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Review

Going by Keki N Daruwalla

Book Review by Indrashish Banerjee

Title: Going: Stories of Kinship

Author: Keki N Daruwalla

Publisher: Speaking Tiger

There are short stories where the ending is a collective culmination of all their subplots and themes, somewhat like a novel, but if you have read Somerset Mugham, you know what I mean. And there are stories which couldn’t care less. They move from one event to another, one subplot to another, make abstract observations and then suddenly come to an end. Maybe because every story must come to an end, but it’s the journey you must enjoy; it’s the journey that’s of greater importance. There are readers who like the former style – they appreciate its logical pattern of one thing leading to another. And there are readers who like the journey and believe disorderliness is a better reflection of life’s idiosyncrasies – and reflect on the sudden ending to connect it with what happened earlier.  It is a delight to discover a writer. I knew Keki N. Daruwalla’s works – For Pepper and Christ – but had never read him. And now that I have read Going: Stories of Kinship, I will move back and try out his other works.

Among Keki N. Daruwalla’s acclaimed short story collections are Sword and Abyss (1979), The Minister for Permanent Unrest and Other Stories (1996) and Love Across the Salt Desert (2011). His first novel, For Pepper and Christ, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Fiction Prize in 2010. He was awarded the Padma Shri in 2014. But Keki N. Daruwalla is better known for his poetry. His poetry volumes include Under Orion, The Keeper of the Dead (winner of the Sahitya Academy Award, 1984), Landscapes (winner of Commonwealth Poetry Award, 1987) and the Map Maker. Most recently he was honoured with the Poet Laureate award at the Tata Literature Live, Mumbai Litfest, 2017.

Thematically connected short stories are in fashion. But it’s difficult to identify any common thread running across the stories in Going. Each one is different.

Sometimes that sudden or understated ending can be a reference to a subplot within the story. Lionidas Campbell, in ‘The Bhahmaputra Triology’, many years after making love to an Indian woman discovers that he had sired a son from the relationship – and the story ends there. It can sometimes be reflective of the larger message the story wants to convey.  After Ardeshir’s daughter, Arnavaz, elopes with a Muslim boy against her father’s wishes refusing to be dissuaded by her father’s attempt to invoke the history of persecution of Parsees by Muslims, Ardeshir is a heartbroken man.  At the end, while wallowing in grief, sitting on armchair, Ardeshir suddenly feels the “frail silhouette of Arnavaz adrift on his memories” – and a yearning for his daughter grips him. The climax makes two messages very clear. The helplessness of a man seeing personal concerns of his daughter triumphing over a need for historical justice; filial love prevailing over community loyalty and concerns about history.

As much as all the stories, to an extent, explore the inner lives of characters, Bikshu is more so. The entire story is about Bikshu’s inner journey, its conflicts, evolution, emotional layers with occasional detours to Bikshu’s past, his family and mother. At the end of the book, I discovered the commonality.  When you have read the stories and reflect on them as a collective, you feel they are about human relationships and how they evolve over time.

Indrasish Banerjee has been writing and publishing his works for quite some time. He has published in Indian dailies like Hindustan Times and Pioneer, and Café Dissensus, a literary magazine. Indrasish is also a book reviewer with Readsy Discovery. Indrasish stays and works in Bangalore, India. 

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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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Ruskin Bond’s Friends in Wild Places

Title: Friends in Wild Places: Birds, Beasts and Other Companions

Author: Ruskin Bond

Illustrator: Shubhadarshini Singh

Publisher: Talking Cub, the children’s imprint of Speaking Tiger.

Timothy

TIMOTHY, THE TIGER cub, was discovered by Grandfather on a hunting expedition in the Terai jungle near Dehra.

Grandfather was no shikari, but as he knew the forests of the Siwalik hills better than most people, he was persuaded to accompany the party—it consisted of several Very Important Persons from Delhi—to advise on the terrain and the direction the beaters should take once a tiger had been spotted.

The camp itself was sumptuous—seven large tents (one for each shikari), a dining-tent, and a number of servants’ tents. The dinner was very good, as Grandfather admitted afterwards; it was not often that one saw hot-water plates, finger-glasses, and seven or eight courses, in a tent in the jungle! But that was how things were done in the days of the Viceroys… There were also some fifteen elephants, four of them with howdahs for the shikaris, and the others specially trained for taking part in the beat.

The sportsmen never saw a tiger, nor did they shoot anything else, though they saw a number of deer, peacocks, and wild boars. They were giving up all hope of finding a tiger, and were beginning to shoot at jackals, when Grandfather, strolling down the forest path at some distance from the rest of the party, discovered a little tiger about 18 inches long, hiding among the intricate roots of a banyan tree. Grandfather picked him up, and brought him home after the camp had broken up. He had the distinction of being the only member of the party to have bagged any game, dead or alive.

At first the tiger cub, who was named Timothy by Grandmother, was brought up entirely on milk given to him in a feeding bottle by our cook, Mahmoud. But the milk proved too rich for him, and he was put on a diet of raw mutton and cod liver oil, to be followed later by a more tempting diet of pigeons and rabbits.

Timothy was provided with two companions—Toto the monkey, who was bold enough to pull the young tiger by the tail, and then climb up the curtains if Timothy lost his temper; and a small mongrel puppy, found on the road by Grandfather.

At first Timothy appeared to be quite afraid of the puppy, and darted back with a spring if it came too near. He would make absurd dashes at it with his large forepaws, and then retreat to a ridiculously safe distance. Finally, he allowed the puppy to crawl on his back and rest there!

One of Timothy’s favourite amusements was to stalk anyone who would play with him, and so, when I came to live with Grandfather, I became one of the favourites of the tiger. With a crafty look in his glittering eyes, and his body crouching, he would creep closer and closer to me, suddenly making a dash for my feet, rolling over on his back and kicking me in delight, and pretending to bite my ankles.

He was by this time the size of a full-grown retriever, and when I took him out for walks, people on the road would give us a wide berth. When he pulled hard on his chain, I had difficulty in keeping up with him. His favourite place in the house was the drawing room, and he would make himself comfortable on the long sofa, reclining there with great dignity, and snarling at anybody who tried to get him off.

Timothy had clean habits, and would scrub his face with his paws exactly like a cat. He slept at night in the cook’s quarters, and was always delighted at being let out by him in the morning.

‘One of these days,’ declared Grandmother in her prophetic manner, ‘we are going to find Timothy sitting on Mahmoud’s bed, and no sign of the cook except his clothes and shoes!’

Of course, it never came to that, but when Timothy was about six months old a change came over him; he grew steadily less friendly. When out for a walk with me, he would try to steal away to stalk a cat or someone’s pet Pekinese. Sometimes at night we would hear frenzied cackling from the poultry house, and in the morning there would be feathers lying all over the veranda. Timothy had to be chained up more often. And finally, when he began to stalk Mahmoud about the house with what looked like villainous intent, Grandfather decided it was time to transfer him to a zoo.

The nearest zoo was at Lucknow, 200 miles away. Reserving a first-class compartment for himself and Timothy—no one would share a compartment with them— Grandfather took him to Lucknow where the zoo authorities were only too glad to receive as a gift a well-fed and fairly civilized tiger.

About six months later, when my grandparents were visiting their relatives in Lucknow, Grandfather took the opportunity of calling at the zoo to see how Timothy was getting on. I was not there to accompany him, but I heard all about it when he returned to Dehra.

Arriving at the zoo, Grandfather made straight for the particular cage in which Timothy had been interned. The tiger was there, crouched in a corner, full-grown and with a magnificent striped coat.

‘Hello Timothy!’ said Grandfather, and, climbing the railing with ease, he put his arm through the bars of the cage.

The tiger approached the bars, and allowed Grandfather to put both hands around his head. Grandfather stroked the tiger’s forehead and tickled his ear, and whenever he growled, smacked him across the mouth, which was his old way of keeping him quiet.

He licked Grandfather’s hands and only sprang away when a leopard in the next cage snarled at him. Grandfather ‘shooed’ the leopard away, and the tiger returned to lick his hands; but every now and then the leopard would rush at the bars, and the tiger would slink back to his corner.

Excerpted from Friends in Wild Places: Birds, Beasts and Other Companions by Ruskin Bond; illustrated by Shubhadarshini Singh. Published by Talking Cub, the children’s imprint of Speaking Tiger.

ABOUT THE BOOK

Since he was a young boy, Ruskin Bond has made friends easily. And some of the most rewarding and lasting friendships he has known have been with animals, birds and plants—big and small; outgoing and shy. This collection focuses on these companions and brings together his finest essays and stories, both classic and new. There are leopards and tigers, wise old forest oaks and geraniums on sunny balconies, a talking parrot and a tomcat called Suzie, bears in the mountains and kingfishers in Delhi, a family of langurs and a lonely bat—and many more ‘wild’ friends, some of an instant, others of several years.

Beautifully illustrated by Shubhadarshini Singh, this is a gift for nature- and book-lovers of all ages.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 Ruskin Bond is the author of numerous novellas, short-story collections and non-fiction books, many of them classics. Among them are The Room on the Roof, The Night Train at Deoli, Time Stops at Shamli, Rain in the Mountains, The Blue Umbrella, When I Was a Boy, Lone Fox Dancing (his autobiography) and A Book of Simple Living. He received the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1993, the Padma Shri in 1999 and the Padma Bhushan in 2014.

Ruskin lives in Landour, Mussoorie, with his extended family.

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR

 Shubhadarshini Singh was brought up in Kolkata and studied in Visva-Bharati, Shantiniketan. She has been an ad woman, a journalist and a film-maker. She shares Ruskin Bond’s deep love for animals and wildlife and has made his best stories into a series for television: Ek Tha Rusty. Shubhadarshini runs an art gallery for Outsider Arts, and has had shows of her paintings in Delhi and Bhopal. She lives in Delhi with her husband, son and dogs.

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Review

The Best of Travel Writing of Dom Moraes

Book Review by Indrashish Banerjee

Title: The Best of Travel Writing of Dom Moraes: Under Something of a Cloud

Author: Dom Moraes

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

Travel books that I have read so far, broadly fall into two categories. One is investigative and the other is a spontaneous account of the author’s experience. If one is analytical, the other is immediate. It’s not necessary that the two styles can’t be combined. V.S Naipaul’s A Million Mutinies Now (1990) is a good example of that: a mix of investigation of a place’s past and present through ordinary people’s lives combined with day-to-day travel details. Bill Bryson’s Travels in Small-Town America (1989) is about Bryson’s experience of visiting the towns of America with occasional dosage of nostalgia.

The Best of Travel Writing of Dom Moraes: Under Something of a Cloud falls into the second category – a spontaneous account of events as seen by the author. However, where it’s different from travel books in general (and the ones mentioned above) is that it doesn’t stick to a singular theme. A collection of essays, some autobiographical, some reports, the book takes the reader through a kaleidoscopic journey spanning continents, lives and topics ranging from when the author takes his first steps into the world of writing as a child to the time he is a mature travelling journalist covering topics as diverse as Suharto’s rule in Indonesia to dacoits in India. 

If you are familiar with Dom Moraes ((1938-2004) as a poet, novelist and columnist, you will not be surprised by the sheer finesse of writing you encounter as you move from one essay to another, although you may have your own favourites. Regarded as one of the giants of Indian English literature, Moraes won the prestigious Hawthornden Prize when he was just 20 followed by Sahitya Academy Award and a series of other literary awards in England, America and India.

The book starts with an introduction by Sarayu Srivastava recounting the last days of Moreas with detours to his past. The introduction has a morbid element to it, as did Moraes’s life. But, surprisingly, the morbid mood the introduction sets, vaporises in the pieces that follow.

The first two travel pieces are purely autobiographical. ‘His Father’s Son’ (1945) recollects the carefree childhood days of Dom Moraes in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) where is father, a reporter with Times of India, was posted. There is a strong visual element to how the natural world of these places has been described. Anecdotes about a child – Moraes – discovering this natural world slowly almost reads like the formative pages of a novel. In ‘Figures in the Landscape’ (1955) Moraes is equally carefree, if a little awkward, going through a range of experiences, some writerly, others potentially amorous, in that global capital of arts, artists and sensuality, Paris.

But there is a tragic and frightening aspect to the pieces, too, which appears and retreats only to reappear as if to remind you that life is not just about gambolling. That aspect is the gradual mental deterioration of Dom Moreas’s mother who was given to violence. Her fits of violence form a recurrent theme until she leaves Ceylon and returns to Bombay to stay with her relatives. But even after she departs, her presence constantly lurks in the background. And when she does reappear, either actually or via recollection, the atmosphere of the essay instantly changes.

She, although absent from many other pieces in the collection, casts a shadow on her son such that some of the actions of the son, particularly his introverted and melancholic personality, seem to be coloured by his mother’s tragedy. One can sense in later essays where the author has grown up, how the derangement of the mother would have affected the son. That almost becomes a subterranean subtheme.

The following opening passage of ‘The Chinese at the Doorstep’ is a case in point.

One recalled the oddest things: I remember a toy-shop in a Knightsbridge arcade where I used to go when very unhappy, during my first days in London, in order to buy small delicate glass toys which I later smashed, one by one, in the fireplace of my flat, with a malediction against anything beautiful.”

Moraes had a complex relationship with his mother. And in the essays that are a throwback to his childhood days, you meet a helpless child unable to make up his mind whether he loves his mother for who she is, or is indifferent to her — seeing her from a distance with a sense of fright and awe.

As the book progresses, the world of Moraes opens up further. ‘The Chinese at the Doorstep’ (1959) is about a sudden journey to Sikkim and surrounding places. There is a tension in the place that it’s abuzz with Chinese spies, and that China is engaged in incursions and military build-up in the Indian border states. The year is 1959 and developments are admittedly a precursor to the things to come in 1962. Written more than half a century ago, the essay reads disturbingly current. The essay’s narrative is much tauter, almost like a spy thriller, than the other essays.

Since the global brouhaha about climate change is not older than roughly a decade and half, we tend to locate all climate disasters to recent times, having settled into the belief that the past generations were coexisting with nature in peace and harmony. However, the subcontinent has always been home to extreme climate events going back to the 18th century.

“Geography as well as history has always been linked to East Pakistan.” When I read this sentence, the first sentence in ‘Death by Water’ (1970), I thought I was in for an account of the atrocities on the Hindu population of East Pakistan during that period but was surprised to find an extremely well-informed report on a cyclone which had hit the region in 1970. The sea level had risen to a great height creating a ‘water wall’, according to eyewitnesses, which had then crashed on the land raging inland with a monster force and then stopping and moving back into the sea. The next day when helicopters were sent to survey the damage, bodies of humans and cattle were found floating in the sea, river and crevices. 

In ‘Dispatches from Indonesia’ (1972), Moraes visits a country under the tyrannical rule of General Suharto. The dictator had come to power seven years before his visit through a military coup, and immediately after, there was a crackdown on the intelligentsia. Some were executed and some sent to prison camps. Moraes travels to one such prison camp outside the city and meets two famous prisoners, Suprapto (Soeprapto), the former Attorney General, and Pramudja (Pramudya Ananta Tur), a famous writer. Their lives are a reflection of the losses and tragedies the critics of the regime suffered.

In ‘The Company of Dacoits’ (1981), Moraes withdraws from the world of dictators and devastating floods and enters the rugged terrain of dacoits.  We meet Lajjaram, who is dead and whose body is being constantly mishandled by the police, and Lakshman Singh Rathore, alias Lachhi, an eighteen-year-old boy who was thrust into dacoity by his circumstances, first to seek help to avenge his father being deceived, and then to pay for the help received by becoming a fulltime bandit. The rest of the essay is about Lachhi trying to get himself acquitted of the crimes committed by other dacoits in his group. 

Likewise, the other pieces also deal with human conditions in varied settings.                    

The essays are undoubtedly dated, but the subjects they deal with brim with recency: human disaster, tyrannical govt, national expansionism, inaccessibility of justice. Over a period of time, these subjects, of course, have acquired a new lexicon: territorial conflict, climate change, human right excesses and so on.

The collective time span of the pieces is almost 60 years. Dom Moraes’s gaze is that of a writer, rather than of a journalist, always looking out for human tragedies, helplessness and intricacies within bigger narratives of climate disaster, military coups and national conflicts.

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Indrasish Banerjee has been writing and publishing his works for quite some time. He has published in Indian dailies like Hindustan Times and Pioneer, and Café Dissensus, a literary magazine. Indrasish is also a book reviewer with Readsy Discovery. Indrasish stays and works in Bangalore, India. 

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Stories

Eyes of the Python


Written in Tamil by S.Ramakrishnan, translated by Dr.B.Chandramouli

Raghav dreamed of a python again. He had never dreamed of a snake till he was thirty. But ever since he married seven months ago, the python had recurred several times in his dreams. Mirudhula was to blame.

She was fond of pythons. When she admired one, her eyes would widen as if she were swishing her tongue at a delicious gulab jamun. In confusion, he used to wonder: “What kind of woman is she?”

In the city zoo, there was a cage with an artificial tree containing a twelve-foot python. They did not know where they got it; it was the first thing they went to see as newlyweds.

“Ragav, look at its eyes. They flash with a secret. Its texture, the style of its coils, the small movements, all of it are amazing. I like it; I want to hold it in my lap,” said Mirudhula.

Ragav hid his fear and asked, “Should we go?”

“We just arrived. Why are you rushing?” she said, standing near the barrier, watching it with interest.

He could not understand what interested her.

“You know it is non-poisonous. Even at school, I got a prize for drawing a python,” said Mirudhula.

“It is still a snake,” said Ragav. She was snapping pictures with her mobile. A boy who came there hid behind his mother with closed eyes. His mother was pulling him forward, urging him to look.

Ragav left her alone and went to see the white tiger. When he returned, she was still admiring the python. He felt irritated to see her slowly licking an ice cream cone and watching the motionless python.

Young newlyweds go to the movies only. Mirudhula was not interested in the movies; in all of her 26 years, she had seen only less than ten.

“I fall asleep at the cinema,” she said. He could never fall asleep in a movie theater.

In his college days, he would watch all three new releases for Diwali and Pongal non-stop. The three movie theatres in his town changed movies twice a week. In a week he saw six movies, mostly second shows. If it was too late to go home, he would sleep on friend’s open terrace and in the morning, go to the college from straight from there.

Why did he marry a girl who disliked movies – he wondered.

 Mirudhula was a salesperson for a multinational company. She was the single daughter of a dentist. She graduated from Manipal University after attending an Ooty convent. Having worked in Italy for two years, she was fluent in four or five languages. She made 1.5 lakhs per month.

They connected on a matrimonial site. When they first met in Amethyst’s coffee shop, her perfume intoxicated him. He couldn’t take his eyes off of her black and yellow salwar-kameez.

She spoke fluently and naturally with a fake smile on her face, as if speaking to a customer. She ordered an orange ice-tea, which Ragav had never tasted.

Twice, she repeated the same question: “Are you the only offspring?”

“Yes. My father is a college professor and my mom a schoolteacher,” he replied.

“Thank God you aren’t a teacher too,” she said. He didn’t get what was funny about it but laughed politely. Her charming beauty seduced him, as one might desire decorated pineapple pieces in a five-star hotel.

She seemed to be purposefully using a seductive voice.

“May I know how much you weigh?” she asked.

No girl has ever asked him that. Feeling shy, he said, “Sixty-eight”.

“You must lose 5kg, ” she said, smiling.

While opposite her, he felt as if it was drizzling on his face.

She winked, “Do you have any other questions?”

“You are very beautiful,” said Ragav. 

“I am aware of it.”

“I am lucky,” he laughed lightly.

“I’m still deciding – have to think more. I rush nothing.” Mirudhula said, “I am different and difficult to understand.”

“Different how?”

“I don’t want to scare you off yet, but I am like that only.”

She licked her small lips as she spoke. Her lips were sexy; the upper one was slightly smaller.

‘I think I am an inch taller than you,” she said.

“Is that so?” he exclaimed. “It is not a problem.” 

“It would be a problem for me. You should wear platform shoes,” she said.

“Sure. I can do that.”

“Do you drive?” she asked.

“No, I only ride a bike.”

“I got a car as soon as I got the job and drive to work daily. I love driving.”

“That is really cool. We don’t have to use ola then,” he said.

She disliked that comment. Slowly combing her distressed hair, she munched on the orange wedge.

“Aren’t you curious about my car?”

“Sorry. I know nothing about cars.”

She teased him, “Do you walk on the road with your eyes closed?”

“I wear a helmet. I hardly notice anything else.”

While she ate a sugar cube, she regarded him quietly. Her eyes seemed to seek something in him. What was she looking for? He could not stand her scrutiny.  

She smiled. “We will meet again.”

 Her perfume lingered long after she left. Ragav picked up and tasted a sugar cube just like her.

It was the first of their three dates. After that, their families got together and arranged the wedding. Unlike traditional marriage hall weddings, theirs was a lavish affair at a beach resort. Mirudhula’s father spared no expense. They honeymooned in Hawaii. She enjoyed varied foods, including fish. Raghav craved rice.

Even when she was kissing him in bed, Mirudhula was slow and deliberate. Her kiss was emphatic. Her embrace was slow and long. Their lovemaking was urgent and refreshing, like eating ice cream in the summer.

They temporarily stayed at Mirudhula’s apartment upon returning to Chennai. Mirudhula was serious about renting a new home. She rented a flat on the top floor of a newly built apartment building with 34 floors.

Ragav said, “A first-floor flat would have been nice.”

“One must live in the highest location possible. It is nice to see the city beneath my feet,” she said.

He felt uncomfortable living so far up.  What if the lift failed? What if the balcony glass barrier cracked? Why was there so much glare in the morning? His mind bubbled with doubts, questions, and fears. But her morning routine was to stand on the balcony with the morning brew in the hand and admire the sprawling city below. The fast wind blew her hair in waves. He disliked standing on the balcony.

Mirudhula was a great cook, but she only cooked when she liked it. The other times, they catered from the hotel only. She was never late for work. Even at home, she never seemed to rest and kept moving. Ragav, however, liked to relax on the sofa after work. On Sundays, he slept until noon. Not her.  She exercised every morning. She took great care of her figure and health.

Leaving together by car, she dropped him off at the metro station and proceeded to her workplace. She never drove him to work. She often got home by 9 p.m., whereas he was back by 6 p.m.

While waiting for her, he watched television. Occasionally, he cooked for himself. All his dreams of married life were dashed in a few weeks. He felt that his life was like a book read and finished in a hurry.

One day Mirudhula fought, saying he lacked toilet etiquette. He yelled at her another day for storing Chinese food in the fridge that smelled foul. Despite the petty fights, she often surprised him with gifts. He too took her shopping every week without fail. To appease her, he ate in some restaurants that he disliked. Her poise was evident in her every action.

She had the habit of buying strange things online. She bought wall mounted blue lights for the bedroom. The rotating blue light made the room look like a pool. When she moved around in the room, it was as if in a dream.

Another time, he was busy at work when she sent him a video and texted him to watch it right away. It was a revolting scene that showed a python swallowing a baby monkey.

Angrily, he called her and demanded to know why she sent him that video.

“Did you see? The python swallows the monkey and turns, looking eerily silent…something strange…”

“Isn’t the baby monkey unfortunate?”

“Snakes eat when they’re hungry–anything wrong in that?”

“Don’t send such videos anymore. Why would I look at them?”

“I liked the video so much I watched it 30 times today. You are my better half, so I shared it with you.”

 He cut the call with “Stupid”

It was two days before they spoke again. He became more enraged when she ignored his anger.

That Sunday, she made many of his favorite dishes. She deliberately wore a silk sari. Showered him with kisses; his anger melted away.

A few days later, she told him while leaving for work, “I’ll get a package; accept it but don’t open it. I’ll open it.”

“What package?” he asked.

“Surprise” she laughed.

A guy delivered a big box, just as she said. It came from Taiwan.

Despite being curious, he did not open it, not wanting to anger her.

Unusually, she called before coming home that day: “Did the package arrive?””

“They delivered it in the afternoon itself,” he said.

“Can I get you something from McDonalds?” she asked.

Knowing she wasn’t planning to cook, he replied, “Pick it up yourself.”

She asked, “What sweet would you like?”.

“I’ve given up sweets,” he said flatly.

She cut the line by saying, “Well, we’re eating today.”

Mirudhula came home carrying two bags. One package contained food and the other sweets. Was it her birthday today? He wondered. Then he remembered her birthday was on May 8th. He could not figure out what was special about that day.

 The package she carefully unwrapped contained a rubber python folded six times. She caressed it lovingly.

“Touch it and see how soft it is”

“What is this for, Mirudhula?” he asked.

“They have included a hand pump to inflate it; please help me,” she said

He took the hand pump and inflated the rubber python through a port. He watched it slowly expand. The snake unraveled to over ten feet of smooth coils. She wore it on her shoulders and smiled.

“Come close… let us wear it together,” she said.

As he grudgingly consented, she wrapped the inflated python around his shoulder as well.

“How is it? Can you feel the silky touch?” she asked.

“It feels strangely slimy, “he said as he tried shaking it off.

“I searched online and ordered it from Taiwan for 300 dollars,” she said.

“It’s not worth it. What made you buy it? I don’t like it,” said Ragav.

“I will spend my money as I wish. You like nothing.” She said, reclining on the sofa, hugging the python. He was a bit scared to look at her. As she stroked the python’s head, she stroked it with her cheek; only its tail was dangling outside the sofa.

“Ragav, I am thrilled today. Let us celebrate.”

“What is there to celebrate?”

“You won’t understand. Even before we were married, I said I was different. You even nodded your head.”

“That doesn’t mean you should have a Python at home… who would do that?”

“This is not a true snake, just a toy.”

“Why do you need a toy?”

“Then why do you have a fish tank? You like watching fish, right? Did I question it?”

“It is not the same.”

“It is all the same. Look Ragav. Whether you like it or not — us living together means compromising on some things I like.”

“There is no such rule.”

“No problem.  I don’t need your permission, anyway.” She laughed and sat down on the couch to watch an Italian channel. When she was angry, she would speak in a foreign language and watch foreign language channels.

Ragav locked himself in his room. His anger took a long time to subside. She might even bring the rubber python to the bedroom, he thought. Luckily, she left it on the sofa. She ate alone and came to bed as if nothing had happened.

She took the python to the bathroom the next day. She rubbed soap suds on it as she played with it in the shower. The wet python dried on the balcony.

He suppressed his rage and left for the office.

In the car, Mirudhula said, “You are overreacting, it’s just a toy.” This is like you playing video games; try to understand.”

He did not reply. That day, she drove him to his office on purpose. He came home to find the dried python in the hall, left there by the maid. He was furious.

When he touched its body, it felt like a snake but with motionless eyes. The plastic tongue twitched when he pressed its head. In the mirror, his visage looked strange as he wore the snake, like she did. It was such an expensive costume. What would someone from his hometown think? What is so special about this python?

 He deflated the python. Folding the rubber shell, he cast it in the kitchen corner. It was the first thing she looked for when Mirudhula got home at 9.30 pm. Not finding it, she shouted, “What did you do with the python?”

“It is in the kitchen”

“You would have deflated it, I know.” She said, walking to the kitchen.

“Yes. It is disgusting to look at.”

“The problem is yours. What you did is inevitable; you’re a pervert.”

“I’m not perverted. Does anyone else keep a python at home?”

“I don’t care if others keep it or not. I’m not like others.”

“You are adamant.”

“Yes. I am like that only.” She said, deliberately inflating the python with the hand pump. It grew much larger than its usual size. She walked to the bedroom, lovingly hugging the python. Loud music blared. Maybe she was dancing with the python.

Ragav slept on the sofa that night. The python accompanied her to work in the morning. In the lift, an old man asked her, “Is that a rubber toy? Where do they sell it?”

“Taiwan” she said, laughing.

“I’ve seen a python in the Assamese forests,” said the old man.

She put the python in the back seat. She did not drive him to work that day. He rode to work on his bike. He could not concentrate at work. When he spoke to his mother, he told her what had transpired.  His mother asked incredulously, “A rubber snake? Why did she buy it?”

“Who knows? She is a strange type.”

His mother was shocked. “Thank goodness she did not buy a live snake”

“She might even do that. I don’t know what to do.”

He heard his mother cursing in anger. Perhaps she spoke to Mirudhula’s father. Mirudhula’s mom called her the next day.

“Why did you talk to others about our problems?” Mirudhula demanded.

“I told my mother only.”

“Are you a schoolboy to run to your mother? What do you have in your mind? Am I crazy?”

“Yes.”

“I can’t live up to your expectations, Ragav.”

“I understood it very well long ago.”

“Then you better close your eyes and ears.  If you complain again like this to my folks, I do not know what I will do.”

“Why do you torture me? You can leave if you don’t like to live with me.”

“Why should I leave? I will stay here.”

“Well, I will leave then.”

Walking to the balcony with the python, she said, “It’s your choice.”. Leaning on the barrier, she held the snake up, and it wave in the air. To express his anger, he left for work early in the morning.

He arrived home late that night. The home was empty. He didn’t bother to look for her. She did not return the next day as well. He rang her father, but his father did not pick up the phone. After three days, Mirudhula called him one afternoon. “I have decided Ragav. I am leaving”              

“It is your choice.”

“The house cost me over two lakhs. You must return it. I have informed the owner that I will vacate the home, since I have paid for the advance. You better find a new place. Our marriage was a bad dream. That is all I can say.” She hung up.

Ragav thought she’d return after her anger subsided. He couldn’t stand her stubborn behavior. He wanted to call her back and give a piece of his mind. When he called again, she did not pick up the phone.

Upon returning home that night, he discovered she had emptied the house of her clothes and belongings. But she had left behind the rubber python, which lay alone in the middle of the hall.

Why did she leave it behind? It was the root of all their problems. What was she seeking? Her wants were so weird.

He kicked the rubber snake with his foot, but even then, his rage did not fade.

To vent his anger, he trampled the snake with his feet. After deflating it, he took it to the balcony and cast it into the wind.

 Flying in the air, the snake looked beautiful indeed. 

Glossary

Gulab jamun: Indian sweets

Diwali, Pongal: Festivals

S. Ramakrishnan is an eminent Tamil writer who has won the Sahitya Akademi Award in the Tamil Language category in 2018. He has published 10 novels, 20 collections of short stories, 75 collections of essays, 15 books for children, 3 books of translation and 9 plays. He also has a collection of interviews to his credit. His short stories are noted for their modern story-telling style in Tamil and have been translated and published in English, Malayalam, Hindi, Bengali, Telugu, Kannada and French.  

Dr.Chandramouli is a retired physician.. He is fluent in English and Tamil. He has done several English to Tamil, and Tami to English. He has published some of them.

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Categories
Review

Beyond the Veil: A Book Review by Aruna Chakravarti

                                                                              

Title: Beyond the Veil

Author: Devika Khanna Narula

An important task for those committed to tracking the path of women’s Issues, past and present, is to embark on a study of the academic discourses on gender sparked off by feminist scholars and activists — an area that is fast gaining ground all over the world. Yet there is another dimension to the effort. It also involves an exploration of creative writing generated by sensitive, imaginative feminism. It is important to understand that concepts such as Patriarchy, Agency and Resistance are not limited to feminist debate and discourse. They are equally and dynamically present in poetry and fiction. In India, the field of feminist creative writing is growing rich with promise every day.

One such endeavour is Devika Khanna Narula’s novel Beyond the Veil.  A work of epical dimensions it operates on a vast canvas. Vast both in terms of space and time, it spans half a century, between 1900 and 1950. It offers interesting insights into life as lived by upper class and middle-class women during a momentous period of Indian history. A time when a mass resistance against British rule was spreading all over the country culminating in the independence of India. A movement in which some women also participated.

Spatially the narrative shuttles between two families from two different parts of India linked by marriage. They belong to different cultures though they come from a common stock. They are the Punjabis of Lahore and the Punjabi Khatris of Bandhugarh, a fictional name for Bardhaman, in West Bengal. The founder of the Kapoor family in Bandhugarh, came from Punjab in the sixteenth century and, by sheer dint of merit and hard work, amassed lands and wealth. His progeny followed in his footsteps, established themselves as zamindars and, at some point, were dignified by the title of Rajah by the British.

The Khannas of Punjab and the Kapoors of Bandhugarh seem very different in externals. The first belongs to the ‘small business’ class. The other is related to royalty. One is of pure Punjabi extraction. The other, though from the same genetic type, is highly Bengalised having lived in Bengal over many generations. They speak Bengali, eat Bengali food, dress like Bengalis, worship in Bengali temples and use idioms and expressions that serve to accentuate the effects of defamiliarization and alienness among the daughters-in-law who, in an effort to keep the bloodline pure, are brought from the old pristine stock.

These women face the challenges their upheaval brings in its wake. They are required to come to terms with another kind of life, learn to adapt to a new environment, cope with taunts about their dissimilarities and conquer their fears and insecurities. It works both ways. Roopmati, coming from Punjab has to turn herself into a Bengali in her marital home. Her daughter, brought up as a Bengali in Bandhugarh, is wed to a young man in Lahore and has to adapt to a different set of priorities and values for which she is totally unprepared.

Yet, scratch the surface and the fates of women, whether in Punjab or Bengal, are identical. Denial of education, economic dependence on the male, social conditioning over generations and the suppression of individual identity by an oppressive ‘joint family’ ideology are present across the spectrum. Humiliation and desertion by husbands, violence—physical and mental, molestation and rape both marital and by other males of the family are normalized and hidden from view. Adherence to tradition have rendered other horrors acceptable and inevitable. The custom of Sati and Purdah, female infanticide and neglect of the girl child are part of a patriarchal system that exists in both communities.

The strange thing is that the women who suffer these indignities, day in and day out, are the very ones who are entrusted with perpetuating the system. Males set the rules but females are expected to implement them. And many do. Mindlessly like automatons. Some even enjoy the process. Because this is the only area of dominance men have relegated to women. Women like Bebe of Bandhugarh and Rukmini of Lahore enjoy power through a determined subjugation of the younger women of the family, particularly the daughters-in-law. They also see it is as their duty to break the clay of the other and force it into the patriarchal family mould. 

The world in which the young women of Beyond the Veil live is cold and dark. But occasionally a shaft of sunlight pierces through the clouds. Some women upset the status quo from time to time. These are rebels who expect consideration and fair play. They demand change. The mother and daughter duo Roopmati and Maina are two such women. It is heartening to see that, under their influence, their husbands too develop sensitivity and compassion for the women in their households. Other males follow suit. The curtain falls on a world slowly waking from slumber.

The ambience of both worlds is created with great sensitivity and detail. Descriptions of food eaten, clothes worn, journeys undertaken and the joys and sorrows of day-to-day living are totally credible. The narrative flows smoothly unmarred by jolts and jars. The topography of Lahore, Karachi and Bandhugarh of those days is authentic and accurate. Life as it is lived in, whether it is the Khanna family or the Kapoor, the cultural differences come through with clarity and precision. Events and locales are rooted in history and dates are adhered to. Names of streets, restaurants, railway stations, cinema halls… even the films that were shown in them a century ago… can be put to the test and will not fail. Best of all are the local legends and myths that have grown around communities and families, rivers and lakes, temples and mansions. The book is a storehouse of information of a bye gone era.

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Aruna Chakravarti has been the principal of a prestigious women’s college of Delhi University for ten years. She is also a well-known academic, creative writer and translator with fourteen published books on record. Her novels JorasankoDaughters of JorasankoThe Inheritors have sold widely and received rave reviews. Suralakshmi Villa is her fifteenth book. She has also received awards such as the Vaitalik Award, Sahitya Akademi Award and Sarat Puraskar for her translations.

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Categories
Poetry

Gandhi & the Robot

Written in Manipuri by Thangjam Ibopishak, translated by Robin S Ngangom

Gandhi and Robot
 
A long time ago
Nehruji owned a robot gifted by Russia,
that could chant a thousand ‘Hare Ramas’
in a minute!
Vallabhaiji possessed a Gandhi borrowed from Birla,
that could spin ten balls of thread
on the charkha every hour.
Vikram Sarabhai proclaimed on Republic Day:
I’ll create a new pilgrimage site for science 
at Trombay.
 
In Delhi’s Red Fort, donkeys bray
with parched throats on an empty stomach;
the dhobis who rear them feed them
old copies of the ‘Harijan’ newspaper
by tearing them into bits.
 
Today, sadhus announce:
we will build a pagoda at Pokhran
to shelter the ‘New Buddha’.
Elated, I cried:
‘Bravo, Bharat, bravo!’

(from The Smell of Man, Red River, 2021)

Thangjam Ibopishak (b 15 February 1948) is one of the leading Manipuri poets. Based in Imphal, he taught Manipuri literature at GP Women’s College and has published 10 volumes of poetry, three of which earned him some of the most prestigious awards in the state, including the Manipur State Kala Akademi Award in 1986, the Jamini Sunder Guha Gold Medal in 1989, the first Jananeta Irabot Award in 1997 and the Kavi Ratna Dr Kamal Memorial Award in 2012. He has also published two books of essays and a memoir. Ibopishak also won the Sahitya Akademi Award for poetry in 1997 for The Ghost and the Mask, and the Manipur State Award for Literature in 2009.

Robin S Ngangom is a bilingual poet and translator who writes in English and Manipuri. Born in Imphal, he studied literature at St Edmund’s College and the North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong, where he currently teaches. His poems have appeared in The New Statesman (London), Verse (Georgia), Kunapipi (Denmark), Planet: the Welsh Internationalist (Ceredigion), The Literary Review (New Jersey), The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry (HarperCollins India), These My Words (Penguin India), Chandrabhaga (Cuttack), Kavya Bharati (Madurai). Ngangom describes his poetry as ‘mostly autobiographical, written with the hope of enthusing readers with my communal or carnal life — the life of a politically-discriminated against, historically-overlooked individual from the nook of a third world country’. His third book of poetry, The Desire of Roots, was published by Red River.

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Categories
Review Tribute

Under the Shadow of Death: Memoirs of Tagore’s Last Days

To Commemorate Tagore’s 80th Death anniversary, we present a review of Somdatta Mandal’s translation of memoirs around Tagore’s last days with a forward by Professor Fakrul Alam

Book Review by Meenakshi Malhotra

Title: The Last Days of Rabindranath Tagore in Memoirs

Translator/ Editor: Somdatta Mandal

Publisher: Birutjatio Sahitya Sammiloni, 2021

The Last Days of Rabindranath Tagore in Memoirs, selected, edited, translated, and put together from the original Bangla by Somdatta Mandal, hovers along a fine line between biography, autobiography and perhaps a bit of hagiography around the account of a life lived in the shadow of imminent death. Mandal draws on all these genres to create a rich chiaroscuro of effects, with a chorus of the memoirs of a few caregivers, mostly women, who were in close proximity to Tagore and served and took care of him in the last year of his life.

Criss-crossing between bouts of illness and creativity, the caregivers also doubled as scribes and notetakers, transcribing the precious words of the great poet. Together, they create an incredibly rich web of narratives, which have been very ably selected and translated by Professor Somdatta Mandal. The memoirs also convey a sense and flavour of the place, whether it is Santiniketan, Jorasanko, Kalimpong or Mongpu — the various places and haunts of Rabindranath in the twilight of his life. The interesting thing is that many of these ancillary memoirs were written by young people who later became famous as writers and artists, their talents often nurtured, encouraged and incubated by the greatly revered poet himself.

The titles of their respective memoirs attest to their unique writerly talents: ‘Nirbaan’ by Pratima Devi, representing a release and freedom from a painful state. Rani Chanda, the second section talks about the ‘alapchari’(Musical) Rabindranath and Gurudev, highlighting his sensitivity to and concern for others.  Mongpu-te Rabindranath and Swarger Kachakachi (Rabindranath at Mongpu and Close to Heaven) by Maitreyi Devi are deeply evocative pieces. Nirmalkumari’s “22nd Shravan” is perhaps given the most space by the editor/translator and shows his anxieties about the fate of the university built by him, a unique educational experiment very dear to his heart. Living in the shadow of the great man, it is as if each memoir and person measures up their life which gains in meaning and significance, as a result of the unique legacy bequeathed to them, with love and affection, by the poet.    

In reflecting and refracting, through the prism of their care and service, the closing year of Rabindranath’s life, the memoirs lay bare several facts. The bard was often a difficult patient, experiencing several crests and troughs as far as his moods — creative and otherwise — were concerned. Too intelligent and perceptive to avoid facts, he could see his imminent death, but did not want his caregivers to be morose and mournful. On them, fell the job of entertaining him, creating laughter and fun, in which he would participate when his health permitted him. He was less scared of death, he said, than of surgery advocated by his very eminent doctors like Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy (later he Chief Minister of West Bengal from 1948-1962) and Dr Nilratan Sarkar.

That this book is a labour of love is evident from Professor Mandal’s careful selection and editing, as well as her meticulous and competent translation. She has presented the momentous and moving final months of Rabindranath Tagore’s eventful life up to the day of his death which witnessed an outpouring of grief from many quarters. It is the final months of his life which is transcribed and inscribed by his memorialists, among whom are Pratima Devi, his daughter-in-law and son Rathindranath’s wife; Rani Chanda, his secretary Anil Chanda’s wife and a writer herself; Maitreyi Devi, the well-known writer and a protégé and favourite of Tagore’s; Nirmalkumari Mahalanabis, whose exchanges with the kobi-guru (great poet) have been detailed in Kobi and Rani (translated by Professor Mandal in 2020) and Amita Thakur, his granddaughter.

The first selection Pratima Devi’s ‘Nirbaan’ (1942) demonstrates his faith in and affection for his conscientious daughter-in-law, who, along with Rani Chanda and others, become an embodiment of care and nurture. He is aware of being a difficult patient and this awareness, which shines through in many of his comments and pet peeves, not only redeems him, but makes him more human. Musing “fondly on the poet’s twilight moments” while punning on the Robi (Bangla for sun) in the poet’s name, Maitreyi Devi, a Sahitya Akademi award-winning novelist writes: “The almost setting sun…was no less pleasant than the glory and radiance of the afternoon sun” and even within the sickroom, the poet continued “playing” his tunes, along with the march of time.

In his sensitive and nuanced foreword, Professor Fakrul Alam points out the memorialists’ refusal to minimize or sentimentalize Gurudev’s illness. In fact, Rani (Nirmalakumari Mahalanobis) expresses her impatience and criticism of the happenings and the people around the poet in the last stages. Amita Thakur, Rabindranath’s granddaughter was a notable exponent of his songs in her time, and he would depend on her to note down the songs as they came to him. Her work is chosen, says Alam, “as a coda for her assemblage of extracts from the memoirs of the five devoted caregivers who were women who had served him selflessly for sustained periods.”

The literary and archival value of such a work is undeniable and its benefits for exploring literary culture is immense. Between its glimpses of a towering giant in the world of letters with a truly international perspective to its comments about Tagore’s closeness to women and his seeking women as caregivers, the collection is also a testament to Tagore’s faith in the selfless capacity of women.

The book and Rabindranath’s close relationship with his many caregivers and later, memoirists, sometimes created a family dynamic of some tension between his natal family and adopted one. At one point, Maitreyi Devi (called “Mongpobi” or “Mitra” by the poet) talks of the negative comments made about her by Indira Debi (Bibi), one of Tagore’s favourite nieces, daughter of Satyendranath Tagore and Jnadanandini Debi. Later however, Maitreyi Devi also mentions the kindness shown to her by Indira Debi when they are together in Santiniketan.

Like in Kobi and Rani, the memoirs of Rani Mahalanobis (called Prathama or first to differentiate her from Rani Chanda who was referred to as Dwitiya or second) show the many facets of the great man himself — his many moods from his mellow moods even when he was in extreme pain to his irascible mood to his playful and humorous moments. It is to the credit of the editor/translator that she has organised and arranged the material very skillfully to bring out his mercurial nature, his flashes of temper and his expectation that his caregivers would wear their responsibilities lightly.

Overtly committed to personal memory, life narratives and biographies occasionally come  close to hagiography. They also lay bare a  performativity inscribed in the very form, implicit in the relationship between the great man/ luminary and those who are satellites in his orbit. The many layers of feeling get reflected in a plurality of forms that are both sedimented and fluid in structure — comprising letters, diaries, poems, fragments. These innovative narrative structures are evolved to convey through an overlapping of various genres: non-fiction, poetry, memoir, autobiography, letters, etc. Extending well beyond any coherent theoretical coordinates to streamline its disparate forms, life narratives are as much constructed by an individual artist — subject as they are the product of her/his intersecting textures of historical, social, political, economic, and cultural contexts.

The socio-cultural context  is specifically that of the progressive environment of Santiniketan and Vishwa Bharati. We see how the ambience of cultural efflorescence and Brahmo liberal ideas helped shape these young women. Perhaps, because of the reformist cast of Brahmo womanhood or the holistic educational schemes fostered by Tagore, in his caregivers, we see the emergence of relatively independent or mobile women, cast in agentic roles of decision making. We see an extraordinary sense of  a tightly-knit community of caregivers whether in Pratima Devi and Maitreyi Devi during the harrowing journey back from Kalimpong to Calcutta when Tagore’s illness worsens, the encounters of Maitreyi Devi with British doctors in Kalimpong or the journey undertaken by Maitreyi from Mongpu along with her young daughter immediately after a landslide, when her husband, Manmohan Sen, undertakes  to get the landslide cleared.

With a vibrant assembly of many pictures and voices, the story emerges from a collage. Piecemeal in bits and pieces, like the oranges sent to Rabindranath by Maitreyi Devi from Mongpu. Each experience, like the fruit, is savoured slowly and with relish. The remaining fruit, both actually and figuratively/symbolically, is given to the students.

A life, even one as extraordinary as Rabindranath Tagore’s, unfolds in time, simultaneously, it also participates in eternity. Thus, even as his nearness and the promise of proximate greatness draws his mentees into his magical orbit, we see him worrying about his imminent death and the fate of Santiniketan. We have to also see the life of the women, details of which get inscribed in their memoirs. The demands placed upon them are often relegated to the margins as they form part of the enchanted circle around the ailing poet, who at times seems to assert his claim on their time, albeit often  in jest, sometimes in a semi-serious way, competing for their attention with their other affections and preoccupations. Their lives, they realise, are given significance and irradiated by his presence, endowed with value through the care they could extend to the great soul.  

Ultimately the collection testifies to the power of great literature and poetry. As the poet himself says:

“Of course, literature is based upon lies — from beginning to end. Whatever I have said, whatever I am saying, how much of that is true? I have done a lot of farming for 80 years. I cannot vouch that all the grains will be stored in the barn. Some will be eaten by rats, but even then, something would be left behind. I cannot say that with certainty, eras change, times change and along with that everything also changes. But I can say with certainty that my songs will last the longest. Especially Bengalis will have no other way except to sing my songs in grief, sorrow, joy and happiness. They will have to go on singing them for ages.”

Kumar Sri Jayantanath is aptly quoted in Appendix B of the memoirs: “There is nothing new to say about Rabindranath because whatever we had to say has already been said by him.” Therefore, we pay a tribute to the poet in the poet’s own words:

You had brought along with you

 Deathless soul

In your death you have

Donated that

You have donated that

In your death.”

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  Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor of English Literature at Hansraj College, University of Delhi, and has been involved in teaching and curriculum development in several universities. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender, literature and feminist theory.       

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