Saturday, May 23, 2015

Naked Sunset

Sreemanti Sengupta

hat morning was different. My eyes felt locked in a cage of dreams. And the bed was floating in ill smelling semen. I tried to remember last night. In Paris, I was with San Tiago the street artist who was travelling with me from motel to motel. My life came back to me in bits and pieces of flesh that I feed the stray dogs on the beaches of Orissa. I remembered the lady who stared hard through her party mask and said how inappropriate it was for a late Hippie to turn up for a book launch. The laugh I laughed walked back to my senses, like a dancer in the Middle East, teasing me to massage her backside. Or was it the front? I cannot recall. The backs and fronts and ins and outs collide and converge and push up like a ball of vomit that’s uneasily trapped in me for centuries. Very soon a laugh escapes as the vision of a Punjabi wedding hall, the one I sneaked into one hungry night in Ludhiana. The mountains of food were hallucinogenic..and soon they were nothing more than tits and asses and buttholes that people lined up to eat.

San Tiago, like many other men looking for exotic flowers that bloom in dangerous swathes of forests, asked me for marriage. The joint almost burnt into my fingers when I told him off. I told him I was getting fat and I was squinted, I was too vain and too beautiful, too free and too much of everything. That he was a street painter, and that all his work was trampled over by cars and feet and pissed on by dogs. He told me about Beauty and Art. About the inky black roads that lead everywhere and his Madonnas emerging aka thrusting out like pelvic bones from the cosmopolitan consciousness. “It is not about how many people stop and look, it is how much they are disturbed by a nonsensical burst of colour out of the corner of their eyes. It is like the fly that you cannot kill.”

My throat was parched for the want of Darjeeling tea. I rolled over and Darjeeling appeared as I had first seen it, emerging like a comely bride from the windows of a chugging train. The explosion of green at my window had probably inebriated the little me. I could hear Ma coaxing me to eat the bread and hard boiled egg. I simply watched, a sandwich uncouthly stuffed in my mouth. Darjeeling emerged in intolerably green tea estates past my window. I even waved to some Kanchis but no one waved back. Later in Geography, I learnt they were intent on plucking two-leaves-and-a-bud.
As a child and often afterwards, I have been confused about vacations. I had a strong urge to jump and run in the green fields that the train was carelessly cutting through, towards the horrible definitude of a vacation. I watched the lapis lazuli sky over the fields and wondered where colours came from, I almost stretched out my hand to catch the wings of the flying stork. Soon I would be itching to take a vacation from vacations.

Teetering on the thin railings of a balcony somewhere in Mumbai, my drunk mind sang a poem to me. Rosa was clasping my hand, equally drunk. We had decided minutes back that we would commit a grand suicide, for we were pained by the terrorist bombings in Mumbai, that the little boys who were playing with red balloons on the beach, now had their brains spattered on the sands. Rosa didn’t know much, understood less. It was a blessing I told her. She had told me not to die. I took breaks from puking out stale chicken kebab and demanded an answer. “Don’t you see green fields that rush by a chugging train? Don’t you see white sea gulls floating over the blue foaming ocean? Don’t you see wild creepers shooting out of old walls like little rebellions? Don’t you see babies being born out of nowhere, growing up, marrying and producing more babies?”

I sneer when I think about Rosa. Rosa was the widow of a man twice her age whom she married when she was sixteen.

--“But why?”

--“Because he was the only one who did not demand a dowry.”

-Why did you conceive so early?

-Because people started saying I was late.

I remember people looking at me queerly when I hung around with Rosa. They thought it weird that girl from a respectable family to be spending so much time with a brown uneducated widow from a remote Maharashtrian village. I gave a damn of course and suffered secretly. I suffered when there wasn’t a single soul to pass me a glass of water when my body was burning at one hundred and four degrees.

Rosa often told me of her village.

-My husband never beat me.


-There are homes where the man just walks off one morning and returns with a wife. A man lives with as many as five wives in our village and beats them all.

-Uh Huh

- Our neighborhood is too noisy, with children and women squabbling. The men mostly snore after a bout of country liquor.

I adore the ocean. I can sit at its fringes and think about Rosa’s village, about how children are produced like steel billets. How women are forced to behave like conveyor belts of babies spilling over on soiled sheets in soiled hospitals. How my grandmother had dropped one of her fifteen siblings accidentally. She was little and excited when she heard the hawker calling out wares. In her rush, she had placed the new born too near the edge of the bed. It had rolled over, fallen and died after breaking a hip bone. Nobody cared, there were fourteen others, and soon the mother would bring more.

San Tiago tells me I am too vain for my ideals. I am as common as the strip dancers at the streetside dance bars and as exotic as Caribbean folk music
I get up naked and strut around the dingy room. It seems that for years I have been travelling from dream to dream, where one opens gates to the next. I cannot find my way back. I push my head outside the window and immediately the eve-teasers start cheering from below. I turn and look down at my cleavage and spare them a smile. Poor, Poor desires!

It is the lull before great storm. The sun is about to set on a breathless landscape. I smell the tense air, anticipating, hoping against hope. The horizon turns crimson in minutes, a beautiful calm drapes over the high-rises beyond.

In moments, the storm will arrive.

When I was in school in that village of mine, in the poverty that sucked away dreams like an octopus wrapping tentacles around his victim, I sat near the window, and suddenly the mathematical tables etched with white powdery chalk on the black slate grown old and weary with overuse, the sensation of the straw mat tickling me under the skirt Ma had patched up in several torn places, my hair, grown a straggly length just touching the shoulders, beating lightly with the wind, the heat and the salt of teenage skins all repeating after the teacher like tightly railed tracks. I sensed a remote storm building up somewhere, a storm that resembled hundred years of pent up desires of a squadron of soldiers sent to fight some war in Siberia. Back when I wasn’t sure what desire meant. Back when I didn’t know what any of this meant. This, me, here, sensing everything letting go, melting, dissolving, into a force beyond. Another time I had lost consciousness, staring into the village pond, feeding the giant fishes and watching the ripples. The village doctor pronounced that the spirits had possessed me. I was a cursed child. I felt a giggle escape me when I saw Ma crying about how am doomed to be an old unmarried maid. Who is going to take the hands of a poor dark mad girl?
San Tiago and Rosa do not believe me when I say I was born in a village. That I made my way to the world.

-Your skin is too bright. You don’t smell of the earth.

One of my early lovers complained that my body smelt of endings and death. I had smiled and pulled him close and switched off the glaring light that seemed to peel off layers of my epidermis and distribute a disturbing fragrance everywhere. I could not of course tell him the truth. I am free because I keep running away. Each escape piling up a like small death in me, like deceased embryos bursting at the pores of my skin.

When I tell San Tiago of my lovers, he merely turns his face and plays the flute. He says one day he shall make a portrait of me at Times Square and then I’ll have no way of escaping him! “The magic is in spontaneity. Streets and Traffic do not give you preparation..time is as scant as in the preparation of a Revolution. A revolution can begin with a baby’s cry in some remote, inaccessible corner of this gathers mass like a skeleton gathering is the virility of a single voice that strings together an entire generation..”

It is one of those days when the bed is unmade and the room stinks of cheap wine. It is humid enough to trace beads of silvery sweat that balance themselves like ballerinas on my eyelashes. The sun is down and the darkness is screeching with crickets. Outside, the ice cream vendor puts me in a daze..

I screaam..I screaam....I screaam

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Sreemanti Sengupta enjoys a world of divided minds. She is an advertising copywriter from Kolkata, India, a poet, a struggling author, an e-mag editor, an elocutionist, previously published in various online journals such as Mad Swirl, Paragraph Planet, Certain Circuits, Bare Hands Poetry, Ppigpen and more including print anthologies in both English and her vernacular Bangla. She founded and runs The Odd Magazine celebrating alternate creativity and blogs

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Thursday, May 7, 2015

A Paul West Excerpt

Red in Tooth and Claw
a novel by Paul West
published by Onager Editions, 2015

Yet what he had hoped, finally, to register with tender completeness, and then to set it up before his mind’s eye as a Polish Palladium—an improvised sacred object having the power to preserve a city or a country like the famous statue of Pallas Athene that protected Troy—was still there in his head, frozen among the engrams along with the classical learning he had brought into play at Embassy cocktail parties, with a Latin tag for this, a Greek one for that. Major Epigram, as they nicknamed him, had wished to see, and, having seen, had convinced himself that the seen was never lost. Let someone witness a thing, he’d taught himself, and it endures: there is no time, no loss, no waste. So, just the same as two weeks earlier, people still trudged from farm to farm, bartering honey for apples, balls of whitewash for birch-bark strips from which to make sandals. Stranded at the tilt like outsize palm-leaf crosses from an ancient Easter, the windmills had no motion. Sagging at their long middles, the milk wagons had nowhere to go, and they sagged from long use, from being overloaded in days gone by, not in any way from the weight of empty churns. Like propped-up coffins with little roofs, the beehives seemed to invite new tenants in. Go anywhere, get out of the way, were the messages everyone was whispering, but no one knew what to do first, and so clusters of farmers and farmhands dawdled about in the landscape, guessing and arguing, and only in Kazimierz-like places were the prudent busily pasting brown paper over their windows to save the glass from blast, the occupants from splinters. The banks and schools were closed, but the stores were open, though with little to sell: no sugar or liquor, no canned goods, just the pots, pans, files, vises, pincers, choppers, and shovels pictured outside on a placard for the benefit of the illiterate, whose visual abstractions had more flesh and blood, or at least more shovelly shovels, than the verbal ones of their betters did. WODA SODOWA read the sign on the soda water stand on the edge of the closed market, but there was none to sell. The pharmacies were out of bandages and iodine. Repaired clocks went uncollected while time dilated or shrank. And those impulsive ones who had fled, moving so as to be on the go at any rate rather than knowing exactly where to go, trundled with them barrels of salt herrings, heirloom pictures of Christ gazing blankly at some conifers (a standard icon), and chickens in improvised wire coops. The departing trains, all headed east or southeast, toward ghoulish Mother Russia, would never return, and folks who stayed behind slur-chanted the shallow hair-split last-ditch litany "With the Germans we may lose our freedom, but with the Russians we shall lose our souls." The Germans were everywhere, the rumor said, but they had not yet reached that disk of magical ocher and russet landscape, or were hovering at its perimeter, joking harshly and goose-stepping in circles, as if loath to interfere. It looked so German anyway.
        Nourished by a mind’s eye full of this drawn-out idyll, Major Czimanski, after irritably hunting through the drawers and walk-in closets of the rented town-house on Pulawy Street, hung his suits in heavy parcels, done up with cord, on the crossbar of the bicycle he had found out back, unoiled and dusty and upside-down as if ready for conversion to another purpose such as spinning or water-pumping. "Perhaps," he said, "they’re not all mine, but no one will ever come back, not for their suits. I’m sure the owners wouldn’t mind."
        "They won’t even know," his wife told him distantly, as if accomplishing hard mental arithmetic. "Ever. If it doesn’t work, bring them back. We’ll find a use. Oh for a car. Will you just look at all this stuff they left behind." She motioned at an untidy array on the couch of books, silverware, cut glass, gramophone records, trumpets and clarinets. As if a high-living musical quintet had left in a hurry. "Remember, Ludwik, he has the gold already." She twanged the bell for him as, rather like someone leaving a funeral or a hospital waiting room, he wheeled the bicycle away, a display frame with wheels, the strung-up parcels like dun-plumaged headless birds. Minus his tunic and cap, he looked to her rather ordinary, a well-groomed repairman removing his equipment from the premises after fixing the elephantine trumpeting noise the bathroom pipes made when the faucets were turned full on. "What?" he called behind him, thinking she had spoken, and almost collided at the gate with two Jews walking backward in front of a spinning wheel on a small cart and tugging hemp from their waist bags, twisting it deftly into strands and feeding it to the wheel run by a third man in a cloth cap too big for any skull. At these three he stared, amazed by the somnambulism of their toil, three of the doomed anxious to earn their keep even while backing into the inferno. Spinning the thread of destiny, he noted with a classical smile: Now which of these three Fates is the one who snips? The bicycle fell into line behind the spinning wheel on the cart as if not he but some more appropriate force were moving it along, shoddy bargain with an even shoddier destiny, and his mother’s disdainful shade hectoring him with "Is this you?" and his father’s cannonade: "Servants do our wheeling for us, and that is not an exhortation to ride the foolish thing."
        Ludwik Czimanski advanced with his mind shut off, reaching the edge of town after ten minutes, glad that the trio of hemp spinners had provided him with a rhythm to walk by, but gladder still they had gone the other way. Now he stared, pausing, at rye-thatched haystack covers, like the roofs of an African kraal. This year of years they will stay empty. Farther along, hemp was soaking in the ditch along the roadside, and bundles of it lay unattended on the bank. Overtaking him with smothered gurgles, half a dozen sprightly men in cloth caps that might have come from the same box on the same day (uniform buff twill) forged on ahead with bundles of coat hangers slung over their backs and half a dozen in each hand as if in search of an army eager to strip naked and air their battle clothes. It’s all half-dozens, he told himself sardonically, and looked at their hands, half-expecting each to have a sixth finger. Or did they take six steps and then halt, as if walking to bars in music?
         What sharpened his deep-buried, deliberately minified distress, after he turned into a lane flanked with crude houses for sale, perched on diagonal brackets built into the walls halfway between the ground and the roof. Bigger coffins, arranged on carefully folded sacking spread over pairs of trestles, he just blinked at heartlessly, but the little ones dismayed him, tugging at his mind with a pertinence too keen to bear. He no sooner passed one set of them than he saw another, planed and sanded but still the post-mortem minimum, just enough in the shade from the eaves not to reflect sunlight. Prophetic greed, his mind told the lane. They might need them for firewood before the week is out. Cold always by the end of this month.

        Fifteen minutes later, in a black sheepskin hat and a holed plaid shirt encrusted with a complete range of droppings from egg and mustard to whitewash and manure, Gnonka the pig-farmer untied the cords and began to finger the five suits, one with satin lapels, one of a tweed perfumed with Baltic heather, a third with two vests of which one was velvet with maroon pearl buttons, while the other two were ordinary and a bit worn at the cuffs and elbows: these two culled from the house, not his own at all, and certainly not his taste, which did not run to tree-bark brown.

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PAUL WEST is the author of 50 books. He has received awards from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the Lannan Prize for Fiction and the Halperin-Kaminsky Prize. He was named a Literary Lion by the New York Public Library and a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Government. He has also been a runner-up for the National Book Circle Award and the Nobel Prize for Literature. 

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