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Nostalgia Slices from Life

Cyclists

By Mike Smith

Two men on cycles. Photo Courtesy: Mike Smith

This is a photograph from my childhood. It is of a roadside cottage and a fine, unidentified tree, on what was the edge of a Midland town, as they both were over sixty years ago. I’d guess it was taken in the mid or late nineteen fifties. It shows the front wall of the cottage I grew up in, and the road outside. It was a road that, when the photograph was taken, led out into the Staffordshire countryside. You might have called it a road to nowhere.

In the foreground on the left, if you ignore the old gaslight, is an upright object with a white top. You might recognise it as a petrol pump, probably a ‘Shell’ one.

The cottage had been the gate-lodge to a substantial house belonging to a successful Burton-upon-Trent brewer. That was demolished sometime between the two World Wars. A short flight of stone steps, overgrown, and the rumour of a lost cellar, both at the far end of our plot, were all that was left of what must have been the house and its ornamental gardens.

A pale blue gate, permanently open during my childhood save once when I recall cattle being driven along the road, stands out of sight closer to the camera than the lens captures. It bore the name of ‘The Lodge’ if memory isn’t playing me false. A short drive led down past the bay window of the cottage – an oval rose garden edged with stone alongside – to old stables, coach houses and outbuildings. All had the same steep, slated roofs, blue weatherboards pierced with fleur-de-lis designs in which swallows nested, and tall, pointed wooden finials. You can just make one out on the visible gable of the cottage, not quite merged in the foliage of the tree behind. There’s the shadow of another on the roof, presumably above that bay window. These were the buildings that I described in my only published novella, A Penny Spitfire, and the greenhouse that features in my daughter’s animation Giant’s Puddings leaned against one of them.

The photograph shows more, and pricks memory beyond what it shows. I can just remember that gas lamp being lit at dusk by a man who, Wee Willie Winkie-like, ‘ran through the town’, carrying his long pole, hurrying to light the lamps before true darkness fell, or at least, I think I can. I found a coal miner lying beneath it once, or the lamp that replaced it, and thought him dead, rather than dead drunk, and wrote a poem about it fifty and more years later.

The tree is in full leaf, beneath a Simpson’s sky, which would have had no meaning when the photograph was taken. And the shadows are long and to the east of north if my internal compass points true. This makes it a summer evening, I guess, or maybe late afternoon. Those cyclists, small as they are, seem unhurried. I imagine them enjoying the warmth, chatting, side by side as they ride.

Above the stub wall, beyond the petrol pump, you can see the top of what used to be the front door. Unseen to the right of it, but the shadow gives the clue, steps led up to road level and an opening with, back then, a gate.

Further along the road, even at this angle, you can make out a window and beyond that another door. This didn’t open into the house but was a yard gate through which you stepped down to outhouses, though I never saw it used: a washhouse with a boiler in the corner, a room with running water from a tap – dad fixed it up as a darkroom for photography. He was a hobby photographer all his life and taught me to develop and print in black and white. This photograph, of which I have several prints must be one of his.  There was an outside toilet too, in that yard, lit by starlight and protected from frost by a paraffin heater, with a store shed alongside, both backing onto the road. The shed was eventually hollowed out, its roof left intact and propped up at the corner, and a fuel tank for central heating was installed in the space beneath.

The cottage was tiny. The room with the bay window had an open fire, and opened onto a short corridor, to the left of which was a scullery kitchen with a gas water heater by the sink. The bath was underneath the kitchen table, which was fixed to the wall and hinged up, secured to a hook. And yes, I was told, it did once fall down on me in the bath. The room with the window onto the road was a bedroom. The room with the window showing to the left of the petrol pump must have been some sort of reception room. I can remember it with a desk, being used as an office and shop-front, but not for long.

Because dad was an inveterate builder, and demolisher. That single pump turned into two, and perhaps three. Their swing arms carried pipes across the pavement to serve the cars. At the back he extended the kitchen, and added a bathroom and indoor toilet, nibbling away at other outbuildings to make space. He added a bedroom. Some called them the golden fifties, though I remember them as grey, and the sixties they called the silver sixties, because things got better.

Reminiscing about my mother recently, I realised what a catalogue of disaster blighted the first forty years of her life, and dad’s. Born before the First World War, mum, the youngest child, was sent to queue for food at the shops – there was no rationing (until 1917?) in that war, and when it was gone it was gone. Then there was the Homes Fit for Heroes that didn’t materialise, the inflation caused by the war, the crippling debt it imposed, the General Strike, the Wall Street Crash, and the next war after that. No wonder mum was content and counted herself lucky all the years of my life. She knew her place, and knew it was better than she’d had before, and bore it without aspiration, with the stoicism of some unspoken disappointment. She might have truly asked though, who could want for more?

The cyclists – there are two more in the distance – emphasise the emptiness of the road. I can just recall it like that, though I wouldn’t have noticed at the time. Dad spoke of that petrol pump as being modern. Earlier ones were hand operated, and before that petrol was sold in two-gallon cans. But the times were changing. They started to build what was said would be the biggest coal fired power station in Western Europe a few miles up the road. Conveys of vehicles passed by in both directions day after day for years and several times a day, calling in for fuel. The private car was on the rise. By the time I left school they were predicting 20 million of them. Dad knocked down the extended cottage, put the pumps a little more than a car’s width back from the pavement, and a new building a tad more than a car’s width back from that.

There was a showroom, a shop, office and stores on the ground floor, a staircase bolted on at the back – overlooked in the original thumbnail sketch – and a four-bedroom flat with enormous rooms built on above. For a time, my old new bedroom had a steel girder down through the ceiling, a tarpaulin on the roof. I played on the scaffolding after school.

And not just our place: the road changed too. Just beyond the last tree on the right-hand side, a hillside we’d sledged down to the hedge was opened up. A road network spread over the ridge that we’d called the Cow Pastures. I learned to drive on it. Before that we had slid on metal trays down clay ski-runs where they later bumped out the hillside for houses. I went to school in a brand-new building on land I’d seen bulldozed flat, frogs, newts, plants, and water spilling from the ponds as they trashed them. The houses were slow to arrive, one by one over years, like reluctant weeds along the crest and on the reverse slope. After working hours, after school, we roamed the building sites.  

Below them at the slope’s foot, opposite to us, an Aunt and Uncle, dad’s sister with her second husband, lived in a bungalow stuffed with dark furniture and suppressed resentment. He was a tee-totaller with a fine palate and tasted the beer for one of the breweries. It might have been Bass. A taciturn man, he told me once, that if I practised long and hard enough with a tennis ball in my pocket, I could crush it flat with one hand. And he demonstrated.

Dad fell out with her, over a petrol mower he decided to sell when the last piece of our grass was concreted over for the business. I’ve no money, my uncle had said, surprised to be asked. She crossed the road, threw banknotes on to the kitchen table and didn’t speak to him again for years.

Next door to them, another bungalow, more modern and with a tennis court – both plots had been the grounds of the house you can catch a glimpse of at the photo’s far right edge – and a retired policeman lived there. He always wore a fag, unlit, dangling from his lips. Offer him a light, dad said. I’ll get one later, he’d reply. When they were too worn, I suppose, to dry out and re-use, he’d buy another pack. Twenty Players.

There’s an old red phone box in the shot. We used it, until we got our own. What we see arrive seems always new. What is there already seems just furniture however recently it arrived. I recall our, first fridge, first image on a TV screen, even our first phone perhaps.

Go back there today and you’ll find the road, I suspect, much as it was, save for the cottage and perhaps the tree. It’s full fifteen years, as I write since I visited the spot. The pumps had gone. The showroom had substituted furniture for cars. The old red phone box might be a garden ornament by now. Cyclists will move a little faster, pumping Lycra, no doubt.

The power station’s come and gone, been swept away, its working life complete. Built, used, demolished, all in the blink of a life’s eye.

Fleur-de-lis

Mike Smith lives on the edge of England where he writes occasional plays, poetry, and essays, usually on the short story form in which he writes as Brindley Hallam Dennis. His writing has been published and performed. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com 

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Nostalgia Slices from Life

Me and Mr Lowry’s Clown

Mike Smith’s nostalgia about artist Pat Cooke (1935-2000)

When I became a dealer in second-hand books in the mid nineteen eighties, I was briefly a member of the prestigious PBFA, which stands for the Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association, and not, as others have suggested for the alternative (which begins with Pretentious). That led to me standing a bookfair at Knutsford in Cheshire.

Into that fair one morning strolled Brian and Pat Cooke. They were interested in the Crimean War, and luckily, I had a few uncommon titles on that subject. I was a new boy on the block, but they were regular visitors to the fair. They made me welcome. They were, in fact, the sort of people who, even within a few minutes of first meeting, enrich your life. Brian was already working on what would be the first major study of the light railway built to supply the British Army outside Sebastopol during that war, which he went on to publish in two editions, the second benefitting from information flushed out by the first. You can still find copies of The Grand Crimean Central Railway online today.

The couple had joiede vivre that was infectious and heady. The world sprang into colour and movement and light when they were about, and especially Pat. But then, Pat was an artist.

The meeting led to a relationship that like many in the second-hand book trade was as much about friendship as it was about commerce. We sent Pat our regular catalogues, and she put in orders. It was always Pat that wrote, and the orders were neatly scribed in sharp black ink on small cards. They were illustrated with cartoons and sketches, with messages of goodwill to us and our daughter, often with the mention of a gift for the latter: ‘£5 to spend enclosed’.

The Cooke’s moved in elevated circles, compared to us! We were invited to a party at Tatton Hall. Bring some books to sell, I was told. It was a great party! And we sold more books, by value, in an hour than we would normally sell in a month. The toffs and celebs were at them before I could even unpack the boxes, like Whitby seagulls on a chip packet.

Pat Cooke was Mr Lowry’s Clown.

Mr Lowry, as I’m sure you know, was that painter of ‘matchstick men’ that status quo sang about in the nineteen sixties. He painted much more. I can remember walking into a room at the Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal and being overwhelmed by one of his seascapes – the first I had ever seen. Massive and deceptively simple, the horizon line at my eye level it was as if I had been cast into that empty ocean. I didn’t even know it was a Lowry until I read the little card beside it, and when I did know it changed my whole perception of the man. I have a postcard of the painting and years later it still overwhelms and threatens me with extinction.

His friend from 1948 when she was 13 until Lowry’s death, Pat published in 1998 a small paperback of a mere 63 pages in which she recalled that friendship. The book is packed with photographs of Lowry, here and there, with Pat and her husband. It’s packed too with reminiscences of what they said and did together. Interesting by any measure, what strikes me, having recently watched the biopic, Mrs Lowry and Son, is the upbeat picture she paints of that often gloomily depicted artist.

L. S. Lowry(1887-1976) memorial, Greater Manchester. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Sketching or just looking, their jaunts together in the English countryside or at the coast, seem to have ended as often as not with a search for afternoon tea, or as Lowry is quoted: ‘poached eggs on toast, warm scones with strawberry jam… perhaps some sponge cake or brandy snaps…’

My favourite quote is one that could be applied equally to writers, I think, and it is Lowry’s advice to Pat, and other artists: ‘Find out what subjects you like to draw and paint, keep a limited palette, don’t be influenced to change your natural style and then work very hard for at least fifty years.’

The first third of the book gives us the history of Pat herself, and though Lowry is the more famous, I find this a bonus rather than a flaw. We might think she was lucky to have known him, but having met Pat and Brian, I know that he was lucky too.

I searched for the little book online while writing this. It comes up in large numbers, but all of them ‘sold’ or ‘out of stock’. We took a handful, which we passed on over the years to people we thought might like them. We kept the one with the note tucked in, ordering from our October ‘98 catalogue,the one mentioning that fiver. ‘Cheers from the zoo X X’, it’s signed. And on the front endpaper of the book itself, ‘To Freya and her team…Good luck and God bless always…Pat Cooke’.

I think I was blessed already.

Photo Courtesy: Mike Smith

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Mike Smith lives on the edge of England where he writes occasional plays, poetry, and essays, usually on the short story form in which he writes as Brindley Hallam Dennis. His writing has been published and performed. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com 

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Nostalgia Slices from Life

Summer Studio

Jared Carter writes of a childhood in the mid-twentieth century America



It was a white wooden building two stories tall — two long, high-ceilinged rooms, one on each floor, topped by a flat tarpaper roof that sloped toward the back of the property.

Where I grew up, such structures were called “storefront buildings.” Surrounded by elms and maples, it stood a block west of the courthouse, on the northwest corner, facing east. Originally it had been a lodge hall. During the Depression years, the members of the lodge had gradually died off, and the building stood empty until one of my relatives, an uncle who was an artist, acquired it, a few years before the war, and had it fixed up as a studio.

My parents drove us down to this place to visit the artist’s widow in the late 1940s. The town and the building were always the same. There were no sidewalks. My father parked at the edge of the lot. Out front, rising from its square of stone, was the cast-iron pump with the curved handle. Here we would drink cold water from our cupped hands, and refresh ourselves, each time we came to visit.

If the light slanting beneath the canopy of trees seems clear and steady now, it is not simply because I look back on that vanished building through a scrim of fifty years, so that all the wrinkles and irregularities have been smoothed out. We forget not only what certain trees mean to a landscape, to the profile they give to a town; we forget even the quality of light filtering down through their leaves and branches.

One kind of illumination reaches down when you are a small child playing beneath the limbs of a catalpa tree; another kind settles over you at the base of a willow, or a shagbark hickory. Later, it is almost as though hidden voices had been speaking to you, pointing out certain shadows and profiles — the outlines of small, undiscovered things, the shapes of beetles and lost marbles and blades of grass.

I say this because I know there were elms reaching over the summer studio, and I know they are gone now, all of them. But their handling of the light remains unchanged.

If you asked me to describe that light, I would say that it was notched, pieced together like the irregular swatches and squares of silk and satin and calico that interlock to form the pattern of an old quilt. The stitching along the edges of each of those pieces, even the smallest, would be minute and exact.

There was the light, and the stillness, and the simplicity. Inside, the rooms of the old building were always cool, even on the warmest days. Looking back, I sometimes think of it as an enormous block of ice cut from some snow-covered lake and mysteriously preserved until summer was at its height — a day in late July, with cicadas shimmering in the trees.

But it had been left in that grassy place, as though overlooked or forgotten, and it melted at a glacial rate. Ultimately it was doomed to disappear, but it was still so vast and impermeable that it would take years, or even decades, sitting there among the lilacs and the forsythia, to shrink away.

Most of that great sun-dappled cube of a building has dwindled and grown dim now, even in my memory, but here and there I can still see a milky patch, a section of white clapboard gleaming with opalescent light.

Or I will find myself peering into one of the windows, a square grown blank with sunlight, and gradually it will change, as though a cloud were passing over the sun, or as though tree limbs overhead had begun to stir in a cool wind, rearranging the shadows and reflections below.

At such moments each pane of the window turns clear, and I can see inside, and remember.

       (First published in The Aurora Review)

Jared Carter is an American poet with seven books of poetry. He is the recipient of numerous awards, which include the Walt Whitman Award, the Poets’ Prize, a Guggenheim fellowship, and two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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Musings Nostalgia

Vignettes of Life: Unhurried at Haripur

Debraj Mookerjee journeys into the heart of rural Bengal

The perpetually potholed National Highway (NH) 35 going onto NH 34 en route to Assam from Kolkata mercifully trots off on its own as we veer left towards Shantipur in Nadia district after an exasperating three-hour drive from the metropolis. Passing through Phulia where Bengal handloom saris and a prominent ‘red light’ stretch are distinctive, we drive into Shantipur, just short of Krisnanagar. This is ‘klisht’ (difficult) Bangla territory, the area from which Queen’s Bangla, as it were, inherits its diction and tone.

From Shantipur, our sturdy SUV, a TATA Sumo, laden with as much family as it can accommodate, and followed by many other Sumos with much more of the same (family), makes the final left turn to snake the final five kilometres along a narrow lane (well-paved though) towards Haripur, where my ancestors from my maternal stock sunk their roots.

They also started a Kali Puja (a tantric variant of annual prayers to the goddess Kali) some 400 years ago. Kali is perhaps the most well-known of Indian goddesses, having made her way into poetry and song, most notably perhaps by Allen Ginsberg in his Planet News collection of poems, where he compares the destructive powers of the divinity to America’s cruelty towards the world, ironically embodied in the Statue of Liberty! The family may have preserved the tradition since, but the greater truth is that it is the tradition that has held the family together. Traditionalists, believers, non-believers, NRIs, apartment owners in Singapore, hutment dwellers in Haripur, pujari (priests), Bengali middle-class small towners, all somehow connected to the family, gather at the commodious, albeit somewhat ramshackle, house annually to partly pay obeisance to Ma Kali, and partly to charge their souls from the sap that flows up those ancestral roots.

I visit when I can. The visit under the description year marked my third. The show remains more or less the same. What changes is the nature of the attendance. Some are regulars, like those settled in Kolkata or other parts of Bengal. Also regular is the unlikely patriarch, my uncle from overseas, a much travelled, successful and sushi-loving internationalist. He is the star of Haripur. His half-German kids prefer to call the place ‘horrorpur’, but that’s a story we won’t get into. He pours his everything into Haripur, including trying to gather grants from his internationally renowned automobile casting company for the local school. The sight around the house on the morning of Kali Puja is enchanting, with about 200 kids falling over each other to collect one of those famous ‘Garman’ (German) balls. Let me explain this Haripur legend.

Some fifteen years ago, my uncle decided the tennis balls discarded at his tennis club could be useful in Haripur. Thus, began a year of collecting balls of the best make – Slazenger, Dunlop, you name it. Unfit to be used in matches, these were nevertheless better than anything these kids of Haripur had ever used for their game of cricket. These balls are the stuff of many a legend, their fame having spread far and wide. They last a year or more, they have great grip, the woolly fluff layer never really wears off, the bounce is consistent, and they never really pick up too much dirt when used on clay, and so on and so forth. It takes five able-bodied and very committed (I included when I’m there) volunteers to manage the crowd of intrepid cricketers in the making who storm Sovakar Bari (the Sovakar home) — my maternal side goes by the name Sovakar — for these legendary balls. The cousins coo about the lovely lessons their Nike-sporting kids learn from the humbling experience of having to watch these scrawny kids battle with each other for a mere used tennis ball.

I slip away one evening astride of a ‘thela’ rickshaw (fully pulled by the rickshaw driver — the only type available in rural Bengal) in the company of a locally acquired sidekick to watch a football match some two km from the village.

The game is good, save that all the action is on one side, the other having been turned into a veritable lake thanks to an unseasonal downpour. Tickets sell at Rs 3, and there is a 400 strong crowd. But for the rains it would be a 1000 strong. There are snack trolleys lined up just behind the touch line. ‘Ghugni’ (boiled green gram), ‘phuchka’ (puffed hollow patties stuffed with masala infused mashed potatoes) and something I’d never seen before completed the menu.

Bael tree with the fruit

The last mentioned is a unique chutney, made by cracking the tough shell of the bael fruit, also called Bengal quince, Indian quince, holy fruit, stone apple, etc, and mixing the green innards with salt, sugar and green chillies (number to be specified by buyer). This is one great chutney and very good for the belly. If village water gives you the runs, the bael fruit guarantees a healthy stop to overenthusiastic bowels.

Then there is the waterfront. Actually, there are many. The Hooghly itself is narrower than the Bheel lake, some 500 yards behind our house. There a little fishing community lives along the embankment, with the waters washing into their homes on stormy nights. Tanku Halder is a mahajan (moneylender or simply put, the one with cash to invest) among the fisher folk.  He has a 800-feet long fine net (for still waters), which on a good day can fetch 500 kg of fish from this very lake. And when you consider that a 4 kg carp sells at close to Rs 180 per kilo ($2.5 per kilogram) even to the wholesaler who drops in to lift the catch, you realise these people are pretty well off.

Of course, the one ubiquitous feature of the village is the household loom, the famous rigs where the well-known ‘Shantipuri’ sarees (Bengal handloom sarees have a unique history and celebrated provenance among buyers across India) are woven. Thread spinners make Rs 50 per day, weavers about two fifty (two saris per day at Rs 125 per sari). Of course, the mahajans make the big bucks and live in fancy homes. One wonders why the government has so far not stepped into the business of supplying thread at concessional rates, besides providing design support (controlled by the wealthy mahajans).

The two days surrounding the actual puja are spent in food, festivities and fraternising. The food is good, the festivities enlightening since local stage talent is a revelation, with the stage presence of some simply outstanding, and the fraternising, well, welcome after the hiatus of many years (for those who visit once say in five years, or friends of family dropping in for their first visit; like this year there was this lady who flew in from Dubai to be in Haripur, and a couple, related to some cousin, who, along with their daughter, dropped in from Mumbai).

Forty-eight hours in unhurried Haripur slows your clock down to an almost meditative tick. In these COVID-induced times, time itself is the subject of intense reflection. The torpor of quarantine does the work of a yoga mat. It stretches your mind out flat, receptive to anything happening to drop onto it. Into mine dropped those ‘bael’ fruit from Haripur. And these thoughts sprang out!

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Debraj Mookerjee has taught literature at the University of Delhi for close to thirty years. He claims he never gets bored. Ever. And that is his highest skill in life. No moment for him is not worth the while. He embraces life and allows life to embrace him.

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Nostalgia Slices from Life

Lounging through Lucknow Lore

Nidhi Mishra takes us on a nostalgic journey through the syncretic elements of Lucknawi culture

“I know you are from Lucknow, but must our daughter lose marks in your mother tongue for some whimsical assertion of your Lucknawi roots?!” my (Kannadiga) husband asked incredulously. He was even more stunned to see the hesitation I had in giving the obvious answer categorically.

I had barred my daughter to use the (correct) word ‘main’ in Hindi, a perfect translation of ‘I’ in English and all its variations (mera, mujhe etc) and instead had raised my girl to refer to herself as ‘hum’ (literally translates to ‘we’ in English). Her Hindi teacher had rightfully pointed out that it was not the right usage. In my mind I agree, but in my Lucknawi heart I think, “Why not?”


My brother recently pointed out that it is not to do with the interweaving of Urdu, since Urdu ghazals liberally use the word ‘main’ and its variations. Like so many other things about the city, this is another ‘unreasonable’ characteristic of belonging to Lucknow.

It will be exactly  two decades since I left Lucknow now, but the immense assimilation of cultures, language and location has not dulled the city’s flame in me.  I recall these beautiful lines by the two-times Man Booker prize winner, Hilary Mantel: “We can’t excuse the past, just for being over and done. We can’t say, ‘all water under the bridge’…The past is always trickling under the soil, a slow leak you can’t trace.”

I find it hard to define Lucknow, as must be the case for any city, for that matter. Yes, you can always sum it up in its Ganga Jamuna tehzeeb and lehza (syncretic culture), but sometimes it is hard to keep things brief. I depend heavily on people, incidents and anecdotes to illustrate the spirit of the city, as I had known it. 

In Lucknow, boundaries were blurred.

I did all my schooling in Lucknow, at the famous now 148-year-old old Loreto Convent, fluent in every Christian hymn and lover of every Christmas carol. My brother, who went to St Francis, grew up in a similar ethos. My best friend in Junior School was Saba and my brother’s was Danish. We lived a stone’s throw away from the iconic Hazratganj area. But we were never raised to notice religion in our surroundings or friends. How I wish I could make my kids unaware of these distinctions as well.

My grandfather was a very respected person. Legend has it that the level of his anger could be measured by how deep his transition was from conversational Hindi to Urdu. So, when he opened the conversation with “Barkhurdaar, aap nihayti ahmek insaan hain (Sir, you are a scoundrel; spoken in Urdu),” it was a red alert for anyone planning an escape from a beautiful sounding reprimand.

When my father talks of poetry, there is a special flicker in his eyes. He is a prolific writer himself and listening to Begum Akhtar with him on his long-playing record player, has been one of the finest pleasures of my life. It is no wonder that my mother is a naturalised Lucknawi who joyfully watches Urdu poetry gatherings, mushairas, on You-tube. My father still displays extraordinary pride when he shares that the bungalow in which Begum Akhtar resided, was leased out by our family. I think he relishes the fact that in some distant, dreamy way, there is a piece of paper which houses both his and the Begum’s name. 

In Lucknow, everyone had a poetic tongue.  

Muskuraiye, ki aap Lucknow mein hain (Smile, now that you are in Lucknow),” greets the billboard as you enter the city.

What happens when you end up brushing past another vehicle on the road? Freezing glares, verbal assault, even a fist fight?  In the Lucknow of my time, you would hear the other person say, “Gareeb aadmi hain sahib, gaadi chadha deejiyega? (I am but a poor man sir, run me over?)” You would have no option but to hand over your melted heart to that person and drive away.

Cycle rickshaws were ubiquitous in my time. The rickshaw pullers, who would physically pull our weight (though with the help of wheels on the vehicle) and had to put in so much manual labour, would always cheerfully ask, “Bataiye janaab, aaj kahan le jaaenge? (Please tell Sir, where will you be taking me today?)”

The Nawaabs of Lucknow 

We grew up with not just love for the good life, but also respect for it. ‘Shaukeen’ (aficionado) is a word which I find hard to translate but synonymous with Lucknow life.

My Dadi (grandmother) was the highlight of my growing up years and in my mind carried the charms of the city in her personality. Unlike most women from her time, she was extremely well-educated for her time (and even for today) with a master’s degree in literature and having joined my grandfather when he went for higher studies to England. It was not rare to hear her casually weave some Latin phrase, like Nil nisi bonum* into a conversation. She was responsible for my (rather early) transition from Nancy Drew and the likes to Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, opening up the gates of romantic literature. 

Many years later, on my grandfather’s Shraadh (annual death ceremony), while conforming to the traditional brahmin rituals and serving of traditional food for the supposed appeasement of my grandfather’s soul, Dadi would also make sure that the holy cow was also served his favourite burger. She brushed aside stereotypes with little pomp, much panache and a lot of understated elegance. And in all of this, she personified the spirit of Lucknow to me.

Another differentiating trait was about taking life easy. While my kids are often told, “Early to bed, early to rise…,” I remember hearing the saying, ‘Aaram badi cheez hai, munh dhak ke soiye, kis kis ko yaad keejiye, kis kis ko roiye (Comfort is a big thing, relax and sleep peacefully. is there any sense in remembering and crying over people)’. I would love to trade a little bit of my ‘fast forward’ with a little bit of that pause.

This love for ‘the good things of life’ was not restricted to a certain class or community.

I remember hearing that the vegetable vendors would sell their goods with very unique descriptors- ‘Laila ki ungliyan, Majnu ki pasliyan (Laila’s fingers, Majnu’s cartilage)’ uniquely referred to ladies’ fingers and gourds. There was a love for culture that transcended classes and income levels. Another vegetable vendor was famous for his claim ‘Begum (Akhtar) ke bag ki sabziyan(vegetables from Begum Akhtar’s garden)’. No wonder literature and music were literally fed to us!

Culture was not something which was curated by and for the elite. It was on the road, it was in the offices– it was everywhere.

Well before I read about Keynesian theory in B-school, the tourist guides at the marvelous Bhool Bhulaiya (meaning labyrinth) had regaled some wonderful lessons around unemployment, wages and labour. It is said that around 1780, the region was badly affected by famine. The fourth Nawab of the Awadh Province, Nawab Asaf-Ud-Daula Nawab thought of building this structure as a way to generate employment as well as provide food to people in return for their services. The people were too proud to receive compensation from the Nawab without earning it (equating it to alms). Hence a part of the monument would be constructed during the day by part of the labour, while the other part brought it down at night. This ensured that the Nawabi pride of the common man was intact, by earning his living. It took fourteen years for the monument to be completed.

Things change, places do too

I hear that now the rickshaw pullers of Lucknow (like in any other city), come straight to the point, “Itna paisa lagega. (It will cost you so much).” Not that there can be anything wrong with that statement — to the point, upfront and efficient. But poetry never cared about efficiency, nor did the Lucknawis of yore. 

Migration, politics and so much more has changed the fabric of the city a lot. William Dalrymple devotes a full chapter to what ‘Lucknawi’ used to mean, in his book Age of Kali. Notice the past tense in this whole piece. Sometimes I wonder if we are just romanticizing the idea of Lucknow. Did it really exist or was it just a dream!

Khwab tha shayad!

Maybe it was a dream

Khwab hi hoga! 

It must have been a dream

Sarhad par kal raat, suna hai, chali thi goli

Have heard that last night across the border, some shots were fired

Sarhad par kal raat, suna hai

Have heard that last night across the border

Kuchh khwaabon ka khoon hua hai

Some dreams have been murdered.

-Gulzaar Sa’ab

Disclaimer: I know no conversation on Lucknow is over without a special mention to its culinary delights. Unfortunately, I disappoint as a vegetarian there, with little meat to offer. Though I can swear, you would not get better kebabs in the world. Apologies for all the Hindustani in the piece for the English only readers. I found it difficult to talk of Lucknow without a splash of Hindi- Urdu.

* Latin for indicating that it is socially inappropriate to speak ill of the dead as they are unable to justify themselves.

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Nidhi Mishra is the founder & CEO of Bookosmia (smell of books)-a global movement for kids to be heard! An ex-banker, she pivoted from a 10 year banking career to her passion for reading and luring others to read to start Bookosmia. Nidhi is from Lucknow and we challenge you to have any conversation with her where she doesn’t bring it up. She went to Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University to pick up an Honours in Mathematics and a feminist flair on the side. An MBA from IIM Lucknow took her to a decade-long career in the financial sector, finally quitting as VP, HSBC as she suffers from a (misplaced) sense of satisfaction and a drive to do something meaningful with her time. Outside of Bookosmia, Nidhi spends much of her time complaining there is not enough time, overindulging her two beautiful daughters, organizing dastangoi/ghazals at her place and asking (unsuspecting) people to gift her all kinds of books-from Faiz to Kahneman to Tina Fey.
You can write to her at nidhi@bookosmia.com or visit www.bookosmia.com to know more.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Categories
Nostalgia Poetry

Re-collection & More

By Melissa A. Chappell

Something Right and Lovely

In the mornings I grind my own coffee,

which comes to me from ridges stranger still.

I watch the panes of light break on the wooden floor.

Shadows of you linger and pass through me,

your face fluid in Richard’s lion-hearted kindness and

the terrible courage of the tree swallow.

Like flowing water, the questions

shall not allow an escape,

but they penetrate every hesitation,

every “no,” every passive voice.

Am I guilty?

Yes. Yes. I am guilty on many counts.

I did not do well enough.

Yet I will say this.

Our loving was honest

and good

and pure.

In the mornings I grind my own coffee.

I listen to the news, the news that is

stranger still,

and I know that

though I am

alone, I will do better.

Yet I know that together,

after so many white lilies

have fallen from the stem,

we did

something right

and lovely

in this world,

and for this,

perhaps a wayward blessing

may sail to you upon

some following breeze.

And justice and passion shall lie in the unharrowed field, 

at rest upon the breast of the Lord.

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Melissa A. Chappell is a native of South Carolina living on land passed down through her family for over 120 years. She is greatly inspired by the land and music. She plays several instruments, among them an 8 course Renaissance lute. She shares her life with her family and two miniature schnauzers. She recently published Dreams in Isolation: The World in Shadow: Poems of Reconciliation and Hope with Alien Buddha Press.

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Categories
Nostalgia Poetry

In Memory of Spring

By Nishi Pulugurtha

The Morning Glory

A green mossy wall

Broken glass pieces

Some thread, a used bottle, cut –

and the green

that flowers.

On some days

in the cloudy light it

smiles.

The small droplets cling

And shine bright.

The tiny yellow bud

That blooms this morning

just for a little while.

Fleeting . . .

Drops on a Periwinkle

Jutting through masonry

from small cracks and crevices

the small green plants crop up

breaking through.

In a few days the violet flowers

that dance in the wind

and shine in the sun, bring more colour.

The little drops of rain

beaded and full

cling onto the bright green leaves.

on the bent stem

that still holds on.

Burdened, yet strong –

The dim, dull light causes patterns

in the drops

that flash at times too.

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Dr. Nishi Pulugurtha is Associate Professor in the department of English, Brahmananda Keshab Chandra College and has taught postgraduate courses at West Bengal State University, Rabindra Bharati University and the University of Calcutta. She is the Secretary of the Intercultural Poetry and Performance Library, Kolkata (IPPL). She writes on travel, film, short stories, poetry and on Alzheimer’s Disease. Her work has been published in The Statesman, Kolkata, in Prosopisia, in the anthology Tranquil Muse and online – Kitaab, Café Dissensus, Coldnoon, Queen Mob’s Tea House, The World Literature Blog and Setu. She guest edited the June 2018 Issue of Café Dissensus on Travel. She has a monograph on Derozio (2010) and a collection of essays on travel, Out in the Open (2019). She is now working on her first volume of poems and is editing a collection of essays on travel.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Categories
Nostalgia Poetry

Nostalgia

by Navneet K Maun

My Mother’s cupboard was a treasure house,

evoking happy childhood memories.

The fragrance of the mahogany, nostalgic

with promises of a utopian world

waiting to be unlocked.

For a little girl of ten, it was magical

like Aladdin’s cavernous cave,

filled with all kinds of goodies.

Once in a while, when mother opened the cupboard,

she would let me look and look to my heart’s content.

Nothing pleased me more,

than jangling the coins in the tin box,

feasting my eyes on the trinket box,

with an assortment of pendants, rings, brooches, bangles.

Happy in the knowledge they would belong to me some day.

A square plastic box with a few lipsticks, kajal*, perfume was pushed at the back, hidden.

She used them sparingly.

Sandalwood soaps were her only weakness,

making the cupboard fragrant.

Her clothes were as soft and sweet smelling as her,

personifying her gentle, caring nature

in conjunction with her determination to give her children the best of education.

More than fifty years have gone by.

The cupboard is no longer there.

But, I still have my mother’s shawls and dupattas*.

They are still as soft and sweet smelling,

and ever so assuring.

*kajal — kohl

*dupattas — stoles

Mrs. Navneet K Maun was born in West Bengal. Did her initial schooling from Oak Grove School, Jharipani, Mussoorie. She furthered her education from Regional College of Education, Bhubaneshwar. She did her Graduation and BEd from there. She did her Masters in English Literature from Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi. She has vast experience in teaching and has retired as a Senior Teacher from a Public School in Delhi. Her hobbies include reading, travelling, writing and cooking.”

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Categories
Nostalgia Slices from Life

The Corridors of the Mind

By Anasuya Bhar

In the beginning it didn’t seem very serious. Actually it was a relief from a schedule that was really taking a toll on my health, both mentally and physically. And seriously, I was just imagining a kind of welcome break, like we have as an extension to the summer holidays in schools and colleges, in our state. Only that it wasn’t summer yet, then. But the first fortnight blended into a strange and unknown phenomenon called the lockdown.

We had started stocking up on our essentials and after the first panic attacks, were slowly settling in to a household sans working people, sans the exigencies of school, college or office, even sans visits that were occasional. The house around me slowly endeared itself anew as our home, corners were noticed, the covers of dust gone and gradually I began to feel a new sense of belonging.

This was a place that I had actually neglected in the mad rush of everyday life. But even walls, pictures, bedsteads, floors and cupboards have stories to tell. The ensuing silence, apart from the urgency of the patrol car or the daunting ambulance cries, had a general vacuous quality about it. Nevertheless, in that apparent vacuum, people like me, who settle in somewhat well to a walled calmness and insularity, often got lost in the years gone by. The wall was almost necessary to get away from the soaring statistics or unnerving pictures of death. Horror was, and is, all around, but if one needs to maintain sanity, one must, simply must look elsewhere.

The past few months have been a time for pleasant ruminations. I was going through my father’s memoirs. My father is an artist by profession, and has almost reached his eightieth year. What was happening effectively, through the reading process, was that the memories made me go back to a past where I too, was no less a protagonist than my father. When I was born, my father had already toured half the world in connection with art education, or even by dint of exhibiting his own works, and I featured midway into the story. For me the exercise was proving to be rewarding in a different manner, it reminded me of those incidents which were now so far away. Like the corners of my home, it seemed that the corners of my mind, and most gratuitously so, were being lit up, quite vividly. And now I too have a story to tell.

I was born into a world where colours, canvasses, the easel, spatula and brushes were as integral to my existence as food, or toys or stories. Ever since I can remember, I remember my father engrossed in his work-table with his creations.

In Pune, Maharashtra, where my earliest memories were founded, Baba* began experimenting with pencil. He made small drawings, sometimes realistic, sometimes fantastic, sometimes abstract. A part of the dining table, in a largish kitchen, served as his studio space in an otherwise cramped household with a toddler. He came home from work and after a quick dinner worked till the late hours of night. This same pattern continued for a long time well into the years when we returned to Calcutta in the eighties of the last century.

By then I had grown up and would watch him from a distance. He would be so engrossed in his work that he would hardly be conscious of anyone’s presence beside him. He usually made a ‘layout’ for his drawings. Usually, a layout would be a rough sketch on white paper with a blue or black ball point pen. He would sometimes, make several copies of this, in various proportions, sometimes singling out details or magnifying and diminishing other aspects as his temperament suited. At times he even cut and pasted paper into the layout in order to produce a collage as well as to get the feel of totality of a big picture. This was then, generally his working method, where the layout study would almost be a miniature of the original work.

In case of pencil drawings he would next take a large ivory board, of the Japanese variety, usually procured from G.C. Laha, or Kalpana, a shop in South Calcutta. The layout would be reproduced on this ivory board with such expertise that I would watch spell bound. Effortlessly, the lines came out in dark graphite pencils on the white board. The eraser had no role in this performance. The bold outlines would take shape intensely, while Baba poured over them for several hours. When there was much detailing to be done, he took a few days to finish one work.

Lines have always been very important in Baba’s works. The lines have to come correct; only then would the form emerge. That done, the other details would be worked upon, the folds of the apparel, for instance, the drapes. Years later, while studying Aristotle, I realized the truth of this same analogy while the philosopher said that plot was more important in theatre than the character.

Baba’s canvasses usually came home framed. Very rarely did the rolls and the frames arrive separately and we sprawled on the floor trying to get them stapled together! The first thing that Baba did with the canvasses was to fill them up with basic colours like red, green, blue or yellow, covering the white surface totally. He said that this would give the canvas a ‘body’ to support the colours of the painting, later. Once dried, he would begin, mostly one canvas at a time, perhaps two, but never four or five at a go. He would first make the line drawing, with a bold brush. He would then fill up the form, whether of a human figure or an animal, with basic blurbs of colour, in a flat unidimensional surface. The detailing, the shades, the lights, the perspectives would come much later. Baba has generally worked in the realistic, at the most cubist tradition in oils, never in the impressionistic mode.

An oil painting usually takes days to complete, trying to arrive at the exact form and thickness. In his works, he sometimes left faces without the regular features of eyes or the nose, or ears, or even the mouth. A naïve viewer, I often asked him, ‘why did you not draw the eyes, nose or mouth?’, to which he answered, ‘No, it is better to imagine them.’ And so one can. The form is so powerful that one has no difficulty in imagining the features in a blank face; it also gives the viewer an autonomy and freedom that is very different from the coercions of an imposed reality. Baba had the habit of changing his oil paintings several times. He still does; he ‘touches’ them up in efforts of improving them. Sometimes, a drawing would be wholly disowned and consigned to the basket, and a painting would totally be wiped off. Such works are totally lost to the world now.

One such work was the painting of a tramp. Cast in realistic mode, and dressed in western wear, the tramp was one who materialized slowly and painstakingly, in front of me. I grew to like it through the many alterations it suffered, through the several changes of its attire, until, finally I discovered, much to my chagrin, that the painting had been totally wiped off to make place for a completely new one! I felt rather sad at this unexpected end of the tramp, although the painter never rued his loss. In fact, the world would never come to know of the tramp’s existence beyond my memory or Baba’s.

To see a painter work, without intruding on his ways, gives a very different perspective to his art; different from the viewer, the collector or the critic. Here one gets to see the formation, which suffers several changes, and many revisions. A painter’s craft is always in flux and chaos, it only evolves through considerable pain, and is replete with the pangs of childbirth. The painter’s craft is hardly visible to the world, in art galleries or in the collector’s rooms; neither is it ever written down. The painter’s craft is perhaps revealed, occasionally to a simpleton like me, who found myself staring in awe at whatever he did. I hardly ever tried my hand at it. Now having migrated further off from the painter’s studio, both literally and figuratively, all I can do is to visit the corridors of my mind to reconstruct those once familiar, abundant and dear images.

Anasuya And her Baba

*Baba is my father Tapan Ghosh, a veteran artist and continues to paint and write in his Salt Lake home at Kolkata, India.

Dr. Anasuya Bhar is Associate Professor of English and the Dean of Postgraduate Studies in St. Paul’s Cathedral Mission College Kolkata. Dr. Bhar is the sole Editor of the literary Journal Symposium http://www.spcmc.ac.in/departmental-magazine/symposium/, published by her Department. She has various academic publications to her credit. She is also keen on travel writing and poetry writing. She has her own blog https://anascornernet.wordpress.com/.

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Categories
Nostalgia Poetry

Four Poems

By Matthew James Friday

Her Prize

Our Nan Connie had inexplicable luck,

she could win a prize in any raffle. A randomly

plucked ticket always struck silver or bronze.

.

My mother had no such luck. We laughed

at her leaden tokens, while Nan piled up

perfumes, food baskets, ribboned condiments.

.

One fabled day at the seaside arcades Mum’s luck

finally cashed-in. A year’s bottled tuppences fed

into the game that tongued them over lips,

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some back, most gulped down. It was the taste

of luck we slobbered over. 20p for three goes

on the hand-grabber game, the slippery claw

.

that always let slip. Mum’s last attempt: clunk!

The claw suddenly snaps off its arm and crashes

to the base, flailing fingers in the collection tray.

.

Giggling, Mum handed the limp claw to a teenage

manager, his eyes widening with wonderment.

Mum claimed her prize: a lasting family myth.

Winning Hands

Sometimes the most fun we had at Christmas

was when every tipsy adult could be coerced

into a seat at the table for card games. Nan

and Mum presented their collections of two

pences, gestated by months of quiet collecting.

Nan shuffled the cards, revealing hidden talents.

Grandad prepared his pint and promised not

to cheat, which he did, outrageously. So funny

to my brother and me, but less as we grew up

and he played less despite our begging. Back

to the card games. Pontoon was the favourite

and could last hours, bronze coins shuffling back

and forth, cards hiding under the table, a break

for cake. For a few priceless years, we prayed

for 21, always laughing – that was the best hand. 

Years on we continued to play but the table

featured fewer players as life’s random gambles

took its toll: ageing adults and evening fatigue,

sudden cruel illnesses, empty chairs. No chance

now we can ever be reunited for another game

though my childhood was dealt a winning hand.

Blue Curacao

For Glynn

‘Go on boy! Go on!’ cries the butcher

waiting nervously at the winning post,

punching the air as his greyhound,

Blue Curacao, streaks along the arterial

track. ‘Go on! For me, boy, for me.’

.

All week he’s up to his elbows in joints,

loins, portions, quick cuts, friendly manner;

as tender to customers as he is to meat.

The betting slip in his bony hands drips

with sweat. ‘Come on! For your old man!’

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Suddenly the crowd cries. ‘Come on boy!’

The butcher’s heart thumps hard.

Here come the hounds. ‘Come on boy!’

Voice hoarse, lungs straining for air.

Here they are. Blue Curacao’s in the lead!

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Like a flash of steel, the sliver of meat

and hard muscle pumps past Glyn.

‘Come on boy! For your old man! For me!’

Blue Curacao slices through the finish line.

The butcher chops the air triumphantly.

Birdman

School assembly we flocked

to the fanfare of a rare treat:

Birdman. Superhero simplicity.

.

Perched on stage in armoured

overalls, behind a line of cages,

beaks poking out. No memory

.

of the actual man – a beard,

perhaps. It was all about birds

of prey: the hawk on his arm

.

with its hungry globes, slowly

creaking beak, tensing claws.

Volunteers called up. No way.

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Most impressive were the owls.

We learned of how stories misled

us to believe in too-wit-too-woo.

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We oohed at the snowy owl

as she arced her white head

all the way around childhood.

.

When her white wings opened

and she flew across the hall,

everyone ducked like mice, cries

.

of glaciated fear. Mrs Hanlon,

shaking her sensible headmistress

head, but the damage was done.

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I would always love owls now.

Birdman packed up the birds,

squawking protests from us all as.

.

We flapped out to the playground,

waved Birdman away and became

the hawks and owls of stories. 

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Matthew James Friday has had poems published in numerous international magazines and journals, including, recently: All the Sins (UK), The Blue Nib (Ireland), Acta Victoriana (Canada), and Into the Void (Canada). The mini-chapbooks All the Ways to Love, Waters of Oregon and The Words Unsaid were published by the Origami Poems Project (USA).

Website:      http://matthewfriday.weebly.com

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