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

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

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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.

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Slices from Life

Me and James Joyce in Trieste

By Mike Smith

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

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

Umberto Saba’s statue at Trieste

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Categories
Nostalgia Slices from Life

Lounging through Lucknow Lore

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

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

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


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

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

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

In Lucknow, boundaries were blurred.

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

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

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

In Lucknow, everyone had a poetic tongue.  

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

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

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

The Nawaabs of Lucknow 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things change, places do too

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

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

Khwab tha shayad!

Maybe it was a dream

Khwab hi hoga! 

It must have been a dream

Sarhad par kal raat, suna hai, chali thi goli

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

Sarhad par kal raat, suna hai

Have heard that last night across the border

Kuchh khwaabon ka khoon hua hai

Some dreams have been murdered.

-Gulzaar Sa’ab

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

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

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

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Nostalgia Slices from Life

The Corridors of the Mind

By Anasuya Bhar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anasuya And her Baba

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

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

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Slices from Life

Singapore’s Secret Recipe

By Aysha Baqir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food brings people together.

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

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

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

Happy National Day, Singapore.

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

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

Categories
Humour Slices from Life

Bugs of Life

By Sohana Manzoor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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