Of secrets and sacrifices: Don’t Let Him Know by Sandip Roy

The end of June is upon us and I have managed to get through Pride month with a minimal amount of stress and anxiety. In my city the official celebrations are not held until late August, but there is plenty of Pride around all the same. I have written before about my general sense of disconnect from the LGBTQ community, and the rejection and isolation I’ve experienced over the years. But to be honest, I look at Pride with some measure of envy. I wonder what it would feel like to be able to celebrate myself for who I am and not wish, after all these years, that my life had been different.

There is, in many a queer life, an inability to negotiate the public and the private, the secret and the shared, in a fluid wholistic way. Sacrifice becomes an element of existence in the world.

Time, place, and cultural considerations have long had an impact on queer lives lived. Set in Calcutta and California, Don’t Let Him Know by Sandip Roy is the kind of LGBTQ story that resonates with me, even if my own experience is very different. A queer life dominated by a need to hide and a failure to find release and connection the way one longs for is not simply a story of the past. This novel speaks to the choices we make in our attempts to salvage some normalcy when what we need or long for is denied or feared to be impossible—a reality that reaches beyond the constraints of culture or questions of sexuality or gender identity.

This warm and richly woven tale examines the shifting dynamics within a traditional Bengali family as values slowly change in response to influences from inside and outside India. Roy, a writer and journalist from Calcutta, who lived in the US for twenty years before returning to his native city, draws on his own experiences growing up in a protected, comfortable family as well as the challenges and freedoms afforded by moving to America, in this multi-faceted exploration of the conflicts between identity, honesty, and obligation.

Central to the story is Romola who, having agreed to a marriage negotiated by eager family members, finds herself in small town Illinois with Avinash Mitra, a quiet young man she hardly knows. When a letter from India arrives one day, the homesick bride tears it open without checking carefully and finds herself holding a letter from her husband’s lover who had hoped that they would be able to build a life for themselves in the US, away from the prohibitions of Indian society. This man, Sumit, wonders why Avinash did not wait. Romola, unable to begin to process the information, tucks the letter away. She does not confront her husband. His secret remains with him, her awareness of his secret remains with her. Years later, after his father’s death, their son, Amit, finds the second page of the letter and assumes he has uncovered a piece of his mother’s hidden past. Secrets multiply.

Moving back and forth in time, this novel traces the childhood and youth of both Avinash and Romola, their years together as a family back in Calcutta where they raise their child in a multi-generational household, and Amit’s eventual settlement in San Francisco where he marries an American woman and becomes a father himself. A fine example of classic, emotionally balanced storytelling, each chapter adds to a network of secrets, large and small, creating a rich and bittersweet tapestry. Roy resists the temptation to break open the fragile restraints that bind his main characters, and although not entirely without hope, there is a deep sadness at the heart of Don’t Let Him Know. For Romola this is often expressed in a degree of repressed bitterness, making her, at times, less than likeable. Avinash, by contrast, withdraws. He often appears to fade into the sidelines, something that anyone who has lived for a significant amount of time closeted or otherwise invisible will recognize. His first attempt, later in life, to connect with other gay men finds him awkwardly out of synch and results in an episode that is by turns humiliating, exciting, and potentially dangerous. As a reader, I longed to know him more, yet I admire Roy’s decision to tell this story, this way.

Many LGBTQ people exist in spaces defined by loss and longing.

There is more at play here, of course. Questions of class, race, tradition, and family honour also arise, but, as with the central conflict, these issues are woven into the texture of the story. Finally, this is a novel rich in sensual detail—light, scents, and sounds. Places, from the streets of Calcutta to suburban America neighbourhoods, are skillfully evoked. My recent stay in Calcutta enhanced my appreciation of that setting in particular, with the many small features I recognized adding an extra dimension to my enjoyment of this book. A more “conventional” read for me, perhaps, it turned out to be a perfect choice for Pride month,

Don’t Let Him Know by Sandip Roy is published by Bloomsbury.

“All the world is made of poetry”: Things That Happened and Other Poems by Bhaskar Chakrabarti

Each of us is a bird of disbelief
Flapping our wings beneath the tired water
We shall be born, we shall be born, a new life
Tomorrow or the day after—maybe even this evening

—“The Window”

An important voice in the rise of modern Bengali poetry, Bhaskar Chakrabarti was so intimately bound to the streets, alleys, and rooms of Baranagar in northern Calcutta that he was, until recently, little known beyond West Bengal. Born in 1945, his life spanned an era of tremendous turmoil and change in India and in his native state, yet his poetry touches universals of experience that transcend time and place. To spend time with his verse is to feel that one is in the company of the man himself, in the urban spaces he inhabited.

Things That Happen and Other Poems is the first cross-career selection of his poetry to be published in English. Translated by Arunava Sinha and published by Seagull Books, this volume offers the world an opportunity to become acquainted with this profound, melancholic poet. The recent inclusion of this title on the poetry longlist of the 2018 Best Translated Book Award will hopefully draw even more to discover his work.

Chakrabarti came to prominence in the late 1960s and 70s. It must have been, for him, a time of creative energy and excitement, as his nostalgia for these years, for lost friends and loves, resurfaces frequently in his later poems. However, it was also a period of political and economic upheaval. His earlier poetry often expresses a dramatic, angst-ridden intensity:

Night after night, for countless years, I’ve wanted to slice myself
open for self-examination
I have swallowed alcohol with ashes in it
I have gone up to fallen women to tell them, ‘I love you.’
Not all of this was a game.
My blood and sweat are mingled with black and white days,
brothers mine
I have forgotten nothing, none of it
The blows and the humiliation and the tears
Look—it’s so late tonight as well—still I cannot sleep.

—from “Brothers Mine (1/107)”

In his later poems a certain concern about the state of the world continue to re-emerge, in the form of anxieties about the what he observes in his community, and on the planet. His verse tackles the transformations of modern life, ventures into outer space, and frets within the confines of his room. But in general, as he struggles with his health following a cancer diagnosis, death becomes an ever more present companion, one he seems to entertain as much as he wishes it away and admonishes his audience to live well.

Cut off this thing that has bothered you all your life.

You are alive because of one simple reason, that you’re inhaling and exhaling. Keep this task up.

—from “Come, Let’s Talk of Some Things”

Along with this sense of mortality, a deep, abiding loneliness settles into his words, trails his footsteps, becomes the heart of his careworn song. The predominant mood of these poems is quiet, sad.

The one thing that is clearly evident  in all of Chakrabarti’s poetry is that he was a poet through to the very core of his being. It is the essence of his life’s work, all he ever wanted to do and he talks about his art with eloquence and passion. As he declares in the essay that opens this collection:

All the world is made of poetry. On some days the doors and windows within are flung open. All that I see and hear, all that I get a sudden smell of, turns to something new in a moment. My body feels light. I have had glimpses of the astonishing world of poetry, and I have been astounded every time. So many wilting conversations, fragrances, glances and dreams are happily tacked up on its walls.

How wonderful! He goes on to admit that his love of poetry never abandoned him, even if it did interfere with his ability to worry too much about employment or a steady job, likely to the dismay of some of those around him. And although he came of age in a time of upheaval, he is content to be a poet of the small, the simple, and the everyday. “I am a poetryist.” he writes, “I love ordinariness. Rejected, pedestrian conversations and scenes, days and nights left behind are all things that move me.”

True to this poetic spirit, many of his poems address the act of writing. He writes into silence and frustration with persistence:

I stay here in Baranagar, in Calcutta
Everyone here wants their fortune read
They want to know what life holds for them
They want to know when they’ll come into money

And I, an ancient ghost
Keep struggling with imagery, symbol and resonance
To hell with day before yesterday’s poems
All women with large breasts are better than them

Conjuring up thoughts about Panskura is better
Even writing four or five ordinary lines
About tender blades of grass is better

—from “Panskura”

Chakrabarti’s poetry is, on first encounter, simple. Calm, measured, pensive. His work is personal, mentioning places, addressing people directly, while speaking to emotions—attraction, loss, and loneliness—in tones that are intimate and human. But his poems invite the reader to fall into them, again and again. To read the verses aloud. And here is the junction where the magic of the translation comes into play. Without knowing the original language, vision and meaning must be trusted, but in listening to Chakrabarti reading from his work in Bengali, the cadences of his speech are clearly echoed in the way this poetry sounds and feels in the English.

And that is a remarkable achievement, and an endorsement for this evocative collection, this celebration of Calcutta in its uniqueness and its universality.

As it is in our house: Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag

The well-being of any household rests on selective acts of blindness and deafness.

India is a linguistically diverse country, with twenty-two scheduled languages, thirteen different scripts, and over 720 dialects. Yet when Western readers think of contemporary Indian literature, the work that most readily comes to mind  is typically written in English, whether by India-based or diasporic writers. Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag, which has garnered much attention over the past year, has been, for many English readers, their first introduction to a book originally written in the South Indian language, Kannada. As one of the long listed titles for the 2018 Best Translated Book Award (BTBA), even more readers will now have a good excuse to meet this established Indian author through this novel, his first work to be translated into English.

At first blush, Ghachar Ghochar seems an unassuming short novel—the story of a family whose financial circumstances take a turn for what should be the better, and the impact of their newfound fortune on their household dynamics. And so it is, but it is much more. Complicated undercurrents run through this tale, building to an ending with uncertain and disturbing implications. What makes it especially unsettling, and affecting, is the strangely passive, rationalization of the narrator. He practices a willful ignorance.

The novel, set in Bangalore, opens at our protagonists’ favourite haunt, Coffee House, with a description of Vincent, the attentive waiter and quiet confessor who tends to his customers’ need and listens to their woes with sensitive discretion. He is not an audience so much as a pretext for the unnamed narrator to unfold his account. Something is troubling the young man. But his concern is distracted. He seems to harbor a conflicted attitude toward women—lack of understanding even—that hints at but does not betray the depth of what we will eventually learn is the true nature of his anxiety.

What follows is a portrait of a joint family bound at all costs to the well-being of the bread-winner, a holdover from their earlier days when resources were limited and they learned to stick together, “walking like a single body across the tightrope of our circumstances.” However, that which once insured their survival in the face of financial distress, stands to destroy them once money is no longer a pressing concern. The story unfolds in terms of status, beginning in the present. The narrator who lives with his wife, his parents and his sister, and all are expected to defer to Chikappa, his father’s younger brother, the founder of the successful spice distribution company that has afforded the ascension of the family from a cramped, dirty house in a lower middle class area of the city to a smart, two-story dwelling across town. Although it is officially a family business, in practice there is little need for the other men to have more than perfunctory roles. The uncle manages it all and the family lets it be. Everyone except Anita, the narrator’s wife, who comes from a very different background and ethic.

Moving down through the family hierarchy, the narrative steps back in time to the years when the narrator’s father, his Appa, struggled to look after his family and put his brother through school on a modest salesman’s salary. Yet, even if money was ever in short supply, he placed great value on good honest, hard labour:

He was inordinately proud of being a salesman. “What do you think a salesman is . . .?” he’d boast, especially when launching into stories about his prowess—how, for instance, he’d managed to sell to a shop whose shelves were always brimming with tea. He polished his shoes every morning and put on an ironed shirt. He’d leave looking like an officer and return at night, wilted from the day’s sun, his clothes rumpled. One glance at his scuffed, dusty shoes was enough to betray the nature of his day’s work.

Everything changes when Appa is unexpectedly forced into early retirement. This is the impetuous his brother needs to act on a business scheme he has been contemplating and, although both brothers are co-owners, they soon find themselves ideologically at odds and as the spice firm takes off, Appa drops into the role of a silent partner, slipping into an increasingly defeated mood. His family worries about his sanity, but not for his sake so much as their concern about their right to his share of Sona Masala’s assets.

The narrator, who with his mother and sister all fall in place, more or less on level, below the two older men, makes much of the interdependence of his family, financially bound in poverty, emotionally bound in wealth. They are all at odds, in their own ways, with the world into which they have ascended almost overnight:

It’s true what they say—it’s not we who control the money, it’s the money that controls us. When there’s only a little, it behaves meekly; when it grows it becomes brash and has its way with us. Money had swept us up and flung us in the midst of a whirlwind.

The sister, Malati, has a particularly disastrous, short-lived marriage. Amma, the matriarch, tries to mediate between family members and maintain their honour against an outside community she no longer knows how to negotiate. Meanwhile, the narrator seems to lose any drive or motivation he may have once aspired to. He too is given a title in the family business, complete with an office and income, but soon realizes there is little for him to do. His uncle has everything under control and no one dares to question what that really means. He takes to lazing around in bed and frequenting Coffee House, showing little ambition, afraid or unwilling or perhaps unable to break away and create a future for himself. With the addition of Anita, his bride by arranged marriage, the precarious household harmony is set completely off balance. The daughter of a professor, she comes from a different background with different expectations and little inclination to suffer fools gladly. She also brings the book’s title, a nonsense expression unique to her family meaning “tangled beyond repair” that she shares with her husband on their wedding night. Yet, it is unclear whether he understands the full relevance of this image before it is too late.

Told with a carefully weighted tone and an economy of words, Ghachar Ghochar is a deceptively easy and enjoyable read. It is not until one nears the latter pages of the book that a creeping unease enters the narrative. The protagonist notices many troubling signs, but repeatedly neglects to act. It is unclear if he shares his father’s tendency to despondency or is simply too self-focused. The troubling factor is that this type of opting out, is not an uncommon response for young men when they cannot find their footing under shifting socio-economic conditions that they feel, rightly or wrongly, are beyond their control. In the Indian setting, the complications of family dynamics and expectations exacerbate the situation. And this, for me, is the real strength and tragedy of this slender volume. There are no easy answers, no heroes, no clear resolutions.

Too much like real life.

Ghachar Ghocharby Vivek Shanbhag is translated by Srinath Perur, and published by Penguin Books.

In praise of independent publishing and a link to my interview with Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books

It is no secret to regular readers of my blog that I am a great admirer of Seagull Books and that earlier this year I travelled to India, a visit in part motivated by a desire to visit the offices of one of my favourite independent publishers. Admittedly some of my non-bookish friends wondered at my choice of destination, the city as much as the country. Because there is a publisher you want to meet? But if Seagull’s presence in Calcutta offered me an excuse to spend a couple of weeks in a place I had only idly imagined I’d ever be able to visit, it was a trip I undertook on my own, at my own expense. And along the way, another independent publisher that I strongly believe was also part of my journey.

Passing through London on route to Delhi, I selected a flight schedule that would allow me to make a detour into the city for a short visit. (As much as I’d love to spend more time in London it is beyond my means.) There I had lunch with Susan Curtis-Kojakovic, the tireless publisher (editor, chief cook and bottle-washer) of Istros Books. Specializing in literature from the Balkans and South-East Europe, Istros is dedicated to discovering and promoting exciting, challenging new works from the region. Their philosophy is that “quality knows no borders.” Over the past few years, Susan has become a friend and inspiration. This year, because I wisely decided not to try to navigate London on my own as I did a few years back, we had time for more than a rushed coffee.  We managed to fit in lunch at the British Museum, a stroll through the Assyrian exhibit, tea with poet and translator Stephen Watts (whose partner has translated work for Seagull because, of course, it is a small world), and even a quick stop at the LRB Bookshop! Both of these  publishing ventures have several important things in common. They are willing to engage with their readers, booksellers and reviewers. They submit their books for awards. They are supportive of other independent publishers and understand the importance of facilitating connections, not building walls. They are not unique in this, but surprisingly there are some independent publishers who do not seem inclined to make the effort. And it shows. Translated and non-mainstream literary circles are very small and many of us who read and write about these literatures are relatively isolated from like-minded souls. The conversation is critical and it does help promote and sell books. And it helps make life just a little bit richer too.

This connection between reader and publisher (or rather the vision or philosophy that a publisher inspires) is one of the subjects I wanted to pursue in  the conversation I had with Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books, published earlier this week at 3:AM Magazine. He is, naturally, looking at the big picture against my individual perspective, and yet responds with the grace and wisdom he is widely respected for and that has served him well, against all odds, for over thirty-five years. You can find my piece here.

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As an added note, Seagull has recently learned they have to relocate and are looking to find a new home in South Calcutta. I hope they are able to secure a suitable space soon. When they do, perhaps I’ll have to go back to check it out…

On another way of seeing and remembering Calcutta: A link to my photo essay at Sultan’s Seal

Before I went to Kolkata last month, my strongest visual image of the city was not informed by guide books, travel websites, or National Geographic features. Rather, it was Naveen Kishore’s haunting black and white photographs of his hometown that captured my imagination. I remember, in particular, a darkened residential street—Calcutta, at night—quiet and empty. What would it be like to be there?

Naveen Kishore’s photographs on display at the Seagull Books store.

And, of course, I arrived to what seemed a circus of noise, colour and crowds. It wasn’t until I began to pull out my phone as I navigated the streets of Bhowanipore, that I began to see the neighbourhood in which I was staying. Even when I had my proper camera with me, I continued to use my phone, for the built in GPS as much as for the ease of uploading and sharing photos along the way.

But I knew that I would want to do more. Photographs have increasingly become part of my creative process. And when I use them in concert with words, I feel liberated to edit and manipulate them as much as I edit and manipulate language to express myself. The images that accompany my recent essay for RIC Journal were processed to heighten the colour and dreamlike quality I wanted to achieve with the text. The photographs that comprise the piece that has just been published at Youssef Rakha’s Sultan’s Seal website are entirely different in style and intent.

Youssef Rakha is an Egyptian novelist, journalist, and very fine photographer. Over the years he has provided a home for photo essays by a number of excellent photographers and photojournalists. My humble contribution is entirely personal, again a reflection of my time in Calcutta, this time in black and white. The ordinary and the extraordinary. Twenty-four images—sometimes detailed, sometimes stark—and a simple text. And that special magic that only be conveyed with black and white (and all the shades of grey).

You can find my piece, Calcutta in Grey here. With much gratitude to Youssef for putting it together so beautifully.

Brief notes on returning home from travel and a link to my photo essay at RIC: Journal

Kolkata is not a place that inspires indifference. It has been almost exactly one month since I left it behind, and yet my thoughts and imagination are still occupied by the city, the people I met, and the experiences I had.

Now that I’m home, with the endless winter so very slowly melting away, I am once again confronting that familiar heaviness that weighs me down and reminds me how hollow and lonely life here can be. Perhaps it is this perennial inability to fit in that drives the restless traveller on. I don’t know.

In the meantime, I’d like to share a photo essay, just published at the wonderful RIC:Journal. This is, in words an images, an attempt to hold my first encounter with India close just a little longer.

You can find my piece here. With gratitude to Saudamini Deo.

Ferries, trains and yellow cabs: Navigating Kolkata in good company

I headed to India without any clear expectations about what I might find in Kolkata. The trip seemed to arrive much faster than I could prepare myself. But just as well. I like to approach a place with an open mind, content to inhabit a small corner, tracing and retracing pathways until they become, for the moment, familiar. I anticipated a fair degree of wandering, alone and unguided. However, as fortune would have it, nearly every day I was out with a friend or acquaintance, for a walk, coffee, or a meal. The opportunity to see fragments of the city through the eyes of others—life-time residents and more recent arrivals, regular visitors and newcomers—opened up varied angles and perspectives I would never have glimpsed as a lone, foreign observer.

A kaleidoscopic view of a kaleidoscopic city.

Love it, hate it, or a complicated mix somewhere in between, it is difficult to imagine Kolkata leaving anyone indifferent. I suppose one could sit still or tread carefully from one established tourist venue to another, but quite honestly it is a city that, despite initial appearances, is more welcoming and safer to move through than one might imagine. It invites personal engagement.On my own, walking remained my default mode of locomotion and, over the course of two weeks I came to know a couple of routes well, especially the stretch of Sarat Bose Road, from my home-stay to Minto Park, a diverse, commercial street. The only public transport I would entertain was the Metro, the aged but determined subway line running across the city from north to south. There was a station close by and one morning I squashed myself into a crowded car to travel north to meet a friend outside the Central station. Together we wandered through the book-lined roads and alleys of the College Street area before joining her husband to enjoy cold coffee at the legendary Indian Coffee House which has, over the past seventy-five years, served as an important gathering place for leading intellectual, cultural and political figures.

Kolkata, at least in the older central part of the city, is conspicuous in its absence of a cluster of gleaming high-rises and commercial office towers. It appears to the outsider like an accidental city. Yet it was once the centre of an empire. Scratch the surface and a cosmopolitan quality still lingers. It has a rich artistic and cultural heritage, but the weight of history and ghosts of the past are tangible. The scars of years of decline and neglect mar the surface.

Layers of existence and subsistence share the same spaces in a manner unimaginable in other major cities. Sidewalk vendors and luxury hotels. Modern buildings beside crumbling ruins. It is a place where anyone with a burner and a pot, a few shoemaking tools, or a pair of scissors can set up business. No one is swept off the street, tucked away out of sight. A dynamic urban ecosystem exists here. At once vibrant and decaying, often side by side. As a friend of mine said, there is a place for everyone in Kolkata: “there is food for every budget. There’s space for every fatigued body and there is transport for every pocket.”

My final weekend in the city was spent in the company of this same friend who had come up from Bangalore for a few days. Together we rode ferries, hired tricycle rickshaws, and experienced the prickly hospitality (or hostility) of an assortment of Yellow Cab drivers. We started out on Saturday morning with a ride across the Hooghly River to Howrah where a rickshaw driver carried us up to the railway station. There we bought platform tickets and my friend shared his enthusiasm for train travel. He led me through a third tier A/C car, insisting that I must, at some point, experience India by rail. (I’m not quite yet confident to attempt that on my own, but challenge registered, and accepted.)

We made several more transits across the river on Saturday, with a longer ride between the Dakshineswar Kali temple and Belur Math on Sunday. These passages introduced an entirely different space and pace. The Hooghly is a wide, languid, opaque green waterway. After the sensory crush of the city, time seems suspended, but even here echoes of the past persist. A mix of magic and sadness.

My friend and I covered a lot of ground over two days, in kilometres and in conversation. At his insistence my experience of Kolkata included small pleasures I would not have otherwise entertained—water from unripened coconuts, delicious fresh squeezed sugar cane juice, and peanuts and puffed rice served in bags crafted from folded newspaper. And his personal perspective on the intersection of municipal grandeur and deterioration helped me begin to frame what I’d observed during my sojourn. A walk after dark through B. B. D. Bagh (Dalhousie Square), the seat of the provincial government and central business district, was a powerful experience, inspiring and haunting in equal measure.

And what would a trip to Kolkata be, in the end, without cab rides? Yellow cabs, even.

And so I left the city carrying the intensity of the place—its mass of contradictions—as a kind of thickened stew that will take time to sift through and clarify. Calcutta. Kolkata.

I remember jammed roadways. Taxis—yellow, white and, Uber. An endless chorus of bleating car horns. Brightly coloured buses jammed with passengers. Three wheeled auto-rickshaws scooting by. Bicycles and motorcycles, sometimes with a single passenger, but more often couples, even families—father driving, mother behind sitting side saddle in a sari, and a youngster on the handlebars—typically all without helmets. The whimsical magic of the Seagull Books office, the enthusiasm of the students at the school, the ambitious and inspiring Peaceworks project. Ngūgī wa Thiong’o in conversation at the Victoria Memorial, under the open sky, surrounded by that monument to colonial glory. Towering tombs, and stalls overflowing with books. The century-old residence where I stayed and my eager, affable host, Nandu.

Coffee. Conversation. Friends.

Until we meet again.