“Dadi, please stop throwing methi leaves on the answer sheets.” From where I was perched, I could watch over everyone in the courtyard. I had one eye on them, the other on the open pages of my history textbook.
The Indian Renaissance:
Social Reforms and Women Empowerment
Half of these words sat in the shadow of my head. I sat on the steps that went up to the roof of the house, a few peanuts in my fist, head resting ever so slightly on the iron railing through which I could see everyone if I rolled my eyes to the left.
It was difficult to concentrate with all the chatter. Everyone drags their chores to the centre of the courtyard, around our holy tulsi plant, during winter months. Whatever can be done in the sun is done in the sun. My grandmother was settled comfortably on a jute charpoy in this courtyard. The shadow of a towel hanging above her, on a clothesline that ran from a nail on one wall to the water pipe in the opposite corner, fell on her face. Like a starving cat with a heavy coat, her crisp starched puffy saree didn’t give away her small-boned figure. From up here she looked like a bundle of clothes, her back rounded and one knee pulled close to the chest, as she craned her neck into her work. She was sifting through small heaps of coriander, dill, and fenugreek, separating fresh leaves from the thick stalks. A quick pinch —and into a large dish with tiny holes they went. The stalks were thrown into a pile on the floor right next to her; they would later be disposed, into the flowerbed in the corner, where purple periwinkles bloomed scantily.
A poem is not
a luminous firework
It is a lonely shooting star
from the forehead
of the firmament (“Poem”, 69)
(Excerpted from A Poem is Not a Luminous Firework: Sarita Jenamani in Her Poetry Workshop)
Constructed around four vibrant images, this definitional piece made me wonder if a poem is a curious construct for Sarita Jenamani. A moment later, I turned curious to find whether the poem comes in her grip, or gives her a slip, in a moment of becoming. To test this, I moved back and forth with seventy nine poems included in her collection Till the Next Wave Comes. In doing so, I found myself defining and redefining her poetics as any curious reader would do in the process of reading poetry. While reading the poems with shorter and longer breaks, I confirmed that a poem to her was a unit of a larger body of expression called poetry that sought its strength from sharp images and mixed metaphors, as also with acute turns of expressions and implied silences.
Jenamani’s poetry has allowed me a passage to a rich habitat of people and a veritable range of moods and modes of living. She chooses to draw upon locations near and far, conditions real and eerie, and people alive and lost in time. As she turns her words into images and images into metaphors, she transforms her memories into fantasies and conditions of living into those of loving. Her long and short poems are like breaths punctuated with regular strokes of strength. She survives through drifting and static scenarios that most of her poems represent.
Jenamani is a poet in English and Oriya. She lives in Vienna, Austria. She is the general secretary of Austrian Chapter of PEN International. She is the co-editor of an Austria based bilingual magazine for migrant literature Words & Worlds.
Every holiday is accompanied by reminiscences of one’s kith and kin.
Knowing from afar, the heights one’s elder and younger brothers have scaled;
Side Wearing Cornus officinalis, there is one soul less, amiss.
This poem has been written by Tang dynasty poet Wang Wei (701-761CE), who was known both for his poetry and paintings, in celebration of the ninth month festival, Chong Yang, which coincides with the Indian Navratriand Durga Puja, the Korean Jungyangjeol, the Japanese Chōyō or Chrysanthemum festival.
“I think that’s how I found the way to the English garden,” Kyeong-hui said to me that day.
“I think I played on the swing.”
“Pardon me?” I asked, not understanding.
“There were so many things … inside and outside the wall … A swing, a cherry tree, and flowers … So I forgot to go home.”
“I think the same will happen to you.”
“I think you went to the English garden and played on the swing too.”
Kyeong-hui was the first person forbidden to me. She lived with us, but no one talked about her. No one called her or mentioned her name. No one even looked at her. If we happened to cross paths, my family acted as if she were invisible, though she rarely emerged from her small room. We weren’t allowed to touch her, to make eye contact with her, or to gaze at her as if she were real. The only thing we were allowed to do was move out of the way so that she could pass, or so that her body wouldn’t brush against ours. Naturally Kyeong-hui never joined us at the table, not for a single meal.
Oddly, my parents expected us to adhere strictly to their rules regarding Kyeong-hui, but gave us no direct orders or warnings. Not once were we told that talking to her, or about her, was forbidden. If we ever pointed towards her corner room on the second floor or thoughtlessly uttered her name, we merely received a sharp “Shh!” which flicked like a whip from their mouths.
In an article in The Guardian, we are told : “Based on a standard 35-hour week, the average full-time writer earns only £5.73 per hour, £2 less than the UK minimum wage for those over 25. As a result, the number of professional writers whose income comes solely from writing has plummeted to just 13%, down from 40% in 2005.”
So, writing does not pay. Then why do writers write?
Nidhi Mishra is an ex-banker who pivoted from a ten year banking career to her passion for reading and luring others to read (admittedly, at times forcibly). Nidhi studied at Lady Shri Ram College , Delhi University, to pick up an Honours in Mathematics and a feminist flair on the side. An MBA from IIM Lucknow took her to a decade long career in the financial sector, finally quitting as VP, HSBC as she wanted to do something more meaningful with her time, which led her to found Bookosmia. Bookosmia (smell of books) is a children’s content company hoping to make children fall in love with reading, writing and everything else around Indian stories. Over the last two years, the company has built a significant spread of content, across formats- physical books, digital stories and audio stories with one common thread — to curate homegrown, relatable and fun content for Indian children. In this exclusive, Nidhi talks of their present and future, how she feels book publishing is still viable and needed…
Mitali: You have founded a publishing firm, which took up a challenge and pulled it off… selling 1000 copies of a book that was seen as a failure by others in a week. What made you take up the book?
Nidhi: At Bookosmia, we look to not publish more than 2-3 physical books every year. A very strong driver for us is to be able to find the topic / basic storyline meaningful and one that moves us. It helps to start out being very clear to yourself and the team that book publishing is not about making great money — it is about using books as a medium to amplify reach of a certain cause. We took up this book because we were excited about the challenge of using a children’s story book as a medium to spread awareness of a dying Indian dance form in a fun way and we were confident that we would be able to tap into our steadily growing network of parents /schools/ organisations that engage with kids across India.
“Chikki called in the morning,” Amma begins, seated at the dining table.
Dinner conversations at home have always been severely orchestrated, progressing into a chaotic crescendo. It always begins with the most neutral subject, me. And usually Achan sits silent, regarding his food with empirical interest. He is on standby for his cue.
“She’s had fever for two days now,” Amma continues.
“Has she been taking medicines? Ask her not to self- medicate.”
“Why would she self-medicate?”
“Alla, isn’t that what everyone in your family does?” Achan asks.
“I’ll be grateful if Chikki doesn’t inherit your arrogance.”
“You should be grateful if she turns out like me,” Achan responds grimly. “God forbid she becomes like you.”
Richard Rose is a British writer, university professor and researcher who has been working regularly with teachers and children in India for the past nineteen years. His work has appeared in academic journals, magazines and books in several countries. His play, written with James Vollmar, Letters to Lucia, which celebrates the life of James Joyce’s daughter, Lucia Anna Joyce, received its first performance by Triskellion Irish Theatre in 2018.
Little Fen’s funeral took place three days later. I walked woodenly among three dozen fellow villagers in a procession led by Widow Liu, accompanied by the sad tune of trumpet and suona horns. It was a cold spring day. The sun was shining without giving away much warmth.
It pained me to look at the mother of my deceased friend. A piece of white cloth tied around her head, like a bandage on a head injury. She was being supported on each side by a friend. Her grief had whitened her hair and aged her twenty years. And her thin form resembled that of a dried shrimp.
The funeral procession came to the village’s graveyard, which lay on a gentle slope of a mountain some twenty minutes’ walk from the village. Little Fen’s body was put to rest on the edge of it, next to a large plot with castor-oil plants. When the wind blew, millions of tiny castor seeds made disturbing noises. Black crows squawked, their cries echoing in the trees, like whimpers from those no longer able to speak.