Bajra

Title: Footprints in the Bajra

Author: Nabina Das

Publisher: Cedar Books, 2010

We go from place to place. In Durjanpur, to nearby villages in that temporarily parched but exquisite Bihar landscape, in schoolyards and open bazaars. We present our play to young and old, masters and servants, women and men. We drive by expansive bajra and wheat fields, breathtaking floral carpets of white sesame and purple bush beans, starving peasants clutching their ribs and staring at us by roadsides and motorcycle-borne landed gentry – supposedly the most powerful and influential folks in the region – asking us city folks where we are headed next. None of these rural folks have ever seen a street play where actors don’t wear flashy make-up or gaudy clothes but just a pair of jeans and a shirt, where a woman acts and touches the men, and where no nachanias or dancers sway their hips to raunchy music – a staple non-family entertainment by travelling troupes in rural north India. The very first day we arrived in Durjanpur, I remember kids went running helter-skelter announcing us to the villagers. “Nachanias have come, nachanias have come!” they screamed, to which married women and young girls covered their face with an extra hard tug of the dupatta or the sari and hookah-smoking men sat in shock thinking the old headmaster has gone crazy inviting this impudent city bunch that is bound to corrupt good moral village folks. I am quite aware that nachanias connote immorality for them. Also a woman – that is me – in our team adds to their confusion they find tough to hide. For them, decent women in the village do not go about anywhere with a bunch of men, unless they happen to be her son, a relative or a client desirous of specific pleasures. My jeans and shirts – I brought limited change of clothes – attract attention, as does my scarf, briefly, which I wear for propriety’s sake only for a week and then discard, generating more palpable shock. Our hectic schedule doesn’t allow me to wash my shoulder-length hair regularly, so I myself chop further around the mop with a pair of scissors to make it look like a boy’s head. I thank my common sense for bringing a pair of sturdy sneakers. They literally keep me on my toes. It’s only when I come back to rest in the evening, that Muskaan amuses herself examining my precious box of skin creams and moisturizers, the stuff that I religiously use for fear of losing my feminine side. “Ah now I know why city women look so delicate!” Muskaan enjoys hurling banters at me. I give her a tube. “Keep that for yourself, aloe vera and vitamin D.” She laughs, the serpentine braid slithering on her back. Then poking me on my arm she says, “Sheherwali, chew tulsi leaves every morning. Even your backside will not get pimples! Besides, Maoists might still recognize you as a woman and not shoot.”

**

Things don’t turn out to be dreadful. The Ghost at the Altar runs into several shows. The play seems to have intrigued this sleepy region and its lethargic inhabitants. Not so sleepy really. Frequent ambushes by Maoists, deep-rooted caste feuds and occasional Hindu-Muslim tiffs keep this place alive and awake. And these influence periodic activities like elections, public works or other significant government projects.

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Nabina Das

Nabina Das’s poems appear in Poetry Foundation, Prairie Schooner, Indian Literature (National Academy of Letters), Caravan, Sangam House poetry, The Indian Quarterly, Economic and Political Weekly, Dhaka Tribune, The Yellow Nib Anthology (Queens University, Belfast), and Six Seasons Review, among several others. Her third poetry collection and fifth book Sanskarnama (Red River, 2017, India) has been mentioned as one of the best poetry books of 2018 (OPEN Magazine). Nabina is a 2017 Sahapedia-UNESCO fellow, a 2012 Charles Wallace creative writing alumna (Stirling University, Scotland), and a 2016 Commonwealth Writers feature correspondent. Born and brought up in Guwahati, Assam, India, Nabina’s other poetry collections are Into the Migrant City  (Writers Workshop, 2013, India), and Blue Vessel (Les Editions du Zaporogue, 2012, Denmark). Her first novel is Footprints in the Bajra (Cedar Books, 2010, India) , and her short fiction volume is titled The House of Twining Roses: Stories of the Mapped and the Unmapped (LiFi Publications, 2014, India). A 2012 Sangam House, a 2011 NYS Summer Writers Institute, and a 2007 Wesleyan Writers Conference creative writing alumna,  Nabina is the co-editor of 40 under 40, an anthology of post-globalisation poetry (Poetrywala, 2016, India).

Reviewed by Namrata Pathak

Sanskarnaama

Title: Sanskarnama
Author: Nabina Das
Publisher: I write imprint (2017)
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Of Dough, Clay and a Nation: Brewing up a Rebellion in Nabina Das’s Sanskarnama

If you have to fold
to fit in
it ain’t right

—“Shape”
By Yrsa Daley-Ward

These words, minimal, adroitly sculpted and bare, tell us about women and shapes – how women are aligned to shapes and how these shapes strikingly constrain them. Like Yrsa Daley-Ward, if a woman has an affinity towards what is ‘shapeless’ or nebulous, Nabina Das’s Sanskarnama, Poetry for Our Times, tolls similar bells. The alliance is quite daring, even bursting at the seams, though Das’s is a loud clarion call that is difficult to miss, and more so she is not always looking at the imbroglio by installing a framework of gender to flatten everything. There are vivid convergences between Das and Daley-Ward that teased me in many ways. But Das’s Sanskarnama holds me captive as it seeks to answer the number of questions it raises, a charming peculiarity that leads to the installation of more than one worldview, the onset of intriguing possibilities. The text provides you an exposition, you trace a line of thought only to realise later that you are standing at crossroads, a mesh of thoughts, rather, coagulation. Das gives you the freedom to take any route you want, to chalk out your own road map. You are that traveller-flaneur who sucks in the cityscape wholeheartedly. You let your hair loose and dance in the streets, your heels digging deep, marking your share of fragile secrets as you slip in and out of your incarnate ‘shape’.  All the while the poet takes sideways glances at you, lest you stop dabbling in the dirt, slush, mud, clay, and earth, lest you undo the primordial instincts in you, lest you cease to ‘unmake’ yourself; overall, you emerge and dissolve, and how badly you pine for this dissolution.

The burning hope in Das to configure ‘free spaces’ in a country that has otherwise gone to the ‘gau rakshaks’, the saffron-clad yogis, the conserver of our rigid ‘sanskar’ makes her test her limits to such an extent that the poet raises her fangs, spits venom, and this she does even at the risk of being branded anti-national.

Reviewed by Nabina Das

(This review was first published in India Book Review. Re-published here with the author’s permission.)

Rohzin

 

Title: Rohzin
Author: Rahman Abbas
Publisher: Arshia Publications & Mumba Books India
Pages: 354

 

A book of eight chapters, Rohzin or The Melancholy of the Soul, by Rahman Abbas is a veritable feast for the mind. In Urdu ‘rohzin” is a word that the author coins to signify the souls of people hurt by witnessing the betrayal of their parents with their partners. What ensues is a story of love, lust, belonging, rejection and identity spread lush across the city of Bombay. The core setting, as described in the novel, is a space in the throes of monsoon, perhaps the most defining of seasons in this city by the Arabian Sea.

Rohzin, the author’s fourth novel, has been translated into English by Sabika Abbas Naqvi, and is soon to be published. Its German translation by linguist Almuth Degener has been published in January 2018 by Draupadi Verlag and Literaturhaus (Zurich, Switzerland) has organized its release function on 23 February 2018.

One might recall that Marquez — who is quoted at the novel’s outset — has said in his “The Art of Fiction No. 69” interview with The Paris Review:

‘It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality. The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination.’

Speaking of imagination and reality readily transmigrating into each other’s realms, Rahman Abbas’ craft could perhaps be called Marquez-esque, but that would be too easy a deliberation. Even then, the vision of Konkan that he evokes is of ‘wildest imagination’. This is juxtaposed with scenes of reality and fantasy jostling together in the deep urban underbelly of Bombay.

By Tikuli

NabinaTHE HOUSE OF TWINING ROSES: Stories of the Mapped and the Unmapped

Author: NABINA DAS

Paperback 2014

INR 250.00

LiFi Publications Pvt. Ltd.

 

The House of Twining Roses: Stories of the Mapped and the Unmapped is a fine-layered collection of 17 short stories by Nabina Das, a Guwahati-born author with one novel and two poetry collections to her credit. Apart from the rich imagery that lingers on like a good melody, Das’ stories show a unique depth of plot and control of her characters. The reader feels the intensity of the stories through the complexities of the situations or characters.

Geographically, the stories are on a diverse map, sometimes a warped one. Das’ home state Assam features prominently. And although other places such as Bihar, Kerala, Bengal, New Delhi and the USA are also geographical markers for the stories, one feels a continuous movement, a search for belonging, and a need for anchoring throughout this book. The stories flow past their topographical signposts and boundaries and converge as one whole signifier of a place inhabited by common people the world over.

It’s a journey, like that of a flowing river. There is no restriction of time and space. The protagonists are always seeking a territory of the possible. They are exploring the unmapped as they chart the path of their evolution.

Twining Roses is definitely a book about coming of age, the cycle of life and death, and the fragility of events between a breath begun and ended. The stories especially probe girls and women trying to find themselves in the personal and communal histories and contemporary affairs of their times—ranging from Partition, the Assam student’s agitation, the tragedy of 9/11, etc. Their lives are woven around friends, families, passions and their relationship to each other going back and forth in time.

Review by Shaily Sahay for Kitaab

Blue_VesselA crucible, blue with solitude, holding half-music, half-poetry, and everything in between.

Mumbai rains were at their swollen best, slashing my windows as I read through the first section of poems, Water on Ink. And these stanzas, the first and the last, from the poem by the same name,

“Shadows quarter the rain

You’re wrapped in yourself

The street flows on.

Slivers.

…..

All sketches on water by ink

All words on lines by language

All these un-fairy faces are I. Me.”