Summer Prize

It was a hot day. The sun shone with all its might and the sand was hot. Tired, he settled down on one of the comfortable chairs placed on the beach. They weren’t meant for him, they were meant for the men and women who crowded the beach, drank things out of pretty coconut shells and stupidly walked around with hats on and little else. The shack owners seemed to love them for some reason, those noisy idiots. He looked around scornfully. There was a plastic bottle with a little water on the side, but not enough for him to be able to drink. Must be those thoughtless humans! Irritated, he looked around as he always did in these cases. Idiotic as they were, the tourists always left a thing or two in their carelessness, and he picked them up without remorse, taking those back to his nest. It was the closest and most viable imitation of a revenge in his mind. As he looked around, suddenly something caught his eye, shimmering and glittering in the scorching sun. Aha! Must be one of those glittery things they wear around their necks. Over the years, he had come to realise that those were quite valuable to the humans, although he never understood their purpose. With one last look around, he swiftly swooped down from the armchair and picked up the trinket from the sand. With an air of victory and a sense of pride in his heart, the crow flew away. His prize hung from his beak, a liquor bottle cap, shining in the sun.

Paper-bag Poetry

Uma was looking outside her window, absent minded. The sky was a monotone of dark grey, a patchwork of thick rainclouds. Deep rumbles emerged from the horizon in steady succession. The old grandfather clock announced the twelfth hour of the day, gong beating away musically. However, looking around, one could be convinced that it was well past sunset. “Bouma, did you bring back the clothes? All his white shirts, office shirts Bouma, don’t let them get wet!” Bhabani Debi called out urgently. Hastily twirling her hair in a bun, Uma ran to the terrace. Just as she picked up the last shirt from the clothesline, the rain began falling in large drops. Uma loved the rain, the way it caressed her skin, wet her hair- but she couldn’t let the starched office shirts get wet. Downstairs, there was a commotion. Her mother in law, aged but domineering Bhabani Debi was rebuking their cook cum servant Ramu sternly. “What’s the matter, Ma?” Uma interjected. “Let Abani come home tonight, he has to do something about Ramu. Your Baba indulged him in all his nuisance and now he wouldn’t lift a spoon!” she looked over her shoulder and glared at her late husband’s picture on the living room wall. Exchanging a few words with Ramu, Uma quickly learned that her mother in law wanted to eat some fried pumpkins and Ramu was expected to oblige. An expert in maintaining household peace, Uma cajoled Bhabani Debi into retiring to her room, promising that she’d fry her some pumpkins at once. The rain stopped as suddenly as it had started. Uma looked out of her kitchen window. A neem tree, freshly bathed in rain, now looked greener than ever. A faint smell of mud and dust wafted in the air. Her sons were inexpertly trying to dribble a football. The sky…fresh leaves…smell of rain-

“The earth awash and smiling shy,

Like a timid bride on her wedding night…”

Uma smiled as the words circled in her mind. Turning the stove off, she quickly disappeared into her room. She’d have to write them down, or they would be completely lost from memory in a few minutes. In beautiful handwriting, she scribbled the couplet on her notebook and stared at it admiringly. Her first and an abrupt attempt at English poetry- not complete, but a start nonetheless.

“Bouma, don’t let the fries sit cold. Why don’t you bring them over here,” Ma’s voice broke her reverie. “Yes Ma, at once.” “You have a gift for cooking, darling. Why don’t you take some?” urged Bhabani Debi. Uma politely refused. “You need to put some flesh on your bones, at least till you’re nursing. Did you feed her?” Uma nodded faintly. Her mind was busy with the couplet, tearing the lines apart and stitching them again, adding and removing words, trying to rhyme. “Don’t let her sleep in the sun. She’s a girl after all. How’s the knitting coming along? Show me the baby’s sweater once you’re done with it, won’t you? I need you to embroider this table cloth after that”, Bhabani Debi pointed at an off white piece of fabric that covered the sturdy Mahogany tea table. “Yes, Ma. The sweater is almost done, just the sleeves…”, “Oh you can finish that off today”, the old woman dismissed her with an impatient air. “There is a party at Ghoshal’s this Sunday. I was wondering if you could stitch a piece of lace on that white blouse of mine. It’ll look elegant for the evening.” Uma looked through Ma’s neat wardrobe and spotted the garment under a pile of blouses. “I’ll get this done in the afternoon.” Bhabani Debi watched her daughter in law walk away with admiration. She had found a perfect wife for her Abani. An expert in music, cookery, knitting; beautiful and obedient. Her luck was envied by many in the neighbourhood. She raised her hands to her forehead for a quick prayer.

Uma was sitting on her bed, her fingers swiftly maneuvering the needle, but her mind distracted.

“The earth awash and smiling shy,

A bride in red on her wedding night,

Charming, fragrant, her features spry,

Sweet as a rose, large kohl eyed.”

She grabbed her pen and book, and after a minute of scrawling, found herself staring critically at the scribbled lines before her, chewing her pen, rummaging her brain for better rhyming words. Her first attempt in English poetry. Uma enjoyed writing, but predominantly in Bengali, despite her B.A in English Literature from the City University. She used to be secretive of her writing at first, but winning a grant or two back in her college days had allowed her to express some magnitude of brave love for it. Plath, Chopin, Shelley…she longed for a corner of her own, in the boundless world of literature. Her mind wandered back to the first few days of her married life. Abani had spotted her notebooks full of poetry in her half unpacked trunk. “When you told me you like writing, I didn’t think you were serious about it”, he wore a strange expression. Was it amusement? Appreciation? “It’s just a hobby really”, Uma had taken her notebooks from him and put them away under her sarees. “Interesting. Well, writing isn’t easy. And uh, after all, you’re a woman.” After a short pause he had added with a laugh, “It’s a great hobby actually. Maybe you can even write a poem or two in your free time. But I’d rather hear that sweet voice of yours humming to some Rabindra sangeet now.” With a surprising sudden urge to confide in her new partner, Uma had hinted of her desire to pursue writing as a career, hoping for him to churn out a reassurance that couldn’t be expected of other members in a house one was just brought to.

“What does that mean?”

“You went through the book. What did you think? Not very often, but fairly regularly…if I could publish…suppose in Amritolok or Sahityasambad? Just a weekly magazine maybe? I actually published an essay in college that won the…”

“Oh Uma! Why can’t you just let it be? You’re no longer a college girl. Besides, if you’re busy with reading and writing all day, I mean…think of the household. You’re a new bride. What will the neighbours say?”

“You will be at work, what will I do at home? Besides, I have a degree in Literature. Might as well make some use of it.” At this, Abani had laughed out loudly, “Well didn’t you make use of your education already darling? I for one, always wanted my wife to be educated.” he looked at his newlywed wife with adoration. “Besides, what do you mean you’ll do all day? Ma is old now, Ramu dada doesn’t cook well. I’m certain Ma will let you take over the kitchen. Don’t worry about spending your time, we seem to reside among some specific species of curious neighbours in a continual search for reasons to visit our house, ha ha ha.” Looking at Uma’s crestfallen face, Abani had added, “You can always write, like I said before. Write at your leisure, and maybe, when I come home from work, serenade me with your poetry.” With a smile, he had turned to his side and fallen asleep.

“Ma can you make us some lemonade?” both her sons entered her bedroom, sweaty and beaming. “Oma, you’re drenched in sweat!” Uma quickly switched on the table fan, checked on the baby and went towards the kitchen. Her eldest son liked his lemonade sweet, the younger one salty. She squeezed a large lemon in a glass. It was after about a year of their marriage, Abani had taken her to a party at his manager’s house. The Senguptas were a cultivated family. Mrs. Sengupta harbored an affection for European literature and having learned of Uma’s academic endeavors, she had brought out a copy of Mrs. Dalloway and handed it to Uma. “My first book in London.” Mrs. Sengupta had insisted Uma keep the memento, despite keen refusals from the recipient and her husband. On their way back, Uma thought of the book, and its author, “You know, she said, a woman needs some money and a room of her own to write.” “So now our upcoming writer needs a room of her own is it? Ha ha! Mrs. Uma Virginia Banerjee.”, Abani was greatly amused. “Listen Uma, the Senguptas are a different category altogether. They have two cooks, and a gardener. All this reading and writing isn’t meant for us middle classes.” Abani’s eyes had been fixed on the wheel. “I like the embroidery on your blouse. Did you do it? You could do one for my panjabi too, the yellow one? You get a lot of time anyway, with Ramu dada helping you out.” “Hmm? Yeah, the yellow one did you say? Sure”, Uma’s eyes had been fixed on the empty roads.

Uma handed her sons two tall glasses of lemonade. The grandfather clock struck 3, filling the house with a deferential echo. In a few hours, she’ll have to wake Bhabani Debi with her evening tea and water the plants while Ma finished her evening prayer. The sky was now clear- the afternoon sun fierce. Sunlight fell diagonally on her bed, the notebook basking in it. Uma opened the book, her finger tracing the lines she wrote a few minutes ago. Mrs. Uma Virginia Banerjee! She felt a faint lump on her throat. She got up and moved to her wardrobe, shaky fingers pulling out a couple of notebooks from under her sarees. Essays, a short story, mainly poetry. She gathered her notebooks and sat on a stool in the attached balcony. A small corner for herself, in the boundless world of literature. A middle class family in Calcutta, with little to spare for nothing. An antithesis. A bride in red on her wedding night, who wasn’t asked if red was what she wanted to get married in. Uma’s eyes had stopped watering years ago. Uma looked outside through the railings. “Papers! Old papers, new papers, newspapers, care to sell some papers?” a familiar voice pierced through the silent afternoon. The ragman visited their neighbourhood almost every day, asking for glass bottles, sometimes scrap metal, and occasionally newspapers. “Hey, over here.” the words escaped Uma’s mouth before she realized. “Boudi, do you have some old papers?” the bony figure wiped his forehead with the gamcha he carried around his neck. “I have papers. But tell me, what do you do with the things you collect?” Uma pointed to his sack curiously. “Sell madam, sell. The glass bottles are crushed. They go to the factories. If we have some good clothes, we keep one or two for ourselves, and sell the rest. Old papers to make paper bags. A good deal can get us even five rupees! Do you have papers, Boudi?” he was impatient. “Yes yes, paper bags. Paper bags travel everywhere, I suppose.” “Yes, paper bags go everywhere. For the jhalmuri and the rice, peanuts in the train. Everywhere, Boudi. Sometimes you may find a Bengali newspaper at a station in Bihar, heh.” he wiped his forehead once again. Uma went inside the house and came out a minute later with a small pile of old newspapers. “Char anna”, he was done weighing the stack. “These papers go far and wide, you said?” She almost said it to herself, but the man looked at her bewildered. “Char anna, here”, a small coin shined on his outstretched palm. “Just a minute.” Uma ran inside the house and came out in no time. “Here, no need to weigh them.” she handed out three long hardbound notebooks, with printed illustrations on their cover. Paper bags travelled far, and along with hem, her poetry may too. The man picked up his scale and other paraphernalia, and was just about to leave when Uma called out, “I may have forgotten something in there.” She took out a green hardbound book and turned the cover. The swift sound of a page tearing was followed by an imperceptible exchange of expressions. “Here, take it back.” Uma stood with a leaf from her book in hand, watching the ragman walk away.

“The earth awash and smiling shy,

A bride in red on her wedding night,

Charming, fragrant, her features spry,

Sweet as a rose, large kohl eyed.”

Her first English poem was still unfinished.

A modern living

The smoke is always floating precariously in the air,
Threatening to fall face down on the earth, bringing down a few storeys with it.
The glass doors are more wary of the ugly soot.
They are cleaned twice everyday,
By men, cloth in hand, moving their arms in a robotic up-down-up.
But they are not robots, yet.
The glass doors are a big fraternity, and one leads to another.
They sell attractive work-life-soul packages at discounted rates.
The smoke looms large above each, slowly moving from one place to another.
Glass mannequins wonder how fast they can escape with their long, sword-like heels.
Anxiously adjusting sparkling big stones around their necks, whispering to each other, “Will the smoke dull this shine?”
Plastic forests with their lush enthusiasm fail to assure of environmental regeneration.
They bow their plastic heads in shame, their great grandmothers could draw up water from the earth.
Men run around excitedly, they’re not afraid of anything.
Maybe they need a gun, or a tight lasso, and they’ll take down that arrogant black cloud in no time.
Maybe they need a pair of robot hands- easy.
The great cloud smirks as thinner layers curl up from long pipelines every day.

Via Daily Post: Forest

The treasure I never found

I had always looked at the staircase and wondered what could be behind it. The staircase didn’t seem to be in the middle of the space. I am sure they attached it to a wall with screws, a half-window half-wall. The window covered with a translucent piece of bright yellow tin. You couldn’t move the staircase, and so couldn’t reach the half wall. The railings had a lot of gap in between, but you still couldn’t see the half window. There was a translucent tin sheet on its journey of opacity. The stairs spiralled down, to a place I still don’t know. They removed their shoes at the landing. I was certain of a dark room which the stairs led to, its windows covered with tinted glass. Tinted glass windows was not too important, but the bathroom was a large dark hall with black flooring, tinted windows and a tub in the middle of it. I never peeped in to check if the tub had water, I was scared. The room had hidden treasures. Not hidden, they were all placed in the open darkness of the room. I wanted to climb down, but I never did. I don’t remember why. I didn’t tell anyone about my truth, not because they’d laugh, for I didn’t think they would laugh. I climbed up and down the stairs. The railings were covered in cobwebs. They weren’t fresh spider-webs glistening in the sun. There was no sun at the bottom of the stairs, nor at the top. The stairs were red, not a bright red. The railings were black, neither shiny, nor faded. They existed in their shade of black, like most railings do. And they were beautifully carved. Or not. Maybe they were just ordinary. The shoes- they were mostly sandals, old, wearable at home. I can’t remember if there was a bulb hanging from the top, a dim yellow bulb…I think I want to sit on the steps. Dust on the stairs, it is an old building nevertheless. And worn out cobwebs on the railings. I can draw shapes on the dust. I should have just climbed downstairs. I wasn’t scared whatsoever. I wanted to wait, to grow up to know if I would still believe in treasures and go look for them down the spiralled…no, it wouldn’t be a skeleton still. If only I had known that I would lose it all, lose my staircase! If only I had known, I would have climbed down. I’ll probably never know ever if the stairs led to hidden treasures stored in the open, it’s a road that crumbles behind you as you move forward. But God, I would love to know what was behind the staircase, maybe the tin has rusted, and falling off, and I can see without dismantling the staircase. Otherwise, storing it would be a problem, I cannot twist it more than it already is, and you can’t fold it either. Someone has to hold it the entire time I look out through the half window, and it’s too heavy for one person. What if I want to look out of the window the next day again? The ice cream vendor sells a different flavour everyday. The half window probably has intricately designed grilles and I can’t put my hand out. It is unlikely though, because I’ve never seen convincing silhouettes through the tin. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll find faint scratches on the floor from where they have dragged the vessels out.

Reflection #2

And you tire yourself out relentlessly looking for answers, when all you have to do is rephrase the question

Smell-less History

Monochrome movements on a wide glass screen-

A bright white sun, white robed delivery at a church.

Stooped black heads moving like ants in line,

But the chains were all human sized.

And the cloth sacks failed to hide whipped backs.

A long black train raced through the image noise,

Or maybe was its cause-

Exhaling black smoke along its way,

A thick burnt smell filled my thoughts

Mixed with blood and yellowed pages.

But let me breathe, unlike raging fire in marble hearths

At winter cities during lavish tours.

It let me breathe, unlike burnt red chillies in the neighbouring Granny’s kitchen.

Because, it was a story of the past,

And I was only watching black heads coughing at black smoke on a wide glass screen.

Via Daily Post: Delivery

Wound

No doctor, you can’t fathom the

Depth of this wound which,

Runs through my soul and

The blood smeared ball of muscle with

Cylindrical passages,

Both of which carry deoxygenated blood.

I have little hope from,

You, and the philanthropists who,

Offer to stitch my heart severed into two.

No doctor, I don’t doubt that,

You can’t heal my wound and

Also, a local anaesthesia wouldn’t do.

 

Via Daily Post: Local