.” [Translation mine.] I wanted to know the details then. But after seeing the sun rise in the East, and the Kanchenjunga systematically wake up in the West, I too would refrain from putting words into the occurrences that morning at a certain hilltop 3358 feet above sea level. When we were waiting for the light, in an attempt to beat the cold, I joined the others in singing, “Aloy-e alokmoy kore he, ele alor alo.” [“Illuminating everything, you bring light into my world.”] After the hill was flooded with light, and all was over, I stood with them, with the Kanchenjunga at my back, and let myself get clicked into innumerable pictures. Later when I was in the car, waiting for the others to join, and waiting for my parents to wake up in Calcutta so that I could tell them all about the sunrise and the Kanchenjunga, I sang softly to myself,

“Shoponduar khule esho, arun-aaloke

Esho mughdho e chokhe

Khonokaaler aabhash hote chirokaaler tore esho amar ghore.”

 

[“Open the doors of your dreams and come to light,

Come to these inspired eyes

Advancing from a moment’s impression to an eternity of presence: come to my abode.”]

***

Samraghni passed her MA in English Literature from the University of Calcutta in 2011. In 2013 she was the Goethe Stipendiatin to Berlin. She now teaches German as a foreign language in Calcutta. Her hobbies are reading, watching vintage cinema, and listening to old music.

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THESE HILLS CALLED HOME

Sampurna Chattarji

Photo : Subhrata Ray

Photo : Subhrata Ray

A few years ago, as part of the social programme at a literary festival in Bhutan, we were taken to visit a Bhutanese village. The trip made me think of Ashis Nandy’s book An Ambiguous Journey to the City, in which he has an essay titled ‘The journey to the village is a journey to the centre of the self’. I often get asked the question, “Where are you from?” Seeing my Bengali surname, strangers assume I must have been born in Kolkata. When I tell them I was born in Africa, in Dessie, Ethiopia to be precise, eyebrows rise, and people like my (then) ten-year old god-son ask me if I am African. Adults say, “Oh, so you grew up in Africa!” at which point I have to say “No, I grew up in Darjeeling”. “Oh, Loreto! I was in Loreto College, which year?” at which point I have to explain that I graduated from Lady Shri Ram College, New Delhi. At this point my interlocutor starts getting a glazed look in her eyes. To ease her pain, I put an end to the story, and say, “But now I’m based in Bombay, have been for the last 15 years.” Relief, exclamations (“So Bombay is home for you now!”) and finally we can move on to other things. This kind of exchange has had an educational effect on me. Now when I get asked the same question, I respond with the short answer “Bombay” and let myself off the hook. But in a country where you still get asked the question, especially when travelling long-distance by train, “Where is your village?”, I wish I had the presence of mind to say, quoting Nandy, that my village is at the centre of my self; to say—I left my village at the age of thirteen but my village has never left me. That centre is Darjeeling; that centre is, I suspect, home.

It is only now, when I look back at my writing and glean from it the presence of this absence, that I see how pervading it is; how growing up in Darjeeling gave me a core that would manifest itself in my poetry and fiction in the strangest ways. In my novel Rupture, one of the characters, Partho, an anglophile film buff, is a product of a public school set seven thousand feet above the sea. When he descends from the hills to the plains, he finds he doesn’t fit in, and in his anger he blames that unreal, paradisiacal childhood:

It had ruined him. The pristine air in which everything seemed sharp and immediate, as if summoned that very instant by some faultless conjuror’s hand. The presence in his life of those mountains of shadow and ice. The way in which, on clear evenings, the setting sun brushed each glittering white peak into a thing so ravishing and transitory, so technicolour that he could hardly believe in its existence. How could something that looked so real and solid and provable be enchanted into something so unreal by a trick of the light? Between the steepness of a slope under his climbing legs, the blueness of the air above his spinning head, the ache in his teeth that told him the mountain existed, the fog in his eyes that spirited it away—between all those implacable contradictions, how could he not have got tainted?[1]

Being unfit for any other kind of life, particularly life in the plains, makes him a slightly warped and more-than-slightly dislikable man. And yet, I realized that when I wanted Partho to redeem himself, to find some way of reaching out to the wife he abandoned, and the children he never cared for, it was to his most cherished memory—that of the hills—to which he returns:

It was the fog I loved most, because it was the fog that made the light so warm in that cold place of my youth. The thin drizzle, the thick fog, the warm yellow light in the classroom, in the dorm, in the cubes. Fat slices of bread, butter so cold we ate it in chunks, tea so hot we skinned our tongues. Everything golden, the butter, the apple juice in the end-of-term glass, the sun through the cryptomeria hitting your eye as you lay on the wet crunchy grass. And inside the dak bungalow the candle, as we bent over a game of cards, teachers and students cheating equally—all is fair in the circle of light against the dark. A bear prowling outside, honest, someone saw it with his own two eyes. Huddle closer, here no bear will get you. Off the road, in the khudside, with our peashooters. No peas in them, just hard, scrunched up pellets of paper, nicking the ankles of those who walked past our noses as we hid among the insects, invisible until betrayed by a stinging nettle and the yelp of a bare-legged boy. Eat the stem of this tender green shoot, suck the juice from the rhododendron flower. Part the fern on that mossy wall and look into the gap between the stones. It feels like a discovery, the orange marble that you hid. Here is treasure, immeasurable.

Under a bush near the chapel was our little hidey-hole when we were in Primary. We hid there and watched. There was nothing to watch, it was the hiding that mattered. On that tree with the flat branch was where we built a little machan made of twine. We were going to hunt tigers from there, when the rest of the world was sleeping. In two days, it was found and with it our nest egg of three stolen library books, for reading by torchlight as we waited for the tiger to arrive. On that bend is where I fell often, gouging open my knees. In that corner of the junior field is where we did our Mowgli dance. Akela we do our best. Up the narrow stairs, but not all the way to the Infirmary, is where we burnt the wax and drew the batik patterns. Below, we planed wood, rejoicing in the spray of dust, the pile of wood shavings curling at our feet. Across the senior field, we banged at the pianos, rows and rows of notes straining to become music. Sometimes, on an empty afternoon—where was everyone—you would hear a melody, someone playing again and again, practicing, perfecting, because this was the thing he loved.

They gave us so much room, Paromita, to find out what we loved. [2] 

I think it is that love for the hills that has stayed with me, no matter how far away I went. The American poet Elizabeth Bishop asks in her wonderful poem ‘Questions of Travel’— “should we have stayed at home, wherever that may be?” It was while attempting to understand the ‘whereverness’ of home that I realized home is what sneaks up on you when you least expect it, as happened in the last section of this poem:

 

One or Two Things about Home

 

Hungarian sausage, from an Indian friend in Austria.
A hard white cylinder, twisted at one end, like a sweet.
The white is a dusting of flour (on wax?),
the cylinder hard as a shinbone.
Tear the twist of wire off, unwrap the flour-skin.
The meat inside is red. With a sharp knife, cut a slice.
Press hard.
Bite into the little red disc.
It’s sharp, and salty, and good. Could do with a glass of wine, though,
to go with this Loidl Spezialitaten, this Haussalami,
saying the words all wrong, but wanting
to say them, wanting the mouth to do more
than eat this red and salty foreign meat.

What is it about Hungary these days? Should I treat them as signs?
Why else should I be reading Sándor Márai, recalling Csoma de Körös,
the Hungarian who walked to Tibet and died in Darjeeling?
If that’s not a sign, what is? Darjeeling, my home for thirteen years.
I left, at thirteen, and what it left me was a taste for mist
and gloomy afternoons, a relish for steep roads and gabled roofs,
a zest for steamed pork momos and cups and cups of tea.
Not for Csoma de Körös, he died of malaria in Darjeeling.
And Márai committed suicide in San Diego.
What is it about Hungarians and death?

“Who are the Hungarians?”
Lapps? Finns? Turks? Huns? Körös was keen to find out.
Instead, he found a monastery, a bitter cold and a language
he would learn, a grammar he would take back for the world.
Which journey ends the way you imagine? I try and imagine
a journey on foot, in bitter cold, in rags. All I can summon up
are prayer flags, the tall fluttering wisps of cloth I walked past everyday
without noticing what they might be saying, blind to the language
of signs made of wind and air, white on blue, white on grey,
speaking to spirits that must have watched me go. And the more
I’d like to stay with Hungary, the more Darjeeling comes back—
the sound of Buddhist gongs, the stench of horse dung,
the juice of the Bhutan apple spurting on my tongue, the sight
of a yellow light in fog—each separate and terrible, each sign
invisible inside me, marking me for who I am, foretelling every
word, every action, that I might one day make.

It’s hard.
Press deep, cut through to the bone.[3]

Journeys never turn out the way you imagine. Now an affirmed city-dweller, the hills where I spent all my formative years made me, in invisible and undeniable ways, the writer and the person that I am. Like Eustace Trotter in Allan Sealy’s The Trotter-Nama who thinks of the Himalayas as a “vital place to which his thoughts would go back again and again…”, a feeling that goes “deeper than the ordinary longing for a sense of quiet rootedness” and is instead “the sense of a source or spring”—Darjeeling continues to be a motherlode for my work which I am yet to fully mine. For me these hills called home are not just a place on the map but a feeling in my heart. I will end with a poem which I smuggled into my book of children’s poems, but which is really about my adult sense of longing, belonging and loss.

 

Used To Be

Used to be
just waking was reason
to go mad with joy.
Fed, dressed, kissed,
then sent hurtling
past the lawn
past the field
past the slopes
past the trees
past the breeze
past the town
past the high Himalayan peaks

into this: 

A desk
in a room
in a city.

Used to be
just the thought
of a book
unread
was cause
to lose my way
through a day.
Rapt, not hearing a word,
just waiting for class
to be over
and then

walk run race home
open the door
fling down the bag
drink up the milk
throw off the shoes
jump on the bed
take out the book
and sink into: 

A quiet depression.

Used to be
just the sight of yellow light
in mist was poetry,
hot bread and jam,
a hiding place in a wall
behind a fern
where a single orange marble winked,
firestruck and swollen,
a candlepowered tin
floating titanic in a tub. 

Proud of the red apple cheeks
I stole from my little Bhutia friends,
proud of the Kanchenjunga
I fitted into my window,
proud of the giant night shadows
I spread across the wall,

I sit: 

Too close,
too distant
from where I began.[4]

***

[1] From Sampurna Chattarji’s Rupture [HarperCollins Publishers India, 2009]
[2] From Sampurna Chattarji’s Rupture [HarperCollins Publishers India, 2009]
[3] From Sampurna Chattarji’s Absent Muses [Poetrywala, 2010]
[4] From Sampurna Chattarji’sThe Fried Frog[Scholastic India Pvt. Ltd., first edition June 2009, reprinted September 2009]

***

Sampurna Chattarji

Sampurna Chattarji

Sampurna Chattarji is a poet, novelist and translator with twelve books to her credit. Her four poetry collections include Sight May Strike You Blind (Sahitya Akademi 2007, reprint 2008), Absent Muses (Poetrywala, 2010) and The Scorpion; her two novels are Rupture (2009) and Land of the Well (2012), both from HarperCollins. Wordygurdyboom! (Puffin, 2004, 2008) is Sampurna’s translation of Sukumar Ray’s Bengali poetry and prose; and Dirty Love (Penguin, March 2013) is her short-story collection about Bombay/Mumbai. Her latest book is her translation of Joy Goswami’s Selected Poems (HarperCollins, 2014) http://sampurnachattarji.wordpress.com/

 

 

 

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UNDER THE SHADE OF THE TAMARIND TREE

Marc de Faoite

Fiction - Under the Shade of the Tamarind Tree

The powdered soil under the giant tamarind tree was cool and dry and soft to touch. Mrs Velusamy sat there in the dark, only half aware of the contact with the earth, her fingers absent-mindedly drawing swirls and whorls and curlicues in the dust as she watched flat banks of clouds on the horizon turn from bruised purple-gray to the deep crimson red of dried wrinkled chilli peppers.

“Red sky in morning,” she murmured to herself. Wait, was it ‘shepherd’s warning’ or ‘sailor’s warning’? Both seemed correct. Both seemed wrong. She could ask Sita. Always with her nose in a book that one. An answer for everything. Sometimes her daughter’s cleverness irritated Mrs Velusamy, but mostly it made her proud. Sita should have come today, everybody else was here, but instead she was probably getting ready to stand in front of a blackboard in a schoolroom, far away in Pahang, pushing her glasses towards the bridge of her nose while looking out at the sea of expectant children’s faces.

There were children here in the crowd today whose parents had kept them home from school, and of course the babies and the toddlers who were still too young to go. Many of the parents, and grandparents like Mrs Velusamy, had never been to school. Things were better these days. In some ways at least. In other ways things were getting worse.

The brightening sky woke the coucals and the koels. They filled the cool morning air with their strange whooping and coughing and their melancholy wails.

Somewhere in the distance Mrs Velusamy heard a cockerel crow. Above her in the tree, insects began a steady buzzing drone that slowly filled up the background of the morning and would grow louder through the day.

She gazed out over the flat land, towards the forest, a vast expanse of dried yellow grass and weeds grown almost long enough to hide a sleepless flock of grazing goats. At last the red rim of the sun rose shimmering, melting the upper branches of the dark distant trees.

In the nearby temple Balaramasundram raised the conch shell to his lips. Almost instantly its plaintive cry was answered by the rasp of a microphone, followed by the loudly amplified call for prayer from the minaret of the newly renovated mosque.

“Jai Jai Aarti vigna-vinayaka…” he chanted, waving a heavy brass plate of camphor towards the rising sun and the brightly painted statues of the gods, tendrils of black smoke writhing around his wrist, the purifying fire dissolving the camphor like flaming cubes of ice, while his left hand pumped up and down ringing a strident high-pitched bell.

Balaram never intended to become a priest, but the way he saw it he never really had a choice. He wondered if he had been a priest in a former life. How else to explain the prayers and actions that came to him so readily? His first visit to this temple was over fifty years ago. The young boy he was then had automatically copied the priest’s movements with uncanny precision, as if awakened to some forgotten body-memory.

For thousands of dawns he performed this ancient rite, chanting the names of sacred rivers in a different land, rivers far across the sea, where his ancestors had come from generations before, the same land the ancient ancestors of the rulers of this country had come from, the ones whose names lived on in the titles of kings and queens, the same ancestors who had left the moss-covered carvings in the forests. When his father brought him deep inside the jungle to see these hidden relics, a stream of Sanskrit slokas flowed spontaneously from his mouth

Balaram could trace his lineage in this country back two hundred years. Every person in the crowd had been born here, and their parents too. Some had worked on the rubber estates before they were cut down. Some had found good jobs here close to the city, but most struggled to get by. They clung tightly to their faith and its rituals in the way only desperate people can.

He finished the prayers and finally let the tears that had being welling in his eyes flow down his cheeks. Hundreds of devotees had turned up this morning, far more than ever before, spilling out of the temple building all the way to the foot of the giant tamarind tree. He scanned the faces and saw that his were not the only eyes moistened with tears.

But there wasn’t just sadness in the crowd, there was anger too. Small groups of young men stood protectively behind the women sitting under the tamarind tree.

Mrs Velusamy saw that some of them had brought strong sticks. She understood their anger, but no good could come of this. They snarled under their moustaches, muttering among themselves, then merged together to form a human barricade across the dusty road that led to the temple grounds.

Sweat dribbled in rivulets down the dark faces of the men. Some of them nervously teased their lips with their teeth. They had no desire to fight, but they had to make a stand. How could they face their families if they just stood back and let this happen?

Mrs Velusamy and the other women around her stayed sitting on their grass mats, but pushed their hands down into the ground to shift their hips so that they could face the road as well. They waited.

The police cars came first. Balaram shuffled forward and pleaded with the uniformed men, but he knew that they were only performing their duty and the decision wasn’t theirs. At least there were no dark faces among the policemen. That would have been too much for the crowd to bear. After a brief discussion the police walked back to their cars. A sigh of relief went through the crowd.

The women rose to their feet, some of the older ones like Mrs Velusamy grunting theatrically. This universal chorus of groans and grunts almost made her laugh. There must have been a time, in the pre-historic past, before language and religion came along to separate them, when all humans communicated in the same shared sounds of sobbing and laughter and moans and yawns and sighs.

She smoothed out her sari and looked around at the other formidable corpulent matriarchs in their finest saris, the lithe young women dressed in kurtas with wilting jasmine flowers in their hair. The children were excited and unable to keep still. Some of the smaller children squatted for a moment before springing up again. She envied the supple elasticity of their youth. She couldn’t squat anymore. Her knees gave her trouble these days. Just one in a long list of aches and pains that came with age.

The sun climbed higher. The fierce tropical heat reached its cloying fingers underneath the tree. Despite that, the women huddled closer, sheltering in the diminishing circle of shade. Sweat stains bloomed and blossomed, darkening the colours of their clothes. Tempers began to fray, countered by vain attempts to lighten the mood with strained laughter and unenthusiastic jokes. Plastic bottles of water were passed around. A few families squatted over pre-prepared meals wrapped in banana leaves, stacked in tiffin cans, or bought food packaged in plastic and polystyrene. Mrs Velusamy watched the younger people eat, but she herself had no appetite at all.

In the distance, further up the road, the policemen stood in huddles smoking cigarettes, or playing with their phones, or squatting in the dust in the meagre shade of their cars. Saiful was proud to be a policeman and believed the uniform he wore stood for something. But not today. He felt a sick helplessness in his stomach, like the first day in a new school. He knew that this was wrong. If he had known that they were coming here he would have called in sick. Maybe if he had told the truth he might have even been excused. He tugged nervously on a cigarette cupped protectively in his hand and tried to hide the tremor in his lower lip.

Saiful hadn’t told anyone that this was his old neighbourhood, that this was where he grew up, and that among the crowd gathered in front of the temple were people he had played with as a child. He could never tell his colleagues about his broken heart, or how he had fallen in love with one of these dark-skinned girls, how they had hidden their forbidden love. He hoped she wasn’t there today among them. Seeing her again, and on this day, would be just too much to bear. He winced as he remembered the beating his father had given him when he found out about her, and being here again today reminded him of how he had wept that night in the cinema, the night she had kept her eyes on the screen but leaned closely beside him to whisper sorry, and to tell him she could never convert to Islam. A radio crackled in one of the cars and new orders were barked out. Saiful dropped his cigarette, slowly ground it into the dust and walked over to join the other men.

Mrs Velusamy felt the electric currents running through the crowd. She closed her eyes and began to sing. After a moment the women around her sang with her as well, shyly at first, but soon with more confidence. The older men with their greying hair and lunghis and sarongs joined in too. Soon the crowd of several hundred sang together, to Shiva the destroyer — ironic, but fitting in a way, thought Mrs Velusamy. It was Monday after all and it was Shiva’s day, and this was Kali Yuga, the iron age of destruction, where things were torn apart.

The crowd sang so loudly that they didn’t hear the rumbling of the approaching trucks, but when they saw the boiling dust-clouds further up the road they knew they were on their way.

The crowd fell silent, the hot air suddenly filled again with the sound of insects whining in the trees.

Men climbed down from the trucks. They arranged themselves in rows. The harsh sunlight reflected blinding flashes from their plastic shields. They beat their truncheons against the shields in loudly echoing unison as they marched towards the crowd.

The young men stood firm, but inside they trembled with expectation. A small child started to cry. The riot police stood aside and a giant truck rumbled forward. The young men braced themselves. The women shielded the children with their bodies. A turret on the roof manoeuvred with a mechanical whine and the long barrel pointed straight towards the line of young men barring the way.

Balaram pushed his way forward to the front of the crowd. He shook a raised fist angrily at the steel mesh windows of the truck. That seemed to be the signal they were waiting for.

When the water hit, it knocked Balaram right off his feet. He could hardly believe the force of it. He was badly winded and gasped for breath, but the water kept on coming. The young men who had been on the front line had all been knocked down too. They scrambled to their feet and tried to get away. Balaram felt strong arms grasp him and pull him away. He turned to thank his benefactors and then saw the sunlight reflected on the protective visors they wore. They heaved him off the road and left him lying there, winded once again. More police were pulling the young men off the road. A few of the young men had been hauled into the back of trucks, but most had gotten away, fleeing toward the safety of the bank of trees beyond the yellow grass. The women and children realized that their combined might and prayers were powerless now. They fled the meagre shelter of the ancient tamarind tree, the older women half tripping in their long saris, the younger women jerking their stumbling children along by their extended skinny arms. Only Mrs Velusamy fought her way back against the fleeing crowd, determinedly elbowing her way towards the temple.

The crowd gathered at a safe distance. The colourfully painted statues of moustached warriors on horseback would not be able to defend the temple today. The pantheon of gods on the towering wedge of the gopuram stared down impassively and watched as the water cannon truck moved aside and made way for a crane-like machine that ran on tank-like tracks. It inched slowly forward, positioning itself, then swung the heavy wrecking ball.

A wail of futile protest went up as the shattering weight hit the gods with all its might. They cracked and crumbled, raising clouds of dust as the wrecking ball struck again and again. A bulldozer moved in close and pushed aside the debris. The wrecking machine rumbled forward and methodically took out the supporting pillars and the walls. Balaram sobbed uncontrollably. No one knew what to say. There was nothing they could do. They had learned today just how truly powerless they really were.

Saiful was the only one who saw that an old woman was still inside. If she stayed she would be killed. He clasped a hand over his mouth, coughing through a fading cloud of tear gas and powdered concrete, signalling for the driver of the wrecking machine to stop. He clambered over the rubble and disappeared inside.

Mrs Velusamy had thought that she would get out. She hadn’t counted on the entrance being so easily destroyed and blocked. Through the dust of crumbled concrete she saw a young man come towards her. As if half-remembered in a dream she recognized his face. Then she realized that she had known this man as a boy, but what was he doing here now, a Malay man in a Hindu temple? Had he come again for her daughter? It took her a moment to realize that the clothes he wore under the dust was a police uniform.

Saiful recognized Mrs Velusamy at once. She was greyer and heavier, but she still looked just the same. His heart played tricks inside his chest as he realized that this woman, clutching a bundle of cloth to her heart, could almost have been his mother-in-law. He wanted to ask her if Sita had come today, but the dust made his throat dry and he couldn’t find the words. Instead he held Mrs Velusamy by the elbow and gently guided her over the piles of rubble until they were outside.

The riot-police left with their armoury. Only bulldozers and the wrecking machine and the dismayed crowd remained. The crowd had come, now all they could do was go. Some offered Balaram food, others a spare room where he could stay. He just silently shook his head. He couldn’t leave now. He had to watch this thing through to the end. One by one the crowd slowly left until Balaram stood alone in the broadening shade of the tamarind tree. He sighed and leaned back against its sturdy trunk. After a while he slid down to his haunches and sank his head into his folded arms.

**

A heavy sun rose beyond the distant wall of trees. First light had already touched the sky before its red rim rose. The earth under the giant tamarind tree was cool and hard and dry. An hour earlier Balaramasundram had brushed the dust from his sleep-wrinkled clothes. He crouched down to open the cloth-wrapped bundle Mrs Velusamy had given him. Inside was the brass plate and the camphor and the conch shell and some other things. He used his finger to daub his forehead with kumkum, ash and santal paste, then stood and faced the dawn. His lips touched the conch shell and he blew a long and wailing note. It was answered by the coughing red-eyed coucal and the melancholic koel, and the call for morning prayer from the newly renovated mosque.

Marc de FaoiteMarc de Faoite was born in Ireland, but has spent more than half his life abroad, living in England, Belgium, France, India and currently Malaysia, where he leads a quiet, reclusive life on Langkawi island. He reviews books for The Star and has had several of his short stories and essays published in anthologies in Malaysia, Singapore and Ireland including Sini Sana: Travels in Malaysia, Fish Eats Lion, Readings from Readings 2, KL Noir: Red, Esquire Magazine & The Irish Times This short story is extracted from his collection Tropical Madness ( Buku Fixi , 2013). 

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SIR, ARE YOU GOING TO MEET ME?

Neelabh Sourabh

Translated from Axamiya by Aruni Kashyap

চাৰ

চাৰ, লগ পামনে আপোনাক

এখন দৰ্খাস্ত আনিছিলো পকেটতে আছে
দ্বাৰৰখীয়াই সোমাব দিয়া নাই

এটা গান আছিল পুৰণি
আপোনাক শুনাও বুলি আহিলো
এখন বলীয়া নদীৰ গান
শুকান পথাৰৰ ক্ষীণকায়
নাৱৰীয়াৰ গান
সি আমাৰ পিতাই

এখন ছবি আছে আপোনাক দেখুৱাম
এজনীৰ চোলা ফালি চিৰি স্তনকেইটা খান্দি থকাৰ ছৱি
তাই আমাৰ আই

আপুনি আমাক চিনি পাব পাৰে
চিপাহীটোৱে বিশ্বাসেই নকৰে

মনত পৰেনে আপুনি অমূল্য আঙুলিৰ চাপ বিচাৰি যাওতে
এখন গামোচা, এটা জাপি,
এধাৰি ফুলৰ মালা পিন্ধাইছিলো আমি

আপুনি জানে আমি আপোনাক কি সুধিম
চিপাহীটোৱে বিশ্বাসেই নকৰে

আমাৰ তাত গোটেইবোৰ বাৰেই দেওবাৰ
আপুনি আপোনাৰ দেওবাৰেও নাহে

আহিব চাৰ
আয়ে সূতা কাটি থৈছে…..

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