[ Pous – The ninth month of the Bengali calendar, from mid December to mid January]

It is three o’clock. Keeping aside the work in hand, I leant back in my chair. My handwritten long row of small words on the white sheet of paper  – just like dead flies on a white wall; each line resembling a slithery black snake. I had finished one page after an hour of hard work. I have transformed an atomic part of the vast and unclear world of the thought processes in my brain, into decipherable human language – watered through eons of years, the developed feelings in symbols, in conversations. The process involves extreme anguish and pain. Despite that being so, I just have to go through it… I have to bear the pain through the whirling days and sleepless nights, through weeks, months, years upon years, until the day death will bring the last and ultimate respite. When I look at the sheets of paper filled with my handwriting, I shudder to the bottom of my soul. Words, words. Endless, unending words. Maybe these words are meaningless to everyone except myself.

Are there six people in this land who’d understand what I wanted to say upon reading my writings? The way I want my works to be read, will there be three men to read them? I know what happens. On a summer afternoon, closing the doors and windows of the room, turning the overhead fan on, the deputy homemaker lies down on the mammoth cot holding my book in her hands, (if she doesn’t have any boy or girl nearing the ‘about to be fallen’ age) then after reading two pages, the printed words become hazy, she turns aside and dozes off to sleep. The weight of her fat hands would squeeze the open pages of the book with three hours’ of sweat. And the guys from the public library vie with each other in order to get hold of my books; only the fortunate returns home clutching his prize within his armpits, jumping with joy, gobbles up the book from the first to the last pages – turning the pages like a madman, to get whatever he wants, whatever he understands, for which he has saved his pennies with extreme diligence. Instead of offering these at the pious feet of the screen’s gods and goddesses, he turns the pages of my books ravenously, in search of the same pleasure. Then after his disillusion, he creates various juicy stories and anecdotes about me and in this way, takes his revenge. I know, I know. 

No one can claim the name of Pedro
nobody is Rosa or Maria
all of us are dust or sand
all of us are rain under rain.
They have spoken to me of Venezuelas
of Chiles and Paraguays
I know only the skin of the earth
and I know it has no name

PABLO NERUDA

I call him Dumri. I tie one end of my worn out gamchha to the iron fence of the Gas Office by the footpath and the other end to a municipality dustbin hook to make a swing cot. I place him there. Dumri loves to be pushed in the swing. He bursts into laughter. The passengers of double-decker buses stuck in the traffic give us a curious look. I feel amused. It makes me feel like a queen. I leave him on the makeshift swing to pick up a cigarette butt left by someone on the footpath for one last puff or to halt a hasty passerby for a dime or two. Dumri turns his head to follow every move of mine. He is still a few months short of becoming one, yet he seems to understand everything. Such a smarty-pant!

A preview of There’s a carnival today originally written by Indra Bahadur Rai in Nepali and translated into English by Manjushree Thapa (Published by Speaking Tiger, 2017)

The old couple could never forget their own wedding. They’d had an arranged marriage on the sixteenth day of the month of Falgun exactly thirty-one years ago today, with a nine-piece musical band in the wedding procession. Kaase Darzis had blown narsingh trumpets from a platform on the roof, sounding out the auspicious news of the wedding. Lamba Lama, Hukumdas Sardar and Doctor Yuddhabir Rai (the poor men had all since passed away) had danced all night to the sweet melody of the shehnai. Kaji Saheb had taken a photograph when Bagam Kanchha, who was home on holiday from the army, had dressed up as a maruni in women’s clothes and danced, spinning a plate in each hand. They’d had to set another pot of rice on the boil after eighty kilograms proved insufficient to feed the wedding procession. Nowhere in today’s Darjeeling would you see members of a wedding procession sitting in rows to eat in the courtyard while being attacked from all sides by chickens, which, when shooed away, raised clouds of dust with their wings.

A preview of Long Night of Storm – a collection of stories originally written by Indra Bahadur Rai in Nepali and translated into English by Prawin Adhikari (Published by Speaking Tiger, 2018)

Morning came early in the jungle. Bullocks were put to the yoke again. The departure was full of more bustle than the grim march the day before. Duets were being sung since the morning. Jayamaya had joined that crowd. Wilful young boys wanted to shoot down any bird that settled on the crowns or branches of trees. If they hit a mark, they would stop their carts to go into the jungle to search for it. Nobody had any fear. Everybody was laughing. It seemed the journey of a merry migration—it seemed as if they were travelling from Burma into India for a picnic. ‘Is your name Jayamaya?’ A beautiful, thin boy who had had to abandon his studies to be on the road, and who had been blessed with his mother’s tender face, asked Jayamaya. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘My name is Jaya Bahadur,’ he said.

Namrata reviews One Drop of Blood by Ismat Chugtai based on the battle of Karbala.

Published by Women Unlimited (An Associate of Kali for Women), 2020

Featured in Hindustan Times as one of the interesting books early this year, One Drop of Blood by Ismat Chugtai is a unique book in many ways. Firstly, it is the last work of Ismat Chugtai and secondly, it so different from her usual line of work.

One drop of Blood is based on the battle of Karbala fought in 680 A.D. in present-day Iraq between Yazid, the reigning Caliph and his mighty soldiers and Imam Husain, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad with his small army. According to the Islamic calendar Muharram is the first month of the year and the second holiest month, after the month of Ramzan. Muharram is also a period of mourning the martyrdom of Imam Husain and his family (including his infant grandchild) in the battle of Karbala.

220px-Case_of_Exploding_Mangoes

Finding humour in tense anxious situations has been the forte of award-winning and acclaimed author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes, Mohammed Hanif. While he has been under flak in his own country, Pakistan, after the aforesaid book was translated to Urdu, he had been invited to Hong Kong to give the PEN ( Poets, Essayists, Novelists) Hong Kong Literature & Human Rights lecture at Hong Kong University.

In a report published this year based on an interview at that time, we are told he had a tough time making it across the violence to the talk which needed to be rescheduled. Said a frazzled Hanif: “I’d rather have running water and safe streets, I’d rather have boring normality. If that means dull litera­ture, I’ll happily make that bargain.”

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In 2008, the year it was published, A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif was long-listed for the Booker Prize. In 2009, it won the Best First Book Award from Commonwealth Book Prize. The writer won a national award in 2018, the third-highest civilian award of Pakistan, the Sitara-e-Imtiaz.

A Case of Exploding Mangoes is centred around General Zia ul Haq’s mysterious assassination in 1988. It is a comical take of the incident with real and fictionalised characters calling out for a laugh — a satire at best. The writer says “writing the novel was his attempt to make sense of Zia’s dictatorship and the military.” He added, “By mocking them…You’re also in a way trying to humanize them.”

The book was originally written in English and, therefore not easily read by many in Pakistan.  All the trouble started after the book was translated to Urdu. Now, the army is cracking down on the book — 250 copies have been confiscated.

Reviewed by Sucharita Dutta-Asane

Hermitage

Title: Hermitage
Author: Aamer Hussein
Publisher: Ushba Publishing International
Price: Pakistani Rs 800/-

 

In 1968, Aamer Hussein met Qurratulain Hyder, the literary stalwart from the subcontinent who was also his mother’s friend. He was 13 at the time. This meeting with Hyder – Annie Khala to him – and her presence in his life, despite the miles separating them, would become one of the defining influences on Aamer Hussein’s life as a writer. He wrote about her ‘intellectual influence’ on him in his introduction to Fireflies in the Mist, 2008 (translated by her from her Urdu Aakhir-i-Shab ke Humsafar). A decade later, he writes, once again, about the relationship and her continuing influence on his writing and reading sensibilities: ‘Annie would guide my reading, criticizing one writer and praising another in a dialogue that continued from trip to trip,’ he writes in “Annie” from Hermitage, his most recent collection of short fiction, published in 2018 by Ushba Publishing International, a small independent press in Pakistan.

‘We shared a past in three countries and two languages… I’d like her to know, I did keep the promise that I made to our shared mother tongue and, tacitly, to her, and tell her as I had at that last meeting: Annie Khala, your hand was always on mine.’

There are others who guide him, shared pasts and literary traditions – Attar, Rumi, Shefta, Ada Jafri, Hussein’s grand-uncle Rafi Ajmeri. Hermitage borrows from their writings and their lives, from stories heard and read. It spreads the oeuvre, drawing from the mystics, from traditional storytelling of the subcontinent and its tradition of storytelling through fable, myth, memoir and music. Persian and Urdu narratives and poetry inform its tonality; the structure of the stories is most often parabolic, the references inter-textual, the undertone one of deep, reflective conversations with the self woven through with a filigree of images and the restrained prose of folklore and metaphor.

Hermitage is a tribute to storytellers, to music and art from this shared past, layered with cultural memory and influenced by oral and written narratives. Love that is ephemeral is made eternal through the words on the page that not only reflect but speak of its melancholic beauty, its music clearer in the gaps and the unsaid than in what is crafted for the reader. ‘And it seemed to him that if one listened to the silence, everything sang to everything else: breeze to water and leaves, water to cloud and branch, birds to the sky…’ (“Lake”).
The larger theme of love and longing draws into itself the sub themes of exile and homelessness, migration, creativity and identity, themes that have occurred earlier in Aamer Hussein’s stories. In Hermitage, their iterations are more intense and subtle, requiring of the reader a greater engagement with the very act of storytelling.   As meaning deepens, brevity becomes meditative.

Exile is not only a physical truth but also a state of mind. Aamer Hussein’s characters are exiles, belonging to yet torn apart from the very sense or place of belonging, often leading a sutured existence, giving rise to the solitude that layers many of the stories. Love and longing, unfulfilled and unrequited, whether for geographical spaces or for emotional geographies, meanders like a stream through these stories, both imprisoning the characters and releasing them.

Translated from Gujarati by Hemang Desai

“You will have known almost
every knowledgeable thing about
the charms and the temptations
that touch could hold.

But, you will never have known
that touch – the taboo
to your transcendence,
when crystallized in caste
was a paraphernalia of
undeserving hate.”

-Meena Kandasamy, Touch (2006)


Wild uproar and sighs of shock engulfed the entire village. The news spread like wild fire. “A poisonous snake has touched* Shivalo, the son of Viro, the scavenger.” The scavenger street was far away from the village frontier on the eastern hillock. But as the news floated across, in no time the hillock was teeming with people. A flood of curious villagers came gushing out of their caste streets and community quarters raising urgent queries and grave concerns. Magan, the drumbeater, who was heading home after performing in the welcome procession of Mother Goddess, heard the news on the village outskirts and immediately made for the scavenger street. On the way to the hillock, he tuned his oversize drum, tugging at a clip here, tightening a string there; upon reaching the base of the hillock, he began to hysterically heave his convex drumstick, fashioned from wild native wood, on the inky eye of the drum. The resounding slap-bang drummed up quite a frenzy amongst men, women and kids who were trudging their way up the hillock. Today Viro, the scavenger and his son were the talk of the town, thanks to the strike of the adventitious misfortune that was far crueller than what was their daily lot.

“The scavengers’ street is so far away from the village, almost in the middle of the forest. What would touch the poor kid if not a snake? Shucks, fate is so harsh on the bhangis**.”

“This is all a play of karma. Or else why would they be born as scavengers? Whatever it is, that’s how our society has been for ages. They can’t be allowed to put up residence in the village. They are better off outside the village, you see. If his son is bitten today, don’t our people get stung by venomous reptiles on our farms? May Goga, the cobra-god bless all.”

“All that is fine. But how did this happen?”

“I don’t know. We’ll come to know once we reach there. But people say, the kid was playing in the backyard and god knows why but he thrust his hand in the hedge and the cobra lying coiled-up in ambush there snapped at the poor thing.”

“Whatever it is, but if something happens to the kid, Viro will die of shock. He was born of holy Mother’s blessings… that too after years of entreaties and fasts… God forbid.”

Suddenly, the entire village had begun to sympathize with Viro. A few even went out to put on record their approval for the way in which he conducted himself in the village, with selfless devotion and sense of obligation uncharacteristic of a scavenger.

“He may be a scavenger by caste, but he is a righteous, conscientious fellow. He has never said no to anybody for any work, be it drumming rain or gaining heat. That much due has to be given to the devil.”

“Ask him for running an errand of fifteen kilometres and he would set aside his personal household work to carry it out. Don’t they say, it’s always the righteous whose house gets burgled. Poor man!”

“You said it, brother. Pure gold. Convoluted are the ways of the world in the era of Kali.”

Judging Viro by their personal experience or received wisdom, the village folks headed for the eastern hillock. The scavenger street was extremely small and sparsely populated. On second thought, it wouldn’t qualify for the designation of a street at all. A huddle of two huts made of tightly-packed mud walls with doors facing the east. Not wooden doors but makeshift shutters forged out of crisscrossed twigs, reed and bamboo stalks that hung precariously from the clay walls and a sloping roof set with broken, straggly roof-tiles of native make without anything that may pass for rafters. Opposite the stumpy pair, at some distance, stood a third squat hut in condition no better than its neighbours’ except that its door faced the west. Right in the centre of the narrow triangle drawn by the three huts towered a hoary neem tree planted by Viro’s forefathers, its form sprawling and serene. On the winding dirt tracks leading to the huts, squatted four clay shrines for various presiding deities like Mother Shikotar and other folk gods. The bang and boom of the drum wafted the news as far as the quarters of the rabaris, a community of cattle-keepers and cowherds.