One of my senior colleagues, who is a Bengali, told me once, “It is so very important for one to understand and speak English fluently these days. I’ve made sure my son speaks in English even at home; when he was born, you know, I welcomed him by saying ‘Hello, baby!’ I consciously avoided hugging him in the typical Bengali way.” Frankly, I didn’t question her stand; it was entirely her choice, I thought.
Later when I narrated the story to my wife, Bhaswati, she said, “So unfortunate is her son, don’t mind, but he missed out on the vibrations of his first exposure to the mother tongue.” It was only when I realized the importance of the connection of a mother to her newly born baby through the language she speaks. After all, a language is essentially a medium of expressing the thoughts, nurtured over a certain period of time, as one grows up in the society. When I say society, I mean the culture associated with an individual’s matri bhasha [mother tongue].
People know I always wanted to be marked as a Bengali English writer — one who chose to write in the English-language. There is no point in ignoring my Bengali being, and I have no regret as I write in English. Back in 2014, I can remember, I co-edited an anthology, Jora Sanko — The Joined Bridge [The Poetry Society of India, Gurgaon], which bore English poems, written by the Bengali poets, worldwide. The collection has fetched rave reviews both in India and abroad, and it has been placed in the poetry library of the Royal Hall of London.
Of late I got a chance to read the manuscript of Linda Ashok’s newest book, whorelight. Among the fifty-four verses “Becoming A Rice Pot” appealed to me to a great extent! The poem reads as follows:
She held the rice pot too
close to her bosom each time
she had to take a cup of it.
Once she would take as
much, she would keep back
a fistful. She never wanted
the rice pot to be empty.
Keeping back, she told me
years later, is restraint. When
you make a good home,
remember, holding back
a little every time will
save you the magic.
When he called me last
summer, I wanted to hold
back a little of myself, but
a sudden gust of Kalbaisakhi
changed the conversation.
The verse revolves around the age-old Bengali custom of keeping back a fistful of rice into the storage-container [rice pot] as the woman of the house cooks rice for the family. I’m sure most of the Bengalis are aware of this domestic tradition. Here Linda skillfully upholds a secret to a good [Bengali] home and explores a magical way to address future crisis. Look at the use of Kalbaisakhi, a Bengali word, which not only qualifies as a summer-storm, but it also indicates a crucial juncture in an otherwise stable equation.
The verse unveils another layer of the society. A custom, although it has its roots deep into a religion, runs freely in the households irrespective of their religious beliefs. I would have appreciated Linda more had she explored the source of the “magic” as passed unto her by the woman, referred to as “she” in the poem.
I could assume it was Linda’s mother; it might also be her older sister as well. My assumptions can be wrong, but this is for certain that the “she” was one from her family. Who else would cook rice and pass on the trick of making a good home at one go?
The rice is considered synonymous with goddess Lakshmi, who upkeeps wealth and prosperity. “Holding back” a fistful of rice is probably rooted into Laksmir Panchali, a Hindu religious text, often chanted by married Bengali women, especially on Thursdays. Here is an excerpt from the Panchali:
Lakshmir bhandar jeba sthapi nija ghare
Rakhibe tandul tahe ek mutha kore
Sanchayer path iha janibe nischay
Er fale upakar pabe asamay
[Translation: As you set the storage of the goddess Lakshmi in your home/ Keep a fistful of rice/ This is a definite way of saving/ You will certainly get benefits in the times of crisis]
I don’t know whether Linda has read the Panchali, or if she ever got a chance to listen to someone reading the text. “Becoming A Rice Pot” is suggestive of her Bengali upbringing, and it does not necessarily reflect her religious belief, if at all she has one. And here lies Linda’s triumph as a Bengali English poet.