TSC Interviews | Dr. Pasunoori Ravinder

Short story writer from Telangana, Dr Ravinder Pasunoori had won the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar in 2015 for his collection of stories titled ‘Out of Coverage Area’ in the Telugu language category. Chandramohan S. interviews him for TSC.

Dr. Pasunoori Ravinder
Photo Credits: Chandramohan S.

CS: You have brought glory to Dalit literature. Congratulations! Could you spell out your evolution as a writer?

PR: ‘Hunger makes one learn everything’ is a prominent saying in Telugu. In my case, self-respect has made me a writer.  I am born in a Dalit caste where pain, happiness and everything is expressed artistically. Many of our family members are already artists prior to me such as singers, drama artists and so on. Especially my mother is a folk singer. The area where I was born and brought up is full of left-wing movements. As I was born in such an environment, the movements helped me to turn into artist, poet and writer. A lot of valuable Dalit literature came out condemning the Karamchedu, and Chunduru massacre on Telugu land. That not only influenced literary world but social movements as well.  Like this, by 90s, it played a philosophical role for the youth like me to turn into a writer.

Initially, like others I also tried to write from class angle. But it did not seem so satisfying.  Mainly, I did not find my life in the literature that I studied. So, I thought of writing about myself. The thought of writing about Dalits like me, turned me into a writer.  

CS: Your stories are written in the local Telangana dialect. Can you tell me more about it?

PR: As there is caste domination in the society, likewise there is caste authority in the literature. Mainly there is caste to language; that is Pandit’s language. They decided to set only that language as standard in literature. That is why we had to bear the language which is not ours. So I did not like it. So I thought to write in the language of mine only and (I am ) writing as such.  I decided to write in the language that my Dalit mother speaks at home, which has not undergone any domination and influence. In such manner, Telangana Dalit (Madiga) language appeared in my stories. In a way, this is a kind of protest for self-respect. This is the reason that my stories have attracted general Dalit and Bahujan readers than mainstream scholars. 

CS: The title of your short story collection is "Out of coverage area". It sounds profound and poetic.
PR: In fact, it's the modern -era telephone terminology. The idea was that the present generation will understand easily if such a title is given. I thought  the concerns of today's Dalits should reflect in it. That is why, ‘out of coverage area’ seemed to be the right title. In fact, those who live outside villages are Dalits only.  We all are living in out of coverage area itself. Hence many critics appraised that it is the correct title.    

CS: Do you consider yourself a Dalit writer? What are the specifics of the subjectivity of  a "Dalit Writer" in your opinion? 

PR: Those who wish to write about Dalits’ life from the perspective of the Dalits and their well-being can only become Dalit writers. Many among Dalits, for the appreciation of mainstream, leave their lives and bring out liberal writings. In the same way, non-Dalits also write about the life of Dalits in superficial manner.
This does not come under the range of Dalit literature. Dalits writing about Dalits will only become Dalit literature.   
In this context, Dalit writer means those who can be fully dedicated to Dalit class. They should have respect not only towards their social life but also towards their culture, language and other things. In the title of my collection of stories, I have given the tag line as Telangana Dalit stories.

CS: Have you ever felt constrained to write "politically correct" stories? Do you have any major literary influences?

PR: Starting from Perumal Murugan to general Dalit writers, we have been facing challenges from the Hindutva Brahminical society. This society does not like us talking facts. Because of which I get several threatening calls when I write about caste. They mostly come from the upper-castes. I get amused at their dilemma. Sometimes I feel sad. Even then I try to correct them. Politics and literature are not separate. Writing itself is a political activity. Therefore, I am ready to face any kind of disturbances while writing about my caste. There is strong impact of Dalit and Bahujan writers on me; mainly the influence of the writers during the Dalit literary movement. During their times they wrote about the caste discrimination against Dalit in villages, I am writing stories of caste discrimination in towns of modern era.
In the coming times, I will try to write with much more responsibility.


Poem | Bishweshwar Das

Courtroom (1970), Oil on canvas
Source : http://www.artpractical.com/

An autumn day in court...

It was a crisp October morning,
A film of dew on parked cars
I dressed ethnic
And hailed an auto
A long festive weekend elapsed city
Slowly crawling back to work on Monday

The auto snails ahead
In between filling gas in an alley with an illegal vending shop
Sleepy eyes, somber faces
I have had a trim and brushed twice
Lest his honour holds me for contempt of good mannerism and hygiene
It’s been on the anvil for six months now
Earn your freedom week by week, month by month…perhaps

The auto meandered through Siddaiah Road.
Grease, iron, lube and auto parts both sides
Less friction more power
A while back I had seen hoards queuing outside the passport office
A gargantuan building emerges in the left
A familiar gate….with family court etched in steel

I alighted and look for a familiar face
She is on the third floor came the reply as the call disconnects
The lift has a third button but it doesn’t glow red when pressed
It stops religiously on the appointed level
There she  is….looking bit worn out,
perhaps she didn’t sleep well or worked late
Mister Meer strolls in, we exchange cold pleasantries.
His coat looks little crumpled but his hair is neatly cut and gelled
He could have been an army captain in uniform instead of a divorce lawyer
I am fiddling through my phone to zero on a date for the mediation, we decide on sixth
This looks more like a trading house sans the commotion

His honour grabs a piece of paper and the petition number is announced by the clerk
Mr.Meer raises his voice acknowledging it’s his case
The Judge looks through his spectacles and frowns
“Any hopes of reconciliation.” ?
‘No my honor, the parties have decided. No reconciliation.’
Meers voice is clear and mellow this time.
He undoubtedly is  the best looking man in this room
The judge queries….”Why mediation if it’s agreed”
Meer just says…”Obliged”

We meander out and Meer blurts..
‘It will be over today…
You will have to come again in the afternoon’
Seconds, minutes, hours
The courtroom is packed
We are ushered in
Meer nudges me to take off my ‘Raybans’
She mumbles something too disapprovingly

We go up the pulpit facing the judge to our right now
Meer towers amongst the spectators below
His Honour first quizzes her
‘Difference of opinion’ she says softly yet firmly
Who doesn’t have ? His Honour responds
He now looks towards me. I nod in unison
Which can mean either agreeing to her answer or his retort

There is silence for a while
The courtroom is in suspended motion
His Honour breaks silence…Well then ‘Granted’
There is a ‘sigh’ of relief and resilience in us
Meer shakes my hand in a congratulatory gesture
While tying the lace of his green file
‘If you need my service again I will be glad’
We all smile and enter the lift, exit
And walk past the mediation room and the waiting hall

Dusk is settling slowly
The day elapsing in a cacophony of noises
People rushing back to their destinations
I start humming a familiar ‘old blue boy tune’

We're drinking my friend, to the end
Of a brief episode
Make it one for my
for my baby
And one more for the road

You'd never know it, but buddy I'm a kind of poet
And I've got a lot of things I'd like to say
And if I'm gloomy, please listen to me
Till it's talked away

 Make it one for my
for my baby
And one more for the road…

We're drinking my friend, to the end
of a brief episode… waltz… waltz... waltz! 


Vijay Nambisan: The last of the sages
Dibyajyoti Sarma

Source : https://paperwall.in/books/61/First-Infinities

While discussing RK Narayan’s The Guide in the classroom, Dr R. Raj Rao of the University of Pune had explained to us the difference between ‘sage’ and ‘saint’. As opposed to the Judeo-Christian connotation of ‘saint’, in India, we use both the words interchangeably, to mean someone who is wise and who has discarded the worldly concerns. However, as Rao explained, in the context of the eventual journey of Raju Guide, there’s is a difference between being a saint and a sage. A saint remains tethered to the world in some way. A saint needs disciples, followers (as in the case of Raju, after his con becomes a reality for the villagers). A saint needs to make something happen (as Raju needs to make rain). But a sage elevates these saintly concerns. A sage turns himself into a perfect being, where nothing matters, not even existence (as Narayan implied Raju achieving this at the end of the novel).

As I heard of Vijay Nambisan passing away, I was thinking about this distinction in the context of Nambisan as a poet (people tend to forget that he was also a brilliant essayist, a form largely forgotten today. He also wrote the most original treatise on Language as Ethics and looked at Bihar with a fresh pair of eyes before talking about New Bihar became fashionable in the 2000s, in Bihar is in the Eye of the Beholder. He has also translated classical Sanskrit poetry, a language he knew well).  

My Facebook timeline was flooded with quotes from Nambisan’s poetry. It was an interesting development considering it was Nambisan, the most reluctant of poets. He was one of the key poets of the second generation of the Bombay School of Poetry (if you consider Ezekiel, Kolatkar, Jussawalla and others as the first generation), a generation which under the influence/tutelage of Dom Moraes, focused more on intellectual rigour rather than the socio-political concerned with a changing India of the previous generation. 

Nambisan’s contemporaries, Jeet Thayil, CP Surendran, Ranjit Hoskote, among others, are all established poets today, with several collections to their names, but Nambisan seemed to have lagged behind. His first published book of poems was Genini (a two-poet project published by Dom Moraes; the other poet was Jeet Thayil) in 1992. His second and last, and the only solo collection of poems First Infinities was published in 2015. Simply because he did not want to publish a book of poems. He was already well known, since his poem Madras Central won him the first ever All India Poetry Competition award organised by the Poetry Society of India and the British Council in 1988.

He wrote in Madras Central:

To think we have such power to alter our states, 
order comings and goings;
know where we’re not wanted
And carry our unwanted mess somewhere else.

He was an aberration to the norm. He did not need fame and recognition. He would accept it if it came his way, but he wouldn’t crave for it. He did not need the outside to validate his existence. He did not run from the outside either. Largely a private person, he wasn’t a recluse, but a gracious host when the occasion demanded, ever willing to talk poetry, and literature in general, with a witty sense of humour — a great company to spend time with. 

This is how I remember him.

I met him and his novelist/doctor wife Kavery when the couple settled in Lonavla in the outskirts of Pune sometime in 2000s, thanks to my teacher R Raj Rao who knew Vijay from the Bombay poetry days. I don’t remember him as a poet, but as a lover of poetry, who would be happiest to give me a tour of his personal library, filled with books signed by their authors. He inspired me to collect autographed books. He inspired me to reread one of his favourite poets Robert Graves, including his autobiography Goodbye to All That.

Most of all, I found him to be the most generous and humble man I have ever known. This humility was hardwired into him as a man who is extremely erudite, knew it and did not expect others to be as smart and well read as he was. He was a perfect teacher any student could ever hope for, though teaching was not his thing. 

Once, he was invited to give a guest lecture to the MA students of the University of Pune. At first, he was uncertain. He had nothing to tell the students, he said. Finally, he decided to discuss one of his favourite poems with the students — WH Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts. It was not a surprising choice. Auden wrote:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:  

I think Vijay understood this more than anyone. 

Personally, for me, he was a source of inspiration until the very end. When I first met him, I was working on my second collection of poems. When he heard that he offered to look at the poems. At first, I was uncertain. He was a poet of rigour and discipline. I wrote poetry to let off steam. I was sure he wouldn’t even bother to go through the manuscript. Finally, I sent him a hard copy of the manuscript and three months later, I received an SMS. He was in Pune for a few hours and he would like to see me, as he was carrying my manuscript and he wanted to talk about it. 

I was certain he would ask me to junk the idea of the book. Instead, we sat in the lobby of the hotel where we were staying and went through the poems page by page. At some places, he had made comments. He said some poems did not work, and most were largely fine. Then he gave me a crash course in poetry — the importance of music in poetry; the dangers of mixed metaphors and mostly importantly, the need to edit poetry. 

Now, you take this manuscript and keep it away safely for one year, he said. Exactly one year later (I think it was October, he mentioned the month), he said, open the manuscript, sit on a desk and work on it. Make sure that you sit on a chair and use a table, he insisted, not on bed, or elsewhere, where it’s more comfortable. Then go through each word, each sentence, and each line. After that, if you are satisfied, go ahead, publish the book. 

It was the most inspiring moment of my life. And since that day, I have been shamelessly recycling this advice.

The book was finally out four years later, and I was happy to hand over a copy to Kavery during the launch of Vijay’s book First Infinities in Delhi (He was busy being a host.). Kavery said Vijay would be happy to see the book and I trusted her. 

The last conversation I had with Vijay was late last year. On email. When a publisher showed the interest to publish my short story collection (the publisher was in a hurry, she had grand plans, none of which came to fruition; it’s a different story!), and needed a blurb from a ‘famous author’, I could not think of anyone other than Kavery Nambisan. So I dashed off a mail, without expecting much, because I knew she has been busy with her job as a surgeon and with her writing. 

Vijay and Kavery shared the email ID. Two days later, I received an email from Vijay. He read the manuscript and liked it and he would be happy to give a blurb if I would have one. Of course, I said yes, and he gave me a glowing blurb. But he had a caveat. The stories are great but it needed another round of editing. I could do it for you if you have the time, he wrote. Unfortunately, I did not have the time; the publisher was unreasonably in a hurry (I would regret not asking him to edit the book for the rest of my life.) Okay, then, I will edit your next book, he said. I said okay, I will finish my next book as soon as I can. 

The book is not complete and Vijay is gone.

People would say he was a genius who never received his due. It may be true. But I don’t think he wanted his dues. I don’t think he had any expectations. He was what he always was — a sage. 

(This piece was published concurrently in the August issue of The Wagon Magazine.) 


Poems | Amrita Pritam (Translated by Kanupriya Dhingra)

Source: https://pixabay.com/

1. A Letter

(Translated from the original in Punjabi)

I am— a book kept in an attic
perhaps carrying the Word
or any hymnal
or a chapter from the Kama Sutra,
or quackery for easy, venereal diseases.

Apparently, I am none of these.
(if I were, someone would have read me)

And as it were — a proposal was passed
in a meeting of revolutionaries
and I am its transcript.
Although it carries a police-stamp
and was never enforced, passed anyway,
and was preserved, for the sake of
further legal proceedings.

Now only some sparrows come over
with a few twigs in their beaks
and they sit on my body
to worry about the next generation
(to worry about the next generation
is beautiful indeed!)
but for diligence of any sort
birds have wings,
but no proposal has any wings.
(nor do any proposal has
another generation?)
Only sometimes I think
of smelling out—
where my future lies
and in such worry
my binding comes off, partly
but whenever I try to smell something
I smell bird-shit, only.

O the future of my earth
          I am— your current state

2. A Meeting
(Translated from Amrita Pritam's एक मुलाकात)

after several years
suddenly, a meeting
our souls
shivered like a poem
ahead of us was an entire night—
one half of the poem,
huddled in one corner
another half
sat in another corner
then at daybreak—
we met, like pieces of
torn pages
I held his hand
in my hand
he took my arm
in his arm
and we
laughed like a censor
and placed the page
on a cold table,
casting a line
on that entire poem

3. My Address
(Translated from Amrita Pritam's मेरा पता)

Today I
erased my house number
also removed
the street name impressed upon
the street’s forehead
and wiped off
directions to every road
but if you absolutely wish to find me
 then knock on
every door on the street of
every city of every country
This is a curse, a blessing as well
and wherever there is a
glimpse of a
free spirit
          —know that as my home

4. A Union with Self

My bed is here
But like shoes and shirt
Take off your body too
Keep it on the stool there
Nothing unusual—
It is a custom of one’s country

Poem | Bhaskar Chakrabarty (Translated by Sarbajaya Bhattacharya)

Photo Credits: GB

When Will Winter Arrive Suparna 

When will winter arrive Suparna
I'll sleep for three months
Every evening, as if in cruel jest, my blood turns cold like the frogs –
I sit in silent stupor –
They send a blue balloon soaring through the darkness, they burn fireworks all night long –
Shouting, screaming – then suddenly, magically,
at the same moment,
every candle is extinguished
the day of feast turns direction like the wind,
the tune of the flute stops floating to the ear –
In such moments, I feel like diving headlong into water every time I see it –
I feel like submerging my body and lifting only my face to breathe for a while
I feel empty Suparna
I am not human, nor light, nor dream-like – the soles of my feet
are widening – the sound of
horse's hooves makes my heart throb louder in its cage and quickens my breath
Everyday my fingertip pushes time ahead of its time I feel empty
when will winter arrive Suparna, I'll sleep for three months
Once, waking at dawn, I had seen clouds leaning near the window – Darkness
everywhere – so dark a  day, I couldn't even see my own fingernails – it made me cry
when I thought of you
I lit a matchstick in my hair and fell asleep again to its burning scent
Now I am not human – I feel like jumping instead of walking down a street
I have no desire to kneel before love for three months –
the sound of human footsteps quicken my breath,
I run in the direction from which I came
But why do I run?
I feel empty 
When will winter arrive Suparna
I'll sleep for three months.

Prose | Nilanjan Bhowmick

Barbed Wire

Credits : https://pixabay.com

We don’t hear the traffic passing by.
It is evening. We are crossing a street. We are walking fast, like busy men. We keep in step. His shoes are brown. Mine are black. Both are dusty. His shirtsleeves are rolled up. Mine slide down to the wrists. His trousers are crumpled. Mine are losing their ironing in stages. We are both sweating. It is hot and uncomfortable. I think we want to sit under a cool shade. But I know he is feeling heady. He is not in his right mind. I know his mind is taking a walk.
The crowds are everywhere. Offices are closing. Men and women are rushing around like headless ants.
The silence between us is uncomfortable. I don’t want it to break.  But I want to hear his voice.  I want to feel that he is still there with me.
What do you want to do? I venture, timidly inside me, but the words emerge with some confidence. I swallow my false tone like poison. I want to apologize immediately. I want to grasp his hand and say “I am sorry.”
He turns to me, surprised.
What is there to do, his eyes say.
I do not know what he reads in my expression and I don’t know what my expression is. But he turns and walks on.
After a while, the sun taking a dip behind a cloud, the buildings low and silent around us, we see Oriental Café.
He stops. I look at him.
Without a word, to my relief, he heads over to the Café and we take our seats. I don’t think we have ever been here before. The chairs and tables are plastic green. The walls are moist. The crowd is unhealthy, tired, unwashed.
He looks away and blankly stares at the menu, as if reading it.
I order coffee. I want to ask him but I decide against.
But he cuts in. Tea, he says.
I am delighted. I nearly smile. So does he.  But our expressions settle back into their usual corners.
I want to say Tea too. That is not necessary. I could drink from his cup today.   But I say Coffee. I regret it. I wish I could apologize again. But I know he will hate me to say Tea. So I say Coffee, knowing well I won’t take a sip.
He has a week’s beard. It is sharp. His spectacles are smudged.
I don’t want to start the conversation. But I do.
What will you do?
What a question to ask! What am I doing? I want to kick myself.
He laughs all of a sudden. He shakes his head.
The silent one does all the talking now, he says. Good question, though. Indeed what am I to do? Or maybe, what more can I do? Or more to the point, how do I sleep today?
Why do you say that?
We live to sleep from day to day.
True, I say.  As always.
Out of work again, he says, as if he did not hear me. Out-of-work. Work-out-of. Of-out-work. I wish there were other combinations. Sleep-wake, wake-sleep.
Of-work-out, I say helpfully, pleased I can add something meaningful.
Thanks. That will do, he says, his voice turning kind.
We both laugh.
I haven’t seen you in a while, I say.
Yeah, he says indifferently. You have learnt to say pretty things.
Well, isn’t it true – that we haven’t seen each other in a while, I say, rising to my defense.
I see you everyday.
How, I almost say, and realize what he means and keep my mouth shut.
Didn’t you see me, he asks, almost expressing incredulity.
I can’t say everyday. But it is not as if I had forgotten you. There are things to occupy one’s mind. Life is not a bed of roses.
I never said it wasn’t, he says, with some irritation.
Our coffee and tea arrive. The waiter wipes the table before setting the tray down. I ask for cookies.
When did this happen? I say, stirring my already stirred coffee, groping to settle his mind, and to calm my own.
Last week, he says. It is nothing new. I have lost five jobs before. But this was sudden. I didn’t know how to take it, he says.
No one does, I say.
He shakes his head. I did, he says. At one time.
We are growing old, I say.
He sips his tea.
Indra had called me from a public telephone booth. He said he got my number from my wife. I had not recognized his voice. It had been more than seven years, after all. When I finally did, I felt strange talking to him through a piece of plastic and metal. He explained the situation, said he wanted to talk to me, and told me to meet him near the LIC building.
We are quiet for a while.
I did not know whom to talk to, he said, finally. I had your number in my pocket. But I didn’t really wish to call. But I did want to see you. Just like that. I didn’t want to walk in the streets aimlessly. I didn’t want to feel tired again. One can’t lose like this.
I kept quiet. As I always did. I was the silent one. He was the one who did the talking, the thinking. I absorbed or corrected. I met Indra in the last year of school. He came from another school and was immediately unwelcome in our class. He was outspoken and loud and boorish but intelligent. Needless to say, he gravitated towards his natural fate of being an outcaste. I was the only one he could speak to in class. I sat at the back of the class and he sat at the front. During recess, we would move awkwardly towards each other like ships on mid sea trying to avoid a collision. We ate our lunch, cold and unwelcome as it was, wrapped in newspaper in steel lunch boxes, with relish. I can’t remember what he used to talk about but he did talk. Of world politics, nuclear physics, of Israel and Palestine, of books, fiction, poetry. I had to keep nodding all the time. He talked fast, almost choking at his food at times. After recess we would go back to our respective seats in class and sheepishly say goodbye at the end of the day.
I had not realized how close I had grown to him till the day he fell on a barbed wire and shred his arm. Indra was big and clumsy and not as nimble footed as I was. We were crossing a ditch next to a field and he slipped and fell over, his head hitting a bamboo pole and his arms stuck and flailing on a number of jutting metal barbs. I felt a rush of pain in myself. His arm was a criss-cross of blood and flesh. I was frantic and didn’t know what to do. I kept hopping about him. Indra calmed me down with some difficulty and he made me take him home. I went to his home regularly as he recovered. To my surprise I found his parents to be quiet and measured and totally unlike him. Indra was the only person who read books in his home. He had an elder sister who had been married off. Indra’s father worked in a post office and his mother was a housewife. They struggled with the inflation and Indra had to eke out a living off scholarships.
We went to college together. We would catch a crowded bus that lurched through the streets to our institution of learning. There we sat in the same class –me in the back, Indra in the front – and gave the same exams and got radically different results – Indra always topping and I would be in the middle of the class – and we had the same worries and the same ambitions and the same hopes and the same desires. Indra cared for me but he would never show it and I cared for him and showed it in abundance. Indra was an outcaste in college too. He knew too much and didn’t care for any authority.
I remember the last day of college. It was hot and windy and Indra was smoking on top of that. He had picked up this habit from some of his other friends. Our results were out. Indra had come second, something rare in his life. We were sipping tea in a canteen. My heart was in my mouth. Our days of carefree abundance were over. I felt a strange pull for him, as if I wanted to etch this scene in memory. I felt a sense of loss, of ruin. Indra was talking with abandon about the political situation in South Africa. I wanted him to shut his mouth and realize the importance of the moment. When were we going to meet again? How was our friendship going to go on? Didn’t he think about all this? Indra didn’t seem to care less. He just talked, his voice booming and rising and falling, depending upon the nature of the topic he was holding forth on. I felt twisted and wasted inside, appalled at his indifference, wishing to remind him of the reality facing us.
Indra’s parents moved from their place, much farther away, to the outskirts of the city, and so did Indra.
We met once or twice again, but briefly. I have fleeting memories. Indra would be in a hurry and would ask, as if I had been a passing acquaintance, how I was and what I was upto. I knew what he was feeling and kept my counsel. We were both applying for jobs, typing out applications, making shabby CVs, lying to ourselves of our own abilities, standing in lines, waiting for buses, reading the Employment News regularly, the summer grinding us down all the time.
After we would found work, we didn’t meet again. It was impossible to imagine what we would talk about. We didn’t tell each other when we married. It was like an embarrassing social need, fulfilled and forgotten. We had been slotted into our places in society and we didn’t wish to believe that.
I thought this job was in my pocket, he said. Would last ten years or so. Real Insurance of sorts. Nothing to worry about. You know the feeling. Plus I kept my big mouth shut. I was getting along really well. And then this lay off. Out of the blue.
I have faced it myself. Don’t worry, things will be fine. I have changed three jobs by now. One was a lay off. It’s just like that.
It doesn’t look like things are working out anymore. There are more unemployed now. More ready to work for less wages.
It is not good to remember the truth on such occasions, I say.
Ah…true, true.
Better to be blind and think that all will be well, I added.
But the situation looks bleak. I just felt helpless. So I stepped in to that damned public booth and called. Talking to you will refresh my mind, I thought.
I hope it did.
We both laughed.
We should have met more often, he said.
Have you applied to some other companies, I said, trying to keep sentiment away for a moment.
He shrugged. No.
Why not?
Don’t know. Can I smoke here?
I think you can.
He lit a cigarette. He took three drags at it.
I will, he began again. I mean, I will apply. I lose jobs as quickly as I gain them. At times I lose heart.
Is everything ok at home?
Yeah. Father’s sick. Ma is fine but I don’t tell her about all my worries. She still thinks I work for Ajanta Clocks, a job I had five years ago. My wife is equally ignorant. You haven’t seen my kid. He is quite a boy. He takes after me. Already beginning to read well and all that. I live one life outside and another inside.
I haven’t got a kid, I admitted.
All the same, really.
How long can you last like this?
Not long really. There is the school fees and all that.
He laughed all of a sudden.
What on earth are we talking about? He said. Tell me how you have been.
You can see for yourself.
You are pretty much the same. A little dragged down like all of us. But the same as ever.
Do you read?
Yeah, mags mostly. Sometimes a book or two. Work is hard at times. What about you?
Well, not really. Maybe ten books a year.
You keep a count! Yeah, you always did. I forgot.
You have some white hair.
You have more, he retorted.
My wife does not think so.
She is lying to you.
Does your wife comment on your white hair?
No, not really. She is like you, keeps silent.
The evening’s a bit cooler now, he said. We can walk out.
He had finished his tea. I had barely touched my coffee. He didn’t care about that. There was an awkward moment when I had to say I would pay and he looked at me sternly. But he let me pay.
Electric traffic lit the streets. The sky was fighting to retain some color before blackout. He walked with his head bent and his eyebrows narrowed. I can feel the turmoil in his mind. The stab of thoughts coursing around in his head.
I do not know what he will do. I think he will do something. I feel the bruises he has on him, afresh, the ripped flesh, and the cut of the barbed wire. I feel the pain and wince myself.
I see Indra’s head hit the bamboo pole. I see the metal barbs. I see him writhing with pain.
He will recover again, I think. I will go to him and sit down by his side everyday. I will finish office early and go to his home. We will start again and see where things go from there. Indra the big partner, me the small partner. We will talk to our hearts’ content. There is much I have to say. Of how the years went by and what I learnt - in my own creeping fashion – and what I enjoyed and what I wept over. Indra will talk too. He will smoke and talk and this time I won’t mind his smoking. I am overcome with joy at this thought and feel helpless like a child again.
Then I leap into reality with a start.
Indra is shouting into my ear.
My bus is here. My bus is here. I have got to go.
Are you all right, he asks, with some concern.
I want to say No, but I say Yes.
He leaps on to the bus. The bus has low lights in it to hide the crowd inside.
Typical of him, he does not say goodbye.


Poems | Sananta Tanty (Translated by Dibyajyoti Sarma)

Photo Credits: GB


Getting down at Fakiragram junction when I went to catch a train
upcountry, just then they surrounded me, and shoving and dragging,
they made me stand on the platform.

Everywhere around my body were garments of the minority
community. In my tongue was the language of the minority. In the
eyes was the withered look of hunger. In the stomach was a terrible,
painful hunger. My dry thinning muscles were exhausted. My dirty
clothes screamed it to everyone how even after independence I was
a landless farmer and beggar-labourer.

I gave them my name. I gave them my post office. I told them the
name of my district. I just could not mention my house number. I did
not have a house. Neither did I have land. I did not have even any
certificates from school. My house went down in the flood. Along with
it, went down my entire world with my wife and children.

They asked my father’s name. They asked my grandfather’s name.
They asked me about my birthplace. I told them everything. I said I
don’t have anything called home. I don’t have a bed to sleep. I don’t
have clothes to cover myself. Except fire to warm myself, I don’t have
any quilt or blanket. Even after the Partition, I don’t have a mother
tongue. I don’t know alphabets. I don’t know words. I don’t know
language. I don’t know anything except hard labour.

Getting down at Fakiragram junction, when I went to catch a train
upcountry, just then they surrounded me and being able to catch a
traitor like me, they screamed in delight.

The more I tried to answer, the more they went mad to attack me.
I wept inside. I wept inside my heart. I curse my mother who gave
birth to me in this country, in this India. I look for my father to ask
why he created a rootless son like me who is without country in the
country of his own birth.

Getting down at Fakiragram junction when I went to catch a train
upcountry, just then they surrounded me, and branding me a
foreigner, they sent me to the prison. From the prison, they sent me
to the detention camp and since then, I wait for my death in my own
country as a rootless man.

Dear Northeast

Dear Northeast,
I know I am not the only poet who resides in the interiors of your
geography. I am not the only poet immersed in your indiscernible
beauty filled with immeasurable wonder. I am not the only poet
who is marked as a warrior in your gold-plated pride. I am not the
only poet who spends the nights in your love and trust, adding new
dimensions to life.

Like all the other poets, I too am your child. I am just another poet
who has drunk your milk to quench his thirst. Perhaps this is why I
am proud of my humanity. Perhaps this is why I live spanning you,
circumambulating you, touching you.

I exhale in the scent of the flowers that bloom on your body. Sleeping
in the shape of your body, I dream. In your flowing sound, I travel in
a fraction on the endless road. I remain awake in the fading applause.

Dear Northeast,
You are my mother. You are the state of dream that awakens in my
heart when I spend my silence and wake up in faith. Sometimes I
wake up in intelligence and conscience.

In silence, I walk on the road of hunger that stretches beyond the
horizon, slowly losing its shape in trust and relationship, slowly
building me like a rainbow in the making to break me in the light.

Dear Northeast,
I pick up the notes of the ethereal music of life in your unadulterated
air every day. I acquire the primal power of humanity in your
transparency. I spread everywhere in your reverberating hour. I wake
up in the dominance of your tireless conscience.

I am not the only poet who lives in your geography. I am not the only
poet immersed in your indiscernible beauty filled with immeasurable
wonder. Revealed in your soul, I am just a sound. I am an undeclared
war for life, touching you in your insides and outsides.

Whenever I protest, they
call me a terrorist

Whenever I protest, they call me a terrorist.
Whenever I protest, they tie my hands.
Whenever I protest, they thrust in my hand

complaint letter of the forged law,
declare me as a traitor and
cage all my freedom.

They keep me away from my children.
They keep me away from my wife.
They keep me away from my parents.

Whenever I protest, they call me a terrorist.
They shoot me dead in fake encounter.
Sometimes they keep me in prison for life without protest.

Whenever I protest, they call me a terrorist.
Whenever I protest, in democracy
they plant seeds of Indian fascism.

They might arrive today as well

They might arrive today as well.
At midnight they might surround my beloved village.
Pointing rifles and firing two-three rounds of bullets
in the air, they might alert
my sleeping people, alert young boys and girls, men and women.

Like hunters who surround from all around
to catch the hunt,
they might pounce upon my people.
In front of my mother they might rape my dear sister.
They might strip naked
our ancient civilization.
They might torture our agitated hours.
They might sexually assault and kill
my innocent moon-like sister.
They might arrest the youths or
chasing them to the field,
they might kill them in fake encounters.

They might arrive today as well.
They might attack our humanity.
Breaking the tradition of civilization,
they might turn us against mankind.

They might arrive today as well.
When they do
we must protest.
Standing tall, we will have to fight like men.
When they arrive, we will have to walk even towards death.
And far away from death,
somewhere near freedom.


Prose | Harlan Whatley

Laowai: My Midlife Crisis in China


“Evacuation of the world of fancy, Inoperancy of the world of spirit.” – T.S. Eliot

            It was a typical “hotter than hell” day in August where the humidity is so bad that you must drink the air as opposed to breathe it. My storage unit near the island airport was completely full now. After forty-four years of life, everything I had was crammed into a ten by ten metal closet. Except for one thing. A box of wedding photos from my nuptials in New York City in 1995. The box was navy blue and had originally contained Ralph Lauren cotton towels.
            We had a fashionable wedding at a Presbyterian church on Park Avenue followed by a tony reception on the second floor of the 21 Club on West Fifty-Second Street. My wife’s dress was custom-designed by Oscar de la Renta in the style of Jackie O. Some of the well-heeled guests included Dominick Dunne, a couple of Bill Murray’s brothers and some scions of Wall Street. My relatives from the South and a few high school and college pals also attended. The food at the reception was incredible and, yes, there was a full bar. We honeymooned in Montreal.
            The marriage lasted about thirteen years, not counting two years of dating. We lived in her apartment on the Upper East Side. When we met, I was sharing a two-bedroom apartment in Hoboken with a friend. She worked for a luxury handbag designer and I worked in what was known as market data and research. My clients were investment bankers, hedge fund managers and other types of institutional financiers. We had a strawberry blonde cocker spaniel named Raffles but no children. He wore a Coach collar and a Burberry raincoat. A truly urban dog.   
            As my career began to fall apart, I went back to school and obtained an MFA in Integrated Media Arts from Hunter College, where I learned about media convergence and how to make documentary films. I began to change and drifted far, far away from the world of Gucci loafers, Hermes ties and pin-striped suits to more casual attire. A more casual everything.        
            After spending two years in a condominium in the suburbs of Westchester County, we divorced in 2008. I moved into a loft apartment in a renovated piano factory in the South Bronx but got laid off from my magazine job six months later. My mom and my brother and his family lived on St. Simons Island. It seemed like a good place to recover from eighteen years of being in New York City. Plus, my mom’s health was not so great and she seemed a bit lonely. After she passed away in the spring of 2010, I decided to teach in a foreign country. I figured I would go away for a year and come back to America and teach at a college or small university.
            I picked up the box of wedding photos and gave it a gold medal heave into the dumpster. I sauntered over to my navy-blue Jetta wagon, and drove away while listening to NPR. A lot of memories of “the Island of Feral Cats” raced through my mind. As I drove across the causeway to the mainland, I felt like I was evacuating. I had read a newspaper article about the aboriginal Mocama people, where in the 17th century, the Sea Islands of Georgia were depopulated by infectious disease. At first they evacuated to St. Augustine, Florida. Eventually, after ceding the territory to the British, they went to Cuba with the Spanish. I was evacuating from the Georgia coast, but not to Cuba. I was going to China.
I drove north to Savannah on the old Highway 17, taking in the sights like the Smallest Church in America in Darien, Georgia. My flight to Beijing was early the next morning. There was nobody to take me to the airport or send me off. That’s okay. I was kind of getting used to being alone. Fuck John Donne and his island. I was going to China to teach. Just as Flaubert’s character, Bouvard, felt that Europe would be regenerated by Asia, I felt that I would not only be regenerated by China, but could possibly reinvent myself.


“In no way was I ready for the swirling filth that constitutes air in Beijing.” – J. Maarten Troost

My flight left Savannah at the crack of dawn and I arrived in Newark for a nice two-hour layover before the flight to Beijing. There was a church group of young people gathered at the gate. I eavesdropped and learned that some of them had been to China before while others had not. One of the church kids commented on the weight of his luggage. I couldn’t be bothered with that. I just packed what I thought I would need. Other than watching a few documentaries and reading some Wikipedia, I didn’t have much of a clue as to what I was getting myself into. I figured, if this was a mid-life crisis, then it was far better than buying a sports car or dating a Russian woman. I had done both of those things but my psychological itch still needed some scratching. China was the drug I needed. It was my panacea.
When I landed in the Beijing airport, I took my two huge checked suitcases and stacked them on a luggage cart. I threw my carry-on bag on top and wheeled my way through customs. We were almost an hour late, due to a mechanical problem with the plane in Newark. I had missed my connecting flight to Zhengzhou and the next one wasn’t until tomorrow night. I decided to book a room at a nearby hotel and take a taxi. There were several travel agents located in the Beijing airport that were willing to accommodate me. Their English was comme il faut considering that my Mandarin did not exist. That would soon change.
I stood in the taxi line at the Beijing airport. The Beijing air in August was not only hot and humid, it was hazy and polluted. I handed my driver the printout with the hotel name and address. He muttered something to me in Mandarin and offered me a cigarette. I declined gracefully. We wove through the six-car wide traffic accompanied by a symphony of horns.
I woke up early and had a breakfast of porridge, oranges and tea in the dining room. The front desk clerk arranged a driver to show me around some of the key places in Beijing. For 600 RMB, about $100, the driver would take me to the Olympic Stadium, the Summer Palace and the Forbidden City in Tiananmen Square. Later, I learned that if you searched for “Tiananmen Square” in a search engine while using the Internet in China, you get no results, due to the student protests on June Fourth of 1989.  The closure of the Avant-Garde art exhibition sparked the events in Beijing where performance artists used surveillance footage as part of their exhibitions. Xiao Lu was arrested after she fired two shots from a pellet gun into her work. I don’t know of many American artists that would go to this brazen level of protest in order to express their sentiments about the government. I found this to be both brave and bold.               
I nicknamed my driver Snoopy due to the Snoopy and Peanuts stickers all over his Volkswagen Jetta. Some foreigners call this “Chinking your car,” which is like “pimping your ride.” He spoke no English and I spoke no Mandarin, but we managed to make it through the day and he got me to the airport on time. Kudos to the people that published the Berlitz Mandarin to English dictionary. After touring the Summer Palace, we ate lunch at McDonald’s. Snoopy seemed quite pleased to be eating at McDonald’s with a foreigner. I found it to be ironic that on my first day in China, I was eating American fast food as opposed to dining on Peking Duck or Beggar’s Chicken. Later, I learned that many foreign teachers, especially Americans, will eat at KFC, McDonald’s and Western hotel restaurants, as they are fearful of eating Chinese food. Why someone would travel half way across the world and not eat the local cuisine is a mystery to me. 
Beijing – Summer Palace

White Monkey

Irene from the Foreign Teacher’s Office at Huanghe S&T College called me early on a Monday morning and summoned me to her office in her best-spoken English. Saying my name was not easy for Chinese people as the letter “r” proved to be tricky. I was chosen to give a speech on behalf of all thirty of the foreign teachers at an outdoor convocation that would include the President of the college and all the faculty and students. They wanted me wear a suit and tie and they needed me to write a speech. I left the Foreign Teacher’s office to return to my flat so I could begin preparing my speech. I ran into “Big Nick” from Boston and told him the news about the speech. He smiled at me and said in his classic chowder head accent, “You’re the white monkey!” He laughed heartily and walked away. I wasn’t familiar with the term but later learned that this is when Chinese people like to show off their white employees to others. I assumed that this was pejorative but didn’t let it bother me.The speech was the next day. I gave them my speech in the morning and they edited it with words like “beautiful” and “harmonious.” Due to my lack of Mandarin tones, they suggested I call the school by its English name, “Yellow River Science & Technical College.” The head of the Foreign Teacher’s Office translated the speech from English to Chinese. There were over a thousand people in attendance, many of them in military uniforms. It was the propaganda machine of Communist China as its best. The stench from the metal smelting at the bus factory across from the campus was not too bad that day. On most days, it would make your eyes turn red and water. It turned out to be a harmonious day and a lot of people in suits and ties had their pictures taken with me. The ceremony included dance routines and singing performances. That night, the foreign teachers got together and drank warm beer at the ex-pat bar in Zhengzhou while eating beef satays. The teachers were from Canada, England, Scotland, New Zealand, Ireland and the United States.


Shaolin Temple - Dengfeng
One of my students, Candy Wang, agreed to accompany me on a day trip from Hangzhou to Dengfang. Candy had lips that were shaped like fruit that ripened rapidly. Her eyeshadow was often glittery and was finished with a dusty powder that created a dramatic starry-eyed effect. Her shoulders were universally flattering with a simple rectangular shape.
This area was known for the Shaolin Temple and is the birthplace of kung fu. This appealed to me as I was an avid fan of the 1970’s television show, Kung Fu, starring David Carradine. While in college, I practiced kung fu and was in the best shape of my life. It was an overcast, dreary day but the wushu show was amazing. Seeing Buddhist monks in orange robes for the first time, I learned that they did not like to be photographed. I bought a white silk shirt with a gold dragon design. Candy haggled firmly with the old woman on the price. She pointed out the many flaws in the shirt. Once they agreed on a price, she told Candy to never return to the shop. Despite Candy being tall and athletic, she suffered from a form of halitosis called “dragon breath,” due to her consumption of spices. This was common with many of my students. We bought a bag full of snacks and soft drinks for the bus ride. Candy used my shoulder as a pillow and slept the whole way back to Zhengzhou in the pouring rain.


“All wealthy young men of Chang-an have rich-smelling meat and garlic served;
but they don't grasp literate drinking, skilled only in getting red-skirted courtesans drunk.”
– Han Yu (768-824)                                                                                                                                 

It was the Mid-Autumn holiday and all the trains and hotels were fully booked. I stayed in a modern hotel near the Muslim quarter in Xi’an that was within the city wall. Xi’an, formerly Chang-an, is where the Silk Road begins and, being one of China’s oldest cities, has a rich and colorful history that includes the terra cotta warriors, a collection of funery art buried with Emperor Qin Shi Huang in 210 – 209 BC, located just outside of the city. People come from all over the world to see the bīngmǎyǒng, as they were known in Mandarin. The terracotta army of over 8.000 soldiers, 130 chariots, 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses were discovered by local farmers in 1974. Due to the huge number of tourists, it was nearly impossible to photograph the warriors. Fortunately, I had a very enthusiastic guide who gave me a very thorough tour and suggested I avoid buying any jade items from the vendors as it was all fake. After visiting the Great Mosque, I found several tee shirt vendors nearby. I decided to buy a Ferrari shirt for my student, Ma Ning, whose English name was “Morning.” The students were very creative with their English names which included soccer players such as Lampard and Ronaldo as well as NBA players like Kobie and Shaq. In one class, I had two students named Jesus and another named Christ, which made me feel blessed. Picasso was in one of my classes. When I asked the woman vendor “How much? / duōshǎo qián?” for a Ferrari tee shirt, I decided it was too much. She kept dropping the price by 1 RMB increments while attempting to shove the shirt into my hand. I had never experienced such an aggressive merchant in all my travels. I slowly walked back to my hotel past several street vendors who sold various kinds of bread.

National Day

“If China organized itself (as it would), it would be no laughing matter.” – Edward Said

October 1st was National Day in China, a holiday that shuts down the entire country as it is the beginning of “Golden Week.” Red and gold Chinese flags fly everywhere with the ubiquitous smell and sound of fireworks. Bands perform concerts in public places and people hit the streets and stores for a lot of conspicuous consumption as everything is on sale.
I braved the masses with my student, Morning, on an overcrowded bus from campus into downtown. What would normally take half an hour, took over an hour. Thousands of people on e-bikes and bicycles as well as cars, buses and pedestrians clogged the streets like a bad sink drain. I was in search of a printer so I could print my quizzes and handouts and have them photocopied for the students. The printer in the Foreign Teacher’s Office seldom worked or was out of ink, so we were forced to seek other resources. Morning is the President of the Student Government Association and is a member of the Communist party. He grew up with three sisters on a small corn farm just outside of Zhengzhou. His father had made some decent money by selling his land to the government to build the railway for the new high-speed trains. He explained the “one child policy” to me where his father had to pay a substantial fine for each child born after the first one. This family planning policy was created by Deng Xiaoping in 1979 and is restricted to ethnic Han people living in urban areas. Having a son in China is so important to Chinese parents that daughters are often given up for adoption. Abandonment, abortion and infanticide are other options. It has created a culture of “little emperors,” where the son is doted on by his parents and four grandparents. Morning loves exotic sports cars. He had me take a photo of him standing next to an orange Lamborghini so he could show his friends.

Dumpling Day

“Hell is an idea first born on an undigested apple-dumpling.” – Herman Melville

Dumpling Day - Zhengzhou

Dumplings were first created in the era of the Eastern Han (AD 25 – 220) by Zhang Zhongjing, a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine. They were used to treat frostbitten ears and earned the nickname “tender ears.” In the restaurant on the ground floor of the foreign teacher’s dormitory, the staff from the Foreign Teacher’s Office reserved a large private room where tables of flour, dough and various fillings such as pork, cabbage and scallions were laid out to prepare dumplings orjiaozi. Some of the cooks from the restaurant were there to show us how to roll the dough to create the perfect crescent shape of the dumplings. It’s not as easy as it looks.  A few of the students joined in on the making of the dumplings, which turns into a lot of photos of students and teachers holding up the “V for Victory” or “peace sign.” Later, I read in Time that this was a product of the exportation of Japanese culture of kawaii, a visual culture superficially based on cuteness, in the 1980’s to China and other parts of Asia.

The Christmas Pageant

Irene called me on a Friday afternoon and I was summoned to the Foreign Teacher’s Office to discuss the annual campus Christmas pageant. If Irene lived in New York City, she would have been referred to as a “nudge.” She wanted me to organize the foreign teachers to sing Christmas carols at the end of the pageant. One caveat was that, in addition to organizing the group, I had to wear a Santa Claus outfit. I told her that “Big Nick” would be a better candidate but she insisted that I do it, probably because I was both corpulent and older. Also, my blonde hair was fading to white, so I had the look of Santa. I managed to get about half of the foreign teachers to meet early on a Sunday morning in the ballet studio of the Academic Building on campus. It had a piano, which we did not use, and the other Nick, “Ohio Nick,” showed up with a guitar to help with the singing of the carols. We used instrumental versions of the songs from YouTube. The practice session went really well, considering many of the teachers were hungover from Saturday night. The three teachers from Ghana showed up late but turned out to have phenomenal voices. Despite the usual bitterness and cynicism of the foreign teachers at the college, this was a fun gathering of multinationals. 
The pageant turned out to be a popular event where all the students, faculty and staff packed into a gymnasium that served as an auditorium. In addition to performing on stage with the foreign teachers, I was escorted by Irene to distribute gifts to some of the children. It turns out that the recipients of the gifts from Santa’s bag were all the children of school administrators and Communist party officials. Nothing like a little corruption to make Christmas complete. The foreign teachers stormed the stage and we performed the carols the best we could. We were all white monkeys that night. A lot of students had photos taken with Santa and the ubiquitous “V” sign was flashed. I lost my Santa hat, which did not please Irene. She responded with the quintessential pout that Chinese girls often do. It was time for the Chinese New Year.
The decision to go to China to teach was a difficult one. It was cheaper than buying an exotic sports car like a Ferrari or a Porsche and probably less risky than having an affair with a tall drink of water, of which there were many in Manhattan. I feel that this was the right decision for me as it provided a sense of fulfillment. I was helping the Chinese students by exposing them to Western culture while opening my eyes to the reality of twenty-first century China, warts and all. A China that included gaming addiction, pollution issues, food and water quality problems, conspicuous consumption and overcrowding in cities. It wasn’t the historic China of silk roads, pagodas and shrines portrayed by Hollywood. It was the China of a resilient people who were resourceful and could achieve their goals with minimal resources. Overall, a youth that craved both knowledge and a sense of purpose in life.


bingmayong – 1. Terracotta Army 2. Figures of warriors and horses buried with the dead
comme il faut – French. proper
duōshǎo qián – “how much?” as in “How much does this cost?”
Erqi Ta – a 14 story tower opened in 1971 in memory of the Erqi strike of 1923
jiaozi – a kind of Chinese dumpling, commonly eaten in China and East Asia
kata – Japanese. Detailed choreographed patterns of movements practiced either solo or   in pairs. The term form is used for the corresponding concept in non-Japanese martial arts      in general.
kawaii – a Japanese visual culture superficially based on cuteness
laowai - lit. "Very foreign", an informal term or slang for "foreigner," usually neutral but possibly impolite or loose in some circumstances
meinu – 1. beautiful woman 2. pretty girl
nudge - a person who nudges; pest. Yiddish in origin.
shan – mountain
stupa - a dome-shaped shrine erected by Buddhists
wushu – martial art
zaijian - goodbye

* All the photographs in this essay were made by Harlan D. Whatley in the People’s Republic of China.