May 27, 2009

apartment life villanelle

how i miss, how i miss the man below
if i walked barefoot or put down a tray
he was quick to bang his ceiling so

for hitting the roof, there's none i know
who with apoplexic joy could so bang away
how i miss, how i miss the man below

we'd dance each evening, a small do-ci-do
i'd take a step, and yippee! and yay!
he was quick to bang his ceiling so

every night when to bed i'd go
in loud morse code, "good night" he'd say
how i miss, how i miss the man below

i wondered often if he kept a shoe to throw
or a pole by the bed for these moments gay
he was quick to bang his ceiling so

these days i can stomp and dance in a row
no one hits the ceiling, no one says "nay"
how i miss, how i miss the man below

no other soul in these halls i know
at least he "conversed", in his staccato way
he was quick to bang his ceiling so
but i miss, how i miss the man below

May 24, 2009

Bicycling to Utrecht : Slow and easy

It had been a cold and rainy two weeks, but May 24, Saturday, was promising to be sunny. So I set off for Utrecht on my trusty bike, now in its second week.

I went through google maps choosing a "walking" path along parks and waterbodies. But I needn't have bothered. For one, I got lost promptly and found myself in the ugly industrial area near the Arena, but then I found my way back to Oudekerk and the Amstel quite easily.

This is the Groene Hart of Holland, and your route doesn't matter much - most of it is simply beautiful. The ride felt more like going through a park: green-leafed Canals and windmills everywhere, boats on tranquil lakes and old couples with picnic baskets or the odd mallard or coot lounging on benches at water's edge, boats of all kinds - motorboats small and large, rowboats and inflatable kayaks, pontoons with kids jumping on and off - even the houses had a fairytale look.

Also, they have bicycle maps posted at key points!

I had taken a sandwich and a bottle of wine, and I chose a bridge with the canal flowing under me for having lunch. It was a low bridge, and pretty soon some boats came and were waiting on either side. Then a woman came up in a scooter to open the bridge I was sitting on.





here's where I had my little lunch. the boat behind waited for some twenty minutes before the bridge was opened.
As the boats passed by, the operator would lower a wooden clog like a fishing-pole, and the boats would put some money. No doubt this is an ancient dutch tradition of tipping the gatekeeper.



Though I took it slow and easy, it was a pleasure for me to see this sign - it was a 45 km ride, after all. Of course, by the time I was halfway, the pros were riding back from their 100K circuits in their helmeted racing bikes.

Once I reached Utrecht, I found a carnival going on in a park. Then I had dinner by the Oudegracht (lit. "old canal"). This has large loading bays for the boats to offload salt and other merchandise; and the subterranean warehouses next to them have of course become restaurants - all of them apparently. I ate at a french style (Burgundy) place called Den Draeck - the sirloin tips was quite good.

By now it was 10PM and night so I took the train back! Sadly, that took only 15 minutes.

Map

View Larger Map

Route Breakup

Down to the Amstel to Abcoude (16km)

This is a lovely stretch mostly along the Amstel river. Once on the Amsteldijk (left bank), it's mostly parkland (though I missed this stretch this time, I've done it other times). At van Boshuizenstraat, you cross an old windmill with a statue of Rembrandt, and then it's wide open, a few grand houses and lazy boats till you reach oudekerk-an-amstel. If it's weekend, the restaurants are full and there may be a saxophonist on the square.

And then you go through Ouder-Amstel, by a small canal into Abcoude. This is a small village, very laid back, with restaurants scattered like lilypads around the canal. It's quite close to Amsterdam (15km), and a bike ride here should be on everybody's agenda. Even if you are worried you should get here; there's even a train station should you need it...

Country canals to Brekeulen (15km)


Beyond Abcoude, you go along the canals on Rijksstraatweg. At a pier in Brambrugge, I was setting up the camera, when a mallard decided to take off.

The lively Brekeulen town square.


Maarssen, and the Rhine Canal into Utrecht-Noord

 
You pass castles like this one, which is now the campus of the Nyenrode management university. Entering Utrecht, you go along the Rijnkanal, which you've crossed earlier near Loenen. You can come all the way along the Rhine canal which is a major shipping channel, but I had been avoiding it a bit, since it's so straight and deserted. But the part leading into Utrecht has a beautiful tree canopy.

Warning: Cows


Remember not to get too near the cows, or they crowd around thinking you've come to feed them!

Your intrepid explorer - in kurta and sunglasses - during a water break at a park near Brekeulen.

May 20, 2009

Gustavo Dudamel at the Concertgebouw

I am sitting in the sun ouside the Concertgebouw, typing in exhilaratedly after listening to an amazing performance of Grieg's Piano Concerto in A minor by the Koninklijk (Royal) Concertgebouw Orchestra. The conductor was Gustavo Dudamel, of Venezuela, and this was my first exposure to this well-known piece in concert.

Every wednesday at 12:30 (noon) there is a short, free concert at the Concertgebouw, but performances of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra are not very frequent. The leading classical music magazine Gramophone had recently ranked the Koninklijk Concertgebouw orchestra finest in the world (Berlin, Vienna, and London coming in at no. 2,3 and 4). Naturally, when I showed up around 12:15, the queues were going quite across the block. I managed to spot a second door, the "artist's entrance" - through which you can get into the seats behind the performers...


The Concertgebouw (literally, "Concert building") is reputed to have the finest acoustics among major concert venues, which maybe one of the reasons for the orchestra being so good. Most of the audience is in front or on the balconies, but you can also sit behind the players.



The musicians in the first violin section. At left (leading first violin) is the Bulgarian born Vesko Eschkenazy.

I was sitting behind the players, when a dignified elderly man and a young rowdy walked down the aisle by me. From the applause, I gathered the elderly man must be the conductor - but why was the whippersnapper in dirty jeans and red t-shirt with him?

But then it turned out that it was the young man who started waving the baton! I had read that Dudamel was young - but this was profane! No wonder this young Venezuelan maestro, who will become the principal conductor of the Los Angeles philharmonic later this year, has been making big waves in the world of classical music (see him on 60 minutes: The great Gustavo). The white-haired man in the jacket was the solo pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and he brought out the emotions in the piece very effectively...

video
Video: The dying moments of Grieg concerto,
with Dudamel conducting energetically, and
then the audience applause.

Grieg's piano concerto in A minor, Op. 16: the first movement was light and uplifting, and you could hear every note clearly in the "grote hall" whose somber ambience also made for the right mood. The second piece, by Prokofiev, also went very well. I am not at all knowledgeable in western classical music and can't judge whether the orchestra has an "individual" sound or not, but even I could feel the emotions, especially in Grieg.

Well, now it's time for me to leave this sunlit grassy arena, built on an artificial sloping deck... I unlock my bicycle and go off for my meeting with some project students...

LINK: A CD has been released from this Dudamel/Thibaudet performance. You can listen to some of it here.

May 18, 2009

day 8: versal magazine launch party



today was the versaal book launch party at the sugar factory in leidseplein. after some difficulty finding my way there from the university, i paid my 5 euros and entered
the "sugar factory".

sitting at the table with molly and barun i meet amal chatterjee, whose novel "across the lakes" has been making waves.

the book launch event was kicked off by music from the band zorita, who deserve to be better known. later, they would be applauded back on stage by the audience.



the readings from versaal 7 included jennifer dick, whose collaborative poem (with someone from new york) struck a chord of movement and loss. there was also an excellent short story capturing the child's view of an eccentric teacher at school.



bicycle stolen!


during a break, i came out to find that my bicycle was gone. i had locked it, but not "to something"! so many people had warned me of bike thefts, advising me against buying a new bike - more likely to be stolen. god! one week in amsterdam and and my bike already stolen! i was completely down....

i went around the square trying to see if someone had removed it. after some time i suddenly spotted it... a wave of relief!!! i took it immediately and locked it securely to one of the fences near melkweg. later, the girl at the counter told me that the manager had moved it because it was too near the gate!!

after the book launch, barun and i stayed on for the night club, expecting some other bands to play. we heard rumours that more than one band were waiting in the green room. we took a stroll outside and came back in, but it turned out to be only djs, playing what sounded like a fusion of techno and elevator music. but then, people kept pouring in and by midnight, a completely revamped crowd was jamming the dance floor. apparently amsterdammers start their partying well past midnight, with the crowd peaking at two am; parties don't end before four. barun left by the night bus a little past one, and i too left soon.

pedalling down the night streets of amsterdam is such a pleasure, especially if your bike has recently been un-stolen...

May 15, 2009

"Ik ben een lul" (I am a dick)


Seen on Oudebrugsteeg, saturday May 15. On the back of the dress, it said, "Ik ben een lul." I had no idea what was going on and asked what "lul" meant to some women who had gathered on the fringes. After some mild giggling they told me that it was dutch slang for "dick", "cock", etc.

I wonder what would have happened had they been women in India...

May 12, 2009

student fraternity party

day 5: it was around 9 pm when i was going in for groceries to the larger albert heijn (next to magna plaza). two young men sitting on the stairs with bottles accosted me - they were inviting general passersby to a drink. both were in tie and jacket, but appeared to have been drinking quite heavily. later, as i was leaving the store they were still there and we fell talking. i declined their vodka, but opened a small bottle of wine I had just purchased. i also shared a baguette i'd just bought; one of them, aleksandr, was hungry and had happy to have a bite. he was studying business economics at uva; the other, thomas, was in sociology. they then invited me to come with them to a party with "free beer"...

i thought - what can happen - let me swing on life's ropes...

that's how i ended up in the molass-smelling wooden hall of the ASC (amsterdamsch studenten corps), a student fraternity housed deep inside a building on warmoestraat. on our way here, while crossing the damrak with scant regard for hurtling traffic, a mercedes targeting aleksandr braked very reluctantly at the last minute. i then got to hear some terrific sounding dutch epithets.

once inside, i was introduced to many youngsters, who promptly plied me with lots of beer. there were several "taps" around the room, and apparently each belonged to a different subgroup. a number of elderly people were also there - someone said the parents of the women members had been invited today - several women's groups ran their own taps. they were happy to welcome a visiting professor at uvA, though they were from the campuses downtown or from VU. some of them had been to india and came up to share their experiences. two of them, amar and mandu, had indian parentage; amar knew some hindi words, prominent among them being "bhanchot" (sister-fucker). katrina, aleksandr's girlfriend of six years, said hello - they were "almost married" - but they weren't going to have a baby, they would rather adopt. another woman, eleena, was interested in knowing what was in my large-ish backpack (groceries). the word students comes from "study" i guess, but as everywhere, studying seemed hardly their priority... but i also met the tall and sober chris, who was in his first year economics at uva; he was now concentrating on his studies, but he was going to start serious partying by joining ASC the next year. many students in the gathering, including aleksandr and thomas were not really members, but had just gatecrashed. there is a party here every day, they said. someone said that the members were "elite"; presumably the costs of the establishment had to be covered...

at one point, they stacked up some six or seven crates and someone scrambled onto the tottering top, from which he was to make a speech. the first one up faltered and came down, followed by another man who wobbled his way through a sentence or two. apparently the tradition was for him to then jump down into a web of friends below. he dutifully dropped into the interlinked arms but what with all that beer sloshing around, everyone fell to the floor anyway.

a number of people were also on a balcony upstairs that surrounded the central open area.

after about an hour there, it was getting close to eleven and i was hoping to get back home, when a waiter came up and asked me if i was a member. i said i wasn't but i had been invited. but i was about to leave anyway, and so there was a lengthy round of farewells, with more beer offered, which i declined. as i was leaving i noticed some other waiter-like people shooing off gatecrashers outside.

the night air of warmoestraat was refreshing after the alcohol bonhomie of the wood-paneled interior. there were stars out, and the lights on the canal twinkled my way home.

oudebrugsteeg

amsterdam sucks you in
like a maelstrom of desire
moving past
the nightlights of the daam
past the innocence
of tourist boats asleep
neon erotica
beckons you
deep into the night
you join the frenetic crowd
so many souls
caught in the vortex
narrow lanes
going down to the canal's edge
no secrets here -
a direct argument
transparent, clear:
behind blue-lit lingerie
bare skin curves
like a fish-hook
awaiting your phosphorescent bite
the hand mimes
its touch on your hardness
the body gyrates like a tongue
the lips lick passion like a lollipop
the line draws taut
promising sticky eruption

but life moves in
gentle swirls. lust
turns and turns inward
cavorting in its own whorl
glass windows
and the luminous bed behind
spirals down wet

perhaps lasciviousness
feeds on cover,
and not
on transparence.
open-ness dilutes it...
the crowd moves on
beyond
skin, beyond
fractured desire.

gelderskade 14
i open my door

- amit mukerjee may 10, 2009

May 11, 2009

Summer in Amsterdam

I am spending the summer of 2009 in Amsterdam, visiting the ILLC group at the Universitiet van Amsterdam. I am staying right next to the Centraal station, an extreme tourist hotspot. Just below my window, the streets teem with tourists visiting coffeeshops and the red-light district with its blue-lit windows displaying their wares. The window of my room actually faces the back lane, Oudezijds Kolk, and straight across the thin canal is the majestic glazed windows of Sint Nicolaaskerk.

schreierstoren at end of my street
At the end of the lane stands the Schreierstoren, the "Tower of tears", from which 17th century wives would wave farewell to their men sailing off to distant seas. There is an excellent cafe on the tower, with a deck for the sunny days.
The Irish pub Molly Malone is just below my window, and I can hear the shouts and screams from its canalside tables as I type this in the dying hours of the day...

On my second day here, I went to Decathlon near the Arena and bought a bicycle. It was not much more that what I would have paid for an used bike, and it looked a lot better! Some friends had mentioned how their bikes had various break-downs, and I thought it would be wiser to buy a new bike itself...

However, everyone tells me about how bikes here get stolen. Every year, one in 10 bikes in amsterdam (about 50,000) get stolen, says the magazine Time Out. So I spent a good fraction of the bike cost on a lock and other accessories.

In my first week here, the ILLC moved from its location in the Plantage area to the University building in Science Park in Watergraftsmeer. This meant a lot of disruption. The new location is also a bit further - about a 20 minute ride, instead of 10-15 minutes.


This picture is from my second week; I am on my way to the new Science Park office.

I must mention that part of my motivation in coming to Amsterdam was that my sister and her husband (and their two sons, Arohan and Arush) live here. More about them in these pages that record my experiences here.

day 4: Amsterdam Studienten Festival: Klassikal Musik

I am in the Bethanien Klooster near Nieuwmarkt, listening to Rosanna Dingeman, a young woman (19) with long blond hair, play Godard on the Piano. She's playing from memory (without a score) and doing an excellent job of it.

It's a small hall, possibly a chapel once, but now there are no signs of religion. About a hundred people are sitting in stackable felt chairs. I am near the very back so that the laptop keyboard won't disturb people - and yet the stage is barely ten meters away. Tall windows to the left let in the sun - it is 7:30 in the evening but the summer day is quite strong still.

The first piece by Roasanna (Godard's etude de concert, cahier 4, no. 4c), is quite well executed. But it is the second, Debussy's La Plus que Lente (Valse) that touches even a completely untrained ear like mine. The piece has some complex and fast fingerwork, but what makes it work for me is the sequence of short movements- each a couple of notes higher - building up expectations, and then merging into the theme.

The third piece is her own composition. Titled "agititie" (agitation), you sense the modernity in the construction immediately as it opens. The music moves through a series of staccato undulations, which do build up anxiety - a sense of agitation. The middle part has an unfamiliar structure, and doesn't work for me as well, but in the end she returns to the starting staccato, and on the whole it does transmit the mood.

The next piece is by Laurien Schreuder, who is a mezzosoprano, aged 22. She is dressed in a thin black gown with a white dupaTTa coming down the front like a chador, and wears a feather on her head like an american indian. She is doing a Puccini piece, and sings with passion. It is quite surprising how penetrating her voice is - she's singing without a mic - given her lithe build...

I wonder how these students manage to keep up their practice. Rosanna is studying Psychology, and Laurien is doing Physics, how do they find the time for pursuing classical music - especially in the prevailaing rock and band atmosphere of amsterdam. As the applause fades, I look at them and wonder if they come from a privileged background, or may be an academic heritage, as most classical musicians seem to ...

The third is a quintet, with Marijn van Dijk as mezzosoprano, and two violins, one who did his phD some years back and the other, a short, neat woman playing violin 2, has just become a doctor. The woman on viola studies cultural anthropology, and the thin woman on cello is majoring in psychology. The piece they are doing is a translation from Shelley's "The sunset" into Italian. The singing manages to convey quite a bit of the pathos ("In the morning the lady found her lover dead and cold"). The program doesn't tell who has composed the music - I wonder if it is the performers themselves.

After this piece there appears to be a break. Everyone heads into the lobby. Quite a few people, it seems, leave. I am wondering if I should leave as well, but I too join the queue and pick up a white wine (2 euro). In the queue behind me is Rosanna Dingeman, and I congratulate her on her fine performance. I also get to ask the violin players from the last piece - "no, not at all!" - it isn't their composition at all - it's by a name I don't recognize. The small woman is on violin 2 - the doc - is being pawed and kissed by her lover, and they head down to grab their coffees and beer. People are milling around in small groups - the feathered soprano singer is talking to a group of friends - she is amazingly young. There is a smattering of elderly people, but mostly the crows is youngsters. The organizers are wearing tight T-shirts proclaiming "crew" - and one of them is going around interviewing the performers.

The hall has huge wooden beams going across, there is some subtle lighting along the roof, and two chandeliers in the audience area. It is nine PM now, and while the light is fainter, it is still quite visible.

I talk to some of the young organizers. One of them is kind enough to give me a poster from the wall, it shows some half-naked youngsters bicycling wearing cubical head-masks. The break is unexpectedly long - nearly forty minutes. I am a bit worried because I am planning to get some groceries, esp bread - for tomorrow morning...

The first performance after the break is Michiel Roosen, 23, who is studying Aviation. He is also without a score, and he plays Rachmaninoff's Prelude Op. 23 no. 5 in G minor ("klein" in Dutch). The piece is melodious, but I feel that his hand is perhaps a bit heavy, the subtleties are somewhat lost. The next piece is Chopin's Nocture Op. 55 no.1 in F minor. I have heard a Nocturne by Chopin, but I can't tell if this is the same. It's a slow piece and somehow, the execution, while technically perfect I am sure, doesn't seem to be doing justice to it emotionally. Perhaps because I am not in tune with it, it seems to be going on for a long time, and by the end I am waiting for it to end (and maybe others in the audience as well)...

The next performer is a revelation. She is Mascha van Nieuwkerk, who is playing the cello with a non-student accompanying on the piano. Earlier too, the accompanists for Laurien had not been named - perhaps they are professionals paid for the work and hence recognition is not necessary. In any event, her cello speaks to me like no other piece so far. Maybe it is something about the more base tone of the cello, along with the smooth glissandos that make it more like the human voice, at least compared to the metallic discreteness of the piano. Mascha is 18 and studies history; she plays with a lot of energy. Dressed in an elegant gown, she also presents a nice visual impression ...

Her first piece is "Bei Männer welche Liebe Fühlen" Wo 46 - the inadequate program doesn't give the composer, but I find out later that it's from Mozart's Zauberfloete (Magic Flute). The melody is emotive, and Mascha is quite passionate in executing it, and the Piano accompaniment is excellent. In between there is a small pizzicato which she executes well - I think it sounds nicer on the cello than on the violin. Her second piece, Hungarian Rhapsody by David Popper, (op.68, 1894), is a piece written for the cello and piano. It is marked by some frenetic pace, but the emotional nature also works for me.

The sixth performer is also on piano - Willem Mulder is a student in Business Economics, and plays Bach's Jesu joy of men's Desiring. This is a piece I know a bit - and he does a good enough job - but right after it, I have to leave because it is getting to ten PM when Albert Hijn closes - so I leave, and walk down to the store near Nieuwmarkt (new market) without unlocking my bicycle. On the way I pass several women who have taken up positions at the blue windows. I get some toast, a bottle of nutella chocolate spread, and some apples. Then, instead of going home, I think I will catch the rest, and I head back to the theater. On the way, one of the blue-light women gesticulates to me (I am carrying two grocery bags) ... she acts out a quick fellatio for me...

Back in the audience, I catch the very last (not on the program) act, which is the "studenten koor" - the choir. This is quite special indeed. It is conducted by a young man in jeans and unkempt T-shirt, who conducts a group of about thirty - twenty women in the front row, and ten men at the back. All are about 20 or so. The harmonies work amazingly well - the female soprano holding an amazingly high note for an extended period, while the others fit into it. They are supposed to do two numbers, but they do a third, con permiso from the absent organizers...

And then the end. I have to ride back with two bags of groceries... At one point, I take a wrong turn, but the tourist density and the blue windowed women tell me I am headed the wrong way - I turn back and finally find my way home across the familiar canals...

--
For more on the Amsterdams Studenten Festival, see this jazzy homepage

May 10, 2009

day 2: the palimpsest of exile, by dipika mukherjee

The Palimpsest of Exile, by my sis Molly, a.k.a. Dipika Mukherjee, is being launched at the Waterstones on June 4, 2009. I read this preview copy at her house on May 8, my second day here.

Mukherjee, Dipika
The palimpest of Exile
Rubicon Press, Edmonton, 2009
ISBN 9780980927894

Review

Of the fifteen poems in this thin volume, a surprisingly high number work for
me, but that may be because these poems by my sister cover familiar ground - a grandmother we shared, the hybrid tastes of peripatetic life.

Here is a friend, Molly's age, tall, imperious, chic, full of life - all the boys had a crush on her. And how shell-shocked we all were when she committed suicide during her high school exams:
 The easy sunset evenings on rooftops
while the skies filled with the clamor of conch shells
were gone. ...
Gone the afternoons
for you had taken the child in me
without goodbye.

All successful poetry must presents an alternate view of life, but it must do so without seeming to. Sometimes in these poems, it weighs down a bit heavily - e.g.
 Sometimes a mongrel breed living half a life,
sometimes pickled, sometimes preserved.
the palimpsest of exile is an afflicted volume,
pages filled with erasures...

For me the word palimpsest was most memorable for a speech by Jawaharlal Nehru:

India was like some ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously.

I had looked it up once, while reading Alain de Botton's On love - palin is Greek for "again", and psEn is "to scrape, rub smooth"; that which is scraped smooth again and again.

The alternate view is much more lucid in Writing Xanadu , lamenting interruptions in the process of writing - just "when words trip over themselves to get / down on the page" (a rare occurrence), the handyman comes. He rambles about cafes on distant highways. In the end, the laptop trumpets into hibernation.

I write the memories I hope to have broods about death; at her own cremation,
 They will rake in my bones, stir my shattered skull
and find a way to live. My spirit will hover
over sons with shaven heads,
"Foreign passport", where her son (my neph Arush) is detained at the US immigration, fugues into a emotional lament over the poet Reetika Vazirani's death:
 Standing at the serrated edge
of a Goghian field,
the stalks, like jagged fingers,
stabbing obscenely at the sky
Most of all, I could relate to the piece Thakuma; perhaps this image will resonate in many of us who have connections with the migration from what became East Pakistan and now Bangladesh:
  Widowed, you were
shorn of hair, arms bracelet bare, vermilion scraped.
your color pale white as your widowhood.
Those were desperate years. You lost a child
to illness; another, seeking heat on
a chill night, crawled into the open fire.
Other poems of note include the autobiographical These words once danced
in red jooties
,
 These words would once burst through that door
in flaming silk, rustling aquamarine,
they would raise one hand, thick with silver tinkling
swish the air and tilt the chin
to demand attention. These words once knew the power
of insousicance.

These words once danced in red jooties.

Possibly the most powerful poem here is Scarecrow, which
captures the adrenalin of a near-death moment. Although it is I
who am the uncle (the child is my other neph, Arohan), I myself don't
remember the episode, which could well be a part-imagined reconstruction,
certainly for Arohan who was too small to really remember it, yet he says he
does...

Of course, I am far from a neutral observer, but I think this review itself is fairly impersonal in how it records my feelings... On the whole, it is indeed an excellent read, on my "where-the-page-falls-open-quotient", where the percentage of good poems on a random page is quite high.

Excerpts

On an Ohioan autumn, remembering Reetika

(in memory of Reetika Vazirani, 1962-2003)

Standing at the serrated edge

of a Goghian field,
the stalks, like jagged fingers,
stabbing obscenely at the sky
I think of another woman.
A poet
a mother
she killed her child and then herself.

There is the dull gold of decay
corn husks and dying light of day
and one lone blackbird.

I who have traveled
from a place of excess fecundity,
a land so pregnant
that the undergrowth teems.
I stand in this aridity
a dark desiccation,
a foreigner.

Writing Xanadu


The handyman always comes
in the middle of the zone
when words trip over themselves to get
down on the page; this rarely happens,
but when it does,
the handyman's at the door.

He sees a woman with a laptop
while something simmers, fresh, on the stove;
he probably thinks
you are downloading a recipe.

He ambles over and points out of the window.
See there, if you take the highway
past the medical centre and on to Haarlem,
the first exit, eh,
there's a wonderful cafe'
run by former clowns, you know, Pipo's?

You want to ask
if he has ever heard of Coleridge,
to say you are finishing your Xanadu right now,
but the conceit seems appalling.
Besides you don't want to hear
I'd write a book
If I had the time.

The handyman rattles on regardless.
He spreads some goo over
the leaky faucet and you think
the water's relentless drip
was infinitely preferable.

He talks about his duaghter's
Barbie fixation,
asks whether it's a phase.
You remember he's always there,
even on weekends.

The laptop trumbets
into hibernation.

Thakuma (Paternal Grandmother)


Gold anklets are sacriligeous, so your
infant feet tinkled silver. You were a
cherished child, only daughter. Coddled and
cocooned, you grew to womanhood, knowing
your worth in gold. Then shenai strains mingled
with fragrant sandalwood and rosewater,
and you shimmered in red brocade, your face
glowing with jewels, bracelets on glistening
arms. As you circled the sacred fire
seven times, your father muttered ancient
mantras, giving the gift of a virgin.

Warring nations forced you to flee the land
of your birth. You lost your husband in an
alien land, looked at seven infant mouths
and willed yourself to live. Widowed, you were
shorn of hair, arms bracelet bare, vermilion scraped.
your color pale white as your widowhood.

Those were desperate years. You lost a child
to illness; another, seeking heat on
a chill night, crawled into the open fire.
You sifted through the ashes of burnt hopes
and survived; like rice replanted on
alien fields, you gave your children a place
to grow, creating life out of chaos.
Your forthborn became my father.

Avanti


You strung a sari on the ceiling fan,
then kicked a chair to die.
A half-drunk glass of water
an open book rifled by the wind
that's all you left.

I did not go to see you.
I was sixteen, grief-dumb. I wept,
bartered with the Gods, and lost,
full of my guilt.

They dressed you in flaming red
to burn a hride, virgin garb,
and I remembered all the boys we'd eyed,
sitting on a rock at the Shiv temple,
looking at the world at our feet.

I had felt your magnetism,
for you broke a lot of hearts.

The easy sunset evenings on rooftops
while the skies filled with the clamor of conch shells
were gone. Gone the afternoons
of lime sherbet and gossip
and hating parents together.
I was full of grief, yet resentment, too,
for you had taken the child in me
without goodbye.

Scarecrow


You are stopped in the middle of the road, looking only to your left, and I hear the scream gurgle up inside my throat, but it is of no use, you stand in the middle of the Lucknow-Kanpur highway and I see your five years of life lifting a sneakered foot towards your uncle on the other side and I see the lorry trundling unstoppable in its aged speed, its wooden slats banging a warning and the garish "Love is God" sign and the driver leaning on the horn -- leaining onto it and not letting go -- and you are poised for a run, unsure of direction, both scary and scared, and I am screaming, STOP, STOP to you, to the driver, to time, too crazed to make a difference and then you are there, scooped up in your uncle's arms, a wriggling live miracle, as you were at birth. p. 26

I write the memories I hope to have


There must be fire, over the touch of sandalwood.

There will be a ghat with water, corrupted, floating
through mud-swirls, carrying bodies
too poor to be burnt.

There will be the outcastes,
ashes flying on bodies from the flickering
multitudes of corpses like mine;

the darkness will gleam through the moonless night
as they poke the cinders to retrieve a ring...
perhaps a tooth, still melting like honey.

They will rake in my bones, stir my shattered skull
and find a way to live. My spirit will hover
over sons with shaven heads,

chilly in cotton dhotis, sleeping on cement;
there will be thousands of pleas
on leaf boats floating,

lighting up the Ganges like a watery constellation. p. 28

- amitabha mukerjee (mukerjee [at] gmail.com)