The Burdens of Nabana Ma

We would hear her long before we saw her. Barefoot, clad in a coarse sari hiked up to her calves, and with one hand balancing the well-worn cane basket on her head, she would saunter through the narrow lanes, ignoring the scorching sun. Her frail frame belied a surprisingly strong voice. ‘W…a…n…t f…i…s…h?’ she would bellow, in a typical hawker’s voice. To us, the four pre-teen cousins congregated in our grandparents’ house in Cuttack, this was ridiculously hilarious. Hilarious, because the middle-aged woman’s words in Oriya sounded more like, ‘Hey, you fish!’ as if she were inviting the fish to come out of the river and climb into her basket.

We would watch her from the balcony as she carefully opened the iron gate of our grandparents’ house and walk up confidently through the main door. She never bothered to knock or use the calling bell. Without paying any attention to the goings on in the living room she had to cross, she would march to the courtyard, lower her basket and sit down, somewhat grateful for a break.

Nobody knew her actual name. Everyone called her Nabana Ma—mother of Nabana, which itself was an aberration of Labanya.

Our grandmother, pottering around somewhere in the vicinity, would walk up to her without any hurry and ask in a lackadaisical manner, ‘So, what fish have you got today?’

The woman would display her small, but fresh ware.

‘How much?’

Nabana Ma would quote a price, which obviously wouldn’t satisfy my grandmother. ‘Oh, so you have no intention of selling fish today! …No, I don’t need fish; you can go.’ And my grandmother would return to whatever she was doing.

Nabana Ma wouldn’t leave, nor would she take any offence. She would simply fan herself with the loose end of her sari and say, ‘Aren’t you going to give me a paan today?’

Without answering the question, my grandmother would go inside her room, where a typical brass box was kept with a steady supply of paan – betel leaves with lime, betelnut and a concoction made at home with mild tobacco. Her inventory of paan was always covered in thin wet muslin to keep it fresh and her tobacco concoction was apparently much talked about in the neighbourhood.

She would return with one paan and without looking at Nabana Ma, simply hand it over to her and be on her way to the kitchen.
Nabana ma would chew on the paan for a few moments, contentedly, and say, ‘Okay, you tell me. How much?’

A long negotiation would commence, with another short break for one more paan, and finally a deal would be struck. Nabana Ma would unload half her ware, cut and clean the fish, and then go to a neighbour’s house to sell the rest.

Years went by. My grandfather passed away. My grandmother moved in with my uncle till she too passed away, and the ancestral house was eventually sold. We cousins grew up and were separated by time, space and profession. When we did meet, once in a while, we would nostalgically reminisce about the time spent in the huge house and the adjacent sprawling garden, but Nabana Ma never came into our conversation.

I lived for a few years in Delhi, followed by Kolkata, Bangalore and a few cities in the US. In these places, there was no Nabana Ma. I interacted with polite but indifferent fishmongers whose names I never knew. In the US, I would pick up the fish from the frozen food sections of the huge grocery stores, where the already cleaned fish and prawns were methodically arranged on crushed ice. Now in Bangalore, in the days of cellphone, it has become even more efficient. I call the fishmonger and order whatever I need, which I can even get home-delivered.

For me, Nabana Ma and her ilk vanished, till I came across one in Jamshedpur.

I was visiting a relative there and we were lost in animated conversation, when a woman walked in through the backdoor with her basket, not too different from Nabana Ma. As I watched, wide-eyed, the woman, only slightly better dressed than Nabana Ma, put her basket of fish down and waited for the lady of the house to inspect. This lady, an inordinately kind and thoughtful person, took only few minutes in deciding the kind of fish she wanted. There was no negotiation. A hot cup of tea with some biscuits was promptly given to the fish woman, and a leisurely conversation unfolded. I gathered from snippets of the exchange, the existence of an out-of-work son, an absconding, alcoholic husband and, worst, the lack of capital to take the business to another level.

I realized with a start that probably Nabana Ma had dealt with all those problems. The moments of rest in the courtyard, the feigned negotiation with my grandmother, the subtle connection between the two women through the paan were her only respite from the harsh realities of her life and living.

My heart ached and I was overtaken by an urgency to find her, offer her some help, whatever help, that could make a difference. But I also realized the futility. Today, to me, Nabana Ma is just a voice. Unless of course, I find another one.

*Published in Deccan Herald 03/03/2012

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Everyone cautioned us. From an experienced diplomat, well-travelled friends, to the innumerable travel blogs and travel books – the forewarning was the same. Rome is not an easy city to venture on your own. The North Indian driver, who picked us up from the Leonardo da Vinci airport, reiterated this. ‘I have lived here for more than twenty years. I manage because I am always alert and I can take the buggers for a ride. But Madam ji, Sir ji, you must be very careful.’

My husband Subroto and I were on a much anticipated and majorly planned vacation, and we were not willing to let minor caveats dampen our spirits. But when the bright-eyed girl at the reception enthusiastically told us about the ‘fine’ room we had in the hotel – the doors had double locks, the rooms were equipped with iron safes big enough for two laptops – we looked at each other in dismay. The prognosis was definitely not good. Maybe we should seriously think about merging with an organized tour group, where at least there would be safety in numbers.

Maybe not. We changed our minds after being pepped up by a hot water bath and a sumptuous breakfast. Organized tours were not for us. They did not match our interest, pace or the idea of a vacation. We would rather walk through a local fruit market or have a cup of cappuccino in a place patronized by the locals than be herded like cattle. Moreover, we were seasoned travellers ourselves and knew that most metropolitan cities have their own quota of perils and vulnerabilities; Rome cannot be that bad.

We marched into the city confidently.

The Colloseum transported us to the age of Roman gladiators; the Cathedral, museums and the art of the Vatican lifted our spirits. I dropped a coin in the Trevi fountain, enjoyed the exhilaration of the Spanish Steps and finally, like a giggly teenager pretended to have my right hand gobbled up by La Bocca della Verità – the Mouth of Truth – in true Audrey Hepburn/Gregory Peck’s Roman Holiday style.

It was a delightful vacation with absolutely no untoward incident. The few days just flew by and finally it was time to go. We wanted the last evening to be special and decided to go in for a leisurely dinner at a much-recommended restaurant.

The weather was glorious. While most of Europe reeled under an early on set of winter, Rome was still celebrating fall. We enjoyed the evening in the courtyard of the restaurant sampling delectable appetizers, mushroom pasta with shrimp scampi, followed by sinful tiramisu. Needless to add, the best Italian wine available accompanied every course.

The calorie counting happened after we had paid the bill and stepped out of the restaurant. We decided to walk for some time before taking a cab to the hotel. After all, the night was still young and very pleasant. Along the way, both of us got engrossed in some kind of a serious but not really useful discussion, as we walked aimlessly. Suddenly we discovered ourselves in an almost deserted road with hardly any passersby.

We did not panic, but I definitely was worried. Since we were going to a classy restaurant, I had decided not to carry the crumpled city map or the bulky dog-eared travel guide. And without those crutches, I felt helpless. Subroto tried to hail a cab, but the few that went past were occupied. In a moment, however, we could see some sort of a bus terminus ahead. We walked towards it.

On arrival, we found it to be as deserted except for the two men loitering in front of a shuttered shop. Their presence was more of a fright than relief. All the words of caution came rushing back to me. It was true that our wallets were light – more plastic than any currency, and the jewellery that I had on me was reasonably inexpensive. But we were a picture of tourists asking to be mugged.

Subroto, unlike me, did not show any anxiety; he suggested that we go back to where we came from and seek the restaurant’s help in getting a radio taxi. It was not going to be easy, we had not paid any attention to the route amidst our animated conversation. As we hesitated, the two men walked towards us and one of them asked us something in Italian.

‘Sorry, we don’t speak Italian.’

‘Where you want to go?’ This time it was broken English.

Subroto told them the area.

The man conferred with his friend and repeated a number.

The number sounded alarming. ‘What is that?’

‘Bus number. But not here. You go there.’ He pointed in a different direction on the other side of the road and a short distance away.

‘Go quickly. The last bus coming soon.’

We looked at each other, trying to be composed. Then somewhat on cue, we turned back and started walking towards the other side. May be there was safety away from the two men.

As we crossed the road, the two men turned and walked away in the opposite direction. We breathed a sigh of relief. They did not look scary anymore. After we reached the deserted bus stop, we remained unsure. But then in a few minutes, the last bus did arrive. We gratefully got in and only when I was safely in the bus, did I realize that I had forgotten to thank the two men.

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Food for Palate and Thought

It’s not that I don’t like Italian food. In fact, once in a while I love to have a well-made pizza with a generous amount of cheese, or a plate of pasta with shrimps, sun-dried tomatoes and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. But that craving happens once in a blue moon. I remain, I confess, a die-hard fan of Indian food. When I travel abroad, I manage for a while with whatever food I can get – and sometimes it is quite fancy – but after a few days, I yearn for simple dal-roti or fish curry-rice.

It is a good thing that across the globe we have friends, who invite us and feed us my kind of comfort food when we travel. And if it comes to someone like Lu Ellen and Marco Luis, our very close friends from California, Indian food gets procured from the restaurants or I am given a free hand in the kitchen to cook. Thank goodness I know how to cook!

This time our trip was long and tiring: three weeks in the USA, followed by days in different cities of Europe. Finally we managed to take a week-long vacation in Italy.

We love Italy, especially the Tuscany region, but unfortunately, we do not have friends here to invite us home and cook an Indian meal. Our base was Florence, home to many Indian restaurants, but the ones near our hotel looked dark and dingy – the kinds that play insipid music and dole out leathery tandoori chicken and tasteless paneer makhani in the name of Indian food. I had no intention of stepping into such a restaurant.

So I continued my brave encounters, twice a day, with plates of antipasti, several kinds of risotto and grilled fish.

The third day in Tuscany saw us in the Chianti area. Chianti is a region known for its grapes and its lovely wine. The vineyards on the cascading hills and corresponding valleys, still laden with red grapes, took our breath away. We drove around and finally stopped at Greve-in-Chianti, a small but very picturesque village. It was a little late in the day and we were ravenous. We located a small restaurant with cast-iron grillwork outside, not far from a small brook. It looked quite inviting. We parked our car and went inside.

Our food came quickly: ravioli with spinach and blue cheese, a plate of homemade pasta with olives and sundried tomatoes, and a plate of grilled vegetables. Typical, good Italian fare. But as always, it was a little bland for me.

‘May I have some crushed red pepper ,please?’ I asked the waitress, adding one word: ‘Picante.’ Spicy. I had been using this word as much as the polite ‘Buon giorno’ (good day) and ‘Grazie’ (thank you).

‘I am sorry, we don’t have crushed red pepper, but I can get you something nice and spicy,’ the lady said, in her halting and accented English, and she rushed to the kitchen.

The next moment we were presented with a small bowl of something, which looked like South-Indian red chutney. I tasted. It was lovely, with garlic and some red chillies. But it couldn’t be what it tasted like. How can you get a South Indian chutney in a small restaurant in an Italian village?

‘What is in it?’ I asked the waitress.

‘Actually, I don’t know,’ she confessed. ‘We have a Sri Lankan family on the top floor and the lady sometimes helps us in the kitchen. She made this.’

No wonder! It was so similar to our chutneys, I thought, adding liberal amounts of that spicy concoction to my ravioli.

As we finished our lunch and were waiting for the cheque, the lady serving us appeared with a woman of around fifty. She had a beautiful smile.

‘This is Sita, the Sri Lankan lady who had made the chutney.’

We shook her hand and enthusiastically praised her chutney.

She was delighted. ‘I am so glad that you liked it. I sometimes make our kind of food for the people who work here.’ She thought for a moment and then added, ‘Actually, if you had given me a day’s notice, I could have made vadas for you. Even dosas.’

My mouth fell open. Before I could react, Subroto, ever the quick decision-maker, said, ‘Really? If we come here tomorrow for dinner, could you really give us dosas and vadas?’

‘Of course.’

‘Then we will come here tomorrow for dinner.’ He pointed at me. ‘It is her birthday tomorrow and I know she would love that kind of food.’

It would mean some change to our plans. When you are in a new country, you don’t visit the same place twice. But then, Greve-in-Chianti would be on our way back to the hotel and in any case we would need to eat somewhere.

My experience with Indian food in a foreign country has always been mixed. Maybe I am fussy, but it seldom meets my expectation and a little something is always missing. And now, here we were, talking about South Indian fare in a village, which must not even have an Indian grocery store, I was sure.

I was a bit skeptical, but Subroto had given his word. So we showed up on time and were greeted by the elderly owner of the restaurant. Soon after we settled down at our table, the food arrived. First, a plate of golden-fried vadas with chutney. And then came a plate of dosas with sambar. The dosas were piping hot, with finely chopped onions, almost like uttapams. They were delicious. As we attacked the food greedily and delightedly, the waiter who was serving us appeared with the third course, a plate of vegetable pulao. I am always wary of pulaos in restaurants because they are often greasy with copious amounts of ghee. Not Sita’s pulao. Every grain of rice in it was separate, but well-cooked and it was not greasy at all.

The amount was generous and would have fed a bridal party, but we managed to polish off at least three quarters of it. In undertones, we debated whether to pack the rest of it, but reluctantly decided not to, because our hotel room did not have a microwave.

‘It was delicious. May we have the cheque please?’

‘No dessert?’

‘No, we are too full. By the way, where is Sita?’

Sita walked in just then with a cake. ‘Hello. Hello. I was just putting the finishing touches on this. I am so glad you liked everything. By the way, I have made an apple cake. Didn’t you tell me that today is the lady’s birthday? Happy birthday!’

I was speechless. I am not a person who is consumed by the idea of her own birthday. While it makes me feel good when people wish me, there is no burning desire for a special celebration. But this birthday was something that I was not going to forget any time soon.

As we settled the cheque, Subroto asked Sita, ‘When did you leave Sri Lanka?’

A shadow clouded Sita’s dark eyes. She said, haltingly, ‘Years ago. In 1989. My daughter was not even born then.’

1989. The height of unrest in Sri Lanka. Who knows under what circumstances Sita and her husband had to leave their strife-ridden homeland and settle down in a country so different from their own? I am sure there was a series of ups and downs – more downs than ups – before they ended up in Italy’s wine country, where the husband worked in a vineyard and the wife in a restaurant.

It was getting late. We had to drive back an hour to reach our hotel. We waved at the staff and were about to walk away from the restaurant when Sita stopped us.

‘Can you wait for a moment please? I will be right back.’ She rushed inside and soon returned with a beautiful, svelte girl of about twenty.

‘My daughter. She desperately wants to go to India and I thought I would introduce her to you. Not many Indians come to our restaurant, you know.’

Subroto quickly jotted down our address and phone number and said, ‘If you ever come to Bangalore, stay with us.’

Maybe we would then be able to repay Sita, who had treated us with such warmth and hospitality, and who, twenty two years ago, had to run away from her own country with her husband, and who knows that her daughter will probably never ever see the land which could have been hers.

*Sita with her daughter

(A concise version of this post was published in the Hindu.

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Remembering Gopinath Mohanty

I grew up with books. My mother had an extensive library of Oriya books and my father’s collection of English Classics was enviable. As I submerged myself in this enchanting world, I started dreaming of a future where there would be a room stacked to the ceiling with books with a comfortable sofa-cum-bed in the centre. I would devour the books while digging into tubs of yummy ice cream.

The fascination for ice cream dwindled somewhat as I stepped out of my teenage years, but the love for books remained. However, I had no desire to be a writer then. How I delved into that world is a completely different story, but the fact remained that in my early twenties I started writing short stories in Oriya and tasted success instantly. However, there was not much commitment and with limited time in hand, things would probably have continued that way if I hadn’t had a short conversation with Gopinath Mohanty one day.

Gopinath Mohanty was a dedicated, disciplined and prolific Oriya writer – one of the best that the state ever produced. He believed in actually getting into the depth of a subject before attempting to write. And he chose subjects where not much written records existed, or not much research work was done: he had to experience it first-hand before actually putting pen to paper. Thus came the books on the tribal people of Orissa, the untouchables and on issues like illiteracy, superstition and the debilitating caste system. What was really endearing was that most of these were written as fictions and were gripping, as Gopinath Mohanty was a master storyteller.

I remember that day, when there was a literary get-together somewhere and I had accompanied my writer/editor mother. Gopinath Mohanty patted my head and said, ‘I like your style of writing, but you must put in more effort and write novels. Novels make regional literature sustainable and all writers have a responsibility towards that.’

That was the day it dawned on me that writing comes with responsibility and you just cannot be casual about it. A true writer must have the dedication and be accountable.

My world changed.

A few years later, I wrote my first novel, but my biggest regret was that Gopinath Mohanty was no longer there to read it. However, his books were, still are, my source of inspiration. Even now, when I am sometimes faced with the terrifying prospect of a possible writer’s block, I go back to his books and am instantaneously uplifted and reassured.


I love almost all the books written by Gopinath Mohanty, whether it was ‘Harijan’ – a novel about the travails, aspirations and despairs of the so-called untouchables, or ‘Amrutara Santana’, or ‘Maati Matala’ for which he received both the Central Sahitya Akademi award and the Jnanpith – India’s highest literary award, but it is his ‘Paraja’ – a story of the simple and trusting tribal people who were taken advantage of by unscrupulous moneylenders and their hand-in-glove partners, the petty government people– that I go back to over and over again.

Oxford University Press had brought out the English translation of ‘Paraja’ – the translation being done by Dr. Bikram Das, who, in 2010, translated my book ‘Deba Shishu’ into English as ‘Children of a Better God’.


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‘Next time, you will have a son.’

When our daughter Neha was a little over two years, we found out to our delight that I was expecting again. Shortly after that my husband Subroto and I went to Delhi with Neha on a pre-planned two-week vacation. As we have a lot of friends and relations in Delhi, almost every evening was devoted to visiting someone or other.

On one such evening, a doctor friend of mine asked seriously, ‘You don’t want to know whether it is a boy or a girl?’

‘No, we don’t care. Anyway, we will know in due time.’ I replied lightly.

‘But you already have a daughter. If this one is a girl, you can do something. It is still early. By the way, I know an amniocentesis test place.’ The hint, not so subtle, was clear.

I was horrified. How can a doctor, who has taken an oath to preserve life, come up with an irresponsible suggestion like that?

‘No, that wouldn’t be necessary.’ I mumbled.

Thankfully, the discussion had ended right there. But later when I thought about it, I was seething in anger. Not a good emotion to have when you are pregnant and the hormones were already playing havoc. Subroto and I decided to forget about the incident.

Four months later, our daughter Niti was born – a beautiful, healthy baby with sharp, well-defined features and a head full of hair . As I was being wheeled back to the private room after the delivery, a doctor relation of mine who worked in the same hospital, dropped by to see me.

‘Are you disappointed?’ He asked me without any preamble.

I was surprised. Before I could come up with a suitable answer, he added kindly, ‘don’t be sad. You can go in for another baby in due time and that would probably be a son.’

I should have told him that far from being disappointed, we were elated and we did not want any more children, but I was tired and I fell asleep soon after.

Subroto stayed with me for a few days at my parents’ place in Bhubaneswar and then went back to Kolkata where he was working. I was to join him with both the girls a month later. On reaching Kolkata, he picked up packets of sweets to be distributed. The first packet went to our landlord, a retired senior government official, who stayed on the first floor.

This gentleman accepted the packet, but blurted out, ‘I wish it was a boy. How can you distribute sweets and how can you even smile?’

Subroto was shocked and did not share this with me for a long time.

Anyway, when I was recouping in Bhubaneswar, my mother-in-law came to see me. She was then sixty-eight – an elegant and highly religious woman raised with traditional values. She had lost her complete eyesight almost two decades before that and was unable to keep abreast of the changing world through printed words.

She took Niti in her arms, hugged and kissed her and told me in quite a stern mother-in-law voice, ‘Both of you decided to marry early and then, decided to have children early. Now that you have two children, consider your family to be complete. Don’t go in for a third baby.’

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