Refugee

A barbed-wire fence separating North Korea from China is seen in this photo taken from the Chinese border city of Hunchun, China, March 18, 2015. REUTERS/Staff

 

 ‘Written for Koushik. ‘

 

 

 

‘Step aside lota,’ someone grabbed me by my shoulders and pushed me away from the matador. ‘It’s our vehicle,’ the man roared chewing paan flushing the humid air with his foul smell. I moved away, my eyes set upon my torn chappal. The bleeding had stopped and an unknown pain ripped open my heart. Which was more painful, my wounded toe or the epithet, ‘lota’?

‘Satyam, come with us,’ Montuda dragged me by my arm. Baffled, I threw a skeptical glance at him.

‘But you are macha toh and the van is full of…’

‘Ufff, stop brooding,’ he said patting my back. ‘Here let me help you. Oh hya, your jethi is making lau chingri tomorrow. Come over.’

The delectable lau chingri tarnished the bitter feelings of the evening. Feud in derby match is a not a rare sight, so is the ghoti-bangal rivalry. Hearing stories of partition from my grandparents and parents, we have been always made to believe how we have been living like refugees here in India. However, my situation of refugee never matched with the ones we read in history books or heard in stories except for the fact that often our rivals use it to belittle us. Montuda and a few other ghotis were different. I have seen them breaking out of the imposed rivalry and we have bonded over lau-chingri, the ghoti delicacy.

‘How many times have I told you not to go to the derby?’ ma screamed at me as I limped towards my room.

‘It’s my last,’ shrugged, ‘anyway, I will be leaving this country soon.’

I slammed the door to avoid unnecessary derision. Ma was telling baba how horrible these machas are. I often find it strange, this obsession about a land where our ancestors belonged to. My mother has never been to Bangladesh. Neither have I. Then why are we missing that land? How can you miss a place where you have never been to? How can you live like a refugee where you can get all the necessities and live in abundance?

I grabbed a shingara from my kid-brother’s plate. Munching on the fired outer layer, it dawned upon me how much I would be missing Keshtoda’s shingara. It seemed to be more real to me than the utopia. I have felt its crunchy coat, I have grown used to it — that perfect pinch of salt, that extra spice and the juicy stuffed potatoes inside. Smacking my lips, I took another one.

‘Help me draw the Indian subcontinent’—my kid brother handed me over the white chart paper. ‘This eastern part is so confusing,’ he whined. ‘So many boundaries. I wish the British had not divided the country. It’s a pain to draw all these.’

The words scattered like the remnants of a long-forgotten rain in a desert of fruitless hatred, lifeless belongingness and above all, obsession over a country where we need a visa and a passport to go. ‘It’s our land,’ they say. The hopelessness drew the starch of confusion I have been living with for years, since childhood.

As the charcoal made marks of the boundaries, the feud flashed upon my eyes. I knew who started it. It was not the machas, but rather some belligerent East Bengal fans, cashing upon their status of ‘refugee’.

Mom’s moping and father’s searing remarks left me perplexed after dinner. The cultural shock I had to adhere to since my childhood was now taking a new turn. My visa says I am an Indian, and I hail from West Bengal. By birth, I am a Bangal.

They all addressed us as Indians on the day of our orientation and when I retired to my room in our small apartment of Atlanta, Ankur asked, ‘Mind if I make  lau chingri today? I kind of miss my home. I can cook something else for you if you…’

Lau chingri?’ I jumped off my sleeping bag, ‘I love lau chingri. Please do. What makes you think I would not?’

‘You’re a Bangal. Hence…’

‘I think foodie is a better word for me. I have some ghoti friends back at home. I would never say no their invitation for lunch or dinner for this particular dish.’

‘That’s nice. In fact, I love the way you cook ilish. Unfortunately the prices are too much here.’

‘How about we save up for it and make it next month?’ My words scorned me: counting every cent to buy an ilish. I remember how baba would get it often, especially during monsoon.

Padmar ilish, it’s so fresh,’ he would gloat. ‘My father used to say we had a huge pond where they would cultivate ilish. Sadly, here we are dependent on the local bazaar.’

The dry dead face of the frozen ilish we spotted the other day at the grocery store seemed to have more value. It was $30 after all.

‘One dollar per day and we will get it,’ Ankur broke my silence. ‘Three of us will share.’

Amago bashaye za ilis asto,’ Probir’s voice interrupted our conversation.

Probir’s presence has always made me feel awkward. His Bangladeshi origin, his Bangladeshi citizenship, his stories about the place where he has been born and brought up piqued me. I would draw similarities with the stories I heard. But today, somewhere we are on the same boat.

‘Want to try lau chingri, Probir?’ Ankur asked.

Khaitei pari. Dekhi kemon banayeso,’ Probir grinned.

Even in this state of abject poverty we faced as grad students in USA, we smiled, we laughed, reminiscing about our lands, our countries.

‘The student’s center is giving free pizza tomorrow,’ Probir informed.

‘I love the pizza they serve,’ Ankur chuckled.

Who’s a refugee, I wonder. Perhaps just a state of mind!!

 

 

Notes:

Lota: A slang referring to the people of East Bengal ( before partition of India).

Macha: A slang referring to the people of West Bengal ( before partition of India).

Ghoti: People belonging to West Bengal (before partition of India).

Bangal : People belonging to East Bengal (before partition of India).

Lau chingri : A preparation of bottle gourd and shrimp which is considered to be a delicacy of the ghoti.

Ilish: Bangla word for the fish , hilsa, considered to be a delicacy of the Bangal.

 

 

The Library

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[N.B.  This story has been written at the request of Koushik Sarkar,]

 

The chatters became more audible than the chaos in her head. She checked her watch. It was 9am. She looked out of the window of the library. Droplets of red, yellow and orange were pouring down from the sun, touching the delicate foliage of the leaves, the lucidity of the green canvas, fading away into the approaching winter. Adjusting the pleat of her blue silk saree, she shivered a little. A sip of black coffee gave her the warmth she needed. Abashed at the thought of how she would look in that gigantic leather jacket, Basantalata grasped the coffee mug, seeking warmth from the hot black fluid. The alacrity of the students around her distanced her again from the two worlds, both of which defined her, yet, seemed to be so distant, known, yet so unknown, loved, yet so ignored, and perhaps betrayed.

Dialing a familiar number, she waited for a voice to respond from the other side.

‘Why are you awake so early?’ the old woman coughed.

‘Ma, time changed. Daylight savings. It’s 9am here!’ Basantalata replied, unapologetically.

‘I don’t care. I know you will not care too. A 60 year old woman trying to act like a 20 year old.’

‘Ma!!’ Basantalata tried to protest. Her deep sighs formed fogs of her changing life on the cold table.

Even before she could utter another word, her phone got disconnected. It was something she could apprehend; yet she had called; she was her mother after all. She looked at the arrays of books, stacked up against the brick walls of the Ablah Library. The world of letters, the unseen and the unknown swaddled towards her, and in the coldness, flickered the flame of a new life, a life which made her forget her early widowhood.

‘The fall colors will leave soon. Let’s have a walk in the woods,’ she overheard a twenty year something old girl telling a boy. Basantalata smiled at her own self. She had seen them in her class but never could get the courage to talk to them. The pedantic exchanges of ‘hi-hello’ have become common to her now that she has been living in this country for quite a sometime, having immigrated by her daughter. Dubiousness dwelled like the chilly wind of the variegated autumn, which drove young hearts into the glade and made them shiver in the sunshine, like an unexpected moment of happiness.

‘She didn’t talk to you today too, didn’t she?’ a familiar voice broke the reverie.

‘How do you know?’ Basantalata was curious.

‘It’s written on your face, ma,’ the woman asserted. Basantalata fell silent.

‘She can’t accept the fact that I am not behaving like a 60 year old widow.’

‘See the books in the library, ma? Even they get new covers to face the changing time.’

‘Like the fall colors who fade away, leaving the trees barren in winter. And flowers will bloom in spring.’ Basantalata affirmed.

‘You are a Graduate Teaching Assistant now, ma. Come on, you can’t stop brooding over who thinks what. You don’t have time. Now let’s go for class.’

Basantalata stared at her daughter’s face and beamed with confidence. She took the gigantic leather jacket from her daughter’s hands and shrugging off the cold, she walked towards the stairs. For the first time, she didn’t call back her mother, crying. She stopped to take one look at the window.  A story would be written on a table each new day. Perhaps time would write the story of her mother understanding her situation. Perhaps the leaves will have a different color then and perhaps new books will gossip with the older ones, sometime, somewhere in some future.

The Cherry Blossom

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PICTURE COURTESYShuvojit Moulik   

[N.B.  This story has been inspired by this particular picture]

I walked towards the cherry blossom tree as the flowers giggled hiding the soft green of the leaves. The breeze of the spring was already flirting with the branches, now full of baby pink cherry blossoms. This particular tree, I have always loved, like my twin sister; I even know her age. She is twenty-five, just like me. I looked at the smiling cherry blossoms as they winked back at me, saying, ‘We told you so!!’ I nodded my head in affirmation, my eyes speaking on my behalf. Continue reading

REFLECTION

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 PICTURE COURTESY : Shuvojit Moulik   

[ N.B.  This story has been inspired by this particular picture.]
She stooped down and grabbed black railing, her eyes falling on the water as the reflection of the beautiful city of Copenhagen seemed to jibe at her own affliction.  She gasped for breath, cursing herself for being so adamant. Rusha envisaged an ambulance, and doctors in their masked countenances; the smell of fluids stored within the injections shrieked her. Left alone in this foreign land, the zigzag pattern of the apparently upside-down buildings seemed to mock at her own heart beat, still beating, and her world, wrecked by disease which fed upon her putrid body. Continue reading

WOVEN IN COLORS

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 (Picture Courtesy : Shuvojit Moulik   

[ N.B. This story has been inspired by this particular picture.]

The refulgent yellow was playing tic-tac-toe with the blushing scarlet before the incandescent orange joined them. They were engaged in a merry game, their ebullience finding its presence in overshadowing the city’s otherwise colourful buildings, now completely submerged in their black shadow. Strands of clouds floated like soft fossils of memories, as the playful colours reeked a nostalgia which took her back to her past where she had worn the same yellow, blushing in the red of her gaye holud. Continue reading

KOLKATA BOOK FAIR : RAMBLING OF A LITTLE GIRL !!

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Of books and books, in a sea where the soul seeks to drown,

  Of the dusty field and the old Maidan;

  Of the memories preserved in the past,

  It is the old Book Fair of Maidan”.

With the Kolkata Book Fair ending yesterday, like every year, this year too, memories have started to haunt me; tears have never done any good to me; so this time, I rejected them and took resort to the only thing I have, the only thing, I can give to the world  : writing. Since the last eight years, I have been fighting with the change that had attacked the book fair; of course it has not been easy for me to accept the change, who is like a ‘ step mother’ to me ; yes the change : from venue to the name , from the scene to the scenario. I have always been sceptical about this new step mother even though, these days I am trying laboriously to accept her. People say , “Whaao … you are lucky”, when I reveal my identity of being the granddaughter of  Late Sushil Mukhopadhyay, founder member and first president of Book Seller’s and Publisher’s Guild Kolkata. Don’t know about luck but book fair has been more than ‘ just’ a fair to me. Continue reading

THE MOTHER

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When religion fails to speak the truth,

When mothers’ cries remain unanswered,

Be the God yourself !!

 

The music of orchestra graced the gorgeous fire which lighted up the city of Peshwar. Fire has always been the source of energy since ancient times. It is that vital origin which gives shape to the sun’s corona, a beautiful, majestic yet frightening  creature who happens to sustain a planet called Earth. It is this same fire, which drains the hearts of millions in utmost joy : the joy of letting go of loved ones to a safer place than this planet , to a secured place where the fire of faith delights the lord with the trident , where the fire of love kisses the Messiah , where the fire of universality smiles in pride, having the full cognizance of the existence of THE GOD , who, like various languages , have taken various names which  the people were too smart and perhaps obsessed to understand .

Tahamina kept on staring at this fire with awe as it charred the soft skin of hundreds of children, allaying them with a promise of a secured land, much better than this planet where power has become a synonym of destruction and greed is a virtue which needs to be nurtured.  Tears didn’t drop from her eyes. Rather she was mesmerized by the scarlet hues which pierced through those seared bodies. Continue reading