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.

The weapon

He was later than usual. The night was very dark, it had also started snowing outside. All he carried was a cleaver in his hand. There was a slight wobble in his steps. Was he drunk?

The room was dark and quiet. He lit a candle, then took off his patched woollen coat and hung it on the peg. He lifted the hem a little- the blood had already dried and was almost invisible. Dried mud was stuck to the cloth. His coat smelled of fish, it was full of bloodstains. You cannot expect a butcher to take his coat off at work in this cold, especially when he can’t afford any other clothing. The stains were all dried and looked like rust. One cannot easily make out because of the dark wool and the dirt stuck to it. The stains looked more like a subtle pattern now, almost like a pretty design in the otherwise plain coat, he thought. He admiringly stared at his coat for a while. It looked pretty, he thought. Even if it smelled of fish and blood all day. He didn’t really mind the blood, he hadn’t decided about the fish yet.

He had placed the cleaver on the small table near the door. He looked down at it with the same air of admiration, feeling the dried trails of blood. He picked it up and walked to other door at the end of the room. A gush of ice cold wind hit him as he threw away the weapon he used to kill the man, and shut the door.

Snowflakes steadily gathered on the sharp metal outside.

Escape thoughts

I tried looking around quickly, they were locking the door again. I wanted to devour the whole room with my eyes in the limited time. Failed. The thin ray of dusty light disappeared at once as he closed the strong iron door behind him. This iron cell is meant for me. It gives me some pleasure to think that I cannot be contained in cement rooms with wooden doors. But being a prisoner is not nice anyway. A shudder ran down my spine. Do I have to spend the rest of my life here? It’s so damp. They’ve probably never opened this room before. A cockroach ran across the room. I could feel sweat trickling down. I think they looked like silver beads. They generally do. I cannot see in the dark. But I need to leave this room. I cannot see anything. It is too dark in here, there are no windows. No cracks and no holes. Crawled from one end to the other. The floor is sticky, dirt stuck to my moist palms. There aren’t any ventilators either I think. I looked up at the ceiling. I cannot see it. I am getting weaker day by day. Before they come with their tubes and vials tomorrow, I need to leave. I am scared of them. You shall think it’s a joke. I am formless, but a chameleon nonetheless. I peep inside human beings, and I seep in, slowly. Like water in crevices. And that’s how I win over. Usurp their lives. Limit them, cripple them, overcome their minds. I occupy very little space. Sleep inside a tiny oval structure, the size of a nut- amygdala. But it surprises even me to sometimes think of the things I’m capable of. It’s a nasty thing, you’d say. But who has ever won over hunger? Hunger for power. Sans shape, sans teeth, sans form, I have to exercise my power in every way I can. Scared of losing my identity, I started crawling frantically once again, on the seemingly never ending wall. I wish I knew what colour the wall was. I laughed at my fate. I feel scared. Fear. A restless feeling in a non existant heart. Like falling off a cliff. Or drifting away in the sea. Mapless. That’s how you describe me, I’ve heard. I’ve already spent countless hours in this room, spent from trying to find an escape route. Should I accept defeat? Should I stay here and watch them recreating me, reproducing me in more powerful ways, be content with it? After all, my purpose is being fulfilled. But they can’t strip me of my power. You cannot live feeling inferior. They’re using me to do what I am supposed to do after all. They are supposed to fear me too. I cannot be trapped. I have to run away. I fidget in the dark. My eyes are aching from relentless attempts to look in the darkness. You think of my insidious motives and shudder when alone, but the apparent sweetness in stretched smiles of your fellow beings is more wretched than my business. They come here everyday. They come in suits and glasses and polished shoes. Sometimes, they wear cheap nylon shirts too. They caught me with their tricks and tools. They are clever. Cut me up in formless polygons and squeeze out my strength. I am mixed with vibrant chemicals, stored in air conditioned rooms. Or they make thin barrels and triggers out of me. And egg shaped shells which induce fear.

Via Daily Post:  Identity

Fear

Mr. Bhusan was up at five in the morning as usual. Hastily washing his face, he opened the small window by the wooden table and got down to finishing his latest novel. It was the thirty-third draft, which he was about to discard, out of his eternal, persistent fear. Mr. Bhusan has remained an aspiring writer from his teenage, owing to the fact that he never managed to complete any of his works in over two decades. How could he? He has always suffered from an intense fear, almost like a phobia- his fear of unknowingly writing something that already exists. Of course the ideas could be similar, but what if his entire work turned out to be an unintentional copy of someone else’s work?

It all started some twenty-five years back, when Mr. Bhusan won a prize at his college for an essay. Since then, he decided to become an author. He confided in his sister his dreams, who had playfully remarked, “Beware, you might write something which already exists, and you won’t even know.” Alas, what was said in innocent humour proved to be Mr. Bhusan’s biggest fear. He wrote dozens of poems, expressing his love for doe-eyed women who he hadn’t met; tons of pages, novels about lost empires, heart-breaking tales about failed marriages and about anything possible under the heavens. But he never built up the guts to read them out in close circles of family or friends, let alone publish it. He wrote pages and pages and tore them down to unidentifiable pieces. There was his reason, lying in the open- who knew if some author hasn’t already penned down exactly the same things? He would be laughed at by the others. Or worse, people would call him a cheat. He was scared for a reputation which he hadn’t built, in the first place. He never had the nerve to show anyone his works. He stared blankly, his hands shook and the soles of his feet went ice-cold when someone even vaguely mentioned of his literary practices.

After years of struggle, when last Sunday, he almost convinced himself of the originality of his work, like he had done before on rare occasions, he headed to the publishers. But as always, halfway to the office, he had to stop. His heart beat crazily, sweat broke out all over his face and there were visions of him standing upon a podium and his readers throwing his book at him, along with paper balls and eggs. All he could manage was to take a sharp about turn, and walk back home rapidly.

But the good thing about him, or so he thought, was that he did not discard his dream of becoming a writer. So he woke up early in the morning everyday to finish a few hours of writing before he went to the kitchen to prepare lunch for his wife, who was a professor, and very particular about timing. Presently, he was intently working on his thirty-fourth draft, when his wife’s shrill cry broke his trance. “I don’t know how I fell for an aspiring writer and still staying with the same aspiring writer after nineteen years. My life is a farce!”, screamed an infuriated Padma. Mr. Bhusan sighed, and quickly got up to go to the kitchen, so that his wife could leave the house as soon as possible. She wouldn’t understand. He needed a peaceful environment to think, concentrate and write. Probably this time, he would make it to the publishers…

Via Daily Prompts:

Farce

Conveyor Belt

Raman stared earnestly at the conveyor belt, his face, a clear reflection of anxiety. A resident of the rural town of Mannpur, this was the first time Raman left his town, and travelled to the city on a plane. Dressed in a spotless white dhoti, Raman slowly and carefully went through each procedure until he got into the plane. 

Sitting stiffly with his seatbelt on and eyes closed, Raman somehow spent two hours and hurried outside as soon as the flight landed. With a lot of help from the ground forces, he found the conveyor belt. He was awed at the mechanism of the flat, moving belt carrying everyone’s luggage. He decided that collecting his stuff from the conveyor belt would certainly be the most fascinating part of his journey. After missing his luggage, and mistaking another’s for his own a few times, Raman finally gathered his bags after half an hour. The place was almost empty. But he soon realised that he didn’t collect his box of mangoes. He frantically started looking for his box around him. It was nowhere to be seen. The empty belt kept moving in a single direction. He tried looking for the flight staff, but he was the only person standing around the  moving belt. Raman walked all the way to the other side, then back. Didnt find his box of mangoes. Frustrated, he even tried peeping inside through the rubber strips. In a moment of wild despair he considered climbing on the belt and take a look inside, but decided otherwise. They must’ve stolen it- Raman thought. But he had heard that airport authorities take special care of passengers’ luggages. But what else could’ve happened to his mangoes? After waiting for ten whole minutes before the mesmerising belt, he turned around walked towards the exit with a heavy heart. He was convinced that his box was stolen. Raman was almost at the exit, when a solitary cardboard box came up through the rubber curtain. The lonesome box took a full round and a second one and came up for the third. Raman was already on a taxi, on his way to his hotel.

For a Day

It was an unusual day. He, with a torn towel on his shoulder,  zealously swept the floor and wiped the glass windows. It was a big day for the small roadside eatery. A film scene was to be shot at the place. The hero and Miss Priya would be shown drinking coffee. So he also polished the cups till they shone. Actually, he was more excited about the actress than anything else. He never missed her movies. She was beautiful. She danced well. Her voice was that of a nightingale. She was his secret fantasy.

He was cleaning tables when the crew arrived. Within moments the eatery was crowded with people, with cameras, large lights, microphones. Some people were carrying clothes. The actors were surrounded by security. He earnestly tried to look for Miss Priya. But there were too many people. His master welcomed a few important looking people inside and tried shooing him away, who was eagerly waiting for a glimpse of his favourite actress. As he turned to retreat into the kitchen, looking crestfallen, a man with a beard called out to him. The man wanted him to casually clean the tables in the background when the actors would drink coffee. For a second he couldn’t believe his ears. He would be shot too. He would be sharing a screen with his favourite actress. He couldn’t contain his happiness. Vigorously shaking his head, he responded in agreement. Later, during the shoot, he was lost in his effort in cleaning tables. Never in these five years had he cleaned that surface with such determination. His trance was broken by a fellow, who approached him and handed out two hundred rupee notes. When he looked up, he saw the crew packing up. The actors were nowhere in sight. None of the other important looking people were around. The boy handed him the money and left without a word. 

Quickly shaking off the vague feeling of sadness, his imagination took flight. Probably it was his start, he would slowly become famous, directors would notice his hard work and his fearless presence before the camera. And they’d call him. And someday, he too, would sing and dance with the lady of his dreams. He would hold her hands on mountain tops and near waterfalls, walk on white sand beaches, in ornate gardens, or on American streets. Twisting and turning in his small bed at one end of the eatery, he didn’t realise when he had drifted off to sleep, smiling to himself.

But on all the following mornings, he woke up to the yells of an angry master and carried on with work, the torn towel on his shoulder.

Scribble Series #6

I have been standing for almost a couple hours. This is getting harder for me by the minute. I can feel cold sweat trickling in slow motion down the sides of my cheeks, and patches of sweat on my eyebrows, tickling me uncomfortably. My glasses keep slipping off. Standing behind at least fifty people, in the considerably large hall, furnished with designer desks and chairs and cobwebs hanging from the yellowed ceiling, I’m profusely sweating in spite of the chilly November cold. I can feel an overwhelming numbness approaching my left leg. My wristwatch says I have half an hour before my next insulin shot, which I cannot miss. A quick mental calculation tells me that I only have fifteen minutes to reach the counter and finish my business after which I have to walk back home, wash my hands and feet, without which my wife wouldn’t let me take a step inside the house; and take the shot. I wish I hadn’t retired. Then I wouldn’t have to stand in this stupid queue every month, waiting to collect my pension. 

The queue is moving faster now. I check my wristwatch again. I still have five minutes and there are ten more people ahead of me. I can now see the man behind the counter. I stare at him like a hawk fixes his gaze upon his prey. The number of people before me reduces by the moment. And finally, I am standing behind just one customer. I wipe the sweat off my forehead with the back of my hand and re-adjust my glasses, regaining motivation to wait some more. But this customer seems to take an eternity. My patience magically vaporizes. The numbness in my leg is reappearing. Fresh beads of sweat break out on my skin. And there- she is done. As I eagerly rush to the front of the counter, a mechanical voice echoes across the hall- “All functions shall resume after lunch”. The man behind the counter throws at me a swift glance and leaves his seat. 

This story is purely a work of fiction and has no resemblance to actual services at the bank or any such sector. 

Scribble Series #3

The old man was there as usual. They looked at each other briefly as John made his way to the rickety bench at the remotest end of the park, where the old man was seated.

John walked to the park everyday at dusk, to spend a few hours alone before clamming himself up in his one-roomed flat, on his way back from his bakery. His favourite bench in the entire park was the oldest and the dirtiest. Nobody ever used it, save for the other aged man. John was more than happy. He wasn’t socially awkward, but liked to spend most of his time alone, especially this time of the day.

The old man, his neighbour, a retired clerk, looked much older for his years. Life hadn’t been kind to him. He had lost his beloved wife shortly after marriage and was left with an infant daughter. After several years, his daughter grew up to have an admirable intellect and a heart of gold. Betty, apple of her father’s eye, grew up to be a social worker, nursing diseased tribes in the deep forests of Africa. She had left home shortly after earning a diploma and flew away to pursue her dreams. She wrote to her father regularly, who wasn’t well equipped with the complicated Internet. Betty was away for almost five years, and the old man’s heart ached to see his only kin. She had promised to return soon, in her letters she had delightfully announced to have found a charming man for herself, and wanted to marry him in her father’s presence.

John sat quietly with his head down as he recalled his beautiful days with Betty, in Africa. She was the most magnificent person he had ever come across. They were happy together…she had wanted to marry him at her family church…they had made all arrangements…But Fate smirked at their attempts at planning their future- after all it was she who pulled the strings according to her whim. A week before their departure, Betty was diagnosed with a fungal infection that steadily spread in her blood. Vivid images flashed across his mind as John recalled how the doctors were removing the life support after confirming her death. He was completely shattered and couldn’t stay there anymore. He decided to move to Durham, Betty’s birthplace and start afresh. He lived alone, and ran a bakery. Every evening, he visited the park at dusk and spent a few hours in quiet solitude to think about his beloved. He loved the rickety bench because it gave him a perfect view of the sunset. Betty loved sunsets.

The old man had only received a telegram from the organisation she worked for. Carefully counted words told him of her death. The telegram was followed by a monetary compensation. The heartbroken father, helpless, routinely spent a few hours on the bench alone, thinking about his daughter, watching the sun, set. Betty loved sunsets.

Eventually, John got up and turned to face the old man who was preparing to leave. The old man looked at the handsome stranger who looked oddly familiar, for a few seconds. They held their glances once again, a quiet goodbye. They were headed home, and walked away in opposite directions.