PERSONAL ESSAYS AND NON-FICTION: THIRD ISSUE
LEAF by Matt McGee The mulberry planted in the 1960’s has shaded my add-on apartment from the sun all summer long. When my daily alarm goes off and the agenda only says all clear, go surfing! the tree’s leaves report how much shoreline breeze I can expect and from which direction. While off at work,…
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- The Kitchen by Aratrika Das ( Spring Issue)
- Belonging Isn’t a Feeling by Candice Louisa Daquin ( October Issue)
- Fruit Flies by M’Shai S.Dash ( Third Issue)
- Leaf by Matt McGee ( Third Issue)
- A Return to Elysium: A Monologue by Dave Patton
- The Bridge to Mother Nature: The Ramayana Revised Bipranarayan Bhattacharyya ( Third Issue)
Recovering Lost Threads — The Art of Long Conversations
I am in Delhi, where without an air conditioner, the house feels like an oven set to a constant, trapping heat and the outside feels like a sweeping field of fire. I came here, in my home city in April 2022, after a gap of three years and three months. It’s an April that feels like June, the peak of Delhi summers. After recovering from jet lag, a trip to the Himalayas and meals with relatives, I step out — braving the 46C furnace, to sit down with a few folks and listen. These interview-conversations are for gathering information for my current work-in-progress — a book on Delhi. But they are a lot more than that.
As I sat down in the drawing rooms of my interviewees’ houses, I noticed something other than their generosity of time. I discovered the comfort, now fast disappearing, of long conversations. Back in my childhood, this was a real thing. The very mention of a relative coming to visit and stay with us from cities like Jamshedpur or Kolkata, put us into dizzy anticipation — of dhaala bichhanas, makeshift floor beds and goppo, a colloquialism for golpo or stories that rolled into the night and continued until the wee hours of morning. This — the unplanned chat hours — were the most delicious part of a relative’s visit. While few of these addas — informal chat sessions — pertained to issues of global significance, they were always about reliving, and sometimes even re-imagining, lost times. We were fortunate to have the gift of unadulterated time back then — time that hadn’t been polluted by the eye’s addiction to screens, time that didn’t require us to update the world with our social or gastronomic status, time that didn’t make us feel guilty about spending hours simply lying on the floor and chatting.
In 2007, when I first read the book Shilpi Ramkinkar Alaapchari by Somendranath Bandopadhyay, I learned how the best conversations are often long and unhurried. None of the series of dialogues in the book, which I would go on to translate in English, read like a well-structured interview or stiff intellectual discourse. Instead, its conversational and informal tone made the discussion between the author and his interviewee, the artist Ramkinkar Baij, throb with life. For a period of time, Baij and Bandopadhyay were neighbours in Santiniketan, Visva-Bharati, and the author would call on the artist-sculptor at different times of the day to check on him, but also to unearth, from the artist’s mind itself, secrets to the creative process. As I came across layer after layer of the simple yet complex personality of Baij, I thanked his interviewer, the author of the book, many times in my head. But for their leisurely conversations, I wouldn’t have known about how Baij “remained untouched by either praise or censure,” as Bandopadhyay writes in his introduction to the book. Or about his thunderous laughter and brooding silence. The point I’m trying to make is that stimulating conversations often lead us to unexpected discoveries even, or rather especially, when they veer off the focus.
I experienced this first hand when speaking to the subjects for my current work. As they answered my questions, I went on several time travel trips. One Bengali woman, now retired, told me about how as a child, she woke up every morning to the soothing chants of shabad-kirtan coming from the Bangla Sahib gurudwara, near which she lived during her school years. The melody of the prayer songs remained her morning alarm for years. I learned about Fakruddin, a Muslim foreman who continued to receive grocery provisions in pension from his employees at IMH, a press owned by one of the oldest Bengali families in Delhi as a mark of gratitude for his unwavering loyalty and dedication. From another gentleman, now in his 80s, I learned about how his mother brought him and his sister — now a world-famous painter — up as a single mother in the Indian capital in the 1940s and 50s. Her neighbours, many of them Punjabis displaced by Partition, were the only family she could turn to when in need of guidance. Mr. Dutta, my interviewee told me, how once when he had asked for 2 rupees to register for a football club, his mother had gone into a frenzy and approached her neighbours, who upon learning that the young boy was going to be groomed by one Mr. Khadim Hussain, the secretary of the said club and a strict, conscientious Pathan, assured her to look no further for her son’s future.
This past April, intense planning discussions were underway for my niece’s eleventh birthday party. This would be the first in-person get-together with her friends, after two years of pandemic-induced isolation, and the little girl weighed in on the possibilities with her parents. After exploring options like gaming venues and a movie-lunch with friends, she asked for a sort of celebration that surprised and delighted me alike. “We’ll go to a restaurant, eat lunch and have chit-chat,” she said. Her idea took me back to the birthdays of my childhood, occasions that were exactly like what she’d envisioned — nibbling on cake and potato wafers and chatting without a set agenda or a clock ticking to show us the end time. My niece’s birthday party turned out just fine — the kids loved being in person with each other and spent their time talking about, well, the usual topics of tween interest — K-pop, gadgets, school…
Long conversations are crucial not only for unearthing buried stories, but also to find common threads like the one I found in my niece’s idea of a birthday.
Mr. Dutta’s recounting of his mother’s mettle reminded me of my mother who carried out a similar role for my brother and me. My interactions with interview subjects helped me understand that listening, a function of the heart rather than the ear, is the fulcrum of good conversations. At Parcham, we want to listen. We invite you to engage us in engrossing, sempiternal conversations, so the season of our hearts transform, like the weather in Delhi that shifted from a raging furnace to a rain-drenched oasis by the time I finished writing this essay.
Bhaswati Ghosh writes and translates fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Her first book of fiction is ‘Victory Colony, 1950’. Her first work of translation from Bengali into English, ‘My Days with Ramkinkar Baij’ won her the Charles Wallace (India) Trust Fellowship for translation. Bhaswati’s writing has appeared in several literary journals, including Scroll, The Wire, Cargo Literary, Cafe Dissensus Everyday, Pithead Chapel, Warscapes, and The Maynard. Bhaswati lives in Ontario, Canada and is an editor with The Woman Inc. She is currently working on a nonfiction book on New Delhi, India. Visit her at https://bhaswatighosh.com/
The artwork is by Subarnarekha Pal.