Author Archives: arnabbanerjee87

Charles Dickens – Smriti Daniel

Smriti Daniel has made a career out of talking to strangers. Over the course of nearly a decade as a feature writer for The Sunday Times in Sri Lanka, she’s met many extraordinary people, a number of whom were writers.She made her film debut in Oscar winning director Gerardine Wurzburg’s documentary Wretches and Jabberers, for which she interviewed 2 autistic men on a road trip around the world. She has authored The Guava Tree and Other Poems

Charles Dickens is sweating profusely. He swelters, he cooks, he poaches gently in the heat and humidity ofColombo. With one hand, he wipes away the sweat that beads on the high, noble dome of his forehead.

He ignores me.

The three wheeler driver does not recognize him. His eyes are on the road, which he gazes on through a windshield decorated with stickers of Buddha and the goddess Lakshmi. They are resplendent, sitting in complete amiability side by side. It is nearing evening and Dickens has just finished tending to a twisting line of readers, all clutching his books, many of which are cheaply bound Sinhala and Tamil editions of David Copperfield and Oliver Twist (Price: Rs.180). Dickens is a little pleased, but he is more peeved.  Intellectual property rights are not of concern inSri Lanka, he notes wryly to a smiling fan, but then stops his translator from conveying the message. His wrath has been sapped by the heat, and after years of campaigning he is resigned somewhat to the existence of piratebay and its cohorts.

My courage falters as I remember the copy of Bleak House nestled cosily in the Kindle in my bag, right there with all the other pirated e-books.  To distract us both, as we turn down ontoGalle Road I ask him about the iOS and Android apps he helped design instead. (In one, you can save Little Nell, in the other you must help Pip become a gentleman by guiding him through a series of challenges, in yet a third, you are put to blacking shoes – the best players rub their touch screens with their index fingers so fast that all you can see is a blur.) He thinks they will be a fine addition to the merchandise he already sells – they’ll make him more than the stickers with quotes but less than the Swarovski crystal encrusted ‘Estella’ pendants. It’s tough being a novelist these days, he confesses, one must be a marketer as well. Certainly, he is good at it.

He has more followers on Twitter than Lady Gaga.

Dickens is looking for inspiration. He will write aboutSri Lankawhen he leaves, and our tourist board is hoping he will be kinder to us than he was to the Americans. After all, the island’s inhabitants have come out (and paid) in the hundreds to hear him and to marvel at his skilled re-enactments. (Our hearts warmed as Tiny Tim was delivered from certain death; we cried out in horror asNancymet her brutal end; we wept as Sydney Carton stepped forward to face the guillotine.)

I find it easy to believe that he charmed his fellow diners at the long table set up in Temple Trees. It is why he is to be given every consideration, just so that he will write something nice. Now that the war is over, we need those tourists to come. Dickens is assigned the most luxurious suite in a charming old hotel and every morning a smiling man who proudly lays claim to the title of ‘world’s oldest hospitality industry veteran’ sees him off on another adventure. He tours the museums, visits the National Archives and inspects the work of street artists on the newly renamed Nelum Pokuna Mawatha. He is given a bib and served lagoon crabs the size of his head.

He day dreams, savouring the glimpses of a dazzlingly blue ocean at the end of the thin long roads that lead to the sea.

He is introduced to the monks in a temple filled with rich carvings and convinces them to produce a modest sized Perahera for him, complete with a dozen drummers and dancers, prancing down the street ahead of elephants bedecked in yards of shimmering fabric. He gets lost for hours in the old city, where he discovers musty bookshops, tamarind juice and a pair of stylish second hand boots.

But Dickens soon tires. He will not ride in a motorcade anymore or let us take him snorkelling (though when we drive past Galle Face, he turns his head to the sea and lets the breeze tangle his long beard). Now, he looks away from the polished city. I wonder what the Minister thinks of Dickens’ intention to visitSlaveIslandtoday. There are no slaves there now, only citizens. Still, there’s no knowing what he will hear, down in the labyrinth where the children play cricket and the adults wait for their homes and their lives to be torn down as part of the city beautification program.

Dickens goes unrecognized, but the kindness in his eyes inspires trust. The children are the first to approach and then their parents follow. They tell a curious Dickens about what it is like to live in the Prime Minister’s backyard and how the land they live on is worth more with them off it. The long conflict brought its own insecurities, their windows shattered by a terrorist bomb, the occasional witch hunt for LTTE sympathisers. Now there’s uncertainty of a different kind. This conversation and others are all conducted on the stoops of houses.  (Inside the tiny living rooms, Dickens feels claustrophobic and the permeable walls allow the voices of the neighbours to seep through.)

Its hours before Dickens realises he is hungry. I take him to visit the tiny shop run by Kabeer and his family of nine. There he is served a hot pastol; when he breaks it open a cloud of fragrant steam escapes out of a pastry envelope stuffed with spiced meat. Later, we walk back down to Galle Face with Kabeer and his friend Iqbal. Iqbal sells deep fried vadai adorned with prawns and whole crabs off his cart on the promenade. Howling children run across the green chasing airborne kites, lovers embrace discreetly behind umbrellas, groups of raucous boys in their underwear play on the narrow beach and down at the pier Dickens looks out over the water.

The next morning, Dickens oversleeps and we have to hurry to make our first appointment. The Welikada prison is opening its doors to him and he wants so much to meet the women incarcerated inside. He hears that the conditions are inhumane. That petty thief and murderess alike are packed in there together – jostling in a space meant for half their number. He hears that some have their children in there with them. He is first astonished, then somewhat repulsed when he is told that he will be an honoured guest at a fashion show where the inmates are to be models, and the President’s wife is the Chief Guest. He sits through it, but only barely. The women on the ramp keep their eyes trained downward.

It is the last time Dickens is left to his own devices. After the show is over, he is not allowed to approach the inmates, instead he is hustled away. Unfortunately, I have been exposed as an untrustworthy guide, he as a poor tourist. Now the rest of his trip is to be heavily curated; the great author is to be protected from any possibility of distress. Dickens rebels, but it does him no good. He returns home tanned, well fed and frustrated.

Once back inEngland, he begins to write: ‘There are times in Colombo where I am possessed of the conviction that I can taste the saltiness of the ocean on the breeze…and now I begin to suspect the very elements have followed me home.’

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What would Dickens write today – Sakunthala Sachithanandan

SAKUNTALA SACHITHANANDAN is a lawyer by profession now living in semi-retirement  inWattala,Sri Lanka. She won the Gratiaen Prize 2010 for  her book of poetry, “On The Streets And Other Revelations”.

There are, still, way too many Oliver Twists around to forget Charles  Dickens!! His work has made a deep and lasting impression on my mind, his attitudes  strongly resonating with my own views  on human brotherhood and social justice.

If he was here today he might imagine that the world has changed ‘miraculously’ over the years since ‘his day’, into the wondrous technological marvel it is now, with rockets zooming into outer space and buildings streaking up into the skies seemingly emulating the rockets, ultra sonic jets looping around the world and vast luxurious restaurants  squatting at the bottom of the sea and he himself recording the outpourings of his literary genius on a modern computer !

But he would also see the swift, cancerous proliferation of wars so numerous, the mind boggles at the speed with which the conflagration spreads, fuelled by political and religious conflicts and fought with brilliantly conceived and produced modern weaponry  with capabilities of annihilating whole countries in one blast. He would be shocked to observe the resultant breakdown of the social fabric and the intense suffering of ordinary men women and children embroiled in conflict  situations.

He would see millions of humans starve while the privileged few live the good life, although there are sufficient resources to feed us all. He would see one disease eradicated by modern medicine replaced by another running rampant, killing those who cannot pay  for necessary  relief.

He would realize the sad truth that Man’s heart has not advanced with his galloping technological genius. He would discover that  Man’s inhumanity to Man and Beast remains the same, if  not actually worse, his brutalization going on apace.

He would see, at work, the age old mechanisms of the precipitation of the displaced  and the homeless, the widowed and the orphaned ,   living in poverty and squalor.

Zooming down on Colombo, my city of origin, he would see a city groomed, beautiful, busy and alive with the latest  in everything  on the one side and full of mean shops and slums and overflowing stinking drains, teeming with the  poor and destitute, on the other,  many living by their wits or labour wherever they could find work, to earn their daily bread or should I say their handful of rice and parippu.

Ramu was orphaned at the age of six on a tea estate in the hills. He was farmed out by relatives with the owner of an eating house in the Pettah, Colombo. He tended to domestic chores for several years and then was taken to the eating house (euphemistically called ‘restaurant’) at the age of ten. He is now  seen, aged fourteen, running helter skelter inside the dingy, squalid place, carrying  trays  of string-hoppers and samosas, kottu roti and kukul curry, and  glasses of tea, or wiping the fly-laden table tops with a smelly grey rag with which he also wipes his face. His young eyes hide the painful consciousness of a life deprived of even small kindnesses, being told to be thankful for every mouthful of food he received, which was mostly rice and parippu curry (supplemented by left over dregs of milk tea, and morsels of food). The trauma of being sexually abused by the mudalali or shop owner and his assistant at times has left permanent scars in his very soul.Apart from the occasional movie he is allowed to see in a close by theatre, he has no escape.

In an alleyway  squats  seventy  year old  Saranelis the carter. He feels helpless and lost without his iron  push – cart of goods which he can no longer push along the crowded  streets. His stomach rumbles and he longs to smoke a beedi . Widowed when his daughter Sumana was but seven years old, he is now totally dependent on her, herself a mother of three children. In the morning, she begs at the foot of shrines, be they lace- curtained Buddha statues, or statues of Christ on the cross inside glass cases , or at  a mosque, or a Hindu temple, whining for sympathy amongst worshippers. Two of her little ones scrabble about in the dust in graying rags, blissfully unaware of the contemptuous glances of the pious. Occasionally, she sells packets of joss sticks or camphor balls. At night she is sometimes compelled to entertain male visitors in some back room to augment her income. Old Sarnelis turns a blind eye , sleeping with the kids in their  lean-to hut of broken crates in the slums, hoping for  two beedis on the morrow – and perhaps a tot at the tavern?.

Sumana’s eldest child  Ruwan of twelve years  works as a helper at ‘Buddhhika Motor Mechanics’. Coated in grease and grime and always hungry, he scuttles around ‘learning the trade’ and is routinely verbally abused, by Gamini  the  mechanic. Not being a stranger to such language, Ruwan ignores this, thinking only of his lunch of two vadais and a sweet plain tea. He accidentally stumbles against a can of oil, spilling it. Gamini slaps Ruwan, and  bellows that he would now cut off Ruwan’s genitals  under which threat even poor little Ruwan’s hardened exterior crumbles. He stands there, fearfully clutching his filthy trousers and sobbing ,  Gamini  laughing  raucously.

Vast numbers of smug, self satisfied heartless people choose to be blind to the cruelty and injustice that even now prevails all around us. They justify their amazing indifference by putting forth bizarre theories:  - these “victims” are but “sinners” suffering through their own “karma” and their origin or fate is nobody’s business. One socialist friend of mine even said, the Great Revolution was the Only Solution and until Society could thus be re-aligned, one should not bother with such folk.

The milk of ordinary human kindness has curdled in the vinegar of their veins. Charles Dickens, plainly would have plenty to write about today to shake up  corroded consciences and, in his own inimitable, humorous style, like a  spoonful of sugar, help the medicine go down!

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Where the birds sing freely – Sheshadri Kottearachchi

She has been writing since the age of 8, and has had numerous poems and short stories published in newspapers and anthologies. Her first novel, “City Lights” was published when she was 12 years old. She now spends time reading, drawing, writing, listening to music and eagerly awaiting University admission.

A long day of school ends with a forty-five minute drive back home, stuck in grueling traffic while I stare at the back of the same car for an agonizing ten minutes. The exhaust fumes rise around me in a thick, black chemical mist and the sound of growling, impatient engines seem to echo the sentiments of everyone waiting for the red light to turn green.
The city of Colombo is a booming metropolitan, crowded with buildings, roads, people, and vehicles adding to the sights and sounds of the city. There is old world charm, mixed with modern architecture as we eventually drive by, passing groves of trees and landscapes consisting of nothing but concrete buildings. The city is a hive of activity, buzzing endlessly with constant energy that seems to possess everyone within it. Everyone is in a constant rush and it is rare indeed to see someone calmly strolling down the busy sidewalk. Yet despite the excitement of city life, I am desperate to escape to the blissful serenity I call home. Kelaniya is almost an hour’s drive away from my school, situated centrally in Colombo . It’s a small town of historical and religious importance since the arrival of the Lord Buddha on a visit to the KelaniyaTemple over two thousand years ago.

My home is nestled away in a quiet corner, surrounded by trees and lush greenery in humble little hamlet. Every morning, I awaken not to the impatient screams of my alarm clock, but to the gentle, soothing bird song echoing around the foliage. The sun seems to shine brighter than it does in the city, its gentle rays caressing the environment in a warm, radiant and golden glow. As I sit up in bed, wiping sleep from my eyes, the tree outside my bed room window moves rather erratically. For a moment, I’m convinced that the wind is unusually violent today but on closer inspection, I see five little birds, chirping, fluttering their wings energetically as they hop from branch to branch, and playfully fly around each other. I can’t help but smile at this innocent display of friendship and love, admiring the colouful little creatures as they dance merrily in a vibrant burst of positivism.

In the distance, the temple bell tolls, and I can almost see the devotees, clad in clean white attire, making their way towards the village temple for worship and prayer. The echoing sounds of the great brass gong travels to every corner of the village and is a reminder to its inhabitants that a new day has begun.

A few minutes and the sun rise gloriously, bathing the trees in a deep, golden hue. I open my windows, letting in the soothing morning air as the world around me wakes up. Peeping outside, I see the flowers in full display, blooming in bright hues of pink, red and orange, swaying in the breeze like proud little ladies, flaunting their beauty. A few moments later, the butterflies begin to swoop and swirl, teasing the blossoms as they dance among them. I think of the dusty, dirty urban roads I am used to, and consider myself lucky that my home is safely away from the pollution of the city.

Morning tea is served in the kitchen downstairs and I wait with delirious anticipation as my grandmother stirs the tea leaves with hot water and then pours healthy doses of milk into my cup. The windows and doors are thrown open, letting in as much fresh air and sunlight as possible. The air is pure and invigorating as I sit by an open window, watching the beauty of nature unfold before me.

My mother walks outside, a few crumbs of bread in her hands as she begins her regular morning routine. A tiny family of squirrels has befriended our family and visits us every dawn, waiting happily until my mother lays out their breakfast on the ledge of the wall. She calls out to them, her own face brightening up as the squirrels hurry over, chattering happily as they pick up the bread and begin to nibble. It is really quite fascinating to watch them enjoying their breakfast, before they scamper off, squeaking with gratitude. I smile and consider how such simple pleasures are rarely found and that it is truly blissful to witness these innocent creatures in their natural element.

Towards the afternoon, it begins to rain and the world around me is more beautiful than ever. Birds and squirrels hide under the trees, escaping the cold rain drops that splash onto the ground.

A small old fashioned grocery store is situated five minutes away from our home. It is a shop of marvels for the village children who crowd around the glass jars filled with sweets in pink, green and lemon yellow. On our way to buy vegetables, I glance at the leaves around us, drenched in water, dew drops trickling off like precious diamonds and splashing onto the ground. It is ethereal and beautiful. No muddy gutters, no rat infested alleyways, but simply the quiet dew drops drenching the soft earth.

Living far away from the city has its disadvantages. Yet as I look around me, I am thankful for having been fortunate enough to live in a quiet village. City-living is very convenient, but the life in the country side is unlike any other.

It is a blessing in disguise and true inspiration for the soul.

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My Colombo – Ashok Ferrey

Ashok Ferrey’s latest book, Love in the Tsunami is out now through Penguin. His TV show, The Ashok Ferrey Show, is probably South Asia’s only English-language arts programme.

Years ago, at the height of my brilliant career as a small-time Brixton builder, I decided to come home: to the town of my birth, a one-horse town called Colombo. My friends in London were genuinely distressed.

“Colombo?” said one. “It’s a cultural desert!”

“With two monsoons a year,” pointed out another, rather contradictory.“You’ll die,” said a third, more creative one. “Of Ebola virus, or something.”

Despite their pleas and entreaties, I ploughed on with my funeral arrangements. The Colombo I arrived in had garbage all over the streets. There was dengue fever in the air. And culture? Apart from the occasional brilliant desert bloom, the less said about the culture the better. I continued my job as builder, spending much of my waking life at the Town Hall trying to get building plans passed. The Colombo Municipality was a hotbed of Byzantine intrigue, with corruption on a scale that would have brought tears of joy to Dickens’s eyes. Then again, he might have had to swallow two Valliums and take a nice little lie-down.

So why did I stay? This is a question I keep asking myself periodically. Designing and building houses here is a far cry from Brixton conversions. If you want to make a window, you go to a sawmill and select a log. Then you spend most of the morning getting it sawn and planed to the size you require. Then you bring it home and leave it to season in a shady spot. For the next three months. Not surprisingly, it took me two years to complete each house, and I did six of these in the next twelve years. Those years were about the most creative of my life. And this is the point about Colombo: whatever you do involves creativity, whether you like it or not. Life here has a home-made, hand-hewn quality to it that I have come to love, though I can understand that it won’t be to everyone’s taste. If you like your life to come in beautiful sachets, vacuum-packed and carefully-apportioned, this is not the place for you.

Then there is this strange business of connectivity. Here you must have just about the most connected society in the world, and I don’t mean in the internet sense. Often, perfect strangers stop me on the street.

“Ah!” they say, fixing me with their beady eye. “You must be Auntie Celie’s brother-in-law’s eldest son.” How do they know? Is it my nose? And if they don’t exactly know who you are, they will invent the back story, and in time – repeated often enough – this will become the stuff of urban legend. After all, it’s only creativity in another form. What this means, like it or not, is that people have time for you, even if only out of sheer nosiness. They may never speak to you their entire life: but they will watch you from afar, filling in the gaps of their often sketchy knowledge with panache and colour and originality. We’re all fiction writers here, even if mostly unpublished.

Part of the reason for this curiosity is that people have time on their hands, and this is the reason I love this town so much. Brought up in the West with the idea that you only really live to work, and that once your productive life is over you are more or less ready to die, I’ve come back to a place where ‘productive’ and ‘useful’ are alien concepts. The puritan work ethic is more puzzling to us than Einstein’s laws of relativity. Why would you need to earn more, spend more, borrow more (as they urge you to do in the West)? Here, just enough is quite enough, and sometimes almost too much.

And then there’s the wild life. And I don’t mean night-clubs and casinos, though there are plenty of those too. I mean the animals and trees. Every morning in the garden of my urban house I hear more birdsong than in any European or American forest. For years I had two six-foot long pythons living in the shrubbery, though this is not something I recommend to everyone. And then the trees! There is no other capital city in the world that has such a profusion of trees. There are trees growing up through cracks in the pavement. (Is this the reason most Colombo citizens prefer walking on the road?) There are trees growing out of people’s walls. There’s a tree growing in my roof (I kid you not). Every day I mean to have it cut down, and one of these days it’ll be too late. I can almost see it grow, while I watch with horror and fascination.

Twenty years later this town is much changed, of course: the garbage is collected on time now, the streets are quite beautifully manicured, and there’s even a renaissance in the arts world. But these are not the reasons why I stay. I stay because once you get used to this gentle laid-back vibe, you don’t really want anything else. (You might even say I’m not fit for anything else!)

The last house I ever built had a basement an inch too short – being seven foot eleven instead of the statutory eight feet in height. I suppose I could have hacked the plaster off. The Building Inspector wanted 165,000 rupees to pass it – a good bit more than your average person earned in a year. It completely destroyed me. So, dear inspector, if you’re reading this, sitting in your cosy up-country retirement bungalow somewhere, drinking a cup of the finest Nuwara Eliya tea, remember, that’s my tea you’re drinking. But I also salute you: by crushing me as a builder you unwittingly gave rise to my subsequent career as a writer.

Would I ever go back to my previous life in the West? I don’t think so. In my time here we’ve had Marxist uprisings (human heads stuck on the University railings), dengue epidemics, the odd tsunami and oh, a thirty-year civil war of course. The road I live on is probably one of the most bombed in the world – with four juicy ones in my time. I was on a bus back home when the biggest of these went off. If the bus had been five minutes earlier I would have arrived at the precise moment of explosion. Sixty people died. We found a thumb in the garden.  Years later that thumb worked its way into the first page of the first novel I ever wrote. But wars finish. Memories of tsunami fade away. And we here in Colombo turn the page and continue living: it’s what we do best , and something of a fine art for us because we’ve been on the knife-edge so long. Would I trade it in for a more just and equitable life, in a country with a higher gross national product? The trouble is, the GNP, the justice, the equitability, all come ready-mixed with grey skies and grey people: people who have no time for you because they are too busy being productive and just and equitable.  Any interest they may have in you will be purely professional, with an eye to their main chance not yours.

No, Colombo is the only place for me, I’m afraid. I would happily give up all the GNPs in the world for the sheer pleasure of not having to die alone, cold and unvisited, behind the locked doors of a grey flat. That third friend was more prescient than he knew. This is my home. This is where I will die.

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The story of a street – Ameena Hussein


Ameena Hussein is a writer and partner of the Perera Hussein Publishing House. She has published 2 collections of stories, one novel, edited a children’s book and a book of adult stories. She has won national awards and has been longlisted for international prizes. She attended the prestigious International Writers Program at Iowa University. She currently lives and works in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Before the British, before the Dutch, before the Portuguese, Colombo was a small Moorish settlement visited by Ibn Batuta from Tangier and the Chinese traveler Wang Ta Youan. Today the city by the sea has become a bustling metropolis with all the usual accompaniments of traffic, pollution, commuters and sky scrapers.

When I was four months old I was brought to a house down Turret Road in Kollupitiya where I have lived ever since, with short gaps abroad. Today, Turret Road is called Dharmapala Mawatha and is one of the main streets of Colombo, dotted with banks, shops, businesses, restaurants and a few die hard residents like myself.

I live near a junction that has come to be called Pithala Handiya. Which means Brass Junction. In the early 80s a family came from Pilimatalawa in the hill country and set up shop on the little grassy verge that existed and still exists on the right side of the street. That grassy verge was part of my aunt’s garden who was made to give it up for the greater good when the road was widened. For years while I walked down the street to my music lessons, my prayer evenings and to visit my relatives who lived all around me, we passed this family and got to know them well. After some time, my aunt, the same lady who lost parts of her garden gave their brass wares sanctuary in her garage, it was only a matter of time when the wares were joined by their owners. One day, tragically the young father passed away leaving two pre-teenage sons to run the business with their mother. They ran errands for my aunt, provided security, opened her gate and sat over their wares. They grew to be young men.

On the 1st of December 2006 the President’s brother the Secretary of the Minister of Defence was targeted in a bomb blast at the Pithala Handiya. The lone elder brother who had been selling his wares was arrested and taken away. They said he was in a prime position to be a spy, sitting there day in and day out by his brass wares, watching traffic, the military movements, a permanent fixture not raising any suspicion. After four hours of questioning he was released but asked to leave the area and refused permission to sell his brass there anymore.

He came to my house with the story of his expulsion. My husband and I went off to the Kollupitiya police station. We explained that without this young man and his family selling wares at the junction, the name Pithala Handiya would not have existed. We said that we have known them for many years, since he was a child. We asked them to please reconsider the decision. The police told us that they would allow the brass sellers to stay on two conditions, that we guarantee and vouch for their integrity; and that they move 100 yards and sell their brass wares outside our gate. If anything happened and they were suspected we too would be hauled up for questioning. We agreed.

As with my aunt, the brass wares soon found a home in our porch to be followed by the brass sellers. For many years our little expanded family continued quite happily. They became our chowkidars or gate keepers, opening and closing the gate for us and our visitors, receiving registered letters, keeping packages to be picked up and taking down messages. When we had an excess of watermelons from our farm, they sold them together with the brass. They lit their brass lamps all over our gardens when we had parties, they helped care for my father when he had a minor stroke and they had many poojas for my recovery when I fell seriously ill. We too became enmeshed in their lives, facilitating a knee operation for their mother, donating to good causes in their village and hosting their relatives from out of town.

Together we saw the street change. First came two flower shops which were a welcome addition as they beautified the street. Then an unlucky house was pulled down and an eight story building came up. We signed letters of protest against this major change in our neighbourhood to no avail. It belonged to a large company that had more clout than we did. The large colonial houses were transformed into offices and shops. Small houses began to be built in large gardens so that children could be close to their parents. A house became a bank, an Italian restaurant, a travel agency. Then the demolitions began in full force. In one week three houses were torn down and large banks and apartment buildings began to rise up. An Indian restaurant opened up next door introducing us to a large rat population and perpetually blocked our entrance but the food was good. We forgave easily. An art gallery brightened the middle of the street. One flower shop closed down and became a television show room that broadcast cricket test matches very kindly on their showroom Televisions so that all of us could watch them on impressive large screen flat TVs. The other flower shop expanded. A small herbal shop arrived in a little square that was no bigger than a closet. They flourished but had no room to grow. A disgruntled employee from the corner shop of the next street set up shop next to the TV showroom. We were delighted. Milk, bread, newspapers, ice-creams, phone cards, yogurt, and other essentials were shouting distance away, if not for the cacophony of traffic. A Chinese restaurant was created out of a semi abandoned house but was perpetually empty at all times. We wondered if it was a front for some illegal activity. A jewellery shop, a corporate office for a large phone company, a finance company and on and on all took residence down my road.

The two way street became a one way highway. A super light was installed at the crossroads as were close circuit cameras. Protest marches and police barricades became a common occurrence. The Navam Perehera spilled onto the junction.

But back to my brass sellers. Last year they vanished. They refused to answer their phones and we missed them terribly. They had become our friends and it was strange not to see them seated patiently outside watching the world go by, polishing their brass to an unnatural glow.

Then I heard they went to Italy.

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After Dickens Writing Competition

In the range of activities that the British Council India hosted to mark the 200th birth of Portsmouth’s favourite son, a writing competition for young Indian authors tested the spirit of creativity and tribute to their favourite Victorian novelist – Charles Dickens.

After Dickens online writing competition ran across the  length and width  of India, engaged over 170+ writers between 16-21 years. Submissions ranged from short stories to poetry, reportage and documentary and even accounts of  Mr Dickens’ visit to India and his candid Tête-à-tête with  legends of Indian literature.  Some accounted even candid conversations between Dickens.

Armed with exciting entries, we reached the doors of academic Sajni Kriplani Mukherji. Sajni Di  (as she’s fondly referred to) is a Dickens expert and her appetite of all things Dickens made our vision even stronger.  ”Things are a little   tight Arnab. She said to me as I sipped the hot Darjeeling tea sitting beside her study-cum-work desk. I am occupied with a range of family priorities that are not too pleasant.

I’ll try to finish these within 5 days but if I don’t, then we’ll have to work things out slightly different. I grinned with excitement and nervousness hoping certainly for the best of times and not the worst. But as things go, Sajni di smilingly handed over the entries on the fifth day! Hurray!

As a promise, we bring to you her verdict that goes out to all our contributors and their untiring efforts.

A big ‘thank-you’ to you Sajni Di

We present to you the winning entries from the competition.

Happy reading!

- Arnab Banerjee

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The Smile – Shritama Bose

Shritama Bose was raised inJamshedpur, where she attendedSacredHeartConventSchool. She is currently a second-year undergraduate student of English atPresidencyUniversity,Calcutta. Her interests include reading, debating, writing, and quizzing.

The man used to sit on the pavement in front of the florist’s shop. I had seen him on the first day when I had gone to place the order for the flowers. He would sit there on a faded tarpaulin sheet in a tattered blue-and-white polyester shirt. His wrinkled face was framed by tousled salt-and-pepper hair, with the salt overpowering the pepper by far. He worked with shining brass-like wires, shaping them into bicycles and cycle-rickshaws of at least three different sizes. As he worked assiduously at them, a constant unfading smile played on his lips.

As I approached him for a better view of his artifacts, he looked up at me. The smile was still there; he was directing it at me, not smiling at me. His eyes creased into wrinkles as he did that. I knelt down to examine one of the largest pieces. I was taken aback by the sheer quality of the work. It testified to being the handiwork of a true craftsman- the bends in the wires were smooth, the knots strong yet subtle. Particularly remarkable was the way in which the thinnest of the wires had been interwoven into a mesh of kite-like shapes to create the seats of cycle-rickshaws. If this man had indeed crafted the pieces himself, he deserved a station higher than a spot on a Lajpat Nagar pavement. I found out the prices- the smaller of the biycles were worth Rs 10 each, the bigger worth Rs 25, the small and big rickshaws worth Rs 35 and Rs 70 respectively. I wanted a rickshaw with its mesh-seat. However, having had my share of raw deals in the city, I did not dare to go for the biggest one. I settled for a small rickshaw, duly handed over to me with a- rather the- smile.

The next day and the one after that, I found groups of foreign tourists huddled around the smiling man’s spot. On the fourth day, I went to the florist’s shop to collect the consignment. The shop-assistant was packing the flowers when I, unable to resist the urge, asked him, “What is that man’s name? The one selling those miniature bicycles?”

The assistant looked out in the direction of my pointed finger. He then replied, “You mean Rashid?”

“Yes. How long has he been here?”

“Two years ago, he was dismissed from this very shop. Very slow in making bouquets. Kept fiddling with the wires. They removed him and took away the bicycle they had given him. Now he makes these things and gives the neighbouring handicraft stores a run for their money.”

As I walked out with my flowers, I turned to look at that spot. The tarpaulin looked more faded than ever, the smile did not.

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BECOMING DICKENS – Sahil Acharya

 

   Saahil, though a native ofCalcutta, lives inBangalore, and spends most of his time struggling with the subjects of science. His spare time he devotes to thinking about the complexities of human existence and Nature, and trivial writing. On the 24th of December, 2011, he tuned into an adult, much against his wishes.

She was pretty. And the thing that struck me most was the proud nose she had. It was defiant, almost challenging, and when she looked at me, it hit me almost as a physical blow. The nose seemed to be angry at everything she looked at, but I could imagine her smile would turn the face around altogether. I was, therefore, hesitant to approach. None of the brilliant single-sentence greetings those chaps on television keep saying seemed viable. So I kept quiet, and watched. She had the air of one who knows herself to be superior in every respect to the ordinary populace. She stared into space with resoluteness, as if she were looking for any particle brave enough to come close. I wondered how often she had intimidated males just like myself. Perhaps, I found myself thinking, she had had a tragic childhood. Perhaps she had been brought up to hate all mankind. She maintained a stony silence throughout, though the sound of the bus and the traffic outside more than made up for it. Twice I caught myself clearing my throat, and both times the noise seemed too feeble to deserve the attention of such a perfect lady. The bus ground to a halt, she threw her hair back, got up, and walked away and out. I was left alone. I could only stare at the faint depressions she had made on the seat, and yearn. Such beings are evil, I remember thinking, to make ordinary folk as us think of ourselves as unworthy. None deserve to live with such as her, I almost said aloud, but for days afterward I could not stop dreaming of just that.

 

That night, I wrote about her. In the world of my words, she became a glorious queen- powerful, spiteful and cruel. She ruled over the hearts of many men, and let none touch her heart. Her kingdom was rich and powerful, and one day, she married. Her husband was an unfortunate young man, so enchanted by her beauty, so enamoured by her loveliness, that he forgot all, and gave her his kingdom. The beautiful queen laughed at the poor prince afterward, as she told him of her real intentions one day as they walked in the garden. The prince was a sensitive man, and he was so “humiliated, hurt, spurned, offended, angry, sorry”, that tears started to his eyes. He held them back, but the queen looked at him with delight for being the cause of them.

It was then, as I wrote, that I realized that in the pretty girl in the bus, I had found my Estella. And accompanying this realization was the second, more obvious one- I was Pip. In the mysterious mind, myriad tales are spun everyday, and ordinary people acquire personalities and facets more varied and exaggerated than any in real life. As I sat writing about my Estella, I understood the process by which I was, temporarily, becoming Dickens.

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A TALE OF TWO CITIES – Heba Ahmed

Heba Ahmed is pursuing her B.A. (Hons.) course in Political Science, at St. Xavier’s College (Autonomous), Kolkata. She started writing burlesques of poetry from an early age. Dickens has always been an old favourite; his characters and stories transport her to a world which is archaic, but seems evergreen with every turn of the page.

Two souls co-habit a single body,

The old city has two faces to it,

One with a proud brow, a smile of disdain,

The other, with pain, just winces a bit.

Two souls, two faces, one city, or two?

Some sigh, some sing,—its streets seem apart;

One seeks in the skies obscured by steel towers

And wonders where the city keeps its heart.

 

The Indians hail their ‘City ofJoy’,

Its mornings glory in their snug abodes,

And for those who sleep beneath star-strewn roofs —

A ‘home sweet home’ on the dusty roads!

Hark! The city’s music, of varied tones:

Rag picker’s raga which smells of old stains,

Does the joy lie there, or will it be found

In dizzy discotheques’ jazzy refrains?

 

Its gleaming towers all heavenward soar,

While shanties revel in dust and disease;

“Fairy palaces”, or “shadows of night”—

Two spirits of what seems to be two cities!

The cradle, or grave, of modernity?

And the road to progress, onward it shoots;

A lonely roadside witness sees it all—

The withered man who still polishes boots!

 

The pretty young woman sits all day long

In a humble corner, and there she cooks

Little meals for the busy world around,

While her children run naked with hungry looks.

Another young woman drives past this scene,

Flinging some coins from her beaded handbags,

To ensure those waifs don’t pursue her car

Or spoil the shine of its boot with their rags!

 

The footpaths here house the orphans of the earth,

Lisping old melodies to earn their bread;

Some get silenced under bus wheels,

And some by the whips of the world well-fed.

Then somewhere in the elitist arcade,

A crooner sings softly an old sad song

Of homeless children, of abandoned souls,

And the world in sympathy sings along.

 

Each visage of the city has its bloom,

One rouge-stained, the other reddened by cold;

One totters on footsteps burdened with care,

The other outruns Time, in leaps so bold!

One defies the tenets of all the earth,

Then makes the other its sole whipping-boy;

The metropolis dwells in fake concord,

And the Indians hail their ‘City ofJoy’!

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Modern Chennai in the Eyes of Charles Dickens – Hannah Hayworth

Hannah Heyworth is a year-long exchange student to India from the US on the YES Abroad Scholarship Program. She lives in Chennai, and attends Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan School in Nungambakkum. She has just completed her eighth month inIndia.

 

It was the best of places, it was the worst of places,

It was a city, a metropolis difficult to constrain to rhymes,

It was a shining example, it was subpar at best,

Poverty, shouting, pollution, crowds, but lest

I forget! Also the peace and tolerance of a diverse people,

Where in one direction is a mosque, temple, and steeple.

An unforgiving climate, and an abundance of dust,

But where to sample the local cuisine is a must,

A historic language curving over tacky neon signs,

Yet carved as well into ancient ruins in poetic lines,

A history of colonialism, exploitation, and trade,

But where the colorful traditions shall never fade.

A conservative place, where time runs slower,

But do not assume a place where any development is lower,

A quiet, bustling place, an old-fashioned and modern place,

A place where ancestral homes and condos fill adjoining space,

This bundle of contradictions, my friend, this tumble of culture,

Is no decaying town circled by desertion and abandonment- those vultures!

This is a city, reborn a thousand times with only improvements.

This, my friend, is Chennai.

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