Poem | Subod Sarkar (Adaptation by Jaydeep Paul)

My Mother from Manipur

Painting by Chintu Das

My Ma stood up to the demons stark naked that day.
Ma through whose two eyes I have learnt how to see
From whom I've been introduced to the fiery, Promethean power that lies latent within these alphabets, words, and sounds we build into language –
Ma who, starting with those long-long-ago lullabies she sang to send me drifting off to sleep, has initiated me over the years to the magically harmonic universe populated by resonant note-personae we know as sa, re, ga, ma, or do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do;
This Ma of mine stood up to the demons stark naked that day.

They can do whatever the fuck they want to, these men with guns
Army, police, commando, paramilitary, insurgent, freedom-fighter, extortionist, rebel, or plain thug 
Thoroughfares paralysed by curfews imposed on a whim
Streets deserted, shop shutters down in terror –
An entire city murdered everyday at dusk.

And yet,
For the longest time,
No one really has anything to say. 
Charminar ends pile up in ashtrays.

If not for the evidence that cigarettes are indeed burning through to the bitter end, it would be difficult to believe that the city and its people were not living through some surreal, ashen, purgatorial vision of stasis –

Eternal limbo.

As the weather-beaten elderly and wise with practised skill say – 
Some questions are best left unasked.

And my Ma stood up to the demons stark naked that day.

Look, there's an Army Jeep speeding down the highway, the day brightened by a cloudless, blue, sky above.The Jeep's radio is blaring out ├╝ber-patriotic 'Sare Jahaan Se Accha'.Meanwhile, in the Jeep's back-row the girl twists, struggles, turns, scratches, fights, screams – but the soldiers know that she will never escape a snakepit of four jawans. The officer in the front-row thinks his men deserve their hour of release in this fucked-up land a thousand miles away from home – so he gazes into the uncertain middle-distance with eyes long-since dead and turns up the volume on the radio a bit more.

To drown out the gnashing, or any chance, quickly choked-off, one, primal scream of the kind that manifests itself when the wolves have laid out the ugly feast unfolding behind.

Eventually, one of the soldiers simply gets bored. 
Smashes the girl head-first on the jeep floor

Her blood a far more vivid, darkening shade of red than the pigtails 
Tied carefully by her mother in the morning
Two bow-knots tied just so
With red-ribbons of the correct, school-regulation kind.

Then it is time to undo the buttons. 
The opening of zippers.

Even if the girl manages to survive and eventually come back home,
Or, as is more likely, if she dies yet another anonymous death in some deserted field on a dark-sky new-moon night –
Investment, one 9mm parabellum shell.
Stretching to a litre's worth of petrol, and a couple of tires at the most
To keep warm as an unexpected benefit if the night is wintry
If there is time to kill
And the hollow husk that now has no other identity or being besides, 'evidence'.

The ledgers in the bastard cupboards : basements : attics
Meticulously kept in triplicate by frog-eyed boffins of bureaucratic purgatory
Skin ashen from a lifetime spent burrowing in dark basements and catacombs of the Great Sacred Exalted State

All of which has been, is, and will be
worth fucking zilch.

Just another unidentified corpse anonymous in death; home address noted with cool indifference as 'some village outside Imphal'!
Jane Doe,
Meet your kindred soul-sister

So far fucking oceans away and yet tuned metronome perfect. In this arcane prison that is a labyrinth but first has to the imagined as a perfectly cylindrical maze

This, this is what happens everyday –
Spiral begets spiral begets spiral until the sky itself has been eaten away by the moths.
Somewhere right now on some barren field the battered shell of an once-person lies unclaimed, 
Somewhere a girl's sister has been missing for months, as if she had never existed;
But wait, there is more to this nightmare – on almost every morning like today, families wake up to discover what their daughter has done overnight with her favourite scarf

swinging pendulum-like from the tree outside.

No. You are not allowed to look away.

You have to watch, demon
Because the threshold has finally been crossed today, and this is a July morning you will never forget. 
Gaze Gaze and count the veins on the breast that nourished you to life

How does it feel, scum,
How does it feel to see your mother standing naked on the street today?

However much you try to close your gate and escape the horror,
Grown soldiers of the 'ruthless', 'dreaded' Assam Rifles reduced to gibbering mush at the sight of my nakedness
No, you will not forget the sight of the crinkled abdomen that once bore you, and created you from scratch.

Enough raconteuring of the land where mothers march naked on the streets in defiance and protest.

Tell me, all you cosmopolitan war-heroes, naval-bravehearts in my audience today,
You who wear the badge of the nation's honour carved on your sleeves in blood and bronze, 
Tell me.

Where were you when all this was happening?

Or wait. 
Are you still deluding yourselves thinking your mother and your mother-land are as pristine, alabaster-perfect pure as ever?

It's burnt, okay? The land, and your mother. 
Long since burnt. 
To cinders. 
The demons lit their infernal furnaces, and burnt all they could see to the ground.

See, the soil under our feet is scorched a hard, brick-kiln red.

Now, in the failing light of dusk, there are ashes, terracotta dust,
The occasional stray fragment of bone.
They think they have 'reduced' our mother and our motherland to ashes.

They are wrong, though.

In spirit, the universality of our mother is practically indestructible, irreducible. All that they have managed to do is to rearrange the letters of her name, struggling as they are wont to do in trying to understand, see, hear, touch, and feel the warmth of a mother's touch in the staccato, off-key sign sounds of their out-of-place alphabet –

From the intense physicality with which our mother sheltered us, endured the agonies of childbirth, and gave us all of herself to let us grow,
She has now only changed dresses; cloaked herself in a somewhat more elemental form.

Listen carefully, and you will hear the lilt of her singing –

In the quicksilver resonance of conversations between the pollen-grain who so pines to travel the world waiting for her waspish charioteer to come by on his evening wanderings
In the perfume of after-rain soil when raindrops finally come by to say hello after a seemingly endless winter and summer apart
In the evening song of fireflies secretly creating perfect reflections of constellations they've seen on a starlit new-moon night

Let be.

Quieten yourself. 
The key to the eternal, unitary, musical note that binds our universe together as mother, beloved, child, and kindred can only be heard after serving a long, ascetic apprenticehood with loneliness and silence.

The din of all the footsoldiers and rifle-toting minions sent by the Archdaemon? Does it even merit remembrance?

Let it all go. Live in and for the calm of stillwater. Like ripples left behind on a stillwater lake by the sharp sliver of slate you've just sent gliding over the water, this too, shall pass.


Note from the Author: This work has been adapted from a poem, ‘Manipurer Ma’, written by the poet Subodh Sarkar. It was published in an eponymous book of poems printed by Ananda Publishers, Kolkata, in 2005. My primary intent in writing this was to carry some of the searing, fiery intensity of the Bangla to a wider audience. While working on the poem, I have found it necessary to amplify and concentrate on certain movements, metaphors, and turns of phrase that I felt needed to be elaborated and lingered on to establish and sustain context. Though I have remained faithful to the original poem’s broad structure, the discursive elements I have focused on, omitted, and occasionally introduced mean it would be more precise to call this a literary paraphrase or adaptation rather than a translation. The responsibility for any dilution or difference in meaning of the poem has suffered in the course of its journey from Bangla to English is entirely mine. I am deeply grateful to Mr Sarkar for letting me publish this.    

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