Category Archives: Literature

Keats-Shelley prize

The Small Boy and the Mouse by D H Maitreyabandhu

When he closed his eyes and asked the question,

he saw an egg, a boiled egg, lodged

above his heart. The shell had been broken off,

with a teaspoon he supposed, it was pure curd white

and still warm. Inside – he could see inside –

there was a garden with rows of potatoes,

sweet peas in a tangle, and a few tomatoes, red

and green ones, along with that funny sulphur smell

coming from split sacks. There was an enamel bathtub

in the garden, with chipped edges, a brown puddle

staining around itself, and a few wet leaves.

He could see down the plughole, so the sun must have shone,

and he heard his father digging potatoes,

knocking off the soil, and his mother fetching the washing in

because the sky promised a shower. There was a hole

or rather a pipe under the tub, where the water went,

and down at the bottom was a mouse – its ribs were poking out,

its damp fur clung together. The mouse was holding

a black-and-white photograph of a boy

who might have been three or four years old;

the boy was playing with boxes, or were they saucepans

from the kitchen? – he was leaning forward and slightly blurred.

And what was strange about the picture,

apart from being held by a mouse who sat on his haunches

and gripped it in his forepaws, was that the space

around the boy, the paleness around him, expanded,

got very bright and engulfed the mouse, the bathtub, the garden,

and the egg with its shell cracked off.

After that there was nothing, apart from the dark

inside the boy’s head and a kind of quiet

he’d never had before. He opened his eyes. All the furniture

looked strange, as if someone had rearranged it.

From here. More about the poet and the prize on that page. Go read.

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The poetry of the everyday

Of mundane ritual, of breakfasts and crumbs, of houses and buses, of power outages and beloved pets. To slice away a moment from the known and the familiar, to serve it slightly warmed, on a delicate porcelain quarter plate with the slightest chip on the side, with a spoon of the most perfect curvature. That. That is poetry at its most delicious.

Tell the Bees

– Sarah Lindsay

Tell the bees. They require news of the house;
they must know, lest they sicken
from the gap between their ignorance and our grief.
Speak in a whisper. Tie a black swatch
to a stick and attach the stick to their hive.
From the fortress of casseroles and desserts
built in the kitchen these past few weeks
as though hunger were the enemy, remove
a slice of cake and lay it where they can
slowly draw it in, making a mournful sound.

And tell the fly that has knocked on the window all day.
Tell the redbird that rammed the glass from outside
and stands too dazed to go. Tell the grass,
though it’s already guessed, and the ground clenched in furrows;
tell the water you spill on the ground,
then all the water will know.
And the last shrunken pearl of snow in its hiding place.

Tell the blighted elms, and the young oaks we plant instead.
The water bug, while it scribbles
a hundred lines that dissolve behind it.
The lichen, while it etches deeper
its single rune. The boulders, letting their fissures widen,
the pebbles, which have no more to lose,
the hills—they will be slightly smaller, as always,

when the bees fly out tomorrow to look for sweetness
and find their way
because nothing else has changed.

~

Via Flastaff. Source

Arundhati Roy’s new short story

Read here

The tone is inconsistent, the story sags with heavy technical explanations, and the idea pretends to be prophetic but any high-school kid can envision that sort of future. I wasn’t blown away by her essays, but at least they had passion. This piece seems forced, even contrived.

Very disappointing.

An annual affair

Three hundred and twenty-three. She knew exactly how many books lined the sagging shelves. She looked forward to this annual task, this day when she would remove each lovingly bought or gratefully received book from the shelf, each neat bundle of clipped papers and unclothe them from the delicate raiments of dust. She liked using the soft brush bought many years ago at the Dussera fair, examined and put to work once a year. She liked removing the pheromone traps and sticking on new ones, although there were no more silverfish to catch. She liked running her finger over the fading ink of dedications and good wishes. She lingered annually over the same words…had he really meant that?

To her mind, this yearly ritual was as important as any of the festivals crowding the months after Aadi. What a silly name for a month, as if it were a female goat. She remembered a book about a boy and his flock, set in the high mountains of Albania, a sad story whose details had long been forgotten. Only the memory of sadness remained. Where was that book now? Had she given it to that chitti’s daughter? That child who had seemed so much like herself, content to bury her nose in a book anytime, but who had turned out so different, choosing the kind of career path that left no time or even inclination for the glamourless pleasures of reading.

So many books had resided all too briefly on these shelves, so many whose whereabouts she no longer knew. It would be an interesting project to investigate what happened to those that had left her possession, either given away or taken without consent. Most ended their lives in a recycling factory, she suspected. Some may have been torn out and swirled into those clever cones for serving steamed groundnuts. Did someone unroll the paper after the nuts were consumed and read those snack-moistened lines? Did they live their young lives longing to know what happened next, combing library after library trying to trace a book that had the characters Suprabha and Hru?

She missed some of those that were lost. One titled the Forbidden Sea, about an orphan boy diving for oysters, always looking, hoping, seeking to find the rare and precious black pearl. She recalled little about the book besides the long descriptions of techniques for holding one’s breath underwater. She had unsuccessfully tried them herself, at the age of eight, when a neighbourhood swimming pool had seemed as vast as the sea in the book’s title. She remembered another lovely Russian tale about a little boy who makes a letterbox from an old shoe. And oh yes, the one about the unwell little girl and her elephant. She had cried night after night for the girl in the book with her large, sad, brown eyes, who lay on her bed listless and barely able to speak, longing with the longing known only to children, for an elephant. The memory made her bitter. How could someone just take away the book? Had they no shame? Had they no sense of what it would mean to the book’s owner?

But some of those that had gone had come back, unexpectedly, in shiny new covers, revived thanks to the wisdom of some unnamed soul at some publishing house. A new print of Kamala Laxman’s Thama Stories had been discovered with great delight at a bookstore some years ago. Complete with illustrations by the inimitable RK Laxman, the book simply had to be bought by the dozen and distributed just as impulsively.

She stood on the swivel chair cautiously, risking limb rather than walk to the dining room to fetch one more stable. The top shelf was always the neglected one. Its contents changed over time, but by unspoken understanding, it was where books that were no longer used or read were retired to; too familiar or carrying too heavy a sentimental burden to dispose. The old Pears Cyclopedias sat here. 1977-78, 1982-83, 1992-3. Once treasured, now no match for their electronic successors. Three of the Childcraft series and one of volume of How Things Work. The latter had four names on the inside page, each written after striking out the previous owner’s claim. All boys. She smiled, thinking of how the book had been given to her cousin, but she had spent so many hours pouring over the book’s fascinating diagrams, that he had told her to keep it.

The shelves now rarely welcomed new additions. She was at that age where the immediate always edges out the important. But she would one day come back to them. In a few years the shelves would receive the attention they deserved. A new coat of paint, new glass for the doors. Perhaps if the additions began to trickle in again, a new shelf would be needed. She frowned, thinking of where it could possibly fit. But there was time enough to worry about that, she told herself. For now, the joy of revisiting old friendships, reliving old thrills would do.

A Moment of Truth

When I was about 10 years old, I discovered a magazine, that like many other good and beautiful things, died young. It was called Quest. Aimed at early adolescents, it was far ahead of its rivals in quality of content and design. Target, the only other comparable publication tried to talk to too wide an age group, and was frankly a little elitist. But its poetry and short-story competitions saw some of the best creative writing I have ever read. Many bound volumes of the magazine live on my bookshelf even today, and it is the winning fiction entries I find myself going back to again and again.

But I digress. This was about Quest. This little gem of a publication was pitched exactly right. It had none of the somewhat exclusive air that hung around Target. It included articles on computer technology (its column on Basic was responsible for my later adventures with C++), on underprivileged children, on disability, on wildlife (written by Preston Ahimaz, who unbeknownst to himself is responsible for some crucial career choices I made later), on music and art, oh on every single subject under the sun, managing to make them hugely engaging and not in the least boring.

Some of the people who contributed to the magazine are now well-known writers. Stories by Anita Rau Badami, now famous for her book Tamarind Mem, featured regularly. Aditi De was the editor. Among the many delights I was introduced to through Quest was Feluda, Satyajit Ray’s inimitable detective. The magazine serialised The Golden Fortress and I was hooked, buying and reading whatever other translations were available. Providing even more delight were Sukumar Ray’s gleeful nonsense verses, published with marvellous illustrations.

But what I looked forward to in each issue were two regulars: a humour column called Believe Me! by Kamala Ramchandani and a series of short stories by Sigrun Srivastav. Kamala, which is how I disrespectfully thought of her even all those years ago, is that rare writer who manages to produce laugh-out-loud humour for children, without clowning around and without condescension. Recalling her adventures with Petunia (if I remember right), a car with personality and some very decided opinions, still makes me giggle.

It was Sigrun Srivastav however, who made Quest so precious to me. The magazine reprinted stories from two of her anthologies, one titled A Moment of Truth and the other, Heroes Never Die. The first book was published by a small company in Delhi and the second by Penguin. The result was that Heroes Never Die was easily available in Bangalore where we lived, but Moment, to whose characters I had lost my 11-year old heart, simply could not be found anywhere. On a visit to Delhi one summer, I insisted on finding a shop that sold the book, a hunt that took us to eight bookstores across the city before I finally held a precious copy in my hands.

I have no idea how popular (or not) her books became, never having met anyone else who had read her. She seemed to have stopped writing after a while, for I regularly enquired at every bookshop I visited if had anything new by her, but they never did.

Hers were the first stories I read about children who did not solve mysteries that baffled adults, did not picnic on cake and ginger ale and worried about things other than poorly-filled tuck boxes. Instead, they were children I knew intimately, having lived their lives. Children who lost fights with bullies, who broke an arm and lay in a dreary hospital bed with only the sounds outside the window for company, whose parents worked on Sundays, whose fathers were afraid of bandits, who had disabled younger siblings, who moved to fast and fearsome cities that frightened them, who knew that gang wars did not belong only in films, who had fragile hearts and tender memories and who understood suffering, both animal and human. Children of a dusty, sweaty, raw, altogether real world.

Their imaginations spoke to me, their ghosts were mine. I still ask anyone I meet from any place west of Punjab, if they know a language in which Advia means medicine. I wondered if the lady waiting at my table that warm Sunday afternoon had a son yearning for his mother to come home. I even longed for a twinkling-eyed uncle who would tell me stories of bearded, turbaned dacoits.

Why she never wrote again, I do not know. Would I have liked her to write more? Perhaps, but then, some of the most precious things in life come in small doses. And are often best experienced that way.

That Quest recognised the quiet brilliance of Srivastav’s writing and chose to publish over a dozen of her stories, that it addressed middle-class realities without skimping on the magical and fantastic, that it had not a drop of glamour but plenty of laughter, that it did not create imaginary worlds, but illumined and coloured my ordinary one — that it created the most prefect mix any 11-year old could hope for is evident to me today. But back then, I just lived from one issue to the next, never imagining that the ride would end.