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).

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.

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.


"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

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.
'"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.

"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

Monday, February 22, 2010

About Aribam: Telling my Manipur Story in Inertia Magazine

The full form of my short story in INERTIA MAGAZINE, Issue 8. Many of my readers asked for the full version here... but I assure you, the magazine site is delightful too.

Why I wrote this story? Manipur is a place close not only to my life geographically but also politically speaking where issues of human rights and basic aspirations are concerned.

About Aribam

Throughout the morning session I couldn’t have him speak more than two sentences. My name is Aribam Ngangom. I work for Manipur Times.

“Like Aribam Syam Sharma!” I quipped.

It was meant to be a compliment. Aribam Syam Sharma was a celebrity. A film-maker and artiste from Manipur.

“I’m Nalini Datta.”

His eyes were cold steel. Like the one he said later he once held in his hands.

It was a cool 2001 March morning on the first day of our Annual North East Media Fellowship Seminar in the wood-scented northeastern hill town of Shillong. We took in the view across the lawns of Hotel Pinewood, one of Shillong’s finest. Of the twenty gathered, Mr. Sharma, Sumana and I were the organizers. We gorged on our English breakfast early. Plenty of bacon and ham, usually not a staple if the seminar were to be elsewhere in India. We Northeasterners, often touted as omnivores, were pleased with the menu although there was aloo paratha and lassi, too.

Nine o’ clock’s introductory session was where we all formally met. I delivered a small speech to the participating journalists after Mr. Sharma, our chief program coordinator, opened with a keynote address. About forty, 5'5'', with a conical face, Mr. Sharma was of tardy speech. His lips pursed even the longer, rounder vowels but he made his point clearly. If he ever needed to raise his voice he raised his thick eyebrows. That way, his conical face looked further elongated. He always dressed semi-formal.

My colleague Sumana was thirty-ish, dusky and pleasantly pixie-faced. While she smiled even during trying times, her black eyes sought out any problem before solving it quietly. She always wore cotton saris neatly pleated, and loosely tied her shoulder-length hair, even while rushing to work. I was about her age, a year more or less, and could easily furrow my brow under pressure. But because she was a good one-arm taller than my five-one height, she treated me like a kid sister and advised me generously.

Sumana nudged me when Aribam Ngangom spoke those two sentences and went silent.

From ‘the jeweled land’ – on India’s map you can see Manipur’s shaped like a teardrop pearl – Aribam had one of those faces where you couldn’t tell whether he was thirty or forty. But his low-pitched voice was heavy like a mature man’s. The prominent lines on his face could have come from overexposure to the weather, as if he had lived a hard life in the villages. Later, I saw that a couple of lines were scars; one on the left cheek, the other high on his forehead close to the hairline. He wore his hair short, almost like an army buzz cut.

Sitting one spot away from him in the conference room, I saw that his locked hands were rough and blunted as though used for chopping logs, not filing reports. If I thought Mr. Sharma excelled in sporting a completely expressionless face, here was his competitor. With his clean-shaven wide square-ish face, Aribam’s eyes were beady and still like a coarse brown paper bag, with two dark dots on it. Just about 5'7", he appeared well-muscled.

“We’re all rice eaters!” I said to him during our lunch break.

He didn’t reply. Instead, piling rice high on his plate, he eyed me once or twice.

The afternoon waned. Of the seventeen journalists with dreams of breaking the 'big story' one day, Aribam and another were left to speak.

“Mr. Ngangom, it’d be a pleasure hearing you,” Mr. Sharma said.

“I came to Manipur Times after my village schooling.”

“He speaks a lot!” Sumana nudged me again with a whisper.

Aribam rambled slowly: his rural upbringing, education in the town, his writing. Said he took a break for some ‘field work’ before getting back to reporting.

“Please tell us more, do,” the usually unruffled Mr. Sharma said with interest.

Aribam’s face appeared puffy. He probably reflected hard on this. Journalists often have unique experiences. In Manipur, we knew life was sometimes difficult and dangerous: insurgency, unemployment, and seasonal calamities. Aribam spoke of living inside forests, braving floods and landslides, building homes in ravaged villages. When he complained, his voice rose protesting how the “mainstream media” barely focused on life in India’s backwaters. We agreed. Cricket, politics, films and fashion constituted the daily menu in ‘mainstream’ newsrooms. Rural struggles and developmental issues had little oomph value. That’s why we were here, inside Hotel Pinewood’s conference room, working with dedicated journalists to help set the alternative agenda. We shared Aribam’s concern. Yet, looking upset, he mumbled that in the name of controlling insurgency, the army and paramilitary were clamping down brutally on his people. No one said much about this. These were controversial issues even among conscientious journalists.

I hardly got a chance to speak to Aribam the next one and a half days. Too much work too fast. Sumana’s help kept me going. With the media fellowships and citations awarded – Aribam among one of the winners – things came to a rapid close.


We were having a going-away party until the next annual meet. In a log cabin by the majestic Lake Umium outside Shillong town, plenty of good food and liquor made everyone happy. It was like a college party. Because I knew quite a few participants personally, I also knew who could sing, recite or tell a joke.

“Ah, look who’s talking!” Sumana said. “I know you sing Nalini. Get started now!”

Everybody else goaded me on, too.

I hesitatingly sang a boatman’s song that seemed to make an impact. The assistant editor chimed in with a song he claimed to have learned on a fishing village trip after a devastating cyclone. The political correspondent recited a tribal lore with couplets about a woman’s plight. Normally shy, Sumana sang a Bollywood song where a peasant praised his ancestral land. The gathering got boisterous. On a second request, I sang the lore of Lord Krishna from Assam, when he deceives the householders into meeting Radha, his ladylove. “He’s a liar, he is divine/he's a thief, he is mine” – thus gasped Radha. Alcohol-infused and relaxed, everyone cheered this one wildly. Love stories don’t fail, especially if they are about gods who behave like mortals! At the last refrain, there was very loud applause. Aribam was clapping with his coarse heavy hands, ignoring the stares. I noticed earlier he was barely drinking. Unlike the others he didn’t get stuck like a fly on the sweet rum and the kebabs and pastries. Then he started singing in his language, which I guess was Meitei, of which I knew a few words. He sang throatily and kept beating on his thigh clumsily with one hand, smiling for the first time. Sumana and I joined in, keeping the beat. Then the others followed. What a party.


“My wife was raped by the paramilitary,” Aribam said, unceremoniously on our way back.

Party over, we hit the road. Evening light wasn’t dead yet. Two big vans they called ‘Matadors’ in these parts, had been hired. Aribam sat next to me. His mouth was near my right ear, so hearing him was easy. The breeze from his window blew my long hair into my eyes.

“They flushed the village and questioned my wife. They told her I was a terrorist, an insurgent. I was late in coming back from buying charcoal from the nearby town. They dragged Ranja away. I spent months hiding inside the forest. They kept coming back, picking up many others. This was when I’d just started as a rookie reporter with the Times.”

He glanced at my cheek. Gently disentangled an errant strand of hair.

“They caught me later. Locked me up and beat me bad.”

His face was distorted in the falling light. Voice heavy and angry.

“Here are the scars…”

He swerved with the Matador, and drew away respectfully.

“Later someone bailed me out. Gave me a gun. Ranja’s pain had made me a madman. I killed one of those dogs. Now no one came after me, I hunted them. Staying away from writing was painful too. I resumed my reporter’s job a couple of years later.”

Aribam looked through the window. It was dark outside now.

“Nalini, don’t bun up your hair. You look better this way.”

The road from Shillong to the plains was not treacherous. Not very serpentine. But these Matadors were vehicles with impatience. They tended to hurtle down the hills with us topsy-turvy inside. Like life does sometimes.

Copyright Nabina Das

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sarai-CSDS Associate Fellowship 2010: What I Propose to Do

My associate fellowship with Sarai-CSDS's "City as Studio" has started. It's an exciting, artistic endeavor, to continue till July-August 2010 when all the fellows meet and share their work in a workshop in Delhi. I'd be happy to share part of what I wrote in my proposal, essentially my thought process that is evolving as I write and create. A few things will therefore change down the line. In all, it's a highly integrative work that accords plenty of creative space to us participants. Being the only writer in the team I look forward to learning from the other fellows who are performance, digital and media artists, each with interesting projects.

Jajabor: The Migrant City

Someone once said: writers have a soul that cannot even stay in heaven; it will journey on. As a writer, I see my nomad self traverse myths and histories, and idioms and images from the cities of my origin to the cities of my dreams. What I encounter in the process is, “Jajabor – The Migrant City”, my proposed project.

The Migrant City walks with millions. It is my studio, my study.

Dr. Bhupen Hazarika’s Assamese song “Moi eti jajabor” (I am a nomad) is perhaps known to a significant number of people at least from its lilting tune. The universal appeal of this melodious song lies in the fact that it exhorts the urge in every human to undertake journeys through difficult climes and terrains. From the banks of known rivers to unknown city streets, we trek with the song until the beauty of the world unravels itself for the seeking soul, tired by her sojourns.

However, putting aside the romance of the nomad’s journey if we look at timeless works such as Pather Panchali, another aspect of the universal truth emerges. Poverty and suffering has constituted the age-old paradigm of migration, forcing populations to leave their ancestral homes. What befell Harihar-Sarbajoya-Apu-Durga in Satyajit Ray’s classic movie is a fate many carry even today, in conditions worse than ever, given India's monumental caste-class problems. While the city waits to receive them, it turns into a migrant itself. With the migrant feet that have journeyed from village to town to city, and in turn from city to city in their endless quest for life and love, the city too has followed the migrant souls, temporally and spatially. Decade by decade and block by block.

My work speaks about waves of population coming and receding from the city, while the city itself changes its landscape, its borders and barriers, and its topography of urban dwellings. High-rise blocks dot housing areas that earlier flaunted old-world asbestos-roofed homes; pavements appear or disappear; mushrooming shopping malls come to exist with the crowd milling around in flea markets where migrants bring in their fare of beads, crafts and colours. A view from below best illustrates this. It indeed shows us how the marginalized and her search for a life of respect in the urban jungle affects the entity of city itself. Shops, bazaars, slums, construction sites etc. come up and continue with the migrant’s evolution or doom. A fascinating journey indeed, the Migrant City walks from a temple town to a city newsroom to a First World seminar room and even back.

A bilingual born and brought up in Guwahati, Assam, my city for me was a conduit for my double-edged heritage. The born-into heritage of Assam and the cultural-political influences of Guwahati from the ‘70s to the late ’80s prepared me for a longer haul ahead. Also, the inherited legacy of an undivided pre-Partition Bengal-Assam whose part my parents were, made me look back every now and then in search of idioms I want to re-create for myself. Sylhet, Sunamganj, Dhaka, Guwahati, Tezpur, Kolkata, Delhi – the train of cities in my experience does not obliterate one another, but supports the link each provides to the other. Often I felt that I have watched these cities, including even my birthplace, from the archway. The centre never held on.

Later when I moved to Delhi, standing at the threshold of the city and not truly belonging to any ONE place enhanced my “city” perception in a particular way. There I saw the imaginary city juxtaposed with the so-called real one with its spaces of "to-do’s and not-to-do’s", it signage of "the allowed and the disallowed", and its collective of "the walled and the un-walled". A Migrant City!

The migrant city in fact, walked and ran with me and even flew across the Atlantic to North America where I witnessed the City and the Inhabitant interact in very special ways – ties of work, specialized training, globalised trade, new culture orientation, economic and knowledge aspirations, etc. bind the Migrant City to its population – whether it is a university town in rural America or the coasts or the Big Apple itself.

Through my poems Dialogues with Delhi (published in Kritya, India), Questionnaire (published in Omega journal, Howling Dog Press, USA), Narrative Limits (2nd Prize winner in 2008 all-India poetry contest under HarperCollins-India and Open Space, published in the collection 'Borders' from Talking Poetry), Her Gardens in Two Hemispheres (published in Muse India), Battery Park City, Sem(an)tics and City Siblings; and the essays Pariscope (published in Troubadour 21, USA) of the ongoing “Euro-series”, and the work-in-progress Felinity of the “Assam-Delhi- series”, I want to bring alive the Migrant City in its different aspects.

Three tentative segments seem viable under the main project “Jajabor: The Migrant City”:

  1. Text and the City: my poems that dialogue with the City and the Inhabitant – this will result in a workshop with other artists/participants
  2. Hands and Hemispheres: my essays that follow the life of the City and the Inhabitant in their reality and fictionality across continents, as I see these elements from the periphery of cities – this will result in another interactive workshop possibly with oral stories of migrant experiences
  3. Within-Without: poems, essays, haiku on “City Memorabilia” – songs, videos, advertisements, monuments, street signs, restaurants, slums, bazaars, skylines… – this could team up with a partner artist’s presentation, one who has highlighted similar “city memorabilia”.

I'd love to hear my readers' suggestions. The creative effort is an interactive process, so come on, give me your ideas!

Image from Internet: Elephant on Delhi road; REUTERS

Saturday, February 6, 2010

3 "Sentimental" poems--in progress

Every now and then I have been gently nudged to write "sentimental" poems by several people. These poems are still being written and re-written. No idea when they'd be finished. But here they are anyway, hopefully sentimental:

1. Afterglow

5 p.m. Yellow bees invite blue china clouds

They forget the sun cannot light the lamp

5 p.m. You are drinking tea with honey

Inside a penumbra by the Radhachuda tree

You can wait, then bring the oil lamp out

Circumnavigate the non-existent tulaxi

The Namghar’s 5 p.m. silence will soon spew

Its tranced kortaal dueting with the khol

5 p.m. You will know that time has struck

Gooseberry shadowing the home of a dream.

(Sentiment: my parents sold off their own house in Guwahati, Assam -- where my brother and I grew up from pre-teens till we went to the university -- and moved away. Tulaxi is a sacred plant; Namghar is a worship house; kortaal and khol are musical instruments cymbals and narrow drum)

2. Morphologia

My mother’s litheness has melted

on to a lump of thin muscles limp

her skin a silken furrowed Kabuki fan

she’s not plump anymore, my Ma

those breasts once like mountained pies

now they whisper each other stories

of passion that hangs loose, peeled

her mouth’s cinnamon is browned

and her hair more jasmine than kohl

the white roses at the porch know

have seen the bloom fade, with years’ trim

and she worships more her favorite

man-god, feeds him like an infant

now that she can’t have us on her lap anymore


Seeing distant rivers on the TV she starts

off about the playground by the Surma

and the tea gardens where jhumur

was the first step she had learned


My mother's city was not her friend, she

loved it only from the Xarania’s top

by its aloof white dome, her brown eyes

mapping the Moha-baahu’s breadth

for a lore she sung us from her past


Now afternoons pass, evenings flower

with incense in their hearts, she lies

from the long day of her godhuli life

bundled and river-clay-soft on her bed

as if no bones or flesh make that body

it makes me utter in a nervous even tone:

"Ma will you wake up, shall I get you some tea?"

(Sentiment: my mother is aging pretty well and fast. Xarania is a hillock in the city of Guwahati, sort of a scenic observation point; jhumur is a tea-garden dance; Moha-baahu is a metaphorical name for the River Brahmaputra; godhuli roughly means 'dusk or twilight'... actually none)

3. Eight-and-a-half

(I have shared this on FB too, but feedback is welcome because this has changed some bit...)

No midnight lamp or noisy page turning

no dawn-time clanking Corelle bowls of sudden hunger pangs

no cheeky slip-ons sitting scattered pretty on my rugs

no demolished cushions from hours of crushing

no shaving foam while I pick up the morning toothbrush

no mixing up of towels or ‘oh yours smell like hell’ time


No fancy breakfasts, no standard lunches

no chasing the tail of time, let the sky wither

no saying ‘but I said so, and you should know ‘

no dipping finger in the sauce to taste, how cheap!


You were not there

so more it seemed

the dreams were truer

than their interpretations

you are back, a watermark on my waiting

no more peeking out at the Canada geese

from behind my closed window blinds.

(Sentiment: Mr. M was gone for 8 and half days across half the world... )

Image: from my computer -- My Mother.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Short Fiction "ABOUT ARIBAM" in Inertia Magazine 8

I have a short story published in Inertia Magazine -- ABOUT ARIBAM.

After clicking on the story title, see my name listed under 'fiction' on the left-hand bar and click for the text.

A bit of backgrounder: I used to work as the media coordinator for National Foundation for India, a grant-making body in India directly funded by Ford Foundation. We indeed had a media program that I took over from a wonderful senior, and ran my flagship media conference one time in Shillong, a beautiful city and capital of the northeastern state of Meghalaya in India.

I indeed met my protagonist at that conference. But this is largely fiction that showcases those moments of life that fail to provide any explanation about their rationality or exactitude of occurrence. And given that I am a neighbor of Manipur and it's beautiful people, something spurred me to write this piece.

Do enjoy the story and tell me what you think!

Image from Inertia Magazine cover, Issue 8, February 2010.

Monday, February 1, 2010

FOOTPRINTS Cover Kitsch...

Some of my friends have perhaps seen my older post "My Sketch and the Fun I have with it!". In that post stuck some versions of a sketch I've been doing for a few months ... until now that it has become something palpable. The cover of my novel FOOTPRINTS IN THE BAJRA.

But I just thought it'd be interesting to see those sub-sketches again alongside a few cover options that were thrown at me, by the publishers as well as my dithering mind. But I soon realized what I actually wanted, and I rooted for it, successfully!

This was one photographic option, but I realized these are paddy, not millet, in a parched land!

This was definitely pearl millet (bajra), but this option looked very boring too me; even with the ominous red sky, it seemed to have no soul or drama. People who know me, they know I prefer both!

This photo above is the same when I was tinting it red-pink...

Cedar sent me this photographic option. A girl walking through some crop field. But the locale looked non-Indian, certainly non-Bihar, and not even remotely any closer to my story and the protagonist/s. Too stiff, too transliterated, too predictable. Nope!

These ones below are the versions of the Madhubani drawing I was starting to visualize as my cover. So you have upside down, truncated, full drawing...

Oh, don't miss the gun! I had to labor HARD to make it look like a country gun!

And of course, what you see below is the original B&W sketch when I started working with it ...

Images: from the Internet; drawings: by Nabina Das