Categories
Slices from Life

At the Doctor’s

By Farouk Gulsara

A rule is often made for others. 

A morning in the doctor’s clinic, a retired teacher was apprehensive about the nagging pain she had over her left nipple. Her beloved sister had succumbed to dreaded breast cancer. Naturally, she was concerned. 

She came with a stack of her medical reports, old ultrasound pictures and mammography prints. 

“You know Doctor, I have brought all these films for you to see,” she said. “Well, my late sister died at the age of 35 due to breast cancer.” 

Her conjunctiva, showing strains of not sleeping well the night before, was flushed. There was a weakness in her voice. She hoped that it would just turn out to be a red herring, something superficial without much fanfare. After all, she had just undergone a major gastrointestinal surgery four months ago. Indeed, God couldnot be so unkind. She had done her duty as a human, paid her dues to humanity. 

“I cannot be so despicable to get a double whammy,” she thought, gazing at the doctor who was scrutinising intently into her medical records. “I have been a good person.” 

“I see you have kept all your records nicely, pictures from 1996 all the way to 2006,” the doctor blurted out, looking directly at her eyes. He turned back to his perusal of the documents. 

The teacher opened her mouth to say, “I don’t know why, Doctor, my hospital stopped giving my ultrasound pictures for the past few years.” 

“I wonder why?” 

Still deep in thoughts, halfway looking at her and the other at the notes, he verbalised. “They are scared. With the increasing complaints against hospitals and the litigious nature of the society, they may find it better not to give out reports freely.” 

A long pause. 

“There are many people out there just to find fault with others… to kick dirt. They create problems only to exert power because they can. And there are many pseudo-intellectuals to douse the fire with kerosene,” the doctor added, sounding frustrated as if he was one of such victims. 

The patient was quick to rebut: “No, I am not that of person. I was a teacher, I know.” She appeared slightly irritated that the good doctor was wasting time talking rather than diagnosing her! “I hold the medical profession close to my heart with the utmost respect. I don’t find fault.” 

“Why is the doctor smiling?” the teacher wondered. “This cynical doctor better not keep me in further suspense. I don’t think my heart can take all these uncertainties.” 

Time almost stood still. 

In what appeared like aeons later, the healer vocalised. She could not believe what she was hearing. It could not be accurate. After all, she had been keeping these documents so carefully. 

“Ms Nayagam, do you know that the last film that you have been safeguarding for the — the past 15 years actually belongs to a 30-year-old Malay lady, not yours!” 

“What!?” 

“You see here,” he pointed to the printed corner of the ultrasound picture. “Anyway, the rest of the images and your clinical examination are normal.” 

Ms Nayagam felt overwhelmed with an avalanche of relief. Suddenly she felt empty. That is how she had been all her life, anyway. Constantly worrying about something or someone, so much so that her children must have decided to stay away. 

“No, this cannot go on!” she thought. 

“Doctor, can I have the films? I have to go back to the breast clinic to kick up some dirt.” She suddenly found new strength. “I have to complain about this foul-up to the highest of authorities. Some heads need to roll!” 

The smiling doctor broke into a wide grin revealing his coffee-stained teeth. 

“Well, well, well! Now you know why people are becoming defensive these days.” the doctor went into lecture mode again. “One small error and the whole twenty years of good work done on you gone down the drain. Nice!” 

Silence. 

“What is that, Ms Nayagam?” the doctor chided as he gazed directly at his first patient of the day’s eyes. He could see clearly her cholesterol deposits of arcus senilis on her sclera. 

He thought to himself, “What is there in your mouth, Ms Nayagam? A hot potato?” as he scrutinised her slightly agape lower jaw and her face pale with embarrassment. 

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Farouk Gulsara is a daytime healer and a writer by night. After developing his left side of his brain almost half his lifetime, this johnny-come-lately decided to stimulate the non-dominant part of his remaining half. An author of two non-fiction books, ‘Inside the twisted mind of Rifle Range Boy’ and ‘Real Lessons from Reel Life’, he writes regularly in his blog ‘Rifle Range Boy’.

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

Categories
Slices from Life

Travel in the Time of Pandemics: Select Diary Entries of an Urban Nomad

By Sunil Sharma

Wherever you go, go with all your heart.

Confucius

The journey is the thing.

Homer

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Reflections, random

It was a Journey of Faith (JoF).

Most journeys are acts of faith.

A daily commute or a long-distance one, humans undertake movements that affirm the principle of belief. Belief in certain ideals.

The pull of a dream!

Kinesis is the fundamental science of change; it is the force behind the evolution of species.

You want to grow wings — and soar!

Migrations.

Birds and animals do the challenging migrations across geographies and climates –for survival.

JoF involves love. For the dear ones!

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Embark on the journey of LOVE. It takes you from yourself to yourself.

—Rumi

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Indeed! It is a similar terrain with similar topography yet varied.

And when love calls, nothing stopping the voyager.

Faith becomes the compass.

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Similarly, we began a travel across continents, deserts and sea, mountains and plains, stalked by an invisible and silent killer.

Homer could be heard in a recess of the mind:

The roaring seas and many a dark range of mountains lie between us.

Travel in the Time of Covid!

From Mumbai to Toronto via Maldives — a journey of five days.

And Love and Faith are our guiding angels.

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Exit

September 8, 2021

Kalyan

12.30 pm

It is raining hard. Suitcases are all piled up. The taxi is waiting. Few friends have come to bid us a quick goodbye.

Brief but final.

We spent months together to dismantle a secure life for the “unfamiliar”. You feel nothing. Just a quick bye — a last lingering glance.

It is over– 30 years come unstuck in a gliding instant. Joys, disappointments; tragedies and triumphs; losses-n-gains. Personal narratives unravel and evaporate, simultaneously, in that single gesture.

The anticipated moment arrives as an anti-climax.

No surge of emotions. No sense of loss.

Nothing.

And the ride begins.

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We arrive at the Hilton in the afternoon. The sky is overcast. Hotels around the airport are not fully occupied. Covid-19 is real. Third wave is expected.

Mumbai is unlocked yet locked up. There is pervasive fear.

Hotels are badly hit. We retire early. Next morning the expedition, our JoF, begins.

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We are sleepless in Mumbai.

A new home calls from Toronto.

One home traded for another — and a long arduous journey involved in the transition.

Certain things end.

Fresh things begin.

Hope. Fear. In equal measure.

Travel, real time.

No looking back now.

All set.

Foreign shores call.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

― Lao Tzu

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September 9, 2021

CSM International Airport, Mumbai

6.0 am

We are in the early-morning queue at the counter which is closed. After half-an-hour, a young female executive sits at the counter of the airline, rest are still closed. In fifteen minutes, the queue gets long, and people wait for their turn. Slow. She takes time to check every document. Finally, another staff comes to open the second counter. Nobody complains.

The jostling passengers in the serpentine queue hardly have the mandatory two meters for practicing social distancing. There are official checks but the global safety protocols cannot be implemented due to the crowds and general apathy.

Nobody minds the non-compliance.

It is India, dear!

After a long wait, we get the boarding passes.

Next, we queue for security and immigration checks. They ask some routine questions. Finally, we are cleared. We move to board the airbus. No social distancing is maintained while boarding.

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Maldives.

Time: 1.15 pm

The small airport is full of tourists.

Maldives is suddenly full of Bollywood celebrities and hapless students on their long and tortured way to Canada.

For the former, it is a luxury getaway — beaches, sun-bathing, the over-the-water cottages; perfect Instagrammable moments, fodder for the paparazzi.

For the latter, middle-class, wide-eyed young adults separated from their small or big-city cages, it is a pricey gateway to Canada, some kind of a Promised Land, a utopia — the western Shangri-La!

Two different sets of travelers in the Corona period.

At this moment, no stars are to be seen in the airport.

Only large number of Indian students, some parents, and workers, all bunched up, bit tense, ready for the official interrogation.

It is smooth sailing for the Indians and few other nationalities, mostly Asians, at that particular hour.

People move and get directed to various counters.

The documents are scrutinized. Faces, uncovered, and covered.

The long lines are quickly cleared. Officers are polite.

Female officers, covered up, are monosyllabic but overall helpful.

There are more female officers visible here than in Mumbai or Delhi airports!

We are relieved.

The immigration officers can be tough. They might ask you reason for transiting via Maldives. Give them the truth. They may detain a passenger but normally will allow the entry.

— Our had agent informed us prior to our departure.

The WhatsApp group discussions had been confusing. Hostile officers! Some claimed. Friendly! Others countered.

That did not help.

The almost two-hour-and-half flight was spent on worrying about which 50 per cent would fall our way!

To be detained in a foreign city can be daunting. Linguistic and cultural differences, poor internet connection, a roaming number that does not work — all these factors add up to the complications in an unknown location buzzing with people from many countries. Anything can go wrong and you are in a modern limbo; incommunicado with the outside world, on your own.

Incognito!

These fears played on our minds, as we land on a sunny and humid afternoon.

Once we embarked on the adventure, there could be no turning back, Covid or no Covid.

Ready for worst, praying for the best!

Breathing easy, we headed for the exit.

Then, the bump!

Our baggage is held up for additional checks. A female officer asks, “Are there idols inside your suitcase?”

“No,” we say. She nods and asks us to leave. Idols and liquor are prohibited items.

Relieved!

“If any other country does this, prohibiting the sacred objects of a given faith, that government will be dubbed as anti-Islamic. Media will call them spreading Islamophobia. What is this? Liberal governance?’’ asks an Indian co-passenger sotto voce.

The hotel is a large property and full of the Indian students. Few whites also. The view of the ocean and sky is terrific!

A picture-perfect venue.

Chain of atolls stretches in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The sky and the ocean mirror each other, twinning in blue that electrifies the senses.

Here we saw a green ecosystem curated by the travel industry for the wealthy. The resort packs up natural beauty into a commercial package — spas; massages; food; liquors; boating and fishing; surfing and snorkeling.

Other side of Male is poor where workers and other classes live in bleak condition. Covid-19 ruined the economy, but things hope to improve now.

The barriers had been lowered. Vaccinated tourists were returning.

The hotel was on the edge of the ocean. Young Indian and foreign women swim and relax under umbrellas. Indian couples unwind. Women in swimsuits roam uninhibitedly, feeling emancipated, free, under an alien sky.

Outside, along the narrow strip leading to the airport– small stretch — women of any age get that malevolent male gaze!

We spent the night and the next day enjoying the breeze, ocean and the short walks.

And get revived.

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September11

Time: 2.30 pm

The batch of new arrivals is largely from the north of India—Delhi and Punjab. They are sitting in the lobby, bags unpacked, ears plugged in. Some are talking to parents via video calls and reporting their minor discoveries about Male. Eyes are tired but dreams, burning.

“Headed for Toronto?” I asked a strapping bearded man in early twenties.

“Yeah,” he said. “We have to come here for our RT-PCR report. It has cost us a mini fortune!”

“Same here.” I responded.

“They should have set up a lab at the airport in Delhi.”

“Who?”

“The Canadians. They know we will come, the students, via a third country.”

“Yes. No options.”

“Bizarre! We bring skills and money and that is how Canada is treating us! Making us do additional travel for entering the country.”

I nod. “It is a regular brain drain but our country does not care.”

“Yes,” he observed. “1.3 billion! Deaths or migrations, even on a large-scale basis – it matters not. The youth have to re-write their destinies there.’

He was an engineer going to do the data analytics course from Canada.

“Why you want to leave?”

“Well, for better quality of living. What else?”

“It is tough there.”

“Not for the weak, any foreign country. One thing is sure. Merit is recognised in North America. India lags behind. We do not get what we deserve. Hence, the recent exodus.”

He has a valid point.

Same grit is seen on the faces of the young women. They left the security of homes for a dream.

These are the Young Pioneers doing the Journey of Faith. For a dream of equitable society, merit driven.

The young are obsessed to find better versions of a civilization — humane, well-policed and well-regulated.

To escape the grind of a country mired in extreme corruption, casteism, communalism, regionalism, linguistic chauvinism — and subtle racism.

Each one of the group is in search of a Brave New World, mythical or real.

The Talented are exiting.

No policy maker is bothered.

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The hotel has got staff from India, Nepal and Malaysia. The food is good. Service, impeccable.

We do the PCR tests in the evening and wait.

Next morning, reports come — negative.

We are ready to leave Male for Toronto via Doha.

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September11

Time: 4.50—7.45 pm

Male airport

 The horror!

The counter at the business class had a long queue. When our turn came, the female staffer went ballistic. She asked for all the documents related to our son based in Canada. Other documents — RT-PCR reports and vaccine certificates, passports and tickets — were ready but not the papers like sponsorship letter, address, and proof of kinship. She was stern, asked us to leave the counter and return with the soft copies of the documents. It was most harrowing! We pleaded. Told her the embassy had given us visas, but she did not relent.

Paperwork.

Bureaucracy.

She was more of a controlling clerk than a sympathetic customer-care staff willing to help tourists.

Cold logic.

We had a mild shock.

Never expected this treatment from a customer-care agent of an airlines.

No relief was in sight. She was deaf to our requests.

The internet link was unstable in the airport. There was a language barrier. No other senior officials were around to help. The time zones were different. We were stuck.

Boarding would commence soon.

We were almost detained. If denied passage, our schedule would go haywire. We would be spending night in the airport till alternative plans could be made.

Uncertainty can be crippling!

We made frantic calls. Somehow, things worked out. Papers were shown. Boarding passes issued.

We rushed, exhausted but happy.

Bye-bye Male, a city of contrasts. Leaves a bad taste.

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September 12

Doha

Night layover

We tried to rest in the Lounge.  It was a crowded airport and all the lounges full for the business class passengers. It was chilly. I stretch out my legs and try to grab sleep but give up in that lit-up space. The big airport is buzzing with passengers. Few passengers managed to sleep bent over the chairs.

Lucky ones!

Middle of the journey, near dawn, I heard Odysseus singing:

I long for home, long for the sight of home.

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September 12

Doha

Early Morning

It was 8.50 am.

We had boarded the long-haul flight to Toronto — finally. The bunks were narrow in the business class. The entire flight was full. Families. Young students. Everybody in a hurry to reach their destination. About 14 hours to spend on board. It is a demanding job to remain fully masked in those tiny but pricey cubicles.

The economy class is packed.

We are slightly better in that limited area. Bit secluded and safe.

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I watched two movies. Lay down. Sat propped up. The food was not very appealing. The crew was a mix of ethnicities. Polite but bored. Most passengers were sleeping. I was unable to take a nap…instead I dreamt of the spires of the city of Toronto beckoning from afar under a bright sun in a clean blue sky, the latter a heavenly sight for the sore eyes.

I waited for that site as a conclusion to the long journey.

Like every journey, this would end soon.

And that was the award.

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Arrival

September 12

4.0pm

Destination—reached!

Almost on time.

It is sunny outside.

And a magical city springs into a startled view!

It is Sunday afternoon. And we have arrived in a single piece!

We walk briskly across the less-crowded Pearson airport. Minds relaxed. Luckily, the queues were not long. We were cleared fast by friendly officers, collected our bags, came out, tired but delighted…and united with our family, after a long gap.

At last!

It was intoxicating!

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PS: The ban on the India-Canada direct flight got lifted on September 27th onwards. But we do not mind. It was a long odyssey of love and faith on choppy waters and variegated landscapes.

We enjoyed the thrill of becoming mobile again during the endemic curfews imposed by a monarch called Corona and understood the benefits of a science termed kinesis.

Takeaways

…Third day, morning, I have this gnawing emptiness typical of a traveler: Now what?

— Next morning, the epiphany: The end of a formal journey signals the beginning of the other journey.

— Endings. New beginnings.

–That life is a series of journeys only, some within and some, without– constant flux, transformations.

— Every journey delivers this enduring message: Embrace the change, otherwise die by stasis, stagnation…you are already dead inside, if stuck up inside a black hole!

Adventures! We all need them.

Ask Alice. Or listen to Ibn Battuta:

Traveling—it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.

Or, to this shout out by Jack Kerouac for the ones restless for another expedition of body-mind-spirit:

There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars.

We plan to do that only.

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

Categories
Slices from Life

Infinite Possibilities & Mysterious Riddles

A new book launched this month enables unimpeded international travel with open borders. Readers can easily fly to destinations around the globe, as Keith Lyons finds out. 

There are no pre-screening forms to fill out, no health tests required, and no quarantines to endure. You don’t even need to mask up. That’s right, you could instantly be transported to another world, another country, another place. That’s the unexpected bonus for borderless readers in the The Whole Wide World (Sweetycat Press), a unique crime fiction anthology co-authored by different 80 writers, with each chapter set in a new location. 

Locations include Chennai, New Delhi, Bangalore, Kochin, and Kolkata, as well as the Maldives, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Japan. Through the wonderful medium of the printed word, access to exotic places can only happen virtually — through the imagination — rather than in real life.

The newly released detective book was written and produced during a time when most of the world’s 7.9 billion population have been under Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns, stay-at-home orders or cross-border travel restrictions. However, armchair travelers and avid sleuths can follow the twists and turns of a transnational manhunt crisscrossing the globe. 

The plot centres around efforts to solve one of the greatest heists ever pulled off, with Detective Curly Knucklewad and his assistant Wanda Wowzer pursuing leads and clues in search of the thief who stole a secret recipe.

Authors selected for the anthology include award-winning detective writers, lawyers, TV news correspondents, and college English professors. There is even a Vietnam War Top Secret counter-insurgency writer and press agency photographer.

Sweetycat Press publisher and editor Steve Carr wanted the experimental project to highlight not just the 80 authors selected for inclusion in the book, but also diverse settings throughout the planet, ranging from Kolkata’s Chinatown to ‘Indian Switzerland’, Ooty. “The book is really a global initiative, with contributing authors from 18 countries around the world, including the United States, Australia, India, and Canada, as well as the Maldives, Nigeria, Israel, and Mexico. As a result, The Whole Wide World takes readers on a journey to nearly two dozen nations, as well as under-water, back to the 1970s, and to the final frontier: outer space.”

Mr Carr says although contributors were given a short brief with just two main characters and the master plot, and the book was compiled in the order the submissions were received, suspense is maintained throughout the novel. “Each chapter has a unique location, with every author bringing their own fresh perspective, voice and tone to the manhunt. The parts range from comic to chilling. Even though the locations jump around from one episode to the next, incredibly each instalment builds anticipation and follows on from the previous part, with the storyline remaining consistent.”

For some contributors, such as Myanmar’s San Lin Tun, English is not their first language: “With around two billion people speaking or reading English, I am pleased to have my work and my location represented in this global project. Many of the original Sherlock Holmes stories were adapted and translated into the Burmese language in the 1930s, so in placing my episode of the crime caper in Myanmar, I am following in the footsteps of that tradition. I have always wanted to write Yangon Noir, and this anthology gives me a chance to showcase it.”

The short action-packed episodes of ‘The Whole Wide World’ will have broad appeal, says Thailand-based travel writer Christopher Winnan, author of Around the World in Eighty Documentaries.”This new book about an international manhunt is a great idea, and in this post-pandemic world, it shows the value of co-operation and collaboration beyond borders, as well as the value of armchair travel in exploring the world in a more sustainable, zero-carbon way. The Whole Wide World joins the list of ‘must-reads’ for 2021 for any stay-at-home sleuth-hound, amateur private investigator or wannabe gumshoe. Ultimately The Whole Wide World is about re-discovering the joy of international travel and place, something almost all of us are missing right now.”

The Whole Wide World publisher Virginia-based Sweetycat Press (www.Sweetycatpress.com) was founded in 2020 to support and encourage new writers, and each year produces a Who’s Who of Emerging Writers. 

With some of the biggest names in crime fiction failing to make the cut and new debut authors among those shortlisted for the Scottish McIlvanny Prize this week, Mr Carr believes readers might discover some exciting new talent in the pages of The Whole Wide World, even if they don’t solve the case with Detective Curly Knucklewad. “Readers are fascinated by the characters, the tension of their relationships, and the unresolved mystery, as well as the broader themes of intellectual property theft, the quest for answers, and ultimately, human nature.”

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Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, who gave up learning to play bagpipes in a Scottish pipe band to focus on after-dark tabs of dark chocolate, early morning slow-lane swimming, and the perfect cup of masala chai tea. Find him@KeithLyonsNZ or blogging at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).

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Categories
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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Categories
Slices from Life

An August Account of ‘Quit India’


Ratnottama Sengupta translates from Bengali the excerpts recorded by Sandhya Sinha (1928-2016), who witnessed an uprising in the wake of the Quit India Movement, part of India’s struggle against colonial rule

The golden anniversary of the Quit India Movement of 1942 had occasioned another wave of animation. There was an urge to do something spectacular. Newspapers vied with one another to write about it. Leaders exercised their jaws over speeches to ‘inspire’ the masses, eighty percent of whom had not witnessed the sacrifice and unity of the people then and could not feel the passion.

The significance of August 9th 1942, lies in the spontaneous outburst of fury and wrath in the minds of every indignant citizen. It was a peerless uprising that spread like forest fire, engulfing cities and towns, hamlets and provinces, suburbs and mohallas, causing a crack in the very foundation of the British Raj. To control the unarmed citizens the colonial rulers had unleashed armed soldiers in large numbers. Viceroy Linlithgow even issued orders to fire from the air!

There’s a big difference between those days and now. The patriotic values that suffused even the poorest of the poor in the land under foreign rule have not been passed on to independent India. People then equipped themselves physically and emotionally, to rid the land of imperialism. Those mortals had the dedication, will power and courage to sacrifice their lives at the altar of motherland. From a tender age the parents and schools inculcated in them a sense of belonging to the country. And they had inviolable faith in their leaders.

Five decades have lapsed but I can vividly recall the dance of destruction in Patna of August 9 and 11, 1942. I must have been fourteen then, a student of class IX in the Government Girls High School Bankipur. We stayed in No 8 Mangles Road, an endearing spacious government bungalow to the left of the Secretariat. Outside it, a well-pitched road and across it was the vast quadrangle of the Secretariat. The thoroughfare was lined on both sides with rows of banyan and mango, jackfruit and jamun trees. Morning, evening, companies of parrots would flock in.

To the right was Hardinge Road, again with rows of government bungalows with expansive premises. From the intersection of Hardinge and Mangles Road, a smooth road ran up right through the iron gates of the Secretariat. The ambience was stately, solemn, as favoured by the British administration. On August 11, this very road witnessed the daring adventure of unarmed multitudes, awash with the life blood of eighteen young men.

There was no television then, there was only the radio. But there was a wide gulf between what was broadcast and what actually transpired. The pride and hope of every Bengali, Subhash Chandra Bose, had hoodwinked the British government and escaped the country. He was determined in his resolve to overthrow the imperialists with the help of the Japanese. Occasionally we – all of us in the family of gazetted officer Phanindra Nath Mitra – would gather behind closed doors and listen with bated breath to Aami Subhash Bolchhi (I am Subhash speaking), his nightly broadcast from Berlin on Free India Radio which Bose had set up in 1941 with German funds. I was anguished and deeply hurt by the thought that the INA chief’s dream could have come true if all our political elders had joined forces with him.

Sir Stafford Cripps of the Left-wing Labour party (traditionally sympathetic to Indian self-rule), a member of the coalition War Cabinet under Churchill, had come to negotiate an agreement with the nationalist Congress leaders. His Mission was to secure full Indian support for the British efforts in World War II – in exchange of a promise of elections and self-government as a Dominion once the war was over. The mission was unacceptable to both, the Indian leaders and Churchill. No midway was found, the mission failed and on August 9 the country resounded with the war cry of ‘Angrez Bharat Chhodo! British Quit India!’

Gandhiji gave out the historical call of ‘Quit India’ but the responsibility for the success of the movement rested on every single Indian who now vowed, “Karenge ya Marenge! We shall do or die!” The leaders were well aware that the desperate call would lead to incarceration, but the oath armed every Indian with the resolve to carry on the andolan (revolution) if push came to shove. The fear was not unfounded: overnight all the Congress leaders were stuffed into far flung prison cells. This simply set fire to a pile of gunpowder.

On August 9, as usual I took bus no 14 but on the way to school, I noticed people agitatedly assembling in groups or heading for some place with the tri-colour in their hands. The famous Golghar was opposite our school and the Patna Maidan was close by. People were breaking into brief runs to reach the Maidan. There were countless heads right outside the school. With great difficulty the buses manoeuvred their way into the school compound and the enormous iron gates were locked.

Principal Charushila Rosa and a few other teachers stood at the door. The minute we got off the bus they directed us to go to the prayer shed at the back of the school. On the other hand, the seniors, standing with flags on the first-floor veranda, asked everyone to join them. Taradi – Tarkeshwari Sinha, who was elected to the first Lok Sabha at the young age of 26 — normally donned khaddar. That day she was attired in a red border white Khadi sari. Her eyes red and swollen from shedding tears, she was pleading with everyone, “Come on dear, Do or die! We shall force them to quit!”

All of Golghar resounded with the cry of ‘Vande Mataram! Hail Motherland!’ The senior girls echoed the slogan from the first-floor veranda. The minute that reached my ears, a strange motivation drove out every shred of fright or inhibition. We ignored Mrs Rosa and stomped up the stairs. The senior expostulated, “By arresting our leaders the British government has betrayed us. We must avenge this. We do not want the Englishmen to rule over us. Today none of us will attend classes. In the Prayer Hall we shall raise the slogan of Vande Mataram andwe will hoist our tricolor on the flag pole. We must all remain united.”

When the bell sounded, we stood on the first floor upholding the flag, sending out the message that we too were protestors. When the second bell rang, we joined the prayer line where, at the end of every row, one senior girl stood with a rolled flag in her hand. Taradi was a hostel inmate — wonder how they got hold of so many flags! Mrs Rosa, a strict disciplinarian with a temper, looked at us disparagingly, the other teachers also watched anxiously. Moments later, Taradi’s voice rang out, “Angrez Bharat Chhodo! British Quit India! Vande Mataram! We bow to thee, Motherland!”

In a blink the chorus of Vande Mataram filled the air. Mrs Rosa turned red as we walked out in front of her eyes and assembled in the front yard, all the while bellowing ‘Vande Marataram!’ I can’t put into words the emotion that coursed through my being.

Watching our unsuccessful attempt to hoist the tri-colour on the flag post some men tried to jump over the school’s boundary wall. That triggered a bout of screaming and scampering. All of a sudden, the iron gates were opened for armed policemen who mercilessly started thrashing the young men, now flung to the ground. Four trucks of armed police had entered the school compound. Word went out that they were there to arrest some of us led by Taradi. But the teachers demanded police protection to drop us home instead.

So far, we could hear distant noise beyond the compound walls. Now that was pierced by the painful outcry of wounded men. Curious to know what was going on, we rushed back to the first-floor veranda. The sight that met our eyes froze the blood in our veins. White-skinned British mounted policemen! They were wildly thrashing the ocean of human heads, lashing them right and left with iron-laced whips as they strode from one end of the road to the other. The blood-covered men were crashing to the ground, then scrambling back to their feet with raised fist and screaming in choked voices, ‘Vande Mataram! Quit India!’ Later we learnt that this incident at Bankipur Girls School was the first ever charge by the mounted police.

Never before had we witnessed such barbarity. For the first time I also witnessed how the love of motherland makes even unarmed populace lose every fear, even for their lives. We – even Taradi — started howling out of frustration, helplessness, shame, dejection. In that state we were put on the bus. Our teachers explained to us that in view of the circumstances, and in deference to what our parents would be going through, we ought to return home.

The bus moved at snail’s pace, side stepping legions of injured men. Bankipur Maidan was a sea of human heads. Where did so many turn up from? They were not attired for such an ‘outing’ but there was no trace of fear on their visage. At the risk of facing the worst kind of atrocity, thousands of unarmed people were striding forth, towards the Secretariat. We crossed another intersection and witnessed the same sight: clusters of people racing with our bus towards Mangles Road. Repeatedly they were hitting on the glass windows to stop the bus. We panicked when we saw that the Gurkha Regiment of Mounted Police was also galloping towards the city. Until this day we had seen the British only on duty at the Government House: this was the first time they were trotting through Patna’s arteries.

After dropping off Kanak at the Power House, the bus moved slower than an ant but managed to drop Rekha Di and me outside our houses. Our petrified parents were waiting on the verandas for their daughters to come home. Gazetted officers were home for lunch had not returned to their office desk! Father directed us to stay indoors without opening any door or window. But if the men trooped into our compound, we were not to stop them — they might want a drink of water to quench their thirst! And if Ganga Da – Baba’s Hindi speaking adopted son — came home from his hostel, he should stay back: the unrest would surely mount in the school-college areas.

Our pet dog was chained up in the veranda behind the house. The curb on his normal movement was least acceptable to Jack: he let the world know that through ceaseless baying that drove us out of our minds. Next morning his howls rose in pitch as the stream of voices kept rising around the Secretariat. My brothers Nilu, Dilu and I took turns at comforting him. He lapped up all the water in his bowl but since he was not free of his chain, he barked his head off.

There was no news of Ganga Da these three days. We had heard that hordes of people from neighboring regions were streaming into the city. That day, August 11, the air was thick with foreboding. The entire area was packed with people and police. All of a sudden, Jack stopped barking. Through the slatted window I saw him desperately chasing a horse – the whiplashes could not deter him. Impulsively, without a word to anyone at home, I ran out to bring him back and found myself in the thick of the unrest. Near the Secretariat the goras were attacking the protestors with unspeakable aggression. Here and there a horse would neigh loudly and rear on its hind legs — perhaps they were not trained to trample upon live humans! The groans and moans of anguished souls made me tremble. I also saw a few crazed men incredibly holding on to the cracking whips splitting the air with resounding shup-shup!

I managed to grab Jack outside No 5 Mangles Road. Someone had grasped me and pulled me back into the safety of the gap between the trunks of two massive banyans. Holding Jack in a tight embrace I was shivering away. I was stunned to see trepidation in the eyes of the men around me as, hand in hand, an inviolable mass of humans approached the Secretariat, holding aloft the tricolor, ‘Vande Mataram!’ on their lips, head held high.

Their determination showed in their raised fists as the White policemen continually rained their batons to halt them. The Police Commissioner, microphone in hand, commanded, “Stop or you will be shot! Rukk jao, simply halt! Ekdam rukk jao, stop at once!” In response, the human wall came closer. Apparently, Ganga Da was present among them, in the second row, although I did not see him. Again, the snarl: “Rukk jao, halt!!”

Suddenly I saw Durga Prasanna, the 12-year-old motherless son of my private tutor, darting in that direction, ignoring alike the crowds and the mounted police. He simply had to see for himself why all these people had gathered. So, in a jiffy, he climbed up to the topmost branch of the tree closest to the Maidan and perched himself with his feet dangling on either side. Shortly his fear-driven father arrived in search of his only child. He had no time to don his fatua shirt, or tie his dhoti properly, it was scraping the ground.

The human wall was relentlessly tiding ahead. I had no inkling that, at that very moment, seven Gurkhas were waiting in front of the Secretariat with rifles ready to shower bullets. The ageing master must have fathomed the seriousness of the situation. So, the minute he spotted Durga Prasanna atop the tree, he tried to scramble up its trunk.

Again, the microphone roared, “This is the last warning to stop!!” It prompted the human wall to take another step forward. “Fire!” the order flew out, so did the bullets. Eleven young men in the first row kissed the ground – they had been shot in the lower half of their body. Those behind them lunged forward to pick up the injured comrades and ran, crazed, confused, in no particular direction. The rest of the assembled crowds surged ahead.

The second order to ‘Fire!’ triggered simultaneous action on the treetop. To escape his father’s thrashing Durga jumped off his perch. But he did not live to rejoice: a bullet pierced his ribcage and blood gushed out in repeated spurts as the pre-teen body hit the ground. And not just one Durga Prasanna, so many vivacious young lives fell to the bullets. “Durga-a! Durga re!!” – the heart-rending wail was all the old master could let out before losing consciousness. The poor Brahmin’s foolish son had become an unintended martyr.

Had I not witnessed all this with my own eyes, I would never have believed that death can be so instantaneous, and remorseless. Like me, thousand others also did not believe that people on the payroll of the British could fire on their own unarmed countrymen. Two rounds were fired before the fact registered on the dumbfounded lot, driving them crazy. Picking up those groaning in pain, blood flowing like fountain, they carried them to the safety of the bungalows. To provide first aid the grown-ups brought out water, cotton wool, tincture of iodine and rags to bandage the wounds and save lives. Some were tenderly resting the injured in their laps, to infuse warmth in them even as they themselves were bathed in warm blood. All those who had taken the bullets on their chest were students from colleges in and around Patna. So much killing! Such bloodshed! It threw to the winds the last shred of restrain: the frantic crowd went berserk and started hitting the policemen wildly. Again, the rifles roared out in a third round of firing.

With unblinking eyes, I was watching the horrifying turn of events. I was transfixed: the suddenness of the appalling developments had stupefied me. Overcome with fear and fatigue, I stood like a statue on the rocky roots of the banyan. Before my eyes some men were carrying two injured youths with blood spurting out, towards 5 Mangles Road. A streak of red outlined their course on the muddy path. The youths were gasping. I too felt stifled and fell to the ground between the two banyans. In the midst of the mayhem, all around these people were looking for doctors to attend to the dying.

The Gurkhas and the Mounted Police, perhaps daunted by the agitated numbers now blinded with rage, went and stood inside the Secretariat compound. Carloads of local Indian policemen were taking into custody anybody they could lay their hands on. Somewhere a clock hammered three gongs: I realised it was 3 pm and I ought to get back home. I heard people say, “It would serve no purpose to be stuffed into jails, let us get away, run!” They ran helter-skelter cutting through the bungalow courtyards, jumping over the fences. Across the railway line, R-Block Water Tower was chockablock with people. They did not leave their bleeding companions, they carried them even as they fled.

A couple of jeeps with the sirens blazing gave them a chase. Countless shoes, chappals, gamchhas, torn cloth, spectacles, Gandhi topis and caking blood lay on the vast Maidan and Mangles Road to recount the story of debacle.

I have no idea how I reached home – probably the fleeing masses had carried me along. On seeing Maa’s ashen face, I believe I had merely uttered, “Maa, blood!” and then fainted.

That fateful night of August 11 had come to an end but the sacrifice of so many lives desirous of freedom had gone in vain. Fired by hope, we had all started dreaming of living in a golden India free of the yoke of colonialism but only for a brief period. Under the commendable leadership of certain parties a Free Government had temporarily come into force in parts of Bihar, Bengal, UP, Orissa, and Maharashtra. Patna itself had no rule of British law for four-five days. Rebel leader Jaiprakash Narayan had fled to Nepal border and led a guerrilla war from there.

The Quit India Movement of 1942 is the blood splattered tale of outrageous courage of India’s populace, not the ballad of the triumph of a single party. Prior to this, our history had not witnessed such an all-consuming uprising across India’s length and breadth. This was the first instance of a unique wave of emotion overnight seizing the country from one end to the other. In whom does the real power of the land rest? In 1942 people rose above caste and creed and became a force to reckon with. The imperialists realised that Indians can no longer be dominated on the pretext of a World War. Unfortunately, the gains were frittered away. Within months the movement was squashed.

Over the passing decades this date – August 9 – drags me back to the scene of crime. If only all the people and every political party in India had joined hands! Then, in all probability, the history of India would have read different.

The Kranti Memorial Sculpture near the old Secretariat in Patna. The photograph has been provided by Ratnottama Sengupta

Sandhya Sinha (1928-2016) resumed studies 17 years after marriage, completed her Masters in English, embarked on a teaching career and retired as a senior English teacher from a women’s college.Many of her articles were published in the magazine of the Bangiya Sahitya Samaj in Lucknow, of which Sucheta Kripalani was a founder member. At the age of 75, she embarked on a career of authorship, having successfully played the roles of a mother, a social worker, mentor, community leader and spiritual aspirant. 

Ratnottama Senguptaformerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. Ratnottama Sengupta has the permission of the family to translate and publish this piece.

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Categories
Slices from Life Stories

The Coupon

By Niles Reddick

Kroger opened at 7:00 a.m., and normally if I got there when they opened, I got the fresher produce, baked goods, and meats. Of course, I had to walk carefully through the parking lot to avoid slipping on the snow and ice. I had to put my mask on and remember to put my reading glasses on when I was checking the expiration date on the packages before the readers fogged. I learned the trick about checking the packages in the back or on the bottom as their expiration dates tended to be a few days into the future.

I gathered up the spinach, carrots, avocados, apples, and blueberries and headed to the meat area. The area looked dark, there was nothing in the glass case, and nothing I wanted in the display case. They had plenty of pork, but I tried to avoid that because of gout. I did see one of the butchers and asked him if he had any ground sirloin.

“Truck hasn’t come in yet.”

“You have any in the back?”

“No. We don’t open until 10:00 a.m.”

“10:00 a.m.? Why aren’t you open if the store opens at 7:00 a.m.?”

“I don’t know.”

“Why wouldn’t the truck deliver before the store opens?”

“I guess because of the snow.”

I laughed a little because I made it in the snow and didn’t even have a truck. I pushed my cart on to the dairy aisle, where I picked up the butter, cheese, and milk for our teenager. When I got to the bakery and deli, I found some blueberry muffins that were on the bottom that had a whole week before they expired unlike the one on top which expired the next day, so I got the fresher pack and pushed my cart to the deli counter. A lady was putting out fried chicken, and it smelled good, but it was too early for fried chicken, and I was interested in thinly sliced turkey for sandwiches. When she finally saw me, she said, “Hon, we don’t open until 9:00 a.m.”

“Why? The store’s open.”

She shrugged her shoulders.  I thought about how I’d broken up with Wal-Mart the month before because when COVID struck, they changed their hours to 7:00 a.m. Before that, they’d been open twenty-four hours, seven days a week. I hadn’t paid much attention to the time, walked inside, got a cart, wiped it down with their alcohol wipes, and headed toward the cosmetics/ drugs/ personal hygiene section when an employee blocked my cart. “We ain’t open yet,” she snapped.

I didn’t correct her grammar. She was way bigger than me and I didn’t feel like she’d understand the lesson. “The door was open, the sign said the store was open twenty-four hours, and I walked past at least five employees who didn’t say a word.”

“Well, the store ain’t open yet. They never changed the sign.”

“What time is it?”

“Five ‘til seven.”

“So, would you like for me to walk across the store, go back outside for five minutes?”

“Well, you can stay, but you can’t check out until after 7:00 a.m.”

“I won’t,” I said. I stayed and shopped, but I decided that it wasn’t worth what little I saved to go there, and when I finished checking out, I told the lady at the door that I was breaking up with Wal-Mart.

“Okay,” she had said. I don’t even know if she heard me, was listening, or cared.

When I went to check out, there were no cashiers. There was one older man at the self-checkouts. 

“I have too much to go through self-check,” I said. “Where is a cashier?”

“They don’t get here until 8:00 a.m.,” he said.  “You’ll have to use one of these.”

First, I needed my glasses to read the screen, so I pulled the mask down below the bridge of my nose, so they didn’t fog, and prayed COVID was elsewhere. Then, I scanned the items and bagged them, but when I turned the bag holder to get to the next set of bags, the machine scolded me: “Make sure to scan your items and place them in the bag.”

When all four bags were full, I cleared space in the cart and put those bags in the cart, his tired eyes checking every move I made as if I were a common thief. The automated voice from the machine repeated: “Make sure to place the items in the bag. Make sure to place the items in the bag. Make sure to place the items in the bag. Press if you need assistance.”

“Can you please turn this annoying machine off before I knock the hell out of it?”

“I’m sorry. The manager has to do that and she’s on a smoke break.”

I’d seen this “manager” before. It gave new meaning to the expression “Good help is hard to find.”

I tried to block out the voice, found what looked like a cut in one of the Gala apples and handed it to him and said, “I don’t want that one. Someone’s cut it. Might be poisoned.” He set it aside, and I knew once I was out the door, he’d put it back in the bin and someone would purchase it, or he might add it to the ones they have prebagged so customers can’t check them.

I paid with my debit card, pushed the cart out the door, and realised I would need to go slow on the snow and ice, but I had no idea how difficult it was to push a cart through ice and snow. Plus, I had to walk past the empty handicapped spaces and the new and empty pick-up spaces before I got to my car halfway across the parking lot. I had noticed some of the other stores, banks, and even restaurants had cleared parking lots with snow plow equipment, but Kroger hadn’t. It bothered me they didn’t care much for the safety of their customers to do more. I wondered if anyone else noticed.

Later that afternoon after my nap, I wrote an email to their customer service and got an automated response.  The next week, I got a form letter with a $25.00 discount coupon off my next week’s shopping if I spent over $200. We’d never spent over $200, and I’ll bet they knew that, too. If they keep raising prices to pad corporate salaries and taking advantage of the little people, even collecting donations for charities from customers and getting a tax a break for those donations, I’m going to have to break up with them, too. I’ll jump on the bandwagon, “go local”, and plant a garden, just like my grandparents did before capitalism spread like a cancer and made everyone dependent. In the meantime, I plotted how I might use the $25.00 discount and keep my tab less than a dollar over two hundred. I also figured I could tell my neighborhood association, my Sunday School class, and everyone at work how they could get a $25.00 discount, too.

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Niles Reddick is the author of a novel, two collections, and a novella. His work has been featured in nineteen anthologies, across twenty-one countries, and in over four hundred publications including The Saturday Evening Post, PIFBlazeVoxNew Reader MagazineCitron Review, and The Boston Literary Magazine. Website: http://nilesreddick.com/

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Categories
Slices from Life

Three Men at the Lalbagh Fort

Marjuque-ul-Haque explores a Mughal fort left unfinished in Dhaka, a fort where armies were said to disappear during the Sepoy mutiny of 1857

Lalbagh Fort, Photo Courtesy: Marjuque-ul-Haque

We decided suddenly to visit the Lalbagh fort. Normally, I would never have considered going there, except the night before we had been discussing with our cousin how nice it would have been if our whole extended family could go on a trip together somewhere. So, the next day the three of us —  my brother, my cousin and I — decided on a day long visit to the famous Lalbagh fort.   

The fort was an architectural complex from the Mughal era in the late 17th century. The three main structures of the fort included the tomb of Pari Bibi, the diwan-i-Aam (the hall of audience) and a mosque. The story of the fort’s creation begins with Muhammad Azam Shah, the son of the emperor Aurangzeb who was then the subahdar (governor of a subah or province) of Bengal. He was recalled and he left the construction to Shaista Khan, the later subahdar of Bengal. Khan also discontinued work on the fort after the death of his daughter Pari Bibi, who lies buried there. The bereaved father halted construction, believing the fort was cursed. It remains abandoned and unoccupied to this date.               

The walk leading to the fort’s compound is lined with gardens in neat rows and patterns on both sides. Parallel to it runs a long strip of pool. The entrance is several feet long and domed at the top. The walls are grooved with rectangular recessions for decoration. The tomb, being a few hundred years old, seemed pinkish and off colour. However, the mausoleum with its high red dome was the most impressive of the three monuments. It housed the grave of Pari Bibi.   

The Grave of Pari Bibi. Photo Courtesy: Marjuque-ul-Haque

We next went to the diwani-i-aam. The interior is far more impressive than the exterior. Inside are exhibited various Mughal weapons of war and everyday artifacts from the same period lined the walls of the museum. Swords, shields, spears, hand cannons, chain maces, clubs and other interesting things are part of the exhibits.

The last of the three monuments we visited was the mosque. This proved to be a disappointment, owing to the fact that the interior was not open to visitors as indicated by a placard. From the entrance, we peeped and saw clotheslines with garments drying on them and men in tupi (cap) and jubbah (a gown worn by Muslim men). Apparently, it seemed that they had a madarsah (Muslim school) and the students and staff resided inside. As we were but outsiders, we could not enter. However, we were able to climb atop a roof (or was it a verandah) to get a view from above. Up on that ledge, the breeze was light and frequent. We took a few pictures and spent some time before heading down.   

Sauntering away from the mosque, we noticed a woman, a foreigner, a European tourist no doubt, dressed in pinkish white, quite absorbed in photographing of one of the buildings. Unfortunately, three eve teasers started making remarks in English near her. In the sunlight, she had shades on as she ceremoniously took pictures pointedly ignoring the three miscreants as they occasionally walked around her. The three of us felt embarrassed and discussed how this experience would impact the way she would describe Bangladeshi people to her friends and family. We were dismayed by their bad behaviour.

We had completed two circuits of the compound. It was five in the evening and the microphones blared an announcement that the place would close in forty minutes and that the visitors needed to leave the precincts.

The evening sky that swathed the nearest monument in a bluish glow was different from the one I had seen in the light of the afternoon. I recalled a few instances when buildings evoked a distinct aura. In fact, the buildings had been in a state of flux at all times but I had only been present to observe it at certain moments. The protagonist of the translation of Yukio Mishima’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion had been shown as obsessed with the building’s beauty, reflecting in the same manner as me. In seeking respite from his imperfections, the protagonist of the novel had endowed the ancient temple with unattainable beauty. Unfortunately, his obsession with its appeal led him to set fire to the monument with himself inside; thus hoping to prove the mutability of the Golden Pavilion’s beauty. The Lalbagh Fort has endured a long stretch time and no doubt grown in beauty like the temple, but hopefully its beauty will only serve to inspire.

The Lalbagh Fort. Photo Courtesy: Marjuque-ul-Haque

Marjuque-ul-Haque is an MA student Department of English at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh.

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Categories
Slices from Life Stories

Adoption

By Jeanie Kortum

He begins speaking the moment he enters the room.  “I had to crawl under the bed and call 911 when my daddy was hitting my mommy,” Jeremy announces.  Skin as brown as California hills in summer, a quick bright smile despite what he has just announced.

He examines us.  “I’ve been waiting for a mommy and a daddy for a long time,” he confides.  “I told my social worker I wanted parents who would love me, I wanted to be read to at night and I wanted a teddy bear and the nightlight.” Jeremy lays out a row of miniature toy cups.  “Would you like a cup of coffee?” he asks.  We nod and he pretends to pour coffee. 

We walked out of that office that first day unable to talk, arrowheads of love sent straight into our hearts. 

Adopting a child from social services is a debilitating process.  Months and months of looking at pictures of children in a small office.  At first I yearned for each and every face, but by page fifty or so, sitting in that stifling room, I became hard.  I was a consumer of the very worst kind, a consumer of kids. 

Then one day we turned the page and there he was.  “That’s the one!” my husband and I said almost at the same time. 

This was our second marriage.  Mike had three kids and I had one.  Our children were grown and we had room in our lives and hearts to raise one more. 

In the weeks to come, waiting for him to move in, I showed Jeremy’s picture—big smile, wearing a little dinosaur T-shirt—to everyone I met until the paper became crumpled and creased at the edges.  I practiced saying the word “son” over and over again; the word filled my mouth with sweet music.  As though absorbing his story would make him more mine, I read the reports from social services over and over again.  Addiction, domestic abuse, now seven years old, he had lived in six different homes in the past ten years.  The trio of his brother and sister and him twice given back from permanent homes until a bold judge decided to separate the kids and place them in individual homes for adoption. 

I made a room for him with a brave cowboy motif.  A lampshade with bucking broncos, a rodeo quilt, a clothes hanger that said the word cowboy and yes, a nightlight. 

He called me mommy immediately.  At first it was so easy, my days filled with joy, the love I felt bright, uncomplicated and complete.  We watched insects crawl across grass blades, played in the pool, walked the dogs, told stories to each other about the shapes of clouds, moments so perfect I did not want to be doing anything else.  His face bloomed a full bouquet of smiles.  I told long romantic tales that softened up the edges of his story.  “Look at your feet,” I told him.  “Maybe they came from your grandfather, a farmer walking through hot brown soil.”

Our bodies opened towards each other.  He came easily into my lap.  We did three-people hugs.  “It’s dark in here,” he would say in a muffled voice and we laughed happily, knowing what he was really saying was that it was safe in our arms.  Every day he unfurled a little bit more. 

“I am your son from another mommy,” he said to me one day, and I found myself blinking back tears.  He reached for my hand with that easy and nonchalant assumption of safety and protection every child should have.  “You chose the right guy.”

One afternoon Mike and I had gone for a walk on the short walk with the dogs when far off in the distance we heard him calling.  “Mommy, mommy,” a lost boy sound on the wind.  As fast as I could I ran back to him, wrapped my arms around him.  “I’ll never leave you,” I whispered.  “I am your forever mommy.”

But it wasn’t always easy.  When you adopt a child you do not have the long ropes of familiarity to climb back into time, to comfort and explain.  You will not recognize the face of your husband in an expression that crosses your child’s face, will not see your grandfather in his hands.  And if that child has been hurt, you don’t start at zero, you often start at minus one, undoing rather than doing.  It is the elemental clay of human nature – sometimes what you find will frighten you, sometimes it will inspire.

We learned quickly that trouble wrestled deep in the biological bedrock of this little boy’s soul.  There was a black hole at the center of him and every morning we woke to the very real assignment of trying to fill that hole. 

He had fits and we never knew when one would detonate.  We could hear his thoughts through his physicality, would know just by the sound of his steps on the stairs or the lilt of his voice whether it was going to be a good or bad day.  He would kick the walls, sometimes tear at his skin with his fingers.  When we went hiking he would suddenly stop on the trail in front of me and when I would bump into him he would fall apart.  He had arrived finally to his forever home and yet he tried to break it. 

We hung tough, however, and I was happy.  It was like creating a sculpture from raw elements, polishing up the good in this little boy, hoping that a heart fully loaded could reach back and heal his previous wounds.

It was at the end of middle school that Jeremy began to complain more, blame more, see the dark side of everything.  The only brown boy in the all-white classroom, he had never done well socially.  No one came to play in the swimming pool, a few listless birthdays now and then but no best friend. 

I tried to dismiss it.  Who could blame him? How could I presume to know what it was like to walk down the street as a Latino male? All around him were smug youngsters plumped with entitlement, multiple gadgets in their bedrooms, soccer camps, private tutors, $40 haircuts.  No one had lived his life so delineated into a sharp before and after, no one had lived those years of fierce wanting, dragged his particular bag of sorrow behind them. 

But as the months went by, Jeremy began to close himself off from us.  Loneliness laminated his surfaces, made him unreachable.  Though we tried hard to excavate his sorrow and talk it through, he refused.  A corrosive teasing entered our dynamic, a hard taunting jeer in his voice that held pieces of flint, igniting sparks of incendiary opinions and behaviors calculated to alarm.

He was one of the best things that had ever come into my life, and yet I was losing him. 

The one constant in all these years was Jeremy’s affinity for religion.  Though different from my beliefs—more connected to the large madrone tree near our house then to any kind of building—I’ve always encouraged his love of God: I thought it gave him another kind of home, a spiritual breathe he could lean against and calm his anger.  My husband, an emigrant from Ireland, had returned to the Catholic church after many years away, attending a small agrarian church with a maverick priest where he was allowed to ask questions. 

We found a small high school that was a bit religious, but with a sweet culture where spiritual safety mattered more than the colour of one’s skin.  It seemed perfect.  We did due diligence, everyone said it was a good school and apolitical.

From the very first week Jeremy loved it.  Its tidiness seemed to comfort him, some origin of biological sin to be monitored with the rules and severity of Christian cause-and-effect thinking.  And at first we didn’t mind too much.  If we could get him through these difficult teenage years, the rest of the sloppy, restless world would wait for him.  He was nicer around the house.  We began to have mighty conversations about existence and religion, and at first the conversations were fair and thoughtful. 

It was slight at first, a few comments he repeated from school, a teacher who publicly supported Trump in the classroom.  When I called the school to complain about the spillage of politics mixed with religion, they were noncommittal. 

Slowly but purposefully, the school turned our son against us. 

Feeding his need for identity, Jeremy began to wear a huge cross around his neck.  He filled notebooks with drawings of Jesus hanging from the cross dripping blood.  He branded himself with a huge tattoo drawn in felt pen down one arm, enormous box letters that proclaimed John 41. 

I did not expect a son with a Burning Man sense of anarchy, but I certainly did not expect this angry soldier of Christ.  For the first time he belonged more to his religion than to us.  When he told us we would burn in hell because we had not accepted Jesus as the son of God, I called the school.  Does it have to be so grim, I asked? Imagine a boy who had waited seven years for a forever family, only to be told that he would be alone again in eternity.

I became known as a parent they needed to pray for.

Jeremy became increasingly provocative.  He used current events to define himself.  Maybe Trump was right and we should build that wall.  Though his father had come from Nicaragua, though he had been rescued by a safety net of social-service programs, Jeremy thought we should cut money for children. 

He supported a new president who lived out his own oppositional temper tantrums in soundbites…I was grieving the fate of our country, now in the hands of those whose views on just about everything went directly against mine.  And now they had my son.   

The war on our house escalated.  We started to talk about getting him out of that school, but he refused and we thought we might do more damage by ripping him away from the one place where he was happy.  We took him to a family therapist but he refused to go back.  Though I knew intellectually he was hurting others because he was so hurt himself I did not discipline myself. 

As the months went by, the sweet boy I had known hardened in a furnace of rage.  No more three-people hugs; he retreated to a room I was too disheartened to ask him to clean, a midden of old food and dirty clothes emanating the odor of despair. 

My friends tried to normalize what we were experiencing.  “It’s just teenage rebellion,” they said.  “Let the world teach him.  It’s not personal.” But I sensed somehow it was deeper than this. 

Though I knew it wasn’t good parenting I retreated, protecting myself from attacks.  I closed off my face, smiled a little less often, learned to weaponize my silence.  Grieving the little boy who was no longer, frightened of the man he was becoming, I fell into loss and fear.  Trump’s America had entered our home, a sinister cynicism, a license to attack, even to hate.  I felt selfish, severe, angry, small, berated myself for being so out-of-control, for not having the courage to change our dynamic. 

What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I learn to love this man he was becoming? Was I only looking for the me inside of him, towards the places where we were the same?

My husband, recognizing that I was disintegrating, and worried as well about the effect the many battles were having on Jeremy, stepped in and became the primary contact.  I tried to follow Mike’s lead.  I learned how to duck and weave, not take everything on, develop a small chorus of noncommittal listening grunts.  But as we drifted into our separate silences, terrible awkward dinners where no one spoke, the not-so-neutral accord and careful politeness began to seem as cruel as the raging world war used to be. 

*

                                                                         

It is now a year later.  We decided to pull Jeremy out of the school and enrolled him in a place of wide green lawns, an organic garden, a social-justice teacher who encourages discord, and a mission statement of diversity.  In solidarity with other high schools, students walked out to protest guns.  A transgender student was elected homecoming queen. 

It is been a difficult transition for Jeremy, jarring, but he is doing well.  A’s and B’s.  He has made friends, signed up for model UN.  He has returned to sketching, and his intricate details of hands no longer hold crosses.  He still goes to church every Sunday but is more generous around other people’s beliefs.  He even allowed me to hug him in Macy’s when I took him shopping.

Can we pass Jeremy into the years beyond us intact, healthy, maybe even happy?  Will he live in the bright light of possibility and hope or will he sculpt his life from wounds, define himself from loss.  College, marriage, jobs, his own children…maybe the last few years of war were just a brief furrow in the arc of his life, all those years of challenging just his way of testing us, another form of stopping in the middle of the trail so that I would bump into him and he can fall apart. 

Last night, after dinner, I went out on our deck, watched the mountains grow soft with twilight.  Our dog padded out with a clatter of nails.  Frogs began to croak, the leaves in the old madrone rattled, stars appear in the night sky.  A light comes on in Jeremy’s bedroom.  He has a math test tomorrow and he is studying. 

“Mommy, mommy,” I still hear on the wind. 

I take a deep breath.  “He’ll be all right,” I think to myself for the first time in years.

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Jeanie Kortum is an author, journalist, and humanitarian. She has written two novels Ghost Vision which is based on her experience in Greenland and Stones which is about Female Genital Mutilation.

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Categories
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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