The International Literary Quarterly

February 2009


Donald Adamson
Robert Appelbaum
Rosemary Ashton
Sujata Bhatt
Stephen Burt
Rita Dove
Elaine Feinstein
Sophie Judah
John Kinsella
Ron Padgett
Pascale Petit
David Plante
David Shields
Susan Stewart
John Thieme

Founding Editor: Peter Robertson
Art Editor: Calum Colvin
Consulting Editor: Marjorie Agosín
Consulting Editor: Richard Berengarten
Consulting Editor: Jill Dawson
Consulting Editor: Denise Duhamel
Consulting Editor: Marilyn Gaull
Consulting Editor: Beatriz Hausner
Consulting Editor: Mimi Khalvati
Consulting Editor: Suzanne Jill Levine
Consulting Editor: Margot Livesey
Associate Editor: Neil Langdon Inglis
Assistant Editor:
Jeff Barry
Assistant Editor: Ana de Biase
Assistant Editor: Sophie Lewis
Issue 6 Guest Artist: Anthony Whishaw

Click to enlarge picture Click to enlarge picture. Life with Appa (from a work-in-progress) by Sujata Bhatt  


Appa has warned the children about mosquitoes, but they are not impressed.  They’re afraid of bats and snakes, not mosquitoes.  After Appa has finished speaking, the children ask him to say ‘mosquito’ again.


The children enjoy asking Appa to say ‘mosquito’; he pronounces it ‘moss-quito’, which makes them laugh.  Already the children have a different accent when they speak English.  But no matter how much English they learn, they will always call their father ‘Appa’.


No one can beat Appa at killing flies.  Four, five, six flies dead within minutes.  Appa washes his hands more often than anyone else in the world.


The eldest remembers a time when she thought flies were harmless, friendly creatures.  That was when she was four and the youngest was still a baby.  She remembers watching a fly sitting beside a sliced tomato in the kitchen, how a few green seeds were floating in the watery juice.  She remembers watching the fly rub its fine, filament hands, and then, how it rubbed its face. She watched and watched, and even started to speak with the fly until Appa rushed up to her and scolded her for playing with a fly.  ‘Flies are dangerous,’ he informed her. ‘Flies are full of diseases, and they will make you very sick,’ he warned.  Never again did the eldest look kindly upon a fly.


When the children fall and run home with bleeding elbows and knees, Appa says, ‘don’t cry.  Now, now, stop crying.  Your white blood cells will help you.  Your white blood cells will start working now.  Stop crying.  Now go and wash it out with soap.’  And that really makes the children quiet.  Stunned.  They try to imagine their white blood cells as they peer at their bright red knees.


The eldest remembers Appa’s anatomy book.  How the blood flows one way and then another.  Red, blue, red: so the veins are coloured. Appa has explained the function of the heart and the lungs to the children and has told them how the blood must flow unhampered.  Always.


The children learn the names of viruses.  There are days when Appa comes home with Dr Banerjee.  They have their afternoon tea with biscuits while Appa talks about viruses and bacteria.  Dr Banerjee listens; the children also listen.  The word, ‘chikungunya’, makes the children laugh; ‘chikungunya’ makes them laugh so much that years later, elderly Appa remembers their laughter when he is told that his sister has caught chikungunya. 


Appa doesn’t know that the children spend their days in the garden foraging for sour things to eat:  raw tamarinds, tamarind leaves, gulmohar leaves and gulmohar buds and flowers, and even a strange new clover invading the grass.  If Appa knew, he would remind them of bacteria and viruses.  If Appa knew, he would get angry and tell them that if they get sick it will be their own fault.  It is their decision.  This is what makes the children feel grown-up and important and afraid.  


The children have discovered huge mulberry bushes at the edge of an empty, dry and barren field.  A dirt-dry field.  The mulberry bushes inspire the eldest to sing English nursery rhymes.  Every now and then the children inspect the berries to see if they are ripe enough; occasionally they find the berries in a perfect state of dark blackish purple. And then they have a feast; they don’t miss a single berry.  The children, however, are basically impatient, and are just as happy to eat the sour, green berries, especially when they are hungry for sour things.


Appa says the children must have eggs and vitamin C.  The first time Appa shows them the small plastic bottle containing vitamin C tablets, the children are awed.  They are amazed. Appa opens the bottle carefully; and then, solemnly and ceremoniously, he gives one tablet to each of the children. They love the sour taste of the tablets.  It is a sour taste which is different from all the other sour tastes they know.  The tablets, of course, have no trace of leaves or grass or flowers or fruits.  The tablets don’t remind them of the wind ruffling their hair.  The tablets have a pure sourness all their own, like a sound that exists somewhere but cannot be heard by anyone.  Not even by dogs.  The first day, the children finish half the bottle.  The next day, when Appa finds out, he is worried and anxious and he examines the children’s faces.  But nothing is amiss.  The children look completely like themselves.  And then, Appa says they can only have one tablet a day.  Maximum.  This time, the children listen.  Even they feel that the vitamin C tablets are more powerful than tamarinds and gulmohar leaves; and even stronger than lemons.  The tablets remind them of medicine, and medicine is always dangerous, they agree.  Nonetheless, it’s not as bad as the time when the youngest, when still a baby, had swallowed mothballs, and when the eldest had accidentally swallowed a metal star.


The children have a long history with eggs.   The children know that when they were babies, their mother fed them soft boiled eggs; sometimes she mixed the egg yolks with fresh mango juice.  The children can’t imagine eating such food, but they loved it, their mother reassures them. Then they progressed to hard boiled eggs and then suddenly it was scrambled eggs.  Scrambled eggs with ketchup.  None of their relatives, none of their cousins or uncles or aunts or grandparents have ever eaten eggs, let alone eggs with ketchup.  One summer, Appa’s mother, who is a pure vegetarian, and very strict when it comes to obeying rules, allows them to cook eggs in her kitchen.  Somehow Appa must have persuaded her that eggs are important.  The children, however, feel neutral towards eggs. 


Appa has told the children about rabies.  He has told them to stay away from monkeys.  He has warned them many times.  But no one has told the monkeys to stay away from the children.  If Appa knew that sometimes the children eat gulmohar leaves thrown down to them by monkeys in the trees, then he might even faint, the children believe, and afterwards he would give them more injections.


The children would like to be friends with the monkeys, but the monkeys have different ideas.  The problem is that the monkeys do not really care for the children.  The monkeys like to tease the children, and the children like to tease the monkeys.  It’s an endless game.  The children think the monkeys throw gulmohar leaves and flowers to them out of kindness, but the monkeys don’t see it that way.


Dr Banerjee is the best at giving injections.  Even Appa knows that, and so he says to the children, ‘how lucky for you that Dr Banerjee has come with me to give you vaccinations!’  The children know the city is oozing with cholera.  It feels like a huge storm; it feels as if the clouds are full of cholera, as if a tidal wave will crash over their garden any moment now, and bring even more cholera.


Dr Banerjee is very tall.  His hands are large and soft and very gentle.  When he gives you an injection you don’t even feel it.  Not even a butterfly can be so gentle.  Appa is firm and competent, but when he gives you an injection you can feel your veins and your bones trembling.  Trembling and crying.


The worst vaccinations the children receive are the smallpox vaccinations in school, brutally and literally screwed into the insides of their forearms.  The eldest, being left-handed, makes sure she receives the vaccination on her right arm.  Afterwards, for days she cradles her right arm as if it were a sick child in need of constant attention.  She peers at the blood encrusted vaccination marks which look like two little wheels; small, dark Ashoka Chakras.  Sometimes creamy yellowish white froth seeps out, dead white blood cells.  Sometimes the skin within the Chakra puckers up as if against some mysterious cold air that she herself cannot feel.  Her arm feels like it is no longer hers.  Her arm feels like a piece of wood lying beside a stream in a huge forest; no longer hers, but reclaimed by the earth.

For days the vaccinated arm is kept dry; unwashed until it is clear that the cut circles of skin are beginning to heal.  It’s a miracle that the children are all able to resist the urge to scratch their vaccination marks.  And it’s a miracle that their inflamed, irritated and scabbed skin always heals smoothly, despite repeatedly being branded with the same smallpox vaccination in the same spot.  Years later, there’s not even a hint of a scar. 

Appa makes a note to himself that the children have received their smallpox vaccinations in school.  He seems to nod to himself, satisfied that the school is responsible, the government is working.  He praises the children for not scratching their vaccination marks and for looking after their arms so nicely.


Sometimes the children complain about their food.  This dal tastes like ashes, they say.  And the milk!  The boiled buffalo milk they have to drink three times a day smells of old balloons.  This milk tastes like rotten, old balloons, they say.

How do they know, their mother asks, have they ever eaten ashes and balloons?

But the children persist; we just know, they say, and gulp down their hot milk as fast as they can, trying to smell and taste as little as possible.


One day Appa goes to Kutch.  It will be a field trip, Appa tells the children beforehand.  The children don’t really know what a field trip is.  They can’t imagine Appa wandering through fields and gardens in the same manner that they do.  They think he might be hunting down mosquitoes and viruses, and bacteria, of course.  As Appa prepares for his trip he asks the children whether they would like anything special, anything in particular from Kutch.  The eldest is uncertain; she has just finished reading Beauty and the Beast, and is under a curious spell of magic herself.  The eldest tends to live in another world.  Still, she decides to be pragmatic and asks for a doll; which would be better than an enchanted flower, she’s certain.  Besides, she loves dolls and everyone expects her to wish for a doll.  What she secretly wishes for is a gigantic, thick book of stories, preferably fairy tales from all over the world, but she fears that such a book would be very expensive and surely not to be found in Kutch; such a book could only exist in Poona or Bombay.

The youngest, for once, is not uncertain.  He knows exactly what he wants.  ‘I want a sword,’ he says without any hesitation.  ‘A real sword!  Bring me a sword.’  And Appa, to everyone’s surprise, nods and agrees.

Before he leaves, Appa summons the children, and in his solemn, ceremonious way, he embraces them and says good-bye.  The children are always saddened by such occasions.  They do not like to see Appa leave.  This time they fear that he will be gone for a long time, and they’re right, Appa is gone for almost a month. 

Then there is a week when their mother has no word from Appa.  Everyone is concerned; and the youngest, in order to provide a logical explanation for this lack of communication on Appa’s part, imagines that Appa has fallen into quicksand.  With great excitement and drama, the youngest enacts Appa’s struggle with quicksand.  This only serves to make their mother feel more frightened and worried.  But the eldest finds the quicksand story funny.  The youngest is truly a clown.  The eldest has great faith in Appa; she believes that he is invincible and that nothing will ever happen to him.  She knows that Appa is simply too busy.


When Appa returns home with a sword from Kutch, the youngest is overwhelmed.  But now he doesn’t know what he can do with a sword without getting into trouble.


Dr Work from Alabama has come to Poona; he keeps a leopard in his house.  These are the days when ‘Pune’ is still ‘Poona’.  The leopard is tame but nonetheless wild.  Mrs Work rescued it after hunters killed its mother; the leopard was a baby then, but now it’s grown-up.  The children don’t believe the leopard is tame.  ‘I tell you it has a leopard’s heart and a leopard’s mind; it will never be tame’; the eldest tells the second eldest.  The younger ones are quiet. They’re supposed to finish their dinner, but they can’t.  They simply stare at the leopard pacing in front of them.  Everyone’s parents are eating in another room, a room without a leopard.  Appa is talking about viruses with Dr Work again.  The mothers don’t want to hear about diseases while they’re eating.  They want to talk about flowers; let’s discuss something pleasant, they say.  The leopard never tires.  ‘It needs lots of space’, the eldest says.  The second eldest agrees.  ‘Leopards don’t like to sit or lie down.  They’re not like dogs, you know.’

Appa is not afraid of the leopard; he’s not worried that the children are eating dinner with a leopard. Dr Work’s leopard is certainly clean, free of viruses and bacteria.


One day, even Appa gets sick, and has to be taken to hospital.  The children cannot understand how Appa could get sick. They focus instead on the piles of green coconuts that have appeared outside Dr Rao’s doors.  Dr Rao is Appa’s boss.  The doors to his house are always open, but not now.  Dr Rao’s house remains shut for days, as many days as Appa is in the hospital.  It has to do with Venkatesh, Dr Rao’s youngest son, who is at University.  Venkatesh is also sick.  At least thirty green coconuts were delivered today.  At first the children think there’s going to be a party, a party for everyone.  But then they see Dr Rao’s sad face as he comes out to fetch a coconut.  ‘Venkatesh can only drink coconut milk’, Dr Rao tells the children.  Appa is gone for ten days but to the children it feels like ten years.  The children think Appa must be getting horrible, bitter medicine, and they feel sorry for him.  They wonder whether he’s getting any coconut milk too. 

To some extent, the children are not surprised that Venkatesh got sick.  After all, they have seen him eating food from the vendors.  The children are forbidden to eat food from such vendors and peddlers.  Appa has told them that that sort of food is full of bacteria.  But the children have seen Venkatesh near the food stalls, buying all sorts of snacks from the vendors.  Often they see him out in the streets, drinking freshly squeezed sugarcane juice with his friends.  That lariwallah’s sugarcane juice is full of viruses, Appa has warned them, as if the lariwallah has added a shot of viruses to the juice, and as if Appa has witnessed him doing that.  Clearly, Venkatesh is not afraid of viruses and bacteria.  Dr Rao certainly must have told him about the dangers of eating food from the vendors.  Maybe Venkatesh doesn’t want to believe or cannot believe what Dr Rao has told him.  Even though the children are much younger than Venkatesh, they have no trouble believing everything that Appa tells them about bacteria and viruses.  When Appa speaks, somehow you know that it’s the absolute truth and nothing but the truth.  The only sugarcane the children taste is in their grandmother’s house, in her fragrant, clean kitchen.  No virus would dare to enter the kitchen belonging to Appa’s mother.

When Appa gets sick, Ma follows him to the hospital and stays with him.  Soon Appa’s mother arrives in Poona, summoned by their own mother.  She too stays in the hospital with Appa, all day, every day.  The children have no memory of that.  Maybe because their mother and grandmother leave the house very early in the morning, before the children are awake, and return home late at night when the children are fast asleep.


What the children remember is that their mother’s youngest brother, Bha’mama, comes to stay with them.  Bha’mama is the greatest storyteller that the children know.  The eldest is always trying to imitate him.  Bha’mama is also a singer and a musician and he knows the best jokes.  He makes up new jokes all the time, just like that.  To the uninitiated, his jokes can be very strange.  In the evening, Bha’mama sings and sings, and the children listen.  As they listen, the children drift and fall, slide and sink into his song; they begin to live inside his singing.  Sometimes they imagine that they are lost birds and Bha’mama has come to rescue them.


When the children play house, the eldest always plays Bha’mama and Appa and doctor; the second eldest is Mina mami, Ma and nurse, and the youngest must always be the baby, simply the baby who tends to fall ill every day and must be rushed off to the doctor.  ‘Medicine is crucial,’ the eldest says, ‘we have to find medicine for the baby, our baby Kalyan.’  This means that the medicine must be made, prepared with great care and precision.   Luckily, there is a neem tree in their garden, a neem tree with bitter, medicinal leaves.  The eldest and the second eldest gather the freshest leaves they can find, crush them and steep them in water and then persuade the youngest to drink this tonic.  The youngest is a good sport, but one day, the medicine is far too bitter, and he has to gulp down far more than he can handle.  But after that day, the eldest and the second eldest agree that baby Kalyan is cured and will never need such medicine again.


Sometimes heat and fatigue and boredom make the children fight. And then, the eldest would say to the second eldest, ‘don’t follow me around like a tiger’s tail.’ ‘So that makes you a tiger?’  The second eldest asks.  The younger ones don’t care.  They don’t mind being called ‘tiger’s tail’.  They know who they really are.  Besides, they like cats.


There is something that makes the children feel like birds. And that is bolkeri.  First the morning, and then the whole day and then the entire holiday season is changed by the taste of bolkeri.  Salt and turmeric mixed with the sourness of tough green mangoes on their way to picklehood. Bolkeri emerging after two days or three days, bolkeri taken out of the darkness of earthenware jars, bolkeri on their way to be dried, purified by heat and sun.  The children are each allowed a piece of bolkeri.  No more.  It makes them feel like birds.  It makes them feel fulfilled but oddly wanting something more, something else.  Chewing on the bolkeri, they think of the Monkey Princess, whose mother, a real human Queen, craves such raw mangoes.  The story of the Monkey Princess reminds them of other stories.  And suddenly, ‘we want to listen to a story’, the younger ones say to the older ones, ‘a new story.’


There is only one type of ice cream that Appa approves of, and that is rose ice cream.  Not made from roses, of course, but milk.  Not just any milk, but cows’ milk prepared by Appa’s mother.  But why not from roses also?  The eldest says, ‘of course there are roses in rose ice cream.  After all, we eat roses all the time; all the time when we want a snack and there’s nothing else in the garden or in the house.’

After bolkeri, rose ice cream changes the holidays.  Every year there is one day when their grandmother boils and then cools litres of milk, the best cows’ milk. It takes hours to prepare.  Then, this milk is taken to the dairy, and the next day barrels of ice cream are delivered.  Rose ice cream.  And in the evening everyone eats bowls and bowls of ice cream.  Nothing else.  No dal or rice or chapattis.  No vegetables.  Only rose ice cream. Rose ice cream rules the night. 

The children can stay up very late and eat as much ice cream as they want.

It’s the only ice cream Appa approves of.  It is pure, he tells them, free of viruses and bacteria.


Kabar is the blackbird with a yellow beak.  Deep dark brown, those kabar feathers; a rich luxurious brown, coffee and chocolate and velvet, and a shimmer of silk. A crow is blacker, a crow is truly blue-black.  Mornings the garden is scoured by hundreds of yellow beaks.  The sun merges into those dark brown beings.  Suddenly the birds are there, and suddenly gone.


Rita has the longest, thinnest face that the eldest has ever seen.  Rita wears sturdy spectacles and looks like a thin, old grandmother even though she’s only ten.  Rita always spots the lone blackbird as if it were her duty, her destiny.  ‘One for sorrow,’ she announces right away, even though the rhyme is meant for magpies.  It’s blackbirds they see all the time, not magpies, so they have turned their kabar into a bird of fate. ‘Now I’ll have sorrow today,’ she adds.  The eldest is more optimistic; ‘maybe we’ll still have two for joy, there’s always a second bird, Rita.’  And soon enough, a second bird does appear, and sometimes a third and a fourth, and sometimes more than a dozen.  ‘But sorrow was there first,’ Rita insists, unable to trust happiness.  Rita is Christian.   Rita is as Christian as their teacher, Mrs Sunderajan, who is fierce and strict, and who likes to believe she is a lioness.


‘But I am a lioness,’ Mrs Sunderajan says; ‘I am a lioness.’  Then she shakes her head as if that settled the matter and solved her problems.  ‘I am a lioness.’  With that statement Mrs Sunderajan concludes all her private lectures.  Her favourite topics are God and his wrath and tropical diseases, which are perhaps a result of his wrath.  Sometimes it is hard to know what Mrs Sunderajan believes.  On the one hand, she considers herself scientific and modern, on the other hand, she bows completely to God.  So a disease is more than a disease; it is God’s will.  The pupils think she likes smallpox and cholera the best.  But sometimes Mrs Sunderajan veers off into other topics, private stories about her family, her husband and the hardships a good, Christian woman such as herself face.  ‘I shed many tears, many bitter tears,’ she says to her astonished and embarrassed pupils who consider her to be the strictest and toughest teacher they know.  Sometimes she speaks of the Vietnam War and then suddenly of the beggars outside the school gates, and admits that there are people near and far who suffer more than she does.  And then, abruptly she begins to discuss the evils of coffee again.  Mrs Sunderajan advises the pupils to be careful about how many cups of coffee they drink, certain that they don’t drink any coffee yet.  ‘I mean when you are older,’ she says.  ‘Now look at me, I drank so much coffee that my lips turned black.’  And it’s true, the skin on her face is almost white but her lips are black.  Unfortunately black, and not red like Snow White’s.  The pupils, especially the girls, readily believe that coffee has turned Mrs Sunderajan’s lips black.  ‘But I am a lioness,’ she cries, as if black lips can pose no threat to a lioness; surely, black lips are as insignificant as a mosquito is to a lioness.  The word, ‘lioness’, stresses her femaleness, or so the girls think.  They imagine Mrs Sunderajan as a dutiful, tearful lioness beside her husband, who then must be a lion.  But that is difficult to believe because Mr Sunderajan is small and meek and always defers to his wife. 

‘They must have many secrets, the Sunderajan family,’ the eldest says to her friend, Madhuri.  And Madhuri nods, annoyed that Mrs Sunderajan wasted so much time with her lioness talk when they still have to learn about typhoid.  And then, the two girls look at each other and turn silent.

The eldest enjoys learning about diseases; she is fascinated by the list of symptoms and possible cures that Mrs Sunderajan describes.  Yet she knows that Appa knows far more than Mrs Sunderajan.  Appa knows everything but doesn’t have the time to tell them; Appa gives them information in small amounts, in as few words as possible, usually when the children are doing something dangerous.


One day, Madhuri tells the eldest about cancer; it’s a disease the eldest has never heard of.

‘The problem is,’ Madhuri says, ‘there’s no cure for it.  But they’re working on it.  There is radium and radioactivity, something like that which they can use.’  The eldest is alarmed, she thinks that every disease has a cure by now.  And then, to encounter cancer, something uncharted, something basically unknown, how frightened she feels, how disoriented.   

Madhuri’s parents are doctors, and they tell her so much more about diseases.  The eldest trusts Madhuri and is grateful to her for sharing this information about cancer.  The eldest would like to discuss cancer with Appa but doesn’t know how to begin. Somehow she senses that cancer is something so horrible that children aren’t supposed to know about it.