Sunday, July 17, 2011

Marriage is a Private Affair

Someone once said that the old are in a second childhood. I could not agree more. Memories of a life never lived flood you till you start believing that it is not the wrinkles that make you old, but the weight of recollection of moments that live inside you. At this age, it is difficult to resist talking about ones past. No amount of education and pension can make you forget what you most enjoyed being – a young girl. But this is not the story of a young girl. This is the story of a sunset. This is the story of a sunset who was born at seven pm on the 13th of February many years ago and who died a few minutes after he was born. I was fifteen years old at that time and was bathing in what remained of the dried up river Rufiji which flowed through our village. I had discovered the benefits of bathing in the shelter of the ebbing afternoon and was happily scrubbing soap on my woolly hair when I noticed the sunset glistening on the droplets of river clinging to my jet black body. At that age I knew sunsets like the back of my hand. ‘Sunsets are like men,’ I used to think. ‘If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all’. But this one was different. He was, of course, not the first sunset to flirt with me, what made him different was his shyness. I decided to take matters into my own hands.

‘Hello,’ I said timidly.

He beamed for a moment and then said, ‘I love you’.

Whatever surprise I might have felt, I took care not to show.

‘Oh you do?’ I asked.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Will you marry me?’

‘But I am only fifteen!’ I said coyly.

‘So am I,’ he said. ‘But I am going to be older soon.’

Of course, I knew that would die in a matter of minutes. Besides, marriage was a public affair. I could not get married just because I felt like it one evening. This made me a little sad. I kept silent.

‘Will you at least travel around the world with me?’ he asked.

‘I don’t know. Do you have a car?’ I asked.

‘No,’ he said sadly. His eagerness faded a little but returned fast enough for him to say, ‘I used to, but it broke down the other day and I haven’t repaired it yet.’

I laughed in mock shyness. It embarrassed him greatly.

‘You are beautiful,’ he said finally. ‘Your parents must have rejoiced greatly when you were born’.

‘Not at all,’ I replied. ‘I am their seventh daughter. They weren’t happy. And anyway, my father left soon after. He has four sons with his third wife.’

‘But…,’ he stopped.

We looked at each other for some time.

‘Will you remember me?’ he suddenly asked in desperation.

I could see that he was dying.

‘Yes, if you want me to,’ I said.

‘I will remember you all my life,’ he said.

He watched me as the sky grew to resemble the colour of ash. With one last attempt to bathe me in his glowing embers, he died. I could do nothing to save him.


1.The words I was given were: black, ash, car, rejoice, sunset.

2.The title is borrowed from Achebe's short story of the same name.

3.I have actually quoted Aristophanes in the first line.


Soumashree Sarkar


Thursday, July 14, 2011

Demo: Pacing and Emotional Temperature

Compare the techniques and effects of these two decriptions of the same events.

Version A

The party was in a fashionable part of town. Lots of people had come, for Rudra was a popular TV producer. Manali got down from the taxi and rang the doorbell. The door was opened by Rudra. She could hear the party noise coming from inside the house. Rudra gave Manali a glass of fruit juice, saying with a wink, ‘The hard stuff’s in the kitchen, for later.’ In the living room were twelve couples, all of them colleagues of Rudra’s from his office. Manali knew some of them only slightly. She sipped her drink feeling self conscious and strange.* As usual, to cover up her confusion she began to eat the food laid out on the side tables. She was the kind of person who always gravitates to the kitchen. There Rudra’s girlfriend Priya asked her, ‘Do you want some rum in your fruit juice?’ She nodded. Even though she was from a small town she had no problems with drinking.** ‘That’s a lovely dress,’ Priya said. ‘How do you keep so slim? I just balloon up.’ Manali started to say something but a rowdy group of boys came in, demanding to spike their colas with rum. She slipped away. She shouldn’t have eaten those cream puffs, she really shouldn’t. They were as heavy in her stomach as her guilt and shame. She had come out in the direction away from the living room onto a closed verandah with a washing machine and a pile of clothes. Beyond it a toilet stood invitingly open. She went inside, shut the door and balanced her drink on the cistern. Then she knelt and vomited into the porcelain bowl. She vomited again and again until her back and sides hurt. But it felt so good and she knew then that she deserved the compliment. She had suffered for it.

Version B

Rudra’s party was in a fashionable part of town: as a popular TV producer, he knew the value of having the right address on his business card. He opened the door himself for Manali, letting a wave of party noise spill over her into the street. He glanced at her polyester kurti and sequinned jeans just a touch too slowly and she saw the thought form over his head: small town girl from the sticks. The living room was filled with the gaiety of a dozen strangers, some of whom she vaguely recalled were his colleagues at work. Rudra gave her a glass of fruit juice, saying with a wink, ‘The hard stuff’s in the kitchen, for later.’ He moved off to laugh adroitly at someone’s joke, leaving her to fend for herself. She wished she was a disembodied pair of eyes, a wraith at the feast. Ah yes, the feast. There it was, spread out tastefully by the upmarket caterers on the little side tables, beckoning her. Mechanically she polished off a plate before coming to herself with a start. This wasn’t the way to blend in. She put the plate down as if it were suddenly hot and went in search of the kitchen. There Rudra’s girlfriend Priya sat hugging a collection of bottles. ‘Do you want some rum in your fruit juice?’ Manali nodded. ‘That’s a lovely dress,’ Priya chattered, pouring. ‘How do you keep so slim? I just balloon up.’ Manali started to say something but a rowdy group of boys came in, demanding to spike their colas with rum. She slipped away. She shouldn’t have eaten those cream puffs. What did these city people put in their food? She had come out onto a closed verandah with a washing machine and a pile of clothes. Beyond it a toilet stood open. She pulled the door shut behind her, latched it and balanced her drink on the cistern. The white curves of the toilet were smooth as expensive flesh. She hunched over and let her nausea squeeze her like a giant fist, like a sneeze, like an orgasm. The hairs stood up along her forearms; her neck stretched and arched and tremors ran down her thighs. This was cleansing; this was better than sex. As she retched for the last time, she imagined Rudra’s face swimming in the fouled water of the toilet bowl.

The asterisks in Version A indicate the following:
* There is a 'tell' before a 'show'.
** There is an out-of-sequence revelation of part of Manali's backstory, giving the impression that the writer has only just thought it up for his/her convenience. This breaks the illusion. Backstory is best delivered such that the reader does not need to suddenly revise the character of Manali they are building in their heads unless you intend this effect.

What can you conclude about the pacing and the emotional temperature of each version?

Animal Assignment

Assignment for Monday: Imagine you are the animal assigned to you. Concentrate on what and how the animal feels, hears, sees, touches, smells and/or tastes the world. Be in the moment. Describe a few minutes in the life of that animal. Use narrative voice in either first or third person.
No cutesy talking Disney loony-toons please. The objective of the exercise is (1) developing empathy with the character and (2) giving 'colour' or reality to the imagined world.
Those in black were present and chose their animals. Those in red were absent and have had animals assigned to them by me. If you were absent please check your animal and be ready on Monday. Any questions, call or mail me.

Sejuti horse
Shreya cat
Lav fly
Sreyashi whale
Barsha iguana
Shinjini pig
Piali dragon
Amrita De antelope
Deeptesh dog
Rudrani shark
Trisha chameleon
Lopamudra otter
Dipabali cheetah
Anuj bear
Anushka squirrel
Vikrant yak
Deblina bull
Dipankar ant
Amrita Dutta lion
Abhijit tiger
Safdar octopus
Soumasree penguin

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Ruby, Queen of the Midnight Hour


“Everything sells in Mumbai,” Rubaiya reminded herself.

Everything sells, even people. Tonight, at the stroke of midnight, Rubaiya was going to sell herself. She was busy applying gaudy red lipstick onto her already heavy makeup. She was wearing a fluorescent pink tube top and a pair of skinny jeans, and she felt quite naked in them. It was her first day (or rather night) at her new job at Deepa Bar in Chembur. It was a smoky place with room for about forty people. The tables were arranged around a stage which, now empty, would soon fill with the sweaty gyrations of glittering women. The cheap glass chandelier cast a ghastly and unnatural light over the assembled patrons, who were leering at the stage in their private alcoholic stupors, waiting for the nautch to begin. Rubaiya was grateful that she wasn't dancing on her first day. She hitched up her tiny tube-top as far over her cleavage as she could and began serving drinks to the men. “Zor se pakro. Hold it firmly!” reminded Ashok the bartender as she felt a beer bottle almost slip through her fingers. Perhaps it was the moisture of the bottle, or perhaps it was her shaking palms!

Rubaiya somehow managed to place the bottle and glass on her customer’s table. As she was walking away relieved, however, her client barked out. “Arre, khol! Hey, open!” She turned around slowly to find the man, his polyester shirt stained with food and straining to camouflage a middle-class paunch, steadily gazing at her. His beady, sunken eyes were boring into her skull. “Khol de, Open it up.” he said more gently, looking at her supple body straining again her clothes with a satisfied look on his flabby face. Rubaiya started shivering: so is this how it happened? Right here, in sight of everyone? She stared around helplessly wringing her hands, but nobody was looking her way. She felt ready to scream, when he held up the beer bottle to her face and said irritably, “Damn it girl, kuchh samajh mein nahi ata kya? Go and get a bottle opener!”


Rubaiya had come to Mumbai five years ago when she was fifteen. Her husband had brought her from her village in Madhya Pradesh the day after their wedding. They had lived in a one-room tin-walled shanty in the slum adjoining Mankhurd station. Abdul, her husband, had been a zari worker in Ghatkopar. At first he was very loving and gentle with her. He would grin broadly when he came back home in the evening and caught a glimpse of his beautiful wife. But what Rubaiya did not know was that Abdul was a terrible drunkard. He and his family had carefully hidden this unsavoury aspect of his character when they had come to her father’s house to arrange the match. She was too na├»ve to know that the road to her destiny would be paved with tears.

The beatings started from the third week. Abdul would take his daily wage straight to the liquor shop, get drunk, come back home and take out his guilt on Rubaiya. At first she used to scream for help. When no help came, Rubaiya learned to bite her lower lip and suffer in silence. Abdul would slap and beat her until her tears flowed freely, and then he would get on top of her. Sometimes he would fall asleep after he had satisfied himself of his conjugal rights. Afterwards, Rubaiya would get up and go back to her housework as if nothing had happened. She would keep up this pretense for the sake of the neighbours. The room had thin walls, and she could not tolerate them thinking poorly of her husband. Pity did not mix well with her pride.

“Come back right now, I’ll get you a better husband,” her father insisted, his baritone voice making the telephone handle vibrate. Standing in the STD/ISD booth, straining to hear in the torrential Mumbai monsoons, Rubaiya knew that things were not so simple. There was no rewind button for life. Besides, she was too proud to return to the village like a dog with its tail between its legs, after having left for Mumbai with such pomp and ceremony. “I’ll be back to attend my own funeral, not before that,” she told her father with finality.

In time, God blessed Rubaiya with a son. Little Ismail was the joy of her life. She would look longingly into his guiltless young eyes while she was nursing him and whisper softly into his ear, “Mera beta, I promise to build a better life for you, full of laughter and love.” She swore she would send him to the best school she could afford—a proper English-medium mission school where her employers sent their pretty children. Rubaiya had started working as a housemaid to make ends meet; she had long ago stopped depending on Abdul’s income to buy bread in the market. In a small plastic jar hidden among the many pots and pans adorning the corner with the stove, she had secretly hoarded nearly three thousand rupees. She was already saving up for Ismail’s English education.


Rubaiya patted her rouged cheeks one last time. The chandeliers were all ablaze. She could hear the music swell on the loudspeakers. The audience was whistling in anticipation. Her sequined skirt made soft tinkling noises. On cue, she burst onto the stage, her hips swaying rhythmically to the music, smiling coyly and sometimes winking to the crowd, making seductive mudras with her polished fingers. She felt the beats take over, and soon she was dancing—vigorously, sexily, superbly—like a siren on the stage of Deepa Bar. Her patrons went wild, thumping the tables. The song spoke about love that is lost and regained through penance. Nobody listened to the lyrics though; they were all too busy gawking at her exposed midriff and what lay below. She was no longer Rubaiya, but Ruby: the Jewel, the Mystery, the new star of the night. “Marry me, Ruby!” screamed an over-eager young fan. Ruby just kept dancing. In her tiny realm of the dance bar, she was Queen, she was Goddess of the Midnight Hour.

“Marry me, Ruby,” said Ashok the bartender very seriously. Rubaiya’s shift was over; she was lounging at the bar for a bit with the other girls before she went home. Last year, she had found a 1BHK in Govandi for four thousand rupees a month. It was just half an hour by bus to her ‘work’. Rubaiya liked the privacy the thick cement walls afforded her, which was some small measure of solitude from the world. But catching a auto-rickshaw at 6 am was always a pain. “And why would she marry you?” came the giggling reply from Saira, “when she knows you are for me only?” Saira was drunk, slurring her words. “C’mon baby, let’s go,” muttered Saira’s escort, a middle-aged school teacher with a salt-and-pepper moustache. Unlike Saira, Rubaiya didn’t mix work and pleasure. She never brought customers home. She made less money, but at least she was sure she wouldn’t die of AIDS. In fact, nobody but the owner of the bar knew where she lived. “If she’s not careful, she’ll end up on Grant Road, and then they’ll sell her off in Dubai.” Rubaiya told Ashok when the others had gone. “One less rival for you then,” Ashok said with a wry smile, “now, let me take you home.”

“Go back to your wife, Ashok. I can take care of myself,” she said as she got up to leave.


Liver failure is a painful way to die. The moment of death is of course the same for everyone, but the moments preceding death are particularly excruciating. Abdul’s face was set in a tortured grimace as he writhed on the hospital bed. His life-long alcoholism had caught up to him at last. He was thirty years old, but looked sixty. His waxy face looked pale and emaciated.

Rubaiya wept openly at his bedside. She could not afford a transplant. Her three thousand rupees were long gone. They had hardly covered the cost of all the medicines. Her life’s savings, meant to give her son an easy life, could not even purchase her husband an easy death. She had already borrowed money from everyone she knew to pay for his treatment. The doctor had informed her that Abdul would die within the next couple of days. Rubaiya sobbed uncontrollably because she did not know what else to do. On the floor, near her feet, Ismail celebrated his first birthday gleefully playing with a bedpan.

In the end, Rubaiya missed Abdul’s last moments. She had fallen asleep on the wooden bench kept outside the hospital ward, her cheeks streaked, and her hair loose and unwashed. She was dreaming of the trip to Mecca Abdul had promised her the day they had first met, in her father’s village. She dreamt that Abdul was saying sorry for not keeping his promise, again and again.

After the final rites, Rubaiya fell into a depression. Even if she swept and laundered from dawn to dusk, how would she ever pay back the money she borrowed? How would she provide for Ismail? In her melancholy, she wondered if she should really return home to her father’s house. But how could she? Would anyone want to marry her? How long could she be a burden on her parents? No, she could not burden her parents unnecessarily. And turning to anyone else was out of the question. Zindagi bahut bari hai. Life is a very long time. Rubaiya felt she would soon overstay her welcome. Nobody wants a young widow and her child hanging over them like an unfortunate omen.

“Would you like to dance for a living?” asked Sujata with a wink, after hearing how much debt Rubaiya had taken on for her late husband’s hospitalization. Sujata worked as a maid in the same building as Rubaiya. Her daughter worked in “the line”, as she called it.

Rubaiya considered the question seriously. “Well, I don’t know... does it pay?” she asked tentatively.

“A lot more than sweeping floors, I can guarantee! My daughter will tell you all about it!”

“Thanks, but…will they want me?”

“Haven’t you heard, my dear? Mumbai mein sab bikhta hain. Everything sells in Mumbai.”


It was almost eleven pm. In an hour's time, Ruby would be sashaying onto the stage.

Ismail was deep asleep. He still had an infantile habit of sucking on his thumb. Rubaiya stroked his head lovingly. He was in Class I now. The fees were steep, but one had to make sacrifices for a convent-school education. Rubaiya liked it when he read out his English lessons aloud. Just last December his teacher had told her what a clever little boy Ismail was: Rubaiya had never had a prouder moment! A woman in her “line of work” was lucky to even keep her baby.

Rubaiya knew that a few years down the road she would have to tell Ismail the truth. He would meet Ruby one day. He would discover that she was his mother by day and his father by night. He too would know that the road to her destiny was paved with tears. Would he still recognize her after that? Would he still care to call her ‘mother’? Rubaiya could not say for sure; after all, boys grow into men, and men may grow cruel. But for now, she wished her child good night, locked the door gently, and prepared to sell herself at the stroke of midnight once again.

***The End***
Re-opening my account! Also, my very best to this semester's WIP folks. Happy imaginings!!
PS. This is a fictionalized account based on a conversation I had with a former bar dancer.

Monday, July 11, 2011


Once upon a time, in Not-So-Far-Away Land there lived a nurse who used to train dragons. Well, it’s not what you would say falls under the general repertoire/job qualification of nurses. They mainly limit themselves to nursing sick people and prescribing antacids for all ailments. Then what was Nurse Cuckoo, for that was her name, doing training dragons?

You see, Nurse Cuckoo had enough spare time on her hands. Her only patients were the boys from the nearby boarding school. And one does get tired of treating bruises, runny noses, projectile vomiting and what-have-you. So, to save herself from boredom, she used to moonlight as a dragon-trainer. But she did not teach the usual burn-destroy-and-pulverise type of things, which, more or less, were what the dragon-training curriculum included. No, she taught them to sing. You are probably scratching your chin in confusion by now, so I feel a little explanation is needed.

As you know, dragons are usually rich. True, they are only guardians of treasures, but a few nuggets more or less from a heap doesn’t really bring in charges of appropriation of funds from their bosses. So they do just fine for themselves. But this particular branch of dragons had tried to pull off a major embezzlement of their master’s wealth. Consequently, they were banished from their kingdom until they could refund the amount of money stolen. Reimbursing the money would not have been such a problem if there was not such a dearth in the demand for dragon-labour in the market. I mean, who, except maybe the fire-proof Hellboy, would willingly engage in their services? So they were in a bit of a soup.
Now, there was an open-for-all talent show in Not-So-Far-Away Land with a prize money of 5000 gold nuggets, which happened to be just a little more than what the dragons owed to their master, with compound interest. They were pretty hopeful about winning too because they could do what nobody else could – blow fire as they sing! But they knew only a gimmick wouldn’t win them the show, they needed vocal training. And so they enlisted the help of Nurse Cuckoo who was the niece of the brother of the uncle of the great-grandson of Cinderella, to train them as a choir. The dragons had too much pride to take her services for free. They promised her the fuss-free disappearance of a particularly annoying neighbour if she helped them win the competition.
Anyway, everything was going picture-perfect until, as you must be expecting by now, there arose a problem. The children of the boarding school were also participating in the talent show. And when they heard how good the dragons were, especially Fireball Timberlake, Sparky Jackson and Lady Kindle-Light Gaga, they were really tensed. But no one got their goat (metaphorically of course, goats give dragon indigestion!) more than the new dragon-kid on the block, Combusting Bieber. He could even blow fire-raspberries while he sang!
The children realised that to win the competition they must remove Combusting from the scene. So they sent their snake, Mr. Lucifer, in the guise of a doctor, to mix poison in the antacid Nurse Cuckoo made every dragon take before rehearsing. His job became easier when Nurse Cuckoo fell head over doctor’s scholls in love with him. She adored his snake eyes and forked tongue, and what he could do with both of them. It was the perfect situation for Mr. Lucifer to carry out his task. But he couldn’t. Or rather he didn’t. He was really a nice soul, having lured into doing the job in exchange of life-long supply of raw porcupine eggs. So, on the day of the competition, instead of wholly poisoning Combusting, he just gave him enough to make his voice crack.
When Combusting realised what the children had done to him, he was really pissed. But he had an ace up his sleeve which even his dragon-cronies did not know about. He could dance the best tango in the whole of Not-So-Far-Away Land! He never publicised the fact because, well, you know, it is not a dragony type of thing to do, unlike singing, which all dragons give in to occasionally when sad. Anyway, the talent show that day saw the best tango ever danced in the world, accompanied by a dragon-version of Dancing Queen!
Unfortunately, all that dancing was too much for Combusting’s poisoned body to take. He succumbed to his death on the stage himself, but not before he had won the competition for his friends and singed the eyebrows and hair of every boarding-school children to the skin. The dragons won the prize-money and could go back to their kingdom.
Nurse Cuckoo proposed to Mr. Lucifer, but he confessed to her that he has lost his heart to an Oriental dragon. ‘Snakes and dragons do not usually make a pretty pair,’ he admitted to Nurse Cuckoo, ‘there’s much power-struggle. But we are too much in love to care about statistics. I am going to the dragon-land,’ he said with a shy smile to Nurse Cuckoo, ‘to meet the parents of my soul-mate Mr. Lappi Bahiri.’
UG III Roll No. 42

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Welcome, 2011 batch

I've just sent off invites to the new batch of 20 wripers as per the list of email address you gave me in the last class. Tell me if you haven't got an invite: some of your handwriting was a little hard to follow, so I may have got one or two addresses wrong. If you haven't yet got an invite, mail me at rimibchatterjeeATg[spambuster: leave this bit out]mailDOTcom. You should all get an invite mail with a link in it to click and join.
Here is this year's batch, in no particular order

Trisha Ray
Lopamudra Chatterjee
Dipabali Dey
Anuj Raina
Anushka Sen
Vikrant Dadawala
Amrita De
Deeptesh Sen
Rudrani Gangopadhyay
Piali Mondal
Abhijit Dutta
Amrita Dutta
Sanjana Majhi
Dipankar Lahiri
Shinjini Chattopadhyay
Barsha Saha
Sreyashi Mukherjee
Safdar Rahman

Lav Kanoi
Shreya Sarkar
Sejuti Roy

Check your inboxes for the invite, click and join up!