The Close and Holy Darkness! Winter Solstice and the Song of Poetry: A Moment with Dylan Thomas

Every few years around this time, I read or see or hear a version of Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Such a beautiful prose poem where the words sing like the wind and the sea herself. This year, I drew to a reading of the piece, as I found the very LP record that we used to have when I was a child, on Youtube. You can hear it below, if you like. I was inspired to pay a visual homage to Thomas’ prose, where the English language sings and lilts, through snow and village and time. Below, you’ll find this lovely vignette authored by Thomas. I’ve drawn some pictures that came to mind as I heard the narration. I hope you enjoy this piece, whether it’s your first time reading/hearing it or not! May the coming year bring us all hope and community!

Series, A Child’s Christmas in Wales, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2021

One Christmas was so much like the other, in those years around the sea-town corner now, out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve, or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.

All the Christmases roll down towards the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged, fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs. Prothero and the firemen.

It was on the afternoon of the day of Christmas Eve, and I was in Mrs. Prothero’s garden, waiting for cats, with her son Jim. It was snowing. It was always snowing at Christmas. December, in my memory, is white as Lapland, although there were no reindeers. But there were cats. Patient, cold and callous, our hands wrapped in socks, we waited to snowball the cats. Sleek and long as jaguars and horrible-whiskered, spitting and snarling, they would slide and sidle over the white back-garden walls, and the lynx-eyed hunters, Jim and I, fur-capped and moccasined trappers from Hudson Bay, off Mumbles Road, would hurl our deadly snowballs at the green of their eyes.

Series, A Child’s Christmas in Wales, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2021

The wise cats never appeared. We were so still, Eskimo-footed arctic marksmen in the muffling silence of the eternal snows—eternal, ever since Wednesday—that we never heard Mrs. Prothero’s first cry from her igloo at the bottom of the garden. Or, if we heard it at all, it was, to us, like the far-off challenge of our enemy and prey, the neighbor’s polar cat. But soon the voice grew louder. “Fire!” cried Mrs. Prothero, and she beat the dinner-gong.

And we ran down the garden, with the snowballs in our arms, towards the house; and smoke, indeed, was pouring out of the dining-room, and the gong was bombilating, and Mrs. Prothero was announcing ruin like a town crier in Pompeii. This was better than all the cats in Wales standing on the wall in a row. We bounded into the house, laden with snowballs, and stopped at the open door of the smoke-filled room.

Something was burning all right; perhaps it was Mr. Prothero, who always slept there after midday dinner with a newspaper over his face. But he was standing in the middle of the room, saying, “A fine Christmas!” and smacking at the smoke with a slipper.

“Call the fire brigade,” cried Mrs. Prothero as she beat the gong. “They won’t be here,” said Mr. Prothero, “it’s Christmas.”

There was no fire to be seen, only clouds of smoke and Mr. Prothero standing in the middle of them, waving his slipper as though he were conducting.

“Do something,” he said.

And we threw all our snowballs into the smoke—I think we missed Mr. Prothero—and ran out of the house to the telephone box.

“Let’s call the police as well,” Jim said.

“And the ambulance.”

“And Ernie Jenkins, he likes fires.”

But we only called the fire brigade, and soon the fire engine came and three tall men in helmets brought a hose into the house and Mr. Prothero got out just in time before they turned it on. Nobody could have had a noisier Christmas Eve. And when the firemen turned off the hose and were standing in the wet, smoky room, Jim’s Aunt, Miss Prothero, came downstairs and peered in at them. Jim and I waited, very quietly, to hear what she would say to them. She said the right thing, always. She looked at the three tall firemen in their shining helmets, standing among the smoke and cinders and dissolving snowballs, and she said: “Would you like anything to read?”

Series, A Child’s Christmas in Wales, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2021

Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlors, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and it snowed. But here a small boy says: “It snowed last year, too. I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea.”

“But that was not the same snow,” I say. “Our snow was not only shaken from whitewash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunderstorm of white, torn Christmas cards.”

“Were there postmen then, too?”

“With sprinkling eyes and wind-cherried noses, on spread, frozen feet they crunched up to the doors and mittened on them manfully. But all that the children could hear was a ringing of bells.”

“You mean that the postman went rat-a-tat-tat and the doors rang?”

“I mean that the bells that the children could hear were inside them.”

“I only hear thunder sometimes, never bells.”

“There were church bells, too.”

“Inside them?”

“No, no, no, in the bat-black, snow-white belfries, tugged by bishops and storks. And they rang their tidings over the bandaged town, over the frozen foam of the powder and ice-cream hills, over the crackling sea. It seemed that all the churches boomed for joy under my window; and the weathercocks crew for Christmas, on our fence.”

“Get back to the postmen.”

“They were just ordinary postmen, fond of walking and dogs and Christmas and the snow. They knocked on the doors with blue knuckles….”

“Ours has got a black knocker….”

“And then they stood on the white Welcome mat in the little, drifted porches and huffed and puffed, making ghosts with their breath, and jogged from foot to foot like small boys wanting to go out.”

“And then the presents?”

“And then the Presents, after the Christmas box. And the cold postman, with a rose on his button-nose, tingled down the tea-tray-slithered run of the chilly glinting hill. He went in his ice-bound boots like a man on fishmonger’s slabs.

“He wagged his bag like a frozen camel’s hump, dizzily turned the corner on one foot, and, by God, he was gone.”

“Get back to the Presents.”

“There were the Useful Presents: engulfing mufflers of the old coach days, and mittens made for giant sloths; zebra scarfs of a substance like silky gum that could be tug-o’-warred down to the galoshes; blinding tam-o’-shanters like patchwork tea cozies and bunny-suited busbies and balaclavas for victims of head-shrinking tribes; from aunts who always wore wool next to the skin there were mustached and rasping vests that made you wonder why the aunts had any skin left at all; and once I had a little crocheted nose bag from an aunt now, alas, no longer whinnying with us. And pictureless books in which small boys, though warned with quotations not to, would skate on Farmer Giles’s pond and did and drowned; and books that told me everything about the wasp, except why.”

“Go on to the Useless Presents.”

“Bags of moist and many-colored jelly babies and a folded flag and a false nose and a tram-conductor’s cap and a machine that punched tickets and rang a bell; never a catapult; once, by a mistake that no one could explain, a little hatchet; and a celluloid duck that made, when you pressed it, a most unducklike sound, a mewing moo that an ambitious cat might make who wished to be a cow; and a painting book in which I could make the grass, the trees, the sea and the animals any color I please, and still the dazzling sky-blue sheep are grazing in the red field under the rainbow-billed and pea-green birds. Hardboileds, toffee, fudge and allsorts, crunches, cracknel, humbugs, glaciers, marzipan, and butterwelsh for the Welsh. And troops of bright tin soldiers who, if they could not fight, could always run. And Snakes-and-Families and Happy Ladders. And Easy Hobbi-Games for Little Engineers, complete with instructions. Oh, easy for Leonardo! And a whistle to make the dogs bark to wake up the old man next door to make him beat on the wall with his stick to shake our picture off the wall. And a packet of cigarettes: you put one in your mouth and you stood at the corner of the street and you waited for hours, in vain, for an old lady to scold you for smoking a cigarette, and then with a smirk you ate it. And then it was breakfast under the balloons.”

“Were there Uncles like in our house?”

“There are always Uncles at Christmas. The same Uncles. And on Christmas mornings, with dog-disturbing whistle and sugar fags, I would scour the swathed town for the news of the little world, and find always a dead bird by the Post Office or the white deserted swings; perhaps a robin, all but one of his fires out. Men and women wading, scooping back from chapel, with taproom noses and wind-bussed cheeks, all albinos, huddled their stiff black jarring feathers against the irreligious snow. Mistletoe hung from the gas brackets in all the front parlors; there was sherry and walnuts and bottled beer and crackers by the dessertspoons; and cats in their fur-abouts watched the fires; and the high-heaped fire spat, all ready for the chestnuts and the mulling pokers. Some few large men sat in the front parlors, without their collars, Uncles almost certainly, trying their new cigars, holding them out judiciously at arms’ length, returning them to their mouths, coughing, then holding them out again as though waiting for the explosion; and some few small aunts, not wanted in the kitchen, nor anywhere else for that matter, sat on the very edges of their chairs, poised and brittle, afraid to break, like faded cups and saucers.”

Not many those mornings trod the piling streets: an old man always, fawn-bowlered, yellow-gloved and, at this time of year, with spats of snow, would take his constitutional to the white bowling green and back, as he would take it wet or fire on Christmas Day or Doomsday; sometimes two hale young men, with big pipes blazing, no overcoats and wind blown scarfs, would trudge, unspeaking, down to the forlorn sea, to work up an appetite, to blow away the fumes, who knows, to walk into the waves until nothing of them was left but the two curling smoke clouds of their inextinguishable briars. Then I would be slap-dashing home, the gravy smell of the dinners of others, the bird smell, the brandy, the pudding and mince, coiling up to my nostrils, when out of a snow-clogged side lane would come a boy the spit of myself, with a pink-tipped cigarette and the violet past of a black eye, cocky as a bullfinch, leering all to himself.

I hated him on sight and sound, and would be about to put my dog whistle to my lips and blow him off the face of Christmas when suddenly he, with a violet wink, put his whistle to his lips and blew so stridently, so high, so exquisitely loud, that gobbling faces, their cheek bulged with goose, would press against their tinsled windows, the whole length of the white echoing street. For dinner we had turkey and blazing pudding, and after dinner the Uncles sat in front of the fire, loosened all buttons, put their large moist hands over their watch chains, groaned a little and slept. Mothers, aunts and sisters scuttled to and fro, bearing tureens. Aunt Bessie, who had already been frightened, twice, by a clock-work mouse, whimpered at the sideboard and had some elderberry wine. The dog was sick. Auntie Dosie had to have three aspirins, but Auntie Hannah, who liked port, stood in the middle of the snowbound back yard, singing like a big-bosomed thrush. I would blow up balloons to see how big they would blow up to; and, then when they burst, which they all did, the Uncles jumped and rumbled. In the rich and heavy afternoon, the Uncles breathing like dolphins and the snow descending, I would sit among festoons and Chinese lanterns and nibble dates and try to make a model man-o’-war, following the Instructions for Little Engineers, and produce what might be mistaken for a sea-going tramcar.

Or I would go out, my bright new boots squeaking, into the white world, on to the seaward hill, to call on Jim and Dan and Jack and to pad through the still streets, leaving huge deep footprints on the hidden pavements.

“I bet people will think there’ve been hippos.”

“What would you do if you saw a hippo coming down our street?”

“I’d go like this, bang! I’d throw him over the railings and roll him down the hill and then I’d tickle him under the ear and he’d wag his tail.”

“What would you do if you saw two hippos?”

Iron-flanked and bellowing he-hippos clanked and battered through the scudding snow towards us as we passed Mr. Daniel’s house.

“Let’s post Mr. Daniel a snowball through his letter box.”

“Let’s write things in the snow.”

“Let’s write, ‘Mr. Daniel looks like a spaniel’ all over his lawn.”

Or we walked on the white shore. “Can the fishes see it’s snowing?”

Series, A Child’s Christmas in Wales, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2021

The silent one-clouded heavens drifted on to the sea. Now we were snow-blind travelers lost on the north hills, and vast dewlapped dogs, with flasks round their necks, ambled and shambled up to us, baying “Excelsior.” We returned home through the poor streets where only a few children fumbled with bare red fingers in the wheel-rutted snow and cat-called after us, their voices fading away, as we trudged uphill, into the cries of the dock birds and the hooting of ships out in the whirling bay. And then, at tea the recovered Uncles would be jolly; and the ice cake loomed in the center of the table like a marble grave. Auntie Hannah laced her tea with rum, because it was only once a year.

Series, A Child’s Christmas in Wales, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2021

Bring out the tall tales now that we told by the fire as the gaslight bubbled like a diver. Ghosts whooed like owls in the long nights when I dared not look over my shoulder; animals lurked in the cubbyhole under the stairs where the gas meter ticked. And I remember that we went singing carols once, when there wasn’t the shaving of a moon to light the flying streets. At the end of a long road was a drive that led to a large house, and we stumbled up the darkness of the drive that night, each one of us afraid, each one holding a stone in his hand in case, and all of us too brave to say a word. The wind through the trees made noises as of old and unpleasant and maybe webfooted men wheezing in caves. We reached the black bulk of the house.

“What shall we give them? Hark the Herald?”

“No,” Jack said, “Good King Wencelas. I’ll count three.”

One, two, three, and we began to sing, our voices high and seemingly distant in the snow-felted darkness round the house that was occupied by nobody we knew. We stood close together, near the dark door.

Good King Wencelas looked out
On the Feast of Stephen…
And then a small, dry voice, like the voice of someone who has not spoken for a long time, joined our singing: a small, dry, eggshell voice from the other side of the door: a small, dry voice through the keyhole. And when we stopped running we were outside our house; the front room was lovely; balloons floated under the hot-water-bottle-gulping gas; everything was good again and shone over the town.

“Perhaps it was a ghost,” Jim said.

“Perhaps it was trolls,” Dan said, who was always reading.

“Let’s go in and see if there’s any jelly left,” Jack said. And we did that.

Always on Christmas night there was music. An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang “Cherry Ripe,” and another uncle sang “Drake’s Drum.” It was very warm in the little house. Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then another in which she said her heart was like a Bird’s Nest; and then everybody laughed again; and then I went to bed. Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steadily falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.

Series, A Child’s Christmas in Wales, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2021

A Child’s Christmas in Cuba: Grandfather’s Kingdom

Arroyo Naranjo, Grandfather’s Kingdom, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2020

Today, I’ve chosen a child’s memory of Christmases past, not in Wales, but in Cuba. Daughter of poet Eliseo Diego, Josefina de Diego’s prose poem, El Reino del Abuelo/Grandfather’s Kingdom, is a gentle and melancholic look back at Christmas time in a house full of inquisitive children, and adults immersed in the literary and musical worlds of Cuba in the 1950s, just before the Revolution.I’ve excerpted three sections from the book which has forty five pieces.

All the people in the book are real, and so fondly described by Josefina Diego, that they are instantly recognizable. And more than anything, it is the spirit of wonder and observation that make these reminiscences glitter shyly. Set in a tropical island, a time long before pandemics made it impossible to for so many to be together. So. in this Christmas of yearning, I wish you season’s greetings and the best of New Years to come!

XV

A little cold, a drizzle. Sweaters and jackets of brilliant colours displaced the scant clothing of summer. The blankets with our names on them, so they would not get mixed up; mine was red, those of my brothers, green. The pajamas of yellow flannel with drawings of clowns and candy canes. Christmas Eve and Christmas were coming and everything had to be done with plenty of time so everything would turn out well: choosing the best tree, the ornaments, the garlands, the star. The ornaments would break on us—some without meaning to, others we dropped after a rapid interchange of glances—they would shatter into a dust so fine it would scatter on the snow of cotton. The Christmas tree had to be tall, with lots of branches, but only mama knew its exact dimensions and in what little corner of the house it would go.

The preparation for the Nativity was more solemn. The figures, from an Italian set, could not be broken. We held our breath each time we took one of the figures from its boxes and put it, with much care on the table. The Nativity was big, bigger than the one owned by cousins Sergio and Jose Maria.

Every year, always the same—perhaps his voice more hesitant each year—papa told us how it had been, how everything had happened: The visitation of Mary, the flight to Egypt, the Shepherd’s’ tidings, the long road of the Three Kings, the manger with the Child. Each piece had its history, each moment, its mystery. The shepherds, surrounded by sheep, next to a bonfire, near a lake: an angel appears in the middle of the night and they retreat, frightened. The Three Kings bending over the Child, and Mary, smiling at them, grateful. Papa’s voice, tired, breathless, across time.

The House, Sleeping, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2020

XXXVII

Papa’s study was set apart from the house, on top of the garage beside the henhouse. One went up by a staircase made of cement, on the side. In front there were two balconies with wooden bars and behind the study was the ravine where the train ran.

The garage was wide, with room for two cars, but half of it was filled with broken furniture, bits of games, a carpentry table that belonged to uncle Rosendo, boxes filled with the figures, the Nativity, and the Christmas tree decorations. It had its own characteristic odor and was one of the places where we preferred to play and hide.

Papa worked in his study until very late. The sound of his little typewriter could be heard at all hours, mixed up with the song of the crickets and the owls; it was yet another night sound. But he didn’t always write. One of his favorite amusements was to draw, with a fine pencil, the uniforms of the little lead soldiers that he had in his unique collection. The English armies of World War One, soldiers of the Prussian armies and of the Russian tsars He created battlefields based on real maps and completed them with mountains, rivers, bridges and tunnels, made from cardboard, wires, broken glass, paper. He also reproduced all the various moments of the Nativity in a masterpiece of ingenuity. He created different levels, with the help of books covered in special paper in multiple colours. With a spotlight illuminating all the scenes, he had the precision of a professional metalworker.

Many years later I found this perfection and fineness in his poems. And I understood why his big boy’s hands constructed the Nativity and the battlefields with so much care, so much respect. “It’s necessary to do things right”, he would say to us.

Nochebuena, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2020

XLIV

Finally it arrived, Christmas eve. On this day, grandmother Bertha asked me very early in the morning to put on a record of villancicos. Sitting in the doorway, while we could hear mama tidying the house, we would hum all the carols: Silent Night, Jingle Bells, Maria, coming and going, cooked the supper. Roast pork, rice, black beans, lettuce, tomato and radish salad, chatinos, nougat, walnuts, hazelnuts, wine and cider.
The dining table was opened up in the middle and sturdy planks of wood inserted. It became a huge table, oval in shape. In the afternoon the family began to arrive: grandmother Chiffon, our cousins, uncles and aunts, friends. We were especially dressed up for the occasion, very elegantly and, we were permitted, on this night, to stay up very late, like the “grown-ups”. Upon finishing the delicious supper, we went to the living room and sat around the piano, by the Nativity and the Christmas tree. Grandmother Chiffon began to play, villancicos, zarzuelas, Cuban songs and dances. Uncle Sergio, the doctor, accompanied her in his beautiful tenor. On Christmas Eve, grandmother Chiffon and our cousins, Cuchi and Chelita slept over. Grandmother slept with us so we wouldn’t make any noise and frighten away Santa Claus. And when we awakened, there was the tree, — dreamt of and desired all year long— surrounded by toys, the games of the adults, our happiness. There was no morning more beautiful than Christmas. And there still isn’t. Isn’t that right, grandmas?

The above extracts are from a dual language edition translated by me and authored by Josefina de Diego, Havana, Cuba. El Reino del Abuelo/Grandfather’s Kingdom, Tarjama Books, Kolkata , India, 2012.

What’s Your Superpower? Children’s Books in a Pandemic World

Mine is reading. For many years, I have escaped or disappeared into texts. Writers have made the visible world invisible and the invisible world, visible. They have shown us downward plummets and paths toward happiness. They take us on journeys into the core of the earth or the heart of the sky. When the world is going to hell, whether it be through bullying and racism in school or work, at university, relaxing on a holiday, books have been a constant and life-saving companion.

I can’t stress enough the importance of building up some personal resources against the bleak winter and under these pandemic conditions. Debates are raging on about the wisdom of taking sanitary precautions like masking and hand sanitizing, versus, “business as usual”. Poverty— as well as covid19, is growing, in response to haphazard and unsupported lockdown measures that have made living a terror for millions of people in the developing world and in the wealthier countries, like Canada, U.S, and the U.K., where Black and other people of colour, make up increasing numbers of an underemployed and badly educated working-class, in holding pens, that pass for schools.

Yet, in the months since the media has let us in on the existence of this new coronavirus, we have not witnessed governments come up with life-affirming measures of public safety. But while millions lose jobs, day labourers go hungry, families are evicted, medical debt is a huge thing across the world, hospitals and seniors’ homes are understaffed and underfunded, mental health crises are rising, and economically non-productive people and working people are devalued and dehumanized, there are some who are doing their utmost to profit from this uncertainty and mixed messaging.

That’s why it is important to be able to read about different stories than those that characterize our time— one of vast indifference and apathy in which millions are languishing in misery, fear and hunger.

I want to share a couple of kids’ books which I believe are under-rated and under-represented in the world of post-world war 2 children’s literature. The first, is The Happy Islands Behind the Winds, by James Kruss.

This book, written during the end of that war, offers a possibility of a more humane world, through the stories of the Happy Islands, a fantastical land where animals, birds, fish, insects, and vegetation, are as much citizens— with corresponding rights and obligations— as humans. The beauty of the islands is in their straightforward belief that hope, kindness and beauty are cornerstones of “good” living, that power ought to be distributed equally among beings in society and that we are all capable of learning from our mistakes and worthy of trust and redemption. The author manages to do all this with a great deal of imagination and humour, conveying a sense of wonder at the variety of stories the world could offer. Animals, insects and people share stories and poems that open up a world of astonishingly progressive ideas about crime and punishment and belonging and rejection!

I believe this book to be one of the most lovely examples of books for kids. It is the first part of a trilogy comprised of Return to the Happy Islands, and The Lighthouse on the Lobster Cliffs, where we meet the characters of the Captain, the four seagulls, poltergeists, lighthouse keepers, and so many more. In these books, trees talk, insects reason, people respond to kindness and understanding, and change is good. They also encourage imagination and story-telling, important tools for feeling like we are a part of the world!

These books are now out of print, but were published by Atheneum Press in 1960s in English translations. The Happy Islands Behind the Winds can be found at https://openlibrary.org/books/OL24763459M/The_happy_islands_behind_the_winds if you are interested in browsing. It can also be ordered through inter-library loan through the public library.

The second book that made a big impression on me while growing up, was the British historian Rhoda Power’s novel about the 14th century life of Redcap, a blacksmith’s son in medieval England. This book, like the one above, shares the device of stories within stories, much like the idea of a 1001 Nights. It centers outcastes and the powerless of feudal society at the time— children, “witches”, minstrels, and the like, celebrating tricksters, jugglers, acrobats and all the entertainment of that long-ago age.

Redcap Runs Away (1953), is a captivating book about a runaway boy who falls in with a group of minstrels and travels England in the Middle Ages. While it draws on religious and other influences of the time, it’s still a fascinating and imaginative book, which allows us to expererience life in another time and place. Fantasy writing does not have to be confined to Utopic or otherwordly scenarios. Historians turned storytellers are often adept at blending fantasy and history together! Rhoda Power crafts an interesting story, that lends itself to researching some of the daily conditions of life in medieval Britain. It’s hard to imagine a time when entertainment was not a click or tap away, but had to be conjured up by real people with talents and skill, in real time! (Cuba is perhaps the only place I’ve stayed in, in recent years, where I was exposed to amazingly talented young people who shared their talents on the streets and parks and patios, instead of staring at their cellphones or TVs.) But getting back to this children’s book which allows us to imagine a different way of life; it shows us that Redcap’s view of the world and the questions that challenge him are as much a product of his time and circumstances as are ours. And that’s a good departure point for learning about history!

While many of us are more confined to the home during this time, libraries in much of North America have gone online. Although it’s not the most complete selection of books, nor the most diverse, libraries are a great online resource at this time, as are sources like Open Library, for harder to find books.

In times when we feel confined, books are a way of taking to the seas or the open road, allowing all of us, adults and children, a chance to remove ourselves from the humdrum concerns of every day life! Over the next while I’ll be sharing some lesser known books for kids, including Jamaican Andrew Salkey’s stories on natural disasters for children!

My Dida’s House

Reading the stories of so many Indian women, I am reminded of this, my only heirloom. I want to tell too, of my hidden memories. My Dida’s house, the noise, the open sewers, the eternal mangy cat with her multi-hued descendants. The ceaseless summer war between cat and human, mosquito and human. The long afternoons after the lovingly prepared meal, the smell of the bus station, the market’s discarded rotting food and always the flies buzzing, as if to remind us there is something else, another species more desperate  and persistent than ouselves.

Since infanthood these noises and smells. The afternoon heat bringing our blood to a boil, the power-cuts, the grafitti, the red sickle like an unfinished question mark amid so much poverty.

Here, the distance of empire and geography, my own unchosen but present desires seperate me far more than oceans from my land. A land which I was made ashamed of by others, and which today, in a sad irony, might be ashamed of me. And thus, we make our own circle of desire and fear.

My Dida’s house saw so many dreams deferrred, so many roads not taken, so many wombs and hearts burning with unclaimed victories. In those early days, I explored like a fearful, cunning Columbus— every dust ball, every crack in the gray concrete veranda. I still remember the bathroom, the barred window like a small sadistic ornament  through which the drivers of the 8B bus could be seen, drinking strong tea and spitting paan juice like macabre avant-garde painters.

I saw men wilt and shrivel like sad dried flowers, betrayed by a politics they did not choose, by a patriarchy which hung loosely like an ill fitting dhoti. In the women’s faces, I saw a thousand resentments (like the faces of prisoners in solitary confinement, who envy the crowded regimentation of those still locked up, but yet more free).

And after the slow afternoon tea, the sweets bought specially, the women’s talk (so often described as gossip) soared into the sudden, coming dusk. My world was always one of communicative women, harsh-voiced or sweet, and silent men appearing like fullstops at the end of hurried sentences.

Dida = Grandmother, colloquial.

Paan = preparation with betel leaf and nut, delicious and addictive! produces a red spit.

Dhoti = men’s lower garment in traditional Bengal. More formal than a Lungi.