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.

Tinted Glass

She lingered around the windows,

In the empty house full of maids and cooks and a butler.

The husband went on business trips, he laughed at her habit-

“If only you knew what there is beyond your silly window-world.”

But he went on alone, she would be too tired from travelling so much.

She lingered near the windows, draped in rich sarees, the ends pulled down her head

That covered an arm’s length effectively.

Moved from one glass case to the other with dainty grace taught by generations of good housewives.

But her decisive fingers pulled down the wooden blinds every time a rebellious sound broke the midday silence.

Eager eyes scanned side to side, peering through layers

Of cloth, of wood, of glass.

At figures interrupted by blinds and a printed veil,

A few inches of thick glass.

Music floated in the air, drifted away,

And the void was filled with more.

Eager eyes peered relentlessly through layers at every sound, at constant music emanating from a distant gramophone.

But her husband decorated her windows- his sweet gesture of love,

Thick white glasses were replaced with carved tinted ones, dark red and emerald.

He laughed with contentment, “You shall see a more colourful world from now.”

She still stood by her windows in her empty house,

Pulled down the blinds sharp at every sound,

And peered through prints, wood and coloured glass,

At shapes and sizes interrupted by layers one too many

She tried hard to make sense of her colourful world.

Prompt by Daily Post: Constant

Dull red flowers

I feel a damp against my wiry body,

Spiralling against my non- spine, my fire-red flowers untouched,

Dirty green moss the colour of her saree on the wall.

I look again at her wiry body, a peek of ribs and white skin from the side.

I look down today at the less bright flowers from yesterday.

A bend from the waist, bony hands pick flowers

From the ground for oily hair snaking down a thin back.

Her passionate love for my flowers, though dead and smell-less

Lying on the ground. She cannot reach the ones sticking loosely to the wiry green body against moss covered bricks.

I long for her bony hands to pluck the bright wonders off my skin, drop them into fair palms cupped together.

She moves into the kitchen for the day, my flowers adorn a long oily trail, held together with a knot. I can only hear bangles clinking, a mechanical melody accompanying a mechanised grinding of coconut.

They will soon smell of coconut and turmeric, smell-less flowers from yesterday.

She throws them before her husband returns, our dried little secret. Fresh sandalwood paste on a broad forehead.

She always returns the following day. A moment alone, a treasure island of less-bright flowers strewn around.

A damp from the moss green wall against mine. I feel a damp against both our bodies. And I do not long for her glass bangles.

Captive Speech

I paid a few thousands for my new pair today,
A fine new pair of scales,
A polished silver beam delicately embellished with an artist’s mind.
No, I’m no vendor, the pen is what I employ.
The scales are for me to carefully measure out my words,
Because the blotting paper can only soak up the periphery.
But a pair of polished silver scales? Oh they can do much more!
Keep me from accidentally spilling out words that you abhor.
I cannot deny that I am full of cowardice,
Unable to exist in the underground. I crawl back up with my puny spirit,
A perfidious poet, forcefully shutting my ears to the cries of revolution.
A half hearted agreement to my half hearted mind, “I need to stay safe”.
Within your ornamented walls of facade, I’ve agreed to perform.
Now I’m supposed to speak through your thick veil of rules,
My voice muffled…you’d hardly hear it over the censors.
So I don’t mind paying a a large price for my new silver scales.
If I am banned from speaking my mind,
I’d rather do it aesthetically.

Via Daily Prompts: Price and
Cowardice

Pain Pastiche

Snow skin, soft voice,

A frame so petite,

Light steps and shy smiles,

I’m branded beautiful.

But a tug at my reverie, it snaps!

Shards of illusion scattered around,

I am just a black woman,

A thick, heavy, dark, Negro Woman.

So you hate me and beat me,

Starve and enslave me,

But take my loathed body,

Watch me numb my soul, and give in completely.

Purple bruises blend perfectly,

I am blasé to all pain,

My dreams smother in despair,

And wash away in tears which dry…

But I write about waterfalls,

Paint bright pink flamingos,

All in my mind’s canvas,

‘Cause black women with ink and paint,

Are only witches to be shamed and cursed.

And finally I die,

My body laid next to the spirit long buried,

From which I rise another time,

Ready to be tortured, ready to be told.

So here I am again, prettier this time,

With small feet and rosy cheeks,

I thank God-

Now I shall not be despised.

Well-

I am now a Japanese Wife,

Victim of a forced marriage,

A potential actress too-

But you don’t need to know that.

But you should remind me of my femininity every time,

Snatch away the sake and the smoke,

And yes, the life too-

Berate my apparition,

Every time you see her singing to trees,

Crushing dried leaves under her feet,

Plucking flowers on a solitary night.

[This poetry is an original creation, inspired from two masterpieces- “And The Soul Shall Dance” by Wakako Yamauchi and “In Search of My Mother’s Gardens” by Alice Walker. The theme of universality of women’s oppression has been recognised and is the essence of this poetry.]