Monday, December 1, 2014

Lahiri's 'The Lowland': A Three-Way Portrait About Human Individuality, Strength and Resilience

Jhumpa Lahiri's second novel and fourth book, 'The Lowland' does not appear to have won all hearts over or run away with numerous awards as her previous books have done (although a finalist for the Booker and also the National Book Award, she did not go home with those honors); yet to me it is her best book thus far.

The characters are unique and the story line suggests that she has been willing to take a risk and deviate from the insular world of accomplished Bengali Americans and their generally privileged American Bengali progeny.  The stories of Udayan and Gauri are anything but predictable or safe choices for a writer beloved by critics and American readers alike. Instead, each of the main characters, including Subhash and Bela, are memorable and distinct, complex and tragic, and they live with the reader long after the last page has been closed. How Lahiri, who comes across as having had the best of most things -- including a stable and secure upbringing in the New England area -- can get into the heart and head of Gauri, the troubled female protagonist from another world, another time, is a puzzle to me. Lahiri exemplifies what she has always been good at -- i.e., depicting the inner lives and turmoils of her characters and deftly drawing you in to care about them forever.

It seems that the main discontentment (in reviews and online comments) with this book is about her understanding of the Naxalite movement (as an 'outsider'), her depiction of the Calcutta politics of the '60s and '70s (as an 'outsider'), and the impression that she writes for a non-Indian audience.  But my own brief disenchantment arose due to the quality of her writing in the first 30 pages or so.  It seemed passive, distant, hurried, with a singular goal of establishing the sociopolitical milieu, painting the landscape and explaining the geography, all in a whirlwind of numerous sentences beginning with the word 'They'. She gave an impression of going through the motions of setting up the atmosphere without ever breathing it in.  It was almost as if it was written as an afterthought in response to an editor's note that some introduction into the Calcutta of yore is needed.  But once she (and we as the readers) get through this necessary exercise, a private world of deeply-wounded and remarkably stoic characters opens up to us and we end up being enmeshed into their extraordinary, unexpected and melancholic stories. 

We become privy to her characters' pain -- their sorrows, their sadnesses, their loneliness--at once together and apart from each other.  From then on, it is not just the politics of West Bengal and Calcutta,it is the politics of the old and the new, of ideology in the home and outside, of parents and sons, of in-laws. There is so much deeply-moving character and content, and the author carefully lays it all out for us to read, feel, see and never conclude. Or at least conclude only when all is gradually revealed at the end, as she subtly and carefully peels a layer here, shares a detail there, leaves a gentle clue or two. For example, when Gauri was questioned by the investigators there was only one name that she did not truthfully know. This fact nagged at me while I was reading, but I realized the significance of the detail only towards the end.  Apart from it being a crucial detail to the novel, it made me stop and think. We may not all be revolutionaries (or destructive social elements -- depending on our viewpoints) and commit heroic (or unspeakable acts), but when we decide to act at any level, we affect people, even those whose names we may not have cared to know. Patience is required of us as readers and it is well worth our while as our understanding descends eventually but gently about the controversial choices made. Our compassion sets in for all those individual lives affected immediately (and for a generation or two to come) by the course of unwavering and steady but cold social reality since the dawn of the people's history.     

If the child is the father of a man, what becomes of the girl-child without a childhood?  
The story of Bela is a quintessential painful and poignant story of resilience in a child -- yet not a single review I had browsed earlier on, touched upon it or alluded to it (which was a good thing, because I stumbled upon it without any expectations; it is a story that will always be remembered by me and passed on to others broken and recovering from family tragedies). Even though I was bewildered by Gauri's choice -- the one that was finally truly hers to make, own, and live by, however controversial and irreversible -- and every vulnerable fiber in my body rebelled against it, I came to understand in the end that this is the punishment she metes out to herself and her kind. Painful though it is, the logic of depriving your own flesh and blood what was deprived by you to another offspring's life, seeps through, and I came to understand that this is only way in which Gauri redeems herself, at least in my eyes. Yes, but Bela pays the price.

Even before the secret that holds Gauri apart is revealed to us, Lahiri tells us so much more about her early life. Just the details of young Gauri explain to us the comment that Udayan's mother makes to Subhash: She's too withdrawn, too aloof to be a mother.  She is talking about a young woman who was born to an ailing, older couple, who send her and Manash (the only sibling somewhat close to her age) to live with the grandparents. And how much attention could they have given her despite their love? Her numerous older sisters are forever absent from her life and the only person who is a constant in her childhood and youth is Manash. Hansel and Gretel usually make a great fairy tale, but not always natural-born parents. It is telling that in a city teeming with life, Gauri was depicted as usually gazing at it from the distance of her small balcony -- when she wasn't absorbed in her books. A young partner, newly in love, could have potentially drawn her into the midst of this promising, busy world, but Udayan too frequently kept disappearing on her while he was still alive. Her in-laws kept their own aloofness which turned into full-fledged resentment after Udayan's death. So much so that when Udayan looks at her face just before being killed -- which he regretfully understands as his final abandonment of her -- he sees only a look of disillusion. After all this, how could a young woman, as alone in this world as her, handle motherhood with ease?  To give as a mother, it is usually necessary to receive as a child. This is one area in which Bela, under Subhash's undivided attention, fierce protection, and steady, solid love, actually fares much better than Gauri.

A few words about what Gauri's character means to me:
A month or so before I began to read 'The Lowland', I lamented the fact that South Asian diasporic fiction focuses on women who follow their husbands across continents and experience domestic and cross-cultural adjustments. I regretted that women like me -- having arrived for grad school on our own, just like the men -- are rarely depicted. Juggling grad school, career and personal life, the additional pressures and extra avenues for isolation we face, are less well-known than those that our men face. Ironically, I declared that even Jhumpa Lahiri does not write about my kind of first generation women. Yet, here is Gauri, slowly but surely submerging herself into her intellectual passions, earning a PhD scholarship, riding the ebb and flow of her academic life, glowing in the seasonal fluctuations of her students' respect and love when knowing fully well that they will be gone at the end of their course, if not at the end of the semester.  For the two children whose adversity she must feel responsible for, she balances out by helping a few college kids, I suppose. Still, I could so easily be her. A thin line separates her madness from mine. With my love for all things academic and my passion for what I imagine is an unfettered intellectual life, I would so want to be her, minus her wrongs and humiliations.  

One of the strongest and most interesting female characters in South Asian diasporic fiction, Gauri may be somewhat flawed but she comes equipped with her own internal moral compass. Her strength comes from her willingness to be alone, to take the more difficult and less-trodden (and near-empty) path, and to live out her life on her own terms even if it means being alone with her own thoughts and regrets.       

Too many descriptions of the book out there, emphasize, so predictably and in a banal way, the love beyond death between Gauri and Udayan -- yet, I don't see it as that simplistic.  There was love and then there is some hate. But more than anything else, what binds her to her first husband, her dead husband, is the unspeakable secret she shares with him.  Subhash is a strong enough character on his own -- even Gauri recognizes that from the beginning to the end. Yet, several reviews out there, describe him as a sibling who has had to live in the shadow created by his younger brother.  I can't understand for sure whether Lahiri is sympathetic to Udayan and his politics, but her depiction of him in the final pages is full of compassion with a tinge of sorrow about the lack of choices for youth driven with a sense of righting society's wrongs; for youth thirsting for social justice.  In the end, although Naxal politics provide a background and a springboard for this book and open a window into a Calcutta that was largely unknown to most of us who came of age after the '60s and '70s, what really captures us are the individual characters that Lahiri was bold and imaginative enough to create and stand by in a world that did not expect her to break out of her own mold. She took a risk and I love her more for it.                    

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Catherine Clarke's art therapy

If you are a local, you've got to go see Catherine Clarke's creations in the name of art therapy at Harper College. If you are a skeptic about cathartic art having class, grace and simplicity, you've got to fly into this Chicago suburb before November 3rd of 2014.  Interestingly, my favorites are different from the ones mentioned in this write-up.  And even Clarke's written descriptions to each of her creations have a stand-alone power to move an intersection of your heart and mind that you never knew existed.   

My favorites are the ones about 'these days are numbered' and 'the artist's cafe'.  And a few more. 

For the article in a local newspaper, click here.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Tamizh makkal, Tamizh magalgal (Tamils and Tamil daughters)

Discussions about Tamil (the language) and Tamils (the people) like Periyar and Annadurai seem to abound currently in India because the question of national language is back in the limelight.

The Dhaka Tribune has an in-depth article on the history of Tamil language and the identity of its people.
Perhaps it is time for me to tell my thirsting-for-all-things-Tamil twelve-year old that her great-grandfather went to prison in the '60s, along with C. N. Annadurai, protesting against Hindi imposition. 

But then again, I will have to deal with questions such as 'why don't you and daddy speak Tamil like Tamils do?', 'why don't you think in Tamil?' and 'when are you going to teach me Tamil?'  Alas, no Tiger Mom am I. 

So maybe it will become time for me to tell her that I am just about busy surviving somewhere, somehow; that, if my thatha wasn't snatched prematurely from this world, maybe I will now be a Tamil in Tamil Nadu rather than a Tamil in oblivion; that perhaps, she, my daughter, will have more opportunities to live life on her own terms; possibly, after the meandering and lost generations in between, she will connect right back to that proud, hardworking, self-respecting Tamil whose blood and love for the language runs deep in her veins.

Yes, maybe it is time for a Tamil moment between a Tamil mother and her much more Tamil daughter.      

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Salt those wounds until well done

Salted wounds,
Fester well
When carefully nurtured
Cupfuls of neglect
Spoonfuls of arrogance
Fistfuls of cluelessness
About the responsibility of
Walking in another's shoes
However old and worn out.

Yet when the job is well done
The stench of sadness
Maybe yours to own
But it becomes mine to keep.


President's award for academics

My 12-year old graduated from elementary school last week and, as her parents, my husband and I were notified a week ahead that "one" among our children was receiving an award (it wasn't hard to guess which one). "It would be a wonderful surprise for your child if you could be in school on the last day at 8:30 a.m.", we were told.  

Somewhat new to America's K-12 school system, we were unaware of the different awards and recognitions.  On the day of the awards, we sat through all the certificates of participation, intramural achievements, awards for club activities, recognitions for volunteer efforts and appreciations for positive response to behavioral expectations.  We were happy to see each of our children go up on stage at least once, but we suspected that something more was to come.

The principal, Ms. BR -- a warm, welcoming and very capable person -- began the last set of awards with a description of the President's awards.  She read out loud a form letter from President Obama and announced to the school and the visiting parents that each child who receives this award will go home with a copy of the letter, a pin and a certificate. She also described the two categories within the award -- the President's Award for Educational Achievement and the President's Award for Educational Excellence.  The former, she informed us, recognized all those students that show outstanding educational growth, improvement, commitment or intellectual development in their academic subjects and is meant to encourage and reward students who work hard and give their best effort in school, often in the face of special obstacles to their learning. 

My line of work being in Assessment currently, my first thought was about children with disabilities, including learning disabilities such as dyslexia, ADHD, affective disorders.  But the word 'obstacles' loomed large in my mind and I also imagined kids from difficult socioeconomic circumstances, family and immigration issues, custody battles. I was happy to know that the President's office was incorporating in their recognition the concern and efforts from Admissions committees in several institutions and from advocates of Diversity & Inclusion principles. I also heard Ms. BR say that she was going to call the former group of awardees first (the recipients of the Achievement award), give time for a collective applause and camera clicks, before calling out the latter group of awardees (the recipients of the Excellence award).

Then she proceeded to read out names with the loving pride reserved for principals who love their jobs -- first off, an Indian American boy looking well-adjusted and capable.  Then an Indian American girl -- my girl.  And my quiet, shy and unassuming girl walked to the stage and towards her principal only to find Ms. BR looking horrified for a split second and beginning to apologize. "I am sorry," she said, "this goes to show that even principals are capable of making mistakes.  I am truly, truly sorry and quite embarrassed."  It turns out that she had interchanged the order of the two lists and read the latter first.  She sent the two kids on the stage back to their seats, assuring them that she will call their names again -- at the right time, in the right order.  The whole incident lasted no more than a few minutes before the Achievement kids were honored and the Excellence kids were called back onto the stage.  My husband would later turn to me and whisper that seeing our kid then and there made the Principal realize she was onto the wrong order of lists. 

Later, in the unfettered privacy of the world of my thoughts, I wondered if Ms. BR would ever know or realize that she not only recognized my child for her academic excellence but also unknowingly gave testament to my child's strength and resilience and my own unsung efforts at surviving, to the best of my abilities, in the face of my own obstacles. My children, especially my first-born, have survived more than their share of school transfers; cushioned a forever-mismatched, sometimes-rocky/sometimes-rock solid marriage between their parents; watched their bread-winning mother making dents in a profession that is, perhaps, the most difficult for any foreign-trained professionals to be established in the United States and Canada; learned to help glue back the pieces of their mother every time she falls apart as the unhappy ghost of a birth family that denies her, period; rarely experienced grandparents' unconditional love; wondered if parties, vacations and wealth are only for relatives far away.   

For such a 'non-recognition' of the trials in my family, Ms. BR, I will forever be grateful to you.  I hope to live up to your non-expectations -- which, for someone who wakes up every morning wondering how much more has she possibly messed up everything under the sun, such 'obscurity' is as good as it could get.          


Sunday, June 8, 2014


He was old for his kind - nearly 14. He wasn't too big; about a foot tall and not more than 8-9 kgs. One couldn't make out his breed. He was a mutt but there was definitely a lot of terrier blood in his veins. His once lustrous coat had become dull, disheveled, dry and coarse. My landlady, whose dog Petya was, no longer groomed him. She felt old, tired, and frightened herself. 

My landlady, like most elders in that society, wasn't yet accustomed to being poor. She was past 65. Nurses like her, in other countries, retired with reasonable comfort by that age. But she hadn't. Her entire monthly pension would buy little beyond basic groceries and some everyday necessities. Her government's treasury couldn't keep up with the soaring inflation. So she had to work as a temporary staff-member at a nearby hospital, in addition to collecting littered beer bottles in the park and housekeeping in school #18. She wasn't as concerned with earning money to buy warm boots or meat as she was with saving it to be assured of a decent grave and a coffin. 

Petya had no system in his body that wasn't malfunctioning. His eyes -- tired, listless and gooey -- could be seen only when you flicked his fringe away. You could hear his breathing -- short and coarse -- even when he was 10 feet away. He wouldn't eat much. In fact he couldn't chew at all. We would use a little of our precious milk to soak all the table scraps we fed him. I was aware of the bad breath and bad odor he reeked of and even if I got used to it, my friends couldn't. Still, he slept on my bed for the entire year that I was a boarder. He couldn't jump onto my bed and would wait patiently to be lifted up. When I walked him he needed to rest every now and then. I always took with me pages of old newspapers (paper napkins, tissues, and toilet-paper rolls were rationed) to help with his 'poop'. He would get so constipated sometimes that his hind legs would give in before his bowels did.

The day had come when I was going to take Petya to the polyclinic. I was to be the one to put him to sleep. My landlady had first spoken to me about that a month or so before. She could no longer afford to hire daily help for her 95-year old mother who lived in another republic. This particular arrangement had only been temporary anyway; in fact, only ever since my landlady's brother with his family chose to become part of the emigration statistics. The mother had been living with her son and his family up until then. So now my landlady had to leave town to take decisions about where and how her mother was going to spend the rest of her life and make those necessary preparations. I was also planning to move closer to school. I needed a place from where I could merely walk back and forth to class. Public transportation was getting worse. It was that damned government treasury again. 

All this meant that there would be no one to look after Petya, at least, not for the next couple of months. I didn't think there were any animal shelters in that country. It was a socialist society in name only. In reality, certain signs of social responsibilities such as an animal shelter were not visible.
We had searched in vain for something 'kind' to put him to sleep. But such things, like everything else in that country, were either in dire shortage or had simply disappeared from retail shelves. Neither scenario helped common folks acquire goods easily. Even my vet student status proved futile. My school's clinic and surgery had, for over a year, received patients only if their owners could bring their own medical supplies (which they would buy for exorbitant prices from speculanti). The doctors in the lady's hospital just wouldn't spare the meager amounts they were zealously guarding. "Regulations," they said. Plus, an overdose for a dog would mean robbing a fraction from a human patient's needs. 

Petya and I left home very early in the cold of that April morning in '92 for the tramway wouldn't be crowded at that time. He was, as usual, happy as he could physically be when he went out for a walk -- which wasn't much of a show any way. But to me, it seemed like there was more intent and depth in his eyes that day. I was probably just reading too much. We found a place to sit in the tram. I could see that he was enjoying his ride. I didn't know if he should eat but for want of something to do I fed him my keks. We were going to the City Polyclinic for Small Animals, where I volunteered in my limited spare time. The traumatologist there had said that she would try to find something from her supplies. When we got off the tram I walked him very slowly, giving him ample time to sniff every bush that interested him and to mark every lamppost we passed.

At the clinic, the traumatologist, whom I simply called Jhenya, and who always had her hands full, was giving discharge instructions rapidly to a client who had brought in a cat. "Come on in," she waved when she saw us, "kotik here is just about to leave." As promised, in a few minutes she walked the client to the door and as she passed us, she gently touched Petya (who responded by wagging his tail vigorously), and cooed something to him. I couldn't hear what; neither could I see for my eyes were moist at that time. I was aware of the next client following Jhenya into the room already. Before attending to him, Jhenya passed me some ampules of sodium citrate. I was startled. "Can this be used to put dogs to sleep?" I asked hesitatingly. At the same time my mind was racing at an astonishing speed to remember some relevant pharmacophysiology facts. Jhenya looked at me with eyes fraught with experience well beyond her age and explained, "Zaichka, this is going to be more difficult than you think. It can't be intramuscular or intravenous. You have to find the heart. Or a lung. Go between the ribs at a 45 degree angle. Yes, it will be painful for him, but for only a few minutes. We don't have anything peaceful for him. You understand, nothing is like before in this country." Yes, I knew that. So I nodded mutely. But I hadn't expected such a procedure for Petya. When my Monnie back home was put to sleep, she never knew it. She just lay down to sleep, probably a little puzzled. And never woke up. What have I gotten into here?

I don't know when Petya lost his trust in me -- when I poked about inexperiencedly between his ribs, when I punctured his lung, or when the citrate began to work inside him by binding calcium ions. I watched in horror as he twitched, grunted, almost inaudibly, and spasmed towards his death. When the convulsive seizures started, I could bear no more. I started to sob loudly, unashamedly, angrily. Angrily. Anger - a highly prevalent emotional state, those days, in those communities. Anger. My anger that day was with my own self, with Jhenya, and with the country as a whole for all our collective feelings of helplessness. 

How soon was it that Petya stopped breathing? I don't know, though it seemed like a long time to me. Gentle arms wrapped around me and led me to a chair and held me there until the last tear had been shed. When my sobs had died, I gulped down the glass of weak, sugarless tea that was passed to me. Wiping my mouth with the back of my sleeve, I got up. I've got to be strong. I was studying to be a vet. In a country where even the people did not expect to be treated humanely.

With that swift change of mood that had already become a part of my abilities, I put the glass down and turned to the limp, warm body of Petya. I picked him up easily from the table that was used for both, examinations and surgeries, and gathered him within his bed cloth. With each of my hands I was grabbing hold of two of his limbs and two corners of the bed-cloth. His head hung limply pulled by gravity. Why didn't I just carry him in my arms like I usually did? I don't know. Probably I wanted only air between him and me -- not contact. I walked out of the traumatologist's, along the hallway, across the lounge, and out of the doorway of the clinic. Groups of waiting clients along the way glanced at us with varied degrees of interest. Hardly noticing them and with deliberate strides, I walked past the back of the building towards a big black bin. Upon reaching it, I had to hold Petya in the crook of one arm and against my chest so that the other hand was free to open the lid of the bin. 

Then, without hesitating, I dropped him into the bin. I heard a dull thud when his carcass hit another. An observer would not have noticed my slight delay in closing the lid. My last view of Petya ensured that he was separated from all the other 'hygienically disposable waste' by a piece of worn bed-cloth.
I went back to Jhenya's room. She was now attending to a patient with what looked to me like a nasty open grade III fracture of the metatarsal. An HBC case no doubt. Without taking her eyes off the frightened German Shepherd Jhenya asked me if I was coming in the following Saturday. "Yes," I said, beginning to scrub my hands at the sink, more out of practice than out of anything else. I thought, maybe a little dramatically, that I could never wash the blood off my hands. I left the room vaguely aware of the delicate fragrance, the stylish Italian leather boots and jacket the young, pretty but distressed Shepherd owner was sporting. But it is the bulging leather purse that she was holding with her delicate diamonds studded fingers that remains etched in my mind today. 

Once out in the chestnut tree lined street I made up my mind not to go back to my apartment just then. The day had been structured originally for running errands, washing clothes, and catching up with school stuff but I was no longer in a mood for life's mundane chores. Neither was I willing to meet with friends. So I hopped onto tramways, transferred between trolley buses and even rode the metro to the other side of river Dneipr. I went to those parts of that green city where the tourists gathered—the Pecherskaya Lavra in the city center; the breathtaking St. Sophia Cathedral; the Golden Gate that was built to defend the city; the ornate St. Andrew's church atop a hill. Those sections of the city often provided an escape from reality for me. "Here are some of the holiest of holy Russian ground," I had heard someone say once. There I could truly marvel at the fact that I happened to be living in the oldest city in the USSR, the "Jerusalem of Russia," the capital of the Wheat Basket of Europe. And as I walked the restored cobbled street of Andreevski Spusk toward the Podol section of Kiev where artists were selling their wares, I almost forgot Petya. 

As darkness approached I decided to try my luck at the Opera House. I knew that 'La Traviata' was playing there. But as I had expected the show was sold out. Curiously, I was not dejected. It felt good to know that even in those troubled times Kievlyanins were keen on the finer things of life.
Then I walked all the way to the Khreshatik, the main boulevard of Kiev. The city's bustling main square on the Khreshatik with colorful lights and sparkling fountains would stay lively long after the rest of the city retired quietly for the night. Cold, tired, and hungry I stopped at a café across the square, next to the gigantic statue of Lenin. Once inside the café, I joined the line of people waiting to be served. When my turn at the counter came I bought a cup of coffee and 2 pirozhkis. I managed to find an empty table by the tall glass window facing the square. It was colder by the window but my coffee would keep me warm. Two Colombian students at a nearby table were talking animatedly in Spanish. Their voices, and their language, rose above the general buzz in the café. I tried not to listen. I turned my attention to the people outside. Several couples were walking arm in arm, or just hanging about, engrossed in each other. A group of lively people were arranging themselves in front of the professional cameraman's tripod. Their color photograph with the fountains in the background would be mailed to them in a week's time. A boisterous group of Indian guys walked past the café. I recognized some of them. They were first year students in mechanical engineering or something. I had been introduced to them in the last Indian Students' Association meeting. I couldn't help but smile when I saw two tall blonde women among them. 

In spite of the pleasantness outside thoughts about the day could not be pushed back any longer. I remembered Petya. I remembered the feel of his coat perfectly as though he was rubbing against my legs at that moment. I could recognize his distinct doggy smell even above the strong aroma of my coffee. A shaft of pain – maybe it was guilt – pierced through me. But I knew that there was nothing that I could've done differently. It occurred to me then that my landlady and I were like the kulaks that I had heard about. Or were we? The kulaks under Stalin's rule, while trying to resist the process of collectivization, killed most of their own farm animals. It was said that about half the country's livestock had been sacrificed. Powerless, the kulaks, had attempted a way out at all costs. "Just like my landlady and I had chosen," my young, baffled mind thought. But there the similarity between them and us ended. Unlike the kulaks, we had no noble cause, only a pitiable reason. So was it really meaningful to compare and contrast? The kulaks' animals, by their sheer numbers, made it to historical narratives. Our Petya never would. The kulaks loss was meant to be remembered. Our loss, so entwined with our shame, would be better buried, best forgotten. The kulaks had hoped to make a statement. We would prefer to be silent. Overwhelmed by my own exaggerated thought processes I tried to focus more on the kulak story. It had also been said that the enormity of the farm animal catastrophe was lost when around five million peasants subsequently died from starvation. They had attempted a form of passive resistance by refusing to harvest their grain. They had hoped that Stalin would not let them starve. Apparently, they had underestimated Stalin's ruthlessness.

Thus, I sat there brooding, trying in vain to make some sense out of my extraordinary yet equally inconspicuous day, to put things in both historical and cosmic perspective, to draw some meaning out of my presence there that day when someone tapped lightly on my shoulder. Ah yes, it was time for the café to be closed. I had to leave. 

That night I didn't go home until very, very late. Still, my landlady was waiting for me. "Was he peaceful?" she asked in a shaky voice. "Yes," I replied, hanging my heavy coat and refusing to look her in the eye.

speculanti: speculators, hoarders.
Keks: muffin-like baked goodie.
Kotik: kitten; endearing a cat; kitten-like.
Zaï chka: term of endearment (literally, bunny).
HBC: hit-by-car; part of veterinary jargon.
Pecherskaya Lavra: the Monastery of the Caves
Andreevski Spusk: Andreyev steep (or hill)
Pirozhki: small pies
Kulaks: rich peasants

By Malathi Raghavan, 2000
First published by

Saturday, June 7, 2014


The night is dark...
                                      silent and cold...
The plantation crops stand still;
the crickets whirr
                            and for miles around
Everything else lies still.

But hark!
In one of the tiny sheds...
In the dark and the cold
                           amidst swaddling rags,
the birth of a helpless soul.

A kerosene lamp greets the babe...
                            into an otherwise uncaring world.

No doctors, no nurses...
Just an old neighbour with a blade.
No hospital, no ward...
Just a mat for a bed.

No blankets nor warm clothes...
Just rags and the cold.
No high-pitched wail...
Just a tiny whimper,
a resignation to the fates.

For the tired mother, there's no joy
                         her first born's female...
The tiny rivulet of joy
                                   is lost...

In its place
                  a sea of helpless anger
and frustration grows.
The mother sees her daughter's fate
                  no better than her own,
nor any of her kind.

For she is of upcountry stock
                  and being Tamil is her fate.
And unto her daughter
                  she could bequeath nothing...but
a life of suffering...
And finally death.
Blissful, welcomed death.

How to break out...
                  is the anguished mother's cry
To end this awful fate of
                                                                             slow death.
A monstrous fate hanging o'er them
The future of the plantation child.

The future of her new-born child
                    a daughter of the plantations...
Condemned to a stateless being
                    and rearing yet more stateless.
A fate so cruel -- it has turned
                    a free land into prison.

To break this fate is her mission
                    but tears, prayers and submission
Are all in vain
                    They are of no avail.  

Copyright Malathi Raghavan 1985-86


For sale the farmer advertised

the best bred of his stock.
And so he spread the news around.
The news travelled fast.
From far and near the buyers came
to see his red roan cow.

"Her pedigree's unimpeachable", he said.
"There's no doubting that
in the prime of life
giving gallons of milk,
many calves too she will bear.
Yet when she's old
She'll have so much beef
An army she may feed.
Her skin is of the softest roan
no factory can refuse…"

And so the farmer prattled on
the quality of his stock.

My son's of age the farmer thought
the eldest of his brood.
And so he spread the word around.
The news travelled fast.
From far and near the brokers came
of brides-to-be to speak.

"She's a homely type", one broker said.
"I assure you that
of flawless skin, the divine shape,
a house too she can keep.
A pleasure to behold
Yet ever so strong,
many robust sons she'll bear
of talented mein, with house worth lakhs,
jewels and farmland too she'll bring;
no thinking man'll resist…"

And so the broker prattled on
the quality of his stock.

"Why is this so" a daughter asks,
"that we be bought and sold?"
And soon she passed the message around.
The news traveled fast.
From far and near the women came
to see what could be done.

"We'll meet with hostility first," said one.
"We should recognize that
With bricks and bats and this and that
 they'll try to keep us down.
 We're human beings with brains and mind
and not just household slaves.
No more for us as dressed up dolls
and beings to bear more heirs.
We're through with being just mindless beings
whom man cannot resist…"

And so the women vowed to rise:
No more would they be stock.

By Malathi Raghavan 1984-85

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Good cinema by women

Three powerful movies I watched recently were all directed and/or written by women.

Cherien Dabis wrote and directed, 'Amreeka', a movie about a divorced Arab mom from the West Bank who immigrates to the United States with her teenage son and learns she cannot, for a minute, let down her resilience to live a life with dignity.  


'Amu' was written and directed by Shonali Bhose who based the movie on her book by the same name. 

The NYT review says something mild about Shonali Bhose not yet in perfect form because this is her first movie (amidst a positive review), but to hell with all these professional reviewers who supposedly know everything. The storyline was gripping and the lighter themes were adequately explored and exposed while the main troubling one rightly haunts your sleep.
The trailer ends with Brinda Karat's voice telling Amu, "you are strong enough to know the truth." The same goes for us. 


And Wadjda is extra special among these specials. It is directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, the first female filmmaker in Saudi Arabia.  Waad Mohammed plays the very charming 11-year old who has set her eyes on a bicycle -- something the Saudi society has forbidden girls to covet or ride.  The undercurrents of her mother's life paint a distant picture from the pampered, rich and helpless harem wives' image that seeps the average westernized consciousness.     


Saturday, February 15, 2014

Early Birds Sing Me A Tune

Feb 10, 2014.  6:00 A.M.

Just when I wanted to pick a fight
With a God that collects its paycheck
Without ever showing up for work.

"How can you stand by
And watch
A daughter long exiled
A sister permitted to discard emotional ties
A father typically wooden,
But now bending and swaying,
Willing to be plied;
Eager to be used
By a mother conniving,
Spiraling out of control
With truths hidden
And secrets untold?"

-15 degrees C outside,
Over 10 ft of snow on the ground.
And yet the most beautiful bird calls
Between a talkative pair
Gracing my front yard.
On and on they go
As if to take turns
To sing
To comfort
To stay near me.
Only me.

Is it true?
Can it be?
That for once
God strives to
Break down my walls,
Penetrate my indifference,
Establish Her presence,
And feel the need
To prove Her existence?

For a minute, I am awed,
I welcome the image,
I ready myself to cautiously open
The floodgates to my heart
One teeny bit.

Google searches
Set straight my perspectives.
"Winter birds all.
It's still winter,
but the light,
The changing light,
Has a hormonal trigger
That starts the birdsongs",
reminds John Hanson Mitchell.

I remember
To put my faith
In established facts
That rarely let you down.
To put my faith
In the rythmn
Of light and day,
Night and dark,
Spring and seasons all.
I smile.
I laugh.
I shake my head.
And go about my day.

But 'tis the morn
Of the day next in line.
6:00 A.M.
6:15 A.M.
Only the muffled sounds
Of traffic in the early hours.
6:30 A.M.
The waking smell of coffee
From our kitchen.
Yet no sight nor sound
Of my avian angels.
Where are you, my feathered friends?
Are you out playing God
In another's front yard?

(C) Copyright Malathi Raghavan

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

My mother's extension

My mother and I,
We grew up together;
We wish to conquer the world together;
We learn to live for one another,
So as to fill the gaps in each other's lives,
Such that the whole of our universe has fewer holes.

My mother is mostly left behind by the swiftly changing outside world,
And so I choose to be the colorful rainbow above her unpaved road.
While she has lived in one city all her life,
I've flown across countries and moved from one city to another.
Since she cautiously diversifies her mainly homemaker life
I recklessly concoct unusual career paths and hope that she too can enjoy the view.

She was relegated to being under-educated,
I make up for it by striving to be over-educated.
For every year of education that she didn't have,
Her value in the marriage market soared.
For every year of education that I do add,
My value in the marriage market drops.
The age at which she wanted to add a missing career slot to her family life,
Is now the same age that I want to add a missing family slot to my career life.

With her effortless air of charming sociability she attracts helping hands to her side;
With my contrived air of proud self-sufficiency I drive away annoyingly poking noses.
But sometimes she confides in me that she could do without some meddling folks;
At those times I confide in her that I could do with some more caring souls.
There are days when I watch, wait, and get exasperated at how crowded her life is;
In turn, somedays she watches, waits, and gets her heart broken at how lonely my life is.
And then we cry.
Together we cleanse our knotted souls;
And through the tears, we smile.
Then we remind each other
To be strong,
To be confident,
To believe in our own lives,
To trust in our own fates,
To practice patience while we wait for what's missing in our own different ways.
But alone and separate, we are not;
We each are assured by one another.
The cord, it seems, was never ripped.

As in a circle, we know not
Who begins, who ends;
Who asks, who receives;
Who sows, who reaps.
We merely strive to keep that circle unbroken.
Her dreams, I live;
My dreams, she lives.
We live both our truths and our lies.
Both half-happy, half-sad.

If two happy-halves make one happy,
Where do the two sad halves go?
"Modern math and logic are beyond my comprehension," is all she can offer.
Then I get angry in that special way reserved only for a daughter.
I complain that once again I am left alone with the puzzles and the fears.
Without moving in space, I manage to trample the maternal heart.

Did I say we grew up together?
That we learnt lessons in the presence of one other?
But yes, I meant the lessons of life.
Unlike those that are taught to me inside four walls,
Unlike those that are printed in books,
Unlike those that are strictly formulaic,
The lessons of life, those we are allowed to learn without being separated.
So together, she and I, we are still searching for the answer
That we are sure is still out there, somewhere.

In the meanwhile, there is Mother's Day
To remind me of her selflessness and sacrifice;
To remind me that my mother sustained my life at a time when I most needed her.
At a time when without her there couldn't have been a me,
She did not wake me; she did not leave me alone; she did not send me on my own.
And so I sigh, a dark, heavy, guilty sigh.
Because when I look deep inside me, I know that even now she has not sent me off alone.
She has, in fact, bundled in me all of our ancestors' hopes.
And these as my badge of honor, I am blessed to wear.
Within my heart I am gifted with all their dreams
In loneliness, I gently unwrap them to soar high and fly.
In me she has collected the reservoir of all their tears
That I may, when I thirst, have a fountain to drink from.
In every vein of my body flows their blood;
So, when I hunger I am assured of my nourishment.
And from every pore of my body oozes their sweat.
It is in this way that I wrap myself with their fragrance.

So my mother, in her own wisdom, and love, chose me as her extension.
To carry with me to these far-off lands a part of our ancient self.
Do I spread my wings homeward or plant my roots downward? -- this I know not yet.
But today, I am content to merely think of my mother, who is far away,
And of all her own mothers.

(C) Copyright: Malathi Raghavan 2000

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Indulging in Writers’ Woes, One & Two

"Be my cohort in verses," invites a poetic friend
While another reminds "You know, gentle vet stories are in trend."
Both unaware of the extent of my tumultuous soul
That makes me, in my luscious donutty life, see only the gaping hole
Left behind by the unexplainable itches & urges to write
For breakfast, lunch, and at night
When normal folk want to make love
But me, I am agonized by writer's blues, can't explain how.
Morning, evening, every waking, and every sleeping hour
Memories sprout, ideas bloom, like wild, spring flowers
Alas, no paid writer am I
Just a lowly perpetual student, sigh!
The irony:
If I spend half the time I dream and think about writing on my writing
And the other half on my Ph.D. citing
I would be more accomplished
And quite published
But alas, time management I have never grasped
Although its importance, many harped.
But I am digressing,
I intended to mention, to all friends of mine, without much buttressing
That er, um, hrrm, hum, if I may, have one, er, story out!
There I said it come what may
Leaving modesty, humility, all at bay
First-time writer's pride I cannot hide
'Twas the apple that I eyed
And therein lies writers’ woe two.
It comes after you steal time and write, phew!
Of course, it is the big question:
How does a writer share her arted, crafted fiction
With the seemingly busy, uncaring outside world
Without being thought of as shamelessly, self-absorbedly bold?
(But then, Reading as Power, never fails
So therein my altruistic part, I thee hail
To set me free with a sort of bail
From this other of novice writers’ ails.)
Lucky popular writers have their publishing houses
Do their dirty work for them without any grouses.
But no-name ones like me,
We learn to come right out, you see
And blurt out loud,
As above,
“I have a story out! Would you like to read?”
And gentlefolk, God bless their souls, always, even when taken aback, say oh, so graciously, “Of course! Your story, we’d love to read.”
And in those gentle, tender words, this restless writing soul of mine knows
Its moment of peace is in sight.

© Malathi Raghavan, 2000