International Women’s Day

On International Women’s Day, I wait in the waiting room at the Flinders Medical Centre Eye Clinic for my mother to come out of cataract surgery. Most of the people waiting for relatives are women, ranging from one who might be a granddaughter to one daughter and possibly a couple of wives and/or sisters. Some of them have certainly had to take time off to do this for their loved ones. On the television in front of me I hear of hundreds of Australian childcare workers who will walk off their jobs today in a token strike to ask for their occupation to be valued with better wages and superannuation. They are nearly all women without exception and are asking for pay commensurate with the hours they put in. One woman being interviewed said, ‘We are not simply nose wipers.’ They get twenty dollars an hour in some cases (a little more than a teenager at McDonalds) and as another said, ‘.. live pay check to pay check and will never own a house as no bank will entertain a loan application’ in others.
Then I looked closely at a line travelling along the bottom of the screen.


That is not less women CEOs than men in general. But less women CEOs than men with one specific, slightly old fashioned name. Incidentally the highest paid public servant in Australia is Ahmed Fahour who will finish off in July. Another man. He gets paid ten times more than the prime ministerial $500,000. Another man.

We need more than one day. In the meantime, if you identify as a woman, then go bold, rise like the air, live like no one owns you and hold up your half of the sky with the intelligence, strength, discipline, self esteem, passion and grace that you were born with. I am in your corner.

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ভালবাসি, ভালবাসি: সুনীল গঙ্গোপাধ্যায় Bhalobashi, bhalobashi/ I love you, I do: Sunil Gangopadhyay

ভালবাসি, ভালবাসি
—সুনীল গঙ্গোপাধ্যায়

ধরো কাল তোমার পরীক্ষা,রাত জেগে পড়ার
টেবিলে বসে আছ,
ঘুম আসছে না তোমার
হঠাত করে ভয়ার্ত কন্ঠে উঠে আমি বললাম-
ভালবাস? তুমি কি রাগ করবে?
নাকি উঠে এসে জড়িয়ে ধরে বলবে,
ভালবাসি, ভালবাসি..
ধরো ক্লান্ত তুমি, অফিস থেকে সবে ফিরেছ,
ক্ষুধার্ত তৃষ্ণার্ত পীড়িত..
খাওয়ার টেবিলে কিছুই তৈরি নেই,
রান্নাঘর থেকে বেরিয়ে ঘর্মাক্ত আমি তোমার
হাত ধরে যদি বলি- ভালবাস?
তুমি কি বিরক্ত হবে?
নাকি আমার হাতে আরেকটু
চাপ দিয়ে বলবে
ভালবাসি, ভালবাসি..
ধরো দুজনে শুয়ে আছি পাশাপাশি,
সবেমাত্র ঘুমিয়েছ তুমি
দুঃস্বপ্ন দেখে আমি জেগে উঠলাম শশব্যস্ত
হয়ে তোমাকে ডাক দিয়ে যদি বলি-ভালবাস?
তুমি কি পাশ ফিরে শুয়ে থাকবে?
নাকি হেসে উঠে বলবে
ভালবাসি, ভালবাসি..
ধরো রাস্তা দিয়ে হেঁটে যাচ্ছি দুজনে,মাথার উপর
তপ্ত রোদ,বাহন
পাওয়া যাচ্ছেনা এমন সময় হঠাত দাঁড়িয়ে পথ
রোধ করে যদি বলি-ভালবাস?
তুমি কি হাত সরিয়ে দেবে?
নাকি রাস্তার সবার দিকে তাকিয়ে কাঁধে হাত
দিয়ে বলবে
ভালবাসি, ভালবাসি..
ধরো শেভ করছ তুমি,গাল কেটে রক্ত পড়ছে,এমন সময়
তোমার এক ফোঁটা রক্ত হাতে নিয়ে যদি বলি-
তুমি কি বকা দেবে?
নাকি জড়িয়ে তোমার গালের রক্ত আমার
গালে লাগিয়ে দিয়ে খুশিয়াল
গলায় বলবে
ভালবাসি, ভালবাসি..
ধরো খুব অসুস্থ তুমি,জ্বরে কপাল পুড়ে যায়,
মুখে নেই রুচি, নেই কথা বলার
এমন সময় মাথায় পানি দিতে দিতে তোমার
দিকে তাকিয়ে যদি বলি-ভালবাস?
তুমি কি চুপ করে থাকবে?নাকি তোমার গরম
শ্বাস আমার
শ্বাসে বইয়ে দিয়ে বলবে ভালবাসি, ভালবাসি..
ধরো যুদ্ধের দামামা বাজছে ঘরে ঘরে,প্রচন্ড
যুদ্ধে তুমিও অঃশীদার,
শত্রুবাহিনী ঘিরে ফেলেছে ঘর
এমন সময় পাশে বসে পাগলিনী আমি তোমায়
জিজ্ঞেস করলাম-
ভালবাস? ক্রুদ্ধস্বরে তুমি কি বলবে যাও?
নাকি চিন্তিত আমায় আশ্বাস
ভালবাসি, ভালবাসি..
ধরো দূরে কোথাও যাচ্ছ
তুমি,দেরি হয়ে যাচ্ছে,বেরুতে যাবে,হঠাত
বাধা দিয়ে বললাম-ভালবাস? কটাক্ষ করবে?
নাকি সুটকেস ফেলে চুলে হাত
বুলাতে বুলাতে বলবে
ভালবাসি, ভালবাসি
ধরো প্রচন্ড ঝড়,উড়ে গেছে ঘরবাড়ি,আশ্রয় নেই
বিধাতার দান এই
পৃথিবীতে,বাস করছি দুজনে চিন্তিত তুমি
এমন সময় তোমার
বুকে মাথা রেখে যদি বলি ভালবাস?
তুমি কি সরিয়ে দেবে?
নাকি আমার মাথায় হাত রেখে বলবে
ভালবাসি, ভালবাসি..
ধরো সব ছেড়ে চলে গেছ কত দুরে,
আড়াই হাত মাটির নিচে শুয়ে আছ
হতভম্ব আমি যদি চিতকার করে বলি-ভালবাস?
চুপ করে থাকবে?নাকি সেখান থেকেই
আমাকে বলবে ভালবাসি, ভালবাসি..
যেখানেই যাও,যেভাবেই থাক,না থাকলেও দূর
থেকে ধ্বনি তুলো
ভালবাসি, ভালবাসি, ভালবাসি..
দূর থেকে শুনব তোমার কন্ঠস্বর,বুঝব
তুমি আছ,তুমি আছ
ভালবাসি, ভালবাসি….
I love you, I do
Imagine you have an exam tomorrow,
At your desk studying late at night,
You cannot sleep
Suddenly I cry out in fear –
Do you love me?
Will you be angry?
Or will you come over to hold me and say,
I love you, I do…
Suppose you are exhausted, just back from work,
Hungry, thirsty, worn out by the day..
I have put nothing on the table yet,
And what if I should come out of the kitchen sheened with sweat
Grab your hand and say –
Do you love me?
Would you be annoyed?
Or would you press back on my fingers and say
I love you, I do…
Just suppose we are lying side by side,
You have just fallen asleep
I wake anxious from a nightmare
And call you to ask –
Do you love me?
Would you stay turned away from me?
Or would you laugh aloud and say
I love you, I do…
Suppose we are walking under a burning sun, not a ride in sight
Suddenly I stop you in your tracks and say –
Do you love me?
Would you push my arm away?
Or would you look everyone on the street in the eye
Wrap your arm about my shoulder and say
I love you, I do…
Suppose you cut yourself shaving, bloodying your cheek
If I should touch a finger tip to that and say –
Do you love me?
Will you scold me?
Or would you rub your blood against my cheek
Colour me red and happily say
I love you, I do…
Suppose you are very ill, your forehead burning up with fever,
You do not want to eat, nor speak
Suddenly while I am sponging your brow I look at you and say –
Do you love me?
Would you say nothing or would you mix your heated breath with mine and say
I love you, I do…
Suppose the drums of war are beating in every home
You too ready yourself for war,
The enemy is baying at the door
When I suddenly ask
Do you love me?
Will you angrily ask me to be gone? 
Or will you reassure my broken heart
Will you say
I love you, I do…
Suppose you are going far away
Already late, you are hurrying every step
Suddenly I bar the way and ask –
Do you love me?
Will you frown?
Or will you drop everything and pull me close
Touch my hair and say
I love you, I do…
Suppose a great storm has taken everything away
The two of us are all we have left in this world
You are worried about what may come next
When I rest my head against your chest and say
Do you love me?
Will you push me far?
Or will you stroke my head and say
I love you, I do…
Suppose you have gone even further away,
Now you sleep under two and half feet of earth
In horror I call out aloud –
Do you love me?
Will you hold your tongue? Or will I hear you say from all the way over there
I love you, I do…
Wherever you go, however you are, even if you aren’t
Remember to always answer me back
I love you, I do love you, I do…
I will always hear your voice no matter how faint
You are here, you are with me
I love you, I do…
I love you, I do…,
Sunil Gangopadhyay
(Translation, mine)
Posted in Modern Bengali Poetry, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Translated Poetry | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Out of the mouths of babes (or those who teach them) – a life lesson from kindergarten

Tidy up time! Tidy up time!

When the children were in kindergarten and preschool their teachers used to call this out about fifteen minutes before home time. The quick ones put their own toys, glue, soft edged scissors, books etc. away before the teacher had finished the sentence. Some walked to the shelves and put things away when the teacher had spoken. Some, a very small number of boys usually, managed to confuse these instructions and made a mad rush for the door and earned the teacher’s glares. Then there was mat time for what must have felt like hours to both the teacher and these more hyperactive little ones. Then, it was home time and out of the door to whoever waited outside.

The reason behind this story coming to mind is not completely clear to me. But I find myself tidying or attempting to tidy up my life lately. Sorting through drawers, getting rid of receipts, tearing up business cards, oohing and aahing over glass beads or shells caught in the corners. The culling instinct is weak but I make myself strong. I don’t want to be caught with too many forgotten corners when it is time to sit down on the mat.

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Work in progress: how writing can calm my mind.

This is on my mind:

“Today was going to be different in the house on the corner of the crossroads opposite the markets and a few feet away from one of South Calcutta’s busiest nursing homes.

It had held on to its original form from the mid fifties. Cement down pipes climbed up, down and sideways all over the side walls. A raised band curved around the tops of each of the rounded balconies and wrapped around the house underneath them as well. It was echoed by raised circles around the port hole shaped windows along the stairwells on each floor and the windows that allowed air and light into the rooms. These windows had rounded corners as well, true to the spirit of the Art Deco style of architecture that had once been so popular across the world. A lot of local people called the house Jahaj bari or Ship House. Strangler fig seedlings had sprouted in the corners of some of the down pipes. These opportunistic inhabitants grew a few feet each year during the rainy season, making the house look more ship wreck than ocean liner, until it was autumn and the real owners of the house got busy with preparing for the arrival of guests from other parts of the country and overseas. The man who cleaned the wet areas of the house all year was then commissioned to clamber up the pipes with a chopper tucked into his waist band and a bottle of muriatic acid. He did what he could, reaching across from the chajjas, cutting the wild figs down but never quite removing them. Various family members stood on the receding ground and shouted instructions at him, all of which urged him to do his job properly. He ignored the cacophony and concentrated on not falling. Once the greenery had been hacked back to the satisfaction of those on the ground, he was then guided by their voices in the pouring of acid on the stumps in a mistaken belief that this would kill the plants for good. As he did this, he silently cursed the advisers and hoped that the tables would turn on them one day. Once the bottle was empty and most of the acid was dribbling down the white washed walls, he had to hold it out overturned in his hand before everyone was satisfied. The children watched, fascinated as the last drop of acid fell interminably slowly, down to the ground where it sat till it evaporated. The excitement was over for another year as far as they were concerned. One or two of the more adventurous among them always secretly hoped for Vishnu to lose his footing or at least find an anaconda curled up in the lush jungles of the serpentine sewerage bends. But that had not happened yet. As they went inside, Vishnu climbed back to terra firma and said to the maids who were frisking the cut branches for green figs to take home and cook for their families, ‘I wish the paunchy eldest brother would do this once. They would never dare to ask me again. I have never seen such a miserly bunch of people!’ But they never took their eyes from their task. He would grunt at the injustice of it all and retie his short checked loincloth, pick up his enormous spiky broom and wash his hands and legs before putting the glass bottle into an old stained bucket under the back steps to be sold at the end of the month to the kagojwalla or paper collector along with old papers, cardboard boxes and other oddments.

But as I said, today was going to be different from those days.”

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Aranyak: Jugal Prasad, the plantsman

I came across an unusual person one afternoon by the banks of the lake known as Saraswati Kundi.
I was riding slowly past its edge on my way back from the survey camp one day when I saw a man digging in the ground in the midst of the forest. At first I thought that he had come to dig up the tubers of ground pumpkins (literal translation; in the absence of any detailed description, I have come to the conclusion that this was Pueraria tuberosa or kudzu. This is known as Bhumikushmaand, Swadukanda, Ikshugandha and Kandapalaash in Hindi. It is indigenous to India and Pakistan.) It is a kind of vine with a large gourd shaped tuber that grows underground and cannot be seen from above. They are sold at a reasonable price for use in Ayurvedic medicine. Curious about his actions, I dismounted from the horse and went closer to him. I then saw that he was not digging anything up at all but planting some seeds. Startled by my presence he looked at me quite hesitantly. He was old enough to have greying hair. He had a hessian sack with him from which peeped the end of a short spade. A shovel lay beside him and a few paper packets were scattered about the place.
I asked: Who are you? What are you doing here? He answered: Are you the estate manager, Sir? I said: Yes, who are you? He: Greetings. My name is Jugal Prasad. I am Banwarilal’s cousin.
I then remembered that our estate employee Banwarilal had once mentioned this cousin. The reason his name had cropped up was that there was an opening for a Muhuri at Ajmabad Estate offices where I lived. I had asked Banwarilal to find a good person for the position. Banwari had said with some regret that he already knew the most suitable person for the position; his cousin. But even though there were not many people in the region who had such perfect handwriting or such education, the fellow was slightly strange and could be whimsical.
I had asked Banwarilal: Why? What does he do exactly? Banwarilal: He has many foibles. One of these involve wandering from place to place. He does not do a single thing, he is married and has a family but he does not look after them. He wanders about in the forest. He is not really a recluse; he is just strange like that.
So this was that cousin of Banwarilal’s?
My curiosity whetted, I asked: What are you planting there? I think the man had been trying to work in secret and he now sounded both a little ashamed and a little apologetic as he said: Nothing, nothing. Just these seeds here.
I was astonished: What kind of seed was he talking about? It wasn’t even his own land but part of a dense forest. Why was he scattering seeds there anyway? How would he benefit from this? He answered: I have many kinds of seed. I once saw a very beautiful flowering vine in a rich man’s house in Purnea. It had lovely red flowers. I have those and many other kinds of seeds of plants that do not grow in the forests here. I have collected them from far away. That is why I am planting them; they will grow and fill out into shrubs in a couple of years and it will look beautiful.
Once I had grasped his purpose my heart filled with respect for the man. He was spending his time and money on beautifying this vast forest with no hope of profiting in any manner. He had no claim to the land whatsoever. What an unusual fellow!
I called on him to come and sit with me under a tree.

He said: I have done this in the past as well. I planted all the flowering trees and vines that you see today in the forests of Lobtuliya about ten or twelve years ago from seed that I gathered in the forests of Purnea and from the hilly wooded tracts of Lachmipur Estate in southern Bhagalpur. They are a forest in themselves today. Do you like doing this very much? The jungle in Lobtuliya Baihar is very beautiful. It has been my wish for a long time that I would fill the low hillsides and the groves with new flower species. What flowers did you introduce? Let me first tell you how I was drawn towards doing this. I come from Dharampur. There were hardly any wild Bhandi flowers (Mimosa) in our area. I used to herd our buffalo along the banks of the Kushi as a boy, ten or fifteen krosh (1 krosh=2.25 mile) from my village on occasion. There I noticed the beauty of wild Bhandi flowers in the fields and wooded regions. I took seeds from those plants and planted them at home. Today you will see forests of Bhandi flowers all over my area, by the roadside, behind people’s houses and on fallow land. I have been doing this since that time. My hobby is to plant new flowers and seeds in various places. I have been all over the place in the pursuit of my passion. Now I am an expert at this.

I found that Jugal Prasad knew a lot about the forest flowers and rich plant life of the region. I had little doubt that he was an authority on these matters.
I said: Do you know the Aristolochia vine? As soon as I described the shape of the flower to him, he replied: The swan vine? The one with flowers shaped like little swans? Those do not come from around here. I have seen them in gardens in Patna.

One had to marvel at the depth of his knowledge. How many people had I seen who were simply worshippers of nature’s beauty? He had no interest in spreading seeds of flowers and plants across forests nor did he make any money from this. He was extremely poor and yet he devoted endless time and effort to increasing the flora of the forests.
He said: There is no woodland in this region which is quite as pleasant as the one on the banks of Saraswati Kundi. There are so many different plant species and the beauty of the water views are unmatched. Do you feel that water lilies would do well there? There are lilies in the village ponds of Dharampur. I was thinking I might bring some lily corms and plant them here.

I resolved to help him in whatever way I could. I was gripped with a desire to help Jugal Prasad adorn the forests with new species of plants, flowers and vines. I knew that he was so poor that he often did not have enough to feed his family with. I wrote to the main office and secured him a clerk’s position in Ajmabad at ten rupees a month.

That year I sent to Sutton Nurseries in Calcutta for seeds of exotic flowers and to the forests of the Dooars for cuttings of wild jasmine. These were planted in sufficient numbers in the forests around Saraswati Kundi. Jugal Prasad was ecstatic. I told him not to share this excitement with the others in the office. They would think him mad and also include me with that. When the rains came the following year, the plants all grew very fast. The lakeside soil was very fertile and the plants were all well suited to the climate. The only problem was with the seeds from Suttons. Each of those packets had pictures of the flower and a short description on it. I had selected them on the basis of colour and appearance; the seeds of white beam, red campion and stitchwort did really well. Foxgloves and wood anemones did not do badly either. But we could not save the dog rose and the honeysuckle cuttings.

~ Aranyak, translation mine

Posted in A Good Thing, Bengal, Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay, Books, Calcutta, Garden, Translated Fiction | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Reading Aranyak to my mother

I have been reading Aranyak for my mother while my father dozes intermittently beside her. He does not hear me at all so there is little risk of him waking up. She does not read at night, her cataracts are getting worse and she is on the waiting list for surgery. There is a deep and abiding sense of peace in the air. Names like Lobtuliya, Mahalikharup and Gonori Tiwari roll off my tongue and I see scenes from the story – tribal girls with their hair piled high on one side, piyal blossom threaded through the black tresses, laughing as they haggle over cheap Japanese and German beads and bottles of perfume. I see their men, dark and handsome in a wiry, spare way, buying ten cigarettes for a coin. I see the frightened faces of illegal wood cutters making charcoal. I see the wretched Kunta, who had been a courtesan’s daughter in Varanasi and a Rajput’s bride in Lobtuliya. Once her paramour died, she was cast out by both his family and the local Gangotiyas for being her mother’s child. The author saw her as she stood patiently in a thin cotton sari in the bitter Magh cold of late December to collect the leftovers from his dinner each night. Have things changed that much for the Kuntas and the Bhumihar Jaipal Kumars of that part of Bihar? How many more Kuntas live across my country, across this world?

Here is a translated extract of Aranyak, Born of the Forest. Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay wrote it between 1937 and 1939.

“As each day passed, I came to fall increasingly under the spell of the jungle. I cannot begin to describe the pull exerted by its remoteness and the trees stained red in the vermilion evenings – but I felt that I would never be able to leave the vast forests that stretched away to the horizon, the newly risen perfume of its sun burnt soil, the freedom of its open spaces and the liberty they gave me to return to the pandemonium of Kolkata. This change did not come over me in one day. The forest appeared before my enchanted, inexperienced eyes in varied forms and infinite variety. Her evenings came, regally crowned in red clouds; her afternoons, searing and wild eyed like a woman in a trance; her deep nights, painted in moonlight and perfumed with the scent of dew cooled wild flowers, all the stars of the sky about her throat and even as a great and vengeful goddess who strode about the sky with Orion’s flaming arrows in her grasp. “

~ Aranyak, Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay
(Translation, mine)

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The kind of history that cannot be bulldozed into dust

The al-Barmaki family who worked for the Abbasid Caliphs in Baghdad in the eighth century were descended from Sanskrit speaking, Buddhist, Ayurvedic physicians and scholars from Balkh who originally came from Kashmir.

Khalid al-Barmaki would probably have been known as Kalhana Pramukh but for a lucky haul of educated slaves during the Arab invasion of Balkh in the eighth century. Pramukh was a title given to the ancestors of the al-Barmakis. They were administrators of the Nava Vihar or Nau Bahar Buddhist monasteries at Balkh, These Buddhist stupas might have been built on the foundations of an earlier Zoroastrian fire temple.

The al-Barmakis invited Sanskrit scholars from India to Baghdad to help with translating Sanskrit works into Arabic. They also built a hospital in Baghdad which was based on a blueprint provided by the Sanskrit medical treatise Charaksamhita. Thankfully this is the sort of history that does not yield to sledgehammers or brute force.

And now, a little extract from the Charaksamhita on hospital building for your reading pleasure:

“I shall now point out in brief the various supplies. Thus, an expert in the science of building should first construct a worthy building. It should be strong, out of the wind, and part of it should be open to the air. It should be easy to get about in, and should not be in a depression. It should be out of the path of smoke, sunlight, water, or dust, as well as unwanted noise, feelings, tastes, sights, and smells. It should have a water supply, pestle and mortar, lavatory, a bathing area, and a kitchen. After that, one should select the staff of soup and rice cooks, bath attendants, masseurs, people to help patients with getting up and sitting down,and herb grinders. They should be good natured, clean, well-behaved, loyal, practical, and pious. They should be skilled in nursing, and accomplished in all treatments. They should not be reluctant to work. The attendants should be able to sing, play instruments, and perform recitations, as well as being skilled in verses, songs, stories, legends, and ancient lore. They should be pleasant and able to anticipate. They should know the where and when of things, and be generally sociable.”

By the luxuriant beard of Haroun al-Raschid!

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