Categories
Slices from Life

There’s an Eternal Summer in a Grateful Heart

Sangeetha Amarnath Kamath brings a Singaporean School to our doorstep with a sentimental recount of her experience at relief teaching

It was pre-dawn and still dark. The shrill alarm jolted me from the depths of a death-like sleep even as I tried to cling on to the fading vestiges of a sweet dream. I was just within reach of seeing its mysterious ending but it was gone. Like a wisp of smoke! I tried to slowly blink away the remnants of sleep from my eyes—heavily lidded and which just refused to open even a crack at a grim time as this.

The alarm was ringing incessantly.

“Could it be a mistake that I set it to go off so early? At this bleak hour?!

Uh! Hold on, it wasn’t the alarm but a phone call for crying out loud!”

At this unearthly time, when most of this side of the world was asleep, I dearly hoped that it would be from one of the two sources–Either from Piny Woods Primary School or Woody Pines Primary School. Yes, Thank God! I was right! I recognised Carrie’s number of Piny Woods Primary School.

 Phone calls during pitch-black hours did tend to give me the chills, driving me to think only morbid thoughts. Groggily, as I answered my phone, the usually chirpy voice of Carrie trickled through, panic-stricken.

 “Good morning, Sangeetha! Are you available for relief teaching today?” She spoke fast and the anxiety in her voice was unmistaken. I could almost picture her, crossing her fingers hoping against all hope that I wouldn’t decline.

I steadied my voice trying not to sound garbled, my voice still thick and parched from sleep. But try as I might, my effort to greet her in my signature sing-song tone hopelessly came out more like a croak.

“Hullo there Carrie, a very good morning to you too. Yes I am.”

There was an audible sigh of relief at the other end before thanking me profusely and with a hurried “See you at 8am.”

 Yet another day when I scored a merit for putting Carrie’s worry to rest and saving her the trouble of dialling the next number on her roster.

“I’d better be up on my feet and sort out my day. Every second counts.” My thoughts were racing even though my feet were leaden, unwilling to step on it.

On this rainy and dim morning, I was tempted to burrow inside my quilt and sleep in, but it was not to be. It was a mad rush through the shower, an equally mad brush through my hair, a hurriedly made buttered toast which was thickly lathered with my favourite pineapple jam and finally I was all set and rearing to go! Meanwhile, a pot of coffee brewed. Nothing like a cuppa and a whiff of the aromatic caffeine to get me looking sharp and wide awake.

It was time… to Rock N’ Roll!

*

I was there at 7.30!  At the gates of Piny Woods Primary, there was a bustling crowd of school children chattering away as they made their way in and a jam-packed line of cars and school buses which had come to drop them. I breezed into the general office flashing my brightest smile, to pick up my schedule and made my way to the staff room on the first floor. I was all smiles as a quick glance at my schedule told me that I would be taking a Primary 1 class. An entire cohort of newcomers on their first day fresh out of Kindergarten.

*

Goooood Morrrrrrningggg, Children. I’m Mdm Sangeetha. Your teacher is not coming to school today and I will be your relief teacher until she comes.”

 I tried to sound sunny hoping to bring some warmth into the classroom despite the overcast greyness and the blowing rains outside. The customary introductions were made which were met with blank faces. They had no idea what a relief teacher was. For them, I was their form teacher for all they cared, on their first day in a new school.

They were hopefully easier to talk to and a cinch to work withor so I thought. I had looked forward to the day, which was obviously going to be a cakewalk. But Oh Boy, was I wrong!

 As the day progressed there were the occasional tears of homesickness which I had to put to ease to the best of my ability and quieten down some uncontrollable sobbing from stray corners before I could actually dive into uninterrupted teaching. However, the dejection inside the classroom was quite infectious and a long line of droopy faces and quivering lips stemmed from almost everyone. I just put it down to the longer hours in a new, unfamiliar school and the absence of a nap time which they were so accustomed to in Kindergarten or Day-care.

All the same, nothing that a story-telling didn’t cure in getting them acclimatised to their new environment. It was the need of the hour to change my strategies. It worked wonders when their stricken faces bloomed and their eyes lit up. There were bursts of laughter and  joyous clapping of their hands when the ‘Huffing and Puffing Big Bad Wolf fell into a pot of boiling water and the Three Little Pigs lived happily ever after’. My animated voiceover and dramatics went a long thankful way in chasing away their blues. After the initial hiccups, it was a smooth transition into Primary 1.

We delved right into the lessons for the day with great enthusiasm after I promised them with another story when the ‘big hand of the clock was on 10’, on condition that they maintain discipline in class, listen to Mdm Sangeetha and let her do her job of teaching them.

The camaraderie was instant. I had won them over.

When it was time to dismiss the class for breakfast recess, I was in for a very pleasant surprise. A very heart touching craft was given to me by Hannah as I was leaving the classroom. I had noticed that she was tearing a page off her brand-new Power Puff Girls’ diary, folding something hurriedly with it and tying it up clumsily with a strand of light green embroidery thread just moments before the dismissal hour was up. Her friend Samantha, came running up to me in the corridor and almost out of breath said

“Teacher, Hannah wants to give you something. But she’s shy to talk to you”.

I made my way back into the classroom and approached Hannah. I had to squat down to her eye level and strain my ears before I could hear her feeble voice, which was a little more than a whisper

“Teacher, can I give this to you? It’s a butterfly I made for you…”

 It was a heart-warming moment for me as she had crafted it with her tiny shaking hands in a hurry and interpreted it as a butterfly.

“To me it’s a butterfly and more, dear Hannah. It’s beautiful.” I tried not to choke on my words.

Hannah beamed at me with a wide toothy smile. I left the classroom, keeping the delicate strand of paper in a pocket of my handbag careful not to crush it. It almost felt like the butterfly had a flutter of life inside it.

Back home, it went into my treasure chest of other loving charms that I had got from my students over the years. Immaterial as they looked, they were quite hallowed.

This ‘Butterfly’ was my first welcome gift of 2017 at Piny Woods Primary School.

*

The phone buzzed at an alarming rate before I could answer it. It was a call from Woody Pines Primary School.

Mdm Sangeetha, are you available for relief today?” The frantic voice of Magdalene got me on my toes in a trice. There was no time for formal greetings and niceties as it was almost 20 to 8. I hadn’t expected a call this late either. I had to hustle it if I had to make it on time.

I was also told that there was the festive Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations going on in the school and that the children were all in ethnic costumes of any country that they wished to represent. I too was supposed to come to school in a traditional attire, if I so wished.

I didn’t need to be asked twice. It was a dream come true! An opportunity like this never passed me by without dressing up to the nines. The children in my Primary 4 class were all agog to see my shimmery grey Ghaghara fringed with shiny diamantes paired with the silvery organza Dupatta  

For a brief moment, I too was taken aback by their reaction and double checked myself to see that nothing was amiss– that my face flushed from scurrying in a mad dash that morning wasn’t melting my makeup and streaking my eyeliner down in black tears. God forbid if I had looked like a Halloween masquerade rather than anything else.

 But no, my fears were unfounded. They were all actually in admiration of my Ghaghara and the ‘Kundan’ set of accessories that I wore. They wanted to know all about my country and the name of my attire.

I was only too happy to oblige them with the rich culture and customs of India. That being done, we proceeded with the lessons for the day. After the initial excitement over each other’s costumes subdued, a pin-drop silence ensued with productive work being done for the rest of the hour. As a reward, they had a 10 min time-off for a quiet storybook reading or drawing to recharge. Which in turn led to a little something from Janice, to brighten up my day.

All the Chinese New Year gifts handmade by her were either tagged or already given away to the regular teachers and she had no idea that a relief teacher — that I was coming to her class today. With a lightning flash idea, she drew a caricature of me on an A4 paper — in a floating Ghaghara with a flock of birds flying in the background and gave it to me as her CNY gift.

 Needless to say that the drawing went into my cherished file folder which held innumerable scraps of papers with stick figure drawings on them, Origami crafts and post-it notes with words of appreciation in every style of scrawl and childish handwriting.

But, the ones that I hold most dear are the pages which have undecipherable squiggly-wigglies on them from my Primary 1 classes.

*                              

 With the end of Term 3 in Woody Pines School close on hand, the schedules were getting more compact, deadlines were like a two-edged sword dangling above everyone’s heads and group presentations were getting more and more daunting for the pupils. The weather was wickedly humid and steaming, not helping the mercurial tempers either. I was  in a Primary 5 class scuttling about from workstation to workstation trying to finalise their ideas about project work from rough draft onto the PowerPoint slides, brainstorming those still lagging behind, facilitating them to the best of my ability and stamina, besides cooling down tantrums and teamwork squabbles.

 All in all, a good nonstop 3 hrs and more in only one class. It was a backbreaking, nerve-wracking day and I was psyched enough to plop down limply like a rag doll.

It was a touching moment when Lawrence looked up at me, pointed to an empty chair at his group table and said, “Mdm Sangeetha, you are on your feet since ages, why don’t you sit down here for a while”.

 I was at a loss for words. I did take a seat gratefully, nodding dumbfounded and drained out of my wits when he turned to me and said kindly

 “Being a teacher must be a hard job, right? I understand….” He is a Wise Old Soul, he is!

 It was! It truly was! I was ready to crash and burn…

 Well, the story doesn’t end here! My last hour for the day before dismissal, was in a Primary 2 class. It was a generally good class with kids being kids. And I dutifully lined them up in twos’ to lead them to the parents’ waiting bay area when Kyle said to me in all innocence,“Lǎoshī*, can I hold your hand as we walk?”

Alarmed at having missed a condition the boy might be having and feeling guilty for having overlooked it, I subtly and compassionately asked him –

 “Does your regular teacher always hold your hand as you walk?” He shook his head expressively and pointing in the direction of the bay said

“No, I just want to hold your hand and walk up till there”.

 I obliged, taking his tiny hand in mine. Or rather vice-versa. The trust, acceptance, and the approval– I was moved beyond words. As we reached the gates of the waiting bay, Kyle sped into a run, and turning back waved a bye at me. Stirring moments like these were a cool mist of respite on my scorching soul and on the extremely boiling day as well.

                                                       *

My teaching days at Piny Woods and Woody Pines were not always a rose petal strewn path. I’d had my fair share of unruly classes and  mass indiscipline where I’d  been driven to my wits’ end with the helplessness of my voice being unheard over and above 30 screeching, playful voices even as I was standing in the doorway. News of their regular teacher being absent would reach them even before I did and they would be jubilantly celebrating away.

 If they wouldn’t settle down upon seeing me, what was the next best thing that I did? Nothing! Absolutely nothing!

I would calmly take a marker and write in bold on the board,“Ready when you are! If I don’t finish my lessons in 1 hour, all of you stay back after class!”

Then without a word, I would cross my arms sternly and give a dead stare at the wall in front of me, behind them all. It was only a matter of time before someone spotted something unusual in my composure and would take the lead to shush the entire class. It was only then that I would give them cold stares and each one a pointed eye-contact from where I was standing. That would make them bend down their heads sheepishly and apologetically.

I would never raise my voice at them. Not to scold, never to yell.

Only when they had started to behave themselves and got reined in, which they ultimately did, would I show them the side of me that could be warm-hearted and friendly with them as well.

*

 On a clear Mid-November Friday afternoon, the school term at Piny Woods Primary School was coming to a close for the academic year. There were varied emotions from the graduating Primary 6’s. There were tears of parting, bear hugs with their besties and some trying to keep straight faces with moist eyes and yet ,there was a charming  compliment from Victor after having seen me around, about, in and out of their class for a year now—-

“Why does everyone call you Madam? Are you really Madam?” Madam being the salutation of a married woman, it was my turn to get amused. And in the best way possible not to get blurry myself, I replied that I’m indeed Madam. I really started to wonder how this enlightenment had set in him out of nowhere, when out popped another remark from him—

 “Lǎoshī, serious, ah? You look like Ms.”

More cheers in the background from fellow classmates at their friend, Victor.

I realised no sooner then, that Victor was diverting the class from getting swamped with emotions and lightening the overall energy and mood of the class.

“Yes dear, seriously!! I have a daughter in Secondary 2, so I’m the most perfect candidate for Madam”. They looked at each other, their jaws dropping.

This candid, light-hearted conversation did help banish the despair in the classroom to some extent. Trying to sound convincing, I further assured them that life was a circle and that they were bound to meet each other in Secondary School, Junior College, University or even at their workplaces in future. This consoled them that graduating from Primary School was not the end of the world, after all.

After which, there were fist bumps, hi-fives, promises to keep in touch and smiles of gratitude for the best six years spent together with friends and classmates through countless joys and sorrows right from Primary 1. It sure was a long journey and a hard one to break away from, a bond so concrete.

In the face of it all, it took a lot of grit to maintain my composure and not breaking down in front of them.

Next year, there was bound to be another graduating Primary 6 class and another Primary 1 class to welcome with open arms.

Life gives us many Hello’s in good measure for every fond Goodbye!

*

There’s an Eternal Summer in a Grateful Heart

“I am pleasantly surprised when you know my name even before I introduce myself,

I’m immensely overwhelmed when you are happy to see me early in the morning and greet me with a great show of enthusiasm by cheerfully jumping up and down with a pitter-patter of tiny feet.

 I’m divinely blessed when you come up to me with your teeny-tiny snack boxes wanting to share a biscuit with me, a piece of sandwich or a potato chip. It’s with a heavy heart that I refuse to partake of it so that you have your full fill of it yourselves.

 I feel truly honoured when you share your deepest thoughts and classroom squabbles and fallouts with me, trusting my judgement to solve it for you.

I feel extra special when I see the joy on your innocent faces when I meet you after a gap of a couple of days.

 I feel accepted and approved when you give me that look of recognition and respect.

You make my days fruitful and fulfilling.”

 Thank you, Class for giving me an opportunity to realise my potential.

Disclaimer: Based on true occurrences. Names of locations and characters have been changed to protect identity. Any familiarity, similarities of names of actual people in said locations and of the locations mentioned herein are purely coincidental and unintentional

* Lǎoshī – Chinese for teacher

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Sangeetha Amarnath Kamath did her schooling from St.Agnes Primary and High School, Mangalore, India. She is a B.Com graduate form St.Agnes College, Mangalore. She is an aspiring self-taught creative writer.

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

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Slices from Life

Me and James Joyce in Trieste

By Mike Smith

I visited the city in the year of the Brexit vote, conscious that I might never set foot on the mainland of my own continent again. I always give Trieste that extra lift at the end: tree-est-ee. Some say it flat: tree-est. I wondered which was right and kept my ears open. I heard both but I like to think that as you read you pronounce it Trieste.

The buildings of Trieste are massive, solid, and looked recently restored, seeming too new to be as old as they are. This was once the only port for the whole of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and its fourth largest city. One time naval officer, Baron Von Trapp, must have known it and his first father-in-law’s British torpedoes must have been deployed here. High, squared city blocks with rows of filing cabinet windows housed thousands of administrators, civil servants and shipping agents who ran the empire’s import and export trade.

Umberto Saba’s statue at Trieste

A cold wind blew through the square the afternoon that I was there, though the sky was sheer blue and the autumn sun harsh. That wind blows often, I suspect. The statue of Italian poet, Umberto Saba, outside the bookshop he used to run shows the hem of his long coat flapping, the collar turned up. I’d never heard of Saba, but the cafes around the city centre have his photograph and information panels as well as those for James Joyce.

James Joyce lived here briefly, writing Ulysses, and I wonder to what extent the city reminded him of Dublin. No Liffey sticking out its tongue, but the more formal Canal Grande, straight sided and stone lined, runs down from the Piazza Saint Antonio towards the sea, crossed by the bridge on which Joyce stands — loiters, one commentator says.

The statute seemed somehow smaller than life sized. Joyce seems dazed, hand in pocket, dreaming, perhaps, of Molly Bloom’s ‘melons melonous’, or recalling the windows of high class clothes shops in the city centre, filled with ladies’ lingerie, “wondrous gowns and costliest frillies. For him!”

Could it have been the shops here, rather than Brown Thomas on Dublin’s Grafton Street, that really inspired the scene in which Bloom himself gazes on silks and satins, and ‘mutely’ craves ‘to adore’? Leaning against a wall, high up above the city I recalled the wall against which Milo O’Shea leans in Joseph Strick’s film of the Ulysees. Were it not so clean and well tended, I might think Trieste reminiscent of ‘dear, dirty, Dublin’.

A friend had driven me the two thousand kilometres to see that Joycean statue and to be seen by it — in both senses of the phrase. A pointless piece of literary homage that we’d talked about making for a decade and more.

Trieste seemed a cold city, and not just because of that wind. The people here look you in the eye and weigh you up. They don’t fawn or fall over you with welcomes, but judge, perhaps rightly, that you have done wisely to visit them. It was late October, and though unseasonably sunny the sensible tourists, and perhaps all of the English save us, had gone. A few kilometres out of the city a grid of buoys floated, bereft of their summer moorings. Beyond the flat-calm, azure Adriatic, towards the west, the buildings of — could it be? –Venice, caught the autumn sun and glistened like sugar cubes.

 A broad, stone pier juts out into the water at the centre of the bay. Here large ships must once have landed their cargoes. Now the curious and the adventurous risk that biting wind and stroll out to take in, briefly, the view back across the city, which folds out on each side, and climbs in orange pan-tiles the hill behind the crust of square-set buildings to lose itself in the thick mixed woods of the hinterland.

 Abandoned cranes and the shells of warehouses stand beyond the railway station to the west, and to the east a skyline of newer warehouses and cranes shows. An old stone fortress sits dead centre among the rooftops.

Between the promenade and the city, Mercedes, BMWs, and Audis fill the main road. We crossed into the Piazza del ‘Unita Italia’, and considered briefly a table at Harry’s, but settled for a local pizzeria where we dined beneath a garish painting of Westminster Bridge.

 Just off that square a band of locals stood a folding table bearing leaflets of a Trieste independence party and the flags of America and the UK. We wandered over to find out more. Trieste had been ‘given’ to Italy after the First World War but after the Second it was made over to an Allied Commission. A friendly English speaker explained to us. Out-Brexiting the Brexiteers, this happy band saw themselves as citizens of a potential city state and why not, if those up-market shops were anything to go by? I can imagine London with its Home Counties going the same way one day. 

There were beggars, such as we had seen all the way across Europe – our sensitivity heightened by the refugee crisis, and a post-Brexit sense that we were seeing a continent that would not be the same, for us at least, ever again. The supplicants seemed mostly of Eastern origin and in the Piazza Saint Antonio, hidden entirely beneath an orange cloak, richly embroidered, was one especially chilling. She — for some reason, though I could see no face or body, I thought of it as a woman — had placed a plastic cup on the ground, and wore a black sheep’s head, curled horns as dark as the tight curls of wool that covered it. The lower jaw, with slow, un-rhythmic persistence, made a flat, un-resonant clack, clack, clack, clack, that haunted the streets around the square.

James Joyce’s Statue Via Roma, 34122 Trieste TS, Italien. Courtesy: Wiki

To fulfil my bucket-list desire, I would not merely see, but be photographed not noticing the statue of James Joyce. I took an ancient Sony Handycam. Just get me crossing the bridge and passing him by, I told my friend. It’s easy to use, I said. Hold it like a trumpet, and you can operate all the controls with the fingers of one hand.

When I returned my friend was holding the camera like a saxophone. I think I missed you, he said. Do you want to do it again?

The sheer Joycean comic irony of the situation was too good to undo.

It’ll be fine, I said, and we drove the two thousand kilometres home. 

Curthwaite- Worlington-Heidelberg-Venice-Trieste. October 2016

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

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Slices from Life

Bapu walked here

By Lina Krishnan

The corridors of time. The author’s school in Delhi’s Mandir Marg.

At my school, on the 30th of January, at ten minutes to eleven, a bell would ring once, like a Buddhist gong. It was a reminder to keep silence; for this was the hour and the moment when Mahatma Gandhi was gunned down. It was a time to reflect on his message and his life.

While these few minutes of silence might be common practice across India in those days, our school also had more permanent reminders of Gandhiji; there was a sculpted bust of his with a sign that said: Bapu walked here.

As young children, we had the mistaken impression that he had walked from here, and not from Birla House, to his last prayer meeting where the assassin met him; later we realised that was not so; he had merely visited earlier. Perhaps from the Harijan Basti* next door, where older students from our school went to take non-formal classes with the children of the community.

We too were sent, when a little older, to continue this form of teaching. To be frank, we did not feel much like teaching, nor did the children there like studying with newbies like us. At the time, envy was the only emotion we felt at their lack of educational fetters, a sort of Tom Sawyer meets the free-spirited Huckleberry Finn scenario. We would have to return to our classes, strict teachers and tons of homework, while those fortunate beings could fly kites and run about. After a few visits when they relaxed with us, it dissolved into fun and games and that was better than our amateur attempts to teach them.

It was years before I realised that we were the students there, learning life lessons about a world beyond the trappings of our public school life and middle class existence. In this, his birthday month, I would like to think of an old man, schooled in British law courts, yet spending a life outside, fighting both the Empire and injustice on many levels. He was probably nudging us in a puckish way, to walk in his footsteps, towards the not so privileged and to discover the symbiotic web of life in the human ecosystem.

*Harijan Basti: A low caste colony

Lina Krishnan is a poet, abstract artist and photographer in Pondicherry. She has a chapbook of nature verse, Small Places, Open Spaces, with Australian poet valli poole. 

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

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Categories
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 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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Slices from Life

Singapore’s Secret Recipe

By Aysha Baqir

It was an early Saturday morning when I dropped my eleven-year old for a race in northeast Singapore. My son was excited to find his friend and I was anxious to find a coffee shop and nose-dive into the novel I had started last night. The race, I had been told, would last for over an hour. As we waited on the sidewalk for the light to change, I cheered up sighting a small mall on the left. Suddenly, the clouds cover shifted to reveal a clear blue sky. In the horizon, misty clouds shimmered and spun gold.

We entered the lush grounds and my sneakers made a squelching sound. I grimaced. It must have rained last night. How were they going to run?

“Mama,” My son tugged my hand to let me now he’d spotted his friend.  And in the next instant, with a quick “Bye, will call you when it’s over,” he darted towards the long cue in front of the uniform booth. For a few moments, I stood there. My eyes followed him until he joined his friends, and I forced myself not to walk after him to demand a goodbye hug. Catching the second, “you can go away now” look from him I turned around and trudged back.

I crossed the road and headed straight for the mall already anticipating the strong aroma and the smooth taste of a cappuccino, and then stopped, stumped. The glass doors were shut. I stared through the glass doors trying to get the attention of the cleaners who mopped and vacuumed. No luck. I stepped back and caught the sign for opening and closing hours. The mall would open at 9 AM. Impossible. This was supposed to be the “me” time. I peered again into the glass doors but when it was clear I would get no attention, I turned around and debated my options. I could head back to the park and wait it out, or explore the area. Pushing away the thoughts of the page-turner in my tote, I opted for the latter. In a few minutes I had crossed a few blocks and found myself in a quaint neighbourhood.  I walked along a narrow road with colourful buildings on either side. Red and gold decorations adored many doors. Some grocery and home supplies shops were already open.

I continued to walk further, and hearing chatter, turned a corner, stopped, and stared.  It was a small hawker centre with a row of stalls and a few dozen tables. All the tables were full. Grandparents, parents, and children gathered for the morning meal. Glasses and plates clinked and clanked.

Young and old and ate together. In one corner, a mother helped her son with his homework. In another corner a man helped to feed his aged mother. Some families exited, and more entered. They knew each other and stopped to talk and share news. Two young children played a game in a corner.

I moved forward drawn by the whiff of strong black sweet coffee mixed with the aroma of fried roti paratas, and creamy coconut laksa. My eyes lingered over mounds of white rice on fresh green pandan leaves, crisp leafy vegetable heaped on steamed noodles, stacks of butter toasts, bowls of soothing ayam sotto, and moist carrot cakes.

Spicy. Savory. Salty. Sweet. Flavors and colors blended and melted together. They ate different food, but they ate together.

Food brings people together.

Had I read it somewhere or heard it from someone? I didn’t remember. But in that moment, something shifted. The easy banter, the jokes, and laughs made me pause. I saw an old Chinese man offer a bowl of noodles to his friend. I saw an Indian dad urge his daughter to finish her vegetables. I saw a little Malay boy perform magic tricks to make his grandmother smile. Frowns faded. Faces beamed. From the ease with which they interacted, I sensed they knew each other and lived close by. Had they grown up together, shared life events, and supported each other through difficult and challenging times? Their differences ceased to matter when they ate together and shared food. In that one moment in a small hawker centre, I saw Singapore, a nation of approximately 5.7 million people and diverse ethnic groups become one. Warmth and love wove around them like fairy dust.

The Uncle at the coffee stand beckoned, and I ordered a black coffee. A distant memory tugged. I had seen this in my home country once upon a time, when neighbors knew each other and looked out for each other and when they ate together. Men, women, children, all together. No more. I remembered years back when my cousin had wandered outside our gate and walked to the nearby market and the fruit vendor had brought him back. The time was gone. But it existed here in this instant, where the individuals fused into families, merged into a vibrant community, and cemented into one strong nation. When people ate together, meal after meal, day after day, year after year, they became one, one nation.

I smiled at the Uncle as he handed me my coffee and decided that my son and I would have breakfast together before we headed home. I turned knowing I walked away something special, glanced back one last time and blew a prayer. Peace. Protection. Prosperity.  

Happy National Day, Singapore.

Aysha Baqir grew up in Pakistan. Her time in college sparked a passion for economic development. In 1998 she founded a pioneering not for profit economic development organization, Kaarvan Crafts Foundation, with a mission to alleviate poverty by providing business and marketing training to girls and women in low-income communities. Her novel Beyond the Fields was published in January 2019 and she was invited to launch her book at the Lahore and Karachi Literary Festivals and was featured in the Singapore Writers Festival and Money FM Career 360 in Singapore. Her interviews have appeared in Ex-pat Living, Mount Holyoke Alumnae Quarterly, Kitaab, and The Tempest.  She is an Ashoka Fellow. www.ayshabaqir.com

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

Categories
Humour Slices from Life

Bugs of Life

By Sohana Manzoor

I could begin in the style of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, “Last night, I dreamed I went to Carbondale again.” It would surely seem literary and romantic. I owe this write-up, however, to a former colleague who is currently a graduate student in the US.  As we were chatting on a video call, I noticed some shining pots and pans on the wall behind her. It might seem strange to our Bengali sentiments, but I was immediately taken back to my graduate student days in Southern Illinois. I recalled the studio apartments at Southern Hills where the kitchen was not a separate establishment but just a counter in the room. And pots and pans needed to be scrubbed clean and shiny if I wanted to hang them on the wall. If they turned too black, I would hide them in the cupboard.

Looking back after more than ten years, I now can see that I probably landed there in quite a dramatic way. Carbondale is a very small town at the southernmost point of Illinois. There was a small community of Bangladeshi students and faculty members associated with the Southern Illinois University Carbondale. And it would have been only natural to contact some Bangladeshi there and stay with somebody for the first few days. But the overly independent dunderhead that I was, I contacted the English Department instead to figure out a way to get directly to the grad student apartment I had rented on campus.

I often wonder now how I could dare to go alone to an unknown country, virtually knowing nobody. And when the student worker from the International Student Office dropped me off at my apartment after collecting the keys from the office, apart from my luggage, I had only a burger, some fries and a tall glass of coke from McDonalds. I had no phone, no computer, no internet connection, and no immediate way of letting my family know of my whereabouts. And yet, I just tucked my stuff inside the closet and lay down on the couch of the furnished apartment for a long, peaceful sleep. I doubt I can ever do that again.

It did not take too long for me to get acquainted with the Bangladeshi community there. I will always remember Beena Apa, the kind and ever helpful big sister who virtually rescued me the next day from my apartment in Southern Hills. I had never met her before, did not know anything about her either. But when she arrived at my door-step introducing herself, just one look on her beaming face told me that I could trust her. She took me to her apartment in Evergreen Terrace, another grad student housing complex, and I came to meet the vibrant Bangladeshi community there. 

Evergreen Terrace was for grad students with families, and it was surely brighter and more cheerful than Southern Hills, where I had taken my abode. Mine was a rather run-down place, and that is where the bachelor and “half-bachelor” graduate students lived. “Half-bachelor” is a term I invented for the men who were married but had left their wives and children back home. I met one family who had come to live in Southern Hills first and shifted to the family housing within a few weeks. I don’t remember their names anymore even though I can recall their story.

“Babu Bhai helped us to get there, you know. And he warned, ‘Shabdhane thaiko. Bagh tagh ase. Dorja khola raikho na (Be careful. There are tigers around. Don’t keep your doors open.)'” The man with a merry twinkle in his eyes said, “I thought he must be joking, but when we saw the place, especially after dark, we were convinced of the tigers.”

“But there are no tigers!” I replied, thoroughly confused.

He howled with laughter. “Only bugs (bagh). That’s what he had meant.”

No. there were no tigers in Southern Hills. Nor did I come across any of the ghosts or supernatural beings people claimed to have seen there. But yes, the place was almost wild, running amok with creepers and moss.  Some would find it eerie, as my PhD supervisor had, “It seems so desolate, Sohana. Are you sure you’re safe there?”

The apartment buildings stood apart, separated by tall trees, bushes and thickets. I had seen rabbits, deer and even skunks many times in the vicinity. One evening, as I was coming back from a walk and I thought I spotted a cat running down the stairs. I called out but it ran faster. Two days later, to my chagrin, I realized that the damn thing was not a cat at all, but a raccoon.

Friends advised me to move away to Evergreen Terrace. But somehow, by that time, I had fallen in love with Southern Hills. I remember surprising a deer family when a friend dropped me off late at night; the moonlight had caught the antlers of the male deer and he stood still trying to assess if I was a danger to his babies. The scene is etched in my memory as something magical. I watched the snow falling and draping the ground and the trees with white coverlets and curtains. The large magnolia tree with its wax-like flowers emitted a balmy fragrance that seemed very soothing. Squirrels ran up and down the trees and there was something very peaceful around that place. Every evening, when I returned from school, I looked forward to a quiet dinner with a book. I had no television and honestly, I had grown to detest them. I still do.

But living by oneself has its negative points too. I once discovered a large black crawling insect inside my laundry basket. I hate creepy-crawly things and rainy days in Carbondale were problematic for me because footlong earthworms used to take over the streets. Many of my friends had reported seeing me striding in boots through the rain water and cursing at the top of my lungs. Hence the moment I saw the crawling monster, I yelped and jumped on to my bed. But there was no Prince Charming to the rescue and I had to get it out myself. I surely was not going to sleep in the same room with that wriggly bug. Gritting my teeth, I put on gloves and got a pair of tongs from the kitchen cupboard and pulled it out from the basket. I dumped the thing in the commode and flushed it down, and then threw the tongs out too. To this date I am not sure what that horrendous creature was.

After two years at Southern Hills life there ended kind of abruptly. There were talks of demolishing the place as many of the buildings were old, leaky and not very comfortable. I could clearly see a decline in the population too. I also saw that rather than regular graduate students, there were strange looking people moving in.

A crazy pair took up the apartment next to mine and they were quite rowdy. Then one resident on the ground floor of another building was evicted because he was smoking pot inside his apartment and causing trouble for his two neighbours. I felt that safety might become an issue soon. At the same time, I could not help thinking that it was not the wild beasts, nor the supernatural beings, but the human bugs that were chasing me out of my heaven. Marie, a close friend of mine, asked if I wanted to take up a studio in her building. It was very close to the university, smaller in size than the place I had, and somewhat sparsely furnished. But it was way cheaper. So, finally, after two years, I gave up my blissful abode in Southern Hills and moved to the down town area.

Sohana Manzoor is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh.

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Categories
Humour Slices from Life

Of Toilet Seats and the Seat of Power

By Santosh Bakaya

 “Pick up the phone, can you not hear it?” The Principal had the habit of not picking any landline call, as most of the landline calls were from the Directorate of Higher Education, and the Principal whose superannuation was just a couple of months away, was wary of attending to the calls,  afraid of some calamity falling on his head, delaying the financial benefits accruing post- retirement.   

So it was the personal assistant(PA) who picked it up on the extension in his room, while the Principal’s ears pricked up as he craned his neck in the direction of the room from where the PA dashed towards him, forehead creased.

“Sir, sir, the call was from the Directorate, the Chief Minister is coming here with his entourage.”

 “What on… earth… for?” The Principal stuttered, springing up from his chair, almost lurching — a ship in a storm-tossed ocean. A crushing sense of misery gripped him as he felt the riotous waves crashing against him with ominous messages. Then he gave vent to a series of curses that embraced the whole directorate, politicians, bureaucrats, clerks, peons, students and even the dogs and cats loitering outside his chamber.

“Next week, they will be headquartered here for a couple of days and will have the jansunvai [Public hearing] here”. The PA remarked in somber tones, as if bent on rubbing salt on the Principal’s already lacerating wounds.

 “The college building is a mess, what will they do here? The toilets are so pathetic. Even if they stay here for a couple of hours, we need to dismantle and renovate the toilets. The Indian style toilets will have to be replaced by western style toilets, there will be many bureaucrats and the PA of the chief minister is very suave and sophisticated — he was my friend once. I am done for.” He banged his head, almost on the verge of pulling out his hair, but sheepishly realized that it was a wig that he was wearing and wisely dropped the idea — and of course the hand from his head.  

“So, what if he is suave and sophist…icat…ed?” The PA asked, almost stumbling on the word, sophisticated, one eyebrow raised strategically.   

“Damn it! How foolish can one be! How will they use these Indian style toilets, tell me?” The Principal smirked.  

“Are they not Indians?” The PA asked, this time raising the other eyebrow.

A couple of boys had entered the office, holding on to two pieces of paper, when pieces of this conversation fell into their ears. They dashed out with this information, and blurted it out to the students, embellishing it with some tidbits of their own.

“You know, the Chief Minister is coming here with an army of people and the college authorities are going all out to make them comfortable.” One of them informed them in breathless excitement. This was followed by a collective gasp of indignation from the students and clucking of tongues and voicing of raucous dissent.  

 “Imagine the cheek of these college authorities! They are not able to solve the water-crisis in the college, but are conveniently thinking of jaguar toilet fittings for the VIPs!”

They are installing air-conditioners in the toilets. We are done for!”  

 “Our throats are getting parched, and they are being provided with mineral water.”

Inside the chamber, the Principal was moving around like a scalded cat; not mewing like a cat but barking incomprehensible orders, suddenly sitting on the chair, and then springing up as though pricked, pacing the room, looking at the ceiling, perhaps for some divine intervention, and then bursting out in perspiration. The impeccably dressed Principal now looked disheveled, shouting and cursing, making grotesque gestures and flailing his arms. He leapt and skipped and then absolutely tired and snuffed out, hop-scotched towards his chair, flung himself on it and soon fell asleep, absolutely wilted.

“How will we manage in a week? He whelped, leaping up suddenly, holding his stentorian snores in abeyance while the dog outside his cabin, which had been at the receiving end of his invectives, rolled up on a coil of rope, and forgiving the perpetrator of indignities, added his snores to those of the perpetrator, in a symbolic gesture of a truce.

“Toilets kaisey banengey (how will the toilets be made)?” The Principal barked anew, between two roof-shaking snores.


 For one week, the Corridor of Learning buzzed with the topic of renovation, while the Principal’s chamber also buzzed on and on. There was buzzing in the washroom, there was buzzing in the student circles, and there was buzzing in the Principal’s ears. 
The washroom was getting a facelift, while the faces of the students fell.

“You know, they are using the students’ funds for renovating the washrooms.”

“How dare they? This is unfair.”

“Very, Very unfair.”

“We will go on a strike.”

 “Yes we will. Taanashahi Nahi chalegi (Down with dictatorship)!”

 The seat of power was threatened by a toilet seat, things had come crashing down from the almost-ridiculous to the utter ridiculous.

 But the tragic irony of this entire fracas was that the caravan did come, but alas, none of the ‘sophisticated and suave’ men used the newly renovated and highly sophisticated washrooms that had been designed especially for them. All the money spent on the refurbishing and renovation of the toilets went down the drain.  What did not go down the drain, but down the delegates’ gullets and into their stomachs, was the absolutely lavish feast laid out for them so magnanimously by the college authorities.
The students strongly suspected that this money was also purloined from the Students Union Fund.

 

Dr. Santosh Bakaya is an academician, poet, essayist, novelist, biographer, Ted Speaker and creative writing mentor. She has been critically acclaimed for her poetic biography of Mahatma Gandhi [Ballad of Bapu]. Her Ted Talk on the myth of Writers’ Block is very popular in creative writing Circles . She has more than ten books to her credit , her latest books are a biography of Martin Luther King Jr. (Only in Darkness can you see the Stars) and Songs of Belligerence (poetry). She runs a very popular column Morning meanderings in Learning And Creativity.com.

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Categories
Slices from Life

Nyaung Hnin Noodle

A vignette of life from Myanmar By San Lin Tun

Nyaung Hnin Noodle

The whole house was active preparing for my sister’s birthday who turned twenty that year.  The evening before, the family gathered to plan for the event, I heard she would invite her friends from school. They would come to our house around 9:30 am. Our house was located in downtown Yangon, a few minutes away from famous shopping center, Bogyoke Aung San Market (formerly known as Scott Market). Earlier, most of the streets’ names were buzzing with British nomenclature. But later, they reverted to Myanmar names because people did not fancy Anglicised names.

Mother called out, “Dear Thinza, have you finished making up yourself? Come out and help with these arrangements for your birthday.”

 Thinza replied, “Yes, mom, just a minute. I will be ready. Please ask Tun to help you a bit now.”

I was in my room, reading a book but I heard their conversations. I emerged from my room and went to the living room where mom was laying down tables to serve guests. When Mom saw me, she told, “Tun, honey, get inside the kitchen where your granny is preparing Nyaung Hnin noodle.”

As soon as I heard the word “Nyaung Hnin”, my mouth became watery and my appetite quickened. I did not know that mom would prepare Nyaung Hnin Noodle for my sister’s birthday. I thought at first that they would order some chicken and parata (flat bread made of flour) for the guests. But, in the last minute, they changed the plan.

I replied, “Sure, mom. I will go and help granny.”

When I entered the kitchen, granny was still cooking the noodle. I asked her, “Granny, is it almost finished? I am a bit hungry now.”

She smiled at me and patted my head gently. Looking at me cheerfully, she said, “You naughty boy! You are not supposed to help me, right? You want to eat it now?”

She was stirring the pot gently with a wooden ladle. The gravy was yellowish and I saw bits of chicken and some onions in the gravy which was boiling with bubbles appearing on its surface. Its smell was so good that I tried to suppress my taste buds. But, I could not control it and asked, “Granny, can I try some?”

Glancing at me with fake scorn, she scooped a spoonful of gravy and gave it to me. I put the spoon into my mouth after blowing off the steam and heat from the gravy. So tasty. I exclaimed, “Yummy!” and nodded my head several times with satisfaction. It was really delicious. Seeing the expression on my face, my granny smiled and asked me how the gravy was. Savouring the flavour, I nodded my head with approval.

Granny beamed a broad smile and said, “It will be ready in a few minutes. Just wait here.” She put some more ingredients into the gravy and stirred it gently again. The kitchen was full of the savoury smell of the gravy for the noodle.

As I wiped plates and spoons with a napkin, a thought came into my head. Although we had this noodle quite often, I did not know the story behind the noodle. Suddenly, I wanted to know the story.

My sister Thinza came into the kitchen just then.

“Huh, Tun, what are you doing here? You are supposed to be with mom.”

I replied, “No, mom told me to help granny. So, I came here.” After listening to my explanation, Thinza left the kitchen for the living room.

Then, I asked my grandmother. “Granny, we have been having this noodle for a long time. Do you know who invented this recipe, when and why?”

Looking at me strangely, Granny stopped her stirring for a while. “Huh, Tun. That’s a good question. Why are you asking this question so suddenly? You see, I am busy with this. I will tell you later. Give me a big bowl. I will pour the gravy into that bowl.”

Granny poured the gravy into the bowl and soon the bowl was filled up with the gravy. Granny unwrapped the flat noodles and put them into the plate. She tried to lay out everything such as fritters, chili powder, shredded onions, tamarind liquid in different plates and saucers.

There was a custom we followed to eat the Nyaung Hnin noodle. We needed to use our fingers to take noodle from the plate. They said that it would feel more flavourful that way. Another feature was that the noodle had to be yellow, not white. Normally, noodle was white in colour. I asked my granny, what made the noodle yellow. She replied that it was smeared with yellow ginger powder.

When all set, granny asked me to go and tell my mom. When I reached the living room, mom was already laid out four circular low tables. As soon as she saw me, she asked me to bring the cutlery in. I laid five plates for each table. Beside the plates, I put spoon and forks.

It was only for guests. For us, we would have the noodle with fingers. We knew that some of them found it inconvenient using their fingers while having the noodle.  Soon, Thinza’s friends came one after another. They exchanged greetings, giving her birthday presents. All of them were seated at their respective tables.

They conversed with each other and seemed very happy. Thiza was very pretty with her pink blouse and a nice trendy hairdo. Thinza was busy ladling the gravy into the plate in which noodle had been placed. She moved from one table to another.  Everyone liked it and they asked for more gravy and noodle.

It seemed that they enjoyed eating it. I felt proud that it our special family recipe. I wanted to know the story even more.

Meanwhile, my father came with a birthday cake. Thinza blew candles and everyone sang the birthday song.

They had cake and left. The birthday party ended around 11 a.m. Thinza asked for permission from our parents to go out with her friends. They wanted to see a new movie at the local theatre. My parents agreed and Thinza went out together with her friends.

I cleared up. My granny sat on her easy chair in the verandah of our apartment. The verandah overlooked a school compound with tall trees. It was quiet because it was school holiday.

I sat beside her and massaged her limbs. She looked at me and smiled. She knew I wanted the story. Lifting a cup of green tea to her mouth, she sipped a bit and cleared her throat and started her narrative.

Nyaung Hnin lived in a small village in an island called Balukyun which means ogre island. Actually, the word “Nyaung” is a Mon word and means “Aunty” which is a literal translation for the word. Normally for a Myanmar woman takes “Daw” which is an honourable title for a lady or a woman in seniority. The village’s name was “Tawkanar” which was a Mon word. There were over sixty villages in the island and it was peopled by mainly the Mon.

They grew paddy and fish because their island was surrounded by the fast-flowing Thanlyin River which flows into Andaman Sea. Nyaung Hninn lived very close to my granny’s house and was related to her. Nyaung Hnin was five years older than my granny. Before she started selling noodle in the village, she was a rice broker.

She normally went up to Mawlamyine, a port city across the island to sell paddy. It was in socialist times and the business of the port was booming and thriving because of the goods smuggled from Thailand. Back in early 19th century, British settled in that port city and we knew that even George Orwell, a well-known British writer, then known as Eric Blair had his aunt in that port city.

A view of Mawlamyine

Nyaung Hnnin’s business prospered till her husband died in a shipwreck. Out of sadness and despair, she stopped working. She was jobless until one day she found the recipe when she cooked this noodle. She had been interested in cooking from a young age. Mawlamyine women or Mon women had excellent cooking skills.

One day, Nyaung Hnnin prepared a noodle curry. While cooking, she put some ingredients which would go well with the curry. She stirred the curry a while. It became less watery and started to thicken. It seemed a kind of normal noodle curry.

But, she changed a little bit of ingredients creating a new dish of her own. She poured the gravy into the small bowl in which flat noodle was put. She put some pounded pea, a small spoon of tamarind, a pinch of chili powder. She stirred all well. She tasted it. It was so delicious.

Then, she thought of selling the noodle in the village as snacks. She could sell it in the morning, afternoon and early evening. They would love it. She was pleased with the thought.

Granny stopped for a while to sip her green tea again. She carried on, “Later, she taught me how to cook it after I asked her the way to prepare the noodle. People in the village simply called her noodle ‘Nyaung Hnin Noodle’. They liked her noodle very much. So, they gave it a name and so it went with her proper name. She started selling it in 1970s. So, it’s nearly fifty years now. But she passed away in 1980s.”

Nodding my heads to her recount, I visualized the image of Nyaung Hnin and her features. She might have been as thin as my granny who was active and mindful in everything. She loved cooking too. I thought that she might have had the same sentiments as my granny — to feed people with goodwill and they wanted people to have good food.

I realised that our family recipe came down from our cousin-grandmother and the recipe was not much known outside of our family and some village relatives. But we still enjoyed having the noodle. Time and her struggles only added to the flavour.

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San Lin Tun is a freelance writer of essays, poetry, short story and novel in Myanmar and English. His publications have appeared in several magazines such as Asia Literary Review, Kitaab, NAW, PIX, Mad in Asia Pacific, Mekong Review, Ponder Savant and others. He is the author of a novel “An English Writer.”

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

Categories
Slices from Life

How green was our valley!

By Ratnottama Sengupta

Panoramic view of Fatima Devi High School, around 1960

Dwiref Bhai was Shubhu Da’s friend; Alka was mine. So whenever Alka and I quarrelled — which we still do — I would tell Shubhu to tell Dwiref to give her a sound scolding.

“Hmm!” he’d reply.

What did that mean? I had no doubt that it meant “Sure.”

And sure enough they did no such thing. So next we met, Alka and I were friends again — which we have been for six decades and more, through high water and low, with the entire families of the Mehtas, Ghoshs and then Senguptas too.

Fatima Devi English High School existed in Malad East even before Kanaklata and Nabendu Ghosh* moved in to 2 Pushpa Colony. I was born in 1955 with that address. Rashmikant Mehta and Family moved in to ‘Kshitij Kunj’ some years later. The neighborhood was a cluster of Goan style bungalows that were home to Sequieras and Marchons, to Jenny Aunty and Hubert, to Paul Mahendra, Tarun Bose and Madhup Sharma – actors, all three – to the Chopras, Kashmiris, Khemanis, Bhatias, Mohan, Anthony, George… Together we have consigned to flames so many Auld Lang Syne on New Year Eves. Among so many abiding memories that bind this assortment of Indian lives, the strongest one is of our Holis. The toli or band would start somewhere with the Sharmas and the Chopras carrying gulal*, the Mahendras and Marchons would join in as the group stopped at the Mehtas, wound their way down the tiny colony and finished at 2 Pushpa Colony — gorging on sweets at every pause to smear colours and share joi de vivre. Years down, when we grew up, we would bunch into cars, drive down to Marve or Aksa Beach and dip into the Arabian Sea to add tan to the pink and green gulals on our faces. Jaane kahan gaye woh din… where have those days disappeared!

‘The road to a friend’s house is never too long’ — read the legend on a porcelain vase I had got for Alka from my first visit to UK. That legend captured the essence of our bonding. Both our families flanked Fatima Devi. But, while Dwiref, Kshitij, Alka and Spandana went to that very school — part of which was housed in the Mehta mansion — Subhankar and I went to school in Dadar. This arrangement was to ensure that we would grow up with some knowledge of Bengali, a language that had been enriched with the literary outpouring of Nabendu Ghosh.

So, every day it was almost 6 pm by the time I was back from school — and nearing 7 — when I showed up in the Mehta household. That happened to be their dinner time: the four siblings would sit around the kitchen table for the hot rotis and mouth-watering sabzis, vegetables cooked savoury with spices which  Prafulben Mehta — Aunty — would whisk off the tawa. Quietly she would put another plate on the table and hungrily I would polish off whatever was dished out. And, with a serious face, Dwiref Bhai would adjust his glasses, look meaningfully at the plate and ask, “Uttama, how do you manage to time the clock so perfectly?”

Looking back at that table in my mind’s eye, I now sigh. I wish I could manage to turn the clock back in time too. How I long for those dhoklas and vadas, khandvis and chhoondas, spiced up with the comments baked in camaraderie!

Dwiref and Shubhu did not study in the same school but playmates they were all along. So, rather than exchange homework and classwork, they were always indulging in the give-n-take of comics. That is how I got my first lessons in the intricate history of World War II. That is how I got acquainted with the Phantom, ‘Mr Walker’. That is how Archie and Betty and Veronica also became our ‘friends’.

Dwiref and Kshitij, brothers two, were divergent in their looks and in their style too. If the demeanor of the elder brother took after the Bollywood dancing hero Shammi Kapoor, Kshitij tailored his ways after the dashing heartthrob of 1960s, Shashi Kapoor. This dawned on me when I took to writing on films in 1970s. Shubhu had by then graduated from the Film & Television Institute of India — so Cinema was the constant topic of conversation at 2 Pushpa Colony. I came to realize that Rashmikant Uncle and Anil Kaka also had style models in two earlier matinee idols — Rahman and Guru Dutt!!

While Kshitij took over the mantle of a highly revered Criminal Lawyer from the Senior Mehta brothers, Dwiref Bhai became a doctor — like my own elder sibling Dipankar. I couldn’t, however, benefit from his knowledge of medicine: he travelled to the East Coast of America; I, to the Eastern metropolis of Calcutta. Seldom did we chance to meet even on our holidays in Bombay. But on my first visit to New York, Dwiref’s name was there in my ‘must visit’ list, right next to the Statue of Liberty, Time Square, Lincoln Center, MOMA, WTC, Smithsonian, and Krishna Reddy. Unfortunately, while I could personally catch up with the other names, I had to rest content with a telephonic chat with Dwiref Bhai: the doctor had turned patient and was not fit to travel out of his apartment.

Even then, I did not gauge the severity of his ill health. But, then, did I gauge that for my Dadabhai* either? This calendar year, circa 2020 has snatched away both our elder brothers. Is that fair, Alka? But today we are not quarrelling. Today, in grief, we are enjoined — the Mehtas and the Ghoshs.

*Nabendu Ghosh was a well-known writer and Bollywood script writer and director. Ratnottama Sengupta is his daughter.

*Gulal – dry colours which are smeared on friends during the festival of colours in India, Holi.

*Dadabhai – Elder brother

Ratnottama Sengupta turned director with And They Made Classics, on the unique bonding between screenwriter Nabendu Ghosh and director Bimal Roy. A very senior journalist, she has been writing for newspapers and journals, participating in discussions on the electronic media; teaching mass communication students, writing books on cinema and art, programming film festivals and curating art exhibitions. She has written on Hindi films for the Encyclopaedia Britannica; been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. The former Arts Editor of The Times of India is also a member of the NFDC’s script committee. Author of Krishna’s Cosmos and several other volumes, she has recently edited That Bird Called Happiness (2018/ Speaking Tiger), Me And I (2017/ Hachette India), Kadam Kadam (2016/ Bhashalipi), Chuninda Kahaniyaan: Nabendu Ghosh (2009/ Roshnai Prakashan).

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