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Sumana Roy
Free Verse

Of moons and rotis

y timid mother allowed herself only one piece of rebellion in her college life: she refused to eat rotis for dinner. This was in her college hostel in Calcutta. It was the early '70s of the last century and the war over East Pakistan had affected their menu, or so they were told. My rice-loving Bengali mother was not alone in this rebellion — many of her hostel mates joined her in calling the inedible rotis "Bata slippers". The analogy lived on a fine line: both were terribly resistant to tear. Purnima, her roommate, did the unthinkable: she hung the dry rotis on the hostel notice board. And as if that audacity wasn't enough, next to it she wrote an English nursery rhyme in her beautiful handwriting: "Hey Diddle Diddle/ The cat and the fiddle/The cow jumped over the moon,/ The little dog laughed to see such sport/ And the dish ran away with the spoon."

The man who would become my father lived in an adjacent building. From that "boys" hostel would emerge a line of Bangla poetry on a full moon night: "Purnima-r chand jyano jhawlshano rooti". The full moon looks like a burnt roti. This was the last line of a famous poem by Sukanta Bhattacharya, a young Bengali poet who died of tuberculosis at the age of 21. That line would play out like a lost and found tune for a large part of my childhood, my father's assessment of his wife's roti-making abilities. When I grew older, my father passed on his annotation of that line to me: Sukanta Bhattacharya had been a member of the Communist Party of India, and how could he have cared for the beauty of the moon when thousands around him were dying of starvation in the Bengal famine. I gathered, like only an antsy teenager could, that my father didn't particularly care very much for the moon, as he did, say, for rotis.

What is it about the moon that brings it to the dinner table more than any other planetary body?

Poetry being the equivalent of old photographs, a line ferrying us into the unconscious, that line from the Bangla poem and its association of archived moments came back to me as I read this poem from Pooja Garg Singh's first collection, Everyday and Some Other Days: "I ate the moon and ended up/ with moonshine in my nerves/ Laden with your memories,/ a quiet boat leaves the long night shore/ I watch them spill in the darkness/ I watch them spill, unafraid (I Ate the Moon)"

What is it about the moon that brings it to the dinner table more than any other planetary body? The burnt roti analogy, yes, but also the "moon" and the "dish" and "spoon" in the English child rhyme. An interesting answer came to me from an acquaintance keeping her first Karva Chauth fast: 'The woman is so hungry that she wants to eat up the first thing she sees — that is why the moon becomes edible in the female imagination." One cannot argue with the hungry, and so I let that explanation stay.

A few months before I encountered Pooja Garg Singh's poem on eating the moon, I'd read about the Indian artist Jitish Kallat "memorialising" his father through his installation titled Epilogue: "In Epilogue I retrace my father's life through all the moons he may have witnessed from the day he was born on 2 April 1936 to the day of his untimely death on 2 December 1998. Epilogue is measurement of my father's lifespan with the approximately 22,000 moons that he saw in the 62 years of his life, each moon is represented by a progressively eaten roti. The last moon he saw was on the night of 1 December 1998 leaving the last frame of Epilogue dark and empty, barring that single moon which appears almost like a full stop. Epilogue can perhaps be called meditations on time and sustenance..." Had Kallat's father been eating the moon like the speaking persona in Garg Singh's poem? Had he too ended up with "moonshine in (his) nerves"?

This lunar calendar of eating, marked by feasting and fasting, the circle of the moon chewed and bitten into planetary geometries — does it hold our eating life in it? Amitava Kumar's forthcoming collection of essays, Lunch with a Bigot: The Writer in the World, has Subodh Gupta's "Full Moon" (oil on canvas) as its cover photo. The "full moon" is an empty plate with an undisciplined clutter of six forks and four knives on it. It is not a clean plate — the traces of food remain in stains. Looking at it closely, with its title orbiting my consciousness, I could not help thinking of a Gulzar song: "Naram naram raat mein/Garam garam chand par". The hot moon on a soft night — was it the roti or a plate of piping hot food that Gulzar was wishing for? Sukanta Bhattacharya's poem had, in a bit of irony, called for the end of poetry in a poem. The world had no use for poetry — the world had turned prosaic in these times of hunger. When there is no food in the world, is it only the moon that we shall be left to feed on?

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