An Ode to Manchester: Inscriptions of an Inconsequential Indian

I visited Manchester for a 3 day halt in-between two conferences in Leicester and London back in 2013. And just outside the Central Library was a sign that read: “Manchester means the world to me”.


You could be forgiven for considering that sign as an exercise in exaggeration. You could well think that it was merely the sentiments of people who have been born and brought up there. You could even think that this was the exclamation of a football fan captivated by the romance of the Busby Babes, the trio of Charlton, Law and Best, the Class of 92, Sir Alex Ferguson or modern-day superstars like Ronaldo, Rooney or Pogba. But even a cursory sojourn in the city will convince you that the sign actually touches a deeper chord.

After exiting the railway station, as I bunglingly looked for directions to my hotel, I came across a couple of typically robust, gregarious and smiling Sikh cabbies who gave me very clear and helpful directions to the hotel. They had all been living in Manchester for decades and did not seem to suffer from any anxiety of belongingness. This was the first clue to the multicultural plurality of the city. Such plurality was also evident from the sprawling China Town of Manchester, the Gay Village with its proud rainbow flags, Indian restaurants and a cosy Bombay Street and most importantly, a whole host of warm, welcoming friendly people who enjoyed all the colours of life (not just red and blue, that is).

This plurality would attract the eyes of a traveller in other ways as well. Alongside tall, glass-covered glitzy modern buildings, including the Manchester Hilton, he would be awed by the spires and arches of structures that bear the intricate knottings of history. And just as Manchester occupies a pivotal place in the history of the Industrial revolution in England, something which it celebrates through its Museum of Science and Industry or a statue of Alan Turing, it is also the place where the famous Chopin played his last concert and where inveterate comedians like Norman Evans or Sir Harry Secombe regaled the audiences.

For a student of English literature like me, it was also quite remarkable to see a plaque commemorating the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, which happened at the erstwhile St. Peter’s Fields that now falls within the modern City of Manchester where 15 people were killed during a peaceful demonstration and more than 600 injured after a cavalry charge. The plaque bears testimony to the heritage of Manchester as a working class city, a city of resilient people who have fought adversities and stood strong and have inspired others in turn – including someone like Percy Bysshe Shelley whose ‘Masque of Anarchy’ was written in response to this horrible consequence of governmental crackdown.


All of these memories came flooding back in the wake of the recent terrorist attack in Manchester in which a suicide bomber managed to kill 22 people in the Manchester Arena during an Ariana Grande concert attended by hundreds of young people. The attack stung me into that same kind of pain and grief that I experience when my fellow Indian regularly fall victim to networks of terror.

It is rather pointless to talk about the deplorable nature of these terrorist organisations, the inhuman motivations that drive them and the destructive fantasies that are nurtured by those who work for these organisations. They are immune to criticism and deserve whatever punitive measures a state can muster.

But more importantly, the only way one can effectively fight terror is by not succumbing to terror at all and by upholding those values of plurality, courage and togetherness which Manchester has embodied again and again. From Thatcherite blight to IRA attacks – Manchester has survived and prospered. It is particularly interesting to note that in 1996, when the IRA detonated a 1500 kilogram bomb on 15th June at Corporation Street, in the heart of Manchester, England was hosting the Euro’ 96 and despite all the horror and destruction, the match between Germany and Russia went ahead as scheduled on the very next day at Old Trafford. More than fifty thousand people watched the game. Manchester had responded: “we will not give in”, they said.

It is one of those strange eccentricities of history that once again juxtaposed terror and football as only two days after the attack, Manchester United, a club almost synonymous with the city, played the final of the Europa League and won, dedicating its victory to the whole of Manchester. Of course, overcoming adversities and horror is in the DNA of Manchester United as well. This is a club that overcame the horrors of the Munich crash to become the best in the country and the best in Europe, this is a club that under Sir Alex Ferguson, for more than two decades, showed the world that it’s not over until the final whistle and conjured almost magical, miraculous victories in the dying minutes from the jaws of certain defeat. And Manchester United is also a testimony to that spirit of diversity and togetherness which the city as a whole embodies – footballers from all across the world come and play at The Theatre of Dreams and become one of Manchester, irrespective of their race, religion or language as they become part of the collective experience of football with its truly universal language; and this is equally true for the Manchester City Football Club as well which has now become a major force in the English Premier League with a similar stellar cast of global superstars. So the victory of Manchester United, symbolically, was also a victory of the Mancunian spirit, a typically working class spirit, a spirit of invincible resilience founded on togetherness. As an impassioned Steve Bertram wrote in “Marcus Rashford may have been the only Mancunian on the field by birthright, but every single player was an adopted Manc; each one buzzing about the field with bottomless energy and purpose. Ander, Matteo and Anthony from Bilbao, Legnano and Massy became Andy, Matt and Tony from Blackley, Longsight and Moston. All of them, one of us.”

For all these reasons and more: “Manchester means the world to me” too.

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Figure 1: Picture courtesy Reuters and The Independent

-Abin Chakraborty

The Drop of Life

You come from a land
Fanned out by many rivers.
You sing of waves,
Embracing and flowing
The last sea miles together.
If the wide breath
Of meandering history
Had settled its silt otherwise,
I could have breathed your air.
Would have plunged and played with you.
Shared food and street and toys.
Would have grown into,
And out-grown in time,
All precious trivialities
Of childhood together.
Since that was not to be,
We meet as loving enemies today.
We lie in this high-ceilinged room
Of this sturdy, old house.
Much like one my grandfather built,
When he and others
Crisscrossed those rivers-
Rivers unknown to me-
To escape the fires
And make a home again.
A home to make love in.
A home to make love to.

Maria’s Mumblings
Months trail down the thighs.
They leave stubborn stains.
Tangle of torn hair
Keep circling that corner.
Why can’t you see?
Why won’t you see?
That corner there of wet walls.
Wet walls
Like crumpled letters.
Like wrinkled hands.
Like rain shrunken
Scrotum n’ breasts.
The kitchen tiles
Are brown with burnt oil.
A dragon fly’s glittering wing
Is stuck there.
How it got there?
Wish I knew.
The goldfish is dead.
The goldfish is dead too.
Like many other things.
A goldfish on my palm.
In that crystal gaze of death,
What pictures are frozen still?

Pebble Drop
He’s alive.
Every evening
The worn heels
Tap off the same phrase
Like ash from cigarette.
Same old phrase:
Station to stairs to gate.
He’s alive for sure.
His fingers have borne
The grocery weight of commitment,
Of happiness,
Of life.
He’s alive.
Bills await him.
Investment plans.
Wedding invitations.
He’s alive
In dishes
And plates
And glasses.
In crumpled sheets
And pillows
And clothes.
He’s certain.
And yet,
Two moth wings
In the mailbox today,
Made him look
In the mirror
An hour.

– Aritra Mukherjee

Yehuda Amichai: Selected poems

Yehuda-Amichai.jpgMy first encounter with Amichai was at College Street, in the form of a second hand book, entitled, Yehuda Amichai: Selected Poems. Published by Penguin Books, dated 1971, the poems translated into English by Assia Gutmann and Harold Schimmel in collaboration with Ted Hughes at once brings us to the most celebrated poet of Israel. The selected poems are a world at once colloquial and universal, sentimental and witty. It unfolds the man and the poet Amichai, one whose Jewish identity is inextricably interlinked with his poetry, if not overtly explicit. These selected pieces are peopled with God and Jews, mother, father and child, with bombs and Orange groves, with angels and dogs, with remembrances and forgetting, with Bedouins and Jerusalem.

At a time, when Biographical criticism may seem obsolete, with the baggage of the death of the author, and writing occupying that neutral space obliterating all identity, Amichai’s poems showcase a kind of deliberateness of identity. It is at the same time important not to deny that the literariness of the poems is never subservient to the identity politics of the man. Yehuda Amichai, considered a stalwart of Israeli poets, was born in Wurzburg, Germany to Orthodox Jewish parents, who in 1936 emigrated to Mandate Palestine. As a man who actively engaged himself in the war against Germans as well as the Arabs, his is a voice at once poetical and political.

What struck me as a reader of Amichai’s poems are certain peculiarities that form his poetic voice. At the outset, it is the language deployed by Amichai, that grabs our attention. The different poems in this collection at once showcases the tension in language, language which is at once rooted in a Biblical tradition and at the same time, a product of an angst generated out of War and Exile, a certain timelessness juxtaposed with the contemporary culture. The pull of contraries mark a kind of irony, which itself is a hallmark of most twentieth century writings. Take for instance the poem, Two Songs of Peace:

“My love was not in the war.

She learns love and history

Off my body, which was in two, or three.

And at night.

When my body makes battles into peace

She is bewildered.

Her perplexity is her love. And her learning.

Her wars and her peace, her dream.”

As we note in this poem, the idea of war and peace as a simultaneity is brought about seamlessly in the topos of Amichai’s work. The states of transition from being ‘bewildered’ to ‘perplexity’, to ‘learning’ and ‘dream’ are not clear cut but seem to be defy linearity of logos and time. This idea of language being contained and at the same time escaping fixity is further continued in the next stanza of the same poem.

“And I am now in the middle of my life.

The time when one begins to collect

Facts, and many details,

And exact maps

Of a country we shall never occupy

And of an enemy and lover

Whose borders we shall never cross.”

One recognises how the element of continuity, of exactitude as demarcated by ‘maps’ and ‘borders’ is contrasted with the idea of not being able to ‘occupy’ or ‘cross’. The usage of paradoxes as well as the usage of the sacred and the profane marks the language of Amichai’s poetry as in the poem National Thoughts…. “To speak now in this tired language/ Torn from its sleep in the Bible-/ Blinded, it lurches from mouth to mouth-/ The language which described God and the miracles,/Says:/ Motor car, bomb, God.” In the words of Michael Hamburger, in his introduction to this text, this use of contraries, ‘sets up an ironic tension between the deity worshipped in Biblical times and the purposes which the old religion can be made to serve in the age of motor cars and bombs.”

The rubrics of Amichai’s poetic works in this collection poignantly captures the themes of migration, of exile and his unique relationship with the Other. As he himself confessed in an interview published in the Paris Review, he is acutely aware of his Jewish belonging and upbringing, as well as being an upholder of Zionist ideology. The selected poems in this collection showcase the importance that he attaches to his status as a diasporic Jew as well as the poetic consciousness shaped by the fact that his parents migrated to Palestine. This awareness of being (dis)located, of the problematic relationship with the homeland, of the fear of perpetually fleeing is reflected in many of the poems in this collection. In My Parents’ Migration, he laments that he has never been able to makepeace with the fact of his parents migrating, and how home has always been shifting, lacking constancy…  “For my silence among the houses/ Which are always/ Like ships.”This same angst is reflected in another poem.. “Don’t leave me. Please. Please./ You’re not leaving/ I’m not./ Close one eye. Speak in a loud voice./ I can’t hear- I’m already far away.” (Eye Examination) or the line, “Of all the things I do,/ Parting is the inevitable one.” (In My Worst Dreams). At the same time, it is interesting to note, that despite his leanings towards Israel, he is never a jingoist or exclusionist. In his dreams, the Other, the Stranger is a perennial presence, indelibly etched. This stranger is not just an intruder, but one who he cannot imagine his homeland without, one with whom he cohabits… “And into these dreams/ There shall also come strangers/ We did not know together.”(If With a Bitter Mouth). For Amichai, home is not only the place that one longs for but also where someone else would come to stay.. “And what I shall never in the world return to/ And look at,/ I am to love forever. Only a stranger would return to my place.” (The Place Where I’ve Not Been). Drawing upon the Abrahamic tradition, he almost recognises a brethren in the Other, an idea which is espoused in another poem of his… “I shall therefore travel through my life like Jonah in his dark fish,/ We’ve settled it between us, I and the fish, we’re both in the world’s bowels,/ I shall not come out, he will not digest me.” (Two Quartrains).

Taking cue from this perspective, I must necessarily digress, if only to come back to a recurring dream I have often had… Across the windows, a dimly lit room in which both Amichai and Mahmoud Darwish sit across the table. Their voices are inaudible and interspersed with laughter and silence. Undoubtedly, I realise time and again how the relationship between I and the Other, in Amichai’s poems cannot be understood in isolation. In his poems, I hear the echo of another poet, beyond the barbed wires and barricades. Darwish, a contemporary of Amichai, was also his poetic rival, with words and memory as the only weapon of choice. Just as Amichai’s poems in this selection showcase a complex relationship with the Other, so does Darwish, as in his poem “He is Quiet and So am I”:  “He is quiet and so am I./ He sips tea with lemon, while I drink coffee./ That’s the difference between us.”This unique relationship between the self and the Other as proposed by Amichai, where “The many dreams I now dream of you/ Prophesy your end with me” is strangely mirrored by Darwish as well and one which shows how memory gets into the way of history.. “If I were someone else on the road I’d belong to this road/ there’d be no going back for me or for you..”

At the heart of the themes of exile and Other, is the singularly dominant image of Jerusalem that marks many of Amichai’s poems. Jerusalem becomes a metaphor for not only his Jewish identity, a ‘port city on the shores of eternity’ or the ‘Venice of God’ (Jerusalem, Port City), but also a space of contestation claimed by different cultures and traditional symbols.. “And the policemen and the flags and the high masts of churches/ And mosques and the smokestacks of synagogues and the boats/ Of praise and waves of mountains.” (Jerusalem, Port City). Whatever Jerusalem may come to denote, it is the constant symbol and reminder of his identity, which he must preserve through his words and memory… “If I forget thee, Jerusalem,/ Let my blood be forgotten./ I shall touch your forehead,/Forget my own,/ My voice change/ For the second and last time/ To the most terrible of voices-/ Or silence.” (If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem).

On a desolate evening, as I gaze languidly across the windows of my ever shifting homes, the smell of the partially tattered book and its yellow pages, gives me another reason to read Amichai. In this collection of poems, one finds a deep level of intimacy, a tone at once personal as well as universal. In his ambivalent relationship with God and his own staggering faith, his personal relationship with his mother, of his reversible role as both the child and the father of his child, his poems at the same time transcend his dreams and longings, to become a plea of humanity to remember against the tide of oblivion and at the same time realising its futility.. “I demand of others/ Not to forget. Myself, only to forget./ In the end, forgotten.”

-Ayesha Begum

অথচ জ্বলছে যারা: এই শহরের শ্মশানদের জন্য

1. নির্বাণ
তর্জনী শুষে নিচ্ছে আগুন
বিগলিত ঘুমে
জ্বলে উঠছে অজস্র চোখ
প্রতিটি চুল্লীতে
জন্ম নিচ্ছে বিকল্প শববাহক।pexels-photo-105541
2. দ্বিতীয় বার পোড়ার আগে
যে-সন্ধ্যা গিলে খায়
বিদগ্ধ মাকড়সা
তার ভস্মে ঘি ঢেলে বলো
নাভি পোড়ে নি
নাভি পোড়ে না
নীল আঙুল বিগলিত হয়
জ্বলে ওঠে তুষারমানব
শ্মশান চিনেছে তার লগ্ন
নাভি পোড়ে নি
নাভি পোড়ে না
ভেসে ওঠো বেহায়া চুল্লী
প্রজ্জ্বলিত হও অস্থিমজ্জাসার
সমবেত পেট্রল গিলে
যেটুকু জীবাশ্ম বেঁচে থাকে
দিগন্তের গলা চিরে
যেটুকু আগুন পারো আনো
সহস্র মুখাগ্নি শেষে
হিমবাহ বুকে রেখে বলো
নাভি পোড়ে নি
নাভি পোড়ে না।
3. স্বাহা; অথবা, পরস্ত্রীদের জন্য
আগুন, এখন আগুনের সাথে শুচ্ছি
হাতড়েছি তল, অতল পাবার চেষ্টা
সাজিয়েছ কাঠ, পিচ ঢেলে দাও গর্ভে
ঘুমোনোর আগে একবার জ্বলি শেষটা
আমার তো শুনি ময়াল সাপের চামড়া
ঘেমেছ তুমিই, বাষ্পে দেওয়াল স্তব্ধ
আর দু পা গেলে মানুষ হবার ইচ্ছেয়
সাপকে খেলিয়ে বাঁশিওয়ালা গোনে শব্দ
কফিনেই পাবে পরস্ত্রীদের বাঙ্কার
সমুদ্র পেলে কেউ করে দেবে ঢেউ সই
কাচের গেলাসে ঘর শুকোনোর রোদ্দুর
ফেনা ওঠা শেষ, আমি তো আসলে কেউ নই
চুল্লী খুলেছে ঘোরানো হাতের সঙ্গে
সিঁড়ি নেমে গেছে, আছি বেশ আছি রঙ্গে…
-Arkoprobho Roychowdhury

Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets

“Vast is my beloved country,

 Full of forests, field, and rivers.

 I know there’s none other like her,

 Where a man can breathe so freely.” (277)


Histories, we now know, are grand narratives which necessarily come into being by silencing contradictory micro narratives and to portray a nation in a relatively good light. Svetlana Alexievich offers a deft demonstration of this problematic in her book Secondhand Time.

The dominant narrative regarding Russia in the post-Soviet era has trained us to glorify the Russian Revolution, despise Stalin and his despotic rule and celebrate Mikhail Gorbachev’s Glasnost and Perestroika. The reality, the hardships faced by the ordinary people, has been carefully ignored. Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time, translated by Bela Shayevich, unfurls those concealed experiences of nostalgia, pain and anger.

Svetlana Alexievich specializes in the genre, which she calls “novels in voices”. Similar to her other books Voices from Chernobyl, Zinky Boys; this book too presents the heart-rending tales of the interviewees untouched by the author as she weaves together more than dozens of memoirs from the former Soviet Union.

Secondhand time is a work of non-fiction and spell-binding collection of interviews from ordinary people all across Russia. Alexievich has assembled her narratives through interviews taken by her of ordinary citizens, Gulag survivors, ex-Communist Party officials and traumatized women; mothers, wives and daughters. The book gives an account of their experiences of the post-Stalin period (1991-2001), when Communism was in demise and the concept of USSR was just a fond memory. The interviewees feel the need to pay respects to the Soviet Era. They cherish communism and the governance of Stalin. Elena Yurievna from Moscow, third secretary of a district party committee, without hesitation states: “I will take pleasure in writing “USSR”. That was my country; the country I live in today is not. I feel like I’m living on foreign soil. I was born a Soviet.” (127-128).They had fought and bled for Freedom but when it arrived, it brought them nothing but torment and hunger. The people could not accept this freedom offered by Gorbachev’s government where promises remained unfulfilled. Money was everything; the poor had no respect in society.

Alexievich’s book revolves around the recurrent theme of nostalgia about Stalin’s USSR, hate for Gorbachev and the dearth of bread, cheese and salami. Before the reign of apparent ‘Peace’, the public got to choose from variety of salamis and everything was equally handed out. Mikhail Gorbachev and his ideals became anathema and people longed for the rebirth of Stalinist regime; the public fell in and out of love with Gorbachev. Snatches of conversation hovered about in the streets: “Gorbachev is an American free agent…a freemason…he betrayed communism.” (66)

Alexievich lets us a peek into the kitchen lives of the Russians! Yes, the kitchen was a very significant place. The anonymous interviewee, a stoker from St.Petersburg, reminisces about his kitchen days filled with food, love and criticism about post-Stalin Russia where “revolution was nothing but a spectacle; a play put up for people.”(76-77). The kitchen was the place where Perestroika actually took place, “Russian culture lived on” and Fear was a stranger since they were among friends having meals (57-58). Most Russians were left with nothing but their memories. Elena, from Moscow, remembers USSR as a place of free will where “no one was forced to do anything. All of the kids dreamed of becoming Young Pioneers, of marching together…. To drums and horns…. Singing Young Pioneer songs:

“My Motherland, I’ll love forever,

Where else will I find one like her?” (138-139)

 The author intervenes between the conversations with cozy comments like, “We take a short break. The eternal tea, this time with the hostess’s homemade cherry jam.” or “She laughs.” (154-157). She carefully keeps her analytical, journalistic approach out of the way and lets the reader travel in the poignant world of the interviewees.

The tales of Secondhand Time collectively turn into ghastly dystopias. Though it is fact based, the author succeeds in molding it into a novel of the history of emotions. The book turns out to be a surprise to the reader, who may be a novice to such an experience, because a book about the communist USSR is immediately taken for granted; imagined to be just another irksome, literary work of political history consisting of collection of field notes depicting the drudgery, pain and oppression in the lives of Russians inflicted by Stalin. Instead it surpasses the expectations as the writer explores the fond memories, the intricate details of Russian livelihood during Soviet times and the sentimentality of the narrators about their lost motherland- the “USSR”.

The powerful and multi-vocal narrative of the novel breaks the norms of chronicling history of a nation. Second-hand Time is practically a bombshell, an unveiling which compels the reader to be cognizant of the fact that rigidly judging a country by a few literary works and reckoning upon the media can be quite detrimental. In the middle of a conversation in Red Square with an engineer (name not mentioned) about the suicide of Sergey F. Akhromeyev, marshal and chief of the General staff of the Soviet Armed forces of the Soviet Union, he shows his notebook full of quotations from the Marxist classics to Alexievich where she spots a particular quote from Lenin: “I would live in a pigsty as long as it was under the Soviet rule.” (376)

The agitation of the anonymous engineer and many other distressed individuals is hard to be oblivious to as Alexievich often receives rebukes against her questions: “What does history have to do with it? You want the facts “fried up”? Served spicy, with some extra sauce?” (359) Their anger against Gorbachev, scarcity of food, death of Stalin’s Soviet Union, the “bloody” bureaucrats lacking convictions, principles or any of those muddled metaphysical ideals, Marshal Akhromeyev who hanged himself from a Kremlin radiator leaving his country in the hands of traitors – all would have died with them if not for Svetlana Alexievich.

Alexievich transforms the grilling conversations about history and daily politics into coherent narratives through her honest documentary style. It is one of her most phenomenal works in which the Nobel laureate takes us back in time, while depicting a disturbing portrait of Russia and the readers can almost feel the emotions and the yearning of the ordinary men and women for the “normal” freedom whose suppressed voices have been buried deep down among unidimensional histories of the nation.

The book is a must read especially because it offers a different perspective and makes the reader experience a hidden history of the people of Russia by letting them narrate it; this is storytelling of a most unusual kind. Like Lorraine Warren had said in The Conjuring, “It’s an insight; like a peek through the curtain into another person’s life”. It is an onerous and perplexing read but also impossible to put down. 2017, coincidentally, also marks hundred years of the Bolshevik revolution.

-Sruti Purkait