Editorial | July, 2020; Issue 32

Oasis | July, 2020

Postcards of poetry fall into my inbox from newsletters. Long ago when the world was chaotic, these postcards were an oasis.  Now these postcards are islands of solace, when the world has gone quiet. 

These poems-a-day capture, for me, the cacophony around and made sense or nonsense of it, in a few stanzas and the situation would redeem itself. Maybe that always was the power of words, and its stringing together, could do.

For this time, I enjoyed the poetry I received, as editor, through The Bombay Review’s submissions – each turning out to be lyrical postcards, nestling into corners for cadence, dimension, musicality, and sense. 

Of the selections, what startled me was the imagery in Sonnet Mondal’s grim ‘the nameless man scooping out milk from the road to drain the drought inside’ or ‘a forsaken boatman/rows for food in the twilight.’ The fact that food and scarcity of spirit are the same.  Ajmal Khan’s title ‘Portrait of a bastard’ made me sit up straight, where layers of racism from being Asian – the accent of a Dravidian governed more than religious divide, and yet the overlaps with ethnicity brought out an unpeeling of facades for the unison of humanity –same pain, displacement, ideas of home – made for an informed read.

Umar Nizar’s poem On Tabassum, my daughter stumbling upon the word ‘Consummation’ in a dictionary, where the title of the poem is as artful, provided a recursive unfurling of the circularity of dead-ends, with a refrain, entering a path of imagistic exclusion, to reach a dry word in the dictionary. While Anindita Sarkar’s bold pieces on abortion, bullying of a unique boy, and surviving health ordeals spoke of grit under the surface, in the core and kernel. The choice of her themes – riveting with knife-edged impact. 

Ranu Uniyal has the adorability that comes from a shifting relationship to English. For no matter how much we love it, we can’t live with it when we know beauty and depth may lie in other languages. ‘Fuck in English/Fuck it now.’ Mihir Chitre, whom we are publishing for the second time this issue, is as evocative as always; the years have only refined his poetry.

Adil Hasan’s prose poems are a surprising interlacing of abstract and fablery taking over the trail-edges of mist-filled suspense, unlike Sahana Mukherjee’s two-part poem that concretely explores the pendulous sway between father and mother as seen from the viewpoint of an offspring. 

Saranya Subramanian’s poems have gasps-and-wonder-in-punctuations taken from places like Bombay and Chennai or grown from the life of Perumal Murugan and his interiority. Such variety! As Carl Scharwath’s thesis on duality is piqued in well-crafted miniscule phrases that bear testimony to imagery. 

Mihir Chitre’s new poems left me dumbfounded with the need to read them slowly, savoring them the second time. The intermixture of concept, imagery, and emotion strongly texturizes his new work.

Rajosik Mitra’s is refreshing new voice written in almost a stream-of-conscious tone, capturing the qualia that would otherwise have sieved away.

There are a few who rhyme as well as Sanjukta Ghoshal, as she not only rhythms it, but has well-timed meaning with each of those lines. A difficult feat made to look as easy as her girl-next-door bio note – a clever deception I tell ya! 

And Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih’s poems might well be the gliding end to this bouquet of with poems like Dystopian and Temple, where he takes you to a philosophical quest and leaves you there – right at the cliff.

Stay safe, dear readers, protect thy breath.

Rochelle Potkar
Poetry Editor
The Bombay Review 

Poetry | ‘Temple’ & ‘Dystopian’ | By Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih

Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih’s poems might well be the gliding end to this bouquet of with poems like Dystopian and Temple, where he takes you to a philosophical quest and leaves you there – right at the cliff.

Temple

Deep inside a pine forest,

we sought the mountain.

Between Sohpet Bneng, our holy mountain,

the afternoon rays filtering through the trees,

and the rufescent pine floor,

we had our temple.

I worshipped you again and again.

I made myself humble before you again and again.

I surprised you again and again.

Birds called from everywhere.

Their variety astonished me;

their calls filled me with sadness.

Trees were laid low everywhere.

How long have they got before they go?

And how long have we got, Nameri?

Like them,

people like us, 

always live on borrowed time.

Everything else was silent.

We spoke in hushed tones.

You inspired me into a range of emotions.

When I bowed down before you—veneration.

When I cleaned your feet—fulfillment.

When I held you in my arms—enchantment.

When our bodies touched,

I expected the tremors of the flesh.

How would I know you would fill me with stillness?

Happiness stunned me.

I felt drugged and drowsy.

I closed my eyes, and I saw 

all were dreams; all were visions.

Not once did I tremble with desires.

Such a one as you, I have never come across.

We spoke of the dangers facing us,

our bleak and hopeless world.

I thought of Trump and Bolsonaro

and all the enemies of the earth.

We spoke of Corona and your leaving.

And you wondered why I bent my head

and would not show you my eyes.

All through the evening,

only the noodles you cooked for me;

only the hand that reached for mine;

only the fear you were losing

and the love igniting in your eyes;

bolstered my confidence,

as I faced the world,

increasingly dystopian.


Dystopian

We groan under the weight of Corona 

the disruptions it has brought 

the fear it has instilled in every heart 

the cruelties surging from that fear: 

villages driving people coming home 

into the jungles

cities forbidding people to leave

people with no place to stay 

with no money and no food 

people walking for hundreds of desperate miles

people driven to suicide. 

The selfishness and the greed 

lurk in every shop 

in every street. 

The lockdown is a cure worse than the sickness. 

The fear is worse than the plague.

We may all be free from Corona’s fatal touch 

for 41 days 

but how will those without the means

be free from hunger, disease, starvation

for 41 days? 

The fear of getting sick is making people die.

Thieves and murderers will stalk the nights.

The cure is worse than the sickness.

Oh, I hate it, that is true, Nameri

and the worst thing it has done to me 

is to take you away from me.

And I don’t even know 

when you will return 

or in what frame of mind.

The nights are pitiless

they stare at me

I stare at them

and neither of us will ever know relief 

until you set us free again.

The silence it has brought 

into the streets 

the silence it has brought 

into the engines of commerce: 

I love the clear skies I can now see 

even in the dirtiest of cities.

Change is possible

we may yet save the earth 

Corona has shown us that.

And it’s not even as monstrous 

as some things I have known. 

If you are a poet in love with easeful death 

you would also embrace it if it comes.

Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih (Meghalaya, India) writes poems, drama and fiction in Khasi and English. His latest works include The Yearning of Seeds (HarperCollins), Time’s Barter: Haiku and Senryu (HarperCollins) and Around the Hearth: Khasi Legends (Penguin).

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Poetry | ‘Witherstone’ & ‘Aspen’ | By Sudeep Sen

Witherstone
       for Fiona & Peter

The deaf don’t believe in silence.
Silence is the invention of the hearing.
— Ilya Kaminsky, Deaf Republic

1.

In bucolic,       translucent silence, I overhear:
stone-slates aligning themselves
                                    in tiered mosaics —
floor’s varying heights competing
                        with rural mud-grass gradient —
sheep excitedly running downslope
            to greet their master, seeking salmon —
a quartet of chickens in an open shed
   pursing their rear, revealing pink eggshells —
and Wye waters creating an unintentional arc,
                                    verge of an immaculate oxbow.

2.

Sam[p]son and Delilah, Church and State
           jostle, trying to carve their own space —
a map whose coordinates appear flawed —
                       fragmented like old Balkan fissures,
like Brexit’s comedic miscalculations,
           like pandemic’s political mismanagement.
Tudor stone’s past — like a misleading folly —
    gradually withers away history and time
           as erosion’s song-cycle prepares for a coda.
A perfectly-pitched aria or cantata
    calibrates its modulation in this wet heavy air —
the frequencies unsure,
            like a directionless weather vane.

3.

Magnolia’s magnificence in the front garden,
           its regalia in temporary full glory —
before the snow-smitten air bites through its tree-bones.
In the large glass-paned sunroom,
           a long red cylindrical punching bag hangs listlessly
                       waiting for an uppercut to deflect
a dangling modifier — a poet’s primal prerogative.

4.

A red metal kettle in the kitchen, excited by heat,
whistles like an old steam engine on a disused rail track —
           brewing rose, green and white infusions.
As I set aside the coffee story,
the large black cooking range
           mirrors an age-blackened timber lintel.
Therein lie unrevealed, unsaid stories —
           stored within chamfered beam’s wood cracks.           

5.

Wireless signal, desperately elusive here —
the valley’s rough music
                  rearranging the air-waves’ diatonic notes —
its common prayer bridging
                        the geographical distance between us
                                    in this limestone country.

6.

How topography fine tunes our sensibility,
                       landscape reshapes our psyche —
how everyday banalities of potatoes, animal farm,
    persistent rain can soothe our senses to calm —
how simplest of neighbourly gestures
                       cements communal intimacies,
                                                reorienting our dna.

7.

Morse code conveyed in silence —
           skyscape, ever changing,
                       planktons floating on unreliable waves —
their dramatic formulations,
           shape-shifting cumuli,
                                   thermal up-draughts
matching         a local brook’s innocent eddies.

8.

At an abandoned countryside churchyard,
           I pause at each gravestone
to decipher their ornate genealogical etchings —
their looped serifs hold still the heartbeat of many lifetimes.

It’s the kind of clock I want to measure time by —
           time that depends
    on the company of those who care —
                       time minutely layered
on this open windblown Herefordshire terrain —
                                               an expansive canvas roll.

9.

Traversing a four-acre fenced land in borrowed Wellies,
           my pugmarks leave a foreign imprint on this soil.
I find among the muddy squelch,
           a piece of dead bark. Its smooth weatherworn
seductive shape reminds me of an ancient whale,
           its striated sanded-down skin bearing a script
           left undeciphered until now.
I am tempted to decode enjambment’s mystery,
                                                but I resist.

10.

Inside Witherstone,
the well-worn kettle-nozzle tweets again,
           a trio of iPhones peal their pedestrian pings —
I choose not hear this uncoordinated medley.

                                   In my imagined silence,
ceramic cup-stains graph every minute detail,
           letterform’s each ascender and descender ||
                                   as I drink my infinite cups
of bergamot oil infused tea       without haste —
                        slow-staring at the sky’s ash-rose stories.

*
Aspen
  for Simi

Gold-orange patina
  imprinted serrated leaves

glow silk — incarnadine
  like russet sunsets.

Foliage slow-shivers —
  every breath, heaving.

Winter-white barks
  studiously slow-burn.

Even forest fires
  cannot conflagrate

the incandescent love
  for my beloved.

*

Wave after wave,
  the Northern lights’

luminously pirouette
  in polar-cooled wind-

chill — redolent colours
  sculpting translucent

letters in this frozen air —
  a sacrament of faith,

brightly lit. Decoding
  hieroglyph’s lost

lyrics — an exquisitely
  sung ghazal unfolds.

*

Sudeep Sen’s [www.sudeepsen.org] prize-winning books include: Postmarked India: New & Selected Poems (HarperCollins), Rain, Aria (A. K. Ramanujan Translation Award), Fractals: New & Selected Poems | Translations 1980-2015 (London Magazine Editions), EroText (Vintage: Penguin Random House), and Kaifi Azmi: Poems | Nazms (Bloomsbury). He has edited influential anthologies, including: The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry (editor), World English Poetry, and Modern English Poetry by Younger Indians (Sahitya Akademi). Blue Nude: Anthropocene, Ekphrasis & New Poems (Jorge Zalamea International Poetry Prize) and The Whispering Anklets are forthcoming. Sen’s works have been translated into over 25 languages. His words have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, Newsweek, Guardian, Observer, Independent, Telegraph, Financial Times, Herald, Poetry Review, Literary Review, Harvard Review, Hindu, Hindustan Times, Times of India, Indian Express, Outlook, India Today, and broadcast on bbc, pbs, cnn ibn, ndtv, air & Doordarshan. Sen’s newer work appears in New Writing 15 (Granta), Language for a New Century (Norton), Leela: An Erotic Play of Verse and Art (Collins), Indian Love Poems (Knopf/Random House/Everyman), Out of Bounds (Bloodaxe), Initiate: Oxford New Writing (Blackwell), and Name me a Word (Yale). He is the editorial director of AARK ARTS and the editor of Atlas. Sen is the first Asian honoured to deliver the Derek Walcott Lecture and read at the Nobel Laureate Festival. The Government of India awarded him the senior fellowship for “outstanding persons in the field of culture/literature.”

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Poetry | ‘The Nameless Man’ & 2 other poems | By Sonnet Mondal

Of the selections, what startled me was the imagery in Sonnet Mondal’s grim ‘the nameless man scooping out milk from the road to drain the drought inside’ or ‘a forsaken boatman/rows for food in the twilight.’ The fact that food and scarcity of spirit are the same. 

The Nameless Man

 

He is scooping milk from the road
to moisten the drought inside.
In these white flooded paths
there are no bends for discourses.

They empty kaleidoscopic dreams
into queues of migrants.

The uncombed gentleman who used to
sit outside our house everyday
is missing without a mention in my diary.

Nameless, defying the lockdown
he has left a whole story unfinished.


Pandemic Symphony

 

The windswept mirages of April
are starving the city-memories.

Occasionally, they simmer
to bathe in the Nor’westers.

The balconies and windows
of my house bring in impulses –

Sounds of TV serials, some news debates,
a distant music, a raucous quarrel,
a mixed smell of dinner…

Inside, the snoring of my dog plays
with the tireless squeaking of the ceiling fan.

A pen scratches on paper

while the songs of insects try
to lift the mist
settling lazily over the city.

On the horizon, permeating the night –
a symphony of the quiet.


Lockdown

 

Where roads do not unfurl
the need for limits
breathes through dry tears.

Where Solitude takes wing
for the falling Sun
amnesia shrouds a generation.

Caged, wingless, a bird waits
for the last dusk

as a forsaken boatman
rows for food in the twilight.

Sonnet Mondal is an Indian poet, editor, and author of Karmic Chanting (Copper Coin 2018) and Ink and Line (Dhauli Books 2018). Founder director of Chair Poetry Evenings – Kolkata’s International Festival, Mondal edits the Indian section of Lyrikline (Haus für Poesie, Berlin) and serves as editor in chief of the Enchanting Verses Literary Review. He has been a guest editor for Words Without Borders, New York, Poetry at Sangam, India, and was one of the directors of the Odisha Art and Literature Festival in 2018. His works have been translated into Hindi, Bengali, Italian, Chinese, Turkish, Slovak, Macedonian, French, Russian, Slovenian, Hungarian, and Arabic.

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Photo Essay | Endpapers: ‘The beautiful patterns and illustrations inside book covers’ By Jolan Wuyts | SALCC

Have you ever opened up a book and discovered that the inside of the cover had a beautiful illustration, colour or pattern?

The double sheet of paper partly glued to the inside of the cover of a book is called an endpaper – the first and last sheets of paper in a book, dividing text from cover. 

Historically, endpapers were often simply blank pieces of scrap paper, parchment or vellum that were used to keep the text safe from wear and tear. They might contain a bookplate showing ownership, or some scribbles where someone had tested a newly cut pen. 

sheet of paper with illustration and text in Latin
Expositiones sive declarationes admodum necessarie ac perutiles […].S Brant, 1490. University of Vienna, Austria, CC BY-NC. 

Decorated endpapers became popular from the 18th century, inspired by paper marbling techniques originating in the Middle East and Asia.

Marbling made the endpaper more than just a practical solution in bookbinding, but a place for beauty and art. Paper can be marbled using a variety of different techniques and styles. The result is always completely unique, no two marbled papers will ever be exactly the same. 

dark red and light orange coloured marbled design

 

Caroli Linnaei Systema, genera, species plantarum uno volumine […].Linné, Carl von, 1840. Smithsonian Libraries, United States, Public Domain. 

Paper marbling is achieved by putting paper on top of patterened paint sitting on the surface of water.

Even though every piece of marbled paper is different, some simple patterns were very popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, acting as starting points for more intricate and unique designs.

A nonpareil pattern (nonpareil is French for ‘without equal) is one of the basic patterns in paper marbling. It is made by using a comb-like implement to pull streaks across the marbling paint.

red, blue and yellow marbling pattern

 

Etude & amitié. Société philomathique de Paris … 1890, Smithsonian Libraries, United States, Public Domain

The Turkish pattern, or ‘stone’ pattern, is one of the most used basic patterns in marbling. Bristles or a brush are used to sprinkle different colours of paint down on the surface of the water.

The different colours push each other away, creating a swirled, earthy look.

marbled pattern with light beige 'circles' on a dark red background

 

The palm tree / by S. Moody ; with illustrations by the author.1864. NCSU Libraries, United States, Public domain.

The ‘Italian pattern’ was most-likely named as it resembles the patterns found in real Italian marble. 

blue and red marbled pattern

 

Monumenta Vaticana historiam ecclesiasticam saeculi XVI illustrantia : Ex tabulariis sanctae sedis apostolicae secretis, Hugo Laemmer, 1861. Austrian National Library, Austria, NoC-OKLR

While printing technology advanced throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, endpapers became more lavishly decorated with different kinds of patterns and illustrations.

Marbled paper increasingly became machine-made, with other types of illustrations – such as floral or geometric patterns – began appearing on endpapers.

black and white botanical pattern

 

Gesammelte werke von Alexander von Humboldt. 1889, University of California Libraries, Public Domain. 
black cross-shaped pattern on a white background

 

The garden’s story : for pleasures and trials of an amateur gardener / by George H. ELlwanger, 1889. University of California Libraries, United States, Public Domain
leaf and plant pattern illustration on paper with a typed label

 

The saddle-horse : a complete guide for riding and training. Orange Judd Company, 1881. University of Pennsylvania libraries, United States, Public Domain.

Endpapers are also a good place to put maps. They can cover two full pages at once, or even folding out to show things on a larger scale.

large map showing the north pole and countries around it

 

Farthest north; being the record of a voyage of exploration of the ship “Fram” 1893-96, and of a fifteen months’ sleigh journey by Dr. Nansen and Lieut. Johansen, 1897, Smithsonian Libraries, United States, Public Domain

Marbling paper is an easy and fun activity to do at home, so if you feel creative you can go look up one of the many tutorials online on how to marble paper!

decorative pattern with small flowers

 

Art – Goût – Beauté, Feuillets de l’ élégance féminine, Juin 1929, No. 106, 9e Année, p.1 Rijksmuseum, the Netherlands, Public Domain
pattern showing birds and abstract shapes

 

Art – Goût – Beauté, Feuillets de l’ élégance féminine, Novembre 1928, No. 99, 9e Année, schutblad. Rijksmuseum, the Netherlands, Public Domain.

 

With repetitive patterns, embossing and gilding, marbled paper is just one of the myriad ways to decorate endpapers today. However, generally, Books printed today make less use of endpapers.

Now and then, you’ll open up a book and be pleasantly surprised by the decoration of its endpapers. 


 

Fiction | ‘When the VastWings disappeared!’ by Dr. Jindagi Kumari

For the first few days, I noticed everything quietly, baffled at the sudden disappearance of the VastWings. I chose different hours of the day and mounted the top of the Green to verify the novel phenomenon of their absence. I would tilt my head leftwards to have a better view of the sky and then to the right, but there was no trace of the airspace giants. Some baby Robins would circle up, chasing one another. They would perch briefly on the same twig as I, to catch a breath, and then, flit away excitedly. These younglings forced me to go to a higher, and sturdier Green for my observations.

The waking up to the soul-shaking growl ceased. No rumbling roof at sunrise, no gurgles in the clouds, and no thunderous reverberations at night. The horizon, otherwise strewn with the VastWings, was covered in a surreal placidity. To our great shock, the Vehicrawlers’ mad run had stopped too. The Raven-tracks were all deserted. Was I dreaming?

What would it be like to climb up the endless arms of the self-coloured sky and drown in the ochre perspiration of the sun. One of my minds was tempted to venture onto the paths of the VastWings, while the other reminded me of my mother’s parting words, “Wait and watch, until you don’t understand a thing.” These words, coming out of her choked lungs, without the usual perkiness of her voice, were to be my talisman for life. The grime in her lungs killed Mama young and Father was quick to settle with a vain yellow beak.

The Capital Sky transformed into the pensively referred spotless setting of my Mama’s tales. But then, the bloody behemoths invaded and captured our skylines, forcing the avifauna to change their course or die. All winged beings had to switch to the Greens within the cloistered lanes and bylanes around the concrete nests of the Walkers. Numberless of our ancestors lost their lives during the transition. Some died fighting this new enemy while others gave in to the gruelling lifestyle changes occasioned by the exodus to the Walkers’ zones.

The foundations of the Walkers’ world were cemented over the clots of the Greens’ blood. The Walkers were strange beings; schadenfreude. On one hand, they propagated their own sort, felling the Greens and making survival difficult for avifauna and on the other, they created nursing groves of the Greens, pretending to care for them. Truth was, they were control freaks who wished to ration our existences and be our God.. I am sure the VastWings were Walkers’ way of trying to be beings they were not: Us, Winged-ones

Several days passed, the Vast-wings did not return. The rumours and speculations of their comeback were rife among the Capital avifauna. The Tailorbirds in the neighbourhood had declared that the VastWings were resting, or hibernating, to become more ferocious and bigger. They claimed their sizes would soon be twice a hundred Vehicrawlers.

The Chickadees, lifting one foot to scratch under her wing, added that the Vast-wings seem to have gone incognito and were operational in disguise. The Bulbul bird countered Chickadees, by quoting about the expeditions of some daredevils of their tribe who were flying the banned sky hassle-free.

The visiting Green pigeon rolled his neck slowly and blinked a scoff. He disclosed the eye-witness account of her jet-set aunt from the Posh-palm grove near the Vast-wing Station; “She told us that the Vast-wings were all clutching the ground. The Walkers were not trying to operate them anymore. She suspected something was wrong with the Walkers. They are not moving out from their nests much. They feared something in the air.”

Whatever the cause of the Walkers’ containment was, it had given the avifauna a new life.

Slowly, after careful scrutiny, we had all begun testing the waters. We were not limiting ourselves to the branches of the local Green or hopping from one pole cable in affinity to another. With the crack of dawn, we left for outer skies. Vying for higher altitudes, we explored new skyways every day!

We discovered fascinating winged communities during our flying sojourn. At sundown, we would return home frolicking; chirping songs we had abandoned since the growing screeches of the Crush-crawlers. For the first time we were flying with the knowledge of limitlessness.

Our bones grew sturdier and plumage shinier. The entire avifauna was euphoric. The Greens became brighter too. We thought of nothing else but to make most of this unexpected gift of the summer.

This is the best time to have brought my baby Myna into the world. I was stress free and eating well; mine was a blessed pregnancy, unlike that of my mother.

I wished I could nudge the warm plume of Mama and tell her that we had reclaimed our old airfields and that our world was slowly returning to its previous glory. The urge to relive the past and to grow wings in the ancient sky was, miraculously, answered. I saw Mama asking me if I was feeling the weight of the baby-shell in my body. She, then, thanked the Creator and Green with a peck on my head.

A sudden midnight quake in my hole woke me up; I felt the dark wooden walls shaking with the echo of a distant, jarring whir, that seemed to spread across the clouds like current…getting louder…and louder…and…

Glossary
VastWings: airplanes
Green: Tree
Raven-tract: roads , paths
Vehicrawlers: vehicles
Capital Sky : Name of sky of narrator’s city

Dr. Jindagi Kumari lives in Delhi. She is an Assistant Professor of English at Maharaja Surajmal Institute of Technology, New Delhi. She has published short stories and poems in journals such as  Muse IndiaSetu and Kitaab.org.

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Fiction | ‘The Realisation’ by Aninda Mukherjee

1

By mid-March, New York had called in sick.

            When the Director of Programs interrupted Sandy Hartman’s mid – morning class on ‘History of Jazz’ for a brief announcement, Riya knew intuitively that it couldn’t be good news.

            Juilliard was temporarily suspending all courses in view of the unforeseen situation which had overwhelmed the city. With immediate effect, The Meredith Wilson Residence Halls were to be converted into a COVID specific hospital. The boarders had a week to vacate. The faculty regretted the, unfortunate turn of events. The school looked forward to welcome the students once the situation improved.  A technical team was putting together an online course apparatus, even as he spoke and the travel desk would work closely with international students.

            All around, things had changed. The rushed world of ambition and velocity had been reduced to a surreal stagnant space of quarantines, isolation wards and ventilators. The plummeting Brent subordinated itself to the spiraling rate of positive cases of this new dreaded virus, now in the city. New York was fighting …but at the moment the novel virus seemed to be winning by a mile, and then some.

            She took the elevator to the Cafeteria and took a seat in the far corner. Bill Blasio was all over the giant screen explaining a complex containment strategy that his team planned to execute over the next 72 hours. As he came to the part spelling out details of essential services in the locked down environment, Riya reached for her phone nervously.

***

Rajiv Bakshi was lost in thought as he took a sip of his after dinner Pierre Ferrand Abel. He leaned against the railing of his fifteenth floor sit out and stared aimlessly across Cuffe Parade into the emptiness of the Arabian Sea. He remembered the day in the non-descript year in mid 90s. As a young banker back from Singapore with a FOREX lead with the then Chase Manhattan, he had put all his savings into the down payment of 15B Casablanca. A few months later he had moved in with his wife Rini, and made it home.  His favourite corner since, had always been the balcony with a view of the sea to the distant right and the wondrous green Colaba Woods to the near left. Up front, beyond the World Trade Centre, were the Ambedkar Nagar slums reminding him of the characteristic homogeneity and benign acceptance of the Maximum City.

            He smiled to himself as his mind travelled back to that warm summer afternoon when he had driven back a glowing Rini and a little pink – wrapped Riya from Breach Candy to Casablanca. Eighteen years was a long time. Yet it seemed like yesterday…

            The phone rang yet again. This Work-from-home thing was turning out to be a terrible inconvenience!

***

The Delta out of JFK, one of the three airports in New York City, was the earliest option out. The itinerary was waiting in her mail box. Rini had called up with her usual last minute pep.  Pack light…Keep yourself hydrated…Don’t forget Cetrizines for the allergic rhinitis…Do drop a mail to the Indian Mission in NY…

            She gave a long hug to Sara, her roommate, promising to stay in touch over the forced break. Both knew their world was changing….the world was changing…. Nothing would possibly be the same again.

            Out in the corridor, old Tom, the floor janitor, lowered his mask, touched his cap, smiled and wished the really nice Missy from the Freshers class of Piano Jazz….. Godspeed!

2

Parimal Mondal balanced the bag near his feet, and started his Scooty. He had come to collect some grocery from Sahakari Bhandar, near Colaba Post Office, his weekly routine for many years now. The local kirana was never well stocked, and marginally expensive. As he turned right from Afghan Church, the Anglican Church in South Mumbai, to drive towards his rented room at Ganesh Murti Nagar, he saw a group of Jawans spraying disinfectants near the Colaba Military Station, which was the residential area for personnel of the Western Naval Command. There was a new disease called Corona. People said that it was a deadly virus which had killed thousands in China. Now it was spreading all over the world. There was nothing else on TV these days. Yesterday, Parimal had recalled those distant nights in his village near Canning in Bengal when his grandfather spoke of the terrible time the village had been attacked by the plague. Almost every family had lost a member, the stench was unbearable when the wind blew inland from the river… the Doms, fearing infection refused to help in cremating the dead.Muted sobs and muffled groans of pain and helplessness hung in the air. He could not sleep the entire night and lay awake next to Arati staring at the ceiling in horror. Thankfully, the morning arrived through the grills of the small window and his fears vanished into the early morning basti bustle.

Shortly after he had filled the water drum from the BMC tap, Bakshi sa’ab called. Riya didi was returning from America this afternoon. He had to pick her up from T2.

Parimal had worked for the Bakshi family for years now and had grown to be both loyal and rather fond of them over time. He had watched little Riya grow up…driving her to school and piano classes and birthday parties. He had been sad to see her go to college abroad but she seemed so excited at the adventure! But now he was a little surprised at the suddenness of the move though. The Bakshis had visited their daughter during Christmas, and Parimal had gathered that the girl was not due to return to India till much later in the year.

He dropped off the stuff, told Arati not to wait for him for lunch and hurried towards Casablanca, a couple of minutes ride from his place. Parimal had been idle since the boss had stopped going to his BKC office and was working from home. Occasionally, he had been called to run an errand, but mostly he had been free at home. He remembered that the car needed to be cleaned and there wasn’t much time. He tied his handkerchief to cover his mouth and nose, adjusted his helmet and set off. He had to get hold of a proper mask soon. Everyone had one these days.

***

As Parimal eased the Q5 into the Western Express Highway, Riya picked up the Times of India. The Prime Minister had addressed the nation the evening before, and had urged all to stay indoors the following Sunday. He had cleverly called it the Janta Curfew, making it sound almost voluntary. She knew though, the model of operation from the establishment was following a standard pattern: “Please stay in,” “It is highly recommended that you stay in,” and then “You MUST stay in.” Wuhan did that, Milano followed, New York caught up, and it would dawn onto Mumbai soon. Her world today operated on familiar templates…scaled models, bell curves, Big data, AI and Python!

On the surround, Bose softly played Dido’s Lament by Henry Purcell from the legendary opera Dido and Aeneas.

Riya felt like a child again,fragile, unsure, and vulnerable. She reached for the controls and retracted the sun roof, peering out into what looked like a still frame from old Bombay. Speeding through the empty roads, the Worli sea face, Haji Ali and Mahalaxmi passed her by like a collage of colourful pastel sketches. The clear sky met the blue sea in the distant horizon. And somewhere in between was delicately placed the fancy brick and mortar like those cardboard models from kindergarten craft assignments. There were no people, no life, just the ‘automated blinking red lights at a distance…impersonal, indifferent, non–committal, aloof.

Parimal accelerated past Pedder Road and Babulnath and turned left on the Chowpatty.  Riya settled back on the soft leather and reached for her knap sack. She took out a bar of Baby Ruth Crisp and broke it into two.

“Parimal bhaiya, yeh lijiye.” Take this, Mr Parimal.

“Ji, didi.” Parimal reached back with his left hand, took the chocolate, deftly found a gap in the kerchief, placed it in his mouth and returned to the wheel in one swift, smooth motion.

Riya took the other half and savoured its sweetness. They were racing past Brabourne Stadium and heading south. It was a pleasant Saturday afternoon at one of the world’s most popular promenades…but the Marine Drive, today, was deserted. A lone policeman sat under a tree and stared at nothingness.

***

Parimal and Arati had settled into the numbness of the containment routine, like most others at Ganesh Murti Nagar. Essentials were available at the small grocery store down the lane, the only shop which had remained open. For Arati’s medicines, Parimal had to go to Colaba once with a pass issued by the local municipality staffer.  Many of their neighbours were migrant labourers, who were anxious to go back to their villages. The construction sites were down and the future looked bleak. Parimal was lucky. He had a steady salary and hot meals. This was as close to the home he and Arati would dream of. Sometimes, though, he admitted to himself that he missed the haunting tunes from the far away fishing boats drifting along the Matla River. It carried him to a land of salted fish and panta bhaat and the sweet- sour cholai which lightened the head and gladdened the heart. But he always tore himself away from the fancy reverie and quickly got back on rails.

Babloo Naskar hadn’t had a drink for a month. He was used to his regular quart of Haywards XXX for as long as he could recall. But now the Sarkar had shut down all the wine shops. Babloo had purchased a pauwa now and then for a premium from the local bootlegger….till he couldn’t afford it anymore. So it was a very thirsty Babloo who knocked on Parimal’s door early one morning. A queue was already forming in front of Swastik Wine Mart as the State Government eased restrictions to permit liquor shops to reopen.

“Ki hola re Babloo?” “What’s up, Babloo?”

“Aaz maaler dukan khulse re Pari! Zabi naaki?” The liquor shops have reopened! Want to come?

The idea was tempting. Parimal wasn’t much of a drinker. But today he could do with a tipple. Like every other month his salary had come to his account and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to spend a little on a bottle for the evening.  These days there was no duty anyway. He quickly put on a shirt on his netted singlet and followed Babloo out on foot.

The area around the liquor shop was a chaos, an unmitigated disaster. There were hundreds of people jostling and cursing in their effort to get ahead. The duo tried to figure out where the serpentine queue might lead to but after walking to the far end of the road near Badhwar Park, simply gave up. Near the Charagh Din showroom, the line had branched out. One led to the Macchimar mohalla on Cuffe parade, the other headed towards the Causeway. No one knew how or when it would move….if it did, that is.

Babloo hadn’t come this far to return empty handed. He was determined to get his quota and planted himself firmly in the queue which turned towards the causeway. He would wait. Parimal had had enough. It just wasn’t worth the trouble. He struggled out of the melee and headed home, silently cursing himself for listening to Babloo and wasting his morning. He was drenched in sweat by the time he reached home. Quickly grabbing a gamcha, he headed to the sauchalay a few hundred feet from his door. He wasn’t feeling too well. Must be the exhaustion from walking in the scorching summer sun.

3

The situation in Mumbai was deteriorating with each passing day. The Chief Minister of the State, was under tremendous pressure. Fadnavis, whose party was in the opposition, left no stone unturned to show the coalition government in poor light. Dharavi, the slum conglomerate, was collapsing under the weight of its positive cases. Govandi was critical. Cases were spiraling all over the city, the doubling rate was worsening, the death toll climbing. The latest fiasco of the migrants causing stampede at Bandra, generally considered a posh locality, had brought the Uddhav Thackeray led Government much embarrassment. Kasturba Hospital was bursting at the seams. The other hospitals barely coped, wereover burdened, under staffed, and logistically crashing. And recently, the decision to open liquor outlets had led to riots and lathi charge – a complete failure of social distancing norms and prevention of transmission. The civil administration seemed ineffectual and helpless.

The CM summoned the Chief Secretary to Matoshree, the home of the Shiv Sena family, who was now in power after a long dull stretch. Hard decisions needed to be taken.

At midnight, Pardesi was relieved of his duties as the BMC chief. It was around 0115 that Iqbal Chahal chaired his first meeting as the Civic Chief. The numbers were frightening.12,000 odd positive cases, 793 deaths, not enough recoveries. His city was the epicenter, not just another dot on the red zone! The entire city of Mumbai had become a huge containment zone in Lockdown ++. The plan had to be two pronged. Aggressive testing and expeditious creation of medical infrastructure. Testing kits were reallocated from districts, resources deployed, critical clusters listed down to the last detail.

Ward A chief, Shambhurao Agashe was told in no uncertain terms to deploy the ‘Bhilwara Model’ in two main slums in his area, Ambedkar Nagar and Ganesh Murti Nagar, south of Cuffe Parade bordering the Navy Nagar area. He was sweating as he walked out of the BMC conference hall. It was 0335. He sighed as he typed a short post on a WhatsApp group simply named BMC_A.  He repeated the message to the SHOs of Cuffe Parade and Colaba Police Stations.

“Meeting. All members. 0530. Ward A office. URGENT.”

Around 9 that morning, there was a knock on their door. Arati opened the door to be greeted by two unrecognizable men and a woman dressed in personal protective clothing. One of the three spoke from behind his face shield. Parimal Mondal was on their list of individuals whose swab sample was required to be collected for testing of COVID. The names had been sampled randomly from the latest Electoral Rolls and reports would be available in 24 to 48 hours. There was nothing to worry.

The lady stepped forward, lifted Parimal’s face slightly by the chin and inserted the probe to take a nasal sample. Sample preserved and a label stickered, the group moved on to the door indicated against the next contact on the list. A band of enthusiastic onlookers followed them paying no heed to the objections of the lone policeman from the local police station.

Still in a haze, Parimal looked around to find Babloo leaning against the garbage truck at a distance. With deft sign language, Babloo Naskar indicated that his sample had also been taken and all was fine! Parimal just stood there, lost in thought.

4

Rajiv was sipping his second cup of Darjeeling while leafing through an old copy of The Economist. Rini put the oven to pre-heat in the kitchen and walked in to the living room. Riya had retreated to her room after breakfast to Face Time with an old school friend. It was getting unbearably hot in Bombay. The air conditioners hummed in tandem ad infinitum. Rini lounged on the recliner and opened the New Yorker pdf on her tab. She had barely read a few lines when the landline suddenly erupted to life with loud jarring rings. They hardly used this phone anymore. So both Rajiv and Rini were startled at this unfamiliar disturbing noise. Rini was the first to recover and padded across to the teak corner table on which the receiver was placed.

“Hello?”

Rajiv took off his glasses and looked at her. Who was it?

“Parimal’s wife…” she placed her finger on her lips to indicate that Rajiv should be quiet.

As she listened to Arati, occasionally contributing monosyllables to the conversation, her face changed. Rajiv could see indifference turn to curiosity, then concern, then anxious nervousness and real fear. After about five minutes, Rini hung up but did not move.

The news was worrying. Parimal had tested positive for COVID-19. There was some random testing in his neighborhood and the reports had come in the night before. The positive cases were checked for symptoms by the BMC doctor. Parimal had a sore throat and fatigue but nothing more serious. Thirty seven from the Ganesh Murty area had tested positive. Only three had severe symptoms and had been shifted to the Kasturba Hospital. The others were taken to the make shift quarantine facility set up at the local Corporation school. Parimal was among them. Their families had been isolated in situ, which simply meant that they were not to venture out. Rice, dal, potatoes, onions, a tetra pack of oil, a bar of soap and a bottle of sanitizer had been placed outside Arati’s door in a large cardboard box. She was given a number to call in case she developed cough or fever, however mild.

But did he go out much? Where did he get the virus from?

The dam burst! Arati was furious! That rascal Babloo Naskar had lured her good man to the daru ka dukaan the other day. There was big maara maari. Parimal bechara was caught in the crowd. Anyone could have been infected under those circumstances!

And what about Babloo? Was he tested?

That is the anyay, madam. God is blind. There is no justice! Shaala Babloo is negative and my poor Pari is dying of this Corona! May Kali’s curse be on that bastard!

There was silence in the room. Rajiv slowly walked to the dispenser and poured himself a glass of water. Rini was about to say something when Riya walked into the room, looking lovely and radiant.

“Riya beta, did you wear a mask in the car when Parimal drove you home from the airport?”

“Dad, of course! Was sort of uncomfortable though…nose gets itchy all the time.”

What a glorious view! Riya slid open the glass door a fraction and walked out into the balcony.

A million thoughts crowded the Bakshi minds. Did the driver keep the keys on the hook? Or did he hand them over to Rajiv after parking the car? What about the floor? He did walk in that day, didn’t he? And the luggage! He had carried the luggage all the way up. Rini…yes, Rini and Riya had unpacked a while later! What a mess!

Rini knew exactly what Rajiv was thinking. Trust these damned slummies to go out and invite the dashed virus! And for what! Half a bottle of cheap bloody alcohol! And now all of us are in a spin, a royal soup! I mean do these half wits need to be told to be responsible? Wrestling with ruffians around a bar at 10 in the morning.

The western sky was incandescent with the sun setting on the Arabian Sea. A gentle breeze blew in from the Colaba Woods. It was a mellow evening, just a little humid. But Riya was puzzled at the behavior of her parents. They seemed to be lost in thought, constantly brooding over some problem in their heads. Both hardly touched their food during lunch. When she asked, they stone walled her. It was nothing. You know how it is, Rini told her. The economy is nose diving, business is bad, clients are getting anxious, NPAs. Not the best of times for the bank! It’ll be alright dear, don’t worry! These things happen…

Oh, okay then!

 Retreating to the comfort of her room, Riya heard the familiar double beep of a message on her phone. She reached for it to find a message from Sara Blinov, her half Russian roommate from Juilliard.

“Hi R! Terrible news. Self tested positive post return from school. Quarantined for three weeks at mamma’s place at Ithaca. Not too bad but BORING!!!BORING!!!BORING!!!Thank God. Asymptomatic! Miss you girl!”

Aninda Mukherjee is a marine maintenance professional who, when not measuring tappet clearances of a diesel engine, spends his time with his favourite three R’s.  Reading, Writing and Running.

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Fiction | ‘Abroad Alone’ by Annabelle Baptista

I

Corrine hadn’t really thought through her visit to Germany, after the Christmas holidays, other than the fact that she wanted to see her grandmother’s childhood home. Her funeral preyed on Corrine’s heart. Days before Thanksgiving, she had sat with her mother and sisters and brother, reminiscing about the woman at ninety, who had buried her husband four years earlier. They spoke of her tenacity and love.

Now, Corrine wondered how she would explain her blackness to her German host.  At the moment, she felt too tired, suffering from jetlag and busy processing a quaint, family-owned inn. She conversed with the only English speaker at the Inn, trying to frame the right words to say if anyone asked about her reason for being in the small German village.

In broken English, the innkeeper’s teenage daughter welcomed her, mentioning briefly that she had English in her studies, and showed Corrine to her room.

“No central heating. Every room have fireplace.” The daughter explained and handed Corrine a rough, white towel to use in the shower.

Corrine didn’t understand what the other guests said when they gathered outside the communal bathroom. She’d showered swiftly, under a trickle of water, contemplating washing her hair twists in the toilet because there was more water over there, and then settled for dampening her hair with wet towelettes which she had packed to clean her hands once she walked back to her room.

Feral eyes looked out from every available wall space. As if someone had gone hunting on Noah’s Ark, they all looked wide eyed. She could sense them saying something, Run.

II

Dora picked up Corrine from the guesthouse the next morning.

“I have always wanted to go to the U.S., but I never got the chance,” Dora said starting up the engine of her Smart.

Corrine had met Dora through a travel app that provided guides for city visits, people who volunteered to show you their city.  Corrine wasn’t due back at work for a few days so she had plenty of time, to explore the city her grandmother called home.

Corrine directed Dora to take her to the village cemetery.  It was a small cemetery, like everything else in the village, and it didn’t take her long to find the headstone she was looking for.

“Do you know anyone from the Ashe family?” Corrine asked, thrilled that she’d found the headstone.

“No, can’t say I’ve ever heard of them.  What about you, how did you come hear from them? I thought you’ve never been to Germany. How do you know this old, very German family?” Dora asked..

“Does it surprise you?  Well, I…have known a few Germans in my lifetime,” Corrine said, as she stood in front of the cool, gray stone and appreciated the fresh winter air.  Dora didn’t prod her further and she didn’t want to tell Dora that these people were her great grandparents. Her grandmother had mentioned them quite regularly, and shown Corrine an ivory and lace photo album, with a family tree drawn inside its pages, which was all she‘d chosen to take from her family home. Corrine wished she had brought some flowers, but the grave had a slate covering; they seemed to have had no expectations.

III

On New Year’s Eve, Dora had a concert inside a monastery. Corrine’s heart was full as she looked down on Neuheimstal from the hill.  She stood outside watching the provincial concert goers, almost marching, one after another into the church.  She imagined her young grandmother here, thinking of the man she would marry. Open to whatever the future had planned for her.

The monastery’s massive door had heavy oak and ironwork; Corrine had never run into anything as solid in Boston. With concerted effort, which took longer than she expected, she opened the door. It wailed on its hinges, as if releasing a spirited ghost. A monk walked the aisle wearing a black robe and swinging a metal censer suspended from a chain. Corrine’s throat seized. She began to cough. Mindful of making a scene, she moved aside from the crowd, leaned against a cold marble column hacking and sneezing. Four people noticed, and moved as if to help, but Corrine waved them away.

She spotted a back room under the nave and ducked inside, thankful that no one followed her. She hadn’t seen Dora since she started preparing for her choral production. Corrine took great gulps of air and let out a “Thank God.”  The room felt warm and damp, but it didn’t smell of incense. Her eyes adjusted to the obscure light, which came from a small window on the opposite wall.  She caught sight of a figure moving beneath a blanket on a velvet couch from the corner of her eyes.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know anyone was in here,” Corrine started reopening the door.

“Come in, come in.” Herr Tinnermann motioned with his hand as he sat up. Corrine shut the door.

“I have to get up anyway.”  Herr Tinnermann reached for his jacket lying on the back of a camel back chair.

“I felt ill from the smoke,” said Corrine, adjusting to the light. She’d met Herr Tinnermann at a brunch held earlier that afternoon by Dora.

“Take all the time you need.” Herr Tinnermann said, “You know I do this concert every year and it never stops filling me with wonder.”

“Did you know Ditmar Ash?” Corrine felt an alarm go off in the room. Her heart started pumping as if she were revving an engine to go from zero to a hundred depending on his answer.

“Yes, I knew Ditmar and Klaus, they had a lovely daughter.  I cannot remember her name. I remember her angelic face. Their daughter moved to the U.S…, why? Did you meet her? Did you know her?”

Corrine felt her heart break. “Yes, I knew her. Their daughter, I mean.”

The odd tuning of the instruments in the orchestra began to fill the room with whining exhalations.

“I must go. See you after the concert,” Herr Tinnermann said.

“Yes, I look forward to it.”

The smell had begun to dissipate, as a stream of fresh air came through the opened door.  Corrine could breathe freely again; the tightness in her throat disappeared.

She wanted to escape to the comfort of her hotel room and skip the evenings’ New Year concert and celebrations with the lie of a headache. But it was not possible to be alone, not at the guest house. What had made her think she could fit in in this strange place, with strangers who did not speak English? Yes, she had found them, her blood, her ancestors, but deep inside she knew they would have rejected her. Her heart ached.

IV

The singer’s voice warmed the hall, the band’s shadow dancing on the walls around them. Herr Tinnermann informed, rubbing his hands together, that he would play a piece on the pipe organ. Corrine swiveled her head. Suddenly, the room filled with a confluence of sounds; otherworldly. The heavy dirges expressed through the music was Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, said the program’s prospectus, but Corrine had first heard it played by Count Dracula when she was twelve, sitting in her Grandmother’s living room with popcorn. They had watched it together; a Friday night horror movie and she had been allowed to stay up till ten that night. Her grandmother had told her Romania was a beautiful country, not at all scary. Now, Corrine was sure her grandmother had been looking for snapshots that might remind her of home, because why else would she love Count Dracula so much.

V

Later in the early night, she met Dora, standing on the monastery’s expansive grounds staring up at the fine gauze draping the moon. The New Year’s Eve celebration had begun. The people ooh’d and ahh’d at the fireworks displays which lit the sky.  At midnight, all the church goers kissed one another on both cheeks and wished each other well, with the church bells ringing in undulations. Corrine hugged Dora a minute longer.

“Thank you for inviting me to your home. I have something to tell you.” Corrine said, pausing briefly before continuing. “I am half German” She waited for Dora’s response, trying to read her face for signs, which in her head were either of horror or disappointment.

“You are half-German, then you are German,” Dora proclaimed happily, almost jumping up and down.

 “You have home in Germany now, come back soon,” Dora said.

“Es war wunderbar. Ich gehe Morgan, aber du bist im Herzen” Corrine balled her fist tight and placed it over her heart.

She planned to take a cab to the airport in the morning, but at this moment, she felt already at home as she said her goodbyes to people who she felt she knew, like Herr Tinnermann and Dora. Their singing faded behind her as she left the monastery’s grounds on her way back to the guesthouse.  They would have killed her grandmother if they had known so many years ago, her Grandmother had told her, it was not allowed. She had feared for her life, loving a black man. She would have been an outcast. Her grandmother had also dealt with people who were racists, had hated her color and everything she represented, in Boston, but she had made a home for her family there. Corrine opened the window and breathed in the crisp, fresh air, and reflected on what her grandmother had taught her, love will make a home for you wherever it resides.

Annabelle Baptista is a poet and short story writer born in Indianapolis, Indiana. She currently teaches English as a second language and lives in Neckargemuend, Germany with her husband. She has been published in Coloring Book: An Eclectic Collection of Fiction and Poetry, Andwerve magazine and Families: The Front Line of Pluralism.

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Feedback & Testimonial – TBR Editing and Mentorship Services

June, 2020

As part of a demo for the E&MP, Bombay Review helped me edit my short-fiction. As a first time writer, I am so grateful for the time they spent giving me tips, critical comments on how to flesh out my characters, improve my story arc and make it more appealing. A truly helpful initiative that provided me with insight, not only for this particular piece, but all future endeavours.

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TBR has a generous group of editors who helped me hone my word-craft skills while being respectful of my voice and my story. I would happily work with them again; and I feel honoured to appear among Bombay’s renowned list of authors.

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The Editing program introduced by TBR is an outstanding initiative towards mentoring of promising authors. The vastly experienced editorial team works relentlessly with the author on a chosen piece, inevitably enhancing the literary value of the original submission. While it covers the fundamental aspects of good writing like correct spelling, grammar and format, it  moves beyond to make invaluable contributions to the plot, flow and content. The collaborative approach results in a better story and a more creative writer. I have personally learnt tremendously during the editing process and feel enriched by the experience.

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Your editing process was really good. Gives lot of insight.

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The editor and the process? I would submit that I thoroughly liked your extremely professional and collaborative process, the editors are astute, responsive, and amiable!

Photo Essay | ‘The Good Place? Tracing utopia and dystopia through literature’ by Isabel Crespo | SALCC

Today we often hear the words utopia and dystopia used in informal conversations and in the media. But what do these words really mean? To find out, let’s trace the ideas behind utopia and dystopia through the history of literature and thought.

Utopia (from the Greek for ‘no place’ or the good place’) was coined for the first time in 1516 by the English philosopher and lawyer Sir Thomas More

Published by his close friend Erasmus of Rotterdam, another famous humanist, More’s novel Utopia is ‘a little, true book, not less beneficial than enjoyable, about how things should be in the new island Utopia’. In fact, it is a satire describing a fictional island’s social and religious structure, which interestingly includes slavery as an unavoidable consequence of its functioning. Influenced by the discovery of the new continent by Columbus and the possibilities for the foundation of a new world order (which resulted in one of the most horrific genocides and the beginning of European colonialism), the book gave rise to a literary genre which features ideal places and well-organised societies. 

Some of the classical examples are the New Atlantis (Francis Bacon), Erewhon (Samuel Butler), or Candide (Voltaire).

In the 18th century, the French Revolution and its American counterpart brought the idea of universal rights and the need for political and social transformation to the utopian movement. 

But it was during the 19th century, a prolific period for philosophical and technological changes due to industrialisation and great advances in science (Darwinism, railroads, telegraphs), that utopian literature as a genre started to flourish. Movements against slavery and for women’s rights began to be prominent. 

Regardless of these scientific and humanist advances, the society of that time remained one of great social injustice and economic inequality. Thinkers and philosophers were interested in how the extreme labour conditions of the emerging working class could be improved.  Debates emerged about how to implement the ideas of utopian socialists like Charles Fourier, Étienne Cabet, Robert Owen or William Morris. 

The textile designer, poet, novelist, translator and socialist activist, William Morris was deeply concerned with environmental degradation and overpopulation in cities.

Unlike the utopians, Karl Marx – the most important figure for socialism – advocated for a more egalitarian, communal, and meritocratic world using science and technology as driving forces. 

At the end of the 19th century, Marx as well as author H. G. Wells were able to imagine the huge impact of new scientific developments for future societies, and thus ignited a turning point for utopian literature: the beginning of science fiction.

H.G. Wells and Jules Verne are considered among the fathers of the science fiction genre. Wells was an exceptional writer who was nominated 4 times for the Nobel Prize. His novels foresaw some of the breakthroughs of our modern society like space travel, nuclear weapons, satellite television, and the World Wide Web. 

Wells was also interested in biological engineering, particularly eugenics, controversial practices of that period that inspired some of the Nazi’s racial policies and experiments. The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) and A Modern Utopia (1905) are the best examples of his imaginary future world. 

In his novel Time Machine (spoiler alert), set in the futuristic world of Elois and Morlocks, Wells suggests that by creating a utopia for some, we may subjugate others to live in a dystopia. 

This reflection – which has been shared since in many books and films (for example: Blade Runner, Matrix, The Truman Show) – brings us to some crucial questions: ‘Is there a real chance for the betterment of humankind and the design of fairer and more equal society? Are we condemned to live perpetually in the ‘best’ place possible? Do we live in a utopia for a few or a dystopia for many? And very pertinent now, are technology and science a positive or a negative enabler?’

A different chapter in the utopian genre is represented by feminist utopia, which is especially concerned with the role of women in the power dynamics of a patriarchal society.  

Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Lady Florence Dixie were important authors in the early movement at the end of the 19th century. Both have influenced the work of more contemporary writers like Margaret Atwood and her popular book and (later) television series The Handmaid’s Tale.

The 1950s marked another crucial moment of the genre with what scholars consider the ‘dystopian turn’. The world then was divided into two geopolitical areas and the threat of a nuclear war, but at the same time has started to experience the pleasure and immediate rewards of consumerism. Many artists, philosophers, writers, politicians, and thinkers are beginning to debate overpopulation and environmental devastation.

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) are two well-known examples of dystopian literature. 

Orwell based his novel on the experience of communist dictatorships and repression. Huxley understood that in the future, the control of the state and other hegemonic forces were going to be deployed through leisure and entertainment, instead of violence and censorship. He envisaged the reality we currently live in, where we all gladly exchange freedom for security and we ignore the truth to live in our happy bubble or ‘utopian island’.

Text: CC BY SA