Categories
Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

Infinite Tiffin

Because Indian food is the best in the world, as everyone knows, a scientist who worked for an educational institute on the outskirts of Bangalore once tried to devise a method of ensuring there was more of it. The more the better, was his motto. His attempts to construct a machine that would multiply chapatis, vadas, dosas, idlis and bowls of curry failed, for it turned out to be impossible to create new matter from nothing — thanks to the physical laws of the universe. But this scientist wasn’t a man to be so easily discouraged. Where there’s a will there’s a way, was his other motto. He had two mottos, just as he had two arms, two legs, two eyes and a pair of spectacles on his nose.

He thought of a way he could get around the particular law of physics that had sabotaged his first plan. Instead of multiplying the food in order to increase the amount available, why not shrink the eaters instead? A man or woman the size of a thumb would be confronted with chapatis that were like islands, vadas like boulders, bowls of curry like the craters of active volcanoes. Yes, that was the best solution. He got to work on it right away and he even stayed late in his makeshift laboratory at the institute and ignored all phone calls from his parents, who wanted to know when he was going to marry a nice girl, or failing that, any girl at all. He was wedded to his experiments.

At last, he chanced on a viable method of shrinking people to a specific size. He celebrated by going home and sleeping for three days. When he awoke, a wide smile on his face, he knew that finding volunteers would be fairly easy. He placed an advertisement in a local newspaper, and it wasn’t long before people began contacting him. He would pay them a small honorarium for taking part in the trial run and they would be allowed to eat as much food as they wanted. So many applicants contacted him that he was overwhelmed, and he had to declare that the offer was over. No more volunteers were required. He had two suitable candidates and wanted to use them immediately.

Pawan Kumar and Shruti Patil were both at loose ends, like pieces of string that knew knot what they had let themselves in for. That’s a pun, but neither one of them cared for wordplay. Pawan was an auto driver and Shruti worked as a maid in a gated community. Neither were gluttons but it must be admitted that they hadn’t had a notable feast for a long time. They jumped at the opportunity that the scientist offered. And in case you are wondering why this scientist has remained nameless so far, it’s because after what happened he preferred to stay anonymous for all time, and we must respect that.

Pawan had found a copy of the newspaper left by a passenger on the back seat of his auto, and Shruti had found one stuffed into the bin that she took out of the apartment she was cleaning. Both had paused for less than one minute in order to read the advertisement. This was a happy chance, if chance can ever be said to be truly happy and isn’t faking it, and then and there they had decided to plunge headlong into this new adventure. They were perfect volunteers, in other words, without a twinge of anxiety between them.

The scientist said, “Are you sure?”

They both nodded in agreement, bemused that he should seem more nervous than they were. All they were risking was their existence, but he was risking his entire career, and success in this unfortunate world is often held to be more important than life itself. He continued, “There might be complications, but I don’t think it is likely. I just want you to be aware.”

They were aware, fully so, and he ought to worry less.

“So be it,” he said dramatically.

It’s still a trade secret as to how he shrank them from ordinary sized people to miniature versions of themselves, so I am unable to describe the machine he used and the green rays it beamed on them from a series of crystal lenses all of which were carved into different shapes that were offset polyhedra, and even the copper coils and capacitors and diodes as big as cucumbers must be passed over in discreet silence, nor can I say how the whole contraption was powered by an array of solar cells on the institute’s roof.

Pawan and Shruti found themselves diminishing rapidly but that’s not how it seemed from their perspective. It appeared to them that the outside world was expanding, rushing to inflate itself, and the effect was so startling and alarming that they clung to each other for comfort, despite the fact they hardly knew each other, and their parents didn’t know each other either. This embrace also helped them to keep their balance as they rushed down the scale until they were almost exactly the size of the scientist’s thumbs.

The scientist spoke and his voice was so deafening that it boomed like the thunderclaps that sometimes echo from the crowded buildings of Bangalore and rumble down the streets before fading. They understood none of his words and it was a minute before they could gather their wits to act on their own initiative. He had simply said, “Please begin eating.”

He had picked them up and was lowering them on a long table that groaned with the amount of food it held. He was careful not to squeeze them too tightly. Then he released them, and they wandered in utter amazement among the plates, bowls, dishes and banana leaves, all heaped with delicious foodstuffs. The idea that they should devour this landscape seemed as absurd to them as any resident of Mysore supposing he can munch his way through the Amba Vilas Palace. It was too overwhelming, far too miraculous.

The scientist now clapped his hands impatiently. “Come, come, tuck in, I don’t have all day. Let’s see what happens!”

But his voice was still too low in pitch for their tiny ears to hear anything more than an incomprehensible booming. That was of no importance because the mission that had been assigned to them was plain. They had to eat as much as they liked in the time available to them.

It never occurred to Pawan or Shruti to ask whether the miniaturisation was permanent, and in fact even the scientist didn’t know if the effects would wear off naturally, or if he might find it necessary to try reversing the polarity of his machine in the hope it would restore them to their former size. But they had full faith in his competence and began nibbling at tasty objects that were in their vicinity. They were only a little cautious.

Soon they grew confident, then became joyous. They bounded between dishes and plates, climbed mounds of sweet and savoury foods, waded through curries, cavorted among the vegetables.

In the meantime, a reporter from the newspaper was on his way to the institute on the outskirts of Bangalore to find out why this scientist needed the volunteers he had asked for. The reporter smelled a story in the making. When he entered the building, after showing his press credentials, and approached the laboratory, he smelled something beyond a story. It was a banquet! He rapped on the door with his knuckles and cried: “Good afternoon, sir.”

To which the scientist replied, “Go away! You are disturbing the future of the human race. The door is locked.”

“I merely wish to interview your volunteers.”

“They are far too small to answer your questions. You must depart now. I will have you ejected from the premises if you refuse to leave of your own free will. The volunteers can’t understand your words, no matter what language you speak. They are cavorting on the table.”

“How so? You mean that they are monkeys?”

The scientist cursed at this.

The reporter struggled to see anything coherent through the frosted glass of the door. All he could make out was the shape of the banqueting table, which at this distance was like an operating table, and parallel rows of foodstuffs, which to him looked like an array of gadgets. The scientist stood with a spoon ready to serve rice onto plates and to the reporter it seemed he was clutching a surgical instrument that could probe brains.

“Is he brainwashing monkeys? Turning them into robots or assassins! I will write an article about this scandal.”

And he dashed out of the institute building as fast as he could run. During this rumpus, Pawan and Shruti had gained even more confidence. They started to eat with gusto and passed from dish to dish like explorers among the ruins of an ancient civilisation, taking morsels from every alluring display. Most of this food was from Karnataka but not all.

They chewed and swallowed bisi bele bhath, maddur vada, Dharwad peda, akki roti, saagu, upma, ladoos, three variants of idli, namely thatte idli, rava idli and Muday idli, churumuri and many other typical foods. They were soon full, but they continued eating, more on aesthetic grounds than from physical need. It was like a chain reaction. They would keep going until something exploded and that something would be their bellies.

But now something strange happened, and the simple adventure became a much more complex and tricky exploit. Pawan found a paper dosa, a very long and crispy example, and it had been rolled into a tunnel and he peered into the mouth of the tunnel and he was baffled.

“The landscape on the other side of the tunnel looks different,” he said to Shruti with a frown. “Come and see.”

She did so and she was no less astonished.

“There’s a garden there.”

“Yes, there is, and it makes no sense.”

A dosa with a tunnel. Courtesy: Creative Commons

They exchanged meaningful glances, but the exact meaning was unclear to both of them. Nonetheless they tingled with anticipation and Pawan gave into temptation and suggested they walk together through the dosa tunnel in order to see what the far side might actually be like.

Have you ever walked through a dosa yourself? It is surely an odd feeling. They stumbled on the batter, which yielded too readily to their feet, cracking a piece off here and there, but soon enough they emerged from the exit. And what they saw was remarkable. They were no longer on a table in a laboratory in an institute on the outskirts of Bangalore.

Pawan and Shruti were unworldly people and had never heard of the myth of the Garden of Eden, but that’s what they found on the other side of the magic dosa. There are some special points in our world that are portals to other worlds and if you step through them, you will end up in that new dimension. They saw that the garden was full of trees, but the trees had gulab jamuns hanging from the branches instead of fruits. Gulab jamun trees! Was that even possible? Clearly, yes it was, here in this incredible place.

Gulab Jamuns. Courtesy: Creative Commons

As they strolled deeper into the garden, enchanted by the sights, they took slightly diverging paths and ended up alone. Shruti stopped by a tree and despite the fact she was full, she reached up to pluck a gulab jamun that glistened most invitingly just above her head. And that’s when the snake appeared. It slithered down from the top of the tree and said:

“You are allowed to eat the sweets from any tree in the garden with the one exception of this tree, which is the tree of knowledge. But I think you should be a rebel and eat it anyway. Why not?”

The snake had the voice and face of the scientist.

Shruti pouted at him.

“Because that would be greedy,” she said.

“Don’t be so timid!”

“Knowledge is overrated. You have plenty of knowledge and what has it done for you? Turned you into a snake.”

“Don’t say that. I am an intellectual benefactor.”

“You eat it then.”

And she held out the gulab jamun for him.

He hissed and swayed in annoyance, his forked tongue flicking, but at that very moment Pawan came over to see what the fuss was about, and he shook his fist at the snake and warned him: “I am an auto driver. I often have passengers like you. I will throw you out of the garden if you don’t behave.”

The snake continued hissing angrily but it slid away and they still don’t know where it went because they have never seen it again. Meanwhile, the scientist mysteriously disappeared from the laboratory and the only theory that explained his vanishing was that he had turned the rays of his own machine on himself and shrunk down to a dot and then to an atom.

But why would he do that? Nothing made sense any longer. Pawan and his wife, Shruti, still live in the garden beyond the dosa, and because all the food in the laboratory has been taken away, there is no way for them to return to the real world. They don’t care about that. They are satisfied where they are. They keep the gulab jamun of knowledge safe and maybe one day they will take bites from it. But they are in no rush to do so.

The reporter wrote his story about monkey robots and assassins, but it was never published because his editor thought he had gone mad. He was told to take a week off work and go on holiday. He went but never returned. Searching for him proved futile but rumours persisted of a monkey on the coast who liked to read the newspaper as if he understood the words. Probably some sort of coincidence. The world is stuffed full of them.

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Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.

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Categories
Poetry

Blooming and How!

By Alpana

Saying 'womb to tomb' is injustice
to all that transpires in between.
Crying, burping and running around like a monkey.
In fact, telling how a monkey sounds
Because the baby is blooming,
not like a flower
but like a rainbow,
not limited to just seven hues
but acing a colourful feat
up in the sky,
in full prime.
A view for sore eyes.
A babble for parched soul,
and a movement for a still transient life.
The baby is blooming,
chasing flies unabashedly,
gyrating to grandma's prayers playfully,
calling birdies of all shapes
and waving to cows every now and then.
Because the baby is blooming.
more than what her mother imagined,
better than what her father planned.
My baby. 

Alpana teaches in a government college of Gurugram, Haryana. She can either be found gyrating to her toddler’s jingles or googling nutrition loaded baby recipes, her favourite pastime these days.

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Categories
Stories

You have Lost your Son!

By Farhanaz Rabbani

Jethi Maa[1]..you have lost your son! He will never come back home!”

With these words, Kalam entered the old hut where his Jethi Maa was cooking lunch for her family. Having lost her husband at a very young age and with no financial support of her own, Chand Banu had to let her elder son stay as a jaigir[2]  in faraway homes so that he could continue his studies. Once he got admitted to Jagannath College in Dhaka, the whole village was elated. Habib would go to the big city Dhaka to do his ISC [3]! Habib, the eldest son of the family was always a bright student. His local schoolteachers wondered at his intelligence and diligence. Coming from a very poor family, Habib never gave up on his dreams. After his father’s death, the additional burden of looking after his mother and siblings was thrust upon him when he was only in Class 4[4]. He used to sell peanuts when he was not at school. Never averse from taking in new challenges, Habib did all kinds of manual jobs from his childhood — some of which would shock some of his colleagues much later in his life.

In Dhaka, he was struggling to find a place to stay. He needed to find a place soon or else he would jeopardise his studies. A family finally agreed to keep him as a jaigir. They liked the quiet and humble boy who was full of dreams and ambitions of his own. As the days went by, they began to appreciate the intelligent young man and decided to let him tutor their children at home. Later Habib would recount how the mistress of the household would force him to eat more and to have milk everyday so that he could study well.  Gradually they embraced him as a member of the family and began to see him as a prospective son-in-law for one of their daughters. Habib of course had no inkling about their secret plans. He was too intent on earning his keep and focusing on studies. Every month he used to send the extra money he earned from his private tuition classes to his mother. His goal was to sit for the ISC exams.

On a pleasant spring day, when Kalam informed his Jeti Maa that he was going to Dhaka on an errand, he took Habib’s address. Not knowing how her son was doing, his Jeti Maa held his hands and tearfully told him to see how her beloved son was doing.

Reaching Dhaka, it took a few days for Kalam to sort out his affairs. Finally, after three or four days, he went to meet Habib. When he knocked on the front gate of the house, a young girl opened it. As soon as she heard that he was from Habib’s village, she let him in and took him to Habib’s room. A tiny little room with a desk and chair at the corner was lit by a hurricane in the mellow evening. Kalam stepped into the room and said “Habibullah! Are you here?”

 Overjoyed with this surprise visit from his cousin, Habib jumped up from his chair and embraced him. It felt as if the whole village of Kafilatoli had come to see him! How he missed his family and friends back home! Taking Kalam’s hands, Habib urged him to sit down on his tiny bed and asked him about his mother, brothers and sisters.

Kalam was happy to see Habib in good health and spirits. But, as he looked at his cousin animatedly describing his experiences as a college student of Dhaka, a strange ominous thought entered his mind. Kalam noticed how the family was taking care of Habib. He was well fed and was treated as a beloved member of the family. And furthermore, he also noticed that there were three young beautiful girls in that family — all students of Habib. It did not take long for Kalam to understand the true motives of the family. Back in those days — in the 1930s and 1940s, it was not unusual for parents to marry off their daughters to well behaved and academic jaigirs. It was generally known that these young boys were destined to shine later in life either as government officers, doctors, academicians or reputed scholars of the country. Many parents successfully married their daughters to these bright young men with the hopes of ensuring the best future for their daughters.

Kalam left for his village early the following morning. Hurrying into his Jeti Maa’s hut, he did not waste any time to beat around the bush.

“Oh Jeti Maa! You have lost your son. He will never come back home again!”

Shocked, Chand Banu dropped the wooden ladle on the terracotta stove and ran towards him. “What do you mean Oh Kalam? What happened to my Hobu?!”

As soon as she heard about the family of three daughters with whom her dear son was staying as a jaigir, her whole body froze. The grim image of her dear son being bewitched by an unknown strange Dhaka family — people who belong to a totally different region – was agonizing to her.

Although she was illiterate, Chand Banu was an extremely astute and wise mother. Despite her poverty, she knew that her Hobu had much more to offer to prospective brides in her village. Her frantic search for a Noakhali girl for her dearest Hobu began. She told Kalam, “Go and find a suitable bride for Hobu—from the nearest villages—so that he never deserts us. We must make sure that he starts his family in his home—in Noakhali!”

Habib’s mother never allowed her adverse financial condition to hold her back in dreaming and aspiring for the best for her children. She knew of a reputed family in Meerganj — the Meer family — who had several eligible daughters. Long before Habib left for Dhaka, Chand Banu had a secret desire to welcome one of the Meer Bari daughters as her daughter-in-law. She had heard that the eldest daughter of the Meer Bari [5] had been married off to a cousin, an educated head teacher of a local High School. The second daughter was next in line.

Chand Banu did not waste any time. She knew that the Meer family valued education more than anything, they would definitely want an educated son-in-law for the other daughters. She summoned her extended family to consult with them on how she could send a proposal to the Meer family. Unfortunately, one of her neighbours informed her that the Meer family had already decided that their second daughter would get married to a rich chilli merchant’s son of the same region. They were extremely wealthy and boasted several warehouses all over Meerganj and an impressive three floor ‘paka[6]’ house in the region. How could Chand Banu compete with them?

Imbued with an immense fear of losing her son to the strange city of Dhaka, Chand Banu decided to take a huge risk. She sent a representative of the family, Selim Miah, an elderly neighbour, who was a mutual friend of both the Meers and her family.

The Meer Bari, as it was known and is still known today, was one of the most reputed families of the region. They were one of the few families who had acres of land, ponds, a huge mansion and dozens of families working for them all throughout the region. They had several silos or warehouses to store the rice harvested from all their fields!

On a warm and humid summer morning, Meer Saheb was sitting at the verandah watching his men drawing in fishing nets with catch from the large pond behind his home.  When he stepped onto the verandah, Selim Miah found him in a good mood, because his second daughter was due to get married the following day. Greeting each other warmly, the two men sat down to have a friendly conversation of fishing and farming in general.  Meer Saheb was especially in a good mood. After a few furtive glances towards Meer Saheb, Selim Miah finally mustered up the courage to convey Chand Banu’s message to him. Meer Saheb turned towards Selim Miah and looked intently into his eyes.

The following day, the chilli merchant and his son came to Meer Bari with twenty other members of his family. The whole mansion was decorated to the tees and the groom was looking exquisitely handsome in his satin white sherwani[7] and silk turban. As the guests arrived, the ladies of the household quickly ran inside and allowed the men to greet them. The very tall Meer Saheb, elegantly dressed in an off-white punjabi, payjama and white tupi[8], stood in front of the guests. Accompanied by the senior members of the family, Meer Saheb, requested that the guests be seated. After they had all settled in, Meer Saheb took a deep breath, and apologised to the chilli Merchant.  Bewildered, the groom and his father looked inquisitively at Meer Saheb. Then the news was given to them…the news of Meer Bari’s second daughter getting married to Habibullah of Kafilatoli village just the night before!

A few miles away, Chand Banu was rigorously fanning her terracotta stove so that the flames could cook the meat quickly. She did not have much time left. She finished sweeping the yard earlier. Her eldest daughter was in charge of cleaning the only two rooms of her dilapidated mud hut. The local boys and girls were making handmade streamers out of cheap coloured paper to welcome the new guest.

Chand Banu’s daughter-in-law was finally coming. Her dear Hobu’s bou[9] was coming!

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Glossary

[1] Father’s elder brother’s wife – aunt. Translation from Bengali

[2] Meritorious young men from rural regions staying with a host family in the city

[3] Intermediate of Science

[4] Fourth grade at school

[5] House or family home

[6] Made with cement and bricks

[7] Long coat

[8] Punjab …tupi: Kurta…Cap

[9] Wife

Farhanaz Rabbani loves to chronicle interesting stories and events that happen around her.  She is an avid listener.

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Categories
Poetry

You Tree

Poetry by Gayatri Majumdar

Courtesy: Creative Commons
YOU TREE

You tree
when everything else dissolves the rain – 
traffic lights flash in my eye
watering fences, madness and chanting.
I stone, defenceless.
You are tree to me – 
gentle reminder: this is human love.
small change – something unlike bliss – 
I’m breathless, 
                      but alive
as much as a human can be.
I confess I asked for this – oh,
so many times over,
the sour-curb side of the mouth,
the pickling of the heart,
the moon’s slow-curl down the spine
unlike death – 
                    the rigor mortis setting in.
You green about me 
– my fingers and hair – toes rooting,
                     you remain unmoved.
I asked for this?
You are the tree in me
struggling, uncertain amidst the trouble of unfear – 
that definitive light falling in your Neptunian eye …
		this hypothermia
preserves me.
I am ready to sink lower than this;
slow-grounding, 
                   tasty bites for the night’s merry-makers.

Gayatri Majumdar, the founder of The Brown Critique(1995–2015), has authored six books. She co-founded ‘Pondicherry Poets’ and curates numerous poetry/music events. Gayatri is associated with Sri Aurobindo Society in Pondicherry

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Categories
Review

Through the Looking Glass: Stories by Aruna Chakravarti

Book Review by Reba Som

Title: Through a Looking Glass: Stories

Author: Aruna Chakravarti

Publisher: Om Books International

Aruna Chakravarti is a formidable storyteller. Her collection of short stories Through a Looking Glass reflects images from different periods of time and walks of life. Recounted with a compelling realism, these are characters from daily life, primarily women, that Chakravarti might have encountered or read about. She draws out in each, the woman’s inner cry of anguish and despair.

A keen observer of life, with an ability to discern the complex nuances in human relationships, Chakravarti’sstories are riveting. They reveal the continuing vulnerability of women even as they find their inner strength and voice to overcome age old prejudice and gender stereotype.

Chakravarti began her literary career as a translator into English from Bengali, first of Tagore’s song poems and then select writings of giants of Bengali literature like Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay which earned her the Sahitya Akademi award and much recognition. In the process, she absorbed the vocabulary, cultural nuances and colloquialism of Bengal’s rural life so thoroughly that in her own works of fiction such as Inheritors or Suralakshmi Villa her descriptive imagery of rural Bengal, conversation among villagers and depiction of poverty in village life acquire a rare authenticity remarkable for an author who has never lived in Bengal.

Her hugely successful translation of Sunil Gangopadhyay in First Light and Those Days introduced Chakravarti to a new genre of literature where narratives of famous personalities in a historical time frame are woven together in a rich tapestry of storytelling. Aruna ventured into historical fiction with her Jorasanko and more recently with Mendicant Prince. In all her writings, the woman’s voice remains paramount to the extent that in her Daughters of Jorasanko the key figure of Rabindranath Tagore remains conspicuously absent as with an author’s imagination she pieces together the little known details in the lives of the women of the Jorasanko household.

Through a Looking Glass is an attractive and compact production containing nine short stories. ‘Mobile Mataji’, added from Chakravarti’s previous collection, describes superstition ridden rural Bengal where barren couples turn to a spurious god woman rather than seek medical advice. Cases of sexual treachery and forcible impregnation still figure in newspaper reports and Aruna’s story chillingly conveys the grim reality of woman’s vulnerability. The contrast between the inner strength of widow ‘Satwant chachi[1]’, who stoically raises her children and then experiences a sense of liberation once they are out of her hands is contrasted sharply with the weakness of her landlord who on his wife’s sudden death realises rather pathetically that he cannot live another moment without a woman. Incest within close families born from sexual inadequacies within marriages, which are never talked about or addressed, figures in several of these stories. However, her punchline in many of these stories is how after years of suffering in silence women can reinvent themselves and resist their destinies.

The characters in Aruna’s stories are drawn from diverse backgrounds and timelines battling their own conundrums and prejudices. In ‘Second Sight’, the Scottish missionary in Srirampur Bengal spreads the inclusive teachings of Christ and yet is ironically unable to accept his brown skinned native convert socially in marriage. The hapless plight of the Anglo Indians searching for an identity of their own is showcased powerfully. ‘Crooked House’, “a tall narrow house with two chimneys standing high on a hill beside the sea”, is the tale of a family in Goa at the turn of the century narrated by a girl who worked there. It is a tale of lovely women, ballad evenings with sailormen, sex, romance, marriage and family jealousy ending in violence, displacement and poverty. The story ‘From an Upstairs Window’ reads like a play where a woman’s plunge to her fall, is seen from different points of view – of the suffering wife, the jealous husband, the lover, and the helpless mother-in-law. In the end the wife recovers from her fall which leaves her an invalid for life, the lover moves on to another life, the mother-in-law is remorseful but the possessive husband is smug in the realisation that his wife can now be his alone.

Many of Chakravarti’s stories are in the form of flashbacks from imagined encounters after decades with protagonists known early in life sparking off an exploration into the past. The storyteller is inevitably a distanced observer whose life has taken a different path although curiosity to unravel family mysteries trapped in the innocence of childhood draws the author’s pen to write vignettes with empathy.

The author has an easy, flowing prose style with graphic description of the settings in which she places her stories. Her pictorial portrayal of characters helps to paint their image firmly in the minds of her readers. Take for instance her description of Mandeep in her story ‘Satwant Chachi’ (p 41):

“Words fail me when I try to describe Mandy. I’ve tried and tried but nothing I say can capture it all. She was a tall girl, very thin, with a long face as keen and eager as a greyhound’s. An amazingly attractive face! What was most striking about it was its mobility. It was as though her features hadn’t been set in a mould but left to ripple and flow at will. Her mouth looked full and smooth one moment and like crushed velvet the next.  Her eyebrows danced as she laughed and talked; her nostrils quivered – the tiny diamond in one winking wickedly. Her long shining plait, with the pink and green pompom at its end, flailed up and down her tall, narrow back with every toss of her head, and the earrings that came down, almost to her shoulders, rang like wind chimes. Even her bindi flashed and sparkled on her shining brown forehead as though it had a life and will of its own.”

[1] Aunt, father’s younger brother’s wife

Reba Som is an author and academic. She was the recipient of the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship in 2000–02 and the founder director of the Rabindranath Tagore Centre, ICCR, Kolkata, from 2008 to 2013. Her publications include Gandhi, Bose, Nehru and the Making of the Modern Indian Mind (Penguin 2004), Rabindranath Tagore: The Singer and His Song (Penguin, 2009) and Margot: Sister Nivedita of Vivekananda (Penguin Random House, 2017). She is also a trained singer of Rabindrasangeet and Nazrul Geeti.

.Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

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Categories
Poetry

At Teotihuacan

By Jonathan Chan

Teotihuacan. Courtesy: Creative Commons
AT TEOTIHUACAN 

giving shape to a world
at the boundary of light and darkness,
the cosmic pillars begin to tremble. 
one pyramid held up to the sun,
the other help up to the moon,
synchrony with the loom of mountains
harmony of sealed stone. 
at one end, the feathered serpent.
at the other, the lithe jaguar. 
grand avenue paved for the apex
of ritual, the witness of blood
and obsidian, before the whiplash
of light that almost since then has
recalled atomic fire. pure propulsion 
dissolving flesh, gods of rainwater, 
of falling water engulfed by the silt
of the lake. the trampling of a power
that builds, unbuilds, and builds
again. day in, day out, the crawling
on dead hands, the loosening of
clay, the carving of divinity in black
stone, language smothered, nestled
in the heart of another. roses tumble
down a garment: no longer a serpent,
a jaguar, but the serene face of 
a maiden, a new mother to all. 
roses sprout in the tropics. the
pyramids have borne this sun 
setting on one empire and 
the next, the coalition and crumble
of militias, the youngblood crying 
from the soil beneath, and always
the tremors, the tremors. an eye
beholds the sun through 
an obsidian disc. a perpetual light.
a single orange spot. 

Jonathan Chan is a writer and editor of poems and essays. He is the author of the poetry collection, going home (Landmark, 2022). His writing can be found at jonbcy.wordpress.com.

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Categories
Stories

Red Moss at the Abbey of Saint Pons

The good sister slid out of her cell into the dank obscurity of the long and hollow corridor of the abbey which led to the august wooden front doors. She lifted the heavy latch then penetrated the cold layers of thick night, carefully closing the doors behind her. A moonless and starless night it was : greyish clouds fringed with undulating black hung low in the cold air, an air filled with the scent of jonquils. The good sister crossed the tussock grass of the meadow, glistening with moisture, swiftly to the rhythm of the howling wolves, whose ululations seemed to make quiver the cloudlets, driving them galloping across the sullen skies, grazing ever so lightly the pinnacles of the friendless, fretted cliffs of Saint Martin. Those precipices stole furtive glances down at the hastening young sister, their hanging pines, minatory fingers pointing to the nocturnal interloper. And as the wind wailed like the melancholic notes of an organ, the fingers quietly lamented, shedding needles and cones of utter sorrow …

The holy sister, sandal-less, dressed only in a bleached white nightdress, seemed to waft on strings of mist like a phantom as she glided alongside the mighty abbey walls, rising high. She stole a glance at the soundless immured fountain of the abbey and the holy niche next to it housing the Virgin Mary. She lowered her eyes, crossed herself then sped on. Noiselessly she made her way upon the path which serpentined to the source of the Paillon streamlets. The exuding fragrance of jonquils caused her a moment of vertigo as she hied higher and higher towards the sacred source. Once she reached the source, she halted before the little cascade, silvery in the ill-lit sky, tinkling an odd tinkle amidst the whimpering of the groves of weeping willows that enshrined it. She took a furtive glance behind her … no one …

The good sister stepped into the rushing icy waters. Lifting her nightdress in a rather girlish manner, she let it drop, and there it spread in cadence to the precipitating flow like the opening of a lotus. The freezing waters seized her slender thighs in a vice-like grip. At that moment the wolves renewed their howl after a ritornello[1]. She raised her head to the tune, such soothing music to her ears, and slowly opened her fist: a shard of glass lay in her tiny palm. Her hand trembled from the coldness at the source ; her body gradually became rigid like a marble statue, the turbulent waters sweeping round her. 

The holy sister murmured several prayers then gazed alternatively at the deepening violet tinge of the sky and the deep blue of the veins of her wrists. In one rapid stroke she slid the shard of glass across those deep blue veins : as quickly as that ! Two sharp painless incisions and it was over, all accomplished in such cold-blooded precision. There she remained standing, her rich, red blood dripping down over her now steady hands, then into the pure waters of the source : drop, drop, drop …

Some time passed. The howling of the wolves had abated, the wind, too. The dreary clouds hung lower and lower over the paling sister, who wavered not once, adamantly erect, watching in the most unperturbable manner the blood desert her frail body into the moving waters. Her face, lovely like the fourteenth day of the moon, turned an ashen white.

Soon, however, her knees began to buckle, her slender body to sway, emptied of its life-giving fluid. She appeared to be lost in some dreamy plane of consciousness, her face, blank, expressionless. At length, like a icicle fallen from a frost-bitten tree, she tumbled gently into the churning white foam, and there floated listlessly down the streamlet, the traces of blood trailing behind her, until here and there they settled upon the smooth mossy stones and pebbles that lay at the bed. Her nightdress swelled with water and resembled a hoisted sail, yet mast-less, a vessel adrift, driven from one bank to the other.

Finally, the bloodless body got snagged onto several smooth, flat-surfaced mossy rocks, and there undulated to the rhythm of the current, eyes wide open, mouth agape, basking in the blackness of Eternal Night …

With the coming of dawn, the call to Matins[2] brought the holy sisters of the Saint Pons Abbey scurrying to the chapel. All were accounted besides one : Where was Sister Theresa ? Had she not heard the tolling bell? The Abbess, somewhat worried by her absence (Theresa was never absent for service), rushed out to see whether the young girl had fallen ill and taken to bed. But her cell was empty ; her bed lay unmade, not a crease in the bedsheets. More startling still, her cornet[3] and habit[4] lay neatly placed and folded on the chair next to her writing-table. Had she left a note ? None …

The Abbess interrupted Matins and commanded that the sisters go in search for the young girl both in the cloister and outside in the meadow and wooded areas. Taking four or five sisters with her, the old Abbess hurried down the corridor to the great wooden doors : the latch had been displaced ! Seized with an emotional foreboding, she led the troop of sisters through the cold air of early morning, an air saturated with icy dew and a scent of spruce. They avoided the meadow for now, choosing to hug the great stone walls glistening with creeping and climbing plants, and search behind the abbey in the woods now painted in aurora freshness. “Theresa ! Theresa !” They all called, the name resounding sullenly in the lifting mist, its echo growing fainter and fainter only to disappear without a response. “Here ! Here !” cried a sister who had been searching near the sacred source. To her frantic cries the good sisters scrambled up the path, alive to the shouts and cries near the source ; they ran as fast as their aged legs could carry them, tucking up their habits under their hempen cords, clinging to the wings of their cornets as they flapped in the crisp, cold air.

Hieing ever higher up the path, they followed the cries near the source, dipping into the hollows of the dingle, rushing as rapidly as their sandalled feet would carry them along the streamlet fringed with high reeds, tiny poppies and those pendent weeping willows. The old Abbess noted that the smooth mossy stones in the streamlet bed had been besprinkled with long streaks or large splotches of crimson red. Her emotion reached frightful peaks as she hurried onwards towards the cries …

And there, at the bank of the streamlet, the sister who had been calling and clamouring so wildly pointed a trembling finger at the lifeless, undulating body of their consœur[5], floating like a lotus amongst the sun-dappled babbling morning waters, her waxen cheeks bloodless, her limbs stiff, her stony eyes staring off into void. There arose from her watery presence an eerie peacefulness, serenity, quiescence, a presence far beyond that undulating corpse upon the sun-dappled waters of the Paillon.

All the holy sisters dropped to their knees at the banks of the streamlet and prayed. Then they dragged the water-logged body out of the stream and lay it upon the grassy bank. To their bewilderment, the moss which clung to the smooth stones and pebbles of the stream-bed, always a dull green or a rusty ochre-yellow, had become lacquer red ! Large patches of this red moss lay at the bottom of the shallow, foamy waters. The Abbess touched, pulled and scraped at the woolly crimson ; the satiny colour remained impressed in the moss. She hadn’t the faintest idea how the rusty red had not been washed away or dispersed by her fiddling with it. Was it Theresa’s blood ?

The very thought made her shudder … Daunted by this dreadful phenomena and by the death of their consœur, the Abbess ordered the holy sisters to kneel and lift their eyes to Heaven again.

The days that followed the tragic event throngs of priests, led by the Bishop of the region, inspected the place of death and the red moss. The Abbess was at a loss to explain Theresa’s act to them, but she truly believed that it was the innocent blood of the poor young sister that had ‘dyed’ the green moss red, this colour being the ‘consubstantial proof’ of the consummation of her marriage to Christ. And for this very ‘theological’ reason, her act, albeit a sinful one, the moss disavowed any attempt to be ‘washed off’ and become green again. The Abbess went on to expound that upon taking the veil, the girl had seemed so loyal to her vows, so happy to spend her life at the abbey in company with her consœurs, all the more so since her parents had died, and the aunt that had taken her in was too old to provide the orphan with a correct upbringing and education. No other enquiry followed after the Abbess’ account and the Bishop’s report …

Thus the suicide and the colouring of the moss remained a Mystery to the clergy and to the laymen of the region of Geminos[6] until the closing of the abbey in 1427.

Centuries have gone by since the mysterious event, and the great walls and halls of the Saint Pons Abbey presently lay in quiet dormancy. However, little by little, hikers, nature-lovers, botanists, geologists and the curious-minded who reside in the area of Geminos began noticing this unusual moss, even snatching little pieces of it out of the water for scientific scrutiny. The scientists were indeed at loggerheads about this chromatic colouring, and obviously scoffed at the mediaeval clergy’s ridiculous ‘dark age’ inferences of suicide and consummation, although it must be said here that after months of examination in several laboratories, those scoffing rationally-minded scientists could make neither heads nor tails of how ‘normal green’ moss could ‘become’ satine crimson red overnight …

And so the Mystery still stands today as hikers, nature-lovers, scientists and members of the clergy come to inspect, admire or simply stare in wonder at the red moss of the Abbey of Saint Pons, undulating in stoic silence beneath the crystal clear waters of the Paillon streamlet. Many indeed believe in the tragic tale of Theresa, and in the good Abbess’ hypothesis, whilst others gibe and mock, believing the isolated sisters to have been possessed by some mediaeval demon, or taken to religious zealotry after so many fastings and privations.

I for one believe in the tale as told by the good Abbess, however steeped in ‘dark age superstition’ it may appear to the scientific-minded, modern layman. Indeed, according to the regional archives, a certain sister Theresa did take the veil and did live at the abbey in the XVth century, and after several years her bloodless body was found lifeless, floating in those rolling waters of the Paillon. This being said, several historians claim that Theresa had been abducted by bandits, whose presence in the dark wooded mountains had always caused great fright to the sisters. When Theresa attempted to escape from captivity, she was killed. Just as a matter of interest, it was because of those bands of roaming bandits that the holy sisters were obliged to leave the abbey by order and mandate of the constable of the region. The Abbey, thus, was closed down never to reopen …

Whatever the ‘rational’ or ‘romantic’ reason may be, the red moss at Saint Pons Abbey attracts a growing number of the curious-minded, and has become so ‘famous’ that the Forest Rangers have given strict orders to all and sundry not to pick it out of its hallow bed. I shall not attempt to debate whether this interdiction be due to any ‘scientific’ or ‘superstitious’ prompting …

[1] A short refrain or interlude in a musical performance

[2]  The first prayer of the day in a monastery or convent.

[3]   Bonnets worn by religious sisters until the 1960s.

[4]  Dress worn by religious orders.

[5]  A community of Catholic sisters living in a convent or in a monastery. The word is of French origin.

[6]  A small village twenty or thirty kilometres from Marseilles. The abbey is located about five or six kilometres from Geminos.

Paul Mirabile is a retired professor of philology now living in France. He has published mostly academic works centred on philology, history, pedagogy and religion. He has also published stories of his travels throughout Asia, where he spent thirty years.

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Categories
Poetry

Poems on Clouds & Seas

By Luis Cuauhtémoc Berriozábal

CLOUD MONSTERS

Moon tussles with cloud monsters.
Its shine is halfway showing.
Work traffic is like those cloud monsters.
A half hour drive turns into an hour.

I find an exit and use the streets.
The red lights are not the best
of colours when you are in a hurry.
Green lights are your best friend
when you are running late, tell that
to the cloud monster traffic.

I see green lights for blocks and
no one is moving. I should have
stayed home and declared this a
vacation day and just slept in.

That half-moon light is something
to behold still. It is getting clear
with the sun coming up as well
and the traffic dies down enough
that you just might not be late
to work or a dollar short this time.
The cloud monsters disappear like
a puff of smoke into the abyss.

SHIFT SHAPE CLOUDS

There goes the lasso 
and there goes the headless
horse and the rider is hanging
on for dear life as the clouds
shift their shapes in the sky.

There goes the seahorse
out of its element unless
its sea is the blue horizon
and its white puffiness
will brace its shape shift fall.

There goes the head of the
headless horse and its rider
with its cowboy hat not far
behind, the rest of the horse
is just a round shaped cloud now.

Down below I lift my arms
to the sky and shuffle my feet.
I do a little rain dance but
I just do not have the magic
or power to make it happen.

OPEN THE SEA

Open the sea,
there is agony deep below,
the essence of a shipwreck
that has lost its very soul.

Open the sky,
there is a mourner in space
with a powerful sob
dropping waves of cold rain.

When the warm light
withdraws from the sky, the sun sleeps,
as the night lights appear
for the lost to find their way.

Ready to die,
life’s infirm angels and devils
give time one last breath, and
admonish it for how it betrays.

Born in Mexico, Luis Cuauhtémoc Berriozábal lives in California and works in the mental health field in Los Angeles, CA. His poetry has been published by Blue Collar Review, Borderless Journal, Escape Into Life, KendraSteiner Editions, Mad Swirl, SETU, and Unlikely Stories.

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Categories
Stories

The Clay Toys and Two Boys

By Haneef Shareef, translated from Balochi by Fazal Baloch

Courtesy: Creative Commons

The boy smashed his clay toy and threw its pieces into the sewage water. He did not like his friend’s father at all because he never bought toys for his son. He loved his clay toys because his friend always lamented that he did not have any kind of toy. But despite his insistence he refused to carry his toys home. Not even once.

They always met at the corner of the street and played there by the sewerage line in front of his friend’s house. His mother took all household chores upon herself and deputed the servant at the door to keep an eye on her son.

His friend lived somewhere in the western side of the street. He always emerged in the western corner of the street and went back in that direction. He always said that the sewage water flew by their house. If something fell in it, it would resurface by their house. But he never told his friend exactly where he lived. Nor did he ever reveal if the window of their house opened to the south or north. Nor did he say, when the wind blew, in which direction the jujube fruits would fall. He also did not reveal if they lived in a government quarter or in a rented bungalow or had a house of their own.

They just met at the corner of the street and played there and smiled at being the co-owner of the sewerage line. A few times they made up their mind to step into the water and retrieve the toys lying buried in its bottom but every time, at the last moment, courage failed them. The sewage water was dark, full of waste and it also ran deep. And on top of that, they were just two small boys ironically looking for clay toys and that too in the bottom of sewage water.

They sat at the edge of the drain and played there. They built kingdoms and ruled over them like kings. At times they made fields and meadows, raised their hands to pray for rain. some other times, they became herd owners. Every day they scored new marvels. Shopkeeper, street vendors and people around them smiled even at times they laughed at their innocent adventures. It was small world — transparent like water — hung by a thread. As the sun went down the horizon, they took leave of each other hoping to meet on the next day. His friend had aligned his routine with sun. The moment the sun set, he would say goodbye to his kingdom and leave for home. Thereafter, his friend piled up the toys and the servant put them in the basket and carried his little master against his chest leaving behind the kingdom of two little kings in darkness.

Heaven knows which day of the month it was, when for the first time his friend did not turn up there. He piled up his toys, laid down rules and roadmaps for his kingdom but the second king had not arrived yet and his subject was nowhere around the kingdom. He waited for him till dusk, but he did not come. Then along with his servant he went looking for his friend’s house. They passed through several lanes and streets and finally stopped at a door by the edge of the sewerage line. The branches of a jujube were dropping on the wall. It was not obvious if it was a rented house, a government quarter or someone’s private property. The boy assumed it was the house his friend lived in. But its doors and windows were closed. Lamps and light had been blown off. They put their ears against the walls, but they could not hear any human voices. A flock of sparrows were singing in the jujube tree. Otherwise, everything was shrouded in silence. An old rusty lock was hanging on the door bearing witness to all past seasons.

For the next three days the boy waited for his friend, but he did not turn up. He spread the toys on the ground and waited for him. As the sun set and dusk fell, lamps were lit in the neighborhood. The young boy held his servant’s hand and went to the closed door where he thought his friend had lived. As usual, the place was shrined in silence. They stayed there for a while and then the boy looked at the servant. They exchanged gazes. The servant carried the basket of toys on his head. His little master followed him.

However, one Thursday, the two friends ran into each other at the corner of the street by the bank of the sewer line. He did not tell his friend where he was all that while nor did the boy reveal that he had found his home silent and locked.

A few days later, the young master’s father took him to the school. His mother insisted that he was five years old—still too young for the school but his father believed he was seven. They argued with each other. His father won. The boy insisted on taking his friend along. However, his friend had never appeared in the mornings. A few times, he thought he saw his friend at school. He seemed to be wandering alone in middle of the noise of hundreds of children. After that, he disappeared.

The two friends always met in the evening. No questions were asked by either of the young boys focused on their games.

One day when his friend arrived in the evening, he noticed tears in his eyes and his face looked pale. On that day, he went home early taking his friend’s clay bull along. The next day when came, he looked a little anxious. The bull was broken into two pieces. His friend did not ask him what had happened to it. Nor did the boy tell him anything about it. They tried a lot to join the broken parts of the bull, but they failed in their attempt. For a moment, the boy felt like crying loudly but he held back his tears.

They dug a little grave by the sewage water and buried the remains of the bull there. On that night the boy cried incessantly. In the morning, he told his teacher that his bull died the day before and that was why he was late. But his teacher was angry that he failed to distinguish between a truth and a lie. He thought the boy was too young to own a bull. Thus, he thrashed him like other naughty children.

In the evening the boy wanted to tell his friend that he was beaten by the teacher, but he could not. The boy plastered the grave with clay and erected a little epitaph on it. His looked at him and smiled. At dusk the boy called his brother, who in the glow of the lamp wrote on the stone ‘My Bull’. When they reached at the door, the boy halted, as if he remembered something. Thus, they turned back to the grave. Now, the epitaph on the grave read ‘Our Bull”.

My Bull…. Our Bull….The crowd….The door….The servant….The clay toys and two boys and the drain. It was a different world.

A few days later, the gap in their friendship began to widen. The boy stopped coming regularly but his friend always waited for him at the corner of the street with his clay toys piled up before him. Perhaps his companion had forgotten someone was waiting for him at the corner of the street. He felt quite lonely in the middle of the clay toys.

One day when the boy did come, he was shocked to discover that the grave of ‘Our Bull’ had been dismantled by someone. The remains lay scattered. He anxiously looked at the crowd bustling around. There was no trace of his friend. He picked up the pieces of the clay bull and threw them into the drain. Now, when there was not any trace of the ‘Our Bull’ he desperately wished not to have his friend over. Not in that hour of grief at least. He sat at the empty grave of the ‘Our Bull’ fearing the arrival of his friend. But he did not turn up.

The next evening when his friend arrived, he found the grave had been renovated. He scanned the heap of the toys, but the new clay bull was not there amongst the toys. His friend told him that he broke and buried it in the very grave. His eyes welled up and voice almost chocked. He admitted that it was he who dismantled the grave. His friend was shocked to hear it. For a while the whole world came to a halt, the sewage water stopped flowing and he felt himself all alone in a never-ending labyrinth. He could not ask him why he dismantled the grave nor did his friend tell him the reason. On that evening they did not play at all. They did not build kingdoms and did not dispatch emissaries to the neighbouring kingdoms. The boy had his eyes fixed on the pile of the clay toys and his friend sat by the grave and vacantly gazed at sewage water flowing in silence. The evening passed into dusk and on the foundation of the dusk, the night eventually erected it walls around the neighbourhood.

The next evening, the boy waited for his friend, but he did not show up. The street was crowded. Indifferent people were treading back and forth. For a moment the boy tried to find his friend in the jungle of people but, in the next moment, he gave up.

A month passed by but there was again no trace of his friend. One day, he took his servant and went to his friend’s house. They sat for a long time at the door, but nobody came out. Then they knocked the door, called out loudly but nobody responded. As the evening shadows lengthened, the boy for the first time realised that there was not a single house by the bank of the drain. Rather it flowed through the entire neighbourhood, bustling with young and old men and women, children, boys and girls and flock of goats. But the companion of his evenings, the co-owner of the ‘Our Bull’, was nowhere to be seen.

Nobody in the neighbourhood knew the boy. They believed he did not live there. Rather he came from somewhere else. But from where? Nobody had the answer. The boy did not know anything about him either.

The sun was setting. The boy started musing. He cast a look at the crowd and started crying loudly. The servant tried to console him but to no avail. He carried him back home. He continued to cry inconsolably. Then he told everybody that he knew where his friend had gone. He told them that he knew why he did not come back. Thus, he asked the servant to step into the sewage water. The servant was knee deep in the drain with stones, pebbles and pieces of broken glasses under his feet. He could not find anything. The servant grumbled and so did boy’s mother. The shopkeeper and the customers smile and laughed. But the boy was sure that his friend had stepped into drain looking for the pieces of the clay bull.

From then on, the boy broke his clay toys and threw them into the sewer hoping that they would be flown to his friend so that he would know he, his friend, was alive and waiting for him beside the grave of ‘Our Bull’.

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Dr. Haneef Shareef, a trained medical professional, is one of the most cherished contemporary Balochi fiction writers and film directors. So far, he has published two collections of short stories and one novel. His peculiar mode of narration has rendered him a distinguished place among the Balochi fiction writers. He has also directed four Balochi movies.

Fazal Baloch is a Balochi writer and translator. He has translated many Balochi poems and short stories into English. His translations have been featured in Pakistani Literature published by Pakistan Academy of Letters and in the form of books and anthologies. He has the translation rights to Haneef Shareef’s works.

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Categories
Poetry

Kinematic by Jim Bellamy

KINEMATIC 

(after W.H Auden's 'Funeral Blues'/'Stop all the Clocks')


     Prune down the angels to the wick
Snuff out all candles, unbake all bread
Spoil all trenches with a slick
Ferry the living to the dead

   Where blows a lover, deal
A fatal flaw to all that call
Mar all saviours with a weal
Slash the cinema seats and stalls.

  They were the shivers of the silver screen
Where their blood flows, the curtain thralls
Retire all vision to the dumb
For now no good may come of all.

  Lash the usherette to the sedge
Unravel torches down the hill:
Crash the armies through pithead
Mess the crowd till life lies still

   Where crows a regime's alms,
Dash the lights and kill the spiels
Where glows a face of calm,
Gnash each drama round the keels.

  They were all we owned
Where they lie dead, there may be none
Embalm the filmic gods with bones
For now all love is done.
WH Auden(1907-1973). The poem, Funeral Blues, by WH Auden was also a part of the film, Four Weddings and a Funeral. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Jim Bellamy was born in a storm in 1972. He studied hard and sat entrance exams for Oxford University. Jim has a fine frenzy for poetry and has written in excess of 22,000 poems. Jim adores the art of poetry. He lives for prosody.

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