Thursday, May 11, 2017

Akash Pradeep

 An excerpt from the novel in progress;

                      


                                                                    



                                                                            Akash Pradeep 

  
Ashmani's  death shook me. Often she rambled in my thoughts. While I tried focusing on Geometry, my mind meandered somewhere else.  I saw Ashmani. She’d dance right in front of my desk,  swirling her canary yellow ghagra with burnt sienna polka dots. The tiny embroidered mirrors from her skirt reflected circles of light, spinning around,  making me dizzy.  Her body oscillated in chakkras and tatkars and stopped at precise beats. She’d  stretch her mehndi painted palm to me,  with a selam, touching her forehead, like a Mughal baiji court dancer, expecting me to applaud 'kya bath, kya bath'.


It was all illusion.
I tried to concentrate again. My tests were not too far away. This Matriculation examination would determine my future, I tried to remind myself.  But my mind drifted.  I could not help eavesdropping Ma and Sati’s conversation from the other room.

“Do you know the grocery store,  that Ma Tara store, is closed now, closed forever?”  Sati announced. 

“Really?  Why?  It was the biggest one in town. He was doing so well....  Just closed the store like that?” Ma was surprised. 

“ What else could he do, Didi? All that scandal with his son and that Muslim girl… after all he is a Hindu, na?  The neighborhood boys will tear him to pieces.  Chhire khabe je! “ Sati explained.

“ That girl messed it all up. What was she thinking?  A marriage between Hindu and  Musselman?  I’d be upset too if I find my son bringing a Muslim bride all of a sudden. See what she did to her family!  Who’ll marry her little sister, now?  She killed herself all right,  but what about the ones who are left?”  

I was shocked that my mother said all that.  Then I heard Sati’s response:

“ Yes, Didi, it is sad. Such a beautiful girl, so young and she had to commit a suicide? Such a sinful act! Then, on the other hand, what choice did she  have, Didi?”

I felt like screaming.  There was a choice.  There are choices, only if you respected their love. You all messed up things for no reason.  Hindus and Muslims lived together for a long time. It is possible. But I kept quiet. The nine-point-circle theorem revolved in front of me until I shoved the book away. Meaningless geometry.  I closed my eyes resting my head on my arms. 
***


Ayee Khuku!.”  Ashmani stood in front of my desk. 

“ You don’t feel scared that I come, do you?” She gave me a side glance. 

“ No. Of course not, Ashmani.”  I assured. “ At times I feel I have become you, we have merged. Believe me, I feel so sorry for you.  So sorry that you couldn’t dance that night for petty politics and I stole your show. I had never had a chance to tell you that. You inspired me.  You taught me dancing, kindled the love for dancing in me.  And now,  all that had happened to you, makes me  feel so so sad for you!” I tried to reach her arm. 

“I know that Khukumoni, I know.  And that is why I come to you.  Some people, even my loved ones, my own family, are scared.  They are scared of me,  but you are not.  You invite me in your thoughts. You are strong.  You are different.” She replied. 

“Ashmani, what strength you see in me, I don’t know. I feel frustrated that I cannot speak up. I cannot stand  up for all the injustice I see.  I cannot protest all these nonsenses.  It hurts me to hear the things they talk about you, that you have no room in heaven. I feel like screaming.  But in reality, I do nothing.”  I sniffled. 

“ Don’t worry for me, Khuku.  It’s over. I don’t know about heaven or hell, I just dance around, in nothingness, in the vast abundance of nothing. I don’t know how to explain it to you. But it is peaceful. “  Then with a pause, she continued:

“ And who said I have nowhere to go?  I go to those who cares for me. Who makes room in their heart for me, who are not scared of me, Khuku, That’s why I come to you. I will always be in your memory. I will never die, as long as you keep me alive.”

“ I know you are not an evil spirit,  Ashmani, There is nothing to be scared of you. I only wish that I were stronger.  I wish I could stand up to protest what is wrong”  I confided. 

“ I’ll help you, Khuku. I will.  I will stand beside you when you need me, I promise.  But don’t you forget to dance.  Promise?”  She glanced with a smile. 

“ Promise!” I nodded.
 
Ashmani disappeared.  I could hear the sound of ghungur from her ankles fading away.
I woke up.  It startled me.
*** 


That night I had a strange dream that  I had gone to a place up in the Himalayas. There, the river Ganga, young, swift,  ran fast. Tthe currents were strong. It was twilight time. The sun had gone down, a few stars were twinkling in the vast turquoise light. 

Tiny boats were floating  in the river.  They were made of leaves. Some had tiny lamps inside. The lighted little boats sailed with the current, dancing on the water.  Some drowned, some went further floating until they were out of my sight. 

A woman was preparing her lamp. She was muttering something with folded hands, like a prayer; then she gently stooped down  to float it on the river. Her head was covered in a shawl. 

I knelt down, asked her what was she doing, what was this all about. 

Akash pradeep ( lamp to the sky) “ She answered. 

“It is a way to connect with the souls that are gone, who left for the other world. This is a way to remember them, honor them, thank them for what they have done for you. This is a way to pray for them so that they are peaceful in heaven. It is a Hindu ritual, don’t you know that, girl?” She looked at me. Her veil dropped.  It was Ashmani!

A rooster cackled. I jerked at that harsh call, threw away my cover and jumped out of bed. I remembered that I had my Math test today. 


                                                            ***

That day after school I took the shortcut path through the woods, behind the broken mashjit. This was the path that Ashmini used to take, and I had never known.  This was my first time. 

Strange insects and bats made eerie sounds. There was a constant susurrus, a hissing sh sh, probably the wind through the bushes and leaves made it.  A gray bodied lizard with warty skin blocked my path, lunging,  its front arms stretched,  its huge head raised,  it stared with bulging eyes.  Then it started croaking tuck -too tuck- too ballooning its throat.  I thought this must be a takkhok, which I had never seen before.  

A doel swung by, low enough scaring the creature to run away.  The indigo bird with her eggshell white belly sat on a branch nearby and started to chirp. Doyel- her English name is the Oriental magpie. Babu had taught me from his book, I remembered.  

While I was preoccupied with these thoughts of birds, a thin slate colored snake zigzagged right in front of my toes and crossed the path hiding inside a hole.  I shrieked.  

 With wider strides I started marching faster and found that the wood thinned gradually,  I could see the light better, now.  The path had gone up to a hillock and there stood a lonely bokul tree at the top. No other trees were around. 

 I stood under it, panting, thinking this was where Ashmani had her first kiss that morning. This was where she was tied and whipped at the end of the day.  This was the tree that had witnessed it all in silence. 

Further down,  a set of steps descended and merged to the river bank. It was high tide time. Water splashed and thrust on the steps, whirling and swirling, drowning the steps with bubbles and gushes. 

I opened my school bag, took out my journal and snatched a page out. I folded the paper and made a paper boat.  Then I lit a candle striking a match and crouched down to float it  in the river with a prayer:

Ashmini, we never met while you were alive, but I meet you every day after you are dead. I feel guilty, very guilty that I stole your show and was happy with the glory and admiration I got. You gave me a lot, you inspired me.  But I never gave you anything.  And  I am sorry for what you had to pay for this Hindu-Musselman clash.  You were innocent, you didn’t deserve it. You shouldn’t have died.  But it happened. Now, my friend, I am here to wish you peace, so that you find a place in heaven.

I stood up.  Wiping my tears with the back of my hand I started to climb. 

I lost balance and missed a step on that slippery stone and found myself bobbing in the water, pulled by the current. 

“What are you doing here, in this dangerous place? “ A voice shrilled.  A hand pulled me up. 

“ It’s not needed.  I am fine, I can do it myself”  I shrugged him off.

It was Mahim, that monda maker. He looked so different with a beard and a musselman tupi,  I couldn't recognize him.  Rahamat, his friend came forward, and the lathial Aziz. 

Abhisar (tryst) eh!”  Aziz simpered.“ Tell your father to go back to your country.  Go to India.”  He scoffed. 

“Now your Gandhi is gone too. And he was not killed by any Musselman, mind you.  Your own people murdered him, that nanga fakir ( naked poor ). Did you hear what his killer, that Hindu murderer say?  What was his name? Nathuram or whatever!” He added.

“Arre thikachhey (Oh let go). Ayee meye ( hey girl), don’t you ever come here.  Understand! And yes, tell your brahmin father to clutch his paita (sacred thread) and go to your own land, not here.” Mahim shouted mocking my father clutching his thread. 

I couldn’t believe my ears that it was Mahim who was telling all these. Just a few years ago he was a Hindu himself, he told us the story how his father named him  Aswini!

I turned and started to run as fast as I could until I reached home. I thought I should tell this to Babu.  But I didn’t.  At the end of the day, at mealtime when he asked how my day went, inside I was churning, but  I pretended it was just a normal day. I kept it all to myself. 




                                           



                                       



















Sunday, April 23, 2017

Nakshi kantha


Nakshi kantha, a type of embroidered quilt, is a centuries-old Bengali art tradition in Bangladesh.[1][2][3] The basic material used is thread and old cloth.[4] Kanthas are made throughout Bangladesh, but the greater MymensinghRajshahiFaridpur and Jessore areas are most famous for this craft.[5]











The Embroidered Quilt 

The small village still gazes at the faraway village
Whispering in silence, tears in eyes. 
Dried fields lie in between
Cracked, baked in the hot sun.
Ruthless peasants cut the paddies that cloaked the earth
And take them to some far between land
That we do not know. 
(Poet Jasimuddin 1920 - 1976)
  Translated from Nakshi Kanthar Math    


I was an only child. No siblings, no playmates to fool around with.  My only companion was my blanket. My security blanket.  I called it, my nakshi kantha.  Elderly relatives used to tell stories that when I was a child I carried that quilt everywhere, sweeping the whole universe. It was catastrophic to part  with it.   My parents had hard time washing or cleaning it. I don’t remember that.  All I remember is,  what a sense of security it gave me — that little piece of rag. 

“Your mother made it even before you were born. With the thread of her colorful saris she embroidered the designs, these vines of hope designs.” Baroma pointed the vines, sliding  her fingers through the leaves of the pattern. 

I picked it up and brushed it against my cheek, “Soft! How come it is so soft?” I’d ask.

“The quilt is made with your father’s old cotton dhoti that are washed and washed, and became so soft.”  She replied.  

No wonder it was so special;  it had the smell of  Babu and the vines-of-hope designs of Ma’s hands.  My life started wrapped in that special blanket.

When I was little, I vividly remember playing with the designs on the quilt. My fingers would hop with the seams of the embroidery  designs where the blue stitches ran up to get lost in  the green field, passing the orange french knot flowers.  Run, run, run, way up to the indigo  tiny triangle appliqu├ęs. They were like the hillocks  of  the Sushong Hills which I could see from my window. Then  I’d find tiny maroon squares and rectangles just  like the red tile roof-tops of the huts beneath the hills. Hop  with the orange  lazy daisy chain stitches that spiraled in the center  like the sun, and then  escape behind  the green vines. Oh, how it  found its way to the tan border at the end. It was the  same  ginger hue of  the color of  the Brahmaputra River. Does the orange spiral want to take a dip in that ginger-tan  water? I wondered.

I felt like a free white breasted kite bird  flying in the wide open sky and then  dropping on the soft plushness of the nakshi kantha.


The blanket hugged me. 

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Journal





Today is my birthday.  I thought I should start my journal today, fresh again.  Like most New Year's  resolution this is another one I make each year.  With a new notebook.

The part I like is,  buying the new journal.  I have so many of them, some so  beautiful that I feel shy to blemish them.  I brush fingers on them, sniff to  smell the opened blank pages. Then I  leave them untouched, bare. I consider myself a minimalist, at least a wanna-be-minimalist, but in this journal  buying thing,  I am confused.  My need and want areas are blurry, and I never feel I have enough.

 I did find a new journal on my shelf.  A pretty one in matted black with a tiny photograph of a blooming gardenia.  As I untied the scarlet satin ribbon attached to it,  the diary opened and a card fell. A blank card.  It read -

"Be patient toward all that unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves." by Rainer Maria Rilke.

I must have bought it for someone and forgot .  Well, today it is mine.

I was thinking of my parents.  While they were alive each year a card came from my father with interesting messages and uplifting thoughts.  I wanted to believe that it was from Ma and Baba for my birthday today, and they were blessing me from heaven.  I felt tearful, thanking someone because they were my parents.

I thought of all the people around me today, all the love they have given me, unconditionally, unaware. Most of the time I take them for granted, but today it touched me in a different way.  I decided I should put this in writing today, this emotion, gratitude,  in my new journal.

I will capture all the fleeting moments of sweetness and spread it out here: the dazzle of the dew drop on the meticulous cobweb,  the humming bird's halted mid flight, all those  will be snapshots on  the page. And I'll  post the funny stories  that my little grand kids say.

It will not be a book for to do lists. It will  be a friend whom I can confide to, it'll be the mentor who'll transcend my spirit from the mundane.

I looked at the picture of the gardenia:

"And now in age I bud again
After so many deaths I live and write
I once more smell the dew and rain
And relish versing..... "  

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Protagonist

How I found my protagonist

My mother was stuck in bed for the last four years of her life as a stroke victim. Though her motor skill was gone her memory was intact, especially the long term one.  She loved telling stories of her childhood days in Mymensingh, before they became a refugee,  after the Partition.  And I loved to listen to those stories.

Living twelve thousand miles away with a window of two weeks vacation time with her, every other year or so did not give me much time, but it gave me a ton of guilt feeling. One day I admitted that to her and she replied, " Even when I am not there any more, memories will.  And the stories.  You may come and visit them as often as you wish, for as long as you want."

What a haunting statement!

After I returned to California to my normal life, and even after she  had passed away for several years, often a little girl visits me.  She catches me in my quiet hours, while I am driving, when I am washing dishes absent mindedly.

"Who are you?"  I ask.

"Khukumoni."

"Where are you from?

"From the past. " She replies.

A lanky little girl of seven or eight years of age, with a missing front tooth, fair as snow, delicate as a fairy calls me waving her tiny fingers.

" Come, I'll show."  She takes me by my hand through a lush garden of overgrown bushes where the smell of  kul overwhelms the air.  She picks one up and puts in my mouth.  The jelly like jujube melts under my tongue.

Blossoms of shiuli phool underneath our feet feel soft.  She picks up a handful and lets them rain.  She smashes them between her fingers.  The orange stems burst into carnelian hues. She smiles.
 " Magic!"


Shiuli Phool



I open my journal and write:


                                                                            ***
                                                               

                                      Mymensingh
    
                                             1940

It was a peaceful morning  otherwise, until the news paper came.
I was busy discovering all kinds of magic in our garden that early spring day.  Flower pots on the entry steps  were brimming with bursts of red hibiscus and the white star jasmine crept up the columns and entangled my swing on the porch.  New leaves, as large as elephant’s ears, with the darkest bottle green shade and  tiny dots shot up from the planter box.  I thought the garden fairy must have visited at night and painted those red and white dots on the leaves with sandal wood paste. 
Our ivory color brick house had curved doorways with dark green wooden shutters and through the arched stained glass windows yellow, orange and red lights flooded and  reflected on the floor.  I was playing hop-scotch with the patterns  on the floor and then chasing a tiny white butterfly entered the garden.  Babu, my father, was weeding kneeled down close to the ground with his back facing me. Sweat drops glistened on his almost bald head.  I tip-toed and quickly covered his eyes from behind with my little hands. His glasses flung.  He turned.
“You! Aren’t you cold, little one?” He wrapped me with his soft woolen shawl and picked me up.  I put my head on his shoulder.  Soap, soil, sweat made up my daddy-smell. No one in the whole world smelled the same. 
“What are you doing?”  I asked him.  He got me down. 
        “ Look, these are the  new growth of the seeds we  had planted the other day, but these are no good, just weeds.”  He tried to give me a lesson in gardening. But I turned away, I heard the garden latch clank. 
It was Jasimuddin, our gardener, helper, care taker,  a person whom I saw as my older brother and addressed as Jasim da (brother Jasim).  He was a tall, scrawny person with black beard, and always with a smile on his face.

Jasim da, in a grey, long kurta and his usual  black musselman tupi (cap) was coming with the morning paper in his hand like  he did every day.  I ran to him. “ Jasim da, where is the thing you promised to bring?” 
“Wait a bit more, little sister.” He smiled and handed the news paper to my father. 

I knew Babu would ask for his morning cup of tea now  and go inside.  This would be the end of the garden session for this morning.  But today it was different.  Babu took the morning paper and stretched it out.  And his brows got knitted.  His face looked disturbed.   “What?” he murmured to himself and sat down on the step. He did not get inside, nor did he ask for his tea. I understood something was wrong. 
“ What is it Babu?” I asked.  He glimpsed, not sure how to explain it to a seven year old child and  turned to Jasimuddin.
“ The Lahore Resolution is passed. Passed on March 24th.” 
“ What does that mean, sir?”  Jasim da gazed at his face.
“ It means that the Muslim majority areas are asking for a separate place.  Areas in  the west of India like Lahore, Karachi, and in the east, Bengal do not want to be part of Hindustan,  India,  even when  the British give us freedom.”
“Then what will happen sir?” Jasimuddin asked. 
“ I don’t know. I don’t know how it could be solved, Jasim”  Babu studied his face. 

Jasimuddim lowered his eyes looking at the ground,  his hands folded,  not sure how to respond. 
I went to him and whispered in his ears, “ Jasim da, aren’t you going to ask permission for the puppy now, please?”
“ It’s not a good day, little sister” he mumbled back with a sad face.             
***


   

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Is Writing a Solitary Activity?



Writing IS a very solitary activity and you do need silence for that to dig what you have in that ink well.  That is why you take your lap top and disappear into a cafe with head phone on, so that your toddler can not pull your skirt any more  demanding your  attention; or your mother can’t bother you nagging that your dirty  shoes are still in the living room.

Then again there are times when the muse decides to break relationship with you and visit you no more.  You stare at your blank page day after day and  find thousands of excuses why you can not write. You  feel ashamed to face the mirror that nags - Didn’t you promise to tell that story to the world?



That is when and why you need your writer friends. They  can exactly understand your feeling. The friend   stretches her hand to pull you up from that dark corner, stays with you while you read  and give you feed back, constructive and honest ( so that you do not burst with ego), yet gentle ( enough, so that you do not wilt or dry like a dying plant). 

You feel like you have experienced the birth of your friend’s child when your writer friend’s book comes out.  That is what I want to share today.  My friend Christina Tomerson , her real Polish name is Krystyna Mihuka is published recently. Krysia, a Polish Girl’s Stolen Childhood During World War II is  a memoir of her experience of the World war Ii.  The book received  A Junior  Library Guild Selection and a great review in Wall Street Journal.


I saw this book being created chapter by chapter, polished and dressed today..  My 87 year old friend doubted her talent every time she read to us, so humble she is but I was just waiting for this day.   I am so proud for Krystyna.

Today in CWC (California Writers Club), our keynote speaker  Meagan Ward talked about  co operative writing, and how writer friends need to help each other. I did not know that there are places in San Francisco ( San Francisco Writers Grotto)  and New York ( and couple of other places mentioned) where you can rent a space to write with  other writers, sitting among other writers.  Some are close doors, some open, like a library.  It is fascinating ( though I don’t know if I’d use it)  

The main point is writers  do need writers as friends. No wonder   Jack London felt it long ago, a hundred some years back and created this  wonderful club- California Writers Club.