Magic Dust

First published in Different Truths

Naked words sear truths across
the universe melting swords 
dripping venom and blood. 

The Truth hurts, singes, burns, 
brands but stands fearless. 
Poetry has  the courage to spell — 

to write about exploding skies that 
kill innocents, or of toxic fumes 
annihilating with sulphurous hate. 

Poetry can colour the hate with love...

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A Love Story

First Published in Different Truths

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Despite the Bard’s declaration, and that line[1] being one of the most popular among the literati-glitterati, cab drivers fail to appreciate it. If I think of one place, and name another because after all in the spirit of the bard— one name or another, how does it matter— they get angry and scold me! Of course, in all justice, they may not be familiar with Shakespeare. And I would be a Mary Antoinette[2] think-alike to bank on their familiarity. You do know the story of Mary, who asked the peasants to be given brioche[3] (not cake) instead of bread, when they did not have food — that was right before the French Revolution?

It is interesting to see how the Bard’s creation Juliet Capulet addressed this question — what’s in a name? She had fallen in love with Romeo, from the family of Montague, the sworn enemy of the Capulets. She was questioning the human construct of enmities between two families. Now, the funny thing is when I was in university, more than three decades ago, I had questioned the construct of languages and beliefs — why is an A called as such and not a B? I was told if people took my stand, they would need to re-invent the wheel! But getting back to Juliet — she was questioning constructs that her family believed in. I was questioning constructs that humanity believed in because all of humanity was my family. We all originated in Africa — that is an undeniable fact — and walked out to populate the whole world. Eventually, I agreed reinventing a wheel would halt progress and digress towards a world which might be difficult to live in. We are so habituated to the use of wheels and gears that accepting them as such is probably the best way to go forward.

Having matured enough to accept languages and wheels, I am now confused why historical names and constructs are being called into question in the current world. It started with my being told I was misspelling Calcutta.  Calcutta was given its name by its founder Job Charnock. Oops, I forgot, academics said Job Charnock had not founded Kolkata and it was self-made. Bit confused by that one because, I thought history cannot be altered. Where I live now, the population — who may be unfamiliar with the bard and therefore regard my confusion over names with irritation— agree that it was founded by a colonial. My confusion about names sets in because so many things are named after the founder that it can get as confusing as roads named after peach tree in Atlanta[4]. Of course, I have read in novels and in historical texts that the Orang Laut[5] or Malay boatmen actually populated Singapore along with pirates of varied origins before the advent of the colonials and piracy has always been a multinational profession… Though I am a little confused again about the roles of both, pirates and colonials for obvious reasons.  But getting back on track…

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[1] Romeo & Juliet by William Shakespeare, Act 2, scene 2 . https://doorshakespeare.com/general/whats-in-a-name/

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie_Antoinette

[3] Brioche, a rich bread with eggs. In French, she asked the hungry peasants to eat brioche https://www.britannica.com/story/did-marie-antoinette-really-say-let-them-eat-cake

[4] https://www.gpb.org/news/2018/08/06/whats-in-name-why-everythings-called-peachtree

[5] https://www.visitsingapore.com/travel-guide-tips/about-singapore/

Potent Garden Tales

First published in Different Truths

Each garden weaves a new story.
The garden where I was born, 
had roses that bloomed between
thorns. There was a garden where

Sita waited to be rescued, chaste, 
hoping she remained unraped. 
Why? Did she not know of Kali who 
killed demons when men failed? 

Could Kali ever be made 
unchaste by the fear of rape? 
In that garden, Sita waited for 
the man who worshipped Durga 

to win a war...

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The Festival of Homecoming

First published in Different Truths

As I listen to the strains of the songs from Agomoni[1], my heart travels to a time when the fragrance of shiuli, togor and malatilata — all flowers indigenous to Bengal — filled the season with the excitement of the Durga Puja. I look out of the window — the landscape is not like the one of my childhood. Here I can see yellow blooms of angsana, golden orioles and a sea inlet that has been converted to a rainwater reserve and goes by the name of a river. Nature is beautiful here too — birds, otters, turtles, fishes, frogs and monitor lizards are all residents near the river where I stay. But there is no shiuli or togor.

I do not have any regrets for what I have left behind, but I cannot deny missing that whiff of flowers and the pujas as I knew them almost three decades ago.

Traveling around the world, I have in the past sometimes missed participating in pujas altogether. Though the festival evolved about two hundred years ago in Bengal, it is largely celebrated as a community-based event. Living overseas there have been times when no one who celebrated Durga Puja lived in the town we were stationed. We celebrated it in our own way and spoke of it with friends from other cultures, tried to create the sense of joy we had for our children. The experience of not having anyone from one’s own culture can lead to creative ways of celebration of traditional festivals, a sense of liberation which can be a bit lonely too. Did I regret that? I am not sure. I was too busy to be unhappy and there were too many exciting experiences to savour.

Now as I move forward, sometimes memories from more distant times waft into my mind. I get an imaginary fragrance from when my grandmother was alive, and I would go with her for the pujas. It was a family event. We had fun visiting various pujas, looking at the statues of the deities in various pandals, trying different snacks— especially the traditional chops, cutlets and Mughlai parathas linked intrinsically with the flavours of Puja. The festivals being mostly community-based events, were hosted separately by each colony for five days in special pavilions created for the festival. We looked forward to hopping through a series of such marquees decorated in different ways all over town.

My grandmother smelt of talcum powder and zarda[2]. I miss her still though she died more than eighteen years ago. She had paan reddened lips for as long as I can remember. She was the glue that held our large extended family together. We lived in a joint family. That was fun. As children, we never really cared who looked after our needs as someone or the other took care of them. Cousins made up for my lack of siblings….

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[1] Songs to welcome the Goddess Durga that are traditionally played at the onset of the season, when the Goddess is said to begin her descent from Heaven towards Earth .

[2] Scented tobacco that is eaten with betel leaf or paan

Monkeys in my Life

First Published in Different Truths

When I tell you stories of animals, never for a minute think I like them. But they mostly like me. They sit near me, follow me, chase me and one even tried to share my cardigan.

I remember, we were visiting my maternal uncle, an artist in Simla. In those days, back in 1970s, Simla was a quieter proposition. You walked to places. It was not so crowded. Therefore, one found many animals that grazed, birds that fluttered living amicably with humans. We all shared the same place, even plants. There were hills around the house one could explore. That, to a curious youngster who was from a town with orderly gardens in homes, in itself was an adventure.

The day we reached, I stepped out into the wilderness that fringed the garden with its fecundity. My aunt and uncle lived in an old colonial bungalow with huge lawns. Simla, after all, had been the summer capital of the Raj from 18641. The house might have been younger than that. I am not sure. It was partitioned into different units. One of the units on the ground floor belonged to my uncle and aunt. I do not remember meeting the other mysterious residents, but I do recall the house had a tennis court, a small clearing surrounded by the most interesting looking plants by the side of the lush garden with bird baths.

The garden gave way to uneven wilderness. Within a few hours of my arrival, to stretch my horizons, I had stepped out to explore this fascinating jumble of greenery. One of the plants had such beautiful leaves with spikes on them, that I had to touch them, feel them, caress them. I was, like any town-bred of that time, curious. In Delhi, my friends and I would make regular forays into parks and vacant lots to play and look for natural adventures. A heap of rubble could become our next Mt Everest. As I touched the leaves growing in wild abandon on hills, my hand burst into painful red sores. I ran back home, learning never to touch all plants, great or small, without knowing their properties. It made for an amusing anecdote for the family!

Against this backdrop of wonder, I found myself trekking up to the Jakhu Hill Temple2 one day with my mother and aunt — we called it Jacko3 after the colonials. The highest peak at that time housed only a temple of the Hindu Monkey God, Hanuman. This was almost three to four decades before the Bachchans of Bollywood invested in Jacko with a 33metre statue of the simian divine (2010), which is said to have beaten the Brazilian Christ the Redeemer’s statue in height, though I do not understand why such a comparison has to be made. Perhaps, comparisons and confusions contribute to human lores. In China, I found people from outside Asia confuse Hanuman with the Monkey King of Chinese descent. This was no stranger than Indiana Jones (acted by Harrison Ford in the 1984 movie) eating monkey brains in the Temple of Doom4 where Indian actors who acted in the film, Roshan Seth and Amrish Puri, went with this strange portrayal of local cuisines!

I, of course, told the expats in China that Hanuman, the progeny of the wind God, originated in the Ramayana (written somewhere around 100 to 500BCE5) and was the giant monkey who followed Rama and set the whole of Lanka aflame with his bandaged tail. The Monkey King6 was born in the sixteenth century Chinese story called Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en. Sun Wukong or the Monkey King was born of a stone, became powerful practising Taoism and was imprisoned under a mountain by Buddha. Eventually, he was freed five hundred years later to travel with a monk to get Buddhist scriptures from the West — probably India. New Zealand and Australia recently made a serial on the same Monkey King in Netflix7 — that is how interesting it was. The story had travelled from China to a popular Japanese serial8

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Embroidery

First published in Daily Star, Bangladesh

Art by Sohana Manzoor
Pink cherry blossoms, 
born of the whiteness 
of snow and the redness 
of blood, bloom in April.

An embroidery frame of 
silk with red cascades 
of flowers, that on trees 
stay pink, forms a gateway 

to a garden I had known 
long ago, a garden born
from centuries of sweat 
of incarnadined hands 

scabbed by fantasies,
sculpted to perfection. 
Jade plants stand cold, 
watching koi ponds with ...

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