Since her debut novel, Shankini (2006), the Indian writer Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay has been exploring female sexuality with an uncompromising and subversive vision. The radical nature of her works might have contributed to the fact that they remain largely inaccessible in the West—the only title available in translation outside of India up until now was her novella, Panty (2007), which represented Tilted Axis Press’ publishing debut in 2016. In her own country, however, Bandyopadhyay has published nine novels and over fifty short stories over the last decade, and her work has made her a widely discussed and highly controversial author. Now her third novel, Abandon (2008), has just been published by Tilted Axis in a translation by Arunava Sinha (who revised her own previous translation published in 2013 by HarperCollins India). It is an experimental yet human fiction that challenges our notions of the artistic life, and allows us to better understand the furor surrounding Bandyopadhyay’s work.
At the start of the novel, the female protagonist, Ishwari, and her child, Roo, have recently reunited and search the streets of India for shelter. She yearns to write a novel of her own life, but she is poor, her son suffers from severe malnutrition, and she has few job prospects. Ishwari is an example of a fictional character for whom art is not simply a form of escapism from the dreariness of life. Rather, in the Flaubertian tradition, she seeks to live purely for the sake of her art, to engage in experience that would enrich her novelistic creation. It is perhaps unavoidable to see her as a metafictional stand-in for the author: she admits that she is writing the book we have before us. Abandon thus adverts itself as a fiction, a combination of truth and lies, a form of artifice.
As Flaubert quickly discovered when lust and romantic love kept intruding into his hermitic existence, the manipulation of one’s life to serve one’s art is an impossible project. Life is truculent, capricious, and indomitable for even the most resolute of wills. The novel dramatizes the idea that the creation of art demands of the creator a certain amount of self-absorption, cruelty, and willingness to drop one’s attachments. In the past, Ishwari has abandoned her child, supposedly because motherhood suffocated the muse. She is conflicted between the responsibility toward her child and the responsibility toward her art. Ishwari suggests that the choice is often one between compassion and self-realization: “This narrative will continue to shriek as its characters claw their way between the poles of extreme humanity and extreme art.”
Bandyopadhyay ingeniously expresses this conflict as a fragmentation of the mind, a form of schizophrenia. Ishwari possesses a humane, compassionate self and an artistic, self-involved self both grappling for control in the same mind. The artistic persona is dominant and believes that it has invented the more humane Ishwari as a means of functioning in the world. The “I” of the novel is the artistic Ishwari, the Mr. Hyde of the pair, a character capable of manipulation and deceit. She is something of a Scheherazade, a woman barely surviving through the fluent telling of tales. What is important from this unique rendering of the inner life is that the artistic self is the essential self. The artistic consciousness understands the world first and then tries to accommodate itself to reality: “Only I can hear the buzz of crickets in the air. My authentic self is imprinted in my brain, exposed only to me. The Ishwari that Rantideb knows of, that Sukul and Gourohori Babu know of, is only a story. This is the self which needs to be presented at Radheshyam House . . . A person who can ask herself ‘Why am I what I am?’ and receive an answer is capable of creating a new narrative at every sunset.” The narrator suggests the artist peers through many masks and those masks are doffed and shelved in accordance with the circumstances. The artistic self can be monstrous but it justifies itself by reassuring the mind of both the nobility of its purpose and its own authenticity.
Ishwari is the product of an appalling personal history. She has escaped from an abusive, neglectful family and is, from what we can infer, most likely a victim of rape. Adopted and beloved as a child by her foster mother and father, Ishwari became marginalized for the impurity of her lineage when the couple gave birth to a child of their own flesh and blood. Ishwari writes with characteristic fierceness about her attempts in vain to abort her own child: “The truth is: I did not want to give birth to Roo. Roo’s arrival was unintended. I dislike children. You could say I cannot stand them. I made any number of secret attempts to ensure that the embryo lodged in my womb was not born . . . I inserted my hair into my nostrils to induce violent sneezing so that my stomach muscles could put terrible pressure on my uterus and force the foetus out.”
One of the central themes of the novel is the autonomy of the body and how that autonomy is either preserved or lost—in motherhood or sexual encounters. Though Ishwari knows herself to be a highly sexual creature, she often restrains the expression of her own desire. She shamefacedly admits an uncontrollable outpouring of desire when a handsome neighbor appears on his veranda and smokes a cigarette. But when sex does occur, it is on male terms. Ishwari is always the exploited party and often subservient to male desire. Even with the man who claims to love her, a widowed man who hires her as a companion, she quickly loses her excitement and begins to see the sex as a necessary function of her employment: “Over the past month and a half, Ishwari had savoured this love, this eagerness, with every pore in her body, till her wonder dissipated gradually and she grew accustomed to it.” In this novel, sex loses its quality of transcendence. It is a primal act, an act of raw desire rather than a consummation of love. For Ishwari, control over the body may be sacrificed so that the mind can remain pure, autonomous, and possessed by no one else.
Despite all its modern trappings, Bandyopadhyay’s theme is not that novel—the constraint of a female’s self-realization and imagination by moral conventions is a theme as old as Austen and George Eliot. Their protagonists negotiated those constraints but remained within the confines of their patriarchal societies. The novel differs in that Ishwari cannot abide by those constraints and abandons society altogether because artistic creation has become a matter of spiritual life and death. That is, if she cannot create, she cannot live. Society does not let her create, so she must depart from society. One of the greatest accomplishments of this audacious novel is the metaphorical representation of the artistic self as an individual’s dominant life force. The need to create, Bandyopadhyay suggests, is something like a permanent wound—inextricable, smarting with pain, and only denied for so long.
If one has come across any English translations of modern Czech poetry, it is likely to have been something by a member of the Devětsil group, perhaps Jaroslav Seifert, or maybe Vítězslav Nezval. Comprised of young leftist artists and authors primarily living in Prague, Devětsil paradoxically embraced a raucous Epicureanism alongside the socialist ideals of Marxism-Leninism. With the end of the First World War, the group made an ethos out of play, celebrating Charlie Chaplin and circus clowns, cabarets and cocktails, in its various publications. It is far less likely that the present reader will have heard of the radical Catholic Stará Říše community, which formed in the early twentieth century around the publisher Josef Florian in a village of the same name a few hours southeast of Prague, or the poet Bohuslav Reynek, a representative figure of the collective. Stará Říše put out beautiful editions typically dedicated to translation, a shared interest with Devětsil, but in this case the end goal was rather more morose: to preserve something of European culture against the inevitable flood and fire to come. So it was that in the decade of the Roaring Twenties, while Seifert was writing about sticking his head up women’s skirts “in our all-electric age,” Reynek took a more existentially somber approach: “we’re all drunk with grief. / Where we wander we don’t know.”
These lines, from the 1925 poem “A Fool,” open a new collection of his poems in English translation, A Well at Morning, out now from Karolinum Press. This most recent addition to the Modern Czech Classics series offers a selection of poems and prints by Reynek—who worked as an author, translator, and graphic artist—that spans five decades, from the early 1920s through early 1970s. The translator of this new volume, Justin Quinn, rightly states that these deeply religious poems are “untimely,” but he likewise notes that for many readers (like myself) the church is not what will be central here.
Reynek took the pastoral as his great theme, and Quinn’s deft translations alluringly echo the environmental emphasis of some of his own poems. Reynek lived the majority of his life at his family’s farmstead in the village of Petrkov on the Bohemian-Moravian border, and many of his poems included in this collection center around the details of rural life. Dogs and cats and goats and geese roam the pages. There is a “white ox in the yard” and one finds “cobwebs wound round the empty swallows’ nest.” Even at the site of hearth and home, the day of rest requires a cat for comfort, a Sunday’s stillness complete only with “a book and kitten grey / beneath my hand.” (Reynek’s evident love of feline companionship is echoed in the etching “Still Life with Artist” from 1954, which pictures the artist/poet seated with mug and kitten, and also in one of the beautiful black and white photographs included in the book, by Dagmar Hochová. The artist-with-cat motif also conjures an association with the great Czech writer of a later generation, Bohumil Hrabal.)
Images: "Still Life with Artist" and photograph of the poet-artist. Used with permission.
Although the poems are largely depopulated of people, man occasionally emerges in Reynek’s poetry, most notably to do violence to the natural landscape. In “Carpenters in the Wind,” we do not have the good Joseph but “these men / with their axes. // I’ve lost one of my own. / I’m more and more alone. / These men have finished chopping.” So it is, Reynek would seem to suggest here, that Earth’s destruction might come not through any apocalyptic grand finale but rather as a result of the banal, everyday actions that human beings act out upon their lived environment.
Similarly, the earthly element that often rears its head in vengeance in these poems is not the Pentecostal fire one might expect in the work of a poet associated with an “obscure apocalyptic sect” (as the scholar Martin C. Putna describes Stará Říše in an essay at the end of the book) but rather, snow. In a late poem, titled “Saint Martin,” Reynek details the more sinister aspects of the winter tableau:
Snow on the fence. Snow on the cape.
Ice in the hair and on the skin,
on hope, on the bare body’s shape,
across the fields, the days’ chagrin.
Snow falls on human hunger, spreads
on stones as cold as burnt-out coals;
falls on this dog’s unbarking head,
on sparrows perched on odd bean-poles.
An earlier standout beauty of a poem—“Advent in Stará Říše” (from Reynek’s post-World War Two collection, itself titled Snow at the Door)—opens ominously: “In the first snows / you see the print / of the last geese.”
Two poems entitled “November” (one from Snow at the Door and another in Swallows Flown, a collection of poems written between 1969 and 1971) mark the month as the true coming of cold. In the first, November is “a sorrel horse with a white blaze” that looks in upon sleepers restless in their grief but safe inside for the moment. In the second, we are warned that “beyond the fence it’s cold. / Death wants some warmth to keep.” November as a harbinger of loss would seem to be a fascination for Reynek, a month that is also depicted in one of the prints included in The Well at Morning. In a monotype drypoint from 1967, two dark figures beside a farmstead are foregrounded by a gaggle of geese who appear to be about to make their exit stage right, bright white against the overwhelming darkness of the rest of the image. They are as though the earliest flecks of snow, which will fall steadily with their departure.
The sixty-odd pages of poems included in The Well at Morning are followed by twenty-five graphic works by Reynek—all expressionistic drypoint etchings, occasionally hand-colored—that maintain a similar preoccupation as his poems, with farm animals and snowy, still landscapes. Some of the selected images are also more explicitly biblical, with several renderings of the Crucifixion and the Pietà. In a particularly interesting version of the latter, “Pietà with Train Stop” from 1968, the biblical scene is situated within the modern-day setting of Petrkov, where a train in the background pulls into the station and tiny bodies mill about, as Mary grieves alone. A burst of red in the direction of the train station is portrayed in an adjacent description as “glowing autumnal trees,” but it is tempting to interpret the color as the final coming of the promised fire.
Image: "Pietà with Train Stop," used with permission.
The jacket text of The Well at Morning proclaims this volume to be “the first comprehensive book on Reynek to be published in English,” and this is largely true—only one other publication, a dual-language edition of Reynek’s prose poems Fish Scales from 2001 has been dedicated to the author in English. But the supplementary materials in the book—the explanatory texts accompanying the print works, inclusion of four poems by Reynek’s wife, the French poet Suzanne Reynaud (whom Reynek himself first brought into Czech translation), and three essays on Reynek as poet, artist, and translator—risk weighing down the lightness of the bright white sheets of poems that occupy a mere third of the book’s pages. If a major goal was to assert Reynek’s as a powerful voice in twentieth-century European poetry for an English-reading audience, a larger portion of the available space might have been given over to that work, rendered as these poems are so well by Justin Quinn. At the same time, the inclusion of the four bucolic poems by Reynaud (translated here not by Reynek but by David Wheatley), feels a somewhat inadequate gesture, when one considers that not a single volume in the Modern Czech Classics series is dedicated to a female author.
Overall though, this new book marks a unique and welcome addition from a publisher that has done much to bring the works of Czech authors to a wider readership through its thoughtful and attractive editions.
Kazakhstan is the largest country by landmass to emerge from the breakup of the Soviet Union aside from Russia itself, but it has had an undersized impact on world literature. Its rich oral storytelling tradition has so far gone largely unrecorded outside the Kazakh and Russian languages. When we take into account that the region has had very little experience as an independent state but a centuries-long history of colonialism—Mongolian, Ottoman, Russian, and most recently Soviet—we start to understand how it is that no specifically, identifiably Kazakh body of literature has yet surfaced separate from those overbearing influences. Most of what Kazakhstan can claim has already been attributed to the Russians, or the Mongols, or the Persians.
The writings of the poets and novelists working within the boundaries of Kazakh socialist realism during the Soviet era have also not generated much interest from abroad. The fresh influx of banned books and translated literature during the perestroika and glasnost years could have transformed Kazakh literature, but it did not do so, at least not immediately. Only much more recently has a greater sense of artistic freedom begun to filter into the writings of Kazakh poets and novelists.
This new writing is still difficult to find, especially in English. Here is our attempt to begin that work with excerpts from two short stories (novellas, really) and one work of nonfiction by three contemporary Kazakh writers stepping outside the bounds of socialist realism. Their stories have similar themes but are written in different styles. Together, we hope, they provide an interesting insight into what preoccupies Kazakh women writing today.
Aigul Kemelbayeva’s novella The Nanny is a landmark: the first work of fiction written by a Kazakh woman to break with the conventions of Kazakh socialist realism. The perhaps-autobiographical story of a Kazakh student of Russian literature trying to survive in Moscow in the months following the collapse of the Soviet Union, The Nanny presents a new kind of protagonist: an uncertain, introverted young woman, whose only source of strength is her multicultural patchwork of knowledge, covering Russian literature, Islamic religion, and Kazakh folk culture.
Indebted to its landmark predecessor, Zaure Batayeva’s novel The School presents a few hectic months in the life of another young Kazakh woman trying to survive in a post-Soviet world. Stylistically, however, it is very different from The Nanny: terse and bare, it follows closely on the heels of its narrator. The story also pushes into new territory thematically, touching upon the low status of the Kazakh language among the Russian-speaking elite, the romantic confusions of the glasnost generation, and the corruption pervading the country’s education system.
Zira Naurzbayeva’s The Beskempir reads like a work of fiction, but, as the author assures us, the old women who feature in the story are real. Here, we present the introduction to the work. The rest of the essay consists of vignettes that give readers an unprecedented glimpse into the intergenerational relationships shaping the lives of so many families in Almaty during the late Soviet era (relationships which, the author suggests, are becoming increasingly rare). Each old woman has her own past and personality. Together they represent not just the complex history of women in Soviet Central Asia, but also what happened to those women as they moved from countryside to city, from communism to capitalism, and watched their children and grandchildren do the same.
All three of the authors showcased here are experienced writers who have plenty to tell us about the culture and time that shaped them, both personally and professionally. We hope you enjoy this look at a changing world from their point of view.
Zira Naurzbayeva pays homage to an older generation of women struggling to make the transition from village communities to urban living in contemporary Kazakhstan.
Listen to Zira Naurzbayeva reading an excerpt from "The Beskempir" in Kazakh.
The roar, filled with anger and a hot wrath, changed into a long, sad howl. My horror was quickly replaced by doubt, because that scream had sounded on a sunny summer day in Academgorodok, somewhere among the brand-new, pink seashell–trimmed buildings of the academic institutes and the housing units for the people who worked there.
I came here fairly often after class and during breaks to help my mother fill in her daily data on the ten square yards of peach graph paper that lined one wall, help her plot out every new data point and connect the dots in pencil. This dreary job, which demanded not just precision but also constant strain on the eyes, was too much now for my mother, who was only working a quarter of her former hours. Her sense of responsibility and her pride prevented her from rejecting this hellish burden altogether, and her bosses, all yesterday's graduates she had nurtured herself, tried not to notice it. That was why I was at the institute and heard that shriek through the open window.
I looked at Mama. But, contrary to her usual habit, she offered no explanation right away. She looked down, guiltily, somehow, and did not speak. The woman who shared her office did not speak, either. The scream came again. Now I knew for sure it was a person screaming. Mama winced so noticeably that I couldn’t ask my question out loud. I went on working on the graph paper, sorting out possible explanations in my mind. A cry of sorrow? The weeping of some alcoholic in the heat of delirium? A domestic quarrel, some scandal or fistfight? Someone who was just plain crazy?
That evening, when it was just the two of us on the way home, Mama finally found the strength to tell me. It turned out it had been a Kazakh woman screaming, in the apartment building across the way.
A woman working in the Institute of Biology had been in line to be assigned an apartment, and in order to get a bigger one, she had registered her mother as living with her, though she actually lived back in the aul. A lot of people did that back then. Just to be safe—in case the committee showed up unexpectedly or someone reported her—she talked the old woman into staying with her there in Almaty for a while. Her elderly mother was in a hurry to get home. She was lonely in the city, she wasn’t used to it. But her daughter talked her out of it, telling her she needed to stay a little while longer. What if one of the neighbors decided to file a complaint? They’d take the apartment away again. After putting up with it for a while, the old woman made her preparations to go home for good. But by then, she had nowhere to go. Her daughter wanted a new lifestyle to go with her new apartment, and on the sly, she sold her parents’ house in the old aul and used the profits to buy some furniture. What was the big deal, she thought? Why should the old woman live in poverty all alone in that distant village, stoking the oven and lugging buckets of water around? Let her live with her daughter in this apartment in the city and enjoy all the comforts and conveniences.
What else could she do? The old woman agreed. Academgorodok was located, back then, in the middle of an uninhabited green space. Below was the Botanical Garden, to the right were the vacant grounds of the Kazakh State University campus. Since the old woman was used to moving around all day, and being closer to the earth, she started to go out for walks. But problems arose. All her life she had lived in one place, in a tiny aul on the steppes, and now, in her old age, she could not possibly learn to get her bearings in a new, unfamiliar location, among these thick groves of trees and multistory buildings, which all looked identical to her. A few times, she got so lost that the whole building went out searching for her. They’d nearly called the police. Finally her walks were restricted to the courtyard of the building.
Then there was a new tragedy. In the far-off aul, where strangers were extremely rare, she had never once locked the door, and that meant that here in the city, too, she was always forgetting to lock up or leaving her key somewhere. Her daughter finally took her key away for good. When the daughter left for work in the morning, the mother walked out into the courtyard with her, sat down on the bench, chatted with people walking by, and kept at it until her daughter came home. The neighbors felt bad for the old woman and invited her in for tea. But the daughter didn’t like it that her mother was going in and out of the neighbors’ places like some homeless beggar, so now when she left for work she left her mother shut up alone in the apartment.
At first the old woman still wandered the courtyard in the evenings, but the new climate and her new way of life had their effects on her health, and she grew weaker and weaker. Climbing the stairs to the fifth floor was becoming too difficult. When winter came, she stopped leaving the building. Her solitary confinement in the stone box clouded her mind. Now, from time to time, she walks out onto the balcony of her apartment, and she stares at the far-off mountains, and the gardens all around her, and the people going about their business below. And she wails.
In the Almaty of the 1960s and 70s, the older generation in Kazakh families was represented, almost always, by a sole grandmother, an azhe or apa, widowed by the war. If the husband had survived the war years, then the old folks usually lived out their lives together in the aul. But their grown children tried as hard as they could to get the widowed old women to move to the city, mostly to help raise the grandchildren. Love was also a factor, of course, as was a desire to avoid being accused of leaving an old woman all alone.
It’s only now that I understand how hard it was for our grandmothers to settle in this strange city of stone, where a completely different set of morals is in force, where you needed to stand in a suffocating line of people for hours on end to receive a five-pound bundle of bones wrapped in cellophane, where your grandchildren might not know a single word of your native tongue.
City life itself was more than just unusual to them. It went against their traditional upbringing and their sense of decency. We knew a man who came from my mother’s village. He was a colonel in the KGB, and when his mother came to visit, he used to have to escort her to the bushes, right there in the center of the city, early in the morning and late in the evening, because the idea of handling any physiological needs inside the house was shocking to her. “God forbid my son or my daughter-in-law or my grandchildren hear me making noises!” she would say. It was a comical situation in a way, and just one example, but essentially it was a collision of worldviews.
The psychologist Erik Erikson described how Native American girls educated in boarding schools often developed depression due to the differing concepts of cleanliness in their own families and at school. For Indian mothers, the ritual cleanliness of their daughters was very important, while for the white teachers, the essential thing was sanitation and hygiene. As a result, the teenage girls felt dirty in both places. The native people also believed that excrement needed to be exposed to the cleansing effects of sunlight and wind, and they were horrified by the white people’s habit of burying their filth and letting it rot in one single place. We city-dwellers can easily imagine what the white people thought about the Indians. But the first thing Kazakhs did when it became possible to remodel their urban apartments during perestroika was to change up the bathroom. They tried to move the door to the lav, so that it would open up into the entranceway, rather than into the same little corridor as the kitchen. In newer apartments, the doorway to the guest toilet is often in the line of sight of anyone sitting at the table in the big room off the main hallway. That still bothers people who retain the rudiments of their traditional upbringing.
The colonel’s mother never could get used to the city. She moved in, plunged into depression, and began calling my Azhe, my mother’s mother, and asking her to come visit. My Azhe tried to straighten her out. Sure, this place can turn your stomach, but it’s not as if I can arrange a proper welcome feast for you. Come now, your son’s at work day and night, your daughter-in-law’s in the hospital, think of your grandchildren, let’s at least go to the store and buy some groceries. But the crowds in the store and the need to make the rude saleswomen understand what she wanted in Russian were terribly frightening to my grandmother’s friend. She left, while our Azhe put down roots here in Almaty. But only she herself knew what that cost her.
In the late 1980s, she and I watched a TV show together, about a Turkish village holiday with horse racing and everything. Azhe’s reaction took me by surprise. She sighed, and her only response to what she saw on the screen was, “Look how lucky they are, living on the flats!” She herself, in her younger days, had occasionally given in to her son-in-law, a public instructor in tourism, and went off on hikes in the mountains with us. But the stately beauty of the Alatau turned out to be less than inspiring for a native of the flat steppes.
Deprived of their old way of life and everyone they had known since childhood, our Kazakh grandmothers tried to recreate their world in the city. Children and grandchildren were all well and good, but Kazakhs consider their peers their own people, while later generations are some lesser, stranger tribe who have come to settle in an abandoned camp. An old man who has outlived his friends is a person who has been accidentally left behind after his clan has moved on, forced to live as a guest among these new settlers. This is the constant face of a traditional culture.
Picking up and moving to the city to live with their adult children uprooted these old widows, both socially and psychologically, and they often ended up the hostages of their children, whom city life had turned cruel. Pride prevented them from going back home to the aul and admitting, publicly, that things weren’t too good with their children.
When I was little, and even in my teen years, Azhe was the most important person in my life, so I judged people almost exclusively on the strength of their relationship with my grandmother. I saw how a coddled city teen who caused his parents endless problems could be perfectly happy to squat down to help his azheka put her shoes on and lead her out to the courtyard, and ring her friend’s doorbell, and then bring her back up to the fourth floor, say, and how he could do that every single day. I watched my own Azhe return abashed to our place after trying to express her sympathies to the family when one of her friends had died. She was ashamed because that family was experiencing no grief, and needed no sympathy. But it was the old grandmas themselves, each and every one of them, who were most interesting to me.
One of my lifelong friends told me, recently, that in a lot of ways, I was still a child. “But at the same time,” she said, “you are much older than I am. Sometimes you seem ancient to me, older even than my mother.” That is probably true. I remember that when I was a teenager, I preferred spending time with little kids or ninety-year-old women rather than with my own peers. But there are still things I could tell you about the world that had already begun to disappear. Almost none of those Kazakh azhes now remain.
It’s now been a long time since some scholar or other determined that the Kazakh word kempir—“old woman”—was etymologically derived from the two words kam and pir, where kam means shaman, and pir refers to a spiritual teacher or a supernatural benefactor. Presumably, the word kempir originally meant a benevolent master of the elements and other natural phenomena in the guise of an aged woman. Later the meaning lost its loftier connotations and became what we have today.
Indo-Europeans have their male thunder gods, like Zeus or Thor, but the Turkic peoples have a kempir, what we might call a “thunder grandma” today. Kazakh scholars have noted this sort of matriarchal orientation in Turkic and Prototurkic mythology. The Turks—hunters, herders, and warriors all—bowed down before their mothers. All this means that Beskempir could well be the title for some sort of ancient pantheon of gods.
One basic element of this mythology is the custom of taking newborn babies, born to families where the children frequently die, and passing them between the legs of three or four old women. Now this custom is explained as a way to confuse death. The original idea, though, was to show that the child had been born of these “masters of the elements” and shared their strength. The first Kazakh Olympic champion, Zhaqsylyq Üshkempirov, got his last name from this tradition.
Here in Almaty, our Kazakh azhes did not feel like goddesses, or even first wives or matriarchs, but their fates, at the end of their lives, were inextricably woven into the enormous tapestry of city life. Sometimes it worries me that in the fuss of our everyday routine they might finally be forgotten, and I repeat their names, or actually their nicknames, since they rarely called each other by their true names, in deference to an ancient taboo. Nyanya-apa. Astarkhan sheshe. Sary kempir. Öskemen kempir. Oficerdyn kempiri. There are others we lost earlier than our Azhe, and I remember them only dimly; in their lifetimes, for me, they were just her friends. Those who outlived Azhe, the ones I invited to her wake, lent their warmth and their respect for our grief to help me through the darkest period of my life. When the last of them departed, the quick-witted, boastful Ofitserdyn kempir (by then I had learned her real name: Nurganym), my door to that world closed forever.
© Zira Naurzbayeva. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Shelley Fairweather-Vega. All rights reserved.
When her students refuse to learn Kazakh at school, a young teacher loses her job and is thrown into financial difficulty in this short story by Zaure Batayeva.
My heart leapt to the top of my head. On the announcement board in the entrance hall, the principal of the school, Blizhneva, had hung a piece of paper. Shynar Sagyman is dismissed from her position as teacher of Kazakh and ethnic literature for violating labor regulations. In the middle of May? The eleventh-grade boys behind me were giggling. Why had she made it so public? I was still staring at the board when the secretary approached me, smiling, and said, “Hello, Shynar! The principal would like to see you.”
Blizhneva, big as ever, was sitting at her desk, stubbing her cigarette on an ashtray.
“Have you seen the order?”
“I suppose I don’t need to explain to you why.”
“Good luck, then. But remember: you will not fit in anywhere with such an attitude.”
“Thank you for the kind wishes.”
“Мaria Alekseevna will calculate the rest of your salary. Good-bye.”
I slammed the door and said to myself, “I will not die without your miserable salary.” But the arrogant voice in my head quickly disappeared. Why hadn’t I apologized? She might have changed her mind.
Recently the eleventh-graders had prevented me from conducting a lesson.
“Who needs Kazakh? We are moving to Russia anyway. Who wants to study Kazakh when we could be learning English?” they asked. When I replied that the subject was part of the curriculum and not up to me, the students made such a fuss that I left the classroom and went to the vice-principal’s office.
“Natalya Nikolayevna, please speak to them. I need decent working conditions to conduct my lessons. How much time can I spend fending off their complaints? Examinations are approaching fast.”
“If you cannot handle fifteen students, why are you even teaching? Pedagogy is about finding the right approach for the children.”
I wondered why she gave me a response that was so patently untrue. We both knew why the Russian students in this school were resisting my lessons. But I held back the wave of angry words rolling toward my tongue and replied as calmly as I could.
“I don’t have enough experience. That is why I came to you to ask for help. If you don’t go with me to the classroom, I will not return there.”
Natalya Nikolayevna glared at me but remained in her place. I too stayed put, sitting upright as if I had swallowed a stick, until the end of the class period. No doubt Natalya Nikolayevna had reported this incident to Blizhneva.
The school’s accountant, Maria Alekseevna, said that I would receive the 6000 tenge they owed me only in the middle of June. This was bad news. I had already used up my teaching salary to pay for English lessons and my graduate-school stipend to pay for my daily living expenses. My stipend had run out in April. I had to find a new job immediately. Not wanting to spend money on minibuses, I went around the city on foot. “I can teach Kazakh and Russian. I’ve just finished a graduate program on literature. I can give lessons. I also speak a little English.” My advertising did not impress anyone. My pair of leather shoes, which had turned from festive shoes into everyday walking shoes, were hurting my feet. I bought sandals for 2000 tenge. Made of braided leather straps, with open toes and middle-height heels, they were lovely.
At home I put them on with my blue skirt and scampered over the mirror in the hallway. I had forgotten my troubles for a moment when the owner of the apartment, Bayan, came in and looked at my shoes.
“Could you not find anything cheaper? You have not paid for your room yet.”
“Bayan, can you please wait a little longer? The school said that they will pay me by the middle of June.”
We worked together at Blizhneva’s school. It was Bayan herself who had offered me to a room to rent in her apartment, for a good price, so I would keep her company. She was thirty-eight, unmarried, and lonely. We chatted once in a while, but she spent most of her free time watching Brazilian soap operas.
When I entered my room, my eyes fell on my books and dictionaries piled up on the table and I tried to calm myself down. It is all right, I told myself. I would find a job. Julio Cortazar’s novel Hopscotch, in an acclaimed Russian translation, was lying on the table. I had spent six months trying to obtain it from the library, but now I had no desire left for reading.
The middle of June came. I called the school.
“Мaria Alekseevna, I would like to stop by.”
“Unfortunately, we have no money at the moment.”
I took the golden earrings and the necklace that were a graduation gift from my mother to a pawn shop, where they were assessed at a total of 3500 tenge. I knew this was too little, but I left them there, hoping to buy them back later. I had not paid rent for two months. I would have to borrow money from someone. I did not dare to ask Dina or Karla. Maybe Bolat? When I told him that I sold my gold jewelry, he did not say a word. So I gathered all my courage and went to Kulimkhan.
After graduating from art school, Kulimkhan had rented two rooms in the building of the former Institute of Economics and had started her own clothing business. Now she had her own office, plus an accountant and a secretary. Kulimkhan came from a simple family. When she was a student, she had to work as a cleaning woman. She was the only one of nine siblings who had improved her lot in life. Now she was paying for the education of two younger sisters and all her relatives depended on her. When I entered her office, she and I hugged. She addressed me, as always, in Russian, even though she didn’t pronounce Russian words correctly. Her secretary brought in a teapot and two cups. We sat down and chatted about this and that. I complained about my situation. She listened silently, while drawing on the paper in front of her.
“Everything will be fine. You will find a job.”
“How? I have no connections. My parents are far away. And anyway, I would not dare to bother them with my troubles.”
“You are spoiled. You hired a private English teacher. That is a luxury I could never afford.”
“I think it’s a necessity. As we say, if time is a fox, become a hunter.”
I hesitated, then launched my question.
“Why don’t you hire me? Why don’t you help me?”
She dropped her pencil and sat back.
“Are you asking me to hire you? You have arms and legs, you have an education, and yet you are asking me, a stranger, to help you? Go and find your own place. Or are you one of those parasites that cannot survive without family connections? I thought you were stronger than that!”
I had not expected this answer. When we used to get together as students to recite verses, Kulimkhan was always among the more sentimental members of the group. But having grown up in scarcity, she had no patience for whining and self-pity. Her eyes were full of disdain when I mumbled good-bye and left.
English was my life jacket right now. I had prepaid twenty-five dollars, enough for five more English lessons. With no money left, I thought I had better not waste a second of my next lesson. I hurried into an old, almost abandoned building next to St. Nicolas church. Every time I entered the building, the smell of mold provoked a feeling of sadness in me. I had no idea what function the building had served before, but the green carpet on the floor indicated that it must have been an institution of some importance in the Soviet era. A ministry, perhaps? My teacher’s name was James. I had found him through a newspaper advertisement. James had told me that he was from Canada, but I suspected he was actually from Nigeria or South Africa. To me it made no difference. I just needed someone to speak English with. Right now it seemed crucial that I pass the IELTS exam and obtain an English teaching certificate. English teachers received better treatment and a higher salary.
When I entered the room, James was explaining something to a young girl. I greeted them and sat down in my usual place. I took out my notebook of new words and started reviewing. Almost ten minutes passed before James came to me and gave me an assignment, after which he returned to the girl immediately. Soon I understood that James had decided to feed me silent exercises.
“James, why are you teaching this girl during my lesson? Did we not agree that I would pay you five dollars for an individual lesson?”
“She has nothing to do with your lesson. Keep working on your assignment.”
“I didn’t pay you five dollars for silent exercises, I paid you to speak with me.”
The girl shook her head: “Are you not ashamed? How can you be so rude?”
Weeks of anger poured out of me.
“You don’t care if I put my entire salary into your pocket. Do you realize that I could have given it to my parents, whose pension is miserable? That I could have spent that money on myself? Why don’t you give me what I paid for?”
James was stunned. I put my papers in my bag and stood up.
“James, you owe me twenty-five dollars.”
Kulimkhan called. She was preparing for an exhibition of national costumes that she had designed herself and that would soon travel to Poland. She said she would pay me fifty dollars if I translated the costume descriptions into English. I used all my dictionaries and translated the ten short texts word by word. Kulimkhan was very precise at describing her designs. This exhibition must be very important for her. She could have hired a professional translator, but she trusted me. The quality would have to be excellent. I would need to have it edited. How about James? When I walked into his office, James was alone.
“Hello! Why didn’t you call first? If you want to continue, we need to reschedule your lessons.”
“I came here because I need you to edit these texts.”
“Don’t you remember that you owe me money?”
I put the papers in front of him and sat down. James remained silent for a while. Then he shook his head.
“All right. You can pick them up tomorrow morning.”
While I was leaving the room, he said to me in Russian: “You will go far!” His comment made me smile, but I had no idea what “going far” could possibly mean in my case.
Little Dina's birthday party would begin at three o’clock. I had put on my long skirt with small green and red flowers, a greenish top, and my new sandals. I had looked in the mirror and liked what I saw. Big Dina always tells us to be late. She says that coming on time makes you look less important. She must have picked up this wisdom from a women’s magazine. I’ve never been able to test her advice, because I'm never late. At five to three I arrived at the corner of Abay and Altynsarin streets. Fifteen minutes later I saw Bolat get out of a taxi. He lifted his glasses and smiled.
“Have you been waiting for long?”
Bolat had bought flowers for Dina. At the party I tried to hide my state of mind. I could not tell my friends that I had been fired. Their careless, laughing faces irritated me. I walked out with Bolat.
“They kicked me out of my job. I could have stayed, but I did not want to apologize.”
“What are you going to do now?”
“I'm looking for work.”
“Hmm. . . Who does things in that order? You should have found a new job first.”
He hadn’t told me what I wanted to hear. I had expected a different reaction, something like, “Why look for a job? Let's get married!” Suddenly I understood that I had been waiting for this moment, thinking that my problems would be resolved at once. How could I have been so superficial? I was in big trouble.
© Zaure Batayeva. By arrangement with the author. Translation © Zaure Batayeva and Shelley Fairweather-Vega. All rights reserved.
During the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a Kazakh university student in Moscow takes up work as a nanny to support herself in this excerpt from a novel by Aigul Kemelbayeva.
In September of my last year at the university, political reforms transformed the whole world. I did not immediately understand the problem, sudden as it was. The seventy-year-old fortress of the Soviet Union cracked. Each of its fifteen wings collapsed, and this resulted unavoidably in economic crisis.
It was becoming quite clear to me that I had never been taught to step outside my beloved literature and look at the real world. Now the real lessons were beginning. At first I was too startled to really grasp it. In a cruel trick, a money order arrived at the dormitory, my student heart rejoiced, and I rushed to the post office to cash it. In the palm of a post office employee that weighty sum evaporated into thin air. ‘‘This transfer is unauthorized,” she said. “We no longer hand out money from Kazakhstan. It will all be sent back.” Her words sounded like a court sentence. What nonsense was this? Thinking that she must be joking, I showed her the piece of paper and my passport again. How could they send back such a large amount of money that had been sent personally to me? It was ridiculous! What right did she have to deny me the money that belonged to me? But soon it was very clear that this situation had nothing to do with the post office clerk.
What was to be done? Who was to blame? Terrible, rebellious queries stuck in my throat and started sucking my blood like a leech. You can’t survive in a megalopolis with no money. That blatant reality grew stronger every day. Soon after, the same cursed post office denied me 30,000 rubles sent by telegram, then 90,000 rubles transferred conventionally, and then, in the middle of November, 50,000 rubles that my mother sent, hoping her third attempt would finally work be successful. All the paperwork for those transfers was written out in my name. The proverb was proving true: Even if it rains cloth, a slave won’t get a piece big enough for an insole.
Suddenly I felt like a character from Kafka. Society had adopted an anti-Utopian model, and its slogan was: no more transfers from Kazakhstan to Russia. I found out later that Kazakhstan had left the ruble zone. Kazakhstan was a foreign country now, and it was going to print its own currency, the national tenge. Maybe it had already started! Apparently the world’s bureaucrats, sitting in their offices, had decided that the student community should die of hunger. All I could do was ask God to give me patience, sabyr. For the first time I was cornered. I couldn’t look at life with the traditional Kazakh view. The technological age regulates social relations with its robotic fingers, and it does not give a damn about your naturally noble spirit.
There is always a way out of any crisis, so really, there is no use despairing, getting eaten up by worry. And patience is gold, of course. Lilya from the translation department was already working as a nanny, but while she worked she hadn’t touched her thesis, and now time was pressing her hard. She could no longer do the job every day and needed a partner to take turns with her.
Close to February, Lilya took me to the apartment where she worked, so I could get my first glimpse of the new era. The whole metro ride there, I felt sorry for myself, astonished by my situation, feeling like my head was suddenly locked in a halter, that there was no way I could break loose. But I also knew that if the owners of that apartment saw me as a stranger and would not hire me, then I would continue starving, destroy my health, and have that burden for the rest of my life. I was stuck: if I pulled one way, my bull would die, and if I pulled the other, my cart would break. The idea of being enslaved by strangers in the long days of winter was depressing. But, as they say, in three days a person can get used to anything, even the grave, so I had to hope for the best.
When Lilya rang the doorbell, my heart was in my mouth. A pale young woman with a long bob opened the door. Her face seemed so familiar—she was a Kazakh, and her name was Jamal. But that did not make me happy to have come. Lilya had told me the woman of the house was not pretty. That meant Lilya’s understanding of beauty was wildly inaccurate. This woman was a little over thirty, with a straight nose, hazel eyes, and beautiful eyebrows. Her body was petite. But she looked tired. She was wrapped in a long blue gown with white stripes that went down to her feet, as if she were cold. Lilya must have told them she was bringing me, because she greeted us indifferently and cheerlessly, gesturing that she had a headache.
Just then a little girl jumped out from behind her like a kid goat. Her eyes were shining and her carefree childhood was smiling cheerfully on her face. “Rita, turn off the TV. Haven’t you finished watching your cartoons?” said the mother to the daughter. “Go and do your English, your father will quiz you tonight.” She said a few words to Lilya about some household chores and then went back to sit at her computer in the bedroom.
Lilya had already told me everything she knew about this family. Nine-year-old Rita’s father was a Russian and her mother was a Kazakh. The mother worked as an economist at a big commercial firm. She was a close friend of a Tatar acquaintance of Lilya’s, which is how Lilya originally found the job. Lilya did not know what sort of firm it was, and she didn’t care. Rita’s mixed blood does not show at all. Her eyes are green, her skin is white, and her hair is not totally blond, but sort of brownish blond. She looks more like a Balt than a Slav. It seemed safe to predict that she will be a pretty girl when she grows up. When she caught sight of me, a new nanny, she lingered around in that manner peculiar to children, and we talked a little to get acquainted.
That day, it was my job to clean the room where Jamal was sitting. Even though it was not a pleasant feeling, I soaked a dustcloth in a bucket of water and started wiping up dust. Finishing quickly and escaping became the most pleasant thing I could imagine. While dusting around Jamal, I tried not to look at her, because the unhappy, annoyed mood of the young woman staring at the computer was easy to sense. But just then I was having a hard time paying attention to other things: I was obsessed with myself. I could almost hear a voice judging me. “This is what you get for your overweening desire for the pen, your punishment for listening to your passion and choosing writing,” that voice crowed. “Creativity cannot be innocent. So don’t be so surprised at being punished! You deserve it! You should not have been so vain, so ambitious!”
But the haughty look of this woman, using me as slave labor here in this modern time, made me angry. “Damn you, you bourgeois fool! One day I will be a world-renowned writer!” I thought to myself. But I knew that was the whimpering puppy of powerlessness talking, and a more kingly soul would be more forgiving.
“A writer needs all sorts of material from life, and this incomparable experience is yours!” some hypocritical inner voice told me, suddenly sounding as excited as if it had found seven hares underground. What can I say? I was experiencing mixed feelings—pity and sorrow for myself, joy at having found a way to make money, shame and surprise at having my leisure stolen from me. In the meantime, it seemed unspeakably odd and humiliating to be crawling around on all fours, up and down, now with a wet cloth, now with a dry cloth.
In two hours we made that two-room Moscow apartment shine like a mirror. We had scrubbed every tile in the bathroom, and the clean sheets and Rita’s freshly laundered clothes were hanging on a rope over the balcony. We had ironed the laundry that was already dry. Why do people refer to such cleanliness as “German”? Is cleanliness the attribute of just a single nation? The world could really use the cleanliness of the nomads. When those chores were done, Lilya and I started taking care of lunch in the kitchen. We warmed up some borscht we found in the fridge, and Lilya, apparently right at home, put butter, bread, cheese, and jam on the table. That must have been the first time in fifteen days that I had decent food. After the meal, I remembered what my grandmother used to say: God creates every person with his own share in the world. But feeding myself in someone else’s kitchen still bothered me.
When Jamal’s husband opened the door and walked in, we were drinking tea. Lilya quickly jumped up and took two of the three bags that he was holding.
“Hello,” he greeted us softly. He was a friendly man about the same age as his wife. He was tall and had typically Russian features. Compared to his wife’s slimness and fragility, he was much healthier and showed no traces of tiredness.
“Papa! Did you bring the movies?” shouted his daughter from the other room.
“Yes, Rita. Here, come and get them.”
Rita rushed in and immediately read the titles. They were Walt Disney cartoons. What else but Tom and Jerry could interest a nine-year-old girl? Then she ordered her father, who was just taking off his jacket, to turn on the video player.
“You will not watch more than forty minutes,” warned her father.
Lilya was still putting away the groceries he had brought home. It was obvious that he chose only the best fruit. The rich color of the oranges, the size of the green apples, big as bowls, the peels on the bananas—everything indicated deliciousness. Clearly, all the fruit was for Rita.
After lunch, Jamal let us go early. Still wrapped in her fleece robe, as if all her young energy had been sapped by her computer monitor, or as if she simply never got enough sleep, her face sad and suffering, she handed 5000 rubles to each of us.
“Girls, I was supposed to spend 5000 per day for a maid,” she told us wearily. “Today I’m paying 10,000 rubles. From now on, I’ll need you to come one at a time.”
“Thank you,” we said. I was glad, but my voice sounded a little embarrassed.
No doubt she was obeying her Kazakh nature when she accepted the extra expense that day.
I won’t lie—those bluish banknotes made me feel dizzy. For months, all sources of cash, except for my student stipend, had been blocked. And I’m wasteful by nature, because there is nothing more humiliating than counting change. Right after high school, I won a literary contest and my story was published. I received a big award and decent royalties. But I wasted that money, spending it frivolously. A big portion of my award was distributed among relatives by my mother as suinshi, and the rest was spent on the feast we gave to celebrate. I spent the royalties myself, buying expensive clothes for my sister, who was about to be married. I could have saved that money and bought a small apartment on the outskirts of Almaty. But I’ve never been able to see into the future.
I wondered if I should be worried about the unseemly way in which I was now earning money. It was the first time in my life that I had to take a job as an actual laborer, cleaning someone’s floor and washing their dishes. But the texture of that blue banknote seemed to have the magical power to heal the wounds in my soul, and erase all my whining and complaining before it poisoned me. Sabyr nested in my heart like a swallow. Sabyr would carry me to my goal.
The translator would like to acknowledge Zaure Batayeva's generous advice regarding this translation.
Excerpted from The Nanny © Aigul Kemelbayeva. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Shelley Fairweather-Vega. All rights reserved.
Not long after I returned to work following the birth of my baby, I was reading the news during my morning commute when I came upon a sentence containing the verb “to cling.” It wasn’t a sentence to savor or reread, just a description of something happening in the background. But I was unable to move forward. My eyes teared up, my heart raced, my body reacted to this word.
During those early weeks of nurturing a tiny, clinging baby, an otherwise commonplace verb had taken on new power and could somehow bypass my intellect to produce surprising physical effects. Parenthood, which already dominated much of my waking (and sleeping) life, had also invaded what was once a very private experience: reading. And if a single word like cling could elicit such a visceral response, I soon learned that stories that were explicitly about the joys or trials of parenthood could quickly transform me into an emotional mess.
I asked our editors for trigger warnings on pieces about children in peril and hoped the rawness of my new parenthood would eventually fade (it hasn’t really). But I also found myself looking around and wondering: if I was going through this, were other parents, too? In becoming a parent, I’d forged an utterly generic but almost painfully specific connection to parents around the world, and I was newly drawn to writing that explored this experience at once singular and universal.
By some estimates, parents make up over 80% of the adult population worldwide. A more universal experience is hard to imagine, and chances are that even if one hasn’t been a parent, they’ve had a parent affect their lives somewhere along the way. The intensity of the parent-child relationship, with its high emotional stakes, life-and-death responsibility, and inescapable physical proximity, makes for powerful stories.
For this special issue of Words Without Borders, we searched our archive for stories where the parent-child relationship plays a central role. Making a selection proved a difficult task: we’d published dozens of stories over the years that fit the bill. The ten pieces ultimately chosen, by writers from as many countries, portray the isolation, the anxiety, the challenges, the pain, and the absurdity of modern parenthood. Though their contexts couldn’t be more diverse—from suburban Finland to rural Madagascar, with stops in Argentina, Syria, Spain, Tibet, Brazil, Iran, Mexico, and Belgium—the parents in these tales struggle with questions faced by parents everywhere: What is my identity now that I am a parent? How can I help my child succeed and thrive? How do I protect my child from pain and suffering? How do I continue living if my child dies?
The narratives here explore the full scope of parental phases, from pregnancy to adulthood, and the shifting dynamics that characterize each. Argentine writer Samanta Schweblin is best known for her hallucinatory novel Fever Dream, in which a dying woman recounts events at the urging of a shadowy boy not her son. At one point he asks her why mothers always "try to get out in front of anything that could happen.” In "Preserves" she depicts one such mother, half of a married couple facing an unplanned pregnancy. The baby is not unwanted, simply a few years early—she “jumped the gun,” as the conflicted mother sighs. This problem of timing leads to a solution both elegant and totally unexpected.
Cristovão Tezza’s “The Eternal Son” follows a new father into the delivery room, where he receives news no parent wants to hear. Reeling, “he learned the power of forever. . . . Everything could be started over, but not now; everything could be redone, but not this.” Refusing to look at his wife or the baby, he is like a child who puts his hands over his eyes to make things disappear; but his “stubbornly prolonged” childhood ends here. Tezza won Brazil’s Jubuti Prize for this novel’s harrowing portrait of lives changed in an instant.
Catalan writer Teresa Solana, known for her antic detective tales, contributes "A Stitch in Time," a rollicking tale of extreme maternal devotion. When her married daughter turns up covered with bruises, an elderly widow enlists her equally aged friend as a confederate and gives her unsuspecting son-in-law a taste of his own medicine.
In a more somber tale, "Plastic Wrap," Belgium’s Lize Spit observes a man searching for a cure for his daughter’s mysterious rash in the wake of his wife’s abandonment. His deepening anguish mirrored by the spreading eruptions on his daughter’s legs, the desperate father turns to both conventional and alternative sources for advice. (Echoing the evocative word mentioned earlier, the household supply of the title is known in the UK as "cling wrap.")
In a turn from the distressing and macabre, Shimo Suntila’s “Daughters!” documents a day in the life of a Finnish single father and his two rambunctious little girls with magical capabilities. His exasperation with their antics—the coffeepot burned through, bugs brought into the house and enlarged, all set against the typical bickering of siblings—is tempered by his obvious affection.
If you’ve ever wondered how any parent manages with multiples, "Maria Times Seven" offers one example. Maria Batiz conjures a magical tale of the mother of septuplets who, in a Seussian turn, names them all María. The seven girls turn out to share not only their names but physical reactions: anything one feels is felt equally by the other six (“they suffered forty-nine cases of appendicitis, measles, and mumps, fourteen fractures, innumerable scrapes, sprains, head colds, and upset tummies . . .”). The arrival of puberty is even more disruptive; the aftermath, more surprising still.
No parent should have to bury his child. In Kader Abdollah’s searing "Eagles," a stoic father’s worst fear—that his son will die before he does—is exacerbated by his son’s status: a resistance fighter murdered in prison, he cannot be buried in their town cemetery. Enlisting his other son, the bereaved man travels throughout the region seeking a place to put his son to rest. Abdollah fled his native Iran as a political refugee and lives in physical and linguistic exile in the Netherlands, documenting his lost country and history in his adopted language of Dutch.
In another tale of wartime tragedy and the burden of history, Zaher Omareen listens in on "A Bedtime Story for Eid" as a Syrian mother conveys the coded truth of the horrific massacres of 1982. In her description of a missing soldier and his mother’s determination to find him, we hear the younger woman's recognition of both the need to protect her own child and her limited ability to do so.
While many parental decisions are shaped by local culture, traditions, and restrictions, some environments present more obstacles than others. Charlotte-Arrisoa Rafenomanjato's "Omeo Zamako" shows an impoverished Malagasy man struggling to raise his son after the boy’s mother dies in childbirth. The boy is intelligent and ambitious, but in this sharply divided society, promotion in school is limited to those who can afford to pay for the required examinations. The father’s attempts to buy his son’s way to success bring only loss and tragedy.
Pema Bhum’s sly portrait of Tibet under Mao, the appropriately titled "Wink," has a happier ending. After a man is banished from the local Party for desecrating Mao’s Quotations, his infant son becomes seriously ill. In search of medicine, the desperate man and his wife travel to a hospital and find themselves caught up in the mourning after Mao’s sudden death. Their baby’s random act, and its misinterpretation by a local Party officer, lead to unexpected redemption.
Our January issue is a reminder of what connects us: deep family ties, concern for loved ones, a human instinct to nurture—feelings a parent in the United States can share with a parent in Syria. Or for that matter, in any country in the world.
Susan Harris contributed to this text.
Even though the cooked-up myth of transparent translation has been debunked many times before, anthologies of world literature and Great Books courses haven’t budged a bit. The standard recipe goes like this: put together their English renderings and read these texts pretending they’ve been originally written in English. Surely, this is often the only way out of the monolingual impasse; otherwise Anglophone readers wouldn’t have the faintest idea that these texts are out there. By the same token, however, it keeps consolidating the belief that the medium of translation is, if not non-existent, then at least of no bearing to our interpretation of works translated from other languages.
Thankfully, this newly-released collection of essays and translated poems does an excellent job of proving otherwise. Edited by Martha Collins and Kevin Prufer, Into English is an impressive and ambitious project featuring original poems that span multiple centuries, languages, traditions and forms; three times as many voices of translators that have bent over backwards to bring the poems across into English; and their respective critics that delve into the intricacies of different tacks and textual weavings. The editors of this volume recently published by Graywolf Press, along with the twenty-five contributors who have commented on twenty-five poems and their respective three (or in one case: four) renderings, demonstrate suavely and with great panache why we should not take translated poetry at its face value. It is a genuine pleasure to read this book from its oblong cover to cover, turning its horizontally stretched pages. As the format facilitates seeing the poem lined up with its three renderings, it visually encompasses the wide spectrum of textual metamorphosis.
The idea of celebrating the multiplicity of translation and ensuing creative transformations amongst an ensemble of writers and translators has been explored in several collaborative projects over the last decades. Whereas some of them revolved around single authors (Daniel Halpern’s Dante’s Inferno, 1993; Michael Hofman and James Lasdun’s After Ovid, 1994; Paul Legault and Sharmila Cohen’s The Sonnets, 2012), others engaged more texts: for instance, in 2012, Adam Thirlwell took the concept to a completely new level in his chain translations of twelve stories by sixty-one writers, entitled Multiples. In comparison with these books, Into English turns the tables: here, it is poets and translators that judge the fruits of their colleagues’ labor as they go on display in a sort of translation slam. This is clearly calling for trouble. If not now, then on what other occasion can translators get away taking a petty revenge and needling fellow translators for their lapses?
In most instances, however, the contributors luckily don’t take this easy route and instead offer us a series of instructive close readings of what they’ve nominated as the three most interesting takes on the original poems. Admittedly, all these essays could equally work as separate case studies attached to editions of single poets. After all, such compilations of canonical writers in multiple translation exist, including Penguin’s Poets in Translation (e.g. Virgil, Dante, Baudelaire in English) or publications with “comparative translations,” as Rebecca Walkowitz calls them, sporadically released by university presses. Here the question arises: to what end are these completely different pieces put together in Into English and what do we gain from their comparative reading? What is the value of this Imaginary Museum of World Poetry in Multiple English Translations other than having convenient access to a fixed suggested reading for university curricula of literary translation courses? The book is advertised as something that “plunges the reader into a translation seminar” and “teaches us about craft.” Does Into English lend itself to a less didactic but more literary reading?
In her introduction, Martha Collins argues that “multiple translations can give us a much better sense of the poem” and refers to translation books such as Eliot Weinberger’s 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (1987) and Douglas Hofstadter’s Le ton beau de Marot (1997) to instantiate her remark. While this is all true, both Weinberger and Hofstadter, as well as other editors of similar projects (Rosemarie Waldrop’s Reft and light, 2000) or artists multiplying different translation variants within one work (Caroline Bergvall in VIA, 2000; Sawako Nakayasu in her Promenade cycle, 2011, etc.) usually treat the originals as a starting point to tell us a much bigger story. For Weinberger, Wei’s poem experiences cubist reincarnations analogous to Wallace Stevens’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird; Hofstadter hankers for the idea of the eternal form that outlives the poem in translations (also a poignant reminder of his late wife); numerous takes on Ernst Jandl’s poems in Reft and light become multiplied patterns molding visual poetry in its own right; VIA becomes a life path (“via”), Promenade re-lives the impressionist walk on a promenade, and so on. But what unique story can Into English tell us through these translation triplets of poems by “Sappho, San Juan de la Cruz, Basho, Rilke, Akhmatova, Garcia Lorca, Szymborska, Amichai, and Adonis” written in languages ranging from “Latin to Chinese, Spanish, French, German, Russian, Hebrew, Arabic, and Haitian Creole”?
Something that uncannily emerges out of this “chorus in celebration of international poetry and translation” is a range of orchestrated exercises in the style of translation criticism. As we proceed, we can’t help but reflect on how different writing temperaments have left an imprint on these commentaries and to what extent the language of translation criticism becomes invested in the original metaphors and poetics as these essayists get their heads around the multiplicity of renderings. We see some authors coining their titles after original phrases or issues characteristic of the respective originals. In her “Translating Leopardi’s ‘L’infinito’: An Infinite Task,” Susan Stewart envisions translating Giacomo Leopardi’s poem on infinity as an infinite task itself. Ellen Doré Watson’s “Drummond Incommunicado” heralds how the Brazilian author’s poetry will prove “incommunicable” across languages. For J. Kates, Boris Pasternak’s translations become “A Little More than Kin.” Rebecca Seiferle confronts the redundant ornamentation of Federico Garcia Lorca’s translation with the original’s simplicity of a “Black Cactus Open in Reeds.” Johannes Göransson looks at Tomas Tranströmer’s reception and translations that can never grasp from “Behind the Borders” the original poetry written “Between the Lines.”
We see also some of them including their own renderings as personal or visceral responses to the text. Willis Barnstone gives his own translation first as an exemplum of his erotic interpretation of St. John of the Cross, becoming very possessive of the poem and measuring other translations against his passionate reading. Bits from George Kalogeris’ own translation of Cavafy’s poem resound throughout his essay like echoes of “songs replying to songs replying to songs,” blending into the continuum of the poem’s prototypes, etymological layers and renderings. Alexis Levitin weaves his translation of Sophia de Mello Breyner Andersen’s poem towards the end of the essay’s fabric, showing “a pleasure in trying but constantly falling short,” just like the poem’s heroine can only endeavor to spare her mother from “the tissue that death is binding around her.”
In other words, there seems to be more self-reflexiveness going on in this project than perhaps is visible at first glance. That other languages resist a smooth transfer “into English” becomes evident in the unique language the book itself speaks. I mean here, however, something else than occasional misspellings in foreign languages (e.g. Mond for Mohn in Celan’s title and diacritics playing havoc with Polish words)—even though these few glitches do ironically hedge the inter-lingual zone that can never be tamed and smoothly edited into the common denominator of English. But the real fun of this book kicks off elsewhere: it begins when we try matching the collected poems with the poetics of respective essays on their translation triples. We get, for instance, essays arguing for the impenetrable meaning that remains inaccessible in translation while the original poems are already all about mysteries and hidden relation of things. We thus are doomed to be kept in the dark by the translators of Stéphane Mallarmé’s scintillations and Yahya Kemal Beyatlı’s nocturnal poem, just like the originals meant to entrap their readers in a dreamy state and unsettling enigma. On the other side of the spectrum, we also follow more sober readings of the poems that different translators and their critics manage to illuminate in equally sober terms. Perhaps it is Rilke’s own laconism and rigor in German that inevitably calls for an analogously succinct and rigid language of analysis (“a sonnet wants to remain a sonnet”)? Is it Yehuda Amichai’s logical calculus in his approach to life on earth that presupposes the critic’s metaphor of a zero-sum game? Does underscoring the individual aims and personal contingencies of Anna Akhmatova’s translators simply reflect the poet’s own lyrical physiology of trees? After all, to reiterate Joanna Trzeciak Huss’ metaphor, translators are “not just trees, but maples, lindens, elms, oaks, spruces, and poplars . . .”—they all represent distinct species that read differently and speak their unique voices.
And so do their critics, as Into English tells us. While similar translation metaphors can go even further, the very tone of essays in the book also feels like they’ve become imbued with the original poetry. This tone splinters into multiple tunes and chords as we go: it can vary from Carl Philips’ slightly moralistic conclusion about translations of Virgil’s didactic poem, to Arthur Sze’s straightforward calmness in coming to terms with the “untranslability” of Taoist spontaneity and peace of mind, to Cole Swensen’s tongue-in-cheek manner of toying with Baudelaire’s pranksters. But the most palpable record of this mutual kinship is perhaps Alissa Valles’s very somatic reading of Wisława Szymborska’s “Torture(s).” Here, the critic activates all her senses and even rehearses some of the physical descriptions from the poem (“I find myself throwing up my arms as well as my hands”). She also doesn’t shy away from talking about her deeply personal responses (“I feel,” “I favor,” “I prefer”) and aesthetic biases (“rhythmically, I lean toward the latter”). In this respect, as we read along and try to follow suit, we almost feel how translation can truly “get under one’s skin.”
And here, the question arises: would the originals generate so many interesting senses and responses had it not been for the multiple translators and their commentators? In one of my favorite essays in this volume, Stephen Tapscott argues that it is always the comparative reading of originals and their translations that makes an actual poem come into focus. The case in point is Paul Celan, whose consecutive waves of interpreters flesh out his different facets. It feels like the dynamic of plural renderings “conversing” while also distinguishing themselves from one another could as well illuminate other examples from this book. We get to see tasters of interactions between translations in recorded textual practices: John F. Deane’s translations of Marin Sorescu relied on English trots, not originals; Robin Robertson’s renderings of Tranströmer were based on previous translations; Adam J. Sorkin admits to a twinge of envy for W.D. Snodgrass’s interesting solution but ends up using a different phrase. Maybe it's not exclusively the original that triggers certain translation solutions and, if so, it shouldn’t be the only axis of comparison? When approaching a poem, translators do not only translate the original, but they also often need to “untranslate” other existing renderings. In effect, their versions are entangled in a network of different textual forces.
Tapscott also states, revisiting Walter Benjamin, that translation is inscribed in the original. Like Celan, it keeps calling and asking: “count me in” and “render me bitter.” Only thanks to translation, some hidden senses of the original are salvaged and unexpectedly come to the surface. In Sorescu’s poem “Adam,” the titular hero multiplies his harem of Eves in a surrealist act, which is said to reflect the author’s own actual liking for multiple variations of his poems published in different places. At the same time, the poem unwittingly anticipates the surrealist technique of Into English at large: Adam’s act of multiplied creation is somewhat extended by the plural translation production of the poem “Adam” and other works in the volume. Translation thus recapitulates original themes and reading problems with greater force. For instance, Hiroaki Sato’s take on Bashō’s translations reinstates the plurality that is already inherent to the original haiku with its many-crow and single-crow versions. In the same vein, translations of Sappho’s poem discussed by Karen Emmerich bridge temporally distant worlds that are actually inscribed in the original verse: two heroines of the poem positioned towards each other within the order of “now and then” may as well comment on the reading practices of Sappho’s fragments and efforts to make sense of her past story by embellishing it nowadays. Similar self-reflexive affinities recur in cases such as César Vallejo, Xu Zhimo, Adonis and Félix Morisseu-Leroy as their translations can only become touchstones of the authors’ original intercultural standing, colonial position, attitude to the West, and attempts to modernize the local tradition in relation to other literatures. And thus, it is also no coincidence that in discussing gestures of inclusivity reflected in pronouns, Danielle Legros Georges symbolically opens the project to as many as four previously unpublished renderings of the Haitian Creole activist Morisseu-Leroy. This generous act of permitting more versions to appear despite the fixed format nicely rounds off the whole book, which itself is also about questioning the common editorial practice of limiting the number of published translation variants.
Though veering off in various directions, all these fascinating cases unchangeably remind us about one crucial thing: that the art of translation starts already within the originals and sinks into us as we engage with them. We need more books such as Into English to understand how translation transforms our reading and how it changes us, too.
Elke Erb is a poet of observation, and her observations often lead quickly and vividly to problems of the act of observing:
A Rhyme on Ever
The bushes, the bushes, the brambles,
the clumps of wild roses and round sloes
have torn our gaze forever
into bushes, brambles, roses and sloes.
The gaze on nature does not perceive nature whole; it is always "torn" by the perception of its individual parts. That tearing is not immediately a matter of language, as the plants are distinct from each other before they are named. But naming them as "bushes, brambles, roses and sloes" has the same effect as the gaze: it "tears" what could have been a whole into "clumps" that can be distinguished from each other both visually and verbally. So Erb's poetics of observation both produces poems and explores the fragmenting effect of the act of observation itself.
The linguistic problems Erb repeatedly addresses in her work are summed up in the opening lines of "The Smile Pitiful":
how recast in words what upsets us
bird nailed to a black post
how escape words that don't protect
from all that bares its teeth behind our back
Here, words offer a way to take "what upsets us", such as violence done to a bird, and "recast" it in lines that give upsetting images a new shape that can contain and communicate the emotions triggered by what the poet sees. At the same time, though, words cannot always provide such containment, and as they cannot "protect" us from such violence, they are also something to "escape". In "A Rhyme for Ever", the composite effect of the "gaze" and of words is a "tearing" of the world into parts; here, in "The Smile Pitiful", words may give form to emotion caused by already "torn" images, but even when they do so, the desire to "escape" from words and their failures remains.
Both the formulations in the latter poem present the issue as a problem of "how" to do it. The implicit question is explicit in the brief "Getting Wind of a Plan":
How can anyone be rain and wind,
that is falling and blowing, and a path on a rock ridge
and rose hip and iron maw
and wings in clear air
and choking on it all at the same time?
for Friederike Mayröcker
The dedication at the end implies an answer to this rhetorical question: if anyone can be so expansive and all-inclusive, it is Austrian poet Friederike Mayröcker, who is fourteen years Erb's senior. While one might have to know Mayröcker's work to see how it's really done, the question here does act out an answer: the poem that captures so many distinct images with different valences can reach for wholeness in a question that brings contradictory elements together. All the parts may "tear our gaze forever", but the question becomes a suture for that tear that admits distinctions while also bridging them "at the same time."
Like Mayröcker, Erb writes in German; thanks to Rosmarie Waldrop's translations, both of them are available in English in the Burning Deck Press Dichten= series, along with many other German-language poets. Erb was born in 1938 and has published twenty-five volumes of poetry in the past forty years; the selections in The Up and Down of Feet are taken from six volumes published between 1994 and 2010. She has also worked most of her life as a translator, mostly from Russian into German but also from other languages, including Italian and English. In fact, she has also translated Rosmarie Waldrop into German, and Waldrop's translations make clear that the two poets have a great affinity with each other as they carry their poems across the distance from one language to another. That distance appears in The Up and Down of Feet at the beginning of Erb's prose poem "From Holland to Spain" as a distance between countries that can be bridged by reading:
You see yourself from a great distance when you read about Holland. You could be anybody. Whoever reads about Holland is there in spirit. Holland's eminence pushes it into the far distance. Its eminence is composite, one thing connected to another.
Reading about another country, like reading translated poems by a poet from another country, establishes a double distance: from oneself as one identifies with that other; from the other country and language as one remains in one's own geography. Yet from these distances, the other country becomes a composite whole, its parts not "torn from" but "connected to" each other: "Naval power, commercial power, sheep breeding, lens grinding." The observational perspective may "tear" up the wholeness of nature and, even here, set the self at a distance to the self, but the distance of the other country or language becomes a way of seeing things as connected rather than as separated by the act of seeing itself.
The implicit and explicit threats to the self that run through Erb's work in this volume are occasionally revealed to have a historical and political edge, as in the beginning of the prose poem "Russia As It Moved On": "How in Russia, you, I would have been . . . eliminated. No matter under which regime [. . .]." The poet as critic of the desire for wholeness and unity is a danger to both Russia's Soviet incarnation and its contemporary authoritarianism. An aesthetics of wholeness and its troubles will always undermine a politics of wholeness that does not recognize that any member of the nation might want to "escape" it, whether by crossing a border or by reading and writing of elsewheres that are outside the political community. When you want to be "there in spirit," rather than wholly here where others see you as belonging, "the regime" will ultimately see you and your difference as something to be ". . . eliminated."
All in all, Erb's poetry thrives on shifting observational perspectives as it reaches for a natural wholeness prior to observation and challenges artificial wholeness created by acts of violence on small and large scales. If observation is Erb's ever-present problem, it is also the source of her great productivity as a poet. The poems often register moments of everyday life in its beauty and melancholy, as in this moment of observation from a "Train Window":
In the sun in the front of his house
between mountain face and railroad
an apple tree
he trims, on a ladder.
Must have heard the bells toll that
we don't live forever.
Indeed we don't, but this moment of observation lays claim to the immortality poems have always aimed for: how observed moments live beyond themselves in the words in which they are "recast."
In the terrifying new world order, Cairo is a place where people walk about with microchips in their heads, where everyone laments a green Egypt that never was, and where scientists warn against "unsafe levels of nostalgia" that come from hearing strains of old songs. Such is the premise of Ahmed Naji's dystopian novel, Using Life, fluidly translated from Arabic by Ben Koerber and just published in the US by the University of Texas Press. The story is a rich, wild ride narrated by Bassem Bahget, a forty-six-year-old looking back to his youth just before Cairo's destruction by violent sandstorms and earthquakes. Surprisingly, though, it isn't the novel's critique of authoritarian regimes, but all of the fucking (to stick with the translator's term of choice) the protagonist gets up to that led the Egyptian government to charge and convict author Ahmed Naji of "violating public modesty." The trial and sentence condemning Naji to prison sparked protests in Egypt last year and brought his work to the attention of the foreign press and PEN America, which led an international campaign for his release. The attention and praise the book has since received, including a rave review by Zadie Smith in the New York Review of Books, are inevitably connected to these circumstances, but now that Using Life has been published in English we can see that they are fully earned by the author's exceptional work.
Though tempting for readers unfamiliar with Egyptian politics to assume that Naji's case is about enforcing Islamic values, it's more complex than that. Freedom of expression is guaranteed under the Egyptian constitution, and the escalation of arrests and prosecutions under President el-Sisi is in defiance of Egyptian law. As Naji remarked in an interview, "the moral code in Egypt is closely tied to the structure of power." Indeed, Naji is the first writer in Egypt to receive a prison sentence for his fiction since the January 25 Revolution of 2011, and his arrest rallied the Egyptian and then the international literary community to his cause. What we see here is an authoritarian regime stoking fear and self-censorship among those who would speak out against the government, not a guarding of Islamic traditions.
Naji's raucous celebration of Egyptian popular culture, Arab history, sex, and youth plays out in the contested urban spaces of Egypt. The story opens with young Bassem, a filmmaker in his twenties who's just trying to smoke some hash, fuck, and hopefully make it across town without vomiting on the minibus, but all the while Cairo bears down on him. "Welcome to the hell that is Cairo, where life is one long wait, and the smell of trash and assorted animal dung hangs about all the time and everywhere." After Bassem is hired by the secret Society of Urbanists to make documentaries about city planning and the architecture of the Egyptian capital, he quickly becomes bound up in the battle by members of the Society over the future of his city.
The struggle between liberalism and authoritarian rule plays out as a question of the future of Egypt's capital between powerful figures in the Society of Urbanists. Ihab Hassan (a character that plays tribute to the literary critic Ihab Hassan, an expat Cairene who championed postmodernism) argues that Cairo should be reformed through a revitalization of its neighborhoods, through a democratization of space, while the soul-sucking, gorgeous centenarian Paprika demands Cairo be wiped out to make room for a new order. It is Paprika who rules the day and it is from the bizarre new world that the older Bassem writes to us.
In Using Life, questions of architecture and city planning come up throughout, a footnoted account of the nineteenth-century mobile capital of Algeria's storied prince Abd al-Qadir being just one delightful example of the theme. The unsettling illustrations by Ayman Al Zorkany serve as brilliant complement to this question: is Cairo Bassem's lifeblood, or is it eating him alive like an undiagnosed flesh-eating bacteria? Throughout the book, the Egyptian capital is like a beast clawing at Bassem's skin, insidiously infiltrating his lungs. It is a city that might rear up and lash out at Bassem at any moment, that holds him hostage in its traffic jams, and that presses such despair on Bassem it shapes even his intimate relationships. There is Reem, a woman whose identity is subsumed by religion and then by her love for another woman, and Mrs. Spoon, a sexy older woman. But of the women he fucks, it is Mona May, Bassem's elusive objet petit a, that readers will find most vividly rendered.
The novel describes Bassem's sexual relations in explicit terms. With every "fuck," "dick," and "pussy," the author reclaims the centuries-old Arabic literary tradition of speaking frankly about sex. In Using Life, Naji puts that tradition in conversation with innovations like illustrations, tangential footnotes, and a fluid time structure. The result is a book that infuses new urgency and excitement in the Egyptian, and now international, literary world.
At thirty-two years old, Ahmed Naji has already been working in Egypt's vibrant literary scene for over a decade. His blogging, critiques of the Egyptian regime, editorial work, and genre-blurring novels have earned him a devoted following in Egypt. Naji completed Using Life on the eve of the 2011 Egyptian "January Revolution" that ousted longtime president Hosni Mubarak, and the novel reflects the tumult and pressures of that era. After the Egyptian weekly Akhbar al-Abad published a chapter of Using Life in 2014, Naji was charged with "indecency and disturbing public morals." The indictment, prosecution, conviction, and ten months Naji spent in jail all stemmed from a reader complaint claiming that the sex and drugs in that chapter gave him heart palpitations. The trial hinged on whether Using Life was fiction or nonfiction, a question the Egyptian judiciary spent months investigating. Had Naji himself smoked hash and eaten out a married woman (Mrs. Spoon), or was that a fiction? Naji has called the trial "Kafkaesque." Rightly so. After such a conviction, one has to ask: what is fiction?
"I'm not a writer with a message," Naji has said. "I'm more of a writer with questions." As too many governments in the world bends towards authoritarianism, one can only hope Naji will keep using his considerable gifts to ask those questions.
In this excerpt from the novel Shaheb Bibi Golam, Bimal Mitra examines issues of family loyalty, conflict, and guilt when a young man enables an older woman’s alcohol addiction.
It was late. Who knew where Bhootnath could buy liquor at this hour? He had no idea where the shop was. There was just one place where he might get it. Perhaps Jaba’s family cook was there right now, squatting on a brick by the road with an earthen pot, and singing his favorite devotional, Radha, you disgraced woman . . . But how was he to travel that long distance at this hour? And then, all of a sudden, Bhootnath bumped into Banshi.
“Where are you off to at this unearthly hour, Shala-babu?” Banshi inquired.
But Bouthaan had instructed Bhootnath not to tell anyone, not even Banshi. Bhootnath could not think of a response. “Where did you spring from, Banshi?” he asked.
“Chinta is down with fever again, Shala-babu. Master-babu is away. So I’d been to doctor Shashi. But what about you?”
Bhootnath felt slightly embarrassed.
Banshi continued, “I know where you’re going, Shala-babu. Chhoto-ma has been looking for you all evening. So I was wondering, Chhoto-babu is still somewhat unwell, he has been staying home at night. Why does Chhoto-ma have to send for Shala-babu then?”
“Chhoto-babu hasn’t been going out of late?” asked Bhootnath, taken aback. He had had no idea.
“You think he can even get out of bed?” said Banshi. “He barely manages to visit Chhoto-ma once a day and then collapses in his own room. The doctor’s forbidden him, you see. He said no getting out of bed till you’re completely cured. You won’t believe the way he looks, it’ll make you cry, by god!”
“Has he stopped drinking?”
“You think anyone can give up that poison? Take me for example—since Chhoto-babu took to his bed, I have been mixing his drinks. I dilute them with a little water, Shala-babu. But still I feel I’m killing him. The doctor has said many times that he won’t live if he keeps drinking. But who’s listening? He’s been drinking just like before, and I pour out the poison myself. Some mornings he walks to the window and gazes outside. Babu isn’t so drunk during the day, but as soon as it gets dark—get the ice, bring the bottle! Just as well he doesn’t have the strength to visit Notun-ma’s house. You think he wouldn’t have gone if he could have? That slut has him under her spell . . .”
Pausing abruptly, Banshi said, “By the way, did you know that Notun-ma was here the other day? You haven’t heard?”
“When? I had no idea!”
“How would you know? You were asleep by then, it was late at night, Nathu Singh told me secretly. He said, Banshi, Rupodashi’s daughter Chunibala is here. Wants to see Chhoto-babu. Should I let her in?
“I thought, Chunibala’s here to meet Chhoto-babu because he couldn’t go see her all these days. What if babu hears and creates a scene? Wait, I said, and ran straight to Chhoto-ma. She had just finished her puja rituals. She flew into a rage as soon as I told her. You know how pleasant she is normally, but she changes completely when she loses her temper. She said, Can’t you get the whip from Chhoto-babu’s carriage and give that ogress a couple of lashes. If you can’t, call Nathu Singh. I’ll tell him.
“She frightened me. Chhoto-ma said again, Can’t you do it?
“I told her, Chhoto-babu won’t spare me if he finds out, Chhoto-ma.
“But I am in charge in this house. Do as I tell you. Whip her till she bleeds.
“I said, It’s just that I can’t hit a woman, or else . . .
“Don’t you call her a woman, she’s a witch. Call Nathu Singh if you can’t do it. All of you will lose your jobs if she so much as sets foot inside the house, I’m warning you. And if you can do as I say, neither you nor your sister will ever have to worry for money in your life.
“By now her screaming had brought Mejo-ma and Boro-ma out of their rooms.
“What’s the matter, Chhoto?” Mejo-ma asked.
“She convulsed with laughter when she heard.
“She said, You amaze us, really. A man’s character is like silk—]there’s nothing pure or impure about it. You overdo everything. I’ve seen Ranga-ma and Mejo-korta—if I took everything to heart I’d have hung myself by now.
“Boro-ma said, Really, Chhoto-bou, you make too much of a fuss over everything.
“You won’t believe it, Shala-babu, but I went . . . I went to the gate at that hour of the night with Nathu Singh. Notun-ma had come in her new car. Seeing me, she said, How’s Chhoto-babu, Banshi?
“I said, He’s a little better now.
“Is he taking his medicines?
“Take me inside, she told me.
“What could I have said? I lied. I said, Babu has forbidden us to let you in—I swear, Notun-ma, he said, if your Notun-ma comes don’t let her enter, I don’t want to see her face.
“Notun-ma thought for a while. Then she asked, Did he really say that?
“Of course. Why should I lie? What would I gain by lying?
“Well then let him say it to my face. Let Chhoto-korta ask me himself to go—I’m not leaving before that. I didn’t choose this path on my own, it was he who led me to it.
“You won’t believe the trouble I was in that day, Shala-babu. The maid’s daughter had become a queen, why would she give up so easily? A house in a posh area like Janbajar, four maids of her own, three servants, a car—she had achieved the impossible! What more did she want now? But these whores are always after these things. As if she couldn’t sleep at night because Chhoto-babu wasn’t well!”
“Did she leave eventually?” Bhootnath asked. “Did Chunibala go?”
“You think I waited to see? What choice did she have? I just told Nathu Singh to lock the gate and walked away. I don’t know what happened after that. I had other things to worry about.”
“What do you have to worry about?”
“How could I not be worried? What if Chhoto-babu found out? He would raise hell. Who would help me keep my job? I would have had to go back to the village with Chinta and starve. It’s not like I have land back home that I can live off. I have to think of these things, Shala-babu.”
“But then Chhoto-ma will never let you go, Banshi, you’ve done so much for her.”
“But who’s going to listen to Chhoto-ma, Shala-babu? Chhoto-korta himself pays no attention to her, never mind anyone else in the household. Here you are, going out at this hour to buy liquor for Chhoto-ma . . .”
Bhootnath recoiled as though he had stepped on a snake. “How did you know, Banshi?”
Falling into step beside him, Banshi said nonchalanatly, “Who’s going to tell me, Shala-babu? I’ve worked here long enough to be in the know of everything. Do you think the neighbors will know what’s going on rather than the servants? Neither Chhoto-ma nor Mejo-ma knows the things I do. Not even Chhoto-korta or Mejo-korta. We find out everything—who’s spending the night in whose room, when a doctor sneaks in, when the midwife is brought in stealthily, medicines, illnesses, everything. Only last year a crowd had gathered on the road outside early one morning. Police, constables, an uproar, kites and vultures circling—and what were they staring at? Why, a day-old baby boy, dead. We know everything—who tossed him out, from which room. But we are servants, we don’t need to be involved in such things. The police came, interrogated us, we said we know nothing, that was that.”
Suddenly Bhootnath asked, “Banshi, do you know why Chhoto-ma wants this horrible stuff?”
Banshi was quiet for a while. Then he said, “By god, Shala-babu, you’re a Brahmin, I can swear by you, I worship Chhoto-ma like a goddess. I can sacrifice my life to make her happy. That’s why Lochan and Madhusudan-kaka are jealous of me, they say, you must have been her son in your previous life. But being someone’s son isn’t everything, is it—do all sons take care of their mothers? The mother must be worthy of being a mother too. Babu went to her room the other evening. I had gone to fetch him because Chhoto-ma had asked me. I eavesdropped on them.
“Chhoto-ma asked him, Are you planning to go there again?
“Chhoto-babu had not yet had a drink that evening. His head was clear. He said, What business is it of yours if I go?
“That’s his way of speaking, you know.
“Chhoto-ma said, Don’t go. Can’t you stay back instead?
“I wasn’t born in a family where the men cling to their wives’ gowns, Chhoto-bou.
“Chhoto-ma appeared to be thinking. Then she said, I’m not asking you to do that, but you can still stay back.
“Am I supposed to sit here and gape at you?
“Don’t gape if you don’t like it, look away. Let me serve you.
“I heard Chhoto-babu laugh. Contemptuously. A little later he said, Do you really know how to serve, Chhoto-bou?
“Give me a chance.” Chhoto-ma said.
“I am not your loving son or one of your gods, I’m a man, a flesh and blood man. Are you capable of serving me? Think it over.
“I heard Chhoto-ma say, There’s nothing to think over. Hindu women do not have to be taught how to serve their husbands.
“Chhoto-babu laughed again, that same contemptuous laugh. He said, I’m not that sort of husband, Chhoto-bou. The men of this family learn to drink even before they’re born. They’re raised by maids and servants. They’re not allowed into the women’s chambers once they turn nine or ten. They have kept women as soon as they come of age, they compete to see who’s the more decadent, who can nurture more sycophants. It’s not within your capabilities to serve and please such a husband, Chhoto-bou.
“Why don’t you see whether I can or not?
“Chhoto-babu answered, It’ll be a wasted effort Chhoto-bou, it will never work. Wives cannot do these things, no one married into this family has succeeded. Not just this family, no one married into the other families—the Duttas, the Mullicks, the Seals, the Seths—has either tried or succeeded. It’s too much trouble. Only they can, those other women, they know the tricks of the trade.
“Chhoto-ma seemed to be on the verge of tears. She replied, I’m begging of you, you’ll see, they couldn’t succeed, but I will. All of them are from rich families, but you have brought me here from a poor one. I can do it. I will do everything you ask me to. I will dress up exactly as you want me to. I will talk just like you want. I will take care of you in every possible way.
“Will you be able to sing?
“My father taught me to sing. If you like the songs I know I will sing them for you.
“Chhoto-ma said, I’ve never danced but if you arrange for lessons, I will. I can do anything for you.
“And drink? Can you drink? Like Chunibala does?
“A short silence. No one spoke. Chhoto-ma probably hadn’t expected this from Chhoto-korta. I was speechless too. How can a husband say such a thing to his wife? Liquor and poison are one and the same thing, how can a man force it on his wife? But then Chhoto-babu is not really human anymore. All those hours he spends with Notun-ma have sucked it out of him. But my Chhoto-ma is blessed, she’s a goddess. And the way she responded was worthy of someone I think of as my mother.”
“What did she say?” asked Bhootnath.
“She said, I will. I will drink. I can even drink poison with a smile if you give it to me with your own hands.
“Chhoto-babu laughed and said, but that’s not the right way. Far from my handing you a glass, it’s you who will hand me mine, Chhoto-bou.
“I will. If my drinking can keep you at home, I will.
“I felt a chill run down my spine, Shala-babu. Imagine Chhoto-ma taking poison while we watch. I told myself, at least there was one person in the family I could respect with all my heart, but now I would lose her too. My heart broke. I thought of going into the room to stop her, to tell her, that poison will kill you, Ma. But I was born a servant, I cannot cross the line.
“Chhoto-babu left. I was about to walk away too in the dark, but Chhoto-ma called out for me. I went in.
“Go and fetch your Shala-babu,” she said.
“Right now? I asked.
“Yes, right now, she said. Tell him it’s urgent. He must come at once.
“That was when I fetched you. So I know everything. You cannot hide anything from me.”
Bhootnath said, “But I don’t even know where to buy it, or how much it costs. Bouthan just gave me ten rupees.”
“I have the keys to Chhoto-babu’s liquor cabinet,” said Banshi. “Chhoto-ma asked you so that I don’t find out. But I wouldn’t get her the poison if I were you, Shala-babu.”
“Do you think I should return the money to her?” asked Bhootnath.
“Yes, that would be best.”
“Let’s go back then. That’s best—let me return the money and tell her I can’t do this.”
“But don’t mention me, Shala-babu,” said Bhootnath. “Don’t go telling her I told you all this.”
Bhootnath went back the way he had come. “No, Banshi, how can I do that?”
Bhootnath walked through the darkness and once again climbed on to the hidden veranda leading to her room. The light was on, as usual. Chhoto Bouthan was lying on the bed, her face buried in the pillow. Her elaborate hairdo had come apart. Her thick golden chain gleamed on her shoulder beneath the electric bulb. Meanwhile the incense sticks had almost gone out. The doll seemed to glare at him again through the glass doors of the cupboard. Chinta was nowhere to be seen. Stopping at the threshold, Bhootnath called out, “Bouthan.”
Chhoto Bouthan's head shot up at once like a startled fawn's. Getting out of the bed and adjusting her sari, she said, “Is that Bhootnath? Have you brought it?” She walked up to him. “Give it to me.”
Bhootnath stood in silence.
“Well? Give it to me,” Chhoto Bouthan repeated.
“I haven't brought it,” Bhootnath told her directly.
“Why not? Are all the shops closed?”
“I didn't go to the shops.”
“Why not?” Her surprise knew no limit.
“I can’t get it for you, Bouthan,” said Bhootnath. “Here's your money. I can't possibly get you that poison.”
Bouthan stiffened, and looked at him piercingly. “So you can't get it for me?”
“Don't ask me to, Bouthan,” he said.
“What's the matter Bhootnath, why this sudden change of heart?” She took his hands in hers. “What a mad boy you are, has someone said something to you?”
Bhootnath softened. He seemed on the verge of tears. “Why must you drink?” he said. “Is it meant for humans? Only those who go to hell drink.”
“Why, Chhoto-korta drinks,” said Chhoto Bouthan. “How do you suppose their shops would run if no one drank?”
“Let the others drink, but not you, I won't let you, never. You'll die if you drink.”
Chhoto Bouthan burst into peals of laughter. “It would be just as well if I did, Bhootnath. What use is it to be alive when your husband won't even look at you? Still, I want to see if I can lure him back. I've read in the Mahabharata what women did for the sake of their husbands. I'm not trying to emulate them, but let me try what my husband has suggested. No one dies from drinking.”
“Are you desperate to die?” Bhootnath asked, suddenly.
“No, Bhootnath, just the opposite. No one wants to live the way I do, though I don't object to dying for the sake of my husband. But I cannot bear this existence that keeps me neither alive nor dead, Bhootnath.”
“But what if Chhoto-korta still doesn't mend his ways? What will you do then, Bouthan?”
“Don’t worry, Bhootnath,” Chhoto Bouthan said, “I won’t blame you. I won’t blame anyone, I’ll accept it as my fate. But never mind all that, you don’t have to worry so much for me. Even the horses here have people to worry for them, but wives are cheap, a dead wife can be replaced by a living one, but replacing a dead horse is expensive.”
“Then promise me you won’t drink too much, Bouthan.”
“How is that possible? I’ll drink as much as Chhoto-korta wants me to. I’ve given my word, I’ll do everything he wants me to do.”
After a pause, Bhootnath said, “But why did you have to make a promise like that?”
Chhoto Bouthan laughed. Then she asked softly, “You love me very much, don’t you, Bhootnath?”
Bhootnath’s ears reddened with embarrassment. His mind reeled. He lowered his eyes at once and was unable to raise them for quite some time.
Chhoto Bouthan was not the least bit flustered. She said, “You do know it’s a sin to love another man’s wife, don’t you?”
Bhootnath was about to protest.
Chhoto Bouthan continued, “But then if you really love me, get it for me. If you can get it tonight I’ll be convinced that Bhootnath really does love me.”
Bhootnath didn’t pause a moment after this.
© Bimal Mitra. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 Somrita Ganguly. All rights reserved.
Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s short story details a young boy’s friendship with a prostitute in a poor Calcutta neighborhood.
We lived in a single room in Hari-babu’s bamboo-and-tile house. Several families lived in the same building. One room was occupied by a bangle-seller and his wife. His name was Keshab. I addressed him as Keshab-kaka.
As soon as water flowed in the pipes every morning, everyone would line up with their pitchers and bowls and cans and buckets near the tap, and quarrels broke out between the tenants.
My father would tell my mother, “We can’t possibly live here. These people behave like barbarians. We must move soon.”
I cannot say why we never moved. I think it must have been because we were poor, because my father had no money.
Across the road from our house was a rice warehouse, and next to it was a godown for gur, opposite which stood a municipality tap. A screaming and jostling crowd would collect water from this tap every day. I had even seen women fighting with one another.
Thus we spent a year in that house, from one June to another.
It was in June that we had left our village home. Back in the village, Kali and I had built a hut at the edge of the bamboo grove, next to a thorn apple bush. Kali, who was stronger than me, had carried several bundles of berry leaves and branches. What a perfect hut we had made, the two of us, just like a real house. That’s what Kali would say. He had fixed an abandoned bird’s nest to the thick branch of a tree. He had said that nocturnal woodpeckers or lapwings would lay eggs in that nest in the middle of August or on the moonlit nights of September.
It hadn’t been possible for me to check on all this, for we had moved from the village in June to this house of bamboo and tiles.
I kept recalling the hut on the edge of the bamboo grove in the village, which Kali and I had built with so much care, and of the bird’s nest fixed to the branch of the tree—had the woodpecker laid eggs in it on a moonlit September night?
This house in Calcutta was far too constricted, far too congested. I sat in the tin-roofed veranda in front all morning, watching the neighbors line up for water, the gur being unloaded from a bullock-cart to the warehouse, a young wife gazing at the road, just like me, from the window of the two-story house on the corner. Sometimes I bought chhatu at the Bihari man’s shop on the main road at the head of our lane. The main road was full of vehicles. I had never seen a single horse-drawn carriage in our village. I could never have enough of seeing them go by, but my mother wouldn’t allow me on the main road for fear that I would be run over.
A row of houses of bamboo and tiles, just like ours, stood a little further away, at the other end of the lane. I visited these houses sometimes. They were kept neat and clean and were well-appointed, with mirrors, dolls, glass showcases, and pictures on the walls. Each of the rooms was occupied by a woman. I visited all of them—usually in the early evening, sometimes in the morning too.
One of the women in those houses was named Kusum. She loved me very much, and I loved her too. I spent much of my time in Kusum’s room. She chatted with me and asked about our village. She belonged to a place called Bardhaman. But now she lived in this room.
Kusum said, “I love you so much. You’ll come every day, won’t you?”
“I love you too. I do come every day.”
“Where is your village?”
“Ashshingri, in Jessore.”
“First time in Calcutta?”
Kusum would dress up elaborately every evening, putting a teep on her forehead and some sort of flourlike powder on her face. She would do up her hair too—how well it suited her! But she wouldn’t let me stay in her room at this time. She would say, “Go home now, my babu will come.”
The first time I heard this I asked, “Who’s babu?”
“No one you know. You won’t understand. Go home now.”
I would be upset. I would say, “Let the babu come, I’ll stay. What can the babu to do to me?”
“No, go away. You mustn’t stay. Be a darling.”
“Who is this babu? Is he your brother?”
“You won’t understand. Go home now.”
I was very curious to see who Kusum’s babu was. Why did she tell me to go home?
I did see him one day. A portly man with long hair—he was holding a packet of food of some kind. At the shops they gave you food in packets like these, made with dried leaves. We didn’t have leaves like these in our village—if you bought murki or jilipi at Hari’s shop, he wrapped them in lotus leaves.
Unwrapping the packet, Kusum handed me a large kochuri, saying, “Here you are, eat this on your way home.”
I bit into it, it was delicious. I had never eaten a kochuri like this in the village. The kochuris that Hari made were fried in oil and nowhere near as delectable.
Delighted, I said, “Lovely! And what’s this flavor?”
Kusum told me, “It’s heeng. This is a heeng-kochuri. Go home now.”
Kusum’s babu said, “Who is it?”
“The son of the tenants opposite the tap. Brahmins.”
Turning to me, Kusum’s babu said, “Go home, khoka, go home now.”
I thought of asking, “Why can’t I stay, what’s wrong with my staying?” But when I looked at Kusum’s babu, I didn’t dare. He seemed a bad-tempered sort who might hit me. But since then, I waited as a rule till Kusum’s babu arrived, greedy for my heeng-kochuri. But would Kusum hand me two kochuris before anything else every every time?
Kusum’s babu would say, “Oh, I forgot. I’d meant to get a couple of khasta goja for him. I’ll bring them tomorrow, I promise.”
I wasn’t afraid any more. I said, “Don’t forget, all right?”
Chortling, Kusum’s babu said, “I won’t, I won’t.”
Kusum said, “Go home now, khoka.”
“I won’t go now. Why can’t I stay?”
Kusum’s babu said something in response, I couldn’t quite understand what. Kusum told him angrily, “What a thing to say to a child!”
When I went home I asked my mother, “Have you ever eaten a heeng-kochuri, Ma?”
“I have. So large, and it smells of heeng.”
“Where did you get it?”
“Kusum’s babu brought some, he gave me one.”
“Naughty boy, haven’t I told you not to go there? You mustn’t.”
“Because. You shouldn’t be going there. They aren’t good people.”
“No, Ma, Kusum is very nice. She loves me so much. Gives me heeng-kochuri every day.”
“Don’t you show me your heeng-kochuri! Don’t you get enough to eat at home? I’m warning you not to go there.”
I didn’t go to Kusum’s room at all for the next two or three days. But I couldn’t stay away either. I went back, without telling my mother. Kusum asked, “Why didn’t you come?”
“My mother has warned me not to.”
“Then you’d better not come. She’ll scold you.”
“That’s why I didn’t for two days.”
“But now you’re here again.”
“Because I love you.”
“Oh, my darling. I hate it too when you don’t come. I miss you so much.”
“So do I.”
“It’s all my fate. I’m worried about your mother scolding you.”
“I shan’t tell her. I miss you if I don’t come. I’d better go now.”
“Come in the evening.”
* * *
Fulfilling our pact, I went to Kusum in the evening. When Kusum’s babu arrived, he said, “So here you are, chhokra. Why did you go missing these past couple of days? I’d brought khasta goja for you, but obviously fate didn’t mean for you to have any. Give him a couple of kochuris, will you?”
“Bring the goja tomorrow.”
“I shall, master Brahmin, glutton Brahmin. I’ll bring some amriti and jilipi as well tomorrow. Ever tried an amriti?”
“I’ll bring some tomorrow, you must come.”
“But don’t tell anyone. If my mother finds out she won’t let me come.”
“Does your mother scold you for coming?”
Kusum intervened quickly, “Never mind what he says. He’s a little boy, don’t take him seriously. Go home now, khoka. Here’s your kochuri. Eat it on your way home.”
“No, I’ll finish it here and have a glass of water, or else my mother will find out.”
“I shan’t give you water here. Drink at the tap by the road.”
“Kusum’s babu said, Why won’t you give him a glass of water here? What harm will it do?”
Kusum told him harshly, “Be quiet. I cannot serve a glass of water to a Brahmin’s son. That’s my punishment in this lifetime. It’s bad enough that I give him food with my own hands.”
I was very upset with Kusum. Was I not good enough for her to give me a glass of water? As I was leaving, Kusum said again and again, “Come tomorrow morning, all right?”
I didn’t reply.
The next morning I found Kusum slicing vegetables. She said, “Come, khoka.”
“I’m not talking to you.”
“What! Why? What have I done?”
“You said you couldn’t give me a glass of water. You didn’t, yesterday.”
“Is that all? Sit down, khoka. You won’t understand. You belong to a Brahmin family—we can’t serve you water. Understood? I’m making achaar, want some? It’s not done yet. I’ve only just added the gur to the kul . . .”
And so Kusum and I were friends again. I forgot all my anger and hurt as soon as I was handed the kul-achaar. We sat and chatted for a long time. Then I went into Makhan’s room, next to Kusum’s. Hundreds of dolls adorned her room. On a wooden shelf lay apples and mangoes and litchis and many other amazing things all made of clay. A perfect apple! A perfect mango!
Makhan said, “Come, khoka. Don’t touch all those clay toys, sit down here. They’ll break.”
“Why do you smoke?”
Makhan said with a smile, “Listen to the boy! People smoke, don’t they?”
“Do women smoke? My mother doesn’t. My father does.”
“Listen to him. Those who smoke, do.”
“Kusum’s babu will give me khasta goja.”
“Really? How nice.”
“Where’s your babu?”
Makhan giggled, covering her mouth with the end of her sari.
“Hee hee, just listen to the boy, the things he says! Hee hee . . . Kusmi, come listen to what your boy’s saying . . .”
Makhan seemed older than Kusum. Kusum was the most beautiful of them all. She addressed Makhan as didi.
Kusum came in and led me away to her room. She had told me not to go into anyone else’s room. In truth I only went in the hope of getting something nice to eat. But I had no idea when the other women’s babus could come. So disappointment awaited me in this respect. Taking me into her room, Kusum scolded me. She said, “What do you have to talk about with them? You’re a little boy, you’re not allowed into the other room, stay here.”
“I want to go to Prabha . . .”
“Why? What for? Who knows what you’ll say there. Silly boy. So greedy for food. Didn’t I just give you kulchur?”
I said in a tone of pretended astonishment, “I didn’t ask for anything. Ask Prabha.”
“All right, no need to go to Prabha.”
“Can’t I go just once? I’ll be back in a moment.”
To tell the truth, the real attraction in Prabha’s room was not so much food as it was a parrot.
The parrot would say, “Ram ram, who is it? Go away, kakima, kakima.”
Whenever I entered it would say, “Who’s there? Who’s there?”
“My name is Basudeb.”
“Who’s there? Who’s there?”
I laughed. It was such fun listening to the parrot prattle. He sounded exactly like a human. “Who’s there? Who’s there?”
Outside the room, Prabha asked, “Who’s that in my room?”
She was cooking. She came running with a ladle dripping dal. I asked with a smile, “Are you going to beat me up?”
“Oh, it’s the mad little Brahmin. I was wondering who it could be at this hour of the afternoon.”
“Don’t you have any kulchur? Kusum gave me some. Delicious.”
“Kusum has a rich babu. I don’t, do I? How do you expect me to make aamchur and kulchur?”
“Kusum’s babu will give me a goja to eat.”
“And why not? He’s dedicated that huge shop of his at the crossroads to Kusum. Never mind them. As they say, you’re so vain, I could die . . .”
I told her apprehensively, “Don’t be angry with me, Prabha.”
“No, why should I be angry? Just sad, that’s all. I’m a one-man whore too. We didn’t just sail in here, you know. I left home at fifteen when my luck ran out.”
“Why did you leave home?”
“Why tell you all those sad tales? What will you make of them? Wait, my dal’s burning. Words won’t fill my stomach.”
“Should I go?”
“Come into the kitchen.”
Prabha was dark, quite plump, with a mole like a black hornet on her nose. She gave me hot jilipi and muri to eat one day. She didn’t have too many things in her room besides the pet parrot in the cage.
Prabha was cooking a broth with the chalta fruit. The chalta slices were being moistened in a marble cup. I hadn’t tasted chalta in ages, not since we’d left our village. The trees lining the pond in the field would be bursting with ripe chalta at this time of the year.
I asked, “Where did you get chalta, Prabha?”
“At the market. Where do you suppose?”
“They look delicious.”
Prabaha didn’t reply. She went on cooking.
I said, “Where are your parents?”
“This sinful mouth cannot answer.”
“Won’t you go home?”
“Your home in the village?”
“I’ll go home to hell.”
“Do you get kul in your village? We have so many kul trees.”
Prabha did not respond. She carried on cooking. A little later she covered the clay oven she used for cooking with an upturned bowl, made tea for herself, and sipped it from a glass around which she had wrapped the end of her sari. She didn’t ask me whether I’d like some. Not that I drank tea—I was only allowed the cream off the top.
Prabha began to tell me about the cows in her village home, how much milk they gave, and how the pond next to their house was full of fish. She would never see all this again.
Then Prabha did something extraordinary. She asked, “Want to have a little rice and chalta?”
I said apprehensively, “I do. But Kusum mustn’t find out.”
Prabha asked, laughing, “Why are you so afraid of Kusum? What if she finds out? Eat now.”
I had barely mixed the chalta broth into the rice when I heard Kusum’s voice, “Is the little Brahmin with you, Prabha-di? I’d better send him home, he’s been here a long time, he doesn’t live here.”
I ran to a corner of the kitchen to hide, my hand still smeared with rice. Kusum entered before Prabha could respond and saw me. She said, “What’s this? Why are you in a corner? Are you hiding? Who’s this rice for?”
Turning to Prabha in surprise, she said, “He’s a child, Prabha-di, he doesn’t have his wits about him. But have you lost yours too? How could you serve him food?”
Prabha said, subdued, “He kept talking about the chalta, so I thought, a little rice with the . . .”
“No, shame! Come with me, khoka. We already have a lifetime of punishment to deal with, I’m not going to increase my burden of sin by feeding a Brahmin boy. Come . . . do you have food on your fingers? Have you been eating already?”
I answered shyly, “No.”
“Come with me, let me rinse your hands . . .”
As Kusum was about to lead me out, Prabha said, “Poor thing, you didn’t even let him eat. He’d barely begun . . .”
“No, no need to eat. Come.”
Kusum proved stricter with me than even my mother. I had to abandon my meal and come away. Taking me to a corner of the yard and pouring water on my hands, she said, “Why are you such a glutton, khoka? Don’t you remember you’re not allowed to eat there? Shame on you! I’ll give you kochuri in the evening. Don’t ever go in there to eat. You at least are a child, but she’s not, how could she serve a Brahmin’s son . . . really, the things people do . . .”
Naturally Prabha couldn’t hear any of this. She wasn’t even nearby.
I said, “Don’t tell my mother, all right?”
“Can you imagine me telling your mother? I have better things to do.”
“She’ll beat me up if you tell her.”
“You deserve it. That might stop you from being so greedy.”
When I returned home my mother asked, “Where were you?”
“There on the road.”
“You didn’t go anywhere else, did you?”
But one day I was caught. It was Kusum’s fault. She told me, “Come khoka, let’s go for a walk. Will you come with me?”
It was late afternoon. Not very sunny. When I saw we were crossing the tram lines I said fearfully, “My mother doesn’t allow me to cross the main road. She’s told me not to.”
“I’m with you, don’t worry.”
Crossing the main road, we went a little further on and entered a slum. The houses stood on either side of a narrow lane. The building we entered was also full of women, there wasn’t a single man among them. One of the women said, “Come Kusmi, it’s been so long. God, it’s not like we don’t have man-friends but does that mean you must forget us?”
With a glance at me she said, “Who’s this boy? He’s very sweet.”
“He’s from a Brahmin family. Lives in our lane. Follows me around.”
“How nice. Sit down, khoka.”
“The boy’s a glutton. Give him food and he’ll be happy.”
“Ah but what do I offer you? I have kul-achaar, want some?”
Without a thought I blurted out, “I love kul-achaar.”
Kusum snarled at me, “Is there anything you don’t love? So long as it’s food. No, he has a cold, he mustn’t have achaar. Never mind.”
I was heartbroken. Kusum didn’t let me have the kulchur. Where was this cold of mine? I love kulchur so much.
After spending some time in this house, we went to another one. They too asked several questions about me. I was given homemade haalua in a bowl. Kusum didn’t let me eat this either. Apparently I was suffering from indigestion.
Kusum escorted me back across the tramlines shortly before evening fell. A tram was approaching. I said, “Wait, Kusum, I want to see the tram.”
“It’s getting dark. Your mother will scold you.”
“Oh, the boy’s so bold.”
“Why did you say that, Kusum? Why didn’t you let me have the kulchur?” They wanted me to.
“You’re a child, what do you know? People have dangerous diseases in those neighborhoods. You think I’ll let anyone serve you food? You think you can eat anywhere you want to? You have no idea. Do you know what disease some of them might have?”
“What does ‘man-friend’ mean, Kusum?”
“Nothing. Where did you hear it?”
“Weren’t they telling you?”
“Let them. What’s it to do with you? Such a naughty boy.”
Before sending me on my way, Kusum said, “Come, he must have got the kochuri by now. I’ll give you some.”
“Yes. I’m hungry.”
“Is there ever a time when you’re not hungry? If I ever ran into your mother I’d ask her why her son is so greedy.”
“So what if I am? You’ll give me the kochuri, won’t you?”
“Has he brought goja?”
“I don’t know.”
“Will you give me goja tomorrow?”
“How dirty this lane is, my god!”
“Will you give me goja?”
“Yes yes I will. Now just take the kochuri and leave me alone.”
That evening Kusum walked me to the municipality tap and left. I told my mother the truth. I’d been to Kusum’s house, and she’d given me kochuri. My mother scolded me soundly and threatened to tie me up. She did tell my father at night, but he didn’t seem to be listening.
* * *
I got a fever the next morning. I had to stay in bed for four or five days. An ancient doctor examined me and prescribed medicines.
My bed was laid next to the window. One afternoon I discovered Kusum on the road, peering at the house opposite ours. Makhan was with her. She was standing two houses away.
I called out, “Kusum . . .”
Turning round, Kusum saw me. Calling to Makhan, she said, “This house, didi, here . . .”
My mother was at the municipality tap. Kusum and Makhan came up to the window.
Kusum asked, “What’s the matter with you? Why haven’t you come?”
Makhan said, “Kusmi’s dying of anxiety. What’s happened to the boy, she keeps saying. So I said, let’s go find out.”
I said, “I’ve had a fever for five days now.”
Kusum asked, “Where’s your mother?”
“Go away, Kusum. If my mother sees you she won’t let me visit you anymore. I’ll come as soon as I’m better. Go now.”
They left. But Kusum was back on the road the very next day. Very softly she said, “Can I come?”
My mother wasn’t home. I knew she was at Baidyanath’s shop to measure out the dal. She had left a short while ago, telling me before she went, “Make sure the cat doesn’t get chhoto-khoka’s milk; I’m going to get some dal from Baidyanath’s shop.”
Beckoning to her, I said, “Come.”
Standing outside my window, she said, “How are you?”
“Much better. I can have rice tomorrow.”
“I brought a couple of oranges. Want them?”
“Don’t forget to eat them.”
“Come over when you’re better.”
“My father said I can.”
“I’ll come again tomorrow. All right?”
“Come. But don’t come up to the window till I say so.”
“All right. I’ll wait quietly on the road. Do you know how to whistle?”
“No. Come when I wave.”
Kusum came on schedule the next two afternoons. One day she brought Prabha along too because she wanted to see me. I shan’t lie, Prabha gave me a couple of oranges too. I hid them beneath the pillow, and ate them when my mother wasn’t in the room, tossing the pulp out through the window.
I went to Kusum’s house twice after getting better.
Then something happened, which led us to leave our house in Calcutta and go back to the village. One day, while my mother was opening a bottle of soda water, a shard of glass went into her hand. There was blood everywhere, spurting out of her wrist. Everyone came running. Bipin-babu from the corner room put some sort of medicine on her arm and bandaged it. But her arm did not heal, getting worse by the day. She couldn’t cook anymore, and would cry in pain every night. The doctor visited regularly. My maternal uncles were well-off. When they found out through a letter, one of them arrived and took all of us away to their house.
It was the middle of July. The taal had begun to ripen on the trees. There were many of these trees by a huge lake next to a field in the village where my maternal uncles lived. I remember picking up a ripe fruit from the ground the very first day.
My mother’s arm healed here. In the middle of September, we went to our own village. We couldn’t go to Calcutta anymore. My father also wound up the establishment there and came home.
* * *
A long thirty years later.
I lived in a boarding house in Calcutta, working as a clerk. My wife and children lived in the village house. On a holiday, as I was chatting with my college friend Sripati, he said, “Last evening, you know, while walking down Premchand Boral Street, painted faces on both sides—horrible!”
“I’ve seen them too. I have to take the same route. But I see them differently. I know them very well. I used to visit their homes quite often once upon a time.”
My friend exclaimed in surprise, “You!”
“Yes, I! I swear!”
“Rubbish, I don’t believe it.”
“Very well, come with me. I’ll prove it to you.”
About fifteen years ago I had found my way to Nandaram Sen Lane and visited Makhan at home. Neither Kusum nor Prabha was there. Makhan was the only one in the group still to be living in those houses.
I took Sripati to Nandaram Sen Lane. Makhan was still there. Her hair was quite gray, and she looked like a witch, with toothless gums.
When she saw me Makhan said, “Come in. How are you?”
“Do you recognize me?”
“Oh my god, how could I not. You grew up right in front of our eyes. By the way, I’ve tracked Kusum down.”
“Where? Where is she?”
“She works as a maid at a boarding house on Shobhabazar Street. The first building on the left. A dilapidated two-story house next to the temple. They’d taken me to the temple the other day, that’s how I found out.”
With Sripati in tow I found the boarding house. It wasn’t evening yet. I asked the cook in the kitchen downstairs, “Where’s your maid?”
“She’s gone to the market, sir, she’ll be back soon. Why?”
“I have to talk to her. Her name is Kusum, isn’t it?”
A little later a tall thin woman—a typical maid—entered through the front door and appeared in the kitchen. The cook said, “These gentlemen are looking for you, Kusum.”
I stared at the maid in astonishment. Was this what the beautiful Kusum of my childhood had turned into? She may not have been as old as Makhan, but still, Kusum was an old woman now. She couldn’t be described as anything else. I remembered her face, but this aged woman had nothing in common with it. If the cook hadn’t told us, I’d never have known it was the same Kusum.
Kusum looked at us in surprise too, asking, “You’re looking for me? Who sent you?”
“Makhan, the landlady from Nandaram Lane.”
“I see. But why are you looking for me?”
“Come over there. There’s something I have to tell you.”
“Let’s go into the dining room.”
In the dining room I asked, “Don’t your recognize me, Kusum?”
“We used to live on Nandaram Sen Lane. I was eight. My parents were tenants at the barber’s house. Remember?”
Smiling, Kusum said, “I remember. So you’re the mad little Brahmin? How you’ve grown. Are your parents alive?”
“No one’s alive.”
“How many children do you have?”
“Sit down, my dear, sit down.”
After we had chatted for a while, Kusum asked us to wait and disappeared somewhere. A little later she came in with two packets of food and handed them to us.
I hadn’t remembered. But as I was about to eat, I did. Four large pieces of heeng-kochuri. At once I remembered Kusum’s babu and the heeng-kochuri. I was reminded of the boy thirty years ago and his greed for kochuri. Kusum must have remembered. Or not—I didn’t know. As I ate the kochuri, my mind took me across the dusty gap of thirty long years directly to the spot on Nandaram Lane next to the roadside municipality tap, in front of the gur warehouse, where Kusum was still a young woman of twenty-five, and her babu still came regularly with a packet of heeng-kochuri.
Translation © 2017 Arunava Sinha. All rights reserved.
In a chance encounter in a train station, a divorced couple forced into proximity and reflection on their marriage in this story by Subodh Ghosh.
What train is this, so late at night?
The breathless, tired train rolls into Rajpur Junction in the dark, misty rain, against the cold wind, and rests at the platform.
The train has probably journeyed from the banks of the Ganga. One can still hear the whistle of the steamer on the river, not so far away, the same steamer that has transported a crowd of travelers to this bank and then, sighing at the lightening of its load, moved back to the other side.
The train engine, waiting at the platform, continues to pant. The service boy busies himself in the first-class waiting room, quickly wiping the table, the chair, the bench, and the mirror clean with a towel. The cleaner brushes the leftover litter out of the room with big sweeps of his broom.
Even though this train, which starts from the bank of the river, is short and has only a few passengers on board, there are always at least a couple of people traveling first class: some distinguished trader from a sugar mill in Katihar or an overseer of some tea estate returning from Darjeeling; some such gentlemen can be found aboard, besides the customary group of tribals and porters.
Today, however, the passengers who get off this worn-out train and scurry for shelter into the first-class waiting room are neither from sugar factories nor from tea gardens.
Leaving her suitcase and bedding to be brought in by the coolie, a Bengali woman walks down the platform briskly, through the drizzle, and is the first to enter the waiting room. She is wearing a delicate ulster, made of Kashmiri wool, and a pair of small “Jewish-style” turquoise earrings. Her hair is done up in a bouffant, very British.
The second person to enter is also accompanied by a coolie, similarly carrying his suitcases and bedding. He is bespectacled, has a shawl draped around his shoulders, and is attired in indigenous clothes: a Bengali man.
A man and a woman, traveling by the same train, taking shelter in the same waiting room: this is the only relationship that they share, if any at all. He might stay for a couple of hours, she for three or so, waiting at this wayside halt for another train before going different ways.
Yet, surprisingly, as soon as they enter the room, they are taken aback on seeing each other and then they sit, frozen in shock, as though in a painting. They are, perhaps, unprepared and embarrassed, annoyed and irritated; perhaps even a little scared, as though they were escaped criminals now facing a new court of law, having eluded the witness box earlier. Tiny droplets of water sparkle wordlessly on Madhuri Ray’s overcoat. Shatadal Datta, too, forgets to wipe his wet spectacles.
This is the waiting room at Rajpur Junction, not a court of law. There is neither a judge nor a lawyer, neither witnesses nor rows of unblinking eyes of a set audience. There is no third person here to demand answers, acknowledgment, or attestation. However, this close proximity to one another is apparently unbearable to both. Perhaps they think of leaving, perhaps they should have left.
Shatadal walks down to the door and calls out to the coolie.
Madhuri’s things lie scattered on the bench; Shatadal’s lie piled on the table.
Shatadal Datta will have to ask the coolie to take his luggage out immediately, but where? He does not know. Overcome with embarrassment, what he does know is that he must get out of that waiting room; perhaps go to the unfurnished lodge nearby, which is not as brightly lit, where there is no fear of losing his composure on coming face to face with a nebulous silhouette of his past. No coolie shows up in response to Shatadal’s call. The service boy comes around and says, “Sir!”
He has to respond. Shatadal Datta saunters toward the door again. The spitting rain sprays his face as he looks outside. He turns back to the table, and standing by it, tries to think up a reply.
He quietly ponders the situation, and angry with his own behavior, he waits, quite still, perhaps trying to summon some resolve. Agitation is futile. He has no need to escape from the room just because of the presence of the other person. There is no point in surrendering to such weakness.
“Yes, sir?” The boy waits for orders.
Shatadal Datta calmly pulls a chair up to the table, sits down, and asks the boy to get him some tea.
Madhuri Ray takes off her pashmina coat, rearranges her things to make some space on the bench for herself and the coat, then sits down quietly.
Shatadal Datta and Madhuri Ray: two co-passengers, sitting at the Rajpur Junction waiting room, awaiting the next train. There is no other relationship between them.
There has been no relationship between them for almost five years now, but they had shared something earlier, for seven long years. The signs of a brewing liaison had been clear twelve years ago. Madhuri Mitra, a very pretty, unmarried young woman, was Shatadal’s sister-in-law’s friend. The place was Ghatshila, the time was Phalgun—early spring—the eleventh month of the Bengali calendar, when fragrance and celebration fill the honeycombed boulevards. Madhuri Mitra and Shatadal Datta’s relationship had begun suddenly, under the afternoon sun one day, when they had gone out on a trip together.
There is no doubt that within a year of meeting they had fallen irrevocably in love. Their love had been legally registered—they had made no mistake there. Within seven years of their marriage, however, the bonds of love between Madhuri Datta and Shatadal Datta had begun to weaken. So they had willingly and legally ended their registered relationship and separated from each other.
Who knows how they had concluded that their love was no longer strong enough? When they realized that they had drifted away from one another in their feelings, they decided that it would be meaningless to continue pretending to be husband and wife for the benefit of society. Instead of playacting, as in a theater, they had bade each other farewell. Neither had stopped the other.
The love that had blossomed with the essence of the honeycombs in Ghatshila early one spring could not last more than seven such springs. How had that fierce love that had led to marriage dwindled after their union?
Both of them had real, empirical proof of it. One day Madhuri had sat immersed in a book in her room while Shatadal packed his clothes in a suitcase in another room. He was leaving for Bhubaneshwar for a week to supervise an archeological survey. Madhuri had not come out of her room, not even once, as he was about to leave. Shatadal had found the sunshine that had crept in through the window that early winter morning and spread itself out on the floor absolutely meaningless.
The early winter morning, however, was not the only thing to blame. Later that year, in spring, one Sunday evening had also wrought havoc in their lives. Madhuri, like every other week, had dressed up that evening as well, ready to go out, waiting in her room. Shatadal had remained in the other room making sketches, with intense concentration, of the foundations of temples from the Chalukya dynasty. He had forgotten all about the evening plans. Madhuri had looked out of her window at the sky and thought how meaningless it was for the setting sun to color the clouds crimson. It was merely a tease. Soon darkness would envelop everything. Why did the sun play these tricks, then? It would have been so much better if it set all at once, swiftly.
Bit by bit they had both realized from other such instances that the love between them was lost. Or, who knows, perhaps these indicators became prominent because the love was lost? Perhaps they would have discovered the answers if they had tried. Maybe they did try, or maybe they did not. Either way, no one could be blamed for knowing or not knowing. Perhaps they had both knowingly remained silent; perhaps they had consciously stopped trying.
Maybe they had both fallen in love anew with other people, rendering their spring in Ghatshila a lie, or perhaps that old spring had lost its fragrance, forcing them away from each other in new directions. One had moved to a late autumn evening, and the other, to a full-moon monsoon night. Neither, therefore, was angry or sad. Either they had both been right or they had both been wrong. They could not blame each other.
They had not blamed each other. They had hated each other, they had not been able to forgive each other, but only deep down in their hearts. When they had been unable to contain their feelings within themselves any longer, they had moved away from one another: without blame, without slander. They had gone to the courts and ended their seven-year-long relationship.
Shatadal had heard within a year of their separation that Madhuri had married an engineer named Anadi Ray. Madhuri too had read in the papers that Shatadal Datta, teacher, had remarried. His new life partner, Sudhakana, was a teacher too, at a crafts school in Calcutta.
These new life choices were, presumably, informed choices, presumably governed by love. No matter what people said, Madhuri knew that she was happy with her husband, Anadi Ray. No matter what people said, Shatadal too knew that he was happy with Sudha.
On this cold, quiet night, therefore, questions and speculation on the relationship between Madhuri Ray and Shatadal Datta are irrelevant and unnecessary. They have closed that chapter of their past and had moved in entirely different directions. There is nothing between them anymore.
This, however, is not about their past. It is about their present.
Why are these two people, who had with the help of the law ensured that they need not see each other, suddenly facing their past—and their present—in this wayside waiting room at this ungodly hour? This sudden encounter is a ridiculous conspiracy: entirely impermissible, completely intolerable. They cannot really forgive this night but they cannot register any complaints or objections either. If only the woman were not Madhuri, if only the man were not Shatadal, if only they were just two other strangers waiting in that room! Common courtesy would then have dictated that they introduce themselves to each other. Madhuri Ray and Shatadal Datta, however, belong to other people now; there is no relationship between them. They sit silently, thus, in the waiting room: helpless, imprisoned almost, their hearts full of hesitation and discomfort.
Shatadal’s thoughts sink at some point in this wordlessness, his tired eyes droop, and, without realizing it, he falls asleep. When he opens his eyes he comprehends that he is in the waiting room: Madhuri is sitting on a bench at some distance, her unblinking eyes staring at the wall, disinterestedly.
Shatadal does not turn his gaze away. His eyes are impatient, eager to see her. But what is there to see? What is there to see anew?
Madhuri has never worn that cloud-colored crepe sari before. Shatadal has never before seen Madhuri allowing the loose end of her sari to almost kiss the floor. Earlier, Madhuri had mostly dressed in cottons or handlooms when going out. Her hemmed folds and pleats used to whisper a strange, exciting swishing sound. She used to apply a drop of extract of the night jasmine. And so, as Madhuri walked next to Shatadal, she was transformed into sensations of sound and smell. There are no remnants today of that sound or that smell. Madhuri is sitting now, sculpted as though by a new artiste, in new colors, with new adornments. Shatadal had never stared at Madhuri in such a clandestine way before, never gazed so surreptitiously and so greedily at something forbidden. He realizes that this sculpture is not the one that he had once known. She is different, almost difficult. She is the engineer Anadi Ray’s wife, Madhuri Ray.
Shatadal finds some relief from his unreal thoughts, his uncomfortable musings, after a while. He slowly shifts his attention back to his own needs. He retrieves a towel and a cake of soap from a small leather box, a pillow and a bedsheet from his carryall, and puts them down on a reclining chair.
There is no need for Madhuri to look directly at Shatadal. She gazes, instead, at the Shatadal reflected in the mirror. No, not deliberately. It’s just that Shatadal’s image can be seen in the mirror. Even though unwilling, she, too, cannot quite control the craving to steal a glance.
Madhuri can see Shatadal’s reflection going about his business smoothly. He winds his watch and puts it on the table. Madhuri realizes that this is not the watch she knows. It has a black leather band, the kind of black that Madhuri never liked. To respect Madhuri’s taste, Shatadal had never worn a watch with a black band before. She notices his new ring. The pillow cover is new too: colorful, floral. Madhuri had always known that Shatadal preferred plain, white pillowcases over bright, embroidered ones. She concludes that this is Sudha’s handiwork; she must have worked on his tastes.
Shatadal goes to the bathroom with his towel and bar of soap. Madhuri turns her eyes away from the mirror and looks at all of Shatadal’s little household things on the table. She finally gets the chance, as it were, to investigate what lies there.
But Madhuri probably does not know exactly what precious object she is searching for among all the items that lie scattered on the table. She looks at each of them carefully for a while. They are all new: no memory of their life from five years ago taints these things. She should not have been so curious.
If Madhuri had looked in the mirror now she would find her eyebrows—beautiful like painted brushstrokes—crinkled in envy! She is not looking in that direction, though, but at Shatadal’s things. Three of his cases are open, his watch, wallet, and spectacles lie on the table, his ash gray flannel kurta is on the hanger, its gold buttons glittering in the light. He has left everything exposed to a stranger he has no relationship with. His things could get stolen, but he seems unafraid of that. Just as the man’s behavior is extraordinary, so too are the woman’s gestures: extraordinary. Nobody has asked her to watch over his things with so much attention.
Madhuri turns away as soon as Shatadal reenters the room.
She glances at the reflection in the mirror again—this time she can see him more clearly. Shatadal has grown lean. Perhaps his teacher-wife doesn’t pay much attention to his health. Yes, she has not seen him for five years, but she knows that look on his face: Shatadal would never have appeared so worn-out if he were not hungry.
Madhuri’s assumption is not wrong. Shatadal opens his lunchbox and sets the bowls out on the table. He sits down to eat. He is about to raise his hand to ask for something, but then he changes his mind. He walks with a glass to the pitcher in the corner of the room.
Madhuri had never imagined that the sight would cause her so much pain. She is not prepared for this feeling. It strikes her without warning.
She turns her gaze away from the mirror and angrily looks at Shatadal. The surprised turn of the nape of her neck, the soft creasing of her eyebrows, her aggrieved eyes: all seem more natural than her previous reserve.
Madhuri says, “What’s all this?”
Shatadal, taken aback at this sudden question, looks at Madhuri, surprised.
Madhuri says again, “Just a word or two, if not more: that can’t be a sin.”
Shatadal’s grim expression softens. “No, no sin at all,” he smiles.
Madhuri stands up and walks toward him. Her soul feels liberated finally, after those crushing moments of unbearable silence in the waiting room. Shatadal’s easy laugh breaks through the wall of Madhuri’s somber, troubled heart. She takes the glass from Shatadal’s hand, smiles, and says, “Sit over there.”
This is the waiting room. Not their former house on Cornwallis Street. It isn’t Madhuri’s birthday either, the day when she had taken Shatadal away from the noise of the celebration to a secluded room and served him a meal in private.
Madhuri pours water out of the pitcher into the glass, puts it on Shatadal’s table, and starts serving the food from the bowls on a plate. Her bangles strike the glass without a care. The quiet past—from five years ago—wakes up with a start to this tinkling sound. They no longer look like two co-passengers on a train. They appear, in that moment, like two fellow-travelers, companions, journeying this world together: and their life’s course seems free of all obstacles. Madhuri’s fingers have thinned, but she still picks the food with them gingerly as though they are delicate forceps: an old habit. She stands very close to Shatadal. In the silence of the room, Shatadal can clearly hear Madhuri breathing. The loose end of her sari slips off her shoulder and caresses one of Shatadal’s hands. Madhuri does not notice. It is neither strange nor abnormal: she has no reason to notice.
“Looks like none of this food is homemade.”
There is a hint of disapproval in Madhuri’s words, which Shatadal does not take long to understand. He knows that Madhuri has forever been against food from restaurants. Trying to defend himself, he says meekly, hesitantly, “Yes, I bought these from the Katihar bazaar.”
“Where are you off to?”
“You stay in Calcutta these days?”
“Yes. And you?”
It would, perhaps, have been better if they had not started this conversation. Madhuri loses her composure, her hands tremble. Shatadal’s question makes her conscious of her present identity. Recoiling from him, she says in a low voice, “Rajgir.”
After this they run out of things to talk about. There is nothing else that requires an answer. One of them is going to Calcutta, the other to Rajgir. They are only two travelers, traveling by train—not the same train, not even in the same direction. Yet, for a moment, in their mistaken, misled hearts, they had come really close to one another. For a moment they had felt it was decent and appropriate to do what others considered downright indecent and inappropriate.
Perhaps because there is no other subject to broach, Shatadal asks, “You will be taking the train to Patna, I suppose?”
“Yes. Finish your food.”
Madhuri forces the words out breathlessly and moves away. Indeed she will have to leave by the train to Patna. She is not going to stay in this waiting room forever. She looks at her watch, slightly worried. Then she goes back to her bench.
The food is spread out in front of Shatadal. The light from the bulb is reflected by the glass, the water looking like melting fire. Perhaps Shatadal feels awkward and ashamed again. However, there is also hatred in this shame, and bitterness. How could he knowingly, consciously have believed the charade to be true even for a moment?
He impatiently gets up from his chair, wraps the shawl around his shoulder, stretches himself out on the bigger chair, and lights a cigarette.
He cannot eat. Why though? He does not try to find an answer to the question.
The waiting room turns into a waiting room again: two strangers with no relationship between them, two travelers waiting for two different trains, counting the moments. The train, however, does not come, nor does a third passenger enter this room. The boy arrives, tray in hand, ready with the ingredients for some tea: one teapot, one jar of milk, one bowl of sugar, but two cups.
The boy puts the tray down on the table and leaves. Shatadal looks at it thirstily, but turns away from it the very next moment, feeling helpless.
There are two cups on the tray. What terrible mockery! What made the boy bring two cups? Shatadal had not asked for two cups.
Drinking the tea seems impossible now.
Even though she does not look at him directly, Madhuri can see quite clearly with her mind’s eye that Shatadal has not touched his food. Perhaps he will not have his tea, either. The boy is a complete idiot. Had he poured the tea, the man would not be sitting there sullenly now. Why is he so sullen anyway? This is not Madhupur, nor is it his uncle’s house on that Christmas Day.
Shatadal and Madhuri had been visiting Shatadal’s uncle’s house in Madhupur on Christmas Day that year. The unwelcome incident had taken place on the very first day, almost like this present wordless protest. Shatadal had pulled a chair out and sat under a jhau tree in the garden, throughout the morning, without drinking his tea. There was a reason behind his remorse: why had a servant served him his tea when there were so many people in the house, including, and especially, Madhuri, who should have done it? Everyone had felt awkward when the reason was discovered. Madhuri had been at the receiving end of all their scolding. Shatadal’s aunt, another of Shatadal’s uncles, even Shatadal’s elder brother, a man of few words, had said, “When you know Shatadal is displeased if you don’t take his tea to him yourself, why did you . . .”
This is a waiting room though, not Shatadal’s uncle’s house. It no longer becomes Shatadal to mope like a husband—hurt, proud, angry.
Yet this misplaced hurt-pride-anger seems to touch the interiors of the waiting room. Like a scene from a play being performed on stage, this make-believe episode, too, is gradually coming alive with its demands for respect, for hurt-pride-anger. There is no one here to chastise Madhuri and remind her of her duties, but when she pays heed to a voice from deep within, it sounds like a reminder.
“Why aren’t you eating?”
There is something gentle, tender, almost like an appeal, in Madhuri’s words.
Shatadal quietly replies, “I’m not going to eat all this now at this hour.”
“Drink your tea, then.”
“Yes, I’ll have some tea. Won’t you?”
The shadow of a smile lights up Madhuri’s face. “Was this supposed to be for me too?”
Shatadal smiles, stiffly. “No, it wasn’t. But since the boy has brought two cups by mistake . . .”
“Then I should drink a cup of tea, shouldn’t I?”
There is no hesitation or restraint in Madhuri. She laughs as she says this.
“Well, that’s what I think. It’s not really the boy’s fault, is it?”
“No, there’s no point in blaming the boy.”
They both turn somber again for a few minutes. Indeed, there is no point in blaming the boy. Madhuri’s words are, perhaps, tinged with regret. Maybe she wants to say, Why should it be the boy’s fault? The fault is in the stars. Why else would we be caught unawares on a stormy night in this waiting room full of conspiring?
Madhuri either has no strength left to keep sitting quietly or she wants to surrender herself to this conspiracy. She stands up, walks to the table, and pours the tea, with her own hands, with the same dexterity as before, as readily as ever.
Shatadal rises as well. He draws up another chair to the table, close to his own. Turning to Madhuri, he asks her to sit.
Madhuri does not object. Today she cannot find her old headstrong self anymore to say no. And because of the mistaken, misled hearts of a man and a woman who have no relationship between them, the waiting room at Rajpur Junction, turns, little by little, into a married couple’s secret nest of sentiments. Even if the world begins to realize what is going on, it poses no impediments to their passion. Madhuri sits on the chair next to Shatadal.
Shatadal sighs contentedly after the first sip of his tea: clearly, it is not only on account of the flavor. The tea now includes Madhuri’s touch; it is supposed to quench his thirst.
Shatadal says pleasantly, “It was really uncomfortable seeing you look so serious all this time.”
Madhuri laughs. “Maybe you were feeling uncomfortable, but I alone know what I was going through.”
“Were you frightened?”
“Tch. Afraid of what?”
Though their conversation begins with smiles and laughter, toward the end the exchange is weighed down by a touch of regret, of pity. Madhuri’s words are an acknowledgment of their anguish, and Shatadal’s are thick with consolation. The past is the past. What is there to be afraid of today?
When someone dies, it is easy to think of them fondly, to forget their mistakes, to amplify their virtues. Perhaps Shatadal and Madhuri are judging their dead past with a similar tenderness today. That history of fear, hatred, and doubt seems to have been reduced to ashes in its own flames: it has been carried away by the wind. That past seems like a beautiful night—seven years long—studded with some faint and some magnificent stars: how soft its afterglow is today. To think that that sky is lost forever brings too much pain. They don’t want to believe it; they would like to have it back.
Madhuri looks at Shatadal and says, “You have lost so much weight.”
Madhuri is holding her cup of tea. Shatadal looks at it and admonishes her. “Why are your fingers in such a state?”
“They’ve become so horribly thin.”
Madhuri smiles, embarrassed, and tries to hide her hand behind the loose end of her sari. Shatadal errs—perhaps because of an uncontrollable urge. He loses his sense of propriety, takes Madhuri’s hand, and covers it with his hands. Madhuri does not object.
It is all so strange! They realize after all this time that the garden they had rejected after seven years is still green: they had walked away from its thorns, not its shade.
Shatadal suddenly seems to have discovered an unknown truth. Turning toward Madhuri, he says, “You look just the same, Madhuri. Your face has not changed at all.”
Everything has changed, only her face has remained unaltered. Everything has gone, only that face which he had once loved has stayed as it was. Is this possible? Either his eyes are lying or his imagination is making a mistake.
Abandoning all deceit and pretense, Madhuri’s face reddens with embarrassment. Not like the flushed face of a young girl being courted for the first time, not like the bashful face of a coy bride on the first night in the bridal chamber, but like the face of a woman being greeted reverentially by her husband after a long separation.
This is not a bower of courtship, not a bridal chamber, not the home of a married couple. This is the waiting room at Rajpur Junction. Yet Shatadal and Madhuri, two travelers, sit side by side, as though they have been journeying through life forever, just like this, together, as though they had never parted.
They finish their tea. Madhuri asks, “Where is your uncle now, your father’s younger brother?”
“He has built a house in Dehradoon. That is where he lives now.”
“She’s married now. To Ramesh, who else? He has got a good job at the Secretariat in Delhi.”
Shatadal has been holding Madhuri’s hand in a tight grip, as though an elusive bond from five years ago is within reach at last. He holds her hand between both of his, so as not to lose her again.
“Do you believe, Madhuri?”
“That I have not forgotten you? That I cannot forget you?”
“Why would I not believe you? I can see it in your eyes.”
“Have you been able to forget me?”
Madhuri shuts her eyes, preparing herself, perhaps to blind the realities around her, to blind the eyes of the society, and then answers him. Their heads come closer as she leans toward Shatadal. Two dots of moisture come to life in the corners of her eyes, like a pair of pearl drops.
Shatadal puts his arms around her, drawing her head to his chest.
“You have to tell me, Madhuri. I won’t let you go without knowing.”
Madhuri suddenly becomes restless, as though a burning agony has grabbed hold of her. She pulls herself free and stands up. An iron bell can be heard clanging outside, breaking the silence of the cold. The mirror starts shaking, as though, unable to stand the audacious transgression of these two people, the waiting room is shrieking in pain. The passenger train for Dhulian arrives. People can be heard rushing about on the platform.
“He’s supposed to be on this train!”
Madhuri runs toward the door in distress.
A third traveler enters the waiting room. His face lights up in joy on spotting Madhuri—Madhuri Ray’s husband, Anadi Ray, has finally seen the light of an inn on a night with no moon to show the way.
Madhuri’s face brightens too, though it is still slightly colored by some melancholy: the light from an overworked lamp is usually smoky.
This is enough to perturb Anadi Ray. Going up to Madhuri, he fusses over her, asking, “Do you feel all right?”
“Yes, I’m quite all right.”
“You’ve had a long wait all by yourself, haven’t you?”
“What could I have done? The trains are running very late, or else I would have arrived two hours ago.”
Anadi Ray enthusiastically spreads out a bedding roll. Madhuri stops him. “Let it be, there’s no need.”
“You should lie down for a while, Madhuri. You’ll feel better after some rest.”
“Let it be! How much longer are we going to be here anyway?”
Anadi Ray is not to be deterred. Taking a shawl from his suitcase, he folds it and carefully wraps it around Madhuri’s shoulders.
Shatadal has been watching them in silence from his chair. This is a scene from a farce, vulgar and cruel. He could not continue sitting for long. He walks to the door hurriedly and looks out. Returning to his chair he starts fidgeting with his things needlessly. His soul is restless, trapped, as though, in a prison. He looks for a sanctuary or an escape route.
He really cannot stand the sight. The shawl seems to hug Madhuri’s weary, traveling soul with a hundred affectionate embraces. This good fellow, Anadi Ray, is glowing with pride. His face is so lively. And that woman, Madhuri, is like a mythic woman pretending to participate in a ceremony to choose her husband, but eventually choosing the man who abducts her and takes her away on his chariot. Shatadal looks on helplessly like a vanquished rival weighed down by the humility of defeat. It’s impossible to bear the pain.
But he could easily leave. Why does he stay to endure this suffering?
He cannot go because of that one urgent longing, to hear Madhuri’s answer to his question. Shatadal can leave victorious and happy if he can only hear Madhuri say that she has not been able to forget him.
But will he get a chance in this lifetime to hear those words?
Anadi Ray looks at his watch. It is probably time for their train. Madhuri wraps herself in her overcoat. The coolie arrives—the train to Patna is approaching.
Madhuri is standing next to her husband. The coolies swiftly lift the luggage on their heads and pause. In a moment they will leave the waiting room at Rajpur Junction empty. Shatadal feels as though Madhuri has set this house of wax on fire before leaving.
Was the sky they had above them for seven years entirely a lie? Can it really be forgotten? You can make a break but can you be free? Madhuri will not answer these questions, there will be no opportunity.
It would be best if Madhuri could walk out of this room with her husband, smiling. But she can’t.
The coolie leaves, Anadi Ray walks on ahead, but when Madhuri reaches the door, she pauses before disappearing for the last time, drawn to this house of wax by some imagined attachment. Turning to look at Shatadal, she smiles to take her leave. “I’ll go now.”
Shatadal tries to smile but fails. A mass of confused hurt-pride-anger, accusations and demands want to make themselves heard. But where is the time to say so much? So Shatadal only wants the answer to that one question, to know once and for all.
“You’re going without answering my question, Madhuri.”
The smile fades. Madhuri looks at him in wonder and asks, “What question?”
“Have you really forgotten?”
Madhuri does not reply. Perhaps she has indeed forgotten. She has not been able to forget their seven shared years, but she has forgotten what was said seven minutes ago. Have the laws of the universe changed so drastically that she has to forget everything? Shatadal cannot understand.
Madhuri says, “I have to go. It’s getting late.”
One rude blow seems to shatter all his curiosity. Shatadal remembers that Madhuri has a final destination, she cannot be late. He had delayed her for seven years, he has no right to hold her back a minute longer now.
Crestfallen, Shatadal replies, “I see. You won’t give me an answer.”
Madhuri says calmly, “I should not.”
“It was an unfair question.”
“I understand!” Shatadal jumps out of his chair abruptly. His besotted mind is so befuddled that he is finding it hard to understand anything, he has to try repeatedly. Turning away, Shatadal says abruptly, “Go then, but there was no need for this drama.”
Bitter words. Madhuri’s face hardens instantly into a frown. She ponders silently but smiles the very next moment, just like before. Perhaps because of that imagined attachment, Madhuri prepares not to burn down this house of wax but to inject a note of acceptance, of happiness.
Flashing a glance at her wristwatch, she says, “Bring Sudha to Rajgir for a holiday.”
Shatadal is unprepared for this. “And then?”
“Then I will see you off on the train when the two of you leave.”
“You will get a chance for some drama, too. That’s why.”
“What will you gain from it?”
Madhuri laughs. “Nothing at all. Maybe I will also get needlessly angry then and say something you’d rather not hear.”
Shatadal gazes at her eyes steadily for a few moments and then says, “I see.”
He says it quite loudly and then breaks into a laugh. The meaningless hurt-pride-anger and demands have finally identified themselves for what they are and have given way to a burst of laughter. Shatadal has finally understood.
Staring at his watch, Shatadal realizes without looking up at the door that Madhuri has left.
Madhuri does not set this house of wax aflame. Instead, she lights it up with the echo of her laughter. It rouses Rajpur Junction from its slumber. The signal is given for the next approaching train. The train to Calcutta is here. Not on this side of the platform but the other one. Heaving his luggage up on the coolie’s shoulders, Shatadal Datta also leaves hurriedly.
The two different trains will go in two different directions. After the brief tumult, what remains of the night at Rajpur Junction will be quiet. There will remain no witness to the supreme test inflicted in the privacy of the waiting room on the relationship between the two travelers.
There is still some evidence left, though one might not notice it immediately.
A tray sits on the table inside the waiting room, with two empty cups on it. Two people had arrived from unknown places, quenched their thirst side by side, and left. Before Rajpur Junction goes back to sleep, the boy will wash the cups, wipe these dry, and put them away. One cup on this side of the cupboard, and one, perhaps, on the other.
© Subodh Ghosh. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 Somrita Ganguly. All rights reserved.
In this excerpt from a novel by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, a man visits Calcutta after his father’s death and seeks out a courtesan he knows who has fallen on hard times.
Devdas was exasperated after spending six months at home following his father's death. No pleasures, no peace, an entirely tedious existence. To add to it all, constant thoughts of Parvati, whom he remembered no matter what he was doing. And his brother, Dwijdas, and Dwijdas's devoted wife aggravated Devdas's agony in no small measure.
His mother was in the same predicament, all her joys having died along with her husband. Life without freedom was becoming increasingly intolerable. She had for some time now resolved to spend the rest of her days with other widows in Kashi, but she could not go till she had arranged for Devdas to be married. Her constant refrain: Get married, Devdas, I want to see you married before I go. But how could this be possible? Not only did their religion not permit a wedding so soon after a death in the family, but a suitable bride also had to be sought. No wonder his mother was overcome by regret sometimes at not having allowed the marriage between her son and Parvati when they had wanted it. One day she summoned Devdas to tell him of her decision: I cannot bear it here any longer, Devdas. I wish to go to Kashi for some time. Devdas was of the same opinion. I agree, he replied. I can bring you back after six months.
Yes, that's best. When I'm back, after your father's last rites are complete, I'll get you married and then go away to Kashi for good.
Concurring, Devdas escorted his mother to Kashi and then departed for Calcutta. There he spent three or four days looking for his old friend Chunilal. His friend was not to be found, having moved houses and disappeared. One evening Devdas remembered Chandramukhi. Should he not meet the dancing girl? He had not thought of her at all following his father’s death. Embarrassed by his own neglect of her, Devdas hired a carriage and appeared before her house soon after dusk. After he had called out her name several times, a woman's voice answered from within, She isn’t here.
Devdas moved closer to a lamppost and asked, Can you tell me where she has gone?
The woman opened a window to look at him. Are you Devdas, she asked?
Wait, let me open the door.
Come in, she said.
The voice appeared familiar, but he failed to recognize her in the darkness. Do you know where Chandramukhi is, he inquired hesitantly.
With a smile the woman said, I do. Come upstairs.
Finally Devdas recognized her. Is it really you?
Yes, it is. Have you forgotten me completely, Devdas?
Upstairs, Devdas discovered that Chandramukhi was dressed in a plain white sari with a black border. She was wearing no ornaments besides a pair of bangles. Her hair was disheveled. In astonishment, Devdas said, It is you. Looking closely, he found that Chandramukhi had become considerably thinner. Were you indisposed? he asked.
Smiling, Chandramukhi responded, Physically, not at all. Make yourself at home.
Settling himself on the bed, Devdas observed that the room had changed. Like its owner's, its circumstances seemed strained too. Not an item of furniture remained—the spaces where the cupboard, the desk, and the chair had stood were empty now. Only a bed remained, its sheets dirty. The paintings had been removed from the walls, but the nails were still there, as were the red cords in one or two places. The clock still hung on the bracket, but in silence. Spiders had spun webs to their heart's content. In one corner, a dim glow emanated from an oil lamp, enabling Devdas to see the room in its new appearance. With a mixture of surprise and unhappiness he inquired, Why this wretched state of affairs, Chandra?
Smiling dejectedly, Chandramukhi said, Who says it's wretched? My luck has turned.
Not understanding, Devdas said, And what has happened to all your jewelry?
Sold it, too.
Did you sell the paintings as well?
Smiling, Chandramukhi pointed to the house across the road. I gave them away to Khetromoni there.
Gazing at her for a while, Devdas asked, Where's Chuni-babu?
Can't say. He went away after a quarrel two months ago, never came back.
Devdas was even more surprised.
Don't people quarrel?
They do. But why?
He was here as a middleman, so I threw him out.
Middleman for what?
For jute. Is it so hard to understand? He got hold of a rich man, two hundred rupees a month, a box full of ornaments, and a guard at the door. Do you understand now?
Devdas understood. He smiled.
But I don't see any of it.
You would if they were there. I sent them away.
What was their crime?
Nothing much, but I didn't like it.
After a great deal of thought, Devdas said, Hasn't anyone else been here since then?
No. In fact, no one has been here since you left. Only Chuni would turn up now and then, but that too has stopped for two months now.
Devdas stretched out on the bed. Sunk in thought, he was silent for some time. Then he said, So you've closed up shop, Chandramukhi?
Yes, I am penniless.
Without responding to this, Devdas said, How do you propose to survive?
As I told you, I've sold my jewelry.
How much can that have got you?
Not a great deal. I have about eight or nine hundred. I've deposited it with a moneylender, he gives me twenty a month.
Twenty was never enough for you.
It isn't enough now, either. I owe three months' rent. So I've decided to sell these bangles, pay all my creditors, and go away.
I haven't decided. Somewhere cheap, a village perhaps, where I can survive on twenty rupees a month.
Why didn't you go earlier? If indeed you do not want anything here, why did you have to prolong your stay and get deeper into debt?
Chandramukhi lowered her eyes. She searched for an answer, embarrassed for the first time in her life at having to say what she was about to. Well? Devdas said.
Sitting down diffidently on one corner of the bed, Chandramukhi slowly began her story.
Don't be angry. I stayed here in the hope of meeting you before leaving. I kept thinking maybe you would visit me once more. Now that you are here, I will make preparations to leave tomorrow. But can you tell me where I should go?
Devdas sat up in astonishment.
In the hope of meeting me? But why?
A whim. You hated me so much. Perhaps because no one has ever hated me quite so much. I don't know if you can remember now, but I do, clearly—you had my attention from the day of your very first visit. I knew you were a rich man's son, but your wealth was not what attracted me to you. Many others had been here before you, but in none of them did I see a spirit such as yours. And you hurt me as soon as you arrived—your behavior was undeserved, uncalled-for, and unsuitable. You kept your face averted in disgust, and farcically left some money for me at the end. Do you remember any of this?
Devdas was silent. Chandramukhi continued, You have held my attention since then. Not out of love, and not out of revulsion. Just as one cannot forget something new, I too could not forget you. I was afraid, on my guard when you came, but I hated it when you did not come. And then I don't know what madness took hold of me—I began to look at everything differently. I changed so much that I no longer remained who I was. Then you started drinking. I hate it. I think it’s disgusting when someone gets drunk. But in your case I would be upset, not angry.
Stopping, Chandramukhi put her hand on Devdas's feet. Tearfully, she said, I am a nobody, do not be angry with me. You used to be so harsh with your words, brush me aside with such revulsion, and the more you did that, the more I wanted to go to you. Then you would finally fall asleep . . . but let me not get into that, I don’t want you to get angry again.
Devdas said nothing. These new revelations troubled him. Covertly wiping her eyes, Chandramukhi began to speak once again. Do you remember the day you spoke to me about how much we put up with? Humiliation, disgrace, torment, persecution—I was so upset when you said this that I stopped everything that very same day.
But what will you live on? Devdas asked.
I told you already.
But what if he cheats you out of all your money . . .
Chandramukhi showed no signs of worry. That’s not impossible, she said calmly, but I've considered that likelihood too. I will ask you for some money if I get in trouble.
After some thought, Devdas replied, Very well. Now make your arrangements and get out of this place.
Tomorrow. After I've sold these bangles. I'll meet the moneylender.
Taking five one hundred-rupee notes out of his pocket and putting them beneath the pillow, Devdas said, Don't sell the bangles, though you should meet the moneylender. But where will you go? To go to one of those holy places?
No, Devdas. I have no faith in holy places. I don't want to live very far from Calcutta, I'll find a village nearby.
Are you thinking of working as a maid for a decent family?
Tears welled up in Chandramukhi's eyes again. Wiping them away, she said, I am not inclined to. I will live independently, in my own way. Why should I put myself through that? I have never had to endure physical suffering before, and I cannot face it now. Any more might tear me apart.
Devdas smiled wanly. But if you remain near the city, he said, you might give in to temptation again. The human heart cannot be trusted.
Chandramukhi's expression changed now. Smiling, she said, That is true, the human heart cannot be trusted, but I won’t give in to temptation. I realize that women always desire certain things, but since I have chosen to give up the things I desire on my own, I’m no longer afraid of anything. Had I given all this up on an impulse, perhaps a little more caution might be necessary, but I have not felt a moment's regret in all this time. I’m quite happy, you see.
Still Devdas shook his head, saying, Women are far too fickle, far too untrustworthy.
Chandramukhi stepped close to him. Devdas, she said, taking his hand.
Devdas looked at her. This time he could not tell her not to touch him.
Her eyes brimming with affection, her voice trembling, Chandramukhi drew his hands into her own, saying, It's our last day together, don't be angry today. There’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you.
She gazed at him for a few moments before putting forth her question: Has Parvati hurt you deeply?
Why this question?
Chandramukhi was not discouraged. Quietly and firmly, she replied, I have a reason for asking. I will not lie, it hurts me when you suffer. And besides, I think I know a great deal, I’ve heard you say many things when you were drunk. Still, I do not believe that Parvati betrayed you. On the contrary, I believe you have deceived yourself. I am older than you, Devdas, and I have seen a great many things in this world. Do you know what I think? I think it's you who are mistaken. I do not think women deserve this reputation for being fickle and inconstant. It is men like you who praise them, and men like you who criticize them too. You can say what you want to without any consequences, but they cannot. They can’t express what’s in their hearts, and even when they do, not everyone understands. They are incoherent, and silenced by men. And yet their infamy only grows.
Pausing, Chandramukhi continued in a clearer voice, I have been in the business of love for a long time, but I have loved only once. I cherish that love. I’ve learned a lot, you know, love is one thing, and infatuation, another. These two things are often in conflict, and it’s men who create the conflict. We are far less attracted by beauty than you men, which is why we do not lose our heads in an instant the way you do. When you come to us and declare your love, expressing it in so many different ways, with so many different words, we stay silent. Often we feel embarrassed or afraid to hurt you, so we hold back. Even when we are repulsed by your very appearance, we cannot bring ourselves to say we do not love you. Then begins the whole charade of love, a mere show, and when it ends, the man says in a fury, You lying slut! That is what everyone hears, that is what everyone believes. And still we remain silent. We suffer so much, but no one seems to care.
Devdas did not reply. Chandramukhi gazed at him in silence for a while and then said, Perhaps a tenderness develops between man and woman. The woman thinks, this is love. She performs her duties quietly and resolutely, provides all the support she can in times of crisis, and you men praise her to the skies. But possibly even at this time she has not learned the alphabet of love. And then, at some dark hour, when she feels an indescribable agony in her heart—Chandramukhi cast a piercing glance at Devdas—that is when you scream, Traitor! Shame!
Suddenly Devdas touched Chandramukhi's mouth with his hand.
What's all this, Chandramukhi?
As he slowly removed his hand, Chandramukhi said, Don't worry, I'm not talking of your Parvati.
Original text in public domain. Translation © 2017 Arunava Sinha. All rights reserved.
Acclaimed writer and translator Cécile Oumhani introduces our December issue featuring contemporary writing by Tunisian women.
What do Tunisian women write today? It is now almost seven years since the people of Tunisia put an end to dictatorship. And it is over sixty years since Tunisian women obtained a status women in neighboring countries are still dreaming of. What could be achieved at the time of the Arab Spring was in many ways the result of the high degree of involvement of Tunisian women in all areas of public life. The urge to write immediate testimonies about the unprecedented events of 2011 has certainly eased as years have gone by. Have these changes affected women's writing? If so, how?
When a country overthrows a dictatorial regime that has lasted for decades, the whole society is reorganized in depth. Relationships are redefined at all levels, collective as well as individual, public and private. The perception we have of ourselves, where we are in the world, in time and space, is also completely altered. It is not just the future that offers new perspectives, as we take the present in our own hands. The past also appears under a different light, as it is re-evaluated in the context of a new freedom of expression.
Whether they are men or women, writers are keen observers of the world around them. Human passions, the mechanisms of power and oppression at work in their society hold few secrets for them. Writers will sometimes be so perceptive that they almost foresee events before they actually unfold. This is apparent in some novels published before the Tunisian revolution, where the events of 2011 seem to be already in the making. The vision of a possible future underlying a novel is especially striking, at a time when writers had to contend with censorship and develop strategies of circumvention.
The writers here present astute portraits of Tunisia just before and after the Arab Spring. They reflect the intensity of long pent-up emotions and the anguish born with times of uncertainty. These texts were chosen from today’s Tunisian literary scene, with some writers expressing themselves in Arabic and others in French.
Emna Belhaj Yahia had almost finished writing her novel Jeux de rubans (Game of Ribbons) when the revolution broke out. The main character is a middle-aged woman, free from the constraints of traditional Tunisia. She moves between her old mother, whom she takes care of, the companion she chose after her divorce, and her adult son. She grew up after women gained access to public life and became a university professor. Now in her fifties, she is struck by the growing number of young women wearing headscarves, at odds with the lifestyle and values women of her own generation treasured.
“El qâtil” (The Killer), Emna Rmili's short story, captures the many terrible times that people were gunned down as they demonstrated. Narrated by a policeman aiming his weapon at a demonstrator, it is a vivid and cruel evocation of the repression that led to the fall of Ben Ali in a matter of weeks.
Les intranquilles (The Restless), Azza Filali's novel, covers the year 2011 and ends with the election of the constitutional assembly at the end of October. She depicts several characters with different social backgrounds as they are confronted with the changes around them. An old man arrives in the capital looking for work. Another man is haunted by the time he was tortured at the Ministry of Interior, before he spent fifteen years in jail for belonging to an Islamist party. A corrupt banker is seeking to hide his practices during the time the former regime was in power. In the episode appearing here, another man visits a dermatologist whose clientele is rapidly decreasing in the wake of the revolution. Azza Filali describes a changing world with biting irony and insight.
Noura Bensaad is well known for her exquisite short stories. Set in Mediterranean atmospheres, they retain a dreamlike quality. She is attentive to her characters' aspirations and disillusionments in a social environment she suggests in faint touches. She gives us “L'étranger et la vieille dame” (The Stranger and the Old Lady). The stranger is observing a mysterious dimly-lit scene in a street, where he comes across an old lady and has a brief vision of a couple passing.
In addition to these fiction writers, the issue presents two poets. Ines Abassi's poetry powerfully delineates emotions and the outer world, blending them together into personal inner landscapes. Beyond the light of a Mediterranean city, she also suggests the darkness of the past, only to celebrate life, desire and resilience.
Amina Saïd's poetry embraces past and present. Beyond a specific sense of place, it questions our passage on earth. It erases borders between sounds and silence, colors and darkness, the diurnal and the nocturnal, highlighting timeless, hidden currents, underlying our selves, as well as the memory of trees.
An unheard-of process is still underway in Tunisia. It will still take a long time for past wounds to heal and for Tunisian citizens’ dreams to come true. A period of such deep change will undoubtedly remain a source of inspiration for writers, just as their words on the page will go on questioning past, present and future. Countries have always needed that back and forth movement between the inky mirrors of literature and a reality that is constantly in the making.
© 2017 Cécile Oumhani. All rights reserved.
Arunava Sinha introduces the four stories in our December feature exploring Bollywood’s debt to Bengali writers.
India's Hindi film industry is the largest in the world in terms of the number of films released. Derivatively named Bollywood (B for Bombay—now Mumbai— where most Hindi movies are made), it produces movies placed everywhere on the continuum between the avowedly commercial—complete with the song and dance routines that American filmmakers have warmed to in recent times—and the uncompromisingly cerebral. This range has developed slowly: in its early days, there was essentially only one kind of film, aiming to be both intelligent and entertaining (an intent that has made a slow return during the past two decades).
Although the films were made in the state of Maharashtra, where the predominant language was—and still is—Marathi, Hindi was chosen as the language for obvious reasons. For one thing, it had—and still has—the largest number of native speakers among all languages in India. Moreover, even among those who did not—and do not—consider Hindi their mother tongue, comprehension levels are high. Of course, Hindi films themselves have contributed to this spread of the language, but there was, even in the early decades of the twentieth century, little doubt that it was the language with the greatest commercial potential for cinema in the country.
Even before the film industry developed, the literatures of India were thriving. Given the multiplicity of languages spoken and written in the country—which makes India more like a Europe than a US—fiction, poetry, and essays were being written in at least ten languages: Bengali, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu, Marathi, Gujarati, Punjabi, Urdu and, of course, Hindi, besides English. Of these, Bengali literature had arguably made the most strides, propelled in no small measure by the towering genius of Rabindranath Tagore—India's only Nobel laureate in literature.
With a rich pool of published works, Bengali fiction thus became an obvious source of stories for Bombay's filmmakers. This also had something to do with the fact that several of the directors and scriptwriters in Bombay in the first half of the twentieth century were from Bengal. Calcutta, the center of Bengali literary activities, had also developed its own cinema (the Bengali auteur Satyajit Ray is considered to have been India's best filmmaker), and Bengali stories were thus being used by films in at least two Indian languages.
The tradition continued for several decades, with novels and short stories by a number of Bengali writers being made into Hindi films. Among these writers were, besides Tagore himself, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Bimal Mitra, Subodh Ghosh, Samaresh Basu, Mahashweta Devi, Narendranath Mitra, Banaphool, Ramapada Chowdhury, and Sankar. Of this group, Chattopadhyay has been a perennial supplier of stories—albeit inadvertently—to Hindi films. Although he died in 1938, his novels continued to be filmed nearly seventy years later.
To represent this steady flow of Bengali literature into Hindi cinema, we have selected four works—two short stories and excerpts from two novels—to present in English translation. The four pieces of fiction are from different periods, as are the corresponding films. They are:
Sahib Bibi Gulam, directed by Abrar Alvi, 1962
Based on Shaheb Bibi Golam, Bimal Mitra (1912–91), 1941
Bimal Mitra wrote several long, sprawling novels detailing elaborate sagas of personal and social relationships in specific sociocultural contexts. In this case, he depicts the life of a woman who is made to marry a much older husband in a feudal Bengali family. She tries to rescue her husband from his addiction to alcohol and courtesans, only to fail and eventually turn into an alcoholic herself. Her life is interwoven with that of a young man from a village who comes to work on the estate. These events are unfurled against the backdrop of India's freedom struggle and reforms in Hinduism.
Listen to a song from the film:
Amar Prem, directed by Shakti Samanta, 1972
Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay's bittersweet story is narrated by a young boy who befriends a prostitute in the neighborhood and innocently gathers details about her life, her clients, and her lover without having any idea of what is really going on. An entire segment of decaying feudal society comes alive in this sharp portrait. It was made into a mainstream commercial film which shifted the focus to the romance.
Watch a scene from the film:
Ijazat, directed by Gulzar, 1987
Based on “House of Wax,” Subodh Ghosh (1909–80), circa 1960
Seven years after their divorce, a couple have a chance encounter in the waiting room of a railway station. Each of them has remarried, happily. Their meeting evokes strange sensations in both of them, which have nothing to do with romance or love but more of a reassertion of possessiveness. Breaking the ice isn't easy, but once it is broken, a simple question–have you forgotten me entirely?–hangs heavily in the air. It isn't answered directly, but the story conveys the resentment that both experience at the fact that their former spouse is happily married. The film added another layer to the story with the husband's tale being not of a happy second marriage but a failed relationship.
Watch a scene from the film:
Dev D, directed by Anurag Kashyap, 2009 (earlier Hindi versions: 1936, 1955, 2002)
Based on Devdas, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay (1876–1938), 1917
Devdas and Parvati, both from Brahmin families, are childhood friends who discover when they grow up that they love each other. But Devadas's parents reject the idea of marriage, because of socioeconomic differences between the two families. Insulted, Parvati's father arranges for her to marry a rich widower. Devdas goes to Calcutta from the village and meets the courtesan Chandramukhi, who falls in love with him. Devdas is not in love with her, and his relationship with Parvati is never to be consummated. He begins a slow alcohol-fueled journey toward suicide. Beyond the overwhelming personal tragedy here, the novel really explores the social and familial equations that led to this situation. However, the tragedy of Devdas has become something of a symbol for unrequited love in India's cultural imagination.
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Of course, the adaptations are not slavish imitations of the original works, often using the novel or story as inspiration rather than a text frozen in stone. Even though the majority of Hindi films are now made with original screenplays, Bengali literature, including genre fiction, continues to be a source for Bollywood filmmakers. For instance, Director Dibakar Banerjee has made an edgy crime film titled Detective Byomkesh Bakshy derived from the many novels and stories featuring the sleuth, written by Saradindu Bandyopadhyay. Banerjee, who has snapped up the rights to all the stories in the series, is likely to make more films featuring the detective. Besides Devdas, several of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay's novels have inspired Hindi films, among them the 2005 adaptation of Parineeta, directed by Pradeep Sarkar. Earlier, Mother of 1084, Mahashweta Devi's searing Bengali novel about the mother of a killed Leftist revolutionary was made into an acclaimed film by the arthouse director Govind Nihalani. Even if it is not as intense as earlier, Bollywood’s relationship with Bengali literature may not end anytime soon.
© 2017 Arunava Sinha. All rights reserved.
In this short story by Emna Belhaj Yahia, women debate freedom of dress and choice in contemporary Tunisia.
So here we are, Chokrane and I, as she’s leaving school, as I’m leaving the office. Still crushed by the disorderly memories of a sleepless night, I suddenly notice as she walks toward me, something very simple about her clothing, something I hadn’t thought of before, something that requires no explanation, no commentary: the free affirmation of liberty. The way she wears it, it’s just a way of exercising creativity that concerns only her. A free act, we must agree, when it does not detract from someone else’s liberty. That idea intoxicates me a little but, for no apparent reason, also evokes my mother’s apprehensions. What if Frida wasn’t wrong? After all, nothing guarantees that eventually those in favor of this clothing style will not try to impose it on everyone. It’s happened elsewhere. But is that a reason to preemptively forbid something to those who have forbidden nothing, simply because people who look like them were found at fault in other places? I don’t know, but I would prefer an alternative approach: take it one day at a time. If tomorrow we really feel that danger is on the horizon, if Frida’s fears prove to be justified, and if these people start to try to deprive us of liberty, I will be as concerned as my mother, and Chokrane will be on our side. For when she replied to me, yesterday, “I’m wearing what I’m wearing because I feel like it,” I saw, in her gaze, the staunch defense of a liberty that, in all sincerity, one cannot claim solely for oneself. Today, I express her reply in my own fashion: long or short, wide or narrow, the only becoming clothing is that of a free person. Furthermore, yesterday I noticed that she also had a glimmer in her eyes and I surmised that, had she been lying, it would have gone out immediately. I know that glimmer. So Chokrane will be on the same side as me and with Frida, I am sure of her righteousness, I would be willing to bet on it. And on the strength of our love. What other choice do I have?
Chokrane is neither fake nor prudish, she surprises me, she is herself, with no limits other than those that she willingly sets for herself, we quickly tumbled into the mystery of love, gestures of passionate moments, intense moments, without fear and without shame—and I have no complaints.
It’s been almost a year now since she earned her master’s degree. Waiting to find a job, she enrolled herself in a master’s in mathematics and at the same time tutors high schoolers preparing for the baccalaureate. Some of the money she earns helps to pay for her driving lessons. When I go to pick her up at the end of those lessons, I find that she bears an odd resemblance to an Indian tourist, all she’s missing is a large red dot between her two eyebrows. It’s because she rolls back her headscarf, making it into a large headband at the top of her forehead, at the edge of her hair and above her ears, which, uninhibited in the open air, seem bigger than they actually are. I feel as though I’m watching a woman disembarking an airplane just arrived from Bombay or New Delhi.
“Is that how Indian women wear their hair? The red dot would go nicely with your scarf-turned-headband. And they have big ears like you.”
“It’s because when I’m driving, I hear better when I lift up the fabric. I take in better what’s going on around me, the sounds and the distances, and even the words of the instructor sitting next to me. But when he saw me uncover my ears, he immediately started swearing that I was under no obligation to do so.”
“What does he care?”
“He probably wanted to make sure I knew that the driver’s manual didn’t require anything on that front. I think I’m going to change instructors. There are signs for driving schools on almost every street.”
“He talks nonstop, going on and on about how his daughter refuses to wear a headscarf, as if I’m supposed to have an opinion on it! I told him that was her own business, then I quickly started asking questions about traffic, the people overtaking me on the right, the difficulty of changing speed, but he kept coming back to his problem with the headscarf and the grief his daughter gives him.”
“What a pain!”
“On top of it, I don’t like to be lumped in with every woman who wears a scarf on her head. The relationship to the body, the way of reacting to peoples’ words, of adopting certain characteristics, it’s so different, so subtle, from one woman to the next, that in the end no one resembles anyone else. And I, in any case, intend to do as I please. Just look at me and Dalel, we’re worlds apart.”
“But you were following in her footsteps when you decided to cover your hair, sweetheart!”
“So what! That was more than four years ago. Since then, we’ve each followed our own path. She’s become a purist and a proselytizer. She and her husband would veil every woman in the world if they could.”
Chokrane pauses, brushes aside a lock of hair that had fallen into my eyes, then continues:
“I’m glad that so far they’ve only had boys because I would have felt really sorry for their girls.”
“Don’t worry, Dalel’s sons will take up the task of putting women in their place!”
“You don’t know that, maybe they’ll be nothing like their parents.”
“True, but there’s still a chance. Look at me, I have red hair like my mother, I’m fidgety and fickle like my father, an explosive combination, don’t you think? What about you?”
“I have my mother’s spirit and my father’s black hair, just as dangerous.”
“Are you sure you have your dad’s hair?”
“Well then, you have no need to cover it up with a headscarf, since it’s the hair of a man! Or else, if you still want to hide it, tomorrow we’ll go to the souk and I’ll buy you a nice chechia.”
“You make a good point. Come on, let’s go right now.”
And our banter continues like that, and even if our little stories don’t sound like much of anything, they sound like us. We have our horseplay, our quips, we react to what reaches us of the world’s whisper, with its scenes that, real or virtual, come and go before our eyes, we inhale our city’s air, respond to what calls to us. And I squeeze my Indian girl with her big ears, and with her I feel like an explorer, though, unlike my parents, I didn’t study abroad, I was never interested in other worlds, and have no intention of becoming a globetrotter. I, the son of Frida the Redhead and Nader the Fugitive, now have something better to do than roam the Internet, smoke cigarettes, and upset my mother, in order to express my existence. I have a heart and a body capable of enjoying of each moment, devouring life, gulping down the crisp air.
Chokrane suddenly remembers a story that she thought of during the night, before going to bed. She tells me on the spot, before she forgets again, just to prove and illustrate, she says, the prudishness of men of former times, the ones we see in the black-and-white documentaries she was talking about yesterday.
“I heard it from my mother who heard it from the heroine herself, her great-aunt. She had seven or eight children with her husband, lived all her life at his side, without either of them ever seeing, I mean really seeing, the other’s private parts. She even had a long nightshirt, with a hole in the necessary place, to facilitate the task.”
“What task?” I burst into laughter, grip the steering wheel and brake abruptly, which makes Chokrane, sitting next to me, jump in her seat. We giggle like hyperactive children, then she asks me to get moving again. What on earth is this story of the hole in the nightgown? It’s incredible. I would have thought Chokrane’s modesty would keep her from recounting such details. But no! How wrong we can be.
From Jeux de rubans © Emna Belhaj Yahia. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Emma Ramadan. All rights reserved.
In these three poems, poet Amina Saïd inquires into life, death, and the nature of memory.
I did not choose to be born
but I must accept life accept death
I didn’t choose the day the hour the place
or the era of my arrival in the world
nor the name I bear
nor my sex nor the color of my eyes
but to predict the future yes I wanted that
I hope and despair at the same moment
I have strange dreams that drive sleep away
I have moments of long silence
then words push each other onto my lips
it is painful not to be heard
and yet my speech is not deceitful
it is part of the world’s grief
I must keep a lucid vision
speak the language of the soul
which is light and wisdom
or stupor and confusion
will silence me forever
I was born a woman my speech
is part of the world’s grief
this tree can have forgotten nothing
is that why they cut it down?
this sturdy tree that centuries
had skimmed across
that fertility had not tired
they made its silvered peak touch the ground
its oil will no longer brighten our rooms
with its gentle light
no wise man rejoices
those who did this could not decipher
the omens that many wounds
had chiseled in its bark
like a secret script
and they did not see that the nearby spring
is still singing or that a leafy shoot
is already budding from the stump
what can they see then
by keeping their eyes shut?
a door that shuts
can also open
so I left my dark prison
stunned by sunlight
I needed to look once more
at the earth that made us
from which they want to uproot us
the spring air carried scents of pine
of tamarisk of hot sap
come from the shimmering plain
I made my way along the citadel’s
winding streets beside silent houses
when some women approached me
pitiful in these desperate days
who all spoke at once:
they carry off our flocks
attack our orchards steal our horses
burn our harvests there’s no end to it
each side sends spies
the council met again
no negotiation to end the war
has led to anything the cities that
were still our allies yesterday fall one by one
then in a cacophony of moaning
the way a disaster is announced or
a dreadful omen they said:
the sacred tree has been uprooted
© Amina Saïd. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Marilyn Hacker. All rights reserved.
Ordered to shoot a protester, a Tunisian policeman struggles with his conscience in this taut short story by Emna Rmili.
The boy’s chest is mouthwatering, it’s luscious, that boy’s chest, provocative, in fact, under his simple striped shirt—damn! What’s making me focus on his chest? Since yesterday the orders have been absolutely clear: we will shoot. I look down at the weapon at my side, and feel like I’m standing on the edge of an abyss. But the law is the law . . . I reach out my hand to the weapon, touch it. It fills my hand. We will shoot. We’ve all heard the code words we had been told to listen out for: “Utter determination, utter determination.” The front lines have tear gas canisters, but the magazine full of bullets is on me: I’m behind the front lines, tucked out of sight of the mobile phone cameras, my weapon polished to a high shine, gleaming blackness. I can’t get enough of the way its bright black light shines.
I said: “But sir . . .”
He frowned. “We will shoot! Did you not hear the order?”
I saluted sharply.
“No one saw you.”
I saluted again, my body rigid with tension, all of these shitty days my body’s been tensed up like a tight fist . . . I saw them strangled, I saw them wounded, I saw them felled by rubber bullets—some got back up on their feet, but others didn’t. I saw them trampled underfoot by those young conscript cops: how do they survive that? They must have nine lives! “We will shoot,” he said. How can I keep out of sight of the mobile phone cameras? It’s as if the ground were sown with them, and the sky too—shit!
“How can you let them shoot that kind of footage? Where are your eyes? You deserve to be struck blind and deaf! You want them to burn me alive in the palace or slit my throat at the Ministry of the Interior? Man up! You can do it—what’s the matter with you? You’re freaked out by that bunch of little upstarts? Are you men, or what?!” My brain is burning, I have to dig up every last grudge against them just to carry out these orders . . . meanwhile they’re swarming at us like locusts, waves and waves of them. We will shoot: it’s an order. God protect us. I look down at my weapon dozing in its leather holster at my right hip, within hand’s reach, while I press myself back into a corner that faces out over the mouth of the broad sloping avenue. According to the reports that just reached us the crowds are massing in the square by the Ministry of the Interior, and then they’re heading on out into the main street, towards the security forces’ headquarters.
“What we’ve been through with them recently, the way they’ve been wrecking the country, it’s exhausted our patience: we’re done. It’s over.”
There was something completely arid about the boss, his rigid frown clamped onto his desiccated face; his eyes and his cigar blazed.
A question burst out of me:
“Are we to kill our own children, sir?”
He shot me a look so fierce and full of rage it seemed to slam me against the floor.
“We will kill the enemies of the homeland!”
The words rattled through me, snapping all of my senses awake. As their meaning took root, strange fumes seemed to waft through me. Enemies of the homeland? But the orders were clear, and the code words definite: “With utter determination, with utter . . .” Here they come—the sound of them diffuses through the space around me as I glue myself back into this corner, my weapon close at hand, my body a tight fist of stinking sweat and choking fumes. That bastard! Enemies of the homeland . . . We will shoot, we’re out of patience and we’re out of tear gas, and he’s in his striped shirt, leading the way with his chest, right at the front of the lines of people, offering up that chest. His muscles carve a clear line beneath the faded stripes of his shirt, and there are clouds in the sky, and an icy wind blowing. Where does he get all that heat from, on a day like this? He’s coming closer; why do I have to see you, of all people? Out of all the hundreds of chests on this freezing afternoon, I saw yours . . . Does the hunter single out his pigeon from the flock? Does he say “This one, and none of the others”?
“If, one day, a people wants to live . . . ” My eyes are focused on the muscles of his chest, and on that little bit of bare flesh exposed at the neck of his shirt, peeping out as if to affirm the youthful vigor and strength of his body. And my weapon is at my side. Who is he? Who might he be? A schoolboy? A student? A teacher? Someone without a job? A car salesman? A grocer? A butcher? Our national anthem says, “Let no one live who has betrayed Tunisia, and let no one live who does not serve in her army.” I’m in her army, my weapon gleams darkly, and I keep one eye on the man who I have just saluted and keep my mind on the code words, and on the ribbons and epaulets indicating his rank. “And let no one live who is not in her army”—the orders have all been exhausted. That was a lethal look he shot at me when I blurted out my questions:
“Will we kill our children?”
“Our children, you call them? Those saboteurs? Those masked gangs? Those stray dogs?”
I had no more words to say. My tongue shriveled in my gullet: how rash of me to have spoken out like that! The boss is the boss. I’ll be retiring in two or three months—I’m twenty years older than him: when did he suddenly get old enough to have that rank? I begrudge ending my long years of service this way. After enduring the burning heat and freezing cold of distant roads, sleeping in trucks in the middle of nowhere, on miserable iron bunks in cramped urban barracks and desolate rural training camps—did all those long years of toil have to end in blood? Killing our children? The question had rung out despite me, asked by neither my tongue nor my mind, but by my heart. His roared reply had shaken the walls of the room:
“They are ENEMIES OF THE HOMELAND!”
All I could do in response was to shake my head, my aching pounding head that feels now like it’s being hammered into by thousands of nails, as he advances, his chest filling his striped shirt, white, red, green, white, red, green, and my finger on the trigger, and I shrink back, drawing myself in tight to this sharp little corner that faces down the hill. He’s approaching, drawing closer and closer, it’s an order, you’ll have to do it, he’s getting closer, we’re out of patience, we’re out of tear gas, are we going to let them burn down the country? The boss said:
“A few sacrifices for the homeland are unavoidable, what matters is the homeland.”
And then, “Tunisia matters more than anyone,” and suddenly my mind was awash with the homeland, its villages and towns, streets and cities, its wells and seas, the eucalyptus trees lining the roads, the poppies reddening the edges of the fields for miles on end, the cafes teeming with people morning and night, the dams perched between the mountains and held in the green plains’ outstretched hands, the splendor of the hilltop palaces from Tabarka to Hammamet, barefoot little ones heading to school, dodging wolves on the way and giving a fearful, chipper greeting to a passing police car . . . And he’s coming closer and closer, with his strong alluring chest: Who is his mother? Is his father alive? My finger is pressing the trigger, and I am jammed against this stone on top of this building looking out over the sloping street . . .
© Emna Rmili. Translation © 2017 by Alice Guthrie. All rights reserved.
Set in post-revolution Tunisia, this excerpt from Azza Filali’s novel follows an anxious man to a dermatologist’s office.
It must have been 5 p.m. when Jaafar walked into the dermatologist’s office.
“The doctor won’t be long. Have a seat.”
A head shot up from behind the desk, a fair-haired young man with freckled cheeks. “I’m his secretary,” he added. Newspapers lay scattered on a table; Jaafar picked one up and settled in a chair . . . Yet another new rag!
“I wouldn’t bother, it’s the same as all the others.”
The boy contemplated him from behind the desk: “The cover story’s about those journalists that were attacked by a bunch of Koran-thumpers and that kid who was hacked to death. You must have heard.” He swallowed: “His poor mother lost her mind. She wore the hijab, but the shock was so great, she tore it off! They say she was naked underneath!” Jaafar stared at the newspaper, and the boy gave a polite cough: “Page two’s heavy going! I’d ignore it if I were you: another diatribe on the dividing line between politics and religion . . . Because of the dividing line, they’ve split the page in two.” Jaafar glared at him.
“Sorry, I’ve read them all,” the secretary mumbled. “There aren’t any patients these days, you’re the first today.” He vanished behind the desk; only a tuft of frizzy hair was still visible. “People don’t have time to look after their skin any more! With prices skyrocketing, the roads blocked, and all the fanatics praying in the streets . . . If you want my opinion,” he ventured, “fifty dinars is too much to pay for pimples! No one ever died from an outbreak of acne!”
Jaafar started pulling on his fingers one by one. The boy was a real motormouth and the waiting room was abnormally empty . . . there was a lingering odor of air freshener, with a top note of lily-of-the-valley. Jaafar took out a handkerchief and held it to his nostrils.
Behind him, the boy was prattling on: “The doctor’s great, but he ought to have dropped his prices! This revolution has damaged the medical profession; all the doctors in the building are complaining.” His tone turned authoritative: “As you can imagine, it’s mainly women who come to see him, but with more and more covering themselves from head to foot, dermatology’s no longer a cash cow!” Jaafar grabbed his coat; blondie went on, all worked up now: “Do you know, I conducted my own little survey! One day, when I was here on my own, I called up every patient I know well, and out of twenty-five, I counted sixteen new hijabs! I didn’t tell the doctor, I don’t like to be the bearer of bad news.” Jaafar rose abruptly and headed for the door.
“Where are you going? The doctor will be here any minute now!”
Jaafar pulled a face that he hoped resembled embarrassment: “An urgent meeting I’d completely forgotten!”
The young man insisted: “To think he’s coming all the way from la Soukra, just for you! I’m the one who’ll get the blame, as usual.” Amid the freckles, his distraught eyes implored Jaafar, whose finger was on the elevator button. Behind him, the secretary gasped, pressing his hands together: “Won’t you wait a little? The doctor will be here any second; someone’s just called the elevator, it’s bound to be him . . . Please, monsieur!” Jaafar hurtled down the stairs like a madman. In the lobby, a man in studiedly casual dress came up: “I am Doctor Abdennadher. Are you by any chance the man who was waiting for me?” Defeated, Jaafar nodded.
The two men entered the elevator. Seeing Jaafar return, the young blond secretary smiled blissfully, as if beholding the Messiah. The doctor opened his office door and ushered in his patient.
“How can I help?” he asked, putting on his white coat.
“I have a mark here, in the middle of my forehead, which is getting bigger and bigger. Just where my head touches the ground when I pray.”
“Let me take a look at you.”
He showed him to a chair beneath a lamp that he directed onto Jaafar’s forehead, then he pulled on a pair of gloves and explored the grayish patch with his fingertips, prodding the crevice where the skin had become scaly. He removed a few flakes with tweezers and placed them in a small bowl.
“Could you have banged your forehead?”
“No, unless I’ve forgotten.” Jaafar fidgeted in the chair: “My wife’s convinced it’s because of the prayer mat, the one I brought back from Mecca . . . it’s pure polyester. I replaced it with a wool mat, but the mark’s still spreading.” He was silent for a moment. “Why did you ask me if I’d banged my forehead?”
“Because skin has a memory, it stores life’s knocks in its folds, then brings them out again little by little,” said the practitioner calmly. “In the meantime, I’m prescribing two lotions, one to stop the itching, and the other to protect you from the sun. Apply them regularly and come back to see me in one month.” He held out his hand to Jaafar: “Lamjed, my secretary, will take your payment.”
In the waiting room, a patient sat snoozing. The aforementioned Lamjed stood up from his desk and came to speak to Jaafar: “It’s good you came back, the doctor would have been so disappointed to miss you. That’ll be fifty dinars.” Seeing Jaafar’s surly expression, he lowered his voice: “I did warn you, the boss had to raise his prices . . . to keep up with the cost of living.” The boy’s tone became haughty: “It’s not his fault. Blame the crazy folk who are happy to spend fifty dinars on their skin! To think that yesterday on the television they showed people without running water, who have never seen a tap in their lives . . .” Jaafar pulled out his wallet. The young man stashed the money behind the counter: “Shall I book you another appointment?”
“I’ll phone,” said Jaafar.
Outside, the afternoon was drawing to a close . . . too late to go back to the office; Jaafar slowly walked back to his car. As he started up the engine, he frowned: fifty dinars, goddamit, that secretary was right, and that doctor boring him witless with all his nonsense about skin memory; furious, he slammed his foot down on the gas.
From Les Intranquilles. © Azza Filali. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Ros Schwartz. All rights reserved.
Two poems by Tunisian poet and translator Ines Abassi explore language, selfhood, and emotional intimacy.
Song of Clay
Night unfolds around my image in the mirror
while I gather up corpses of letters
that have died from excessive speech.
I choose a few letters
and greet them with spectrums of color
and the heavy breath of desire
until language’s gate opens before me.
And I see
the aleph full of pride:
the dance of a sacrificial gazelle.
The nūn with its wailing:
a crimson mouth, spellbound
by the names of love.
Then the aleph again, this time
Thus, the word anā—I—is drawn in the air
with a swarm of words around it.
the gluttonous paths that devour my footsteps,
the December air that plays with the faces and trees
while the rain washes red-brick houses.
It creates, from my childlike language,
a blue ladder that stretches to the sky.
the bread of the hungry kneaded with sweat,
the night of a lover tossing and turning
in a bed of bewilderment
the meowing of a cat on a February night,
a ballad lost in a field of song,
the music of an oud with wounded strings,
and the beat of ancient drums
in the forests of Africa.
the sound of a spear
splitting the air
as it flies toward its prey,
and the eyes of the prey turning
to meet death head-on.
am a mare the color of hazel
that went down to the river
without the compass of the wind and trees.
am the jealousy of the lover,
am stolen splendor on a darkened street:
afflicted by color, sun, shadows,
and what I cannot see.
am a field of grain hungry for sun,
and the wailing of an olive tree
a hundred years old
cut down by a blind ax,
and the hissing of the fire
kindled by the last Native American
who clung to the land beneath his tent
as he died,
and the rush of the water at the river’s end
in cascades of light . . . anā.
I am the child’s lisp as it says “Papa”
for the very first time.
am the daughter of clay, and its mother.
But whenever I stand there, in your hands,
I am nothing more than your child . . .
Exercises in Loneliness
A wall of frail desire:
I leaned against it
and lapped up the blood flowing
from the wound of the rose
that was scratched by the air,
a she-wolf of your love.
The smell of your blood guides me
toward the light.
The fear that hovered over our encounters
with its feathered wings:
you slung it over your shoulders
but never took flight.
Fear is your face.
Fear is your trembling voice
when you ask me: Where are you now?
Fear: your smile,
the way you walk,
your very body
in the narrow spaces of farewell.
You’ll cross five forests on your own, after Havana.
Five forests and then I’ll die,
you say to yourself,
before I see the freckles that will cover your face
after all the suns
you’ll lie beneath.
And with a single fearful keystroke
you delete all the emails,
which had been chiseling the crystal of our mornings
like thirsty birds pecking
at the water of words:
You deleted all the letters that grew
on the edge of the desert—rasping, desirous.
Fear: the way your voice
quivers with doubt
when you hear the bracelets of my joy
ring through the hallway
that separates one encounter
when you stand before my mirror,
when you lie down lazily
beneath the sun of your tedious life,
years I cross
breathing in deeply
my own scent,
years I cross with tepid fear.
as I pass through you
in a boat with two oars
that devour the salt of the life you lived before me.
the words “my life, my everything,”
words you spoke to draw me in,
a heavy lid of love
that I would later turn into a carpet:
I lie down on it
on those weekend nights
becomes a long torment for the self.
“أغنية الطين” and “تمارين الوحدة” © Ines Abassi. Translations © 2017 by Kareem James Abu-Zeid. All rights reserved.
A stranger follows an old woman through a city’s streets at night in this charged work by Tunisian master of the short story Noura Bensaad.
“What do you know?”
“What do you hear?”
“What do you see?”
“Where are you going?”
“Where my feet take me.”
The stranger walks through the city. He comes across an old lady. In her quivering gaze, childhood flows like a river in reverse. She smiles, grabs him by the arm, and whispers in his ear:
“Do you know where I’m going?”
“No, I don’t.”
She murmurs, even lower, so low that her voice is no more than a sigh:
“I’m going where she won’t be able to get me.”
“Her, of course!”
And the old lady turns, indicating with her finger a point in empty space.
“But there’s no one there!”
“There is. She’s there. She’s evil, she scares me.”
And he understands.
“Yesterday she got my husband, but she won’t get me.”
In her eyes there smiles the child she once was. She continues on her way, hunched over her shadow as if gathering it. He watches her draw away. Perhaps he should help her carry it. The shadow has grown heavy with the weight of years. He counts the lampposts separating her from the end of the street: one, two, three, four, five, six. A bicycle passes, ridden by a man bundled in his overcoat.
Ding, ding, ding! he proclaims gaily, but nobody hears him. With night fallen, everyone has tumbled over to the other side of life, their minds drawn on by dream.
The stranger looks to the old lady again: she’s made it past two more lampposts. A cat leaps out, as if from the very wall, its tail stuck in the air. It pads toward her and sits on her shadow. She stops. He hears her cry out:
But the cat doesn’t move and continues to cadge a caress:
“Meow, meow, meowwww!”
So she yells:
“Let me go!” and the understanding cat moves just enough to let her pass with her shadow.
She continues walking, taking small, hesitant steps. When you’re that old, each step is a struggle, one more moment snatched from life. She bears so many years on her broken back, but in her mind she is a child again, running to hide.
The stranger decides to follow her. He’d like to ask where she’s running to for sanctuary. Eight lampposts separate him from her. He doesn’t rush, he’s got plenty of time to catch up. The old lady only has three left to reach the end of the street.
A man and woman approach, a couple intertwined, his arm around her shoulder, hers around his waist. As they reach the old lady, she straightens as much as she can, and looks at them, but they don’t see her. In the wan light of urban night, her hand rises and extends—it’s a slow gesture. An abyss separates them, but just when she believes that she can touch them, the man and the woman are already distant. And so the thin, wrinkled hand falls back alongside the body that seems to slump even more. The stranger stops and moves aside. The two beings clutched to each other appear to form a single whole: enormous head and body stuck on four legs. They don’t see him either, for love is blind to everything that isn’t it. The stranger notices the tears running from the woman’s eyes that the man collects with his lips.
The old lady has reached the end of the street, which she must cross in order to proceed upon her way. She stops beneath the semaphore. A little man, blood-red color, indicates that one mustn’t cross—danger! Then he turns to green—danger passed. With small, hesitant steps, she begins her long crossing, dragging with her her shadow that sticks to her like glue—sole remaining companion of a life worn out. Her face is lit by the lampposts on the opposite side of the roadway; her shadow lengthens behind her, stretches out, as if ready to detach itself, to flee? but she sees nothing other than the white lines beneath her feet still separating her from the life-saving sidewalk. Suddenly the blinding light of two headlights approaching at full speed. The stranger would like to cry out instead he tells himself that the old lady won’t have the time to dodge. Then the infernal squealing of braking wheels. In the night, the impact of a car violently hitting a body reverberates like an expected ending.
"L’étranger et la vieille dame" © Noura Bensaad. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Roland Glasser. All rights reserved.
In thinking of Polish poetry after the Second World War, a characteristic tone of sharp-eyed moral clarity often comes to my mind. Czesław Miłosz exemplified this school of writing, and codified a canon of like-minded writers in his influential 1965 anthology Postwar Polish Poetry. That book included giants of Polish poetry such as Wisława Szymborska, Zbigniew Herbert and Tadeusz Różewicz, who confronted the traumas and injustices of that country’s 20th century with spiritual honesty, righteous judgment, and— sometimes—rage.
Rage was the weapon of choice for Ryszard Krynicki during his poetic coming-of-age in the late 1960s and 1970s, a generation after Miłosz. Previously little translated into English, some of his best works are now available in two major books published this fall in the US: his 1977 collection Our Life Grows (New York Review Books, translated by Alissa Valles) and Magnetic Point: Selected Poems 1968-2014 (New Directions, translated by Clare Cavanagh). Together, they offer a compelling portrait of this powerful and unique poet.
Krynicki was born in 1943 in a Nazi labor camp in Austria. After the war, his family was settled in the “reclaimed” territories of western Poland that had been broken off from Germany and emptied of their pre-war populations. Born in a nonplace and brought up where the past had been wiped clean, the poet seems to have nursed a sense of otherness throughout his life.
Krynicki was still a boy in 1956 when the dark days of Stalinism came to an end. As a young man, he watched promises of reform and liberalization give way to sclerosis, finally descending into outright depravity in the watershed year of 1968. That March saw massive anti-regime protests in Warsaw violently suppressed by the government, which blamed the uprising on “Zionist” agents. A nationwide anti-Semitic campaign ensued, driving much of Poland’s remaining Jewish population out of the country. Then in August, Poland joined the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact forces, helping to crush the nascent pro-Western reforms of the Prague Spring.
The very next year, Krynicki published his first major poetry collection, Akt Urodzenia (meaning both “act of birth” and “birth certificate”). He was one of a generation of poets and intellectuals disgusted by the events of ’68 and scornful of moral equivocation and political compromise. Krynicki would spend much of the 1970s causing trouble and getting into it. He battled with censors, published underground editions, endured police harassment, and in 1976 was finally banned from even being mentioned in print.
In 1977, he published Our Life Grows with an émigré press in Paris. Many of these poems had been mangled by Communist censors, but in the NYRB edition they appear in their unexpurgated form. I found them shockingly raw: Our Life Grows felt like a beam of fury focused squarely at the brutality, stupidity, and double-speak of People’s Poland. The collection includes landmark works like “Our Special Correspondent,” a poem so ideologically incendiary it got Krynicki’s editor fired by the authorities, and “Posthumous Journey (III),” whose litany of political and literary dissidents, its mocking reference to Stalin, and allusions to violent suppression of striking workers was the cause of Krynicki’s complete print ban in 1976.
As well as politics, the collection explores themes of spirituality, love, and the social and cultural role of the poet in the twentieth century. Krynicki circles around a familiar repertoire of structures, themes, and images. Formally, he seems to favor three types of poem: mid-length, reflective works; extremely short and aphoristic ones (sometimes even a single line); and long, often very political tours de force. His recurring images include animals like axolotls and snails, human anatomy like brains and blood, and the tools of censorship: sheets of paper, card indexes, red pencils and, of course, the censor himself, who at times appears as a character in the poems.
Krynicki’s imagery is always powerful, if sometimes baffling. Valles does an excellent job of keeping these difficult images tangible and concrete, as in this example from “Much Simpler” (featuring the aforementioned card indexes):
fingerprints circulate in unfathomable space
card indexes faded, were burnt or shredded
your you is astonished at your I
nothing’s for sure took the elevator down
while everything’s possible
was laboring up the stairs
Readers of Polish poetry expecting something closer to the philosophical detachment of Miłosz or the wry gallows humor of Szymborska may find this collection jarring. Krynicki’s poems are darker, stranger, and more mysterious.
A fuller, more nuanced picture of Krynicki emerges in Magnetic Point: Selected Poems 1968-2014. The late poet and translator Stanisław Barańczak once described Krynicki’s oeuvre as “moving from excess to ascesis.” In this collection, we watch this transition as it happens, and Cavanagh’s translation maintains a remarkable (and beautiful) unity of voice, even as Krynicki experiments with new themes, imagery, and forms, including prose.
The work in Magnetic Point reveals a huge range of influences. Krynicki often dedicates poems to other poets or refers explicitly to others’ poems. He is a translator of Paul Celan and Nelly Sachs, and the German tradition shines through in his work. A period of engagement with East Asian poetry has borne fruit in the form of, among other things, numerous references to the Japanese master poet Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) and Krynicki’s own experimentation with haiku.
His later work also develops his ambiguous relationship to geography and history, both in Poland and abroad. Unlike his contemporaries Barańczak and Adam Zagajewski, Krynicki did not choose emigration to escape Communist rule. But that does not mean he felt at home—his 1987 poem “This Country” states in its entirety:
In this country? Yes, I stayed in this country.
Exile comes in many shapes
Spirituality is often a current running powerfully through these reflections. For instance, in the prose poem “A Stone from the Village of New World” from 2005, Krynicki describes accidentally finding the remains of a Jewish gravestone:
I found the stone in a yard overgrown with weeds and bushes, just after buying a run-down house in the hamlet of New World: I’d picked it more for the auspicious name than for the place itself. Exiles like me—from the East, from beyond the Bug River— settled here after the war. Germans had lived here before, they left a moldy scrap of a 1936 newspaper in the attic and countless broken medicine bottles.
I’m not asking when and how it ended up here, or who committed this atrocity. I only want to preserve it from further destruction, I seek a refuge more lasting than my weak letters. I don’t know what to do.
While Krynicki’s anger seems to subside over the course of Magnetic Point, it is clear he has lost none of his desire to challenge simplistic narratives and to ask difficult questions. In an author’s note to Our Life Grows, Krynicki writes, “In my time I dared to oppose Zbigniew Herbert, [saying] that the drama of language should not obscure for us the tragedy of the world. I thought I was right—I was wrong.” Yet even at this mature stage in his career, Krynicki’s suspicion of the power of language remains. It seems fitting to end on one of the last poems in Magnetic Point, which address this skepticism and shows that perhaps the Krynicki of today is not so different from the Krynicki of Our Life Grows:
Sweet, innocent words,
sweet, full sentences,
from sweet, gently
(Nowy Świat, July 8, 2004, B.)