I met a man struggling with bounty

It is not necessary to struggle with bounty. Even if we believe we must be answerable to what comes after life, a life could not be measured against any other in any superhuman scale of justice. The total of what we have done may be weighed only against those who have aspired to the same things before us, and measured against the shadow of those dreams. 

And, true to his bounty, he asked me a question I answered too easily: what does my ethnic heritage mean to me? I gave him answers that bore as much relation to what needed to be said and understood as the stars bear to the earth. I spoke of a mother tongue I do not know well, and a poet-mystic who transformed his identity into universal things. I spoke of…too little, it seems, and not the thing itself.

What is this, this Bengali-ness? If I call it by its name it becomes a rock, at once an inaccessible thing and an anchor, against which things crash and also come to rest. But this Bengali-ness to me is not what is called by that name; I merely am that, and not that. I suppose we all are so and not so. As life is lived, it would not be a problem, if it were not for the parallax error of identity. When we call a thing a name, we fix it in its ‘proper’ place and, because the ways of seeing in life cannot be corrected for, we never see it again for what it might be.

Call it too much information or call it the fruit of the horn of plenty. Or call it Kalpataru. The answer to each is the same: to refrain. Not to wish. The catch is that we have nothing but ourselves to restrain our desire or our remorse.





Taking the Veil

Yes, the story about the veil had been timely. It was sufficient now to put away childish things. The other woman had told her of the concept in her mother’s tongue, and she had listened, asking only once if the writer who had clarified so eloquently this ‘dhaka’/’araal’/shade had also clarified the difference between ‘cover'(araal) and ‘covering'(dhaka). The writer had not, came the answer, so she went on listening, envious at the parted gate.

They said

where she came from women used to be taught ‘dhaka’ from infancy, when men were not. Some girls, in their girlhood, were also taught lajja and purdah by extensions of the same means. But many merely learned to live, after those first lessons, carefully. She hadn’t. Having never had to hide at home, a girl child might try to extend the home into the world, but the world is not for woman-in-herself as the universe is not for man-as-he-is.

It was better to

become different, if she were to go on and do well, said others. She must accept facts, truth, reason, reality. But this foolish, browbeaten, headstrong girl feared to lose the only self she had ever known and therefore ever loved. She stood at the doorsill, neither inside nor outside, neither here nor there, watching her hopes turn to dusk, immune to men’s blows but oh, so open to the gods. They cut her up, eventually, with their indifference as she blundered into the cul-de-sac of herself, talking, talking as the world finally turned away from her. Talked herself out. Sifted crumbs through her fingers, looking for that grain that would be the first in a chain of meaning, not special, just the first. She never found it.

One man cannot be another’s open book for life. It would be too much to ask someone to live two lives. The man had told her she must face that she was done, she must be born again, the past was over. She heard him as if from the far, golden bank of the river. It was odd, the way the river seemed to branch out into land and sea, one’s whole soil and hinterland. Were they distributaries, tributaries? The land was so flat, she could not see…

But she was tarrying

If it indeed was done, she did not want it to be done. There was a whole life left undone but time, they said, had shot its fatal arrow. She subsided, thought a bit, and, in an act of supreme vanity, perhaps of courage, turned her back to the world.

The memory of something read somewhere, long ago, came flapping at her mind. Pigeons on a parapet somewhere…but no, how foolish, the heroics of jauhar or purdah were not her birthright. This sunburned secular world had given her that. No, her body would fight every battle that came, taking the blows her soul renounced. She had taken the veil of ordinariness.

May her fate be just like many others, neither more nor less,
this prayer for my daughter.