Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Remembering Grandma's Tales

At some time or the other in our lives, we have all read his words. In subsequent times, those readings have inspired us. Especially in our younger days, his children’s books have played a significant role in shaping our thoughts. Burhi Air Xadhu – literally, Grandmother’s Tales – by Sahityarathi Lakshminath Bezbarua has been, for generations of Assamese readers, our first lessons in life. Written in a simple yet lucid style, the book is a collection of short tales, each with a moral woven into it. Yet this classic of Assamese literature is not just a few moral tales tied together. Burhi Air Xadhu is Bezbarua’s cudgel to purge the human foibles he saw in the Assamese society of his times. It is also his childhood memories concretised, and the reader’s memories crystallised. As a child, Bezbarua was fortunate to have been influenced by myriad experiences. When his family was in Barpeta, his father Dinanath Bezbarua engaged the services of an elderly relative, Rabinath, to look after the children. A virtual treasure trove of tales, Rabinath soon grew to be his closest companion. The many mythological stories and folktales that Rabinath spun every evening cast a deep impression on the young Bezbarua’s mind. Much later, when he was living far away from Assam, the memory of these tales, ‘recollected in tranquility’, took on a greater significance for the writer. Added to this was the influence on him of the developments in Bengali literature in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The urge to preserve the tales of rural traditional Assamese life took over and Bezbarua began to collate Assamese folktales in the form of three books – Burhi Air XadhuKokadeuta aru Nati Lora and Junuka. In another book, Sadhukathar Kuki, we find two more of these tales incorporated. In all, there were seventy folktales collated by Bezbarua.

In the preface to Burhi Air Xadhu, Bezbarua writes that the inclination towards giving a written form to oral narratives and folktales is a relatively recent trend that started in 1778-79 with the famousCollection of Popular Songs by Johann Gottfried Herder followed in 1811-35 by the famous Brothers Grimm in Germany. In India, pioneers of such efforts include Lal Behari Dey and his Folktales of Bengal(1881), Rabindranath Tagore’s Bauler Gaan (1883), Swadeshi Samaj (1904), Dakhinaranjan Mitra Majumdar’s Thakurmar Jhuli (1907) and Thakurdadar Jhuli (1909). Lakshminath Bezbarua realised the significant influence such writings could have on the Assamese mindset. At the time, Assamese society was reeling under unjust British policies. In 1836, Bengali had been introduced as the official language of Assam and it became the medium of instruction in schools. Being an alien language, its sudden imposition gave students a difficult time. The self-respect of the Assamese was offended, while a sense of inferiority and ignorance also seeped into the minds of the masses regarding their own language and culture. The Bengali subordinates in the administrative machinery of British Assam were rumoured to have helped Henry Hopkinson, the then Commissioner of Assam, argue that Assamese was a mere variant of the Bengali language. Lakshminath himself had learnt his first lessons in the Bengali medium. He however realised the importance of reviving the sagging self-image of the Assamese language and culture. Through his almost single-handed efforts and the magic of his pen, he shaped its future.

In Burhi Air Xadhu, there are thirty tales in total, each set in a rural framework. The stories are taut and fast-paced, and the narrator is omniscient. The book is infused with a sardonic yet gentle humour. Bezbarua seeks to not merely highlight but rectify the weaknesses and shortcomings of men. Even birds, beasts and flowers are symbolic of men and their frailties. In tales like ‘Bandor aru Siyal’ (Monkey and Fox), ‘Mekurir Jiyekor Sadhu’ (Tale of the Cat’s Daughter) and ‘Dhorakauri aru Tiposi Sorai’ (Crow and Tiposi Bird), the characters speak like humans – reminding us of the beast fables of yore. Though told in a light-hearted tone, there are a few tales like ‘Tejimola’ which speak of tragic events.

The other significant aspect of Burhi Air Xadhu is the presence of women characters. Not only is the narrator (in the frame narrative) a woman, a significant number of stories centre around women. In most of the stories, we find significant female characters with an interesting variety in their presentations. While Tejimola is a classic tragic character, Sutibai (in the story ‘Tikhor aru Sutibai’) is an orphan who, along with her brother, must find her way through distressing times.

In the preface to the book, Bezbarua writes: “Folktales are of two broad kinds: one that instructs, and the other that enables men – old and young – to free their thoughts and imaginations in the boundless skies of possibilities.”

In Burhi Air Xadhu, we find a fusion of both. In the same preface, he also writes: “Readers might find similarities between some of the tales in this book and tales from other parts of India, especially Bengal. Owing to this, if they think that these tales are written under the shadow of those foreign tales, then they are wrong. There might be several reasons why folktales of one society match or are similar to those of others. Firstly, these tales are so old that they can be traced to the ancient times when the Aryan race was together… Of course, with time and with different influences, modifications have crept in, even though the skeleton has remained the same. And they cannot change… Secondly, many tales spread from country to another by word of mouth… especially between neighbours…”

These words actually give us a peek into the mind behind the thoughts. Lakshminath Bezbarua was a patriot – his unflinching loyalty to Assamese culture and language and the Assamese nation in general is exemplary, yet he was never prejudiced against any other culture or literature. The tales in Burhi Air Xadhu could easily be relevant to any other community or culture. Bezbarua not only concretized oral tales that had come down to him, he also derived inspiration from non-Assamese literary oeuvres. To the influences of these different cultures he added the hues of Assamese life, so much so that when we, as children or as young adults, read this work we are made to feel as though Burhi Air Xadhu is a crystallisation of our own individual grandmother’s tales.

Sunday, June 5, 2011



it dawns.

 i do not figure in your

 life anymore.

somehow, roses stink

satin pricks



i'm thrown by the wayside


in a shallow pool of tears.

when the moon shines on her face

when the moon shines on her face
i breathe even softer

lest my selfish breathe
 pushes the moon beam away.

ashen morning

this ashen morning
i sit alone
snuffling tears
to wipe away
memories with a smile.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

on the crossroads of time

White heat.
Souls scarred by dusty winds.

The azure bowl lends no respite,
Tired leaves forget to flicker.

 Hope is a forgotten foe.
Memory, the stain of dried tears
Imagination, dots of paint at the tip of a quill.

Meanings elude
Silence stifles
like an age old curse
life skulks 
as I stand
On the crossroads of Time

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Through the mists of time-II

Three years ago when her sister died, Bina had stood alone in that dark stenchful corridor of the tiny government hospital, with newly born Minu in her arms, and a soiled and crumpled photograph of a dark, mustached man. On the back there was an address written in a scrawling hand. Bina knew the hand. It was Nina's. She knew the man too. He was the one with whom Nina(her sister) had eloped--much to her fathers chagrin. For some days the neighbourhood was rife with rumours about their whereabouts.  Finally, Binas employers, the kind Baruahs, managed to trace Nina to a brothel in Kolkata. Apparently Naresh was a pimp who had lured away and sold her to a trafficker for a few thousands. But unfortunately the young man had already fallen for pretty Nina. And so, when the Baruahs had Nina brought home, to Assam, Naresh too followed and after a dramatic change of heart managed to win everyone's heart. Since Nina had already fallen for him once, and had by then discovered that she was  pregnant, marrying the pimp-turned-lover seemed the best way out of infamy. Her family too agreed. And thus, exactly five months and twenty-eight days after Nina had eloped with Naresh the two were married with much fanfare.  It became the most talked about wedding in that impoverished neighbourhood. Even the rich Baruahs came to bless the bride and groom. There was a feast (adequately paid,  once again, by the Baruahs) and everyone went home happyfor many, it was the first good meal they had had in a long time. The brides family was happy with such a 'good-looking' son-in-law [let it be added that when he had returned to woohis lady love , Naresh was armed with several red and yellow  saris and gold ornaments, that was enough to win over the broken family] --and thus Nina got married. The first few days passed off happily. Naresh ran a pushcart chat stall and Nina, crooned love songs all day. However, a few months later, Naresh was back to his old ways. And one dark  afternoon, when Nina could already feel the baby kicking inside her , Naresh quietly packed his bags and disappeared. Next morning there was a news in the papers which announced that the police were searching for one Narendra Kumar, a small time crook and trafficker and the main accused in the murder of a money-lender in Patna. It soon transpired that Naresh i.e. Narendras  change of heart was caused by the need to hide himself under a changed identity. But his greed pulled him back to his former accomplices. He got into trouble and fled. Heart rending cries shook the creaky doors of  the Prasad's. By then, Nina found herself in the hospital bedand  since it was a weekend and the doctor had to attend an important meeting (which however was  his former girl friend's  birthday party), the compounder and a nurse performed the delivery. Bina could still vividly remember that sordid night. It was well past-midnight when an unconscious Nina was pushed inside the operating room, rather the corner of an empty ward hidden by faded green screens. Despite her repeated pleas, she had been asked to stand outside the room. Moments dragged slowly. After what seemed like ages, a feeble cry crept out of the faded screens. Bina sighed in relief.  But when after standing anxiously for a long time at the edge of the room, Nina didn't appear, her worries were renewed . Why were they taking so long? Illiterate though she was, Bina knew that Nina or the baby at least ought to have been brought out by then. Dawn was breaking. I wonder whether baba-ma could sleep last night, Bina wondered as she sat down on the broken bench in the unswept verandah. She could see the first birds setting out for the day, chirruping the little  nestlings bidding adieus with their tiny squeaks. Bina was jolted when the nurse called out  her name. She quickly wiped away her thoughts and got up, and cautiously entered the big room (this room was as big as their hut). The faded screens had been removed. At one corner, she saw her sister. Bina smiled and waved to her. Nina didn't respond. A sudden fear gripped Bina. Hey bhagwan! She hastened towards the corner. Bina could feel her heart wrench. Nina was lying still. Her eyes were shut. And her face wore the pallor of  death. Bina's pleading eyes burned into the compounder's . What has happened to her, sahib? she said, voice quivering. Rubbing his hands on a soiled kerchief, the compounder hesitated. We are indeed very sad, but your sister lost so much blood at the time of delivery, we tried but couldn't save her...
But the child is all right, don't worry,he hastily addedThe betel-stained nurse came in from somewhere inside and grumpily thrust the baby into Binas hands. Daughter she mumbled, and went away.  

For a few seconds, the world closed in on Bina. A strange silence  poured into her ears. She could hear nothing. Scenes from their childhood floated before her eyes. Unknowingly, a tear fell and was blotted on a wrinkled skin. The silence crept up her knees too, and Bina was about to fall when she remembered the bawling bundle of flesh on her arms and balanced herself. She didn't know for how long she stood that way. Finally, rousing herself Bina stepped out of the room, holding the baby close to her heart. The sun was shining brightly now. But for Bina, the sun had already set. As she stood all alone in the dark stenchful corridor, waiting to take Nina home for one final journey, tears blurred her eyes. 
 Finally, Bina's anguished cry merged into the tiny one's.  

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Through the mists of time

it was a cloudy Monday morning. A five-year old, with an orange-black bag on her back, and a red mango water bottle dangling from her neckwith wide limpid eyes, dragged the few steps from her doorstep to the car standing at the gateclutching a fathers hand. It was a distance that on other days this kid could cover easily with a hop, skip and jump.As her mother dressed her in an odd grey  skirt and a white shirt (and even tied a red tie with a black elastic band around her neck—oh! the tie was so bad (the black elastic pressed at the depression of her throat) it was clear that they were not going a-visitingindeed, today was different. Today, she almost tripped over as her tall father strode, holding her hand. As she looked up to her tall(long actually, because the ladder too was long) it occurred to her that  baba nowadays seemed to grow shortershe wondered why as she looked upto see her fathers facenice shaved chin and two holes that were his nose—he had such big holes it made her giggle each time, hers were nice and small,; but he seemed dark today…oh! he was standing against the daylight but how could there be daylight when the sun was hiding behind the clouds I think they will tell that too in school, she thoughtover the last few days, each of her umpteen questions were answered with the same wait till you go to school, then you will know everything’s-- but suddenly the thought of school clouded her mindschool meant getting up early:and she lo-v-ed sleeping till late--when the sun was frowning angrily on everyone outside, and inside maa was busy with her books. And she could have as many ices as she wished; and then there was Minu too. You don't know Minu? Why Bina ayah's niece, that tikli whose nose was running all the time, like the twisted water tap outside the servant quarters. Minu was three-year-old. they played  house-house, all the time, and always Minu was the servant; and she could do anything she wanted. It was so nice...And now, a frown increasingly clouded above her brow, Minu can play all the time and I have to go to school. The world blurred before her eyes...

"Wow what a beginning!" Swati exclaimed, "Megha you're seriously good. Just work on this, and you'll have such a good novel. Seriously man! Let's do one thing, let's call ..."
"Hell no" Megha snatched away the phone , "It's too early to call Ashok. This is, just, something that came out last night, in a flow. That doesn't mean this will be a good story. I don't even know what to do next".
"Aw, c'mon Megh. Don't say this. A talented writer like you, saying that you don't know what to write next is....I mean..silly!"
"No, sweetheart, try and understand. This is not something I cooked out of thin air. No. This is somebody's story, a life, a world is at stake. I can't simply write all this for the world to read. I told you, it's.. something that came out in one gush. You may even say that I tore a few pages out of my own life and placed it before you..."
Swati was silent. A thin soft veil of distance descended, as Megha drifted into her past
a phone rang somewhere
"You know Swati, this is to do with my past, some people from my past"
 a pause "...whom I love..."
the shrill phone tried in vain to pierce the silence

a tear rolled out of an eye, and quietly kissed the floor...   
Realising that she was now far away, Swati softly closed the door behind her.

(to be continued...)

Friday, March 11, 2011


this watery-yellow afternoon
sand--laden winds
left behind
their imprints
on a parched city.

*faagun  ('falgun') the eleventh month of the Assamese calender. characterised by strong winds and dust 'faagun' is dedicated to Lord Shiva, the Hindu god. 


lurks at the corners of his eyes
a snaky chill brushes past him
he breathes
but the air turns prickly
an averted gaze
he suffers ignominy of loyalty
of love for a cause
a cause, as harmless as his frail widowed aai
unable to bear any longer
the forceful kicks on his shins
the repeated assaults on baiti's  honour
to bear
the pain of not committing a sin
konpona decides to walk away
leaving the plough to  bhai
maloti's love to saru pitai
konpona drinks death.
next morning
newspapers carry front page stories
of a terrorist succumbing to his sin.

baiti-elder sister

[this is not a poem...it is outpouring of an anguish i have been feeling ever since i saw the news of a young man committing suicide  because he was being deemed a terrorist.at the same time this isnt a political comment.its just that i had been wondering ever since what might have gone through that young man.]

Sunday, March 6, 2011

the broken fence

i seek
to mend
a broken fence,
each time
a  swift swirl of wind
thwarts my efforts;
and yet
i pick up
the scattered fragments
of love
and seek once again
to mend
the broken fence.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

not far behind

languid thought
lurks in the caverns of her mind.
teasing, teasing
a weary soul.
silence cuts swathes into memories,
ruminations fly off in  flakes
leaving behind,
a lonely thought...(that)
 languid, silent
lurks in the corners of her mind
death is not far behind

Friday, February 4, 2011


The day sinks.
And i weave for you
a tapestry of dreams,
out of silken moonbeams.
          and send it
across spaces
across darkness
to distant lands
where charming hopes fragrance the night

For You.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


[it is with much trepidation that i am about to paste on this page, the following poem. it is about my most favourite place in the entire city--Panbazar. For anyone acquainted with Guwahati, this is one of the most familiar of places. historically laden, scenting of books, Panbazar is a living story of Guwahati's past. of course, the following composition is my tribute to this beautiful place...]

smell of books
ideas wafting all over,
honks and soot
the muezzin’s call
students...smiling shining
readers...poring over books
madhu channawallah selling his wares
a lone cow grazing in from nowhere
lovers sharing panipuris
cars and bikes cycles and rickshaws walkers
all in a mad scramble
in this gulley of books,
there is no space for tears
memories whisper secrets
the old nods at the new
Murphy Radio smiles in reminiscence
 College Studio clicks on…
 crystallizing moments on reel
Colourful magazines hail you
Pavement book stalls, 
adda points
where ideas merge with love,
where hatred diffuses in harmony.
summery mornings, wintry afternoons, rainy sunsets
Panbazar takes it all...

Saturday, January 15, 2011


like cobwebs
on a restless mind,

where skies blush no longer--
on mornings, nor on evenings.

untold fears explode
unheard cries cascade, and torment
unseen emotions
lurk like venom, beneath the sheen

silence swathes the world
little islands.

To Sethe, with love

Naked tree on a field of coal
Festers of pain
Gagged cries…

The tree rots with time
as wrinkles blot a strange face
wizened with servitude.

(for Sethe from Toni Morrison's Beloved)


ribbon of sunlight
descending on a solitary road
ensheaths a poor child, afraid...
lest the dirty eyes of a passing car
Devour its innocence.


Silence hangs in the air
as an emaciated wintry sun
plunges into the River,
Splashing orange on red-blue.
Silence screeches...

Silence Retold

The setting sun sings a song of desperation
(as) a wanton night stealthily sails in:
the satin moonbeam humming a eerie tune.
Silence ruminates....churning out meanings.

Friday, January 14, 2011


When the mellow sun diffuses in the horizon,
Leaving behind a lonely feel,
Golden sands reflect
the last speckles of fading light,
Reminding us,
Tomorrow we meet again.
When filth sheaths you in,
When mist blinds you,
Hope will pierce through,
and let light flow
and thus,
 begin a new story.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

She Stood Alone

She stood alone
On a silky evening
at the edge of a cliff
Watching the orange sun melt
in the nape of a hill
beside a ribbon of blue.
She could smell tangerine.

Cacophonous notes
broke into fragments
where she stood.
Nestled amidst nowhere
she sat,
counting moments drifting away.
Solitude was her best friend.

Evening melted away
as dusk forayed in.
She looked up,
A lone star shone in the deep blue sea
A tear crystallized.

Friday, January 7, 2011


a tornado rages,
voices whisper surreptitiously--
walk off, walk off,
She deserves you not,
She desires you not.

A smirk blots out all reason.
Indeed, says he, i'm a wastrel
i've hurt who have loved,
loved who has betrayed.

And today----
Let me end all agony
Let me, oh let me pine for her no longer
She desires me not,
She desires me not.

the Tornado rages on
Voices grow Louder--
"Walk off". "Walk off".
"Go away".
 " Leave me alone".

Early next morning,
A lifeless form sprawled at her door.
The ambulance arrives, goes away.
And she lives happily ever after.