(Courtesy Urdu Ghar) Kedarnath Singh, July 1934 – March 2018 Advertisements
The old city rises out of the mist on the Buriganga River on a cold wintry morning. Slowly, it gropes its way into the many byzantine alleys that are proverbial for their lost tales and histories. After a long, chequered life, these alleys still contain old houses with frieze cornices, fretted eaves and worn out wooden doors and casements; mosques with egg-shaped domes and towering minarets; centuries-old red forts; kattras and landing ghats — all witness to many generations of local and foreign rule.
The alleys of this part of the city are packed with people and shabby tea stalls, groceries and trinket-selling vendors. Houses with one or two feet frontage scrabble for the sun all year round. Throughout the winter their residents come out on the street to gather in the narrow, twisted alleys, to squat by small fires. Children hopscotch all day and chase after stray dogs that are periodically inoculated by dog catchers.
Today is such a dog inoculation day. A small group of dog catchers gathers at the intersection of Dhakeshwari Temple Road. A faded blue jeep waits for them. They carry odd instruments: three hand nets with wooden handles and large hoops; a long pincer that closes on hinges made of iron clamps; and an obsolete rifle equipped with darts to tranquilize dogs that bark too much or are identified as disease-stricken.
There are five dog catchers in the group, all wearing white caps with an embossed seal on the front panel that reads: Mosquito Repelling Department. Since the city is yet to diversify its Animal Control Department, which is supposed to respect differences between the canine and the mosquito world, these men will always masquerade as catchers of the entire animal kingdom, except their own species. The youngest one in the group is a little boy in grey sweater, who carries a frayed leather bag with many pockets. Each of them is full of syringes and vaccine-filled vials that will inoculate dogs against rabies. The little boy seems to be excited and hoots like an owl. The eldest, the leader of the group — a middle-aged man with a thick beard — hushes the boy, slapping the back of his head, ‘Save it for when you notice a dog, you little punk!’ The other dog catchers, of mixed ages, notice it and remain silent; they haven’t been able to rub the sleep from their eyes yet.
A small crowd, amused by the dog catchers’ instruments and the little boy’s hooting, swirls around them like bees. They swarm the group on all sides until the blue jeep driver revs up the engine and whooshes past them. But before it reaches the next bend that leads to the Lalbagh Fort, a three-and-a-half-centuries-old architecture, the driver stops the car. The little boy in grey sweater hoots cheerfully as he spots two half-asleep dogs lying curled up on the pavement.
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Vandana Singh posted this tribute on her blog; republished on Kitaab with the author’s permission.
It is difficult to put into words what I am feeling at this moment, at the death of a great writer and a great human being. That Ursula K. Le Guin happened to have taken an interest in me and my work is part of why my grief is personal, but not entirely. She was a generous human being and a kind mentor who took interest in the works of multiple authors, so my story of our association is, I am sure, not unique, except, perhaps, in the particularities of the interaction. We met three times, (once for six whole days during a writing retreat), and we corresponded about a couple of times a year on average. But in my life she had a disproportionate effect, and it is safe to say that I would not be the writer or the person I am without the deep and abiding influence of who she was and what she wrote.
So what follows is an account made somewhat incoherent by the aftershocks of grief, for which I apologize in advance.
In the great six-book saga of Earthsea, which is to modern fantasy what, perhaps, the Mahabharata is to epic literature, there are many gifts for the reader. One of them is the landscape – so beautifully detailed in words and maps that it lives as vividly in my imagination as the great epics I first heard as a child. Another is that most of the characters in the books are brown – not in any overt way, but because it is, well, normal in that world. That representation matters can hardly be overstated – I am thinking of Nichelle Nichols, Lieutenant Uhura of Star Trek, and how she inspired generations of African Americans to take up science, and/or the pen. But unlike Star Trek, Le Guin went beyond tokenism to present genuinely different perspectives arising from different cultural moorings. Her upbringing as the daughter of one of America’s most famous anthropologists, Alfred Kroeber (an experience she recounts in fascinating detail in her essay collections), enabled her to be aware of the multiple ways different social groups structure themselves and their worlds. Eventually she was instrumental in bringing down the walls around the almost exclusively male, boys-with-toys shoot-em-up club that was golden age science fiction.
I didn’t discover her through the Earthsea series, however. I came to her work late, in my early thirties. I had always loved SF, having devoured, by the age of ten or eleven, Asimov, Clarke, a number of Hindi tall tales and some truly awful Tom Swift novels. Later, there was Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which showed me that science fiction could be literature. But in my late teens I abandoned the genre for reasons that remained unclear to me for years.
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