Categories
Editorial

Will Monalisa Smile Again?

The first month of 2023 has been one of the most exciting! Our first book, Monalisa No Longer Smiles: An Anthology of Writings from across the World, is now in multiple bookstores in India (including Midlands and Om Bookstores). It has also had multiple launches in Delhi and been part of a festival.

We, Meenakshi Malhotra and I, were privileged to be together at the physical book events. We met the editor in chief of Om Books International, Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri, the editor of our anthology, Jyotsna Mehta, along with two translators and writers I most admire, Aruna Chakravarti and Radha Chakravarty, who also graced a panel discussion on the anthology during our physical book launch. The earlier e-book launch had been in November 2022. My heartfelt thanks to the two eminent translators and Chaudhuri for being part of the discussions at both these launches. Chaudhuri was also in the panel along with Debraj Mookerjee at a launch organised by Malhotra and the English Literary Society steered by Nabaneeta Choudhury at Hans Raj College, Delhi University. An energising, interactive session with students and faculty where we discussed traditional and online publishing, we are immensely grateful to Malhotra for actively organising the event and to the Pandies’ founder, Sanjay Kumar, for joining us for the discussion. It was wonderful to interact with young minds. On the same day, an online discussion on the poetry in Monalisa No Longer Smiles was released by the Pragati Vichar Literary Festival (PVLF) in Delhi.

At the PVLF session, I met an interesting contemporary diplomat cum poet, Abhay K. He has translated Kalidasa’s Meghaduta and the Ritusamhara from Sanskrit and then written a long poem based on these, called Monsoon. We are hosting a conversation with him and are carrying book excerpts from Monsoon, a poem that is part of the curriculum in Harvard. The other book excerpt is from Sanjay Kumar’s Performing, Teaching and Writing Theatre: Exploring Play, a book that has just been published by the Cambridge University Press.

Perhaps because it is nearing the Republic Day of India, we seem to have a flurry of book reviews that reflect the Sub-continental struggle for Independence from the colonials. Somdatta Mandal has reviewed Priya Hajela’s Ladies Tailor: A novel, a book that takes us back to the trauma of the Partition that killed nearly 200,000 to 2 million people – the counts are uncertain. Bhaskar Parichha has discussed MA Sreenivasan’s Of the Raj, Maharajas and Me, a biography of a long serving official in the Raj era — two different perspectives of the same period. Rakhi Dalal has shared her views on Shrinivas Vaidya’s A Handful of Sesame, translated from Kannada by Maithreyi Karnoor, a book that dwells on an immigrant to the Southern part of India in the same time period. The legendary film writer K.A. Abbas’s Sone Chandi Ke Buth: Writings on Cinema, translated and edited by Syeda Hameed and Sukhpreet Kahlon, has been praised by Gracy Samjetsabam.

We have a piece on mental health in cinema by Chaudhuri, an excellent essay written after interviewing specialists in the field. Ratnottama Sengupta has given us a vibrant piece on Suhas Roy, an artist who overrides the bounds of East and West to create art that touches the heart. Candice Louisa Daquin has written on border controls and migrants in America. High profile immigrants have also been the subject of Farouk Gulsara’s ‘What do Freddy Mercury, Rishi Sunak & Mississipi Masala have in Common?’ Sengupta also writes of her immigrant family, including her father, eminent writer, Nabendu Ghosh, who moved from Bengal during the Partition. There are a number of travel pieces across the world by Ravi Shankar, Meredith Stephens and Mike Smith — each written in distinctively different styles and exploring different areas on our beautiful Earth. Sarpreet Kaur has revisited the devastation of the 2004 tsunami and wonders if it is a backlash from nature. Could it be really that?

Suzanne Kamata gives us a glimpse of the education system in Japan in her column with a humorous overtone. Devraj Singh Kalsi dwells on the need for nostalgia with a tongue-in-cheek approach. Rhys Hughes makes us rollick with laughter when he talks of his trip to Kerala and yet there is no derision, perhaps, even a sense of admiration in the tone. Hughes poetry also revels in humour. We have wonderful poetry from Jared Carter, Ranu Uniyal, Asad Latif, Anaya Sarkar, Michael R Burch, Scott Thomas Outlar, Priyanka Panwar, George Freek and many more.

The flavours of cultures is enhanced by the translation of Nazrul’s inspirational poetry by Professor Fakrul Alam, Korean poetry written and translated by Ihlwha Choi and a transcreation of Tagore’s poem Banshi (or flute) which explores the theme of inspiration and the muse. We have a story by S Ramakrishnan translated from Tamil by R Sathish. The short stories featured at the start of this year startle with their content. Salini Vineeth writes a story set in the future and Paul Mirabile tells the gripping poignant tale of a strange child.

With these and more, we welcome you to savour the January 2023 edition of Borderless, which has been delayed a bit as we were busy with the book events for our first anthology. I am truly grateful to all those who arranged the discussions and hosted us, especially Ruchika Khanna, Om Books International, the English Literary Society of Hans Raj College and to the attendees of the event. My heartfelt thanks to the indefatigable team and our wonderful writers, artists and readers, without who this journey would have remained incomplete. Special thanks to Sohana Manzoor for her artwork. Many thanks to the readers of Borderless Journal and Monalisa No Longer Smiles. I hope you will find the book to your liking. We have made a special page for all comments and reviews.

I wish you a wonderful 2023. Let us make a New Year’s wish —

May all wars and conflicts end so that our iconic Monalisa can start smiling again!

Mitali Chakravarty,

borderlessjournal.com

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Photographs of events around Monalisa No Longer Smiles: An Anthology of Writings from across the World. Click here to access the Book.

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Insta Link to an excerpt of the launch at Om Bookstore. Click here to view.

E-Launch of the first anthology of Borderless Journal, November 14th 2022. Click here to view.

Categories
Poetry

Two Sonnets by Asad Latif

Courtesy: Creative Commons
AN INDIA LIKE YOU
For Alma

Footprints in the dust on a Delhi street,
Or Singapore or Washington DC,
The siren world stays faithful at your feet,
But you find her wherever you might be.
And India, too. Tightly, she holds you:
"Never leave me, child. I've nowhere to go."
"I've left?" Alma says. "Indias are too few
to be born in, to see the world, and know.
I'm as Indian as you, India.
It is you, my Bhuvanamohini,
O land of immortals who lie too near
for unlit lamps to show the way to me.
Get a life of your own, female country. 
You've been Bharat always. Now, Bharati."


A TOY FOR YOU
For Ahaan

I've brought a toy for you Master Ahaan.
It's so large I can't get it through the door.
Come out and take a look, my sweet insaan
And it will remain just yours evermore.
"This map is blank," you say. "Nothing to see."
Fill it up with the colours of your mind,
With a river that runs through drought, a tree
Still standing, a spot where the sun can find
A freezing child, a school for girls to grow,
Indias made of laughter and of joy,
Harvests for outstretched hands to overflow
For all time to come. This map is your toy.
Al-Hind is your Āsthā, Bharat's Imân:
Do bigha zameen. Ek mutthi asmaan.


Glossary:
Bhuvanamohini: Charmer of the world
insaan: human being
Āsthā is the Sanskrit, and Imân the Arabic,  for faith
Do bigha zameen. Ek mutthi asmaan: Two acres of land. A fistful of sky

Asad Latif is a Singapore-based journalist. He can be contacted at badiarghat@gmail.com.

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

Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

Categories
Musings of a Copywriter

Strumming Me Softly with His Guitar…

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

Strumming a guitar promises a note of success and a rush of adrenalin. Otherwise, there is no reason for young men with brawny biceps attired in sleeveless vests to sit beside the grilled window with creeping money plants on the balcony to invest their time and energy to impress the girl next door. Instead of handsome returns, the well-orchestrated operation often draws the unwarranted attention of the girl’s bifocal father who sniffs an ulterior motive while speed-reading the nasty headlines of the newspaper in hand and patrolling the antiskid balcony space in visible anxiety to crack a strategy to foil the covert takeover bid before his innocent girl slips for the nerd rock star.

Despite the long-drawn, dedicated mission of playing popular romantic numbers to woo the girl, my dear friend did not have any stroke of luck. But the girl’s father did suffer an unexpected stroke, leading to the untimely demise of the romantic misadventure. Assailed by the remorse of having stressed out the old fogey with his musical renditions and clandestine romantic intentions, he decided to punish himself by hanging the guitar on the wall. 

Years later, the girl’s mother visited my friend’s house one evening. That she was up to some mischief became evident when she disclosed to my friend’s bride how he played music for her teenage daughter every morning before she left for school. All hell broke loose when he returned home from the tailoring shop to face an angry spouse who picked up the guitar from the wall as if it were a royal sword and presented it to him with a solemn request to strum it and croon something for her. He tried to duck it by saying he had made a vow, a gentleman’s promise to abstain from playing music again. But she spilt the beans, charging him with how desperately and unsuccessfully he once tried to lure the neighbour’s daughter with his musical foray.   

Shocked by this disclosure, he found no escape route from the mess. He had to either recapitulate the long story long forgotten from his point of view or play the instrument and let his wife be instrumental in reviving his defunct musical career. Instead of denying what his wife accused him of doing many moons ago, he added a divine dimension as he decided that musical pursuit could be  another way of attaining God. The fact that he chose the wrong instrument for that purpose was not pointed out by his wife. She was eager to see him perform live and exclusively for her – in front of her smouldering kohl-lined eyes dying to blink in symphony with his heartbeat. She sat on the cushioned swing suspended from the balcony ceiling, with her long, lustrous hair thrown open, with a blooming pink rose plucked from the painted pot kept nearby and tucked neatly in her straightened tresses. He dithered and fine-tuned the guitar and then decided to select a few lilting numbers from his vast repertoire to play for her in the incandescent light of the paper lantern bulbs setting the romantic mood for the musical soiree.  

The story of this guitar began in Delhi when my friend accompanied me on what is called a business cum pleasure trip. Reaching the capital from Kolkata was a historic visit for my friend who was keen to pose in front of the Red Fort and go on a shopping spree in Connaught Place (CP). While walking on the CP pavement, similar to the Grand Hotel Arcade in design, my friend suddenly entered a music instruments store and quoted an incredible budget for an imported guitar. The bewildered shop owner remained quiet and scanned him for a while before asking him the difference between boiled rice and basmati rice. Taking it as an affront to his dignity and knowledge about the price of musical instruments, he shot back in accented Hindi with a quick reply to salvage his self-respect by claiming that his Ustad had taught many Indian classical legends and he knew several of them personally in Kolkata. 

Many other customers inside the store began to label us as pretentious ignoramuses from another planet. The smart-alecky shopkeeper asked us to identify the portraits on the upper portion of the wall right behind his counter. They were the leading lights who patronised his shop to buy instruments and agreed to get clicked with the owners of the music store that had been in existence for more than a century. My friend cast a quick look but failed to recognise any of them. So, the shopkeeper schooled us further by conducting a master class.

We had to either buy the guitar we had asked for or disappear from the store. I took small steps and reached the exit when I heard my friend holler in a stentorian voice: “Pack this guitar for me. Here — take the money.”

The price was well beyond his budget, but he saved our image and came out of the store with the guitar and a cash memo in hand. It was evident from the facial expression he had picked up a costly instrument he was not ready to buy. But the joy of silencing the shopkeeper and mellowing his tenor was a resounding victory, and he claimed he did not argue much regarding music since he respected elders. But an hour later, when he again felt pricked by this expenditure, he exploded in a language devoid of an iota of respect and issued threats of teaching that bald, grinning shopkeeper a proper lesson had this incident occurred in Bengal. The remarkable story of saving dignity became the dominant aspect of purchasing this guitar. I felt he had risen to the occasion though he had to cancel plans for his shopping spree as his money had gone into this guitar. 

He sat with the guitar and posed with fake smiles for my camera to capture. He did not appear comfortable holding it in his hands and passed it to me after a while. I found it a huge responsibility and took extra care of the guitar as we were proudly taking home something pricey. It was nothing less than a trophy won in a tough competition.

This imported guitar regaled many local listeners – including my friend’s wife at present. She had no idea that how her husband had acquired the prized beauty, saved our self-respect, and preserved the prestige of our state known for culture and music by shelling out an enormous amount to grab something rare that few people in our country can afford even today. Although his father never cut anything other than a piece of cloth, he had big dreams of cutting a music album someday, of inviting the Delhi-based shopkeeper to his launch event as the chief guest for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. This would prove that those from a non-privileged background also had the right to contribute to the enrichment of music was music to his ears.     

After returning home, my friend toyed with the idea of forming a music band, got his ears pierced to wear rings to connect with trendy youth, and offered to engage my services as a lyricist. Within the year, even before I could take a call on this offer, the band he had formed with much fanfare was disbanded due to the sudden exit of the lead vocalist poached by a more resourceful rival music band. He soon realized though he was getting offers to perform in local community functions with a limited budget, it was impossible to sustain this ambitious musical venture. Soon, he joined his father’s tailoring unit and restricted his role as a musician to woo the girl he loved. But some people, like my dear friend, are perhaps naturally attracted to failures and their dreams suffer from a chronic motivational deficiency syndrome that leads them to quit at the earliest pretext.

When his mother pressurised him to settle down as he pushed into his mid-thirties, her history of myocardial infarction made him agree to her proposal. And that is how the lady who was now making him sing live for her breezed into his life. In one of her disclosures after marriage, she revealed to my friend that she had agreed to marry him only because she had seen his photograph where he was strumming a guitar. The direct benefit she expected would be the opportunity to listen to his music after a tiring day in the kitchen. But she hesitated to make it explicit so long as her father-in-law was alive. The arrival of the mother of his lost love simplified the matter for her. 

After listening to his live performance for half an hour, she gave her verdict and a standing ovation with thunderous applause. She regretted such a talent could not deliver anything substantial. Even if half of her praise was a pure exaggeration for her doting husband, there were traces of truth in her observation. When she threatened to leave him forever if he did not resume his journey as a guitarist, he agreed to reconsider his earlier decision to give up music for the sake of his lost love. While this was her loving way to resurrect the failed artist and get him back on track, music had the power to make him a divorcee. The prospect of stitching together his life once again looked remote. So, he succumbed to her demands by resuming his practice sessions on the balcony. Unlike the earlier occasion when he sat on the windowsill and performed for the girl outside the house, this musical foray was for the kitchen queen regaling herself with Bollywood numbers and soothing her frayed nerves with the fragrance of tuberoses he brought home for the bedroom vase every evening.  

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Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short stories and essays have been published in Deccan Herald, Tehelka, Kitaab, Earthen Lamp Journal, Assam Tribune, and The Statesman. Pal Motors is his first novel.  


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

Categories
Poetry

Poetry By Sutputra Radheye

Painting by Vincent Van Gogh(!853-1890). Courtesy: Creative Commons
(1)

the stargazing
the dinner dates
and the sleepovers can wait
it’s time to sleep
on the streets 
eating with your comrades
and resisting the bills



(2)

the blank wall
convinces me of my failure
to draw a graffiti
that will show solidarity
with the ants
trying to climb the wall
and the palaces of the rich
to dismantle their wealth


(3)

If you are searching for Rashid

Stop looking


Rashid is dead
Killed by a mob
His house 
           Bulldozed

Assam
UP
Delhi
Kashmir
He ran from every place

His name was his crime
And that’s what has been said

So, if you are searching for Rashid
Stop looking


(4)

cacophonies of the cradled heart
scared of silence, scared of sound
in a liminal space, i somehow exist
where fire threatens to catch me
from both the sides

I run. I run. I run. To the farthest
in the land I can see and yet the fire
somehow runs way faster than me.
“coward” they all call me
only I know to be me how brave one
needs to be

the wars on my body have deserted
the skin of any beauty that spring
brought upon me and the noise
of those jets flying like birds
have deafened the eardrums
of any music it held 

I seek no home, just a place
to rest in peace while I breathe

Sutputra Radheye is a young poet from India. He has published two poetry collections — Worshipping Bodies (Notion Press) and Inqalaab on the Walls (Delhi Poetry Slam)His works are reflective of the society he lives in and tries to capture the marginalised side of the story.

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

Categories
pandies' corner

Children of the Nithari: Dhaani

Written in Hindustani and translated to English by Kiran Mishra

Kiran Mishra is 22 years old. She was just 7 when she started coming for pandies’ workshops immediately after the Nithari pogrom. A fabulous performer in all senses of the word she has been in all Saksham productions with pandies’, including a lead role in the performance at The American Center, Delhi. She has done her MA in political science. Aspiring to be a teacher, she is currently doing her B.Ed. She also has a senior diploma in Bharatnatyam dance. Central to the teaching programme at Saksham, she started teaching there after high school and currently she is both a teacher and the Co-ordinator at Saksham. She says, “I love to teach these kids specially those who want to get educated but are unable to because of different reasons. I think when we teach one kid, we teach one whole generation.”

Dhaani

I had come to Kota, Rajasthan for some company work but suddenly I had to leave for Delhi for an urgent meeting in office. Train tickets were not available and so I decided to take the inter-state bus to Delhi.

A small box like ticket house had been constructed at the bus stand from where I bought the ticket and boarded the bus to Delhi. The bus was full, people had left their belongings on the seats and not even one seat was without something on it. The next bus was at 4 am, too late. So, I knew there was no choice but to take this one, the last one that night. I entered the driver’s cabin thinking I will ask him where the earliest seat would get vacant. I was surprised that the seat next to the conductor was empty, nobody had noticed it. I quickly occupied that seat.

Settling I realised that the condition of the bus was bad, really bad. But well, I had no choice. Soon the driver started blowing the horn to indicate the bus was ready to leave. Hearing that people rushed to occupy their seats. The bus started moving. It sounded like a bronchitis patient. A girl aged 24-25 came and stood beside me. I started to ignore her, thinking I might be asked to give my seat to her as she was a woman. And as a man, it was only courteous to offer my seat. Without looking at her I could feel her staring at me, she kept doing that for a while and slowly she said, “This seat is mine.” I finally turned to her and raised my head and saw that her face was covered with a dupatta. She repeated, “This seat is mine.”

The bus was moving at a hesitant speed. I kept looking at her, the dupatta slipped a bit and half her face became visible. I could see she was beautiful. Though only her nose and lips were visible, I could estimate her beauty. I was still staring trying to estimate her face when she repeated that that was her seat.

“Now I can’t see how it is your seat when I am sitting in it”? I retorted finally. She continued in a very polite and sweet voice, “Yes this seat is mine since I kept a handkerchief on it and went to the washroom.”

I looked carefully at the seat, and yes there was a hanky, a white hanky, lurking in the corner. Irritated but conceding her point, I took a long breath and stood up to give her the seat. It felt like she grabbed my arm and then she said, “Hey, why are you getting up? Just shift a little and we can both sit together, any way there is no vacant seat in the bus.” And with that, she sat down next to me. I felt slightly embarrassed at the closeness, but she was seated quite comfortably.

The bus was moving slowly, as if protecting itself from the big potholes on the road.

It was November, and the chilly wind was blowing through the broken glass window. But the touch of her body started to thrill me to the core of my being. We sat on the single seat, clinging together lest we fall off the seat. I felt we were merging together. Her dupatta was raised more now, and I could see her whole face. This is what they call an “apsara[1]”. She was unbelievably beautiful, her nose, her eyes and her lips were like rose petals and the teeth like pearls between. Travel with such a beautiful girl was double fun and there I had been cursing the ride and the bus.

Every road bump would propel us in the air and then we would land almost on top of each other. A couple of times we almost fell off but in a second, she would be sitting, fully composed as if nothing had happened. Looking at me, she enquired, “Are you uncomfortable? Are you experiencing any trouble?”

“No, no, not at all,” I said reassuring. She started looking straight into my eyes and asked: “I think you have not recognised me”.

Now it was my turn to be surprised. I looked at her carefully. Her face clicked somewhere. And I was wondering where I had seen this face. She said in a very soft tone, “You have forgotten me.”

She said this in a way that I felt heartbroken and kept staring at her and thinking for some time but could not remember her. Avoiding her, I looked at my wristwatch. It was 10 pm, an hour since we started. She had turned the other way. Angry and upset at my not giving an answer? She was looking outside, and my mind was all in a mess.

Suddenly a word jumped into my mind: “Dhaani.”

I suddenly blurted out: “Dhaani?”

As soon as I said that the glow returned to her face, her eyes were happy, and a beautiful smile floated on her lips. “Too late,” she said, “But at least you have recognised me.”

“Hey, how are you here Dhaani?” I asked.

“Just understand,” she said, “I have come here to this bus only to meet you.”

“So, you have learnt how to joke too,” I remarked. “I still remember how you would get irritated over small things.” She looked at me with imploring eyes. Her eyes were raising questions and the four years she was in my life came across me.

This is about the time I was staying in Delhi to study. I needed money. So, along with studying, I wanted to give tuitions. A friend, who did tuitions, gave me her address and asked me to go to her home. I met Dhaani the first time there. I was giving tuitions to her younger brother in the 8th grade. Both her parents were working and she had done her graduation and was preparing to study further. There was a servant, but he was usually missing. Three of us would be in the house and Dhaani would give me tea and sometimes some breakfast. We became friends and I advised her with her preparations too. I did not realise when Dhaani fell in love with me. Dhaani was not her real name but she wanted me to call her that. Things were going fine but then something happened, and we could not meet again.

Dhaani was from a Rajasthani family. And one day, her maternal uncle arranged a marriage proposal for her and I too reached at the same time. Her family members were talking among themselves, so I went to another room and started teaching her brother. After a while, I was feeling thirsty. As usual I called out to Dhaani by name, and asked her for a glass of water. This created the trouble. Dhaani’s uncle came and glared at me. I could not understand. He roared, “Who did you call Dhaani?”

I pointed at her.

“Do you know the meaning?” he asked.

“No”, I said, “Maybe a nickname.”

Realising I was innocent, her uncle backed off, and the elders explained to me that the word meant “wife” and is used as an intimate address for one’s spouse. I could only stare at Dhaani who had tears in her eyes. Her father told me firmly that my services were not required anymore.

Four years later, I had never thought I would ever meet Dhaani in this rickety old bus in the middle of the dark night. Dhaani was shaking my shoulders, “Where are you lost?”

I blurted a series of questions: “Just remembering the old times. You got married, didn’t you? What does your husband do? Why are you travelling alone?”

She asked me “Did you get married?”

“No,”I answered.

“Why? You should have,” she responded.

We had left the town behind. We were in the jungle. Trees and sand. It was dark, the lights of the bus were weak and the visibility was poor. People were asleep in the bus. Maybe to keep awake, the driver started singing aloud a film song. His voice broke the silence.

I asked her again, “Why are you travelling alone?”

She said with a heavy heart, “I am on a journey that never ends, just one wish to see you and meet you once.”

“What nonsense!” I said, “Please answer my question.”

“You want to know where is my husband? Husband is one a girl like me falls in love with once, I am his Dhaani and never again will anyone settle in my heart. But you will not understand these things.” She took my hand in both her hands, “Swear to me that you will get married and have a family and a home.” With that she got up to leave.

I said, “Where are you going to go in this forest?”

“It’s a forest for you,”she said in a low voice, “For us it is our new home, we’ll never meet again but keep your promise.”

Saying this she got off the moving bus. I was stunned and stopped the driver, “A girl just got off the moving bus and you did not stop for her?”

The driver looked amused, a bit irritated, “Which girl?” he asked.

“The one sitting next to me, the one who I was talking to,” I was almost shouting.

He chuckled, “Near you. You were sitting all by yourself and yes you have been talking loudly to yourself but we get people like you, it doesn’t bother me.”

I craned my neck out of the bus and saw a smiling Dhaani waving to me. I was sweating despite the chill. “Dhaani, why did you do this?” I looked at the handkerchief in the corner, picked it, it had Dhaani written in the corner. Squeezing it tight, I cried. The bumpy potholes could not measure up to the pits in my heart.


[1] nymph

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Categories
Poetry

Entwined Places

By S Srinivasan

Artwork by Gita Viswanath
ENTWINED PLACES

Standing on the Juhu beach,
I heard, more than a decade ago, 
The winds from the Marina, 
In a smattering of Marathi and Tamil,
Accompanying birdsongs.

Blame that on a bout of homesickness
But what about last year, when

The Sealdah station, its turf
Pounded by the waves of human feet,
Seemed to me to reverberate 
With the weighty steps of the rush hour, 
Also felt in Mylapore and Nariman Point?

Perhaps, the crowds stirred me then
But that cannot be all, for

Often on cool Hyderabadi afternoons,
I have worn, in silence, the unease
Of Bangalore's woolen evenings;
And sensed in Delhi's nippy nights
The cold grip of other Indian winters...

Extremes sometimes addle the brain
And lull the heart, but…

Even when I take a leisurely stroll
On a summer dusk, around the lake
That girdles my neck of the woods,
I am greeted by the lush sights, of
The long winding ways yonder...

To Darjeeling and Kodaikkanal,
To Yercaud and Dehradun,
To Kashmir and Kanyakumari,
And to all that lies beyond.      

Srinivas S teaches English at the Rishi Valley School, India. He spends his free time taking long walks, watching cricket and writing poetry in short-form (mostly haiku).

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Categories
Excerpt

Villainy by Upamanyu Chatterjee

Title: Villainy

Author: Upamanyu Chatterjee

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

Death of late having been much on her mind, it did not seem surprising to Dr Mujumdar that she should, at seven-forty of a December morning, during her constitutional in the neighbourhood park, be the first to come upon the corpse or rather, to recognise it to be a dead body. Of course, they were all concentrating on striding along on the jogging track – rolling their hips, pausing discreetly on occasion, only for a micro-second, to break wind – and all moving clockwise as per the rules set down and put up by the Residents’ Welfare Association on the signboard at the entrance, and if they had eyes for anything, it was for the odd, protruding pebble in their paths and every now and then, a Johnny-come-lately in his new car outside the gates, prowling in search of a parking slot. But beneath the hibiscus bushes just before the Children’s Corner, they so stared her in the face, leapt out at her to shout out their presence that she marvelled that no one else appeared to have noticed them – a pair of off-white Bata tennis sneakers, stark against the dark, damp loam, blue socks in a heap at the ankles, khaki trousers that had ridden up to reveal scrawny calves, with the rest of the travesty mercifully hidden by the foliage and a mound of compost awaiting distribution. For travesty she knew it would be and she did not want to see it; for since when has death not been a travesty of all that holds meaning?

       ‘Something tells me that that is not a drunk Colony guard or municipal gardener sleeping it off,’ said she, aloud, to herself, glanced at her watch even though she knew what time it was, and continued silently, But could I still do my half-a-dozen rounds as though nothing has happened, or at least as many as I can before someone else notices something amiss? Or would that be callous and unfeeling of me? She lengthened her stride and began doggedly to pump her elbows in an effort to get away quickly. Her heart though was really not in it that morning. ‘It does seem shameful for someone who’s almost a medical doctor,’ she carried on her conversation with herself, ‘to run away from a corpse. Waddle away, more accurately. But people must never know. And all this – ’ She looked up and about her for a moment, blinked ‘ – is going to have to stop pretty soon, isn’t it?’ She exchanged a ‘Morning’ for a ‘Hello, dear’ as she overtook portly Mrs Gulati. ‘I mean, no one can possibly jog or skip rope or stretch or do his yoga and breathe through his anus or laugh his therapeutic Santa Claus belly laugh in the presence of a dead body, can he?’ And then, aloud, ‘Morning, Sanjeev-ji. You are early today?!’

      Dr Mujumdar took more than her usual eleven minutes to cross the Children’s Corner, pass the Water-Harvesting Area and loop around the Nano Golf Course. By the time she turned into the straight stretch along the C-Block side of the park, a knot of the regulars, forced to abandon their burpees and their Hanuman pushups, had formed around the hibiscus bushes. Automatically, Dr Mujumdar slowed down, even wondered for a second whether she could about-turn and, disobeying the commandment of the RWA, clump away anti-clockwise.

       ‘Don’t touch anything! Just call the police.’

      ‘Could it be someone we know? Even a member of the Health Club?’

      ‘Doesn’t look as though his membership did him any good. Somebody had better telephone the police, I say.’

      ‘I can’t. My phone needs to be charged.’

      ‘I can’t either, unfortunately. I always leave my phone behind at home when I step out for my exercise.’

      ‘Why don’t you call them? They will respond immediately to your commanding personality.’

      ‘It is the RWA that should phone the police. After all, the dead body has been found in a public place. Just call Tutreja at the Association.’

      ‘I can’t, I just told you. My phone needs to be charged.’

      ‘Why are you carrying around a phone that doesn’t work?’

      ‘To time my rounds, if you must know. The clock works. And how damn nosey you are, if I might add.’

      ‘Is something the matter? I’m a doctor. A pharmacist, more accurately. Perhaps I might be of help.’

      The knot of exercisers, three-deep by then, stirred and parted like porridge to make way for Dr Mujumdar and then congealed around her even before she could look down once more upon the Bata shoes and the scrawny calves, the khaki trousers. The press of bodies made concentration all the more difficult.

      ‘We’ll have to pull him out and turn him over. Any volunteers?’ The doctor looked about her at the knot, watched it stir and thin. ‘Backache,’ murmured a man with a white moustache, his hand ready to clutch his hip.

      With a grunt of annoyance, portly Mrs Gulati planted herself in the hibiscus bed, pushed aside the vegetation and bent to grab an ankle. The shadow of a momentary queasiness crossed her features at the touch of that cold, alien flesh. She was suddenly surrounded by several fellow-residents whom she had abashed. Freely directing and admonishing one another, they lifted the body up and sideways and laid it down, face up, on the jogging track. The group emitted a sort of collective moan, part sigh, part gasp, on first seeing the face. With difficulty, Dr Mujumdar got down on her knees beside the body. The onlookers, four deep now, gathered about them as though caught in an eddy.

      He was dead, there was no doubt about that. The dead do not look like the living. She felt for his pulse. The wrist was cold and stiff. She extracted a large handkerchief from the pocket of her tracksuit and gently dusted the loam and grit off the face. A murmur, a commentary on the vanity of all that is not death, rustled through the group like the hint of a breeze.

Excerpted from Villainy by Upamanyu Chatterjee. Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2022.

ABOUT THE BOOK

 Walkers in a Delhi neighbourhood park come upon a body on a mid-winter morning—an unidentified body, unremarkable but for an extraordinary scar right between the eyes.

A delinquent teenager—who prefers, to the rest of living, an Ecstasy pill with a beer, and the interior of an expensive car with a gun in his pocket—leaves home one evening for a joyride in his father’s Mercedes.

In the nineteen years separating these episodes, five killings take place—and one near-fatal battery—none of which would have happened if a school bus hadn’t been in the wrong lane. Deals are struck between masters and servants, money changes hands, assurances are given and broken. The wheels of justice turn, forward, backwards and sideways, pause and turn again. Old alliances are tested and new ones are formed in prison cells, mortuaries and court rooms. And every life is a gamble, for no one is entirely innocent.

A meticulously crafted literary thriller, Upamanyu Chatterjee’s seventh novel is a riveting story of crime and retribution, and a meditation on the randomness of evil, death and redemption. It will keep you spellbound till the end.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 Upamanyu Chatterjee is the celebrated author of English, August: An Indian Story (1988), The Last Burden (1993), The Mammaries of the Welfare State (2000), Weight Loss (2006), Way to Go (2011), and Fairy Tales at Fifty (2014)—all novels; The Revenge of the Non-vegetarian (2018), a novella; and The Assassination of Indira Gandhi (2019), a collection of long stories. He won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2000, and in 2008, he was awarded the Order of Officier des Arts et des Lettres by the French Government for his contribution to literature.

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Categories
Stories

The Persistence of Memory

By Vedant Srinivas

Despite rolling the window firmly shut, Dhruv could still feel the dust swivel inside the car and settle on his skin. He could smell the combined whiff of fried pakodas mixed with rotting trash, as if the transparent glass pane was no barrier for the hazardous environment outside to which he had once belonged. Sweat rolled down in beads and collected at the nape of his neck, and he wiped it with a crumpled handkerchief. Small apartment blocks came into view on both sides, with cycle rickshaws parked on either side of the gate. Rusted clotheslines jutted out from the balcony on each floor. They were hung with clothes of varied shapes and colours. A car honked twice, and someone yelled in return.

He eyed the outside proceedings with a strange fervour, his eyes taking in the action that seemed already imprinted in the depths of his memory. It wasn’t so much perception as re-creation; he had, after all, spent his childhood roaming the same streets of north-west Delhi. Remembrances swept to the shore of his mind, summoning up something buried and forgotten inside him. He distracted himself with more practical concerns. What was he to say to Digant’s father? Would he recognise him?

The taxi took meandering turns down narrow lanes. “They all look the same,” the driver remarked, his tall figure bent as he struggled to look through the windshield. Indeed, the roads did look the same — row after row of vehicles were parked in every inch of space available. Yawning over them were emaciated trees providing respite from the excessively harsh sun. Two boys with long rakish hair zoomed past on a motorcycle, their sunburnt faces exuding joy.

The car took a right turn and came upon an apartment gate populated by people in white. Some were on the phone while others were standing together in groups, waiting for instructions to be given. Dhruv paid the taxi and stepped out, smoothening the creases on his white kurta. He felt a strange sensation in the pit of his stomach. He had, since he received the news, thrust it in the back of his mind, refusing to engage with it, and had himself been vaguely surprised by his stoic reaction. Now it was bubbling in his gut, threatening to spill over.

Dhruv exchanged handshakes and condolences with people he assumed were family, and was shown directions to the flat on the first floor. The door was open, and smoke billowed out from the narrow entrance, wafting in tune with the pandit’s recitations. Some of the furniture had been moved and replaced by threaded mats to accommodate the shraddh ceremony ( funeral rites). There was an air of forced busyness inside the flat; people scurried about carrying various things, whispering quietly to each other or into their phones, as if stillness would collapse the facade that had so painstakingly been constructed by everyone present. Without this structured pretence, reality itself would lose its consistency, and make them confront that which perhaps lacked definition.

In one corner of the room, some women sat huddled together, rocking to and fro. Dhruv recognised Digant’s mother amongst them. Her eyes were red and puffy, and her distant gaze seemed to pierce through the opposite wall. A ceiling fan turned lugubriously near to where she sat. Mr. Singh, Digant’s father, sat next to the officiating priest, his fingers locked tightly together as he tried to follow the priest’s sharp intonations. His eyes were glued to the body that lay in front. The flicker of recognition in his eyes upon seeing Dhruv soon transformed into a dull glaze.

 Dhruv moved closer, his hands folded in a namaste-like posture. It was wrapped in a white shroud, with cotton buds placed in the nose. There were dark pouches under the eyes. The skin too had aged; the glowing white of ten years ago had now turned into a sickly yellow. He peered hard at what had once been Digant. Try as he might, Dhruv ​​couldn’t muster anything as complete and engulfing as grief. The pinch of bereavement he felt was for a life snuffed out, a death that had taken place, utterly devoid of particularities.

Dhruv had received the news last night through the school group. More details had emerged, once the initial outpouring of shock and concern had subsided. The rope had been tied to the ceiling fan, and the door locked from inside. No note had been found and no foul play suspected, though he had been known to lead a rough life.

Dhruv glanced around the room and spotted a familiar face at the end of the passage. He walked towards Rohit and they hugged awkwardly, putting one arm sideways around the other’s shoulder. Rohit had been in Digant’s section, and had also been part of the football team with Dhruv. His hair had already started greying; a paunch of considerable size jutted out from his middle. Standing next to him were two other schoolmates whose faces he recognised but whose names he couldn’t recall. They politely nodded at each other. It felt odd to meet under such circumstances.

Leaning against a wall, Dhruv and Rohit observed the proceedings, with hands clasped respectfully at the front. The priest was pouring ghee into the crackling fire while chanting archaic mantras. Their eyes smarted from the smoke of fiery oblations; tears of grief freely mingled with those produced by the stinging fire. Dhruv found his mind wandering. He wondered what view tradition accorded to such an event, and whether the rites would be different in this case. There was an uneasiness in the room that belied even the genuine concern he could see entrenched on faces and eyes. Rohit turned to Dhruv, put a hand around his shoulder, and said in a caressing voice, “I can’t even begin to imagine what you are going through. After all, you guys were best friends.”

Dhruv started, his feet almost giving away under him. Suddenly thirsty, he stumbled towards the kitchen, wading through the ever-increasing number of people. More than concern, it felt like an unbidden accusation. Surely calling them as best friends would be going too far? Yes, they had spent some important years of their childhood together, but that was true for everyone who had lived in the locality and gone to their school. It felt intrusive to think that someone else had formed such an important opinion without bothering to consult him or the facts.

The water filter beeped a faint red as water began to drip out of the nozzle. Flashes of the distant past, sieved through his memory, came upon Dhruv — bunking school and spending the day playing pool at one of the shady centers in Pitampura, the regular fights they’d get into, alcohol, rustication… Image after image played successively in the recesses of his mind; he was unable to think of a single school memory that didn’t have Digant in it.

Dhruv suddenly felt swamped by unreality. His current existence — his job as an advertising filmmaker, his daughter and wife back in Bangalore — had nothing to do with the memories that now assuaged him from all sides. He had lost touch with everyone as soon as he entered college, and had somehow managed to do well for himself, despite the odds, proving everyone — including his parents — wrong. He was now fully wedded to a life of ‘upward mobility’ and the sophistication that came with it. Indeed, his entire childhood, including Rohit and the others lounging outside, seemed now like a mythology that had been invented from scratch. To think that he had grown up in this grimy locality of corruption and crime, sharing secrets and confessions, shouting songs of friendship and love, with the same people whom he could barely recognise seemed to him a fiction of the highest order. 

The kitchen window was blowing wind like a furnace, and he found it difficult to breathe. Stepping out, he made his way to the bathroom and locked the fledgling door. The drain cover had mounds of wet hair stuck to it. Sitting on the commode, another hazy image assuaged him, sending shudders through his body. A drunken reverie, teenage angst, him and Digant, valiant and masculine, proclaiming their allegiance to the famous 27 club as a revolt against life, their deaths too enshrined in history …

Later, at the crematorium, the men listlessly shifted their weight and scratched their faces as they stood huddled around the burning pyre. Dhruv had helped with the preparations and now, standing at a distance, watched plumes of smoke merge with the blinding sky. Bereft of its materiality, Digant again existed as he had before, as a submerged and fleeting reminiscence. Dhruv suddenly felt tired and nauseous. A vague feeling of inertia hit him. The present moment curdled in the heat of the afternoon, and he was confronted with lumps of empty time as it stretched across the burial ground, shimmering and undulating like the funeral fire. Unable to stand it, he nudged Rohit on the shoulder and whispered into his ear if he wanted to go have a beer afterwards.

 *

Years later, while directing some extras for an advertising shoot in Himachal, Dhruv would spot a local theatre performer — a dot on the camera monitor — struggling to master the sequence. In exasperation, he would yell out, “Digant, keep to your mark and don’t stray out of the circle.” Non-plussed faces would stare back at him, unsure of who he was talking to. The words that had come crashing out would be swallowed back just as soon, followed by a long period of silence. For the rest of the day, he would walk around in a reeling daze, and try not to stare at the young man who had unwittingly, instantaneously reminded him of what had once been.

Vedant Srinivas studied Philosophy and went on to do a diploma in Filmmaking. His interests fall in the interstices of literature, anthropology, cinema, and poetry.

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Categories
pandies' corner

Children of Nithari: The story of Rajesh

Written in a mix of English and Hindi  by Yogesh Uniyal, translated fully to English by Nirbhay Bhogal

Yogesh Uniyal is now a banking professional, currently working with Kotak Mahindra Bank, and has a Masters in Finance. He joined workshops lead by pandies’ theatre in 2006 and has performed in all the shows put up by the youth associated with Saksham, Nithari, including at the American Center, Delhi in 2010. A consistent performer and singer, he performs with the pandies’ besides doing street plays with Nithari friends and like-minded people on women’s education, cancer, and many other themes.

The Story of Rajesh

Somewhere in this wide, wide world, lived an eighteen-year-old boy (quite sensible and honest) going by the name of Rajesh,  in a small village, where he had a family with his  parents. Since childhood, Rajesh had always liked watching movies. Despite not having a television at home, he would commute a kilometre within their village, to the home of his paternal uncle ( being a good friend of his father’s) to watch movies on that uncle-by-sentiment’s TV. While watching a film at his uncle’s, one day Rajesh made a plan to venture outside their village after finishing his intermediate education. Rajesh had no idea that there was a huge gap, between this real world and the fictional world of movies, almost as if one were Purgatory and the other Heaven.

Rajesh’s Decision to go to Delhi

This is the story of that boy from an underprivileged family who came with big dreams to Delhi – “The City of Hearts, Brimming with Living and Giving” – leaving behind his village, his home, his parents, his everything. Rajesh had come to this city after completing his schooling with a great hope kindled in his heart – a desire to earn buckets of cash. But little did he imagine what he would lose while trying to fulfil that dream.

Living in their village home were Rajesh’s elderly parents. Leaving them behind and coming here wasn’t easy for him. But he left them and moved  nevertheless, for his happiness and theirs, which revolved around his attaining a higher standard of living.

Rajesh’s life in Delhi

He started lodging in a room that he rented in “The City of Hearts, Brimming with Living and Giving, also The Capital of India”. He stumbled wandered around the city for two to three months, looking for a decent job. But he did not get any employment. Then he came across a person who promised to get him a job, in return for Rs 20,000[1].

Rajesh, gathered the money from multiple sources – including some remitted by his parents from the village on his request. He paid the agent an advance of Rs 15,000, and promised to pay the remainder after securing the job.

After waiting for many days, Rajesh secured this job in a company that would pay him Rs 9,000 a month, at a workplace that was 4 kms from his room in the city. This salary certainly sounded small as Rajesh had to pay for his lodgings, food, water…and also send some money home.

Every morning, he would walk to the company where he was employed. And, every evening, he would walk from there to his neighbourhood. He knew that every expense, such as commuting by vehicles in a city like Delhi, wasn’t possible on just Rs 9,000.

He threw himself with all his heart and mind into his nine-hour job. Many times, however, he was made to stay back and work for ten to twelve hours a day. That earned him Rs 70 for every extra hour. He continued to work with dedication. What he didn’t know was that you needed to be street smart to compound your dedication to get a raise in such a place. Even after working so hard, he wasn’t getting the increment or promotion that he was worthy of. He brought this up many times, in conversation with his manager, but the manager would keep evading him on this. After one year, Rajesh decided to leave the company. After quitting his job, he gave job interviews at many other companies, and eventually did get hired. He joined this other company on 1st January 2020.

In the new company, he was paid more than double his last salary, and he was happy that he could manage all his expenses. But his struggle had just started.

For two months, everything was fine. Then, suddenly, a disease called Corona started to fester and spread. Cases of its transmission were quickly increasing in India. Observing this COVID-outbreak, the Central Government declared a lockdown in all of India on 22nd March 2020. Rajesh and all other employees of his company were kicked out of their jobs.

When the fired employees protested, the company said, “Whoever have their own computers can work from home.” But employees who’d been hired only in the past two months, how were they supposed to afford a personal computer? Some of the employees still managed to arrange computers for themselves, and they were re-hired. But what about people like Rajesh?

Eventually, Rajesh too was fired, which was a huge blow for him. He had no means of livelihood. His monthly expenses were piling up, and the spectre of groceries loaned from his regular shops kept looming over him.

After losing his job, Rajesh sat in his room, spending time on the same old TV news channels. But none of these channels gave the truth: about how the pandemic was hurting families like his, how they were living, what was the solution, and what were the safeguards that were being put in place?

Who knows how many families had people like Rajesh, who lost their jobs? What on earth was Rajesh going to do now?

For ten days, Rajesh kept brooding over the job he’d lost. Rajesh asked a neighbouring Uncleji[2], “Would any of the nearby bungalows have need of car-cleaning personnel?” Uncleji was moved to tears by seeing him in such a state. He said to Rajesh, “Why would you…a computer-operating professional…be doing such work?” And he started providing Rajesh food from his own domestic kitchen.

But how long was he supposed to feed Rajesh? Uncleji’s wife would taunt every now and then. This eventually became too much for Rajesh to bear, and he decided once again to clean cars for a living.

Rajesh had been reduced to the condition of one who belonged neither here nor there. And he was worried about his parents. He was managing to arrange two meals’ worth on certain days, and not even one meal’s worth on other days. Some evenings he would line up, for a meal at food stalls, set up by anyone wishing to feed the poor. Other evenings, he would scrape together a meal in other ways. What else was he supposed to do? Borne to the City by Hopes, and Buoying Himself Against the Blows He Received, He Was Still Not Able to Get Enough Food.

A person contracted Corona in the neighbourhood. This cast a spell of fear over all the residents. Now all of them, including Rajesh, were taken to a hospital and tested in isolation. Rajesh tested negative, but he still had to suffer his neighbourhood being barricaded. Now nobody could either go out or come in. This meant Rajesh couldn’t go to clean cars in the morning. He had no means of arranging food for himself. For seven days, he subsisted on water and one meal a day.

He then somehow got permission for resuming cleaning cars for the rich. But back home in his village, his parents both contracted the virus, and they were soon in a critical condition.

Rajesh had no means of going back to his village, which was 700 kilometres away. He didn’t know what to do. He began to recall his old life in the village, when he lived without any tension, amidst the warmth and safety of his home. Whatever presumptions he’d had about Delhi, and big cities in general, were proving to be opposite of what he had hoped and dreamt. All he could think of was going back to living with his parents in the village. He wished to rid himself of his current situation come-what-may.

Initially, he couldn’t come up with a plan, since he didn’t know any route back to his village, even if he started back on foot. Finally, he decided that he would follow the rail track to reach his village. He started on this path, hungry and thirsty.

On the way, some people were handing out food to migrants like Rajesh, who were journeying back home. For two days, Rajesh kept walking like this, surviving on such charitable provisions somewhere or the other, and thus he would store food for breakfast as well at dinner.

One such night, after eating and storing the food for the next meal, he resumed walking along the railway line. That night, he felt very tired, so he lay down on the track. Exhausted, he drifted off to sleep.

That very night, a train passed by on those tracks. And, after that, his eyes never opened.


[1] Indian Currency rupees: $1= Rs76

[2] An elderly gentleman in often referred to as uncleji in North India, ji being an honorific title

Nirbhay Bhogal is a 32-year-old amateur actor, with pandies’ theatre since late 2014, when she first experienced with them an altogether improvisational mode of workshopping a script chosen by the group. She’s currently pursuing a Bachelors in English Literature and hopes to make a career out of translating literary and non-literary works from Hindi into English, and vice versa. She was involved with the tail end of pandies’ workshop theatre at pre-pandemic Saksham school in Nithari and has also co-facilitated Zoom-based workshop theatre with Shakti Shalini’s shelter for women survivors of gender-based violence.

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Categories
pandies' corner

Children of Nithari: Stranger than Fiction

These are stories written by youngsters from the Nithari village. They transcended childhood trauma and deprivation for many decades. The column starts with a story by Sharad Kumar in Hindustani, translated for us by Grace M Sukanya

Sharad Kumar is a 22-year-old engineer / artist from Nithari, Delhi, currently in the final year of his B. Tech in Information Technology. He has also performed as an actor and singer for various college productions. He has been associated with pandies’ theatre group since 2010. His performance at the American Center, Delhi, with 40 more children from the school Saksham, Nithari, was the audience’s pick. Working with younger children in Nithari, teaching them Physics, Maths and also, how to perform on stage, he hopes to be able to give back to the community he comes from. His desire: quality education and opportunities to children from under-served backgrounds.

Stranger than Fiction

When it had begun, it had seemed it would just be for a short while and would get over quickly. But it had now been three months since the lockdown had been announced.

Mumbai’s streets were so quiet that it seemed the multitudes had been anaesthetised. Only the sound of dogs continued to disrupt the silence of the alleyways. Even the air felt cleaner.

But there was still one pollutant left: the virus. 

The corona warriors worked away at their jobs as though this was the battle of Mahabharat. Excepting a few people, everyone was busy waging a personal war.

On national television, people initially behaved admirably. But now they too showed symptoms of being infected by the virus of television rating points.

Mritunjay, an ordinary hawaldar, took time out of his busy schedule to lay out his gamchha and rest on it, as he did every day, and started knitting a dream from the past — his grandfather’s memories.

He traveled back in time to an era when the British Empire extended to almost all parts of the world.

*

Somewhere far away from the Indian sub-continent, Mritunjay’s grandfather, Dirghayu, was a soldier in the British Indian Army. Due to the circumstances of that time, Dirghayu and his compatriots were beholden to do the British’s bidding, waging war in trenches, pits, and holes for their colonial masters.

Meagre rations, living in squalor with rats, snakes, and other parasites, were all part of their war time trials. Standing every day in the cold water and the wet mud of waterlogged trenches had started taking its toll. With each passing day, Dirghayu’s legs were becoming more painful.

Then, one day the commander’s voice had announced the beginning of war, and everywhere cartridges, canons, and weapons poured forth rivers of blood. Perhaps, because of his name, Dirghayu, meaning the long-lived one, the hawaldar’s ancestor had been blessed with good luck and courage. He survived the enemy gunfire, the terrible living conditions, the horror of warfare, and managed to win the British their victory. The Commander was happy with his performance and decided to send him back to his homeland.

Back in the Indian subcontinent, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre had just taken place. General Dyer’s order to fire at point blank range on a peaceful prayer meet had shocked the empire to its core. The cruelty of the British Raj had been increasing since Gandhiji’s successful Champaran Satyagrah. Some political parties had taken to violence and arms, challenging the British to a direct conflict. 

The Spanish Flu too, was at its peak. Millions of people had lost their lives. The death count was rising every day. Some scientists had estimated the death toll at as much as 5% of India’s entire population. 

Economy and communications had collapsed. The rulers, in an attempt to veil their incompetent handling of the pandemic, had busied themselves in passing a variety of bills and ordinances. The only relief forthcoming from them was a lockdown.

The people in the Indian subcontinent were faced with starvation, unemployment, lack of education, and an utter lack of services.

Seeing the country in this state, Dirghayu realised there were three more battles that he had to face: (i) to provide for the comforts and security of his family; (ii) to take precautions against the spread of the Spanish Flu; (iii) and, to continue to work honestly for the British government without compromising his principles.

One day, Dirghayu’s son asks him, “Why is the Spanish Flu known as the Spanish Flu?”

Dirghayu, who has had a little education, and had gleaned some information from the company of the British officers he served, told him: “It is because the Spanish were the first to report it, but people’s mind-set is such that they started calling it the Spanish Flu.”

Then his son suddenly changed the topic and asked him, “Why are you opposed to Gandhiji and the other freedom fighters?”

Dirghayu, shocked, attempted to circumvent the issue by proffering a false excuse: “Gandhiji has gotten the flu, and he must not be allowed to spread it to other people through these huge public gatherings. This is why I am opposed to them. In any case, my priority is the safety of you people. I have to earn money so I can look after you!” 

“So, if you had been there at Jallianwallah Bagh, would you too have fired at the crowd?” 

At this, Dirghayu was upset. He scolded his son, telling him to focus on his studies instead of asking unnecessary questions.

A few months later, however, Dirghayu faced a challenge that could lead to his losing all the three battles of his life simultaneously.

Dirghayu was summoned by the senior officials of the British Army. They told him that they had been informed by their secret services that some university students were involved in a massive conspiracy against the Rowlatt Act passed in 1919 to allow indefinite incarceration without a proper trial.

They gave him two options: He could either give up his post in the army and be dismissed in disgrace, losing his right to a pension, or he could arrest the mastermind of the conspiracy: his own son.  

Keeping his priorities in mind, Dirghayu chose to give up his post in the army even though he knew he would not be able to support his household without that money. Without the army pension, his fight against the Spanish Flu would also slow down, and he would have to face the problems that the many had to face in the subcontinent.

However, he gave his son some money, and managed to send him to a safe place.

He was brought in for questioning by his own colleagues. They cajoled him, coaxed him, threatened him, even tortured him — but he refused to give up his son’s location. Eventually, the authorities gave up and let him go.

After his wife’s death, he was left alone but he has managed to conquer at least two of the battles he had set forth for himself.

Night and day, like a Spanish Flu warrior, he was engaged in helping people, getting them medicines, arranging food for the poor, encouraging the sufferers to live, and helping them out in any way required as he fought against the devastation wrought by the disease.

But perhaps he could not win this last battle. His name had protected him so far, but he met his end at the hands of the Spanish Flu.

*

Suddenly, Mrityunjay was woken up by the voices of his colleagues.

They were asking him: “What are you dreaming? You seem to be lost in your dreams.”

He said: “Perhaps this is not a dream, but the reality. After all these years, things are still exactly the same.”

Glossary & Notes:

Gamchha – a cotton towel

Hawaldar – a police constable

Jallianwallah Bagh massacre: Click here to read.

Champaran Satyagrah: Click here to read.

Rowlatt Act: Click here to read more.

Spanish Flu: Click here to read more.

Grace M Sukanya is a 28-year-old filmmaker based in Delhi, India. She is interested in creating arts-based educational interventions for children that respond to socio-political issues. She has been associated with pandies’ theatre since 2020.

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