In July 2015, a Coursera course some of us attended together turned out to be transformational for us. A wonderful instructor (Dr Denise Comer; Prof. Duke Univ), a lovely bunch of participants, and a creative, engaging environment of learning and sharing — it was an intense, inspiring association.
I absorbed its multi-cultural experience with great delight, seeing things with a lens I never did before. So many people, so many ideas, and yet we were more similar than dissimilar really, I realized. That is when an idea struck me. Why not come together to create a book or a diary, give wings to our narratives across the globe, and forge a new wave of understanding? And so, a desire was sown, which eventually blossomed into A Pocketful of Dreams…
An unusual protagonist in an unusual setting; my next author challenged me with a story that would be nothing like what I heard so far. Far removed from the real world, this fictional account, at once intriguing and touching, left me spellbound, The pages of my diary more than welcomed this beautiful tale from India, based on the universal qualities of love, brotherhood, and self-respect.
Ballu, our trusted caretaker, disappeared into the thin air after the fifth day of our vigil. Strange as it seemed, it didn’t worry me at first. A lot of people have been disappearing from the village for some time; there are murmurs about a killer disease. But when Martin changed from smelling of fresh milk to stale fish, I knew something was dreadfully wrong. Even though Ballu was nowhere to be found, I stood by his side the entire time. By the sixth day the entire village turned up to see their beloved Neel Sahab. Why they sniffled and spoke in hushed tones, I couldn’t fathom…surely that smell… that made me even more restless.
The villagers adored him. And why not? Which other planter had made a school for the local children; which other sahab was a local doctor for all minor ailments? Martin, a bit of a softie, would often, secretly, buy them grains too. I have seen that with my own eyes. I didn’t approve of this over-familiarity at all. After all, they were different—-dark and scrawny, they looked terribly unreliable, if you ask me.
I often wondered what brought Martin to this awful hot and humid country in the first place. Then I heard his story; how he came aboard a big ship with his uncle, a merchant; how massively lucky he got to find this lush stretch of land; how he took to indigo farming, whatever that was, and became rich overnight.
But of late things were not so hunky dory, Martin used to say. There were signs of an uprising. It was brewing slowly in all the adjacent districts. Martin said the poor peasants were up in arms trying to throw away their masters, who were all whites, like us. That didn’t surprise me at all. What shocked me was that he had to wait for a little bird to tell him that. Didn’t I give enough growling signals for the longest time? But who listens to me?
Come to think of it, I was the only real family Martin had in this village. Our stories were pretty similar too. I too came wrapped in a small wicker basket, all the way in a ship, just like Martin. Like Martin, my parents had left me to fend for myself when I could barely walk, with nothing more than a legacy and an indomitable spirit for adventure. And like Martin, I had grown up on the delicious mangoes and litchis this countryside grew all over. That was the one thing I liked about this place; the other being the toot-toot and whoosh whoosh sound of the rattletrap contraption, called a steam engine, that appeared from nowhere, recently.
Anyway, it was my worst nightmare when Father D’Souza finally yanked me away from Martin’s bedside after the seventh day and sent me to Biju. I needed to be looked after too, he said.
What a travesty, I thought. If it wasn’t for the stale smell of Martin still lingering in my nose, leaving me numb, I would have shredded that infernal country idiot to pieces. Not only had Biju invaded my most precious space like a haunted ghost for some time, he was also a vegetarian. Why could they not ask Ahmed, the butcher, to look after me, instead? Now, that was one stand-up guy, always indulging me with the freshest cuts every Friday after namaz.
‘Not him,’ I had whined when Martin had made the gaffe of retaining Biju as the estate gardener. I was being selfish, of course. I knew Martin had suddenly acquired this imbecile love for lauki (bottle gourd) and wanted to grow it in his garden. Good for his gout, he explained, but how embarrassingly un-English. I wasn’t ready to overlook my pedigree for gout. Though I had been raised here in this godforsaken languorous countryside of Bengal, I was more English than Martin, in many ways. At least, I growled far more royally than him and had the likes of Biju run with their tails between their legs.
With Martin’s blessings, however, Biju had acquired a new status as the estate gardener. He had even made the mistake of offering me fresh carrots from his garden, once. The equivalent of an olive branch, I guess. What impudence! That infuriated me even more, marking the beginning of a long harrowing saga…But more about that later.
From the very next day, after they had taken Martin away, wrapped in white cloth, burning sandalwood incense as they went, Biju started showing eyes to me. I was stunned at his gall.
‘Next time you run amuck, I am going to tie you to a khoonta (picket) and feed you nothing but water, remember that.’ He started threatening and glaring at me with bloodshot eyes.
Oh, did I hate Biju! And to see such a day…
‘I am done with you, you pest…’ Biju was waving Martin’s walking stick, next. ‘Can I ever forget how you messed up my cabbage patch that one weekend I left for the village mela (fair)?’
I couldn’t believe my ears. The vast expanse around the bungalow, which stretched towards the woods in the west, around the pretty stream where I went fishing, belonged to me; it was my favourite haunt. There I went running after the squirrels under the peepal trees, chasing the mongoose family back into the woods where they belonged; there I dug nice deep trenches, playing in its cool earth all day long, hid my treasures and flirted with the butterflies. It was my private space and I had marked my territory well enough so that the local mutts stayed clear. Now imagine waking up one morning and discovering your beautiful hangout transformed into neat little furrows. The filthy squirming leech had even fenced it. Marking territory, eh? Won’t that make anyone livid?
I had no option but to wait until he had taken off the fence three months later. Fortunately, he was away that weekend, and so I could spend the whole time scrabbling and rummaging through the patch looking for…what else…my bones. What would he know about the deep emotional values of such hidden treasures?
He had thrown a howling fit, when he returned, I recall now. How childish! Martin had given a wild guffaw and let it pass. He was not interested in cabbages anyway.
‘And the poo you left all over the flower beds? You did it on purpose, didn’t you? You even chomped on my favourite marigolds like boiled eggs. You grubby little cur!’ Biju continued to mutter.
Defiling my lineage, was he? What audacity. Okay, I admit I went overboard with the marigolds. I didn’t even like them that much. But the poo…? What will be the next thing to slander me about? Sniffing? Come on, draw a line somewhere, Wimp!
‘Here’s your milk and chappati. Don’t howl and get the neighbourhood around. I am mourning.’ Biju snorted disdainfully.
God knows why he still needed to mourn his cabbage patch and marigolds. All that was so long ago. But milk and chapattis? Was he out of his mind? Even the most famished field mice wouldn’t take a sniff at that. It was disgusting. But I didn’t want to growl and play my cards yet. I wanted to make sure that cabbage-head had enough to mourn every day of his life from here on. How I loathed the way he smelled…of stewed cabbage!
‘I will be by the riverside, and if I hear one whimper from you, I’ll break this stick on you,’ Biju threatened before he stomped out, with what seemed like one of Martin’s whiskey bottles. That infernal lout! Mourning indeed! I must teach him a lesson for Martin’s sake, if not to salvage my own self-respect.
By the time the sound of conch-shells announced the arrival of evening—another of those inane rustic rituals that irritated me so much that I had to howl only to drown that ominous sound of sirens—I had shredded every bit of Biju’s bedding, torn and tattered all his clothes hanging from the wires, messed up the haystack where he kept his precious cow and peed as much I could inside his room to get rid of his smell. Fairly happy with my antics, I ran out and killed a field mouse and scared away a rattlesnake and then suddenly grew sad and sullen. I missed Martin and our evenings together.
I could also hear a rumbling inside my tummy…I had not eaten much since Martin took to bed. But the sight of milk and chappatis got me so furious, I forgot all hunger for a while. There wasn’t anything more I could damage to express my ire. Then I noticed Biju’s prized marigold patch, and I attacked it with vengeance. . .
Seconds ticked away, and I knew it from strange nocturnal noises my ears were trained to pick up that it was not a respectable time to stay away from home. Had Biju run away in fear? I couldn’t be happier. But I wasn’t exactly used to staying alone either and so decided to take a peek at the riverside.
I could spot him from a mile from his stench…now it was cabbage stewing in whiskey. I bolted across the paddy fields, squelching through mud and water, to reach a sozzled Biju on the jetty.
‘Martin Sahab, I have no one to call my own. You had given me a home and a job. Now, where will I go; what will I do without you…And that bloody mean hound of yours, what a royal pest you have slung around my neck…’ Biju was sobbing and speaking in a slur.
I must have taken him totally by surprise. From the mud and dung I had collected all over me, my white coat was all but visible. I wasn’t exactly happy to hear what Biju was muttering about me, and so it pleased me immensely when I startled him out of his reverie. He swung around looking for his stick to hit me when he lost his balance. The next thing I heard was a deep dank whooshing sound and some gurgles coming from the river.
‘Serves you right,’ I growled under my breath. ‘God has his ways of punishing the wicked. Now, pray you grow a pair of fins and become a mermaid.’ If they had seen a dog smirk ever, it must have been that day. I wagged my tail in deep contentment as I watched Biju struggle in his inebriated state to get out of the water. Finally, it was just a pair of hands, what seemed like waving goodbye to me. Good riddance! I thought.
All that was last night.
This morning, the whole village was gathered at Biju’s. Ahmed had cooked some meat for me and Father D’Souza sat by me, gently caressing me. I could smell Biju from a distance, still sobbing. I was being hailed as Martin’s worthy son. ‘Mutton-lalla’ (son of Martin) was the new moniker. But ‘Mutton’ ? How dreadful! They really should have stuck to ‘Neel’ .
‘He saved my life, he was God-sent. I saw the flickering eyes of the tiger, smeared in mud and dung, just a yard away. It had slunk in quietly from behind—as big as Dhanno’s buffalo—and so very fierce-looking. It would have surely eaten me alive if I hadn’t fallen into the water. Then I don’t remember a thing. The next thing I recall is being pulled ashore by this angel of a dog. What courage, what strength…’
There were newfound respect and awe in his voice. Good for him. But the entire village seemed to have found a reason to be jubilant too. They hovered around me with such reverence that it left me a bit queasy. From where I rested with my head crouched between my paws, I tried not to look at anyone. I realised my moment’s weakness had won over the entire village and made me a hero overnight. As a true-blooded English Hound, I had done what I knew best. I cared two hoots for Biju’s adoration really; what bothered me most now was the stench of stewed cabbage all over me…
Jayalakshmi Sengupta from New Delhi, India, is a journalist and editor by profession and a trainer by passion. She received the Laadli Media Award for her gender-sensitive stories in 2011 and enjoyed the rare opportunity to spearhead a media-development programme on behalf of Aga Khan Foundation in Afghanistan. The Magic Diary project, her brainchild, was an attempt to create a global platform of storytelling for a better appreciation of the enriching cultures of the world; to help people grow harmoniously in mutual respect and love.
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My next author is from one of the most impoverished provinces of Afghanistan, who walked for 6.5 hours to school, as a child, and grew up to live in fear every single day…Yet, I saw a strange twinkle in those tired eyes that spoke of something beyond resilience and courage. It spoke of an invincible spirit that had learnt to be a Pheonix. His stories came from the depth of the soul, sincere and unembellished. The pages of my diary were meant to chronicle and immortalise the story of such extraordinary men and women…I am so honoured to be the repositiory of such timeless tales….
A Bizarre Welcome Ceremony
Early one morning, before the sun rose behind the mountain on the eastern side, I heard my mother calling me, ‘Reza! Reza! Wake up. Today you must go to Ambolaq.’
Ambolaq was our only source of irrigated water, a spring from where the water flowed out through the canals to the garden plots where our family grew vegetables. Once every week the villagers were allotted their turn and it was our turn that day.
I woke up and prayed, thanking God for giving peace and prosperity to my family. Then shouldering the shovel, I departed for Ambolaq. When I left home it was still quite dark and I was very scared. As I walked up the hill to the spring, I was anxious about what might be lurking around to put me in danger. I was afraid of wild animals because I was still very young. At the time I am talking about, I was probably not more than ten.
When I reached the spring, I opened the canal to let the water flow into the ditches. The sun was slowly rising from behind the mountain by the time I returned home. I ate my breakfast of naan and tea and waited for the water to rise in the ditches. After breakfast, I went back to manage the water flow so that just enough of it ran through the furrows and reached the plants that needed it and not drown them. I was the only male member in the house and had a lot of responsibilities to take care of even at an early age.
By around 8:30 in the morning, I got busy irrigating the wheat plot—the nearest plot to my house—when I saw groups of people climbing up the mountain. It surprised me a little and so even while irrigating the land, I kept a watch on the people as they walked through the pass. My mind was busy thinking where they might all be headed; what was their destination. I was wondering if they were all off to some funeral but quickly rejected that idea. Had it been a funeral, even my family would have been informed. The village wasn’t so large after all. Or they might have been invited by ‘Zawar’ who had recently come from Iran. They were probably on their way to greet him, but that too did not seem likely since it was too early in the day for that.
Lost in my thoughts I kept watering the crop when I heard a voice. Somebody was calling out to me: ‘Hey! Hey! Who is it there? Why are you not answering? I will kill you if you do not answer. Come here at once.‘ Someone continued to scream, probably at me, spewing insulting words.
I did not reply and pretended not to hear turning my eyes to see two other men, some two to three kilometres away from me. I kept an eye on them while working in my field. Suddenly I saw one of them coming towards me, saying something that I was not able to decipher at first. What was he saying? The next minute he put his gun on his shoulder and started scampering towards me. He looked like a soldier serving the local dictator. I do not think he was a soldier by choice, but rather by force, and that he had been directed to gather people to the district centre—the centre where the warlords were based.
I had moved to the other side of the plot by now, keeping an eye on him all the time. When he reached the bottom of the valley, momentarily hidden by some rocks, I lost sight of him. I kept busy with my work and noticed others waiting on the hill, looking at me. Sometimes they shouted at me: ‘Hey! We are calling you…why are you not answering?’
After almost three minutes the man with the gun reached me. He didn’t care about the wheatgrass that came out of the ground before the harvest and mercilessly trod upon them and came straight towards me. I was frozen, furious and shaking by now, but still kept my eyes on irrigating the crop and pretended not to have seen anything. He was not looking at anything else but me and was bounding towards me like an angry lion. I found myself melting with fear.
I had no thoughts running in my mind other than the wounds he would cause me and all the water that would be wasted if they dragged me away from the field. And I thought of my broken bones and spilt blood, and how my plants, after our family’s seven months of hard labour, were to be ruined.
Suddenly, I felt a blow and heard a cracking sound on my back. I fell down belly flat on the ground in a thud. I turned my head slightly as I hit the ground and saw the angry face of the man with his gun. He kicked me hard with his feet. He was not saying anything; neither was I in a position to ask him the reason, as I knew even if I asked him anything there would be no answers.
The man beat me until I lay crumpled at his feet, like a bag of cement, crying. He shouted at me: ‘Stand up and move!’ I was being hauled up and taken away without even informing my family. Luckily, numb with fear, I did not feel the pain immediately. I was also thinking of the utter waste of the water and how to save my crop, which was all I had to feed my family until the next harvest. Most of the time because of the hot and dry weather, wheat plants were not able to survive even one week without water, so I was worried about losing the harvest, more than anything.
Finally, after gathering some courage, I begged him for my freedom, explaining how important it was for me to water the crop. I tried to explain how the water came to our village plots by turn, once a week. It was my turn; if I missed it, we would have to wait for one more week until the next turn. And so, if I did not irrigate that day, we would lose the harvest and will be left starving. But he didn’t seem to understand anything I said and started beating me with renewed vengeance. When he finally allowed me to stand up again, I managed to yell out: ‘Mother! I am going to Ulqan please ask somebody to irrigate the land.’
Hearing my scream my mother peered out from the window of our house and saw what was happening. I had gone less than a kilometre when I saw my mother running after us, crying, but I was not able to understand what she was saying to them or to me.
When I reached Ulqan, the centre of the districts, I saw hundreds of people gathered there. Most people seemed unprepared like me. I saw hungry and thirsty people with no food to eat and no water to drink rounded up by the gunmen and guards and lined up along the street under the burning sun. I was curious why so many people were gathered there and what was the purpose. I finally asked a man, standing beside me, ‘What is happening here?’
‘I think some big shot has come from Bamyan or maybe Kabul,’ he replied.
There were other groups in addition to the public who had been brought up there to please the guest. People were set apart in four groups: public, politicians, girl students from girls’ schools, and boy students from boys’ schools. Both girls and boys were singing songs to welcome the guests.
I was too young to understand what the guests had come for and what they spoke about to the people of Shahristan District. All I heard was a name: Ustad Waezi. A name etched in my memory forever.
Years later, when I was 19 years old and went to Kabul for my Kankor examination, I gathered that Waezi was one of the founding members of the Hezbe Wahdat Party and a prominent warlord from Afghanistan. I instantly recalled that fateful day when I was a forced participant of the most bizarre welcome ceremony. It was also one of the scariest moments of my childhood days. That single memory leaves me shuddering in fear, even today, though I have been beaten and tortured so many times since then.
Hailing from the Daikondi, one of the poorest and most neglected provinces of Afghanistan, Reza Siar, completed his Masters recently and is working with the University Support and Workforce Development Project of USAID, supporting higher education in Afghanistan. A keen sportsman, Reza loves volleyball, football, table tennis and swimming. Above all, he loves telling a story about his strife-torn homeland and the plight of its people.
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Amarta Dasgupta's poignant tale about a grandmother’s life after the Partition of Bengal, in 1947, is really about the fate of any immigrant, who has been uprooted and expelled from the comfort of a safe space, and thrown to live a life of desperation and ignominy in foreign soil; it is also about a gnawing wound that never heals and is passed down as a legacy to the next generation. My pages are a litany of such tales from this fragmented earth, cut into pieces either for human greed or a man-made thing called ‘religion’---the endless saga of survival and the fight for identity. Here’s another gem that must be preserved for posterity...
Xinyan Xie wrote this story in 2015, and from what she shared with me, it was a true happening in her life, which took her away from the FB immediately afterwards, and we lost contact with her for a long time. It was both a little sad and shocking for me to discover the prevailing condition of this mainland city and so the story found a special place in my heart and needed to be recorded and shared...also I was immensely proud to see young people like Xinyan Xie making such extraordinary effort to connect to the larger world, at the risk of their lives. Today, in 2019, with most of the world turning into a darker place, the story may not be as shocking...but it is ironic how quickly the malaise has spread. With many voices getting choked and lost and individuals disappearing or getting killed, the brave ones like her, who still dare to speak out, give us hope. I am so glad I was able to retrieve this piece from Xie before I lost touch with her...I am so blessed dear Xie that you chose to write on my pages, of this Magic Diary...and now may this story live forever and be preserved for posterity... Continue reading "‘The Strangest Interview’ by Xinyan Xie from China, Tianjin"
Tim Wilson, the Liberal MP from Australia, made headlines yesterday when he proposed to his partner Ryan Bolger on the floor of Parliament.
Across the globe, the Magic Diary family had a special reason to rejoice this occasion. Tim has been very encouraging of our the attempts at creating a global platform of storytellers for spreading the message of universal harmony. When we sent him a bunch of lilies, earlier this year, to thank him, he quickly responded with a picture of him holding the flowers.
The Magic Diary family today comprises 50 authors from 45 countries and stands for the positive healing power of creativity. Our book, in three volumes, called ‘A Pocketful of Dreams’ is available on Amazon. A hardbound version will come out soon, sometime in 2018.
And thank you Lorinna Hastings for connecting us to Tim Wilson.
Proud and arrogant in the Red Square or Golden Mile streets, miserable and unhealthy in the suburbs, indifferent and strict in the districts of newly-wedded panel blocks without a green leaf or a piece of soft earth, sweet and defenseless in the districts of five-floored brick blocks drowned among trees and doomed already to destruction. Sometimes it is full of light and wind, often it suffocates, rarely it smells furthest seas, often it smells white-hot metal and dust.
Moscow is alive yet, although her lovely districts are disappearing eaten by greedy developers and even greedier mayor and all sorts of clerks and officials with their lead eyes and golden cards. Her hot breath and heart-beating tune the lives of millions but glistening black bonds of roads seem straps cut in the gigantic living body, and faceless skyscrapers pierce her heart. She, unprotected, injured, is still able to give you an old lovely house or an unexpected view.
Moscow buries a lot of secrets but she cannot hide the bold truth: she likes pitiless winners who get all, she is divinely ruthless. Anyway, dreamers love her, love her cheating, teasing, false glimmer and severe smile because she gives an uncertain, almost transparent, weightless, and unreliable hope. There is no place for dreamers, and anyway there is no other place for dreamers.
Moscow has many faces. No one saw them all. No one saw the real one.
Nella Vladi, from Moscow, Russia is a lone wolf, a passionate reader, an art amateur seeking an inspiration, dreaming of travels and miracles, tasting this life. Lives in Moscow. Has been trying to write a screenplay or a short story. Speaks Spanish, French and English. Interested in international relations and intercultural communications. Wrote some bad poetry. Loves autumn, rain, pies, black and white films, fine wines, and a good conversation.
In her story, Autumn Sketches, Nella writes about her impressions of autumn, painting a word picture of this beautiful season that inspired her to write a love letter once.
You can read Nellas story about autumn and her love letter in A Pocketful of Dreams vol. II Europe and Africa.
Buy (for a small fee) and read the amazing stories from the storytellers of The Magic Diary Project. All proceeds from a sale go to Room to Read, and you will support the education of girls in developing countries.
Vibeke Mouridsen, the author of One Thousand Followers, in a Pocketful of Dreams vol. II Europe and Africa has received this review from a reader, Liz Gaffreau, Director of Individualized Learning, Granite State College, University of New Hampshire, USA and a fiction and poetry writer herself:Continue reading ““A nice little treat before I go to sleep at night.””
Zambia and Bulgaria are two completely different places with all kinds of differences from climate to social environment. Yet. when it comes to me, I share a lot with these two wonderfulnations –one where I was born, and the other where I am being nurtured. No matter where you are, love and respect are all you need to feel at home.
You have already met Cristina Costea from Romania… Romanians are known for their vivid imagination and intense spirituality, which they have expressed through their architecture, music, crafts, and traditions. Cristina is from that breed, intense but soft-spoken. Let’s hear her talk about her story in the Magic Diary…Continue reading “Romania’s Cristina Costea talks about “Beyond the Night Sky””