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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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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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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Categories
Slices from Life

Serve the People

By Danielle Legault Kurihara

My father-in-law’s passing, when I was pregnant with his grandson, served as a sort of personal consecration. The Japanese family entrusted me with tasks and responsibilities from the moment of his death to the moment, three days later, when we picked his bones out of the ashes. All differences of nationality and religion flew out of the window.

Being married to the third son of a Japanese family, you could say I’m very low on the totem pole. When my mother-in-law married the eldest son of this clan in 1947, she had prestige but she lived to serve. She gained some measure of glory by giving birth to all those boys in the tatami room, but she was still the last one to use the bath water after her parents-in-law, her husband and her three young sons had soaked in it. She laughs about it now but when I asked her about Great-Grandma’s antique hand-painted silk kimonos, she said she made a big bonfire in the garden after her death and burned them all.

We got the call in the middle of the night. Otoosan had passed. As soon as my mother-in-law stepped into her husband’s room at the Veterans Hospital, or Veteru as it is called in Japan, she put everybody to work. His body had to be washed and his face shaved. My husband took me to the other side of the curtain and offered a chair. “You don’t have to do this”, he said. I could hear my mother-in-law instructing her sons. They worked in silence. I sat in the dark.

Otoosan, an architect, a father of three sons and a former soldier and prisoner of war, lived the final years of his long life in the Veteran Hospital. I had only met him once before in his home where he was spending the day as an outpatient. This man, whose powerful physique held memories of a four dan black belt judoka, was strapped in a chair, being fed by his wife. My husband said in a loud voice: “Otoosan, this is my wife. She’s Canadian”. He looked up, showed no reaction on seeing my Caucasian face and the family giggled: all in a day’s work. His son, a three dan black belt himself like a chip off the old block, took over feeding his Otoosan spoonfuls of lukewarm miso soup, their knees touching, their eyes meeting.

First Task

For my first task, after the family finished taking care of Otoosan, I was asked to sit at his bedside and wait with him while the family filled out paperwork in the office. Before leaving, my mother-in-law turned to me and said gently, “He should not be alone, you understand”. They left in the wake of two black clad white-gloved funeral employees who had appeared on cue from the shadows. There we were together, and it seemed like a moment to reacquaint myself with Otoosan, now wrapped in a pristine white sheet, only his tranquil face showing. I stared at him for a long time and finally whispered domo. It can mean hello or thank you or a mix of both. I read once that this greeting was used during the Edo Period to express a feeling of confusion or unsureness about the person one was addressing.

Second Task

For my second task, to my great surprise, my mother-in-law asked me to accompany Otoosan in the van transporting him to the family home while the others went to the funeral support company. Why me, the foreign wife married to the third son?  But everybody had a part to play in this family event and at that moment, the responsibility fell to me. I climbed into the white van to do my job.

My father-in-law and I could never have imagined making this trip together. Not in our wildest dreams. Not only were we practically strangers to each other, but we came from vastly different worlds, him an elderly Japanese man and me, a thirty-something pregnant French-Canadian. Together we crisscrossed the empty streets in the cold white van, side-by-side, his body wrapped in a shroud on a futon near me. In winter, three am is a dark and deep hour but I was told Otoosan was still here among us, in the realm between two worlds. He had just begun his last pilgrimage. Knowing this, I somewhat felt less forlorn traveling through the winter night, so far away from my country and my own cultural bearings. But that’s beside the point. I had a responsibility to fulfill.

Third Task

The porch light was on, the house already wrapped in black and white stripped cloth swaying in the dark as Otoosan was carried inside his home through the front door. He was laid to rest on a futon in the tatami room, two decorative lanterns like fancy bookends framing his bed. A black-and-white photo of Otoosan looking strong and serious sat in the middle of an altar among candles, chrysanthemums and fruit. In the pale yellow light of the lanterns, we dressed him in his white pilgrim garb for his 49-day journey to the Pure Land, following a hierarchical order. His wife put a white cap on his head and rice in the small pouch hanging from his neck, his sons smoothed out the white coat folded in reverse, and I slid, as best as I could while kneeling on the tatami, white cloth slippers over his feet. This was my third and last task of the night. The wake would start tomorrow. My husband, looking sad and exhausted, said, “We will sleep here next to him. Go home to get some rest.”

Fourth Task

The next day I stepped over the rows of slippers now crowding the spotless entrance step of the family home like a military parade. My mother-in-law, in her formal black silk kimono stamped with the family crest on the back collar, glided between the tatami room and the adjoining kitchen on her blinding white tabi socks. A diminutive powerhouse, married to an eldest son. I looked down at my rather homely nondescript black maternity dress.

For my fourth task, she directed me to take down from the cupboards the fancy sets of dessert dishes and tea cups, wash them thoroughly, dry them rigorously and set them out on the table. “Don’t break anything!” she chided with a smile in her eyes. I also had to wipe clean the large decades-old bone china serving platters and stack them with oranges, the locally-grown fruit. I took a certain pleasure in displaying them in a Jackson Pollock style. One way or the other, I knew they would be rearranged.

Early evening, relatives and acquaintances arrived in black suits and dresses to whisper condolences to my mother-in-law who bowed deeply to each guest. The mourners filled the tatami room, all sitting seiza before Otoosan. Leaning in, they greeted each other quietly.

Suddenly there was a commotion. The priest strode in like the phantom of the opera, his magnificent black kimono robes and glitteringvestment swooshing around him. We snapped to attention, backs straight, holding our Buddhist rosaries between clasped hands.  He greeted us, kneeled in front of Otoosan and started chanting in a loud sonorous voice. I was sitting on a stool in the back. I could never sit seiza and being pregnant did not help my cause.

It seemed like the chanting lasted forever. Just as I started dozing off in the stuffy incense-filled tatami room, my husband began to heave. I realized with horror that he was trying to suppress what looked like a maniacal laugh. Eyes staring ahead, his mouth half-closed, he repeated several times in a strained voice, “Snoopy, look, Snoopy!”. From the ceiling lamp a small plastic Snoopy wearing a red fireman hat was dangling from a string just above the bald head of an old uncle. My husband left the room to bawl in the bathroom. I sat on my stool thinking about the Japanese character in the movie Snow Falling on Cedars, how his stereotyped stoic face had changed his fate.

Fifth Task

After the service I strolled into the kitchen to get a drink. There stood one of the elder female relatives, erect in her black kimono. She had now officially taken over duties while my mother-in-law was busy chatting with the guests. I had met her only once and this time she looked at me with what seemed like shiny panther eyes, ready to pounce. In a flash I was thrown into the deepest end of the hierarchical senior-junior relationship: Cinderella, the wife of the youngest son. Serve more tea! Boil more water! Offer sweets! Wash these dirty cups! I was learning humility on the spot, my only stunned response being a weak Hai! I began shuffling around in my black stockings, looking busy and alarmed, set on doing my duty.   A Mao slogan popped into my head: Serve the People, for I was living a cultural revolution of my own. I just could not imagine this scenario happening in my country.

The wake lasted two more days. People came and went, and we ate our meals together just two meters away from Otoosan. We re-arranged flowers, sat near him and chatted. He was never alone. Some family members talked to him. On the morning of the fourth day, the family lined up from the house to the hearse. Otoosan exited his home feet last to the mournful sound of the car horn. No birds, no wind.

For the ceremony at the large funeral hall, the priest recited the sutras in front of Otoosan’s photo and a magnificent flower display. So many mourners, in slippers, paid their respect with incense and prayers at Otoosan’s casket. Each person brought incense grains three times to their forehead before finally depositing them in the incense burner. After the eldest son gave the customary speech, we lined up in order of importance to receive condolences. I was last of course but wholeheartedly included. “You must be Yoshiro’s wife,” some of Otoosan’s elderly friends exclaimed, naturally mistaking me for the second son’s spouse, the one working abroad. 

We followed the hearse to the crematorium and, huddled together in front of Otoosan, we said goodbye to his earthly envelope before he was sent off for cremation. In the meantime, we all gratefully sat down to a feast of large bento lunchboxes filled with rice balls, potato salad, fried chicken and pickles. Relatives from far and near sat close to my mother-in-law, some lay back on the tatami, some loosened their ties and belts and others had loud conversations over the long low tables. I sat on a stool devouring my food. Pregnancy made me hungry.

Sixth Task

Finally, we were called in to pick Otoosan’s bones from the ashes and transfer them to an urn. As he handed me a pair of large chopsticks, my husband said, “You don’t have to do this”. But I wanted to do it. By that time, I had had four days to acquaint myself with Otoosan and with death while going about my tasks in the living family home. The family put Otoosan’s bones in his urn in a matter-of-fact way. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

On the 7th day of his passing, a sunny winter day, we stood in front of the imposing family grave while the eldest son placed Otoosan’s urn alongside those of his forefathers, under the heavy slab of rock at the foot of the stone monument. Only first sons and their wives are included. It looks like my husband and I will have to find our own resting place in Japan. 

I think my mother-in-law worries that her eldest son’s eldest son will not be able to carry on the tradition of caring for the family grave. He doesn’t have a son to continue the lineage, only daughters. But then again, my mother-in-law stoically goes with the flow of life and change. I was part of this flow. Twenty-three years after Otoosan passed on, she apologised for imposing on me the task of riding with him from the hospital to the family home. On the contrary, it was an honour.

I fulfilled my role as the third son’s wife the best I could to assist the Japanese family mourn Otoosan. On my next trip to the home country, it wouldn’t kill me to brush leaves or snow off the headstones of my loved ones, bring flowers or have a look at their urns through the glass. I might linger and tell them about me, my son, the Japanese family. I also need to discuss my resting place among them. Who knows, maybe my husband and my son will come from Japan to help me.

Glossary

Sieza – formal Japanese sitting posture (on your knees)

Hai—Yes in Japanese.

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Danielle Legault Kurihara, a Quebecker, lives in Japan. She writes about her expat life and her bicultural son. She writes for him.

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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

Pohela Boishakh: A Cultural Fiesta

Sohana Manzoor shares the Bengali New Year celebrations in Bangladesh on April 14th, pausing on the commonality and differences with Poila Baisakh, the Indian version of Pohela Boishakh celebrated in the Eastern part of India

Happy & Prosperous New Year or ‘Shubho Nabobarsho’ in Bengali script

“Shubho Nabobarsho” (happy and prosperous new year) is the traditional greeting for the Bengali new year. The upcoming April 14 will herald the beginning of the Bengali year 1428 in Bangladesh, but in the Indian states of West Bengal, Tripura, Odisha and parts of Assam it will be the 15th of April. In Bangladesh, Pohela Boishakh is one of the biggest occasions of celebration, next to perhaps the two Eids.

Whereas the celebrations of Pohela Boishakh is now a regular thing, its history is somewhat unclear. According to most historians, the Bengali year or Bangabda was introduced by the Mughal Emperor Akbar. In those days, agricultural taxes were collected according to the Hijri Calendar. But then the Hijri calendar is a lunar calendar and naturally, it did not coincide with the agricultural year. The tax collecting time was not a time when the peasants and farmers could pay the taxes. It only added to the confusion of the people who tilled the land in various capacities. To streamline the tax collection, Akbar ordered a reformation of the calendar. As a result, in 1584 Bangabda was born. But the year started from 963, the Hijri year it was modeled on. According to some historians, however, it was adopted by another Muslim ruler called Hussain Shah of Bengal. There is yet another group that alludes to Shashanka, a seventh-century King of Bengal, for inventing Bangabda. It is quite possible that it existed before Akbar’s time and the Mughal Emperor reinvented it with the help of his royal astronomer and other pundits of his court.

An interesting aspect of Bangabda is that the names of the months were different in those times. The story of how the months of Farwardin, Urdibahish and Khordad became Baishakh, Jyoshthyha and Ashar is lost to us. But we do know that just as he had helped in modernizing the Bengali language, Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah helped in modernizing the Bengali year. Partially accepting his reformative suggestions, the Bangla Academy saw that the first six months had thirty-one days each and the last six, thirty. Hence there is no further confusion about which day of the Gregorian calendar Pohela Boishakh coincides with. In Bangladesh, it is always 14 April. But in West Bengal and other parts of India, it can be either 14 or 15 of April.

When the Bengali new year was first introduced, the most important activities on the first day of the year involved halkhata, opening of a new book for zamindars who would treat their tenants with sweets. On the last day of the old year, there would be Chaitra Sankranti, a day celebrating the end of the year. Actually, in rural areas, this day was more colourful than Pohela Baishakh. Charak Puja, a Hindu festival honouring the god Shiva is central to this celebration. The actual puja used to take place on the midnight of Chaitra Sankranti, and it was a very special kind of ritual and not too many people even know about it anymore. The preparation would start a month ahead of the actual puja and a total of twelve devotees would take part in it. There would be different kinds of festivities through the day, and snacks like puffed rice, ground gram called chhatu,  dry sugary sweets like khoi, murki, batasha, kodma, and many varieties of leafy vegetables would be available. In today’s Bangladeshi scenario, Chaitra Sankranti has almost disappeared except in some distant villages. Only lately, some initiatives are being taken in Dhaka to reintroduce the fair, even though it looks like any other fair and very different from the original Chaitra Sankranti.

With urbanization, the more secular Pohela Boishakh became popular. However, some elements from Chaitra Sankranti have been integrated in Baishakhi celebration. For example, there are fairs that still showcase puffed rice, khoi, murki, batasha and kodma. There are products made by rural artisans. Performances on musical instruments like ektara, dotara and dhol by rural artists are show cased. Riding the nagardola (a mini and wooden version of the Ferris wheel, reminiscence of the charak) is a central attraction of the fair.

It is impossible to conceive of any Bengali festival without food. The first food item that comes to mind regarding Pohela Baishakh, is hilsa fish. Different preparations of mouth-watering taste are prepared with hilsa. Then there are panta bhat (fermented rice) with green chili, all kinds of bhartas (mashes) starting with potatoes to tomatoes, sweet pumpkins, lentils, beans, shrimps and different types of fish, chutneys, shutki (bitters), authentic Bengali sweets, savoury snacks like fuchka, chotpoti and even traditional ice-creams, kulfi. Bigger cities find fairs and programmes in almost every locality.

Chhayanaut, an institution devoted to the propagation of Bengali culture, started celebrating the Bengali Nababarsha under the Ramna Botomul (a historic banyan tree) in 1967. Since the Liberation War of 1971, Pohela Boishakh has grown into a national festival for all Bangladeshis irrespective of religions. In Dhaka, the Pohela Boishakh procession begins from the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka. The students start taking preparation for the procession from days ahead. They make masks and banners and wear elaborate costumes. This is known as the festive Mangal Shobhajatra, translated procession showcasing good fortune. In 2016, this festivity organized by the Faculty of Fine Arts was listed as UNESCO cultural heritage. Specific roads around Dhaka city are decorated with white and red alpanas, elaborate designs made with rice flour mixed with water.

At the break of dawn on Pohela Boishakh, people gather at the Ramna batamul festival ground. The day starts with singing the famous Tagore song, “Esho he Boishakh*” along with many others. The whole day is spent in celebration. Radios and TV channels air special programs on the day too. People dressed in white and red and other colourful attire flock around the city. It is also observed as a national holiday and a fun-day for everybody.

Sohana Manzoor is an Associate Professor of English at ULAB. She is also the Literary Editor of The Daily Star.

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Slices from Life

Moving from the Podium to the Helm

By Meredith Stephens

For many years my preferred pastimes had been reading, writing, drinking coffee and avoiding exercise. Admittedly, I did cycle to and from work and between my office and classrooms and I had a weight routine that consisted of carrying books up and down stairs. I was proud of having built my exercise routine into my daily movements rather than having to go out of my way to get fit.

It was February and the Japanese winter was dragging on. My office faced north, and it was already dark even though it was early evening. I had a sudden desire to return to Australia earlier than planned to catch the end of the summer and be reunited with my adult children, Emilia and Annika. I made a quick call to the office to let them know of my plans, and then logged on to the airlines and brought my flight forward a week. Little did I know I would continue in Australia not only that summer but also the following summer.

I found myself arriving in Adelaide shortly before the outbreak of a global pandemic and the closing of international borders. I landed bedraggled after my eighteen-hour journey. I descended the escalators to the carousel and waited for my baggage. A short wiry man was staring at me from the other side of the carousel. I averted my gaze, but he walked towards me and stood squarely in front of me. I met his eyes and stared at him for thirty seconds. Gradually, I saw the face of the teenager he once was.

“Are you Alec?” I probed.

I hadn’t seen Alec for twenty years or so since my undergraduate days. His piercing pale blue eyes were unchanged, but his mop of shoulder-length dark curly hair had turned grey and was now neatly trimmed.

“Yes, Meredith,” he acknowledged.

He told me that he had just returned from the UK where he worked as a merchant banker, and that he escaped the northern winter each year to the sail in the Australian summer. We exchanged news about our life events over the past twenty years. I looked up and noticed the other passengers had vanished, and there were only two suitcases moving around on the carousel.

“Let’s catch up again while you are here. Can I have your number?” Alec asked.

I gave him my number and exited the terminal. The sunlight was blinding, and I pushed my suitcases to the kerb and waited until my daughter Emilia drove past to pick me up.

A few days later, Alec sent me an email inviting me to a cafe in Norwood. He picked me up in his dark green Nissan Pathfinder and drove us there.

“I used to have a crush on you at university,” he confided as we exited the car and walked towards the cafe. I was taken aback. Alec had always been so focused on his studies and I could not imagine that he would ever have been interested in anything other than academic topics. I continued feeling stunned by this admission and looked away. I had always admired his quick questioning mind, not to mention his dark curly hair and pale blue eyes, but I said nothing.

Since leaving university Alec had taken up sailing, and he even preferred the sea to the land. He invited me, Emilia, and Annika to sail with him and his sister Verity to Kangaroo Island, south of Adelaide. We eagerly accepted, and soon we found ourselves on his boat heading to the island. Emilia and Annika position themselves at the front of the boat.

Alec liked to keep his use of diesel on the boat to a minimum. Once out at sea, he set the sails and turned off the engine. I was not sure how to help him with the sails, but I did my best to loosen the rope in the winch as he called out instructions to me above the sound of the wind.

Alec had carefully planned the menus for the trip. Because of the panic-buying of milk in the supermarket, there was no cow milk left and he had bought goat milk. He made an espresso coffee for me. I had never had coffee with goat milk before but it was tasty.

Emilia and Annika remained at the front of the boat, and soon Alec summoned his voice to penetrate through the wind to pronounce ‘Dolphins!’ Soon the girls spotted a school of dolphins accompanying us at the front of the boat.

As we sailed along the north coast of Kangaroo Island we passed Smith Bay. Alec informed me that there was a plan to develop a port there. He mentioned that pine forests had been established twenty years ago even though there was no way of getting the wood off the island. The proposed port would provide a means of exporting wood chips. Alec was opposed to this plan because of the threat to the local marine ecosystem, not to mention the dolphins.

We continued west to Dashwood Bay where we anchored for the night. I slumbered peacefully in my cabin as it gently rocked from side to side. Alec had promised to take Emilia and Annika to snorkel with dolphins in the bay. In the morning I was woken by the light penetrating through the cabin window. Alec ushered Verity, Emilia, and Annika on to the dinghy, and took them to the shore.

I remained on board, content to enjoy snorkeling vicariously. I did not miss out, because as I sat at the stern the surface of the water was broken by splashes when dolphins passed by. Finally, the party returned and Alec set sail for the mainland. We farewelled a landscape devoid of human activity apart from a single homestead and a single car parked on the beach.

Alec and I shared the helm for a while but he was feeling tired from the morning snorkeling so I took over. I didn’t expect it would be so cold in the middle of summer, and my left hand slowly became numb. I scanned the horizon for small fishing boats which may not have satellite systems to notify them of our presence. I imagined being distracted for a moment and colliding with one of them. Alec noticed how tense I was and relieved me of my duty. I returned to my cabin and enjoyed the bouncing motion as we crossed the waves of Investigator Strait at a ninety-degree angle on our beam.

It took a pandemic to force me away from my lifestyle of cycling to work and ascending and descending stairs many times a day carrying books. Border closures led to a sequence of events in which I found myself sailing for the first time in my life. I caught the look of wonder in Annika’s eyes and thought we might be dreaming. I closed my eyes and imagined myself once again working in Japan. However, when I opened my eyes we were still on the boat. The pandemic had brought about a revolution in my lifestyle, but one of the few continuities was that my pastimes continued to be reading, writing, and drinking coffee. Even if it was with goat milk.

Meredith Stephens is an applied linguist in Japan. Her work has appeared in Transnational Literature, The Blue Nib, The Font – A Literary Journal for Language Teachers, The Journal of Literature in Language Teaching, The Writers’ and Readers’ MagazineReading in a Foreign Languageand in chapters in anthologies published by Demeter Press, Canada.

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Slices from Life

Who’s the Dummy?

By Will Nuessle

           

“That within you that draws breath is where the music is.” Elena Gillespie


One thing I had not counted on when I signed up to coach new fathers were the numerous and seemingly constant hoops one has to jump through to have a job, even a part-time one, in healthcare. This week’s Cavalcade of Whimsy was my assigned and nearly overdue Advanced Life Support recertification training. You know — what they used to call CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation).

I mean, come on, besides watching two children, running a small business and writing a novel, what else did I have going on?

With some difficulty (ever tried passing a timed multiple-choice test whilst keeping a four-year-old from dumping water over the head of his two-year-old brother?), I managed to complete the online portion of the training, so it was just the on-site, iPod led, mannikin thumping portion awaiting me.

Lucky for me — I hoped — the on-site, iPod led, mannikin thumping training room would be available for the said thumping twenty-four/seven/fifty-two.

(Huh? Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year. I know that’s not the common way to say it, but my way involves a cleaner progression; hours/days/weeks rather than hours/days/days. Plus, the other way leaves out every-four-years February 29th completely. It’s time we changed that.)

When I woke up at 2:33 this morning and gave up trying to get back to sleep at 3:33 a.m., since everybody else was zonked out, there was nothing keeping me from slipping out of the house and driving in the freezing cold to the hospital and finding the Official Thumping Room.

Come with me on the magical mannikin journey, won’t you?

Around 4:10 A.M. I woke up the iPod at the First Mannikin Station; I watched the instructional video. I started the timed session and began compressing a plastic dummy. Took me a couple of tries to figure out the iPod screen was showing me where my compressions were going wrong, but I was a smart if exhausted cookie and I got it sorted. I need an 84 to pass the test, and I keep getting 74s and 78s and 80s.

Until my last attempt at that particular station, which I did not even bother to finish, as something had gone wrong. The 3×3 square readout that told me if I was too shallow or too deep on the up-down part and too slow or too fast on the left-right part was pegged up at the top; no matter how hard or deeply I shoved my hands into that plastic chest, it said my compression technique was off-the-charts shallow.

That’s fine. It was only 4:23 A.M. in the morning; nobody else was using the room. I would just disconnect from the station I was using and move over to the another.

Unfortunately, the adult dummy at the other station could not be connected to the iPod’s Bluetooth no matter what I tried.

That was fine. It was only 4:27 A.M. in the morning; nobody else was using the room. I would just change the station again.

And lo, dear readers, did the humble Daddy Boot Camp coach and father of three finally manage to complete the first of six certification techniques at the third station after only twenty minutes of thumping effort? Justifiably proud of myself, I started the second module, with the bag and the air into the plastic dummy’s mouth.

Except that the bag-breathing readout did not seem to be functioning. Could have been an user error; eight hours’ sleep in two days did not speak well for me — but no matter what I did, no bag breathing showed up on the readout.

That’s fine. It was only 4:35 A.M. in the morning; nobody else was using the room. I would just move over to the final station, possibly said a couple of bad things under my breath.

God be praised — this mannikin had a working respiratory system. And once I figured out all the instructions and offered the life-saving breath every 5-6 seconds instead of pumping the poor guy like I was trying to inflate a bicycle tyre, I passed the second of six modules after only thirty minutes of overall effort. Basic understanding of statistical analysis told me I would be done in another ninety minutes or so.

The third adult module put the first two together in an unholy concoction; thirty compressions that needed to go in that little green square indicating they’re not too fast, slow, hard or soft and then three breaths from the bag.

The bag, the same one from the previous successful test, mind you, from which I would sometimes get a ‘nothing happened’ reading and sometimes get a ‘you just blew this guy’s lungs apart’ reading despite applying, I swear to you, exactly the same amount of pressure every single time.

I needed an 84 to pass. I had been in this room for what felt like hours. I got a 78. I adjusted my technique and tried again. 74. I watch the instructional video again. I didn’t even finish the next attempt after two ‘lung bursting’ mistakes. I took a couple of deep breaths and tried again. 80. I stepped away from the station, did a couple of laps around the tiny room, and tried again.

 

And…I…lost it. I cursed that lifeless ALS Certification dummy, I cursed the factory that made him and for good measure I cursed the Red Cross founder, Clara Barton.

After I got it all out of my system, I did arguably the only smart thing I could claim in the past couple of hours; I abandoned that particular module and turned over to the infant tests. Passed the compression test on Junior in my second try; had similar ‘not enough’ vs ‘kid’s head just exploded’ bag squeezing problems but managed to overcome them, and the little baby dummy lived to see another plastic day.

It was after 5 A.M. in the morning. Just that one test remained. I don’t mind saying I prayed for grace and (the appropriate amount of) strength. I only sort-of mind admitting that I actually asked the plastic ALS Certification dummy out-loud to be nice to me; promising that if he would just give me a break on this once, I would go away and leave him in peace.

And I started the blessed Compression/Ventilation Certification test once more time.

     

First person to tell me that B stands for ‘Barely Passing’ will get a free sample of my recertified Chest Compression skills.

I turned off the equipment and grabbed my jacket. It was only as I was leaving the Mannikin Thumping room that I realised.

The room is located in the Birthing Recovery wing with beds sporting recently delivered mothers and fathers and newborns on either side.

It wouldn’t have kept me from my angry fit, knowing that — I would’ve tried to lower the volume.

Nobody banged on the wall or called the nurses’ station at least.

Meanwhile, it was 6:38 A.M.; I would really try and get some sleep.

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Will Nuessle is a primary caregiver (two male homo-sapiens), a small business owner, and novelist who claims he can recite the alphabet backwards in less than ten second. He blogs at thestorysofar650777992.wordpress.com or search Will Nuessle on Amazon.com; print, digital and read-by-the-author audiobooks available in a variety of flavors)

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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.

Categories
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

Categories
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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