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Abhagi’s Heaven

A poignant story by Saratchandra Chattopadhyay translated by Sahitya Akademi winner, Aruna Chakravarti

Sarat Chandra Chatterjee (1876-1938)

Only seven days of fever and Thakurdas Mukhopadhyay’s wife passed away….

Old Mukhopadhyay moshai*, grown extremely wealthy from a flourishing business in rice and paddy, had four sons and three daughters — all with children of their own. Sons-in-law, grandchildren, neighbours and servants filled the rooms in a measure that befitted not a house of death but of jubilation. Men, women and children from the entire village crowded at the gates in the hope of catching a glimpse of the splendid funeral procession which would accompany the dead woman to her final resting place. Her weeping daughters lined her parting with sindoor and covered her feet with alta*. Her daughters-in-law dressed her in a resplendent new sari and adorned her brow with sandal paste.  Then, wiping the last traces of dust from her feet with their sari ends, touched them reverently to their foreheads. Flowers, garlands and basil leaves, clouds of fragrant incense smoke and the resounding clamour and bustle turned the day of mourning into a joyous replica of the one, fifty years ago, when the mistress of the great house had first set out on her ceremonial journey to her husband’s home.

Bidding a last farewell to his companion of nearly a lifetime old Mukhopadhyay moshai dashed away the tears from his eyes with a surreptitious hand and assuming a serene expression tried to comfort the weeping women.

And now the magnificient cortege started on its way to deafening cries of Bolo Hari Hari Bol*!  As soon as it left the gates the assembled crowd of villagers scrambled after it. Only one woman hung back. She had stood apart from the rest all this while and now she followed fearfully keeping a discreet distance from the others. This pale shadowy creature was Kangali’s mother.

She had been on her way to the weekly haat* with a few aubergines she had picked from the bushes outside her hut when the marvellous spectacle caught her eyes, leaving her spellbound. She forgot the aubergines bundled in a corner of her sari. Forgotten, too, were her hopes of selling them and coming home with a few coins. Brushing away the tears from her streaming eyes she followed the crowd to the cremation ghat that stood on a bank of the Garud river. Standing on a mound, a little way off, she looked on with eager eyes at the huge wooden logs, stacks of sandal wood, ghee, honey, camphor and incense that lay beside the bier. She dared not go any closer. She was an untouchable, a Duley by caste, and even her shadow was shunned by the others.

She looked on stoically as the preliminary rituals were being performed but when the body was lowered on the wide platform, she could hold herself in no longer. A sob tore through her throat. A wild desire rose in her. She wanted to rush towards the alta covered feet and touch them to her head. Curbing the impulse with difficulty she gazed at the scene unfolding before her eyes. How beautiful it was! The high-born lady in her priceless sari, her parting thick with sindoor and her fair feet smothered in alta. Her eldest son took up the bunch of flaming jute stalks, purified by the chants of the priests, and touched them to his mother’s lips to the tumultuous cries of Bolo Hari Hari Bol rising from hundreds of throats. Kangali’s mother was so moved that tears poured down her cheeks. “Ma*!” she called out to the dead woman, hands folded in reverence, “What great good fortune is yours! You are on your journey to Heaven leaving behind a grieving husband, sons and daughters, grandchildren, kinsmen, dependents and servants. You are a queen and I a lowly creature not fit to touch your feet. Still, waft a blessing towards me before you go. Grace me with the boon that I too, like you, may receive my last fire from Kangali’s hands.” Fire from a son’s hand!  Her limbs trembled with ecstasy at the thought. Ah! the beauty of it. The glory of it! Her breast heaved with powerful feelings.

Standing on the mound Kangali’s mother strained her eyes on the newly lit pyre from which a column of smoke rose spiralling towards the sky. It stung her eyes rendering her vision blurred and hazy; playing tricks with it. She saw a tiny chariot, she could swear to it, at the tip of the bluish grey swirl just where it met the sky. Exotic images were etched in gold on the sides. The crest was entwined with flowering vines. There was someone sitting within. She could not see her face bur recognized her easily from the wide parting filled with sindoor; the feet covered with alta. She gazed at the woman in awe and adoration.

Ma!” She felt a tug at her sari. A boy of about fourteen stood by her side looking at her with bewildered eyes. “Why are you standing here? When will you do the cooking?”

“I will, in a while, son. Look!” She pointed to the sky. “Can you see the chariot? Our chaste and holy mistress, our Bamun Ma*, is sitting in it. It is taking her to Heaven.”

“What chariot? Where?” Kangali’s eyes turned to the pointing finger. “That’s smoke,” he said dismissively. “Smoke from the pyre. You’ve gone crazy Ma.” Then, pouting like a child, he muttered, “It’s hours past noon. Don’t you know I am hungry?” Seeing his mother’s eyes fill up with tears, he added, “Why do you weep because the Brahmin lady is dead? What is it to you?”

Now Kangali’s mother came to her senses. She realised how foolish it was to stand for hours in the cremation ground shedding tears over someone else’s death when her own son went hungry. Besides, a mother’s tears brought bad luck to her children. Wiping her cheeks with a furtive hand she tried to smile, “Why should I weep son? My eyes are watering from the smoke and…”

“Watering from the smoke indeed! You were crying.”

The mother fell silent. Taking Kangali’s hand she climbed down the bank and took a few dips in the river. Making her son do the same she returned home with him. A small sigh escaped her. She would have liked to watch the beautiful ceremony to the end. But fate had ordained otherwise.

Parents are often injudicious in their choice of names for their children. The Creator smiles at their foolishness and dismisses it with the contempt it deserves. But sometimes He is angered and decides to teach the inane mortal a lesson. Then the name so carelessly given turns into a symbol of the innocent child’s fate. From birth to death she hears her name ringing in her ears; jeering, mocking, reminding her of what she can expect.

Kangali’s mother was a young woman. She hadn’t lived long in the world. But she had spent her years, few as they were, tottering under the weight of her name and its implications. Her mother had died in giving her birth. Her father, enraged at the bereavement of which she was the cause, had named her Abhagi — the ill-fated one. Hers had been a childhood with no mother and a father who spent all his time fishing in the river and hobnobbing with his friends with never a thought for the little girl left at home. Yet the tiny creature had not only survived she had grown to womanhood and, in course of time, given birth to Kangali. The man who had married her went by the name of Rasik Bagh. But Bagh, the tiger, had another tigress and one fine day he picked up his things and moved to the village in which she lived, leaving Abhagi alone with her infant son.

That son was now in his fifteenth year. He had just started learning to weave bamboo slips into mats and baskets. Abhagi yearned for the day when he would be earning enough to support them both. “Just another year or so,” she told herself frequently her heart lifting at the thought, “and my troubles will be over…”

.

Kangali ate his meal and went to the pond to wash his hands and rinse his mouth. Returning, he was surprised to see his mother putting away the leftovers in an earthen bowl.

“Why Ma!” he cried out, “Aren’t you going to eat?”

“The day is almost done,” Abhagi muttered, “I’m not hungry anymore.”

“Hunh!” Kangali snorted in disbelief, “Not hungry anymore! You haven’t kept anything for yourself. That’s the truth. Isn’t it?”

It was a trick Abhagi often played when there wasn’t enough food for them both. Kangali knew it. He insisted on examining the rice pot and found there was enough left for one person. And now, convinced that she really wasn’t hungry, he smiled contentedly and came and sat in her lap. It was an odd thing for a boy of fifteen to do but Kangali had been sickly for a large part of his infancy and boyhood and Abhagi had kept him physically close. Unable to romp and frolic with other boys he derived all his pleasure from his mother’s stories and the little games she played with him. Now, twining his arms around Abhagi’s neck and touching her cheek to his he got a shock. “Why Ma!” he exclaimed. “You’re burning with fever!” Then, with a tinge of anger in his voice, he added, “Why did you have to stand in the sun all those hours? And bathe in the river on top of it? What’s there to see in a burning corpse?”

Chhi Baba*!” Abhagi scolded gently putting her hand on his lips. “You shouldn’t use those words. They are sinful. It was not a burning corpse. It was our chaste and pure mistress, our revered Bamun Ma, going to heaven in a golden chariot.”

“What nonsense Ma! As if people go to heaven in golden chariots!”

“I saw it with my own eyes Kangali. She was sitting in the chariot. Her feet were crimson with alta. Everyone saw it.”

“Everyone saw it?”

“Everyone.”

Kangali leaned against his mother’s breast, lost in thought. He believed his mother. He had been reared from infancy to have implicit faith in her. If she said she had seen this extraordinary spectacle and that others had seen it too, who was he to doubt her? “Then,” he said thoughtfully, “you will go to Heaven too. I heard Bindi’s aunt saying to Rakhal’s mother only the other day, ‘There’s not another woman in our Duley clan as chaste and pure as Kangali’s mother.’”

Abhagi was silent.

“When Baba* left you,” the boy continued slowly, hesitantly, “so many men tried to make you agree to a nikaah*. ‘No,’ you said, ‘Why should I take another husband? I have my Kangali. He’ll grow up and take care of me.’” Then, his eyes filling up with tears, he added, “What would have become of me, Ma, if you went away with another man? I would have starved to death.”

Abhagi put her arms around her son and pressed him to her bosom. “Ma go*!” she murmured thinking of those terrible days when the elders of the village were advising her, ceaselessly, to take another husband. But it wasn’t only advice that had been showered on her. She had been pressurized in so many different ways! She had been coaxed and cajoled, warned and threatened. Her ears had been filled with forebodings of her bleak future; of Kangali dying of starvation. But she hadn’t been intimidated. She had clung to her resolve. Kangali saw the tears streaming down his mother’s cheeks and felt his own eyes burn.

“Do you want to lie down Ma? Shall I make up the bed?” he asked gently. Abhagi made no reply. Kangali rolled out the mat and spread a kantha* over it. Plucking a pillow from the machan*, he smoothed it carefully and laid it down. The, taking his mother by the hand, he made her lie down.

“You needn’t go back to work today,” Abhagi said to her son. “Stay with me.”

The idea of skipping work and staying at home appealed to Kangali. But there was a hint of caution in his voice as he said, “They won’t give me the two paisa for today if I…”

“Never mind.” Abhagi smiled. “Come and lie down beside me. I’ll tell you a story.”

Kangali needed no further invitation. Dropping down on the bed he curled his body against his mother’s. “Tell the story of the rajputra and the kotalputra*. And the flying horse,” he said resting his cheek against hers.

Abhagi began her tale of the prince and the policeman’s son and their adventures with the winged horse. It was an old fairytale, heard over and over again, in her childhood. But after a few minutes the two protagonists vanished from her story. As did the horse. She started weaving a web of fantasy that was entirely her own; something she hadn’t heard from anyone at any time in her life. The higher her fever rose, the faster the hot blood pounded in her veins, the more impassioned the telling became and the more intricate her magic web of words. She spun tale after tale, without rest or respite, each more wonderful than the last. Kangali trembled with excitement and goose bumps broke out all over his slight frame. He pushed closer to his mother’s breast and twined his arms around her neck.

And now the sun started dipping in the west. The falling shadows fell faster and pervaded the earth. Dusk crept into Abhagi’s hut. But she did not rise to light the lamp or carry out the last duties of the day. Mother and son lay locked in an embrace, her voice crooning in his ears; sending shivers of thrill down his spine. It was the same story with variations, repeated over and over again. The story of the Brahmin lady’s death. Of the magnificent procession that had accompanied her to her last resting place. Of the chariot in which she had sat on her way to Heaven…her feet crimson with alta. Of her weeping husband bidding her farewell after touching the dust of his feet to her brow. The fervent cries of Bolo Hari Hari Bol as her sons lifted the bier on their manly shoulders. And then…then…the final triumph! Receiving her last fire from the hand of her eldest son…

“That fire was no ordinary fire, son.” Abhagi explained, her breath coming hotter and faster.  “It was Hari Himself! And the smoke rising up to the sky was not smoke. It was the chariot of heaven. Kangalicharan! Baba amaar*!” She cried out in an excess of emotion.

“Why Ma?”

“If you light my pyre with your own hands, I’ll go to Heaven too like Bamun Ma.”

Her words made Kangali uncomfortable. “Jah*!” he said, “You shouldn’t say such things.” But, Abhagi went on as though she hadn’t heard him. “No one will look down upon me then. No one will shun me for my low birth. Oof!” Her face was flushed with excitement and her fevered breath came in gasps. “Fire from my son’s hand! Ah the glory of it! The chariot will have to come down for me. No one can stop it…for all that I am a poor untouchable…”

“Don’t talk like that Ma,” Kangali put his hand on her mouth. “It frightens me.”

“And Kangali,” Abhagi pushed it gently away and continued on her own train of thought. “Get hold of your father when my time comes and bring him here. Tell him he must give me the dust of his feet before I go. And…and my parting must be filled with sindoor and my feet lined with alta. But…but who will do all that for me? You will, won’t you Kangali? You are my son and my daughter. You are all I have.” Bursting into tears she kissed his cheek and laid her wet fevered face against his hair.

And now the drama of Abhagi’s life was nearing curtain call. Only the final scene was left. There hadn’t been much to the play. Her thirty years on the earth hadn’t been remarkable in any way. And neither was her end.

Kaviraj Moshai, the only ayurvedic practitioner in these parts, lived in another village. Kangali ran all the way, fell at his feet and begged him to come and see his mother. Met with a stony silence he went back home, pawned the bell metal pitcher out of which they drank water and paid him his fee of one rupee. Still the great man did not deign to come. He handed Kangali a few pellets of medicine instead.

Instructing him to grind them in a physician’s pestle and mortar, mix the powder with ginger extract, honey and the juice of basil leaves, he told him to feed the potion to his mother in small doses.

Abhagi was amazed at what her son had done. “Why did you pawn the pitcher without asking me Baba?” she rebuked him gently. Then, taking the pellets from his hand she touched them to her forehead and threw them into the kitchen fire. “If I’m fated to live I’ll do so anyway,” she said, “Has anyone in our Bagdi Duley community ever taken a physician’s medicine?”

Two or three days passed. Abhagi’s neighbours heard of her illness and came to see her. They left without any offers of help. But each one knew of a remedy guaranteed to cure the ailing woman. “Water in which a deer’s horn has been soaked just can’t fail,” one of them told Kangali. Another proposed burning cowrie shells and mixing the ash with honey. But the shells could not be ordinary ones. They had to be knuckled cowries. The mixture, fed to the patient, would bring instant relief.

Poor Kangali ran helter skelter in search of these articles till Abhagi caught him by the hand and forced him to stop. “If what the physician gave me was of no use, how can deer’s horn and cowrie shells cure me? Give over running here and there and come and sit by me.”

“But you didn’t take the pellets Kaviraj Moshai gave!” Kangali’s face crumpled like that of a child. “You threw them in the fire. How can you get well if you refuse everything?”

“I’ll get well. Don’t worry. Now wipe your eyes and listen to me. Put the pot on the hearth and boil some rice. Then sit by me and eat it. That will give me more comfort than any remedy in the world.”

Kangali rubbed his eyes with the edge of his dhuti and rose to obey his mother. For the first time in his life he was cooking his own meal. But he could do nothing right. His fire wouldn’t burn properly, his rice boiled down to a mush because he didn’t know how to drain the starch and he spilt half of it when trying to transfer it to his kanshi. Abhagi watched him with an ache in her heart. Once she even tried to rise from her bed, but her head swam and fell back on the pillow.

After the boy had gulped down some of the rice he had cooked, she called him to her side and tried to teach him how it had to be done. But her voice choked in her throat and she couldn’t speak.

Next morning Ishwar, the village barber, came to check Abhagi’s pulse. He was good at this and the villagers sent for him whenever anyone was seriously ill. Taking Abhagi’s limp wrist between his fingers he frowned in thought. Then, sighing and shaking his head, he left the house. Abhagi understood what that meant. But the knowledge brought no fear. When everyone had gone, she whispered in Kangali’s ear, “Go to him now and bring him here. Tell him…”

“Who Ma?”

“Your… you know who. He…who has moved to the other village.”

Baba?”

Abhagi was silent. Kangali gazed on her face for a few moments and asked sadly, “Why would he come here Ma?”

“Tell him…tell him… that all I want is the dust of his feet.  Nothing else.”

Kangali rose to go. Abhagi clutched his hand and said, “Weep and plead a little, son. Tell him Ma is going…” Then, pausing for a few moments, she added, “And on your way back, stop at the barber’s house and ask his wife for a little alta. She is a kind woman and loves me. She will give it to you.”

Abhagi was only partially conscious when Rasik Bagh arrived the next morning. The shadow of death lay dark on her face. Her eyes seemed to have seen whatever there was to see in this world and was opening out to another… a strange, uncharted, faraway world. Kangali wiped his cheeks and cleared his throat. “Wake up Ma,” he shook her gently by the arm, “Baba is here. You wanted the dust of his feet…”

Perhaps the mother heard. Perhaps she didn’t. But the intense desire, hidden deep within her soul, shook her out of her somnolence. The dying woman moved her feeble arm to the edge of the bed and opened her palm. Rasik gazed at her with bewildered eyes. He hadn’t, in his wildest imaginings, thought that the dust of his feet had any value; that anyone could desire it above all else in the world. He stood immobile with shock till Bindi’s aunt, who stood by his side, prompted gently. “Come Baba. Give the poor girl a little dust from your feet.”

Rasik moved forward. His head teemed with thoughts and his chest felt tight with guilt. He had taken this woman as his wedded wife but had given her nothing. Not love, not protection, nor any means of sustenance. He had deprived her of everything that was her due without a thought. Yet she, even on her death bed, wanted nothing from him but the dust of his feet. Rasik Duley burst into tears.

“Such chastity and steadfastness are not to be seen even among Brahmin and Kayastha women,” Rakhal’s mother exclaimed. “Why she had to be born amongst us is beyond me! But a task lies before you Baba,” she turned her eyes on Rasik, “You must arrange a cremation for her. Fire from Kangali’s hand! She has yearned for it throughout her illness. It’s almost as if death is nothing to her if only…”

The Creator who had chalked out the destiny of Abhagi, the ill-fated one, may or may not have heard the words. But they pierced young Kangali’s heart with the sharpness of an arrow.

The day passed and part of the night. Who knows if the chariot of heaven comes down to claim the souls of untouchables! Perhaps they are expected to hobble to their destinations, footsore and weary, in the darkness of night. Whatever be the truth, Abhagi did not wait for the dawn. She left the world before the sky had paled.

There was a wood apple tree growing outside Abhagi’s hut. Borrowing an axe from one of the neighbours, Rasik Duley proceeded to cut some branches from it. But before he could strike a single blow the zamindar’s guard came rushing to the scene. Landing a thundering slap on Rasik’s cheek he yanked the axe from his hand. “Saala!” he shouted, “How dare you touch this tree? Is it your father’s property?” Rasik rubbed his cheek ruefully without saying a word. But Kangali could not keep silent. “My mother planted this tree with her own hands darwanji*,” he protested, “why do you hit Baba?” Mouthing a string of abuses the zamindar’s retainer advanced aggressively. He raised a hand to strike Kangali but dropped it. He had remembered just in time that the boy’s mother had died, and he had, in all probability, touched the corpse.

His curses and threats had, in the meantime, brought some of the neighbours running to the scene. All of them admitted that it was wrong of Rasik to have cut the tree without taking the zamindar’s permission. But they entreated darwanji to use his kind offices and obtain the consent. It had been the dead woman’s earnest desire, they told him, that her body be cremated. She had expressed this wish, over and over again, to everyone who had visited her during her illness. But all these pleas fell on deaf ears. “Don’t try these tricks with me,” the Bihari stalwart waved them away like flies. “I know what I must do.”

The zamindar was not a local man and did not live in the village. But he kept a cutcherry here from which the business of the estate was conducted, and justice dispensed to the tenants. But being an absentee landlord, all magisterial power and responsibility had been vested in the person of the steward Adhar Rai. Now, while the neighbours were still begging and pleading with the durwan Kangali ran, not stopping for breath, all the way to the cutcherry. He had heard that the lesser minions of the estate were corrupt and expected bribes for everything they did. But if the story of this gross injustice reached the zamindar’s ears redress would surely follow. Thus he reasoned. But alas! Young and inexperienced Kangali hadn’t a clue to the true nature of the Bengali zamindar and his appointed officials. Trembling with grief and anxiety the newly bereaved, motherless boy dashed up the steps and stood before the lord and master of the cutcherry.

Adhar Rai had just concluded his morning prayers and eaten a light breakfast in preparation for the day. Coming out on the veranda he was shocked and angered to see the apparition before him. “Ke re?” he thundered, “Who are you?”

“I’m Kangali. Durwanji has beaten my father.”

“Rightly served. He must have defaulted on the rent.”

“No, Babu moshai*. My mother died last night, and my father was cutting the tree in front of our house when…” Unable to go on Kangali burst into tears. At this Adhar Rai lost his temper. “What are you doing here if your mother’s dead?” he snapped. “Get off those steps and stand in the yard.”  Inwardly he shivered with alarm. The boy must have touched the corpse before coming to the cutcherry. Who knew if he had touched anything here? “Ore!” he called out to a servant. “Bring a pot of cowdung water and sprinkle it on the steps and veranda. The whole place is polluted.” Then, turning to Kangali, he asked. “What caste are you?”

Thoroughly frightened by now Kangali ran down the steps and answered meekly, “We are Duley Babu moshai.”

“A Duley’s corpse.” Adhar Rai muttered thoughtfully. “Where’s the need for wood then?”

“My mother wanted a cremation. ‘You must light my pyre with your own hands,’ she said to me over and over again. All the neighbours know. Why don’t you ask them Babu moshai? Everyone heard her…”

“If you want to cremate your mother you must leave five rupees in the cutcherry. That’s the price of the tree.  Can you do it?”

Kangali knew he couldn’t. He had pawned the last vessel in the house, the brass kanshi from which he ate his rice, for one rupee to buy his mourning scarf. He shook his head. “No,” he said softly.  Adhar Rai bared his teeth in a grimace. “Then go bury the corpse on the bank of the river as befits your caste. How dare your father raise an axe to the zamindar’s tree? Is it his father’s property? Good for nothing wretch! Rogue! Scoundrel!”

“But the tree grows in our yard Babu moshai. My mother planted it with her own hands.”

“Hunh! Planted it with her own hands… Pandey!” Adhar Rai called out to the guard. “Take the boy by the scruff of his neck and throw him out of the cutcherry.”

Pandey, in the manner of all faithful retainers, acted even before the words had left his master’s lips. Giving the boy a hard shove, he threw him to the ground mouthing a stream of curses for good measure. Kangali stood up, shook the dust from his dhuti and walked slowly away. His eyes were blank. What had he done to deserve such treatment? He hadn’t a clue.

Adhar Rai saw the expression on the boy’s face but it didn’t make a dent in his conscience. He was made of sterner stuff.  Dusting his hands as at a job well done, he called out to the clerk. “Paresh! Find out if the father has defaulted on the rent. If so, go to his house and confiscate his household goods. Brass  vessels, fishing nets…whatever you find. The bastard might try to escape.”

There were just two days left for the sraddha*. Old Mukhopadhyay moshai was busy supervising the arrangements. His wife’s last rites were to be conducted with all the pomp and fanfare owing to her as a rich man’s wife and the mother of many sons. There was a lot of work to be done.

Thakur moshai*!” Kangali came and stood before him. “My mother’s dead.”

“Who are you?” The old man’s brow furrowed, “What do you want?”

“I’m Kangali. My mother asked me to cremate her.”

“Then go ahead and do it.”

Kangali stood silent not knowing what to say. The story of his treatment at the cutcherry had made the rounds, in the meantime, and many of the villagers were aware of it.  “I think he wants a tree,” one of the men standing by ventured to explain, following it up with details of the boy’s encounter with Adhar Rai.

“What audacity!” Mukhopadhyay moshai cried out in shock, “Wants a tree indeed! That too at a time when I need all the wood I can find for my own event! Just two days are left for the sradhha. I’m neck deep in my own troubles and the brat sails in demanding a tree. Jah! Jah! You’ll get nothing here. Try your luck elsewhere.” The old man walked away with a furious clacking of wooden clogs.

Bhattacharya moshai, the family priest, was sitting a little distance away making lists of the articles he would need for the last rites. Looking up at the boy he said, “Cremation has not been prescribed for members of your caste. All you need to do is set alight a twist of dry grass, touch the flame to the mouth of the corpse then bury it on a bank of the river.”

In the middle of this scene Mukhopadhyay moshai’s eldest son walked in. He had been allotted several tasks by his father and he was rushing about seeing to them. He heard the priest’s ruling and observed caustically, “Do you see Bhattacharya moshai? How low born buggers want to ape the upper castes these days? Such are the times we live in.” He hastened out of the room without waiting for an answer.

Kangali stood silent for a while. The last two and a half hours had turned him from an eager, trusting child to an adult. A wise, wary, discerning adult. Head bowed, he walked away, came home and sat by his dead mother.

Now the men and women of the community took over. A pit was dug on the left bank of the Garud river and Abhagi’s body lowered into it. Rakhal’s mother took a knot of burning straw and put it in Kangali’s hand. Then, taking it in hers, she guided the flame towards the mouth of the corpse. That done the straw was thrown away and earth piled on her till every trace of Abhagi was obliterated.

The men sweated and toiled shoveling earth into his mother’s grave but Kangali had no eyes for them. He stood at a little distance his gaze fixed on the thrown away knot of straw.  The flame had died down, but a tiny wisp of smoke still rose from it. Up and up it went… a faint thin wisp of bluish smoke. Kangali stared at it with eyes of stone.

*moshai — an honourific title

*Sindoor…alta — sindoor is a red powder used in the parting by a married woman . Alta is a dye used to colour the feet red

*Bolo Hari hari bol — a chant taken up by funerals asking people to take Krishna’s name. Literally, chant Krishna… Krishna chant

*Ma — mother

*Haat — market

*ghat — riverside

*Bamun Ma — Brahmin mother

*Chhi Baba — Shame son (baba is used for father and sometimes used for son as a term of endearment as here)

*Nikaah — wedding

*Ma go — an expletive expressive of emotional agitation.

*kantha — rug made of old rags

*machan — a shelf

*rajputra…kotalputra — prince…the policeman’s son

*Baba amar — son of mine

*Jah — expletive than means don’t or no

*dhuti or dhoti — a cloth worn as a garment instead of a trouser.

*Kanshi — a brass plate

*Baba — father

*Saala — swine

*durawanji — a respectful way of addressing a durwan, security guard

*Babu moshai — sir

*Sraddha — last rites

*Thakur moshai — Lordship

Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay or Sarat Chandra Chatterjee (15 September 1876 – 16 January 1938), was a Bengali novelist and short story writer of the early 20th century. Most of his works deal with the contemporary social practices that prevailed in Bengal. He often addressed social ills with his writing and in that sense was a reformer in his heart.

Aruna Chakravarti (India) 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, The Inheritors, JorasankoDaughters of Jorasanko, 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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Review

‘A rich tapestry of narratives’

      Book Review by Meenakshi Malhotra

Title: Suralakshmi Villa

Author: Aruna Chakravarti

Publisher: Pan Macmillan, 2020

Suralakshmi Villa (2020) is a novel based on a short story in a previous collection of short stories by Aruna Chakravarti. In the afterword to the novel, the author explains how the novel came about: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, on whose fiction Chakravarti had done her Ph.D thesis many years ago, commented how the short story had possibilities of being extended into a novel. In doing so, the author’s redoubtable skills have come to the fore yet again.

In Suralakshmi Villa, Aruna Chakravarti has woven a rich tapestry of narratives of human interest, focusing particularly on women(which is the author’s strong suit)  intertwined with narratives of Bengal’s Hindu and Muslim culture, history , religion art, architecture, myths and folklore in a fusion which can be described as syncretic. All these elements are woven into the narrative in a seamless way, which is in no small  measure  a testament to the author’s immense  storytelling skills.

The novel is essentially plot driven with a diverse and complex cast of characters; it intersperses the main plot of Suralakshmi’s  seemingly inexplicable decision to leave her flourishing career as a gynaecologist, her marriage and life in Delhi with the subplots of a fairly large set of characters, spanning about 6-7 decades across most of the twentieth century. The story narrates the varying fortunes of the family of ICS officer Indra Nath Chaudhuri who chooses to settle in South Delhi, in a milieu which is relatively free of the stranglehold of traditional family norms and customs, along with his wife and five daughters, Mahalakshmi, Kanaklakshmi, Suralakshmi,Dhanalakshmi and Rajlakshmi.  For  all his professional stature, Indra Nath is putty in the hands of his larger-than-life wife, Lakshmi, who rules the roost . Prostrated by depression after the premature widowhood of her sixteen-year-old daughter, Mahalakshmi, she decides to educate her daughters rather than prioritise or focus on their marriages and have them choose their husbands, if at all, in their own time. This decision has varying repercussions. Suralakshmi decides to marry a married man seventeen years older than her, that too at the age of 31.     

Suralakshmi’s  story however is not the only plotline in the novel; in the tangled skein of the novel is also the disparate-but-intertwined story of Eidun and her family, which links this story of domestic abuse with a rescue and redemption narrative of sorts. It also maps the story of Indra Nath’s nephew, Pratul, his coming of age and marriage with Nayantara and  that of their children– Kinshuk and Joymita.  

For a story with such a large cast of characters, the parallel plots are juggled with amazing skill and dexterity. What also redounds to the author’s credit is her handling of the complex timelines as well, as the novel loops back and forth chronologically, covering the better part of the twentieth century from the 1930s to 1998. The plot works in a cyclical and circular way, as it spirals and hurtles  towards its final conclusion, which seems random until its causality is made evident.  There is a conscious and carefully calibrated  structure and architectonics involved in the apparent seamlessness of the novel.

The predominance of the plot and the large cast of characters however come at a cost, albeit a minor one, in the light of what the novel achieves. Chakravarti does not explore the interior psychology of most of her characters barring a few crucial briefly sketched in character traits. Characterisation  is often done through a mirroring effect where the response of other characters convey character traits; also, analogues, contrasts and conversations are used  to convey the varied workings of people’s minds. Thus , Suralakshmi’s decision to marry a philandering bigamist Moinak Sen is conveyed through the outrage of her sisters and her stubbornness and intransigence comes up in the course of Pratul’s conversation with his docile wife, Tara or Nayantara. Her impulsiveness is conveyed but  not the inner-workings of her mind and both her ‘love’ and the conjugal bliss that follow are not entirely  convincing.

In a different register, while Eidun and her sisters-Ojju, Meeru and Jeeni’s stories are convincing in their depiction of the oppression  and  travails  of women in impoverished Muslim families, the tale of domestic abuse raises some questions. There is of course the generational aspect of it with the saga of dispossession  portrayed  in the stories of their mother, Ruksana  and the grandmother, Zaitoon-Bibi` as well, but the depiction of the Muslim male as depraved and amoral does leave one with an edge of discomfort. It seems too stereotypical, too pat and cliched,  too two-dimensional. While misogynistic patriarchies and toxic masculinity is not restricted  to  one religious group, in the novel it is one religious group that bears a disproportionate burden of it. The uneducated lower class Muslim men hardly bear comparison with the educated  upper class Bengali men (mostly Hindu) in the novel, and while this disjunction may have  been  created by the exigencies of the plot, it does leave one with a niggling sense of discomfort.

Having said that, Suralakshmi Villa is a tale well told, on almost every count. The unsentimental treatment of motherhood is worth commenting on and when Suralakshmi decides to leave Kinshuk in Delhi with his father, we are made to realise her alienation and her affiliations. She comes across as a dignified and idealistic figure, in her steadfast commitment to protect Eidun, a responsibility she has taken on herself. Even if Suralakshmi’s — and others’ — lives are embedded in a web of materiality, her decision, dignified and noble, transcends her immediate material conditions.

Suralakshmi’s decision to go away and start a charitable hospital in Malda, is depicted in the novel as an act of conscious choice, although it  is  a choice which elicits surprise from others since she leaves her house to Moinak, her errant husband and his offspring. 

Suralakshmi goes away with Eidun, leaving  her son  Kinshuk in the care of his father, with no evident sign of regret or a backward glance.  Her decisiveness here comes as no surprise since it chimes  in with what we know of her already. Even if there is no formal separation, we (and the characters in the novel) are left in no doubt about her intentions. I would go so far as to describe her choice — and her power to choose and live by her choices as feminist, since,  there is definitely an element of agency in the way she decides on a significant moment of transition and then goes ahead with its execution.

Suralakshmi Villa is definitely a welcome addition to the canon of women’s writing in India, multi-textured and multi-layered. Its complexity does not take away from its readability but  adds to its depth and power to attract and hold the attention of the reader.    

    Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi. She  has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender and/in literature and feminist theory. Some of her recent publications include articles on lifewriting as an archive for GWSS, Women and Gender Studies in  India: Crossings (Routledge,2019),on ‘’The Engendering of Hurt’’  in The State of Hurt, (Sage,2016) ,on Kali in Unveiling Desire,(Rutgers University Press,2018) and ‘Ecofeminism and its Discontents’ (Primus,2018). She has been a part of the curriculum framing team for masters programme in Women and gender Studies at Indira Gandhi National Open University(IGNOU) and in Ambedkar University, Delhi and has also been an editorial consultant for ICSE textbooks (Grades1-8) with Pearson publishers. She has recently taught a course as a visiting fellow in Grinnell College, Iowa. She has bylines in Kitaab and Book review  

Categories
Interview

“There is a voice within me/ That will not be Still”

Nalini Priyadarshni in conversation with Anu Mahadev

An abuse victim in the past, Anu Mahadev is a poet based in New Jersey. She is a 2016 MFA graduate of the Drew University’s MFA program in Madison, NJ. With two poetry collections to her credit, Myriad (2013) and Neem Leaves (2015) Anu is a curious reader and lifelong learner. She is passionate and outspoken about issues such as domestic violence, girls’ education and independence, and depression/bipolar disorder. She loves music, languages, animals and long walks. She writes and edits at The Woman Inc., and Jaggery Lit, a literary magazine for Indian diaspora. In this exclusive, she responds to questions from feminist poet Nalini Priyadarshni.

Nalini: Thank you so much, Anu, for taking time to talk to Borderless Journal. I have enjoyed reading your poetry for its vivid imagery and the subtle imprints it leaves on one’s mind. If you have not been asked umpteenth time already, let me ask, why do you write poetry? What is your goal?

Anu: Thank you Nalini for this interview, and for reading and appreciating my work! To me, poetry has always been my favourite form of expression. I write simply because I have to. I am an introvert by nature, and writing is not just my outlet, but my raison d’être. It is not a “hobby”, but what I do, and I do it because I don’t know any other way to be. I do not have a far-reaching goal in mind but I do think it is important to keep the arts alive. If I can change the way people look at the world, through a different lens, by the power of the written word, I would be happy.

Nalini: When is a poem done for you?

Anu: I don’t think I have a fixed rule for that. I try not to wrap my poems with a pretty little bow at the end. I do believe in revising and editing though. The first draft is seldom my final piece. That’s something I had to change about my writing – my impatience. The teachers at my MFA program insisted on it, and drilled it into my habits. Sometimes I even revisit a poem 6 months later with a fresh pair of eyes, and I may have an epiphany! When I feel like I have conveyed what I want to, with just the right words, with economy, I consider it done. Less is more when it comes to my writing.

Nalini: How does a poem begin for you — with an idea, an image or a form? Let’s just say, what triggers a poem?

Anu: My poems are usually an emotional response to something that is happening around me. Either something I’ve heard or seen or felt – sensory triggers basically. Or a memory from a long time ago, that has morphed into something different in the present. I don’t go seeking a poem. It comes to me when it has to. I do not force anything. I’ve been told to set aside time to write every day, which I probably should do, but I don’t believe my best work comes that way. I find that taking a break keeps my writing muscles fresh, and then I can be more open and receptive to what the world has to offer me, in terms of images and ideas. I am not a big fan of forms, and don’t write them unless I am forced!

Word of Mouth

Alive in the ice and fire, was a package

of minutes with no expiry date.

We unwrapped layer by layer,

unraveled the novelty, the raw scent

of unopened nerves, neatly tied up

in twine.

You said people don’t have a shelf life,

and I laughed.

Then we tasted the hate that comes only

from familiarity, it’s boring faults,

its ripened haste like a cashew flower’s

early bloom.

You said it’s a car with no brake pedal,

no insurance and no collateral damage.

I believed you then, when there was

nothing left in the airwaves but static,

doubt and guilty breathing.

Alive in the ice and fire, is a story,

its tiresome minutiae, and I still

gape at its impossibility with impatience.

Nalini:   Plath said, “Everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it and the imagination to improvise.” What is your opinion?

Anu: I believe the next line is “The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt”. I agree fully with her quote. There is no reason to limit yourself to just a few aspects of life, because you are experiencing those at the moment. The world is your oyster, as they say. Everyone always has something interesting to say, whether they know it or not. Everybody has a story to tell. The fear of whether you will get published, or what if people don’t like it, should not come in the way of your writing. Easier said than done, I know, and it does seem daunting. But write the story, the whole story, and worry about revising later. Everything will come together at some point. Be brave enough to explore your soul.

Pencil

her pencil writes —

of styli, quills

scratched sound waves

impenetrable

between the lines

wood shavings

scattered word fragments

soft chipped graphite

shaded fingertips

empty notebooks wait

in silence, ruffled pages

reams of white

soon to be covered in print

this day

broken only by these faint

noises, muffled roar

traffic, teapot, dryer

her tapping toe rings

against the chair

the pencil writes —

of such things

when her thoughts

cannot sing her song

Nalini: Some of your poems come with a tinge of nostalgia such as– photograph in b/w, saudade while some of your poems like Laws of Poetry and Needlepoint Theory advocate breaking down old order. What can you tell us about this tension between belonging and charting new paths?

Anu: I don’t believe there is a tension or a tug between the two. Yes, I tend to write a lot about the past, the memories of growing up, family ties and so on, but also about what affects me in the present and what the future holds. Some poems are keen and curious observations about what a character might be feeling at a certain point of time. Some are extrapolations of my experiences, where my imagination takes over. I am equally part of all of these. Maybe I tend to write about loss more than anything else, and the pain associated with it, but these are personal experiences, and it is cathartic to write about them.

Photograph in b/w

sepia toned acacia tree, two

little girls standing—

one, bigger, smiling, two

dolls in her hand

one, smaller, wailing, one

doll, clay-baked mud

matching dresses, hairbands,

shoes, one happy

— she’s not an only child

anymore, she won’t

share though, the other

screams for mom

separated soon after birth,

reunited as sisters

strangers in the womb

awkward, holding

hands, trying to understand

how a family behaves

the definition of love, where

it comes from

Nalini: Do you recall a moment in your upbringing or childhood that, when you revisit, seems to presage for you a life in poetry and writing?

Anu: I think that being a shy and quiet child led me to books and writing, long before I realized that it was to be my passion. As an introvert, I grew up to be very observant about others and the world around me, and felt that I could see what others simply took for granted. As a sensitive child, I was generally ignored at school. Left to my own devices, I gave myself the freedom to explore. Without cellphones or Google, and with plenty of time to be bored, my imagination soared. I guess around the age of 10 till about 17 is when I wrote plenty. Life took me in other directions after that – engineering and computer science and so on. I got my second wind after my son was born and I was home for several years. It felt like poetry had never left me. I started writing again and enrolled in an MFA program for poetry at Drew University. After that, there was no looking back.

Nalini: How did you overcome the trauma of abuse to lead a normal life?

Anu: I suffered mental and physical abuse for four years in the mid 90s. Coming out of it was a Herculean task because first of all I did not know that I HAD to come out of it. As a victim I had learned to accept things as the status quo, believing that I had no other choice and that it was fate which brought me to that situation. Whatever little self-esteem I had had been eroded to such a bad degree that I could not think for myself any more. But the two things that were untouched were my faith, and my love of books/writing. Those too would have gone had I stayed longer, but I soon understood that this was a toxic relationship. And that it was better to be alone, no matter how terrifying that sounded.

Nalini: What role did writing, in general and poetry in particular, played during this difficult phase of your life? And how has it changed your perspective since then?

Anu: Overcoming the trauma was no small feat. What I did not know at the time was that I was also suffering from chronic depression. At first, building myself bit by bit felt like an ordeal, but soon, having removed the bad influences from my life, it was actually peaceful. Nobody to boss me around or show me the consequences if I did not do something right. Or waste my time after a long day at work. I returned to books and kept a small journal to chronicle my thoughts and my progress. Over the years, I have written more about living in abuse, and seeing my life on a sheet of paper has been surreal, but it helped a lot to write openly about that phase and get it out of my head. From believing that nobody would love me, or that I was not fit to have a normal life, I now believe that everyone is deserving and capable of love.

My desire is to help women in a similar situation understand that the power of the written word can work wonders. They light the fire that results in changing a thought. I know it seems crazy but Tagore’s “Where the mind is without fear” would help me. It was for a country, but at that time, I felt like it was written for me to wake up and take action.

“Star-crossed”

I remember a different time when Orion brought us

good luck. When the Big Dipper would point to Sirius,

and we thought the spirit of every dog lived there

When I would stare at your freckled back and look for a map of cities

where we would go, where we would separate

The hunt is important, you would say, so is the capture

who cares what happens after that?

They say it’s easy to get anything, maintaining is the hard part –

clothes, toys, luxury items,

relationships,

you with your blasé look — I, still hungry, look for a side of a cold bed

that’s no longer slept on

Your mind, partitioned into different countries,

a concubine in each harem, an echo in each chamber

I’m singing the same song, in a different intonation,

the way you did when your tongue first caressed my nape, my mouth,

my name

Crumbs of red velvet are still crumbs, in a vagabond’s palms.

Nalini:   We live in an age of Twitter and Instagram. There is a deluge of poets writing micro poems and riding on instant fame. It might seem that poetry has become more popular in recent years but is it really so? What do you think of instant/micro/4-line poetry written around popular notions?

Anu: I have nothing against micro-poetry, as long as it is well done. 4 lines can sometimes convey more than 40 lines. And as for the popularity, one can say they are easily relatable to the masses, therefore they become famous. However, the trend I observe is that there is nothing fresh about the poems themselves – they are trite and clumsy. I am not saying that someone has to come up with some out of the world topic – come to think of it, many poets write about the same things, but they do so in different, refreshing ways. That is what I find lacking these days. And in general, the opinion is that it is very easy to become a poet, as opposed to a fiction or a screenplay writer, and therefore everyone feels like taking it up. I have a problem with that J Poets go through rigorous technique training too, just like the others, and so, writing 4 lines one day doesn’t make you a poet. They are born, and then made just like in any other profession. I am not trying to sound like a snob. Certainly, everyone has the freedom to write, and everyone’s aims are different. If you want instant fame, sure social media will do it for you. But if you want to write everlasting poetry, something that will be quoted for generations to come, then that isn’t the way to go about it. I am getting to know several poets who write beautifully but don’t have a book out. So that definitely is no measure of success!

Nalini:   Talking of social media, Facebook poetry groups are ubiquitous. I keep removing myself but still I must be in a million groups. Though I must admit they are great places to read, share one’s poetry and interact with other creative minds. Poetry group, The Woman Inc.  that you run is one of my favorite for the powerful poetry it shares. How do you think internet and social media contribute towards well-being of the poetry?

Anu: I think it is great that these groups exist. I was a hesitant poet once, very unsure of my writing, and these groups gave me the confidence that I too could write. What I like is that the feedback is honest and sincere. I don’t like groups where everyone simply praises each other for a great poem, whether it is true or not. And if I am added to such a group, I remove myself. I myself started a small Facebook group for New Jersey based South Asian poets, where we post our poems and solicit blunt critique. That is the only way to grow. It is great for the future of poetry because budding poets come alive and develop their writing skills, and go on to write far better than when they started out with. Not to mention the community it creates. Such communities are important for the arts to thrive.

Nalini:  And now a question that all those who write poetry ask themselves at some point of time — what does it mean to be a poet?

Anu: According to me, being a poet means being connected to a deeper part of yourself, and feeling each moment, each ripple. The response that you create when you see something that moves you – a painful event, an injustice, a happy moment, the beauty of nature – these are just examples that make you want to bring about a change, even a small one, in the world. I think being a humble student for life is a poet’s personality. There are days when I struggle with the impostor syndrome, thinking I don’t belong here, or my writing is awful. But to persevere, and have faith in that part of yourself that is able to capture a different view of the world, is what makes you a poet. To be able to distinguish between seeing something and looking at something, to be part of that self-discovery that expresses who you are as a person, defines who you are as a poet.

Nalini: Any words for budding poets?

Anu: Read! Read your favorite poets, poets you’ve never heard of, the classic poets, the Pinterest poets, anything you can – this will expand your horizons and you will also learn to distinguish between different varieties of poetry, different styles of writing before gravitating towards some and developing your own style. And write regularly. Continue writing – I cannot advise that you do it every day because that is not what I do – but often enough, and find a mentor, a sounding board whom you can approach from time to time.

Also, start slow, and then find journals to submit to. You will get a lot of rejections before you get an acceptance, and that can be frustrating. But if getting a poem published is that important to you, then keep at it. You are creating something out of nothing, and that is a powerful skill. Be engrossed and be committed to your art. Feel each word. Get your ego out of your head and be open to receiving feedback. And in the midst of all this, don’t forget to have fun in the process.

Nalini: Thank you so much, Anu. It was a pleasure talking to you.

Anu: Likewise, Nalini! Thank you.

(This interview was conducted via email.)

Nalini Priyadarshni is a feminist poet, writer, translator, and educationist though not necessarily in that order who has authored Doppelganger in My House and co-authored Lines Across Oceans with late D. Russel Micnhimer. Her poetry, prose and photographs have appeared in numerous literary journals, podcasts and international anthologies including The Lie of the Land published by Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi. A nominee for the Best of The Net 2017 she lives in Punjab, India and moonlights as a linguistic consultant.

Categories
Poetry

Fear in Times of Corona

By Amit Shankar Saha

 Fear in Times of Corona

Wish Fulfilment

Today when you read your poems and I am far away

the rains will bend their direction to mourn the distance,

the lights will sit heavy on the evening of remembrance,

a lake in Kashmir will abruptly freeze in sorrow,

a mirage in Kutch will waylay a traveler for water,

memory will weave a flower patterned chintz curtain,

the dreams of the curtain will cover the world like a storm,

a poet will squeeze the universe in his palms and say,

“Today when you read your poems and I am far away

I wish the words that escape your lips come all my way.”

Quarantined Night

Fear of your inexistence
surrounds me at night
like muggers in a dark lane.

Fear that hoods my head,
covers my eyes, pummels
my chest, kicks my gut.

Fear that leaves me bruised
with no one to accuse
in a dark lane of the night.

This night I quarantine the night
in the madhouse of viral nightmares
between pillows of sleep and death.

This night isolated from all
other nights of quarantined darkness
reminds of one who died distanced.

This night the dead poet awakes
from Rome's Protestant Cemetery,
breaks the distended curfew of death.

This night I too break the curfew
and in my viral thoughts visit you
to write my name in water.

This night that brings a latent promise
and footsteps of familiar delight
is the madhouse of saddest sighs.

Amit Shankar Saha is an award-winning poet and short story writer. He has won the Poiesis Award,, Wordweavers Prize, Nissim International Runner-up Prize. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Griffin Poetry Prize. He is the co-founder of Rhythm Divine Poets and Assistant Secretary of Intercultural Poetry and Performance Library. His poems are in Best Indian Poetry Anthology 2018 and he has read at Sahitya Akademi. His collections of poems are titled “Balconies of Time” and “Fugitive Words”. He has a PhD in English from Calcutta University and teaches in the English Department of Seacom Skills University.

Categories
Poetry

Come to the Summer of my Arms & Bristle Stories

By Nalini Priyadarshni

Come to the Summer of my Arms

Come to the summer of my arms

the winter of our discontent has lasted too long

peppering our wisdom with salt and snow

settling into nook and crannies of our being

shadows of the moon on your forehead

has lengthened to reach our eyes

that have been growing dim

with each revolution of earth.

Come to the summer of my arms

we have harvested too long the silence

sown with the best of intentions

that has been whittling us beyond recognition

think of the moles and the birth marks that

need to be salvaged before we forget they exist

or keys that must be forged to unlock life

read books we discarded as unreadable

Come to the summer of my arms

for one of us cannot thaw without the other

winter of our discontent

inch by inch recovering the expanse of unexpressed

so that intimacy could be tilled into rows and rows

of languid kisses strewn with endless possibilities

perhaps then, someday we will

live our way into the passion we always sought

Bristle Stories

They arrive uninvited

like guests during summer siesta

and find strength in numbers

Stubborn as teens in combat boots

looking for trouble at street corner

my chin hair refuse to die

or remain dormant

They recoil every time I wax

Let me celebrate victory after a laser

Disappear for maybe a couple days,

but always return snapping gum vivaciously

 to sun themselves unabashed

bold and burping on a cloudless terrace

On weekdays, they foil with vengeance

 my all attempts at prettiness

refuse to apologise

throw tantrums, stomp and yell

spitting at the feet of men smiling at me

Feeling right at home, my bristles stretch themselves

claiming more space with each day

play cards, exchange stories and smoke cigarettes

Greedy

unapologetic

bordering on contemptuous

they reassure the woman in me

that they are paragons of

proud and vicious feminism

The woman inside me wonders

if greying calls for a truce

to make peace with my rebellious mongrels

Nalini Priyadarshni is a feminist poet, writer, translator, and educationist though not necessarily in that order who has authored Doppelganger in My House and co-authored Lines Across Oceans with late D. Russel Micnhimer. Her poetry, prose and photographs have appeared in numerous literary journals, podcasts and international anthologies including The Lie of the Land published by Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi. A nominee for the Best of The Net 2017 she lives in Punjab, India and moonlights as a linguistic consultant.