Asma and Aruna

They would meet everyday as they hung upside down on the jungle Jim in one of 

the vast playgrounds of St Mary’s Convent School, Poona Camp. Asma Syed and 

Aruna Pandit – two shy ten year olds, thin as a reed, with tight plaits and scrubby 

knees. They drew closer thereafter since both were the ‘single friend’ type while 

all other pals remained on the periphery of this nucleus.

A bunch of giggly girls, wheeling their bicycles, walks past the Bishop School for 

Boys that is next to St Mary’s. On the compound wall sit a group of adolescent 

boys who talk extra loud and become more boisterous as the girls pass by. Those 

were the times when that’s as far as it went. These were five minutes of high 

adventure for the girls and the routine was repeated almost as a ritual every 

weekday at 3.30 when school concluded for the day. Then, as the girls turned left 

and then right and the boys ran off to their football, the girls lapsed into 

their chatter again. As each ones home approached or her way parted, she 

mounted her bicycle and rode away eventually to leave just the two of them as 

they summarized the events of the day and plans for tomorrow. Finally, Asma 

went down Sachapir Street and Aruna cycled the remaining distance home. In 

their respective houses their routines were almost identical – a change of 

clothes, a hearty meal and after some frugal homework they were on the phone 

to each other chatting nineteen to a dozen.

As childhood took tentative steps towards youth this budding friendship 

revealed the wonders of a relationship beyond the family. They stood together in 

the line at the tuck shop, shared rat sweets and striped sugar candy and 

walked hand in hand round the playfield as they sucked on orange ice sticks that 

coloured their tongues. If Miss Pavri screamed at Aruna for not learning her 

French conjugations and when Sister Mary Anslem went red in the face, took 

Asma by the shoulders to give her a shaking for not getting a simple spelling 

right, then they would soothe each other by silent glances that said “hold on, 

never mind, this too shall pass and we will laugh again.”

During holidays they were in each other’s houses. Mayaram, the cook in 

Aruna’s home would feed them aloo subzi and hot rotis off the tava when they 

finished playing with the dogs in the garden and then they would go up and 

listen to her sole earthly treasure – a Beatles LP – on her grandfather’s 

gramophone.

Asma’s mother was small and frail and a loving soul. Her father was very 

tall and, on Sundays, he would cook the most delicious meat and fish that got 

polished off in no time and the bones went to Gapid, the dog. Oblivious to the 

blazing sun, Aruna and Asma would thereafter roam about and chat in the 

courtyard along with her elder sister with their much younger siblings Rukhsana 

and Bhai Saab in tow. Aruna’s two brothers were in a boarding school and in 

Asma’s home she found the pleasure and security that a ‘full house’ affords.

It was an age of innocence when no eyebrows were raised in either house on 

learning the names of their daughter’s friends. When Aruna was as welcome into 

the orthodox Bohri household as Asma was into the strict Brahmin one. A time when the two friends made a world of their own which they thought would more or less last their lifetime.

It was mid term IXth standard when Aruna’s father was transferred out of Poona 

and after many heart wrenching goodbyes and cross my heart promises to write 

a letter a week, the two friends parted.

Aruna got busy adjusting to a new city, new home, school, teachers and friends 

but she looked forward to the coloured envelopes that came with a Poona 

postmark and that contained pages and pages of a familiar even hand detailing 

all the events of the week – shenanigans of our common pals, walks down Main 

Street, aunts arriving from Surat, cousins getting engaged/married, kid sis down 

with measles, the sun, the rain, summer, winter and everything else in between. 

Aruna replied with equal fervour.

Somewhere in the course of the next five years as they both passed out of school 

and entered college – Asma to graduate in Home Science and Aruna in Political 

Science – their ways parted. No, they both didn’t pull away. Asma remained the 

same sweet girl she always had been. She faithfully and regularly wrote, often 

complaining, sometimes even sharply, that Aruna did not reply. It was Aruna 

who grew impatient with small talk about aunts and cousins, brothers and 

sisters.

It was the season for rebellion, family ties were to be scoffed at as restrictive 

conventions. The two girls were growing in different directions. Aruna could not 

write to Asma about what she was reading, thinking, hearing, feeling. She met 

teachers inside and outside college who opened a whole new world of exciting 

possibilities and interpretations. The world needed to be changed, they could 

change it, and if they could, they would. Revolution was just round the corner, 

this corrupt order was about to collapse and if all that was needed was a push – 

then they were ready to leave aside everything else and push.

“She has wheels under her feet,” said Aruna’s grandmother, “she comes in from 

one place and is off to the next.” Meetings and campaigns, wallpapers and 

posters, street plays and protest marches – in all this to and fro-ing, where was 

the time to write to an old friend who was not now a comrade in the battle?

So the years went furiously by. College, university, friends, job, love, commitment, marriage, child – like a circle in a spiral spinning us away from our 

pasts and hurtling us ever onwards to our destinies.

In the month of March this year Aruna went with husband and son for a short 

trip to Poona. The boy had just finished his board exams and this trip was just a 

wee window of a holiday before they would again be immersed in a two year 

grind of preparation for his medical entrance tests.

Aruna dragged the two of them to the cantonment where she had grown up and 

as they passed Sachapir Street, she could not resist the urge to get off at Ibadat 

Manzil. The cottage had long since been pulled down and a multistoried building 

stood in its place. She inquired with the watchman about the Syed family. He said 

they lived on the top floor.

“There was a girl, Asma?”

“She is there right now.” he said

Aruna was excited as she went up the lift. The door was opened by a small sweet 

young woman and Aruna asked for Asma.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“I’m Aruna, an old school friend.” Aruna replied.

She said nothing.

“Is Asma not at home?”

“Yes, she is. Come in.” said she.

Aruna sat down and asked for Asma again.

“She’s inside,” said the young girl who was the wife of Asma’s little brother, Bhai saab.

“Is she not well? Can I go and meet her inside?”

“She’s in mourning,” said the young woman, “she lost her husband two months 

ago and she is in mourning.”

Then Asma came out and without a word they embraced. When the words came 

they came unbidden. Like most things in Aruna’s life this meeting too had not 

been planned. She kept talking as the thoughts came into her mind sometimes 

coherent sometimes not. She said she was sorry again and again. She said she 

had wanted to apologize for having treated her wrong, for having thrown away 

something so precious, a pure and innocent friendship sacrificed at the altar of 

sophistry. Asma said that maybe it was God’s will that he had sent her to comfort 

her today.

Aruna sat before her, holding her hands tightly and with tired eyes they briefly 

caught up with each others’ lives. Asma had married late and settled comfortably 

in Manila. There were no children. When the end came her elder sister rushed to 

her aid and helped her put together her life again. Now she was here. She would 

be in isolation for some months more. She had not thought about what she would 

do thereafter. They exchanged phone numbers and addresses. Aruna saw a spark 

in her eyes when she asked Asma to call and said that they would have long 

chats. Then Aruna left.

Aruna has called several times since. She spoke with Asma’s younger sister and 

her sister in law. Asma couldn’t come to the phone, she was praying – there were 

other women around and she couldn’t be seen chatting. Yes, Aruna understood. 

She will keep trying to speak. There is so much to say, so much to listen to. There 

is still too much unsaid.

Over the past thirty years and through successive clearing out of drawers, Aruna 

has still not discarded those coloured envelopes with a Poona postmark. 

Whenever she rewrites her telephone book she always begins with Asma’s 

phone number -26879- although Poona does not have five digit numbers any 

more and this number will no longer connect to Asma.

For a person who staunchly asserts that she regrets nothing in life, there is this 

one thing Aruna regrets and regrets bitterly – When there were tears in your 

eyes and I was needed to to say, “hold on, this too shall pass and we may smile 

again,” I was not there to say it.

Go Talk to the River: the Ovis of Bahinabai Choudhari

Published by Yoda Press (January 2019), Go talk to the River: the Ovis of Bahinabai Choudhari is a book of translations of the Ovis or verses of Bahinabai Choudhari, a 19th century peasant poet from the Khandesh region of Maharashtra.

Bahinabai Choudhary (1880-1950) was an unlettered peasant poet from the Khandesh region of Maharashtra who has authored a collection of poems in the form of ovis. An ovi is verse in couplet form that are set to an easy tune and sung by women in this state as they go about their work. So, in a sense, they can be regarded as ‘work songs’ not unlike the blues. However, while most ovis that have been popularly sung were about God, stories and characters from mythology, festivals or moral precepts, Bhainabai’s ovis were about her work both in the home as well as a farmer; they were about the village, people around her, incidents and about her maher (maika or her childhood home that she missed so much having been married at the age of 13 (as most girls were in that period) and sent to her saasar (sasural or matrimonial home). 

Bahinabai is not remarkable only because she ‘wrote’ (authored) these poems inspite of being unschooled but, to me, she is exceptional because she was perhaps the first Marathi poet to have written so well and so consistently about a woman’s work and experience. Her ovis also show us how she coped with adversity and reveal to us the personality of a woman of great resolve who took life head on, turned it into song and, in doing so, left us a treasure in the form of her ovis that were at once simple, earthy, full of wit and also deeply meaningful.

This book, ‘Go Talk to the River’, contains translations of all the known ovis of Bahinabai along with their transliteration.

What people say about the book –

Ranjit Hoskote (January 2019) –

Anjali Purohit’s lovingly crafted translations of Bahinabai Choudhari’s poetry bring into English both the cadence and the ethos of this remarkable woman’s oeuvre. Bahinabai (1880-1951) was named after a 17th-century saint who composed devotional abhanga poetry. Born into one farming family in northwestern Maharashtra, she was married, at an early age as was customary in her generation, into another. Her everyday life revolved around the activities of running a household in a demanding rural economy and attending to the fields. Along the way, Bahinabai began to compose ovis – a form of poetry that has been sung by women in Maharashtra for centuries, and is closely related to the rhythm of grindstone and well windlass – in a regional variant of Marathi known as Ahirani. Unlettered, she wrote nothing down. Her ovis might have been passed down orally after her death; but equally, they might have vanished from memory. Fortunately, they were transcribed and committed to print by her son, Sopandev Choudhari, in 1952. Through print, recordings, the radio and academic syllabi, they have since passed into Maharashtrian culture at large.

In Bahinabai’s poetry, women’s labour receives long overdue acknowledgement, as do seemingly quotidian subjects that vanish below the radar of literary modernism: family relationships, financial difficulties, the vegetation and landscapes of the countryside, the Divine, and the challenge of leading a life of wisdom and prayer in the face of the world’s capacity for mischief. Anjali Purohit engages closely and deftly with the texture and resonances of Bahinabai’s poetry, her English shot through with Marathi as she attempts to convey as much of the oral tonality and lifeworld of the original as possible. Through this, she seems to argue that English in India cannot remain aloof from the subcontinent’s other languages, but must expand itself to include and be enriched by them.’

Sudeep Sen, Asian Age, 5th July 2019

‘…Go Talk to the River: The Ovis of Bahinabai Choudhuri (Yoda) is excellently translated from the Marathi (Ahirani) original by the poet Anjali Purohit. Bahinabai (1880-1951) was named after a 17th century saint who composed abhanga verse. The poetry is about the everyday, about a woman’s life and role in it, about relationships, financial hardships, and rural countryside. The poems are presented both in Marathi using the Romanised script along with its modern English translations on the facing page. One can see and feel in Purohit’s well-crafted translations, the texture and flavour of the original language, which is at the same time rendered in precise conversational English. The woman’s voice is shot through with power: “Arrey! Look, who I am! Who I am! / I have God’s name on my lips! / then the atma residing within says, ‘Then why / don’t you go and ask your tongue what it speaks.’”

Poetry comes back full circle to the magic of the “tongue” — a palette where sound originates; a place where sound become words, both spoken and written; where words in a poetic register sing resonantly in various tongues.

Somak Ghoshal, Best to Meet them in Poems Live Mint, 19th May 2019

GO TALK TO THE RIVER: THE OVIS OF BAHINABAI CHOUDHARI translated by Anjali Purohit (Yoda Press, Rs450): Born in 1880, married at 13 and widowed at 30, Bahinabai Choudhari remained an unsung genius during her lifetime. It was only after her death in 1951, when her son published her poems, that she became recognized as one of the most poignant voices from Maharashtra. A cotton farmer from Jalgaon district, Choudhari was named after a 17th-century Bhakti saint who was known for composing abhang, a form of devotional poetry. Like her namesake, Choudhari had a remarkable facility with words, all the more so because she was unlettered. She had the gift of turning even the most mundane everyday situations into poetic truth. The changes of season, stages of harvest, characters in her family and neighbourhood, nothing escaped her keen sensibility. In a few lines she could distil the essence of a person, even of a favourite tree or cow, as though she were creating a verbal impression of their soul. Purohit’s translation, bolstered by an excellent introduction, attempts to faithfully capture the rhythms and nuances of Ahirani, the regional variant of Marathi Choudhari composed in.

The Hindu, BusinessLine, 15th March 2019

‘…Ahead of Poetry Day — celebrated across the world on March 21 — a look at an assortment of poetry that focuses on the diverse shades of our lives – Sasurvasin

Get up, saasurvasin bai

get up at midnight, neatly set out the grain

begin working the grinding stone

Get up, saasurvasin bai

get up, it’s dawn, the rooster crows

it’s time to take the pitcher on your head

Get up, saasurvasin bai

get up and light, light the stove

the sun rapidly rises

Get up, saasurvasin bai

get up, massive work in the farm lies ahead

You are but cattle in the shed

Get up, saasurvasin bai

Mother-in-law grumbles and is annoyed

wipe that tear from your eye

Get up, saasurvasin bai

be patient, don’t talk back, hold your tongue

let the memories of your maher comfort you!

From Anjali Purohit’s Go Talk To The River: The Ovis of Bahinabai Chaudhuri…’

The Art Column: May 25th, 2018, Burnt Earth Yields Strange Fruit

(photo credit: The Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation, Rekha Rodwittiya)

 

Rekha Rodwittiya’s art underlines a strong feminist position and engages with the socio-politics of the world, says Anjali Purohit

Rekha Rodwittiya has been known to be a painter who engages with the socio-politics of the world, its contradictions and inequalities. Her art underlines a strong feminist position as also her reaction to the many issues that confront women.

In the artist’s words, ‘… I hold as consistent the desire to examine the feminine space of survival, the spirit of female endurance and the empowerment of pride and self-dignity that centuries of feminist oral histories are infused by, as the territory from which my work takes shape’.

The Jehangir Nicholson Gallery, CSMVS, is presenting her work at the show, Songs from the Blood of the Weary (Dialogues of Peace), which will run until mid-August.

Songs from the Blood of the Weary was first created by Rekha as part of an exhibition commemorating the 50th anniversary of the United Nations at Geneva in 1995 which brought together 12 paintings in the form of a painted room. Additional works from the collection of Sakshi Gallery form part of the present show. Together they provide us an understanding of the artist’s journey and the issues that are central to her work.

Rodwittiya says, ‘…in a world where atrocities are committed against women in the name of upholding traditional values, a focus to redress this is vital if we are to define true liberty for all humanity…’.

However, there are ways art can pose a challenge, be disruptive, confrontational and subversive without being destructive. The entire oeuvre of Rekha’s work demonstrates this very fine balance. Rich and nuanced, her paintings do not ‘explain themselves’ or offer a singular narrative but suggest meanings through the placing and character of the figures and the use of metaphor.

The metaphors consist of objects (often repeated like a refrain in a song) and the relative size and structure of human figures on the canvas especially that of women. The woman in Rodwittiya’s paintings is strong and corporeal. This confidence comes from laying claim to a heritage of feminist practice which she has elsewhere described as her ‘gifts of legacy’ where, in her words, ‘my complete belonging is within the womb of my feminist ancestry…’.

A collection of these metaphors is what Rekha describes as her ‘lexicon’ or vocabulary through which she creates her art. Objects such as a spade, fish, scissors, leaves, locks, dice, boats and airplanes, maps, are infused with significance when juxtaposed with human figures that play out a dramatic statement on each canvas—the position and ‘pose’ of the hands and fingers acting as clues or prompts (or ‘mudras’, as Rekha calls them) to the script.

The palette, predominantly red, brown, yellow and grey has been put to great effect in her haunting work, Burnt Earth Yields Strange Fruit. This is the artist’s articulation of her outrage at honour killings, female infanticide and dowry deaths. The title bears a disquieting throwback to the Abel Meeropol poem (sung by Billie Holiday) Southern Trees Bear a Strange Fruit, about lynching in the Jim Crow era. This becomes even more chilling for us today because of growing instances of brutality that have a real danger of becoming ‘normalised’ and not being ‘strange’ any more.

Finally, I leave you with this.

This show is at the JNAF Gallery, which is itself housed in the CSMVS. Tourist buses bring people from the mofussil on a Mumbai Darshan. They are impressed by the ancient museum pieces and then sometimes a family, wanting to investigate what lies in the east wing of the second floor, stumbles into the art gallery. One such large family with several unruly children was there when I visited the exhibition. While the other children ran about chasing each other through the space, I noticed one eight-year-old girl standing, quiet and absorbed, in the ‘painted room’. It was one of those rare private moments that pass without much notice. She didn’t want to leave even after several calls from her father. I believe that while art criticism must play its part in placing an artwork in the context of art history and aesthetic theory, being privy to the sight of this little girl was significant validation as well. I don’t know who she was but did send out a silent wish to her saying, ‘may your tribe increase’.

 

Anjali Purohit is a writer, painter, poet, translator and conceptual vagabond with a yen for gadding about town.

The column in the ADC48hrs can be viewed here –  http://www.afternoondc.in/48-hrs/burnt-earth-yields-strange-fruit/article_223596