About FOOTPRINTS IN THE BAJRA (Cedar Books, New Delhi); By Nabina Das

"Fittingly for a poet, Nabina’s novel also has a strong lyrical core. 'Footprints in the Bajra' takes the homely image of the millet field as its central metaphor. ... But the novel is less a thriller about guerrilla action than a subtly colored character study of a fascinating group of individuals who intersect at various points in their lives ..." -- DEBRA CASTILLO, author, editor and distinguished professor (Cornell University, April 17, 2010).

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Footprints in the Bajra is a serious book that moves at a smart uncontrived pace. It voices deep concerns about how and why the deprived and the marginalized in certain parts of our country join the Maoist ranks; how they adopt desperate and often terrible measures to wrench justice and to make their voices heard... a confident debut novel, a good read, which will leave you with plenty to mull over. -- PRITI AISOLA, author (See Paris for Me, Penguin-India, 2009) in DANSE MACABRE XXXIV.

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In her debut novel, Nabina Das writes about an India where social divides stand taller than multistoried shopping malls. Footprints in the Bajra, inspired by what she saw while touring the interiors of Bihar as part of a travelling theatre group, inquires into why the Maoists have an influence over a large section of Indian society. Das talked to Uttara Choudhury in New York about her book, and its protagonist Muskaan -- DAILY NEWS AND ANALYSIS, Mumbai, March 28, 2010.

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"The interspersion of references from both the West and India do not clash. Shakespeare and Lazarus as reference points are brought in with ease, as also Valmiki and Goddess Chhinnamasta, and nothing jars ... The language is poetic and creates visual images of beauty and ugliness side by side." -- ABHA IYENGAR, poet (Yearnings: Serene Woods, 2010) and fiction writer in MUSE INDIA, May-Jun 2010


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Shwetank Dubey says Nabina Das ably recreates the milieu of Maoist-infested regions of India -- Nabina Das has chosen the first person account of narrating a story from the main characters of the novel, Nora the sheherwali (urban dweller), Muskaan the rebel, Suryakant Sahay the crafty clandestine planner and Avadhut the frontrunner of all the operations... the book deals with something that no urban resident is bound to know on his own — the life and times of people living in Maoist infested areas and why do they give in to the temptation provided by the Red Brigade. -- PIONEER newspaper, April 25, 2010.
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'"If you misrepresent them, they'll abduct and kill you," says Muskaan, our hostess'... goes the first line with which Nabina Das settles everything about her novel -- style, subject and pace... Excellent plotline. Wonderful detail. A beautifully crafted book. -- Karunamay Sinha; THE STATESMAN, Sunday supplement "8th Day", May 16, 2010.
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"This is bitter-sweet, if a rather longish tale of a modern-day Maoist revolution and the seeds of destruction and betrayal that lie embedded in it." -- Business World, May 17, 2010

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

MY GRANDMOTHER’S DRIED GREEN MANGOES

I plan to derive a completely different poem from this prose poem I wrote two years ago. Thought of retaining the original version here.

My Grandmother's Dried Green Mangoes

There goes my grandmother again, for the umpteenth time tucking her sari at the waist carrying a woven bamboo tray with a sheet of oil paper -- a resting base for little green mango slices to be dried and stored. I see her in my dream clearly, as though she was there, like she used to be
doing her little ritual of mango drying right from the word get go as soon as herds of mangoes tumbled down from bulging shopping bags at her dry tree-root feet.

She pretended there were just too many of them, (what a waste of time) to feel them and peel them and wash them and then size them up before she settled down with her shining
floor-blade, the scary boti, we kids dreaded so much.

She hemmed and hawed and said with feigned irritation: “O Amal, Kajal, Manjul, my sons, don’t you get to buy lesser amounts of these hopeless fruits? My granddaughter is hopefully eyeing their sour flesh. Her saliva can’t wait to drip till I finish slicing them!”

My father, uncles, ignored her distraught calls. She loved the fuss, loved the chore of squatting on the floor and running her hand over the cool firm green bodies in a sort of amorous gesture all afternoon while captivated, I looked on.

Green breasts detached from snappy tree bodies, tempting surely, stuff to vie for. The old woman wasn’t endowed any more so she probably was a tad jealous of all that skin aroma texture my grandmother could die for but could never possess again in this life. And how would I know, a puny child with flat-rib frame, not touched at all by youth’s caressing hands why she kept sighing over those impudent men-luring women-teasing orbs held firm by tight green bodices, bulbous yet soft!?
Before starting, grandma made sure the house was stumped by slumber induced by gentle helpful summer after curries and lentils were eaten bellyful on a Saturday or a Sunday. Tying her sari end at the waist she’d pick the first victim.
She made it seem the mango was a willing volunteer. Willing to sacrifice a darn mango life at her cutting blade, fall in tender slices, soft and seeking of all that
she chose to do with them. Passionate chopping ensued all afternoon and I always correctly guessed she’d put away a few chosen ones for her personal use, to eat them later like an errant child, sour mangoes tingling her teeth. How she loved that, simply relished the act little realizing I cannot be left behind in joining her.

My old grandmother, really bold but white in the head, and quite sleek like the house cat who no one really noticed snickering around the kitchen, picked up a few fruits and quickly slid them into the big wooden box where rice was kept stored. The rice box made the fruits soft, they said, made them surrender and yield easily to my grandmother’s lust when later she would peel them quietly
no one watching, aided by the sleepy noon’s heat, eat them happily toothless – one by one.

Once I peeped into the room. There she was, reaching inside the cavernous rice box putting her mangoes away, thinking no one was witness to her stealthy act.
On seeing me “You saw it, you saw it,” she yelled. “O what a devil of a little girl she is, my spoilt granddaughter!”

Wailing and screaming she never let up flailing arms, hollering and gesticulating, while the whole house descended on the scene of stashed mangoes, all hers, while I had nothing to do them. “I was running after the cat grandma, really,” I pleaded, truthfully.

“The little fiend won’t let me work in peace,” The old widow bawled on and on.
Upset, I ran away to the backyard where I had recently planted my own saplings, mango of course, in the hope they’d grow up faster than did I, so I could eat them before I’m old like her.

That evening, grandma came seeking me out among tall garden grasses
singing to rainbow flowers dragonflies and teaching my dolls and toys not to speak ever to my older family members for being chased away as was I, in utter ignominy.

“Sweetie, come here!”
“Come here,” she called, her white ocean hair flying like a kindly halo of surf,
hands calloused from slicing dozens of mangoes, blackened from delivering their souls. “My dear, I too wasn’t allowed sour mangoes as a kid, I did cry. That’s what I reenacted, depriving you this afternoon. But you and I, young and old, know what it is when you love something utterly so – mango slices, broken dolls, unpicked fluffy grass flowers – they all gladden our senses so much that we can take any trouble for all that unreasonable stuff that holds our feeble fickle hearts.

‘So, I take back my words,” grandma told me. Really? Glad, my eyes grew very wide. I was no longer the pesky little delinquent. Also, she appointed me her assistant in the great task she had set about of drying mango slices. An activity she conducted all summer, filling her precious pickle jars.

For the peace we made, we got to share in all fairness, the treasure from the rice box, three softened pulpy fruits. She slurped her tongue over their creamy flesh, taking in with salt and tang, eyes tightly shut, in an ecstasy probably unparalleled by anything she had known.

“Ah, nature still provides an old widow things of seamless lust,” she blurted almost rakishly and startled me, barely ten. “Yes, you’ll understand the day you become like me, with fruits flowers and flight of time making my night and day!” Her brown wrinkles sighed.

“Once we spice and rub our mangoes with oil lovingly, we will put them in the waiting sun,” she declared after stolen pleasures were appropriated by more slurps. “Now go to sleep.” She prayed to her lord above, stared on long with glassy moist eyes, lying still on bed as I tiptoed out.

Next day, paprika, mustard, turmeric tumbled. Rubbed all over, the slices went sunbathing. Neatly lumped on bamboo trays lying side by side in the sunny courtyard. My job was to shoo away a crow or our inquisitive vegetarian house cat and other creeping invaders.

I dangled my thin legs on the verandah. Uncles joked because I had been redeemed to become my grandma’s accomplice, from being the obstructing greedy child that I was. (That still I am, and it’s the truth; I helped myself to a slice every other day, as special reward.

A guard’s job is not without rewards – that’s how I reasoned. Not telling
my grandmother of the ethical compromise I easily made in my mind.
She’d be heartbroken and I wanted to see her happiness unsullied from our
little joint venture.)

So, the sun came daily, baked the courtyard into split faces – dusty chunks. The green slices curled up with the white heat, lost the fragrant verdant skin, as though their backbones did not hold and they fell, soldiers on a parched battlefield. Shockingly shrunken and stiff.

Sometimes they looked like dancers, fair bodies smoking in the heat. Ballerinas
dancing their final dance, twisting and turning, browned and choking from drinking salt that my grandmother sprinkled daily between her steadfast prayers and assorted household chores.

Deformed and lying on a steaming platform, the mango slices changed shapes –
bats, leaves, shells, shadow-tales – as stronger grew pungent paprika and golden mustard oil. Every evening we picked up the precious trays put them in their pen under grandma’s sparse bed.

My wicked mind wondered if she secretly ate mangoes at night with an extra dash of spice smacking her tongue in her lonely room, where no one would hear her ecstatic squeal. The thought made me guilty. I counted slices daily
in anxious protectiveness to make sure my conjecture was wrong.

The day arrived. “We have to jar them now.” Grandma determined the next course of action – pack ‘em before the slices went too hard. Tucking my tongue in, holding my saliva, I helped. Bottled, dark slices met more red peppers, crafty cumin, fenugreek, fennel, mustard and other venerable spicy folks.

Grandma seemed happy, her work done. Green mangoes spiced, dried and stored while I wondered if the tantalizing product could be tested soon. Her white hair read my furrowed mind. Yes, I may, sample them through my summer holidays, post-lunch, a bit at a time.

And I did under her supervision so as not to deplete her precious collection of
pickled mango – black gold in three heavy jars. Anyway how much would a ten-year-old eat? “There’d be more,” she assured. Back next vacation I could do it from the scratch again, not to be left out. Yes, we could. I was now a veteran at the trade. Only I wasn’t sure, even with a child’s mind, if she could peel and slice the green multitude again next summer, months away, for she was growing older, her veined hands shaky over her sharp floor-blade, which I'd never try handle on my own.

Perhaps she understood my unsaid concern, promised the jars would be mostly full when I’d return next break. After all how much spicy pickle can a wiry old woman eat? And she'd let me do a few fresh trays. “Sweetie, don’t be late or you will miss the fun of carrying bamboo trays in your arms full of fresh green tang.”

But it was my grandma who went missing blatantly from the scene of our promised activity.

Come next year, I found rather dismayed, she had taken a never-ending break. Passed away. Gone someplace where dried mangoes were not desired or needed anymore. The jars stood on her shelf, slices dead swimmers, the bamboo trays lay idle beneath her bed, the cat licking up old oil.

I dreamed her that night. Dream her even now, among green mangoes cooing like a forlorn beloved, the widowed head bobbing as she perfects the slices, speaking softly to her chopping blade, as crows, the cat and I watch her wipe an oily hand on her spotless white sari; she’d ignore those yellow turmeric marks on her immaculate robe and step out hiding little treasures, tastes, memories, dreams, where the sun had slept to be awakened soon. Between shadow and light, she took her footsteps about.

I still follow those old footsteps, down our forgotten wildflower garden to where
the naughty house cat stretches its idle paws and thinks we’re foolish – boring – not to play our old game of watching over grandma’s mangoes to see them wilt and bend in the heat of time, roasting and resting.

10 comments:

Afaque said...

wow...
that was juicy but yet nostalgic... :)
while i was drooling in the beginning, I was thinking back of my own grandma... with a lil difference that we never had mangoes nearby us but we had grapes ivy and she used to do exactly the same... all grandmas are alike and all grand sons & daughters are again same.. :)

gulnaz said...

that was really sweet!!! so well-written too!!!

Phoenixritu said...

Beautiful! Very sensual and poetic. Loved the description of the mangoes - like a woman's breast and then slowly ending up as fallen soldiers. Ahhh This is nostalgia. Reminded me of forgotten summer afternoons of my childhood. No one does pickles any more - every thing is store bought now ......

Anonymous said...

Hey Nabina, enjoyed reading this and it reminded me of my Naani...all of them are same! hai na! -- sunita

fleuve-souterrain said...

Hi Afaque, yes it's the same story everywhere with grandmas and grandkids...!

Gul, thanks sweetie!

Ritu, you got the spirit right on. It is meant to eb sensual. More than the memory of her pickling, it is her sense of gratification and pleasure that made me observe her do this... even as a child I noticed how the mangoes came to replace a certain lost desire...

Sunita! thank you... naani daadis leave us so much treasure without their knowing, it is so true :-)

DubbleX said...

submit to bernard why don't you.

joy leftow said...

let's chat more.
I love mangoes and could live on big ripe juicy ones, no more.

fleuve-souterrain said...

Dx, I did earlier and am published in Jan 09 CSR, Bernie "spotlighted" me, really sweet of him. Can;t be submitting every month, I think...

Joy, sure. Love 'em too!

priti aisola said...

This is so beautifully written with a rakish charming love! And so heartwarming! Continue to delight us with your fresh way of seeing things.

priti aisola

fleuve-souterrain said...

thx Priti!