Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Short Story - A Visit to Balaji*

           Balaji was upset that too many people came crowding around him every day. He wanted his peace. The idea of being famous did not appeal to him as much as it did before, a thousand years ago when people had just heard his name for the first time.
But Balaji had no other public life. If he retreated to his cave in the Himalayas, changed his name and attire and shooed away the milling crowd by an avalanche, he would have nothing much to do. He would just laze in the snow and feel the shivers.
Balaji wanted a compromise. There should be just about a few visitors in a day. That would keep him busy enough, fulfilling their wishes in a year or two. It required a lot of planning and a lot of scheduling of events to make each wish come true. So he wanted just a few deserving clients to serve. That way, he could do a better job, remaining in the forefront among the deities and also snatching a few hours of respite.
But again, Balaji soon figured out, there was this massive temple built around him. He enjoyed the adulations. He was almost walled up and had no route of escape. The people would be shocked if he really disappeared one night. There would be large search parties and many people would be unnecessarily bothered and insulted. He could not want that.
So Balaji worried his head out over this problem, long and hard, day and night and viewed the increasing throng of people coming up to him with their petty wishes and hoping that if not in a month, perhaps in a few years he would have time to fulfill each one of them.
There was Raghu living in Tirupati, contemplating a visit to Balaji, just in case he could finally improve his condition. Raghu had two sons. They went to school daily. He helped them with their homework every night after work. Each boy had his own level of problems with his homework. Raghu was dealing with two standards of learning at the same time. Sometimes, on a night after a long day, he mixed up the texts and taught the younger one something from the elder boy’s syllabus. And when he failed to follow, rapped his knuckles on his head. Then he reluctantly turned to the elder boy and the homework before him only to discover that it was no fault of the son if he could not follow his father.
Raghu’s wife was very pretty. She was small and kind and wobbly on her feet, a mix of cute things that often made Raghu want another son. But she could not teach her boys. And Raghu had no money to spare for a tutor.
Raghu often thought of how close Balaji was. He was almost next door. He only had to knock at his door and pop in his head and make a wish. He thought of the wish and tried to frame a sentence. He tried to combine many wishes in one sentence. Sometimes it ran though his head like this: I want a house of my own with private rooms for each one of us and tutors for all my sons – it was important not to give a number – and a kitchen large enough to accommodate a cook and servants to sleep in the night. He could not think of anything else. It was always the house.
Balaji was famous for giving away wealth in dollops. Raghu figured out long ago that like fairy tales, he should actually wish for a dollop of gold. But he always hesitated to ask for such a wish. He could not figure out where to dig for it and then whom to sell it to. He was pretty sure that he could not feed his family with a dollop of gold.
It has to be something more sensible, Raghu thought and the more he thought, the more he postponed his visit to Balaji.
One day he thought of asking for endless food. That would be a good choice, he thought. He was already living in a two-room set, paying a paltry rent to an old widow and it did not matter if a big house did not materialize. Soon his sons grow up and leave and then only he and his wife would remain home. The old widow would die and her son might take pity on them and let them continue to live there. The big house was not all that important. It should be food.
He framed his wish for food: dear Balaji, give us endless food so that none of us should starve and death cannot touch any of us.
On second revision, he realized that he was actually asking for a protection from death. Food and no death and was that enough?
Raghu went about his routine of selling medicines in the shop where he worked as an assistant. It crossed his mind that instead of being an employee, he could ask Balaji to make him a shop owner. He could continue selling medicines and earn all the profit. Maybe if he made such a wish, his employer, who had no sons, would one day be pleased with his services and bequeath him the shop. But perhaps that would happen only on his deathbed.
Raghu felt sad that he could not decide on a proper wish. He knew it would be once and for ever. He found it terribly shameful to go on making wishes frequently. So he continued to postpone his visit to Balaji.

But one day he was neck deep in trouble. His cute little wife, who always quietly wobbled about in the little home doing chores, slipped in the rain beaten terrace and broke her hip joint.
When she screamed out, the old widow came out of her room and joined her in chorus. The women in the neighbourhood gathered together and carried her into the house and put her on a bed. By then, with the deafening screaming going on, everyone was assured that there was a fracture.
Raghu rushed home and fondly carried his little wife in his arms and took a rickshaw to the dispensary. The long and short of the story is that she did break her hip joint and let out a scream every time anyone touched her.
The doctor directed Raghu to several places and finally he was seated in front of the surgeon who volunteered to operate on her joint free of cost except that he would have to bear the rest of the expenditure.
It amounted to a figure Raghu could not afford. After providing for food, home and education, he barely saved a rupee. He could think of hardly anything else so he never dreamt of asking Balaji to provide money in excess.
Now it was high time Balaji thought of Raghu. After all what are good neighbours for? Here he was, sitting prim in his abode of gold and receiving daily gifts from visitors. His attendants lead a life of luxury and never asked to take away his throne. They were the first to come to his temple in the morning and chant Jai Govinda and scrub the floor for him.
Balaji had heard the screams in the neighbourhood. He felt very sorry for Raghu. For long he had been dreading the day when he would knock at his door, pop his head in and wish for wealth. He was afraid of letting people wish for all the wealth in the world. What if really everyone cocked his head in and mumbled, ‘make me rich’? What would Balaji do with scores of thousands of rich people? They would be a nuisance. They would never work for a living.
But finally, seeing Raghu’s misery, Balaji decided to invite him on this day. He meditated hard and finally managed to approach the busy Raghu’s head with his invitation. He said, ‘Raghu, please visit me and make a wish’.
Raghu woke up from his deep slumber and quickly took a bus towards Balaji’s temple. He just had to walk up 5 kms uphill to reach him. He drank a bottle of water and proceeded with his trudge uphill.
Once inside the compound of Balaji’s big abode, Raghu revised his wish several times. There was a slow march of visitors for 2 kms, moving shoulder to shoulder, taking one step at a time and there was that loud but pacifying speaker that reminded them all to have patience. If I am here, Raghu said to himself, I’d better make the best of it. I must not let this opportunity go cheap. There should be a house, plenty of food, a cook and servants and proper education for my sons, another son too and of course, a hidden treasure for emergencies.
He memorized his long sentence thoroughly.
On the way, he noticed a baby crying. He felt sorry for her. Her father had taken off her frock so that she may not feel hot. There were others, a sea of clean shaven heads that made Raghu wonder if they came here after their wishes had been fulfilled. There were two short and fat women who blocked everybody’s way as they clung to the railing and did not move ahead fast enough. He tried to persuade them to leave the railing saying that there was no room to fall to the ground if at all they stumbled anywhere.
 But again there was a huge roar of Jai Govinda from the huge crowd of visitors and Balaji was shaken awake. He quickly reminded Raghu that he had to make a wish. So Raghu refrained from saying Jai Govinda like the others, for fear of forgetting his long sentence and mumbled it over and over.
It seemed a long time before Raghu could see the procession turning into the huge gates of Balaji’s room. He tried to repeat his wish, remembering not to leave out any clause. Then he suddenly shrugged his shoulder and reasoned. Whoever dictated that I should make my wish in only one sentence? I can rattle off a list of things. Where is the limit? As long as I am in Balaji’s presence, I can go on with one wish after another.
So at the doorsteps, Raghu dropped his sentence. He could now see how dark the room was and how sparkling Balaji’s jewelry was. He saw that the entrance was actually a gate of gold and the inside was clean and fragrant. He could not help admiring the beauty of Balaji’s clear visage and as the crowd cheered up with a huge Jai Govinda, Raghu too opened his mouth with a loud cry. Then he quickly mumbled his first wish, “please cure my wife of her fracture” and lunged forward to touch the gate with his forehead.
But no. It was not allowed. Balaji had forbidden his visitors to touch his gates of gold with their dirty hands. There stood two strict matrons guarding it and dragging and pushing every visitor onto the way out. He was allowed one glimpse of Balaji sitting prim in the middle of his room and then ushered away.
Outside, it was still crowded and he was sweating. He went out in the open compound and sat down on a stone. From there he saw several thrust-out visitors touching the walls of Balaji’s room with their foreheads and mumbling wishes. He remembered his own list. He had barely made one and the rest were left unspoken. Would Balaji know them all by himself? If Balaji was really capable of granting everyone’s wishes, why couldn’t I ask for an extraordinary thing? I could have asked to be the Prime Minister.
He shook his head and got up. He walked out of the temple compound. He hurried back home and decided to fend for himself.
He decided not to tell his wife about his escapade with Balaji. He was afraid of losing her. He had heard somewhere that you should not tell anyone what you have wished for. So when his wife asked him where he was all the while, he answered, “I went to look for money”.
“Money?” she said, “Is it for my operation?”
“Yes. I need to borrow from someone.”
“Look, don’t borrow from others. It will be a huge burden later on. I have a little amount tucked away in my cupboard for an emergency. Take that and let’s hope it would be sufficient.”

 *also published in ReaderWriterLounge (RWL)

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Learning Unity

                                          
Poem on unity by Anuradha Bhattacharyya
Buzzing all day honey they gathered
From the daisy and the marigold
Flitting from one branch to another
All built up a hive of gold.

The baby elephant fell in a ditch.
His mamma trumpeted loud.
In a herd they came and pitched,
Trunks interlaced and pulled him out.

A buffalo wandered in the night
Alone in the tall grass land.
The pride of lions he could not fight
As they always united stand.

The cavemen early on in the wild
Learned the lesson of unity.
Staying together they realized
Is the best for long life and prosperity.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Painting Black and Blue* (story)



Manasa lived in a closed neighbourhood. These were three storey buildings with four wings, each housing 24 flats. The housing complex had a six feet tall boundary wall that kept strangers away.
In her neighbourhood lived Anita. One day Manasa saw that Anita had brought a small bucket of white synthetic emulsion on the ground. Dipping a sleek brush into the bucket, she dabbed her bicycle with thick layers of white colour. The bicycle used to be pink and inky blue with black pedals and a few rods of steel and black plastic. As Anita’s colouring progressed, each of the different shades of the bicycle disappeared under a white sheet. Unable to resist, Manasa went over to her and asked,

“What happened to you Anita? Why are you smothering your bicycle with this uniform whiteness?”

Anita looked up from her work and said with scorn, “Can’t you see, Didi? This is white, the greatest of colours: the colour of light, the colour of clouds, the colour of chalk, the colour of snow, the colour of enlightenment, the colour of everything pure and peaceful.”

Manasa felt the note of scorn in her voice and decided not to argue with her. Moreover, she was in a hurry to go to the market. But on her way she sat thinking how dull it was to ride a bicycle that was completely white; the innocent pink and the bold blue had completely disappeared. But it seemed that the steel rods did not accept the novelty; the chain and chain cover were streaked with an oddity imposed on them; the pedals got jammed; the rubber tyre was patchy white and would soon become dirty.

Manasa was struck by the impracticality of the whole mission. She looked forward to the outcome. She imagined Anita riding on her new vehicle, the emissary of ‘everything pure and peaceful’. The sixteen year old girl would go round and round in her whitewashed horse and people would exclaim ‘look at that’. Maybe Anita would also wear a white dress.

It was nearly so. Whenever Manasa came downstairs, her eyes would invariably scan the grounds to spy on Anita. There she would be, gaily showing around her bright steed.

As days passed, many-a-times Anita would sit with a brush in hand retouching a portion of her bicycle with white. In about a year, the whiteness disappeared under most of the original colours of the bicycle: the rubber, the steel, the plastic, the grease, the dirt, the pink and the blue. Only a few traces of her effort at whitening and purifying remained.

At home, Manasa recollected the sight of a splotchy bicycle with a smile. The normalcy of the thing satisfied her.

One morning as Manasa headed for the exit gate, she was startled by the sight of a girl sitting on a green stool in front of her red and white bicycle and trying to colour it green. There stood the paint bucket and there she sat holding a brush in her right hand and a large handkerchief in her left hand. She had wrapped her head and shoulders in a scarf. Her bare feet were left unprotected from the splash of colour. She was completely engrossed in her mission.

Manasa took note of the girl’s features and decided to find out afterwards where she lived. On her way back in the evening, instead of going to her flat, she turned towards the place where she had seen the girl in the morning. She could see the stains of green all over the ground. It was a cemented ground and the colour could not be washed away immediately. It would stay there waiting for its natural wear and tear.

After locating the green bicycle and the flat of its owner, Manasa came home. She felt terribly exhausted. She fetched an apple from the kitchen and reclined on her bed. For her, the whole world had gone insane. The satisfaction of observing the genuine disappearance of Anita’s fanaticism gave way to anxiety.

Do we never learn from others? Manasa thought aloud.

A few days later she met Anita. She was riding a new two-wheeler. She smiled at Manasa and stopped to chat. Manasa said, “Wow, a black and blue scooter!”

“Yes, Didi. After the bicycle broke down, I asked Papa to buy me a scooter. I am grown up now. 

There were many lovely colours in the showroom. I could have taken all of them. Diversity is beautiful. This, I bought, by way of contrast to my previous choice. Pink and then white and now black; these are shades under the same sky; we just have different views of the same thing.”
Manasa smiled and said, “And we don’t have to paint everything according to one point of view. Just look at that girl. She has followed your example and decided to paint her vehicle green all over. How long will it last? And how long will she struggle to maintain it? Like you, she will also discard the artificiality of it and allow the natural colours to reappear.”

Manasa hesitated and then with some determination continued, “Anita, do you know that girl?” Anita shook her head. It was evident that Anita was alarmed to know that there were others who had taken her cue and set out to colour their vehicles according to their singular fancy. Although it would actually bring about many colourful bicycles in the compound, the prospect of girls frantically waving a blue or a green or an orange paintbrush frightened her. So she quickly rejoined,

“Didi, I can find out who she is. Maybe I can even talk to her. I can show her my old bicycle and the ugly look it has got due to my folly. Then she can show others also the outcome of this kind of craze. We can gather the children together in the evening and hold a conference. We can stop everyone from being foolish.”

Manasa started shaking her head. She decided she was wrong. The whole idea was wrong. Expecting one crazy girl to teach another crazy girl something was like retracing the same old steps of zeal again. She did not want to make it one girl’s mission to dissuade another girl from doing wrong. She did not want a quarrel.

She raised her palm to Anita’s lips. Anita stopped speaking. She observed that Manasa was pained. So she started her two-wheeler, waved and left. Manasa too, went out of the gate and to her college.

The next morning the same girl sat on the same green stool with her green bicycle standing nearby. Manasa went over to the girl and asked, “Why have you painted your bicycle green?”

The girl replied with a note of sadness, “Didi, it had had an accident and after repairs it looked ugly. This is the only paint I could find in Mummy’s store. But, see, the paint on the steel and rubber is coming off. I am going to redo some of these today but the whole effort of painting has left me exhausted.”

Manasa quickly said, “Of course, the forcefully applied colour would never last. I am sure you could do with a completely new vehicle.”

…………..................……..x………........................…….x……………................…….


*First published in School Shiksha, 2018,
won Poiesis Award for Excellence in Literature given away by Poiesisonline, Xpresspublications, 2018.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Daggers Drawn


Two men, sword in hand,                                                                       
A woman in-between.                                                                              
That’s what I grew up reading of.                                                         
Two men, roses in hand,                                                                         
A woman choosing one.                                                                          
That’s what our new age taught me.                                                    
But I as a grown up                                                                                 
Among grown up men                                                                            
Find women, sword in hand,                                                                
Fighting men; an endless duel                                                              
Where none can choose to retire                                                          
With defeat                                                                                               
Written in one’s share.                                                                           
                                              I partake in a squabble                             
                                              For power everyday                                   
                                              Before mealtime                                         
                                              Or after dinner,                                          
                                              In the office or a party                              
                                              When decisions have to be taken.          
A man’s best adviser,                                                                              
A woman has to struggle                                                                        
To be heard first                                                                                      
And then to be informed.                                                                      
He says nothing,                                                                                     
Acts upon his will                                                                                   
Without consultation,                                                                           
Not taking the woman as                                                                      
A thinking feeling body,                                                                       
Who could be asked if she’d like                                                        
What he did.                                                                                           

*first published in The Camel Saloon in May 2014

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Deluge*

Vulture
You will be terrified of this deluge
Not seasoned in fine weather.
You will be daunted by this display
Of gaiety and indulgence.
Were you a migratory bird
That sweeps over the mountains
To learn about other climates,
Places of abundance and mirth,
You could have saved the shock.
This is not your place, my dear,
Fly off. Not here, not here.

Vulture
You cannot terrify the lizard
That slithers out of its skin every year.
You cannot gather the flavor
Of smoke before fire.
You can no longer linger over
Matter that regenerates itself.
Were you my friend in good and strife,
Were you a travelling partner in life,
You could have deserved
A beautiful favour.

But no. Not here. Not here.

poem by Anuradha Bhattacharyya: Deluge


first published in The Wagon Magazine, March 2016

Friday, 1 December 2017

LOST WORLD*


Lost World (poem by Anuradha Bhattacharyya)
The leaves on the grass shed
Off the branches,
The pearl in the sand taken
From the oyster,
The gurgle from the spring
Separated,
The young from its home
Gone riding to the farthest
End of inspiration,
Wiping out all traces of its descent,
Wiping out the froth
Of past glory.
                     In its travel down the sky,
                     In its affinity with the grass,
                     It sings to the sand
                     A ballad
                     Spun from utopian dreams –
                     Forgetting becomes a melody
                     Without festering fetters,

                     A calm claim to live a new planet.

*First published in Amaravati Poetic Prism 2016

Friday, 17 November 2017

Audience

The page of Anuradha Bhattacharyya's poem from Amaravati Poetic Prism 2017

Anuradha Bhattacharyya, Audience on page 587. Amaravati poetic Prism has made its way into the Limca Book of records this year for being an international anthology of 949 poems, including translations, in 85 languages.