The Language Children / Ammber Pandey

Though the doll was made in exaggerated fashion, it looked exactly like Sir Ahmed Salman Rushdie except for its thick, coal hair. The doll had large, round face of sponge and pink cloth. It had green buttons for eyes and ropes of rubber for hair. Salman Rushdie wore a yellow frock, red underwear and blue plastic shoes. Another one resembled Muhammad Morsi. It had a pot of tin for its face, and limbs made of dental floss. Muhammad Morsi stood naked and a page of recently written Egyptian constitution hid his modesty. Barack Hussain Obama’s marionette had a television screen over its neck. It showed Barack Hussain Obama’s face with CNN written on the corner. It had enormous Marlboro cigarettes for limbs, and the doll looked deformed. It was also naked except for a paper declaring Noble peace prize given to Obama, hiding his winkle.

Bangla Atker, an installation artist, stood beside Tea Party which had Mao, Stalin, Castro, Chavez and Pol Pot plastic dolls drinking tea, ‘they are chewable, perfectly safe for children’, she said. ‘To play with such toys, children need to be very, very politically aware,’ I answered. Bangla Atker laughed. She wore a bright yellow boubou and had a large lotus in her bun. She too laughed and her teeth showed flossed and bleached.

Bangla Atker was 27 years old Bangladeshi, and studied in London college of Fine Arts. She came to England six years ago. Her mother lost both of her hands in collapse of Aladin Industrial Complex at Hazaribag three years ago, before Rana Plaza collapse in Savar in April 2013. The multinational clothing line, for which her mother worked as seamstress, gave Bangla Atker a scholarship to study in London. Her mother returned to their village and lived on the pounds Bangla Atker sent her selling rubber dolls in London. When I asked about her father, she told, he married a second woman and a third. ‘He never helped us and my mother brought up my brother, my younger sister and I.’ Her brother died young. He died of hepatitis. He was addicted to cough syrup smuggled from India. Her younger sister worked as domestic help in Jeddah and ‘she is saving money for her marriage,’ Bangla said, ‘I talk to my sister on Skype, her name is Indira Atker’.

‘I wanted to construct a miniature Rana Plaza of Dhaka. Visitors would be paying to sit and sew and labour in crummy, stifling holes in their high street ensemble, not that I am against high street fashion. It was multinational fashion companies which brought food on our plates. My mother worked for them day and night. I wear high street outfit all the time. It was our government, bureaucracy which failed us. Anyway, I did not get the funds. They said schadenfreude is not their idea of art, Bangla Atker said and continued, ‘but schadenfreude, certainly is my idea of art,’ and walked towards the most impressive installation art of her exhibition.

It had a human size doll without hands. The doll was squatting beside an open sewer line. The installation had BANGLA’s MUM’s WHOOPSIES for title. An automation which had a mask of Frantz Kafka for its face wiped the doll’s ass. The movement repeated every ten minutes and the doll smiled with tears trickling down. It had loud sounds of bowel movements playing in background, and the automation quoted Arthur Schopenhauer every ten minutes, ‘Life is a sorry affair and I intend to spend my life reflecting on it’.

Matthew Murphy disliked Bangla Atker, not because she was Muslim and Bangladeshi and wore lotus or marigolds in her hair like Indians. As a supervisor to the gallery he found the idea of using the real lump of human excrement vile. He had, as Bangla Atker told me, a kind of mischance on the first day of Bangla Atker’s exhibition. A wodge of faeces Bangla arranged after much thought down the doll’s bottoms, and when she ascended the ladder to arrange for proper lighting; Matthew Murphy felt curious seeing such a fine specimen of artificial faeces. He thought it was a work of clay or plastic. He took it into his hand and it broke. A malodour spread, and Matthew Murphy did not know what to do. He did not feel angry because he took in his hand faeces of somebody he did not know or ever see. He felt angry because he found himself in a situation when he did not know what to do, and he found himself standing in midst of the gallery feeling the fatty consistency of the faeces.

Matthew Murphy felt few undigested corns between his index finger and thumb. And he decided to talk to the administrator of the gallery. M. Wicomb, the administrator at The London Goodman and Poor gallery, found Mr. Matthew Murphy a man of reactionary thinking, and expected him to come to her complaining about the installation artist and the curator. Matthew Murphy said, ‘I have very serious reservations about usage of real poop in the gallery,’ but M. Wicomb remained undeterred, ‘health bureaucracy has already approved it in certain conditions’. She pressed a phone number on her Blackberry and called Bangla Ali.

An ungovernable debater Bangla Atker argued, ‘in Bangladesh, in India, in Pakistan millions of children are suffering hepatitis E, cholera, typhoid due to lack of toilets. People squat in fields, near open sewer lines and relieve themselves. This exhibition wants to show their sufferings and without using real turd the artist cannot transport the audiences into their world,’ and her temporal veins swelled. ‘We have approval letter of health bureaucracy,’ M. Wicomb, a woman of proper documentation, said.

‘I still have to make Swapno Atker’s doll,’ Bangla Ali told, ‘my elder brother who died of cough syrup addiction. Our father though did not do anything for us. He just remarried and made his wives pregnant, but he kept beautiful names. He was a poet and believed in language, in languages’ beauty. He knew that Bangladesh is made not on religion like Pakistan, but on our language Bangla. He did not give us Urdu names like everybody was doing in those times- Mujeeb, Saleem, Farzana, and such names. He preferred to call my elder brother Swapno Atker. Swapno means dream in Bangla. He called me Bangla; the mother tongue of our country; the reason our country was made. My youngest sister who now works as handmaid in Saudi Arabia was named Indira. My father was a man of imagination and dream.’

Bangla Atker’s father’s name was Mehbub Atker. He was an educated man and wrote poetry. Bangla Atker told, his poems were not rhymes but had political and philosophical message in it. He had Marxist leanings, and was against nations made on religions. He joined Communist Party of East Pakistan and worked in party office at Phulpur. He wrote articles for local Leninist magazine, and published his poetry. He tried to immigrate to India. Firstly, he wanted to do everything in proper and legitimate way. He got his passport, after many hurdles and misdemeanour on the part of Pakistani officials. He ordered a tweedy suit to be tailored. He found Pakistan a nation of petty-mindedness. When he sat in a European style colonial building at Indian embassy for his emigration interview, the consulate bureaucrat asked, ‘why do you want to immigrate to India?’

Mehbub Atker had described the incident in a poem in later years. Bangla Atker said, ‘papa found the question mere an exercise in rhetoric. Everybody wanted to leave Pakistan in those days. The idea of Pakistan failed. Bangladeshi did not identify themselves with religion. Bhasha Andolon, the Bengali Language Movement created a distinct identity for us.’ Mehbub Atker did not answer and kept quiet and awaited the consulate bureaucrat’s next question, which he did not ask. The bureaucrat laughed and stamped rejection on his passport, the passport which Mehbub Atker got after many hurdles and misdemeanour on the part of Pakistani officials. He returned to Phulpur, and continued writing articles for local Leninist magazine.

Bangla Atker did not now believe that her father was communist. She said he believed in democracy, in language, in plurality of Bangladesh. Mehbub Atker on Fridays came to Jatrabari and sat at Madhob Mohan temple and spent his weekend afternoons. He liked the small idols in the coffer like panel at the temple. Lord Krishna wore a white, muslin dhoti and had a flute in his hand; the idol was carved in black stone and in crude hand, but it gave a sense of comfort to Mehbub Atker. He found the cold, the dark of antechamber of the temple consolatory. Lord Krishna’s consort Radha had a lotus garland in her hand. The lotuses brought him the image of numerous ponds spread across Bangla regions. A girl sold caltrops outside the temple. Mehbub Atker wrote a lyric on the bazar of Jatrabari of Dhaka.

He had photographs for family. His father stood behind her mother. She sat on an art deco chair, and was 14 years old. His father wore a crochet skullcap, and black sherwani fraying on sleeves.  Her mother wore glass bangles, and had a tinsel headgear on her long, thick Bengali hair. 1970s’ Bhola cyclone swept away both of Mehbub Atker’s parents. Nothing left.

In heavy rainfall and water clogging, buildings, their wooden frames, their ironworks everything mildewed. If you maunder around her streets before daybreak, you will witness Dhaka falling into disrepair but as soon as the people burst on the scene Dhaka turns into a lively chaos, like at dyer’s workshop, described Bangla Atker. Mehbub Atker ran to West Bengal in 1971 to escape military crackdown and ended up in Howrah. He managed to get some clerical work of tallying wares with declaration forms in a shipping Co. at dockyard. Crossing Howrah Bridge and Hooghly River and the flood of people was the best part of his work. Vendors sold caltrops and fishes and lotuses on the two sides of the bridge, and Mehbub Atker felt that he was in the town of his aunt. He had for long nurtured the idea of Dhaka and Calcutta being siblings. Dhaka was younger sister, and was prone to teary and bloodied outbursts.

Mehbub Atker rented a room in Islambari, Howrah. It was a large district consisted of Bihari, ghettoised Muslims. He had his room in a lane full of halal meat shops. Minority concentration localities received little or nothing from the state. There were hakims for hospitals and madrasas for school. Open sewer ran everywhere like veins in human anatomy. In socialist India in Muslim ghettoes Mehbub Atker saw only grey over grey; he had to strain his eyes when he saw pink and rust of halal meat. It had an odour of perishing flesh and drying bones, faeces and general decay. Mehbub Atker , who was a man of poetry and Marxism, had made it a habit of counting carcasses of goats and cows. They hung upside down to drain blood. The blood most of the time had brownish black or rust for colour. Mehbub Atker recognised only the colour of blood, said Bangla Atker.

Sometimes he tried learning English, by himself, in late evening. He had a book published on cheap paper and in very bad print; he bought from bus station. He followed Naxalite movement closely in Bangla newspapers, and dreamt of Mao Zedong. He had a recurring dream of assassinating on Charu Mazamdar’s dictum: landlords, university teachers, politicians and industrialists. Bangla Atker derided her father telling, ‘he took to an extortionate pastime, like of educated elites of his times, of Maoism.’ Mehbub Atker was incapable of manual labour. He had violence in him, but it showed only in balloons formed on temples and drops of sweat. He wrote poetry, and he wrote letters to comrades in Phulpur.

Bangla Atker said -her voice heavy with loss, and rupture in her thoughts -about her father’s brief carry-on over a Dalit, heavily pregnant Bhojpuri woman. She lived a flight of stairs above his room. Her husband ran a plastic toy shopfloor with four other partners in Howrah. It was a matchbox house of 250 square feet divided into ground and upper floor, not plastered, and had unrough concrete for flooring. The upper floor had, to save the cost, corrugated iron sheet for roof, and it made the structure scorching like mud oven in sun. The door on the ground floor opened to the road; thus making it difficult for a Muslim family with women who stay in hijab to live there. It had a bathing area created by the inhabitants of the building with sacks and a slab behind the building. Drainage water and waste matter collected behind the building, and an acacia tree grew. They went to public squat-toilet or to any secluded space to defecate with a lota of water.

Mehbub Atker saw the Bhojpuri, Dalit woman, with seven months pregnant pot on her, every afternoon on Tuesdays; his weekly off. She came to wash. Her skin Mehbub Atker observed was pigmented and sunburnt, and she dragged herself with a bucket of clothes and a soap to bathe with. She had varicose veins, and she could not take a longer, roundabout route to go to the behind of their house. She went through Mehbub Atker’s room which had another door opening at the rear. She always left a stench behind her, and her illness, and her disconsolation. Mehbub Atker did not go to black, cold of his room soon after her departure, but sat in sun and felt the burn of October sunshine.

A day she unable to limp along, left the bucket with soap and clothes, and stood supporting herself on the wall. Mehbub Atker, who sat outside with his badly printed, cheap English language’s guidebook, rushed inside. She was ill but she smiled and asked, ‘done with your meal, Atker bhai?’ Atker did not cook and ate omelettes at nearby vendor. He nodded, ‘no, I do not cook at home. It’s very cumbersome to cook for yourself,’ and carried her bucket to the washing space. She followed and sat on the slab with difficulty. Mehbub Atker walked towards dark of his room. She kept on seeing him. She after giving it much thought said, ‘Atker Bhai, there are some fruits upstairs. My husband brings kilograms of seasonal fruits. Go and have few,’ and smiled again. Mehbub Atker did not want to go. He did not feel hungry. He stood and thought —perhaps she wanted to bathe but felt meek.

He went to their curtained, dark hole. It had artificial fruits made of cheap recycled plastic strewn all over. Her husband had a wholesale business of plastic toys. He heard she was laughing downstairs. He came to the washing space and laughed too. Mehbub Atker heard that the Bhojpuri, Dalit pregnant woman was converting to Christianity along with her husband. In the business of plastic toys large debts occurred on her husband; and missionary paid ₹25000 to each family to take to Christianity. Mehbub Atker saw she behaved uncharacteristically, and crooned, and was cheerful.

A day later Mehbub Atker came to the rear-end of the building to weep or masturbate, he himself did not know, given to his depression. He saw thick, enlarged, hairy vagina of the Bhojpuri, pregnant woman. She stood in the washing space trying to squat with much difficulty, and defecating. Her inner thighs were dirtied with her diarrhoea induced liquefied faeces. The women forced herself on the slab, and fell. She did not move for long. Mehbub Atker ran towards Howrah bridge in shame. She suffered dysentery and turned too dehydrated to go to public squat-toilet. She had taken a roundabout route to the rear-end of the building, and her intestine propelled whatever liquid was left in her.

Mehbub Atker, when returned, found the only lightbulb at her home switched off. Temperature dropped after an hour of downpour. The stray dogs howled at distance. The dalit, Bhojpuri woman and her husband did not return next morning too. A pall of clouds hung low over Calcutta. Mehbub Atker felt heartsore and lonely. He drank cups of tea at local chai vendor and sat rereading the day’s newspaper. He read about landslide of allied forces of Mukti Bahini {liberation army} and India. He read that Bangladesh now is a sovereign state.

When he woke up at late afternoon, and sat outside his room to cure his spinning head, their landlady told him, ‘they had to take Gomta to government hospital. She fainted behind your room, suffered dysentery. She did not go to government latrine. Such a shameless woman, she had a dump behind her own home, in open! These kind of people, they enjoy turd and urine and such disgusting things,’ and the landlady boasted about her son who was in Indian army and fought in Bangladesh liberation war. Her teeth were stained with tobacco chewing and she smoked bidi too. She believed it mitigated stomach pain during mensuration.

Mehbub Atker when saw the hospital from distance had a feeling of respite and hope. The building had ridged roof, and not plastered, beautiful brick walls. The wooden window panels and prodigious doors were painted green. The white scarves, tied over nurses’ chignons, turned yellowish and filthy as he came nearer. Flooring loosened up, and mice and reptiles ran over that. There were, as Mehbub Atker exaggerated later to his children, more mosquitoes than oxygen in the air of the hospital wards.

Mehbub Atker described to Bangla, what he saw in Howrah hospital, the way cinematographers span their lenses in BBC documentary. Pigeon chested men and women lied on floor, under mosquito net covered beddings, in front of filthy latrines, and everywhere. Their faces oily and tired, their armpits gushing sweat, but they shivered due to cold. The administration of the hospital hid the death successfully; except for in children’s wards, where mothers cried and fainted. Mehbub Atker did not find Gomta — the Dalit, Bhojpuri pregnant woman he searched in all the wards of the hospital. It rained outside and gloom accumulated in distant corners of the hospital.

A man with hair prematurely greyed and a sunburnt forehead sat on a heap of footwear along with a body covered in blue bed sheet. The bed sheet had grapevines printed on it. A naked bulb hung midair, switched on before time over the man and the body. Mehbub Atker did not recognise Gomta’s husband. He identified her anklet which peeked out with her foot from the bed sheet. People found the man and the corpse he sat with coming in their way. They had to move them to search for their footwear sometimes. The man, Gomta Bai’s husband, did not resist and help people to find their shoes and chappals.

Belur Math was uncrowded and unspeaking. Mehbub Atker sat on its ghat, on the lowest slab of stairs. A thicket of seaweed grew at his feet. A fraction of river water stagnated there. The lower half of stairs covered with algae looked like cubes of jade through clean river-water of winter. Mehbub Atker thought of irony of human life, and of the world of poor. He tried to turn his sense of loss in Marxist philosophy, or into a poem. He saw the shrubbery of custard-apple trees on the other bank of the river. The stunted trees were full of fruits, few crows nibbled at some fruits, and squawked to keep their competitors off the tree.

The clouds hung low on Calcutta but it did not rain. The clouds suffered sclerosis, and the wind stood still. The river water had the same reflection all through day. Mehbub Atker thought of it as a watercolour landscape framed in stone and imagined it hung at a framing shop. It did not help him not to think about Gomta. A bare-chested boy murmured something to himself and stood worshipping in the river. Two women came and too sat on the lower slab of ghat —nearby Mehbub Atker—and gossiped. They chewed paan and frequently spit in the river. They were Bhojpuri women.

The day closed, and Mehbub Atker felt Calcutta was like overpeopled, ill-managed hospital. People died and the building crumbled. He took a bus to the border. He decided to go to Bangladesh; a country found on language, and not on political ideology, on religion or on the whim of some absolutist. He in those times had an idea that language builds bridges, and is used for poetry and storytelling.

Mehbub Atker worked as a machine operator with Fame Frill & Fashions Ltd. He worked on a machine which knitted laces for bras. He worked in a fusty hall from 7:00 am to 10:30 pm. He wore years old pair of pants stiffened with the excessive usage of soap and sweat, and a yellowish shirt which had permanent circles of sweat around armpits. He stunk, and his forehead oily and sweating shined all through the day. If somebody asked about his work, he proudly announced, ‘a machine operator at FFFL’. He invented the acronym to introduce his workplace once when the machine worked perfectly well, and a red, tulle lace flew from the conveyer belt.

Mehbub Atker did not cling to the thought of Gomta. He when returned to Dhaka did not feel incline towards Marxism and the life of an activist. He married Bangla’s mother, and they both worked at FFFL. Mehbub Atker weaved laces on machine, and Bangla’s mother sewed it to long interlaced ribbons. Those were the days of domestic happiness for Bangla Atker. They lived in Hazaribag, in small house covered with tropical vines and shrubbery. Bangla Atker grew tomatoes, and played with their hens and goats. She went to FFFL with her mother, and passed her time with rubber dolls Mehbub Atker scavenged from landfill site.

 On their lightbulb illumined nights, she and her brother Swapno play the game of tickling with her father. Their mother cooked supper. She remembered the smell of their father’s solar plexus. It smelt of sweat, burnt grease and Lux soap. She liked to sleep on his belly till supper, and did not want to be ‘an educated girl’ she said every time to her father whenever he talked about sending their children to school. When Indira was born, and they for the first time sacrificed a lamb on EId-ul-adha, she for the first time boiled rice for their meal and felt that she had become a complete woman. She remained at home, and took care of Indira, and read from Swapno’s textbooks.

Two months later, Mehbub Atker left their mother to marry an underage Hindu girl. The Hindu girl converted to Islam to marry Mehbub Atker. They left for Narayanpur, and Bangla along with her mother, Swapno and Kalpona remained in Hazaribaag. Later Hazaribaag became one of the most polluted town of the world.

Bangla Atker hung, in London Goodman and Poor gallery, a framed blueprint of Fame Frills and Fashion Ltd. It was drawn with imagination. She dedicated it to her father who never returned. A hairy solar plexus denoted her father on the map. It looked quite gross. Bangla Atker’s thirty-four years old boyfriend bought it for a hundred of pounds.

As an art reporter new to his work in London I found all this a bit disorientating, but I decided to record it with a cineaste’s technicolor precision.

Ammber Pandey is a poet and novelist interested in the spiritual and the erotic. He has written a book of poetry titled Kolahal ki Kavitayein. He lives in Indore, India.

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