Reviewed by Ananya S. Guha

Shillong Times

Title: Shillong Times: A Story of Friendship and Fear
Author: Nilanjan P. Choudhury
Publisher: Speaking Tiger (2018)
Pages: 237

Nilanjan Choudhury’s novel Shillong Times, as the subtitle suggests, is a ‘story of friendship and fear’. Friendship’s association with ‘fear’, then, seems to be a thematic focus.

Set against the backdrop of Shillong in the volatile times of the 1980s, the novel is an addition to what is now turning out to be a fairly long list of fiction, including short stories which revolve around this town. Anjum Hasan’s Lunatic in My Head, Siddartha Deb’s The Point of Return and Janice Pariat’s Boats on Land come readily to mind.

Choudhury, however, builds a more conscious landscape than the others to take us to the world of his fourteen year old protagonist Debojit Dutta, who in Blakeian terms leaves his ‘innocence’ behind to ‘experience’ his new found world, thanks to his friendship with two other teenagers, Clint Eastwood Lyngdoh and the empathetic Audrey Pariat. It is the former who introduces Debojit Dutta, when they meet in mathematics tuition classes, to the world of Pink Floyd and the out-of-bounds restaurant Kalsang.

I mentioned the volatile times of the eighties that forms the backdrop of the novel. Choudhury poignantly interfuses community relations (tribal and non tribal, the Bengali superiority syndrome, the Sylheti speaking Bengalis and the Calcutta Bengalis, etc.) with personal ones. Yet these personal friendships are among teenagers, which their adult counterparts or forebears seem to look askance at. Debojit’s mother reprimands him for this, so does his school teacher (lampooned effectively) Mr. Chakravarty. Clint’s father refuses to help in getting the trading licence of Debojit’s father renewed, although he saves him in a potentially violent squabble.

As ethnic tensions rise in the town of Shillong, resulting also in conflict of relations between Debojit and Clint (thanks also to the meddlesome Mr. Chakravarty), Debojit’s parents contemplate shifting to Calcutta and remove him to a school in Calcutta despite his protestations. Debojit also suffers taunts from his locality members for befriending a tribal, a Khasi. All this while, the petite Audrey plays a quiet mediating role, playing across the broken friendship of Debojit and Clint and building bridges.

‘Like Earth to Stars’: Forthcoming from Poetrywala, Mumbai

Heracleion and the City of Shiva Prakash

Thank you, archaeologists, for excavating
the great ancient city
of Heracleion,
hidden in the depths of the Mediterranean
for one thousand and two hundred years.

Our stone children,
gods and goddesses,
still lie there
dreamy-eyed and smiling
though heads and limbs are broken
and eroded by sea salt.

Why did this city drown?
Experts reason:
It stood on the foundation of sand
that could not bear and support
its ever increasing weight of buildings
and statues of gods and people,
poor sand gave way…

But a lot of the city’s glory still survives poignantly
hidden in water and surrounded by unmindful fish
waiting to be discovered and admired…

My heart too is a city
bursting with palaces, temples and gardens
I built for you.

So many pilgrims and merchants come here day and night
and most settle down
as they cannot say goodbye to a city so exquisite,
because of you and my art
but, alas, I have built all this
on the foundation of wet sands
of your ever dwindling faith in me.

So the City of Shiva Prakash too will collapse
due to a great error of the builder:
He never thought of the strength
of the foundation.

But,
once it goes under the sands of the ever-changing world
will someone discover its wonders
when neither of us will be around?

Reviewed by Namrata Pathak

A Bombay in my Beats

Title: A Bombay in My Beat
Author: Mrinalini Harchandrai
Publisher: Bombaykala Books
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As I place a finger on my pulse, I realise that it cannot be isolated from the throb and rhythm of Bombay – Mrinalini Harchandrai

If we talk about a place that bounces up like a sweet cadence or a place conceived in scintillating music; if we talk about a sonorous treat to the ears, sounds dancing to life, leaping up in each page or a musicality that conjures up a place – Bombay. If we talk about a traveller’s languishing trails, the detour and the fleeting destinations, the hazy sights from the windows of trains, the slanting glasses in skyscrapers and beads of rain drops trickling by or a song sung in monsoon that is both sharp and intimate, delectable and whimsical, contemplative and jocular, then Mrinalini Harchandrai’s collection of poems is a feast for your senses. You cannot help wondering why the poet resorted to ‘Bombay’, a term that is obsolete now instead of the recent ‘Mumbai’. You cannot help but wonder whether it is an act that tells us a little more on ‘looking back’ or taking a ‘backward glance’ – are we ushered into a world of retracted footsteps, bittersweet memories of the poet or a past that is resuscitated in the present? Above all, it is a Bombay in her beat; the word ‘beat’ remarkable in its duality – Harchandrai points to a rhythmic presence, a city that thrives in each throb of her heart and also a city that is steeped in music. The word transports us to a world of experimentation by the Beat generation poets, especially Ginsberg and Snyder, best known for defying the norms of conventional literature, pivotal in seeking an elevated consciousness (through meditation, Eastern religion and hallucinogenic drugs) and are chiefly credited for battling against myriad manifestations of social conformity. The ‘inflected locution’ of the Beat generation poets is a serious inclination in Harchandrai’s collection, not to mention the heavy leanings on the jazz poetry of Langston Hughes. This not only stretches the exploratory potential of Harchandrai, but also creates a spectrum of emotional variance and experiential realities. If the poet wants to do what Hughes aspires to accomplish – ‘I tried to write poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street,’ then it is indeed necessary to mention that she sets forth a gargantuan challenge for herself, something as real as translating the blues emanating from a nightclub in Harlem and Washington D.C into a suite of poems mimicking the raw splendour of life and also its sheer hopelessness, something as fragile as replicating the improvisatory nature of jazz – a stance that requires a whole amount of self conscious  regulatory principles. As we delve deep into A Bombay in My Beat, we detect Jazz poetry as one of the vital sources of inspiration. In Mrinalini Harchandrai’s words, ‘with a hat-tip to Langston Hughes,’ the poems seek refuge in ‘individual music’, a fact that is well detected even in the treatment of diverse worldviews and perspectives.

By Farah Ghuznavi

Nausheen Eusuf
Nausheen Eusuf

 

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

I write because I feel compelled to commemorate something that’s important to me, or communicate something that needs to be said, or grapple with some thorny issue that won’t otherwise let me rest. Making art of any kind (whether it’s poetry or paintings) is a way of creating order out of the chaos of human experience. That’s why it’s necessary.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

I just recently published my first full-length collection of poems, titled Not Elegy, But Eros, which appeared simultaneously in the US (from NYQ Books) and in Bangladesh (from Bengal Lights Books). The book is in part about grief and loss, but also about moving beyond that and affirming life. It’s about the making and unmaking of the self, and the role of art and literature in helping us live.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

I would say my writing is ‘traditional’ in T. S. Eliot’s sense — i.e., my aesthetic is informed by the poets of the past. At the same time, what I learn from past masters is, of course, refracted by the prism of my own individual personality and life experience. The work that results is, I hope, something that is both personal and universal at the same time.

Who are your favourite authors?

Well, there are many. In the 20th century: Stevens, Yeats, Eliot, Crane, Moore, Auden, Sylvia Plath, Philip Larkin, Donald Justice. In the 19th century and before: Keats, Tennyson, Hopkins, Whitman, Dickinson, Donne, Milton, Shakespeare. Among living poets: certainly Frank Bidart, who was my first poetry teacher.

Iqbal

 

I’m of a pure Somnathi extraction

My ancestors were idol worshippers

—Iqbal

In a wide green field, a crowd chases a pretty, white pigeon. The pigeon circles above the heads of the chasing party. The crowd, in a mad dash, tries to capture the bird in flight. Now the bird flies high and now it descends down, teasing those who are sprinting after it. At last the pigeon swoops down into the lap of a tall and handsome 40-year-old man who accepts it as a gift from the heavens.

Shaikh Noor Muhammad, the man dreaming this dream, wakes up with a smile in a house near Do Darwaza Mosque in Kashmiri Mohalla in Sialkot, a border town of the Punjab located by the Chenab river, at the foot of the Kashmir hills.

It is a cold night in early November and he sees his wife Imam Bibi sleeping peacefully next to him under a warm blanket. She is expecting again and he interprets the dream to be a divine indication that he will be blessed with a son whose good fortune it will be to serve mankind.

The tall Kashmiri Noor Muhammad, red of skin and with a penetrating gaze, is known for his simplicity in the community. He has a peaceful and aff ectionate nature. When he was growing up, he could not study at the maktab, the local school; but this did not stop him from teaching himself the alphabets. Because of his own efforts he becomes literate and is able to read books in Urdu and Persian.

He is the eleventh child of his father, Shaikh Muhammad Rafiq, the only child to have survived from his father’s second wife. After him, another son, Ghulam Muhammad, was born. He grew up to be an overseer in the department of canals in the British government.

Noor Muhammad and his family have always lived together with his younger brother Ghulam Muhammad’s family. The house near the Do Darwaza Mosque was bought in 1861 by their father Muhammad Rafiq and they have been living in this house ever since. It has been expanded over time to accommodate new members of the family.

Noor Muhammad loves to spend a good deal of his time among sufis and Islamic scholars. By virtue of keeping such pious company, he has come to have a good grasp of Shariat and Tariqat. His knowledge of tasawwuf (mysticism) is so deep that his friends call him Anpadh Falsafi (Untutored Philosopher). He regularly studies and recites the Quran which he considers to be the ultimate source of all bliss, worldly and for the hereafter.

By profession, he is a tailor and embroiderer. In his early career, he helped his father, Shaikh Muhammad Rafiq, in his dhassa and loi (blankets and shawls) business but when an official rents him a Singer sewing machine, a mechanical marvel of its time, he turns to tailoring. His wife, Imam Bibi, disapproves of the sewing machine when she learns that the machine was bought with illicit money. Noor Muhammad returns the machine to the official and he strikes out on his own as a cap embroiderer, and makes Muslim prayer caps. The enterprise becomes a success and soon he employs other workmen in his workshop. By virtue of his popular merchandise, people start addressing him as Shaikh Natthu Topianwale. In the later stages of his life, he slowly loses interest in his business and takes a deeper interest in mysticism. He ignores his business and, with time, his business suffers decline.