Tuesday, 14 May 2013

RFW May Challenge - Letters









When I saw the prompt - Letters – for this month’s challenge at Romantic Friday Writers, it seemed a perfect fit for some characters/lives I dreamed up a few years ago.  I wrote a triad of Bengali short stories sometime back – Chithhi (“The letter”), Ashtamangala (“The return of the bride”) and Seemaheen Bidesh (“Borderlessly Foreign”), and you can read a synopsis of all three stories here, if you have the time. 
The mc is Abin Bhaduri,  a middle-aged widowed man, living in early-nineties Kolkata, Bharati is the name of his wife.  The others are Chhuti, his step-daughter and her husband Tareq, the couple live abroad; and Abin's long time companion-come-helper Ramcharan, and Ramcharan’s wife, Namita, though they have no role in the current story.

My first response to the prompt was an abridged and translated version of the first story.  But it felt a little lame to let go of the prompt with a tweak of an old idea.  So I sat down and wrote afresh, directly in English no translations involved, about the same characters.  I also used the challenge to write a separate story in verse form,  in a series of sonnets, so all in all I have exploited the prompt quite fully, thank you RFW :)

I write in two languages, and what I write in my mother tongue has always felt untranslatable to me, even though the cultural context for what I write in English is much the same and I hope, smoothly interchangeable.  I have always kept my Bengali and English writing separated, I have always thought the emotions evoked, the settings, the dialogues in Bengali can’t be seamlessly transposed to English.  But this prompt made me want to try. It will be interesting to see if I have been able to prove myself wrong.

Looking forward to your views!
The Guardian of Letters
Abin looks out of the window into the garden briefly, before he bends to open the cabinet under its sill.  He lifts up the pile of old newspapers and gropes the concrete surface gently – nothing.  A little flutter of panic and he kneels laboriously to look closer, and ah, there it is.
The thing to say is – of course I’ll always be with you, in everything, everywhere, don’t grieve.  But that’s a lie.  I’m tired of lies.  The truth is, I will be nowhere when you read this.  But I was.  I was with you. Everywhere.  I must remember that till the end.  So must you.”
A flake of paint falls into his teacup from the ceiling as Abin straightens up. Early morning, there is no-one in the garden, just the birds with their frenzied news exchange.  He tries to remove the floating flake, but it leads him a chase and crumbles.  A crow sits on the gatepost and croaks a single warning caw as a taxi turns in at the far end of the block.
Abin heaves a long sigh.  The house, Bharati’s house, needs repainting.   When she died, his household help and companions, Ramcharan and Namita saw him through that loss; Bharati’s own daughter Chhuti left her mother’s house at a marathon run soon after, didn’t stop till she crossed an ocean and settled into a foreign land and faith. Quite some time since she married her Arab husband Tareq. 
Then Ramcharan died, and his son claimed the mother; so Namita too left, and all that remains here to see him through all his losses are the letters.  Bits of paper that Bharati wrote as she got ready to die.   Two years she’d had to prepare, and she had used them to make pickles, rows and rows of jars, and to scribble those odd conversational notes, an instruction manual for coping; straight talk tucked into desks and closets, messages in bottles and jars.  Well, the pickles had finished a long time ago. But her letters are there still, in the empty jars, inside the closets and cabinets; read and reread.  Bharati’s voice still echoes around him in this house; he can access that comfort whenever he wants.  Though he hasn’t quite made out till now what she meant by “So must you” – what? Remember that they were together till her death, or remember it till his?  He’s chosen to till his end, not that it’s a choice.  One can’t remember or forget on demand. She was absurd sometimes.  Abin smiles a little and looks down again at the note in his hand.
It’s all still exactly as Bharati had planned.  The house, the garden.  A gardener still comes to tend it part-time, though Ramcharan is not there to supervise anymore.  Few houses with patches of garden left now, the older ones remade into high rises, often with only potted plants in the lobby.  Houses have changed hands in this street itself.  Sutapa, Abin’s long time neighbour and Bharati’s friend, has sold and moved out recently.  He misses his old neighbours, Sutapa used to make him pickles; sometimes he used to play chess with her husband.  Another link with the past snapped. 
“Everything needn’t be filed away in triplicate.  Leave this note where you found it, you’ll see you’ll forget, and come upon me suddenly some other day, and it will be like a fresh discovery again. Isn’t that better?”
He knows some of the notes by heart, and still, the specific details of contents and locations do slip his mind sometimes; so when he comes upon one suddenly, it still gives him an aching thrill. 
“No-one can spend a lifetime rambling around alone.  One must find someone to share a laugh with, a shoulder to cry on, to talk to.  It’s easy to find shoulders, but to bring oneself to rest one’s own head on a different living body and let the tears soak it, now that’s never going to be easy.”
She never wrote any salutations or signed off anywhere, he had thought he’ll find one headed “Dearest” or ended with the customary phrases of undying affection, but nothing had ever been found.  In retrospect, it made sense, she wasn’t the type to write in predetermined formats.  He’d never found that shoulder anyway, and doesn’t particularly want to.  He stays here, the guardian of her letters and garden.  He is content enough alone, shadowed by his own grief, an outcome Bharati hadn’t foreseen. 
The taxi meanwhile makes its way round and now stops at the gate, to his surprise.  Which redoubles when Tareq gets off it.  They have just spoken last week, nothing mentioned then.  Tareq has dropped in unannounced before, and that didn’t bode too well for Abin.   He leaves his seat, walks swiftly out onto the patio.
“Salaam aleikum!”
“Peace to you too, Tareq! Everything well?”
“Oh yes, all fine. Chhuti would have come, but she isn’t allowed travel. You are going to be a grandpa, Sir! I thought you’ll want to be with her, a woman needs her parents such times. And we didn’t want to tell you on phone.  There are other things too -,” he hoists his bag.
It strikes Abin again, this easy-going gravity with which Tareq affords him the respect due to a father; of a step-daughter’s father.  He is delighted, but all change, even good ones have a bitter-sweetness about the core.
“That’s great news, Tareq! Congratulations! But how will I leave now? Before, Ramcharan was here.  But now –“
“You leave that to us.  This might be a good time for the repairs. We could get a contractor, make a turnkey job of it –“
Abin interrupts horrified, “No, no, that would mean all the letters – . Everything in the house will be upended, disorganised—“
Abin can’t quite explain the dilemma, why he avoids all maintenance work like the plague.
” Let’s talk it over,” Tareq says as he steps inside.
WC- 996
FCA
Read more about RFW and the May challenge hereMembership isn’t mandatory for participating, so go on over if you enjoy writing.

42 comments:

  1. Nilanjana i loved my first read here,but it left me hankering for more;though i know what lies further down the lane in such cases.Sad.It is happening everywhere!

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    1. The past is a luxurious burden, keeping it alive is costly, sometimes unaffordably so. Thank you for reading and your comment.

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  2. Nilanjana, you did a beautiful job as always.

    An awesome story! The grief would be unending with such notes to be found, and yet there's a comfort there too. What a dilemma, a true haunting through verse.

    Very well done!

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    1. Thank you, Yolanda! Letters/notes inherently combine both grief and comfort,don't they? In Abin's case a bit more heightened because the separating element is death rather than just distance. So pleased you enjoyed the story.

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  3. Well done. I like the details like the jars of pickles she put up before she died.

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    1. Thank you. Her logic was that her pickles would outlast her by some years.

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  4. I love the descriptive way you have written this. The imagery is so clear. I think I am at an advantage being a Bengali because I get the pictures that come to my mind and am very familiar with it. I think I feel closer to this piece of writing than a non Bengali would. At the same time its transcendental - does a great job crossing borders as well. And the story by itself leaves you craving for more each time.

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    1. Thanks, Kriti! A Bengali would have the advantage of knowing the locale straight off, absolutely. But I am relieved to know that I've been able to present the emotions in a way that still makes sense.

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  5. Liked how the story builds up. Looking forward to more of this Nilanjana :)

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  6. That was an intriguing read Nila. Wow, such emotion, and his dilemma is poignant; I couldn't imagine leaving his place either. The sentiment is both nostalgic and a bit sinister. The readers is left to determine their own outcome.

    A positive person would see the love and care she put into the notes, how they help him bear her loss and help him through the loneliness; a more sinister reader could see her leavings as selfish, a woman who know her man needs constant attention and doesn't want another woman to comfort her man.

    This was a delightful, atmospheric writing. So much affection, and need.

    .....dhole

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    1. Hi Donna,

      It's interesting you say that, because the two characters interpret the notes in exactly opposite ways. The step daughter thinks of them as a selfish trap to stop Abin from moving on with his life and from the house, she herself has escaped her mother's snare as soon as she could, and would like her step father to do the same. Whereas Abin can only see the positive side, the affection, and the strength of will to stand beside the family even through death.

      Thanks much for the feedback and the chance to participate.

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  7. Its an amazing story. so poignant. thanks Nilanjana. if only i could write as beautifully aas you.

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    1. Thank you for the compliment. With all due deference to the sentiments expressed, no-one should write "like" anyone else. Just my two paise, please don't mind :)

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  8. Amazing build up...and a theme I love... :)

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  9. Great one..... Really enjoyed it.......

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  10. Very intriguing, enjoyable story. Interesting insight into the main character.

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    1. Thank you. Much value the feedback.

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  11. Nilanjana, for a while I stood with that man, groping for her letters, yearning for that last message of parting.

    You have beautifully created the moments, the gardens and the unkempt house, hiding a treasure of her memories. It is a beautifully rendered elegy in prose.

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    1. Thank you, Sir. So nice to know that I've been able to translate the emotions correctly.

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  12. It is such a lovely story that he can find notes from his wife long after she is gone. It is unfortunate that to move on with life it means we have to leave behind everything we once loved. It does sound as though he will have a good life in this new phase he has to embrace.

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    1. Thank you. Abin has made his home in the past, so likely he will carry it wherever he goes.

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  13. This was such a visual piece, right down to the flaking paint. I loved the imagery.

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    1. Thank you for the feedback, greatly valued.

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  14. Well done. The words, letters, and the characters all worked together to share this story with the reader. It is a touching story and I wish to see more of such. Nice work.

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    1. Thank you for reading and the critique. Much appreciated.

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  15. I love the imagery here, makes me feel like I'm watching a movie. I feel sorry for his loss but admire her for the sensitivity to care for him even after she's gone. Beautiful!

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    1. Abin feels the same way. Thanks for reading and the feedback!

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  16. Nilanjana, I just wanted you to know I have read your story, but need time to digest it. It is very deep and involved so a cursory reading is not enough. Unfortunately I have run out of time tonight so will be back again tomorrow. I love to immerse myself in your stories...Denise

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    1. Cool, Denise. Thanks for the message. I know you have a lot on your plate right now. Come back whenever you're free. Hope you've had a good, relaxing weekend.

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  17. You set the tension well right from the start Nilanjana, right from when Abin reached for the letters. Letters from beyond the grave is a very poignant theme which you have weaved with your usual gift for imagery - the flaking paint - nice touch, says so much. It was a great touch to have two different interpretations of the letters. Created just the right amount of conflict. I can understand both points of view, see the step-daughter's impatience with Abin, but she has her own reasons for reacting the way she does. But it is Abin's story, and I can feel for his horror at the thought of the destruction of what he must see as his life.

    Thank you. I'm not Bengali, but it was a powerful read.

    Denise

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    1. Thank you for the critique. I am glad that the story still makes sense in a language other than Bengali.

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  18. Hi, Nilanjana,

    I love the cultural and emotional aspects of this piece. Such delicacy in the details... like a soft breeze tickling the leaves of a tree.

    I also feel for Abin. My dad had acted similarly when my mom had passed. He didn't want to change ANYTHING. He let the place go too. So this hit home for me.

    Well done. I always enjoy your writing and I appreciate reading about your culture.

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    1. Hi Michael, and thank you for your warm words and assessment. I am so sorry for your loss.

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  19. Unwittingly the letters fenced Abin in. It is so hard to let go and yet the unborn child may help him to move forward and embrace life again. Beautifully written and very real.

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    1. Thank you for reading and the comment.

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  20. This is beautifully written. I loved this story, the way you capture the nostaglia and refer to the echoes of her voice as he reads her letters. It was unexpected and felt absolutely right that her writing reflected the way she communicated in life/ in person.

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    1. Thank you. Glad you enjoyed it. Appreciate the feedback.

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