Manju Kak

manju kak

Manju Kak is an  author, critic,  an art and cultural archivist. Her  fiction, essays, critical reviews, and articles have appeared in anthologies, newspapers, journals, and magazines in India and abroad since 1989; some are  The Women’s Press, Times of India, The Westview Press, Katha Prize Stories, Kali for Women, Mail Today, Toronto Review, Hong Kong Standard, Arts of Asia, The Little Magazine, Canadian Feminist Studies Journal etc. Her published works of short fiction include First Light in Colonelpura (Penguin); Requiem for an Unsung Revolutionary (Ravi Dayal);   Her edited works amongst others include Nicholas Roerich—a Quest & Legacy (Niyogi Books, 2013) Currently Just One Life and other Stories, (imprintOne, dist. Cambridge University Press, 2014) is the latest and Uttarakhand: In the Shadow of Nanda Devi”, Niyogi Books is forthcoming. 

More information

She is the recipient of the Hawthornden (Edinburgh), Breadloaf, Charles Wallace (Stirling, Scotland)  &Ministry of Culture Senior fellowships amongst others. She has a Ph.D in the History of Art from the National Museum, New Delhi, and has been a teacher and Visiting Professor of history, literature and cultural studies, in Delhi, & Hong Kong and presented papers and lectures at Almaty, Moscow, London etc. Her scholarship and curatorial work  in  visual ethnography and art/socio-cultural studies on the Himalayas include  a multi-media  exhibition  ‘A Craftsman and his Craft: Iconography of Woodcarvings of Kumaon’ ( IIC Annexe Gallery 1998); directed a documentary film `They who walked Mountains’ the erstwhile salt routes from India to Tibet (2002) screened in Kathmandu,  London, New York, Amsterdam; Nicholas Roerich: A Pact for Peace (2009), M.F.Hussain Art Gallery, JMI, New Delhi. Kashmiri Pandits: A Community in Exile—a Vintage Album (2013) with Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR). She has been  associated with women’s organizations such as the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC) established in 1927, and has served on various NGO Committees and attended Conferences in India and abroad. Currently she is on the Board of All India Women’s Conference and Lal Bahadur Shastri  Memorial Trust. Earlier she has served as Member Centre/State Commission and others.

Creative writing extracts

Split Second

As I said, I opened the door and saw Anna crying. I mean what could have happened in that short time I spent at Tescos. I and the other girls from John Forty’s, filling up our trolleys with broccoli from Spain, cucumbers from France, zuchini from Italy, Jesus were there no British vegetables to be had in Scotland  unless we bought them from that  subversive grocer, the only true representative of the ‘islander at heart’ on Marywynd Street?  "Lassie you could try Lisbon for that English lettuce, "he’d wink, "or come right here."

But vegetables aside, Anna was crying and what could have happened between shopping and now. Hastily dropping the bags, we were all over her; sweetheart, “dahling, no no you mustn’t, your mascara will…”, when she burst out, “But he’s actually… dumped me”. Just a second’s silence, that split second of embarrassment, before the cooing resumed. 

All we had heard from Anna since we moved into our post-grad residence, a couple of weeks ago, was about Ivan, her boyfriend.

Anastasia was doing Public Relations at Stirling University which they called an M.Sc.(It’s surprising what you can make people do if  you label it right). Ironically all the rest were Eng. Lit., types at least that’s what they claimed they eventually would be, once they were through courses in marketing or printing or whathaveyou. (Maybe I’ll get back to doing a D. Phil on Doris Lessing said Margaret, miffed at a lecture where she had been called an ‘English’ writer).

But  it was Anna I was telling of. Anna and her dumping by her boyfriend. It was just last term she said that she’d met Ivan when he was in Oman for four days – a holiday for his mother, he’d said. The next thing was that Anna had spent the summer vacation with him and he had shown her how to tie her shoelaces when rock climbing, taught her to fish. They had bought crabs and he had shown her how to cook them, how to differentiate between the male and female ones and all the wonderful things a woman could do in a Norwegian village stretching through a sun encrusted summer when the new boyfriend flies sea planes and in between trips, turns to her, her who has rushed to him filling the short summer with the glory of what happens when one is in love.

Anna, half-Arab, oldest, had been the envy of us four at the post-grad apartment; sharp  Rebecca (Media Studies), superior Margaret (Design & Publishing),  small stern German Ingrid (Linguistics), Protestant Irish Gabrielle (Tourism) and I, a translator from India (Foreign Exchange) lost in this new  Scottish landscape;  I,  whom Anna had first befriended when bereft of familiar surroundings, I was suddenly  homesick. It was Anna who had noticed, and who had also surprisingly understood, that rejection could come for any reason, short or fat, old or stupid, for colour or race too. Anna who till then was with her ‘Boy Friend’.

All through the term we heard Ivan was tall, blonde, slim-waisted and lean-legged. That Ivan did wonderful things when Anna untied her dark long hair, perfumed, and lay back against eider pillows, mouth-washed with lingering fragrance, and waited.

We knew following that glorious summer when she returned to the apartment after classes, he called. Every other day she said he called;  long delicious conversations of whispering beautiful things in her ear, after which her body tingled and glowed right into a morn  of hastily pulled levis, rushed breakfast and the bus-flagging routine to the Univ….yes, of all of us it was she who had it all. How could she have it all; the rich father, the grades, the job to return to after the course ended, the blond boyfriend waiting at the end of each semester.  But wait, here were we now, returned from Tesco with laden baskets and she was crying, crying for Ivan, her boyfriend. Why did he no longer lust for her black lustrous locks, freshly washed?

Now Margaret, scantily remembering the heritage of those Dutch descendants pushed out, yes literally pushed out of new born Zimbabwe, stretched pale fingers from a pale blond body that had remained strangely fair in a hot country to stroke Anna’s dark hair. In doing so they touched Ingrid’s fingertips, strange quiet intense Ingrid, a hand that had that moment just left the comfortable pocket of her anorak. At the same time drew Rebecca who winced at German Ingrid's first touch, her brown eyes carrying the heritage of the holocaust. At once came into Ingrid's own  blue the silent guilt of a third generation German still bombarded by Bernard Levin's column in the Sunday Times; the  innuendos of history we carry on our backs, already hunched when we leave the womb, full of definition and metaphor at birth, that had kept Rebecca and Ingrid cooking separate dinners from  the common wired pool of starry tomatoes and oyster mushrooms,  hate wallowing in teflon between two girls-- German and Jew, though clad in same jeans from Debenhams, the same Jigsaw T-shirts. 

But that moment when epidermis touched epidermis, all melted for one split second in the common cauldron of a woman’s hurt, her rejection, for Anna was crying loudly.  Why had Ivan dumped her in the space of one full morning brightened by the yellow chrysanthemums she had bought just the other day standing still upon the window sill,   spilling upon the carpet? Why had he dumped her?

But hadn’t we seen it coming that last trip planned for Easter when Ivan said  “I’m busy-- got guests”, and Anna  said “what about your sofa” and he had said, “too small”; she had remarked, “a hot water bath is all I need”; he said “you can sleep with my mother and sister, they live at the house”; and she said “no,  I don’t stay with strangers”; and he said, “I’ll arrange something”; and she said “thanks and while you are about it let’s decide what to do about the week end”. (Slut, whispered Margaret then. Slut, she said that day, upper class private school coming all over her as she ostensibly watched Coronation Street with Rebecca while  between them hung a smog, thick and opaque of spinsterish longing).

He says it will never work, Anna now mumbled between tears. The seaplane job was suiting him and he didn’t see why he should fly SAS again and live in so many strange hotels just to get a steady job, when the fishing in his home village of Sandanah was fine, and when from his house high on a mount he could see the blue fiords all day long. Yes why should he spend those glorious days in the cockpit of a commercial plane somewhere between Frankfurt and Dubai when he could be home in Norway, flying the peripatetic plane. He did understand with his fishing, flying, house upon a hill in a village near the sea, how could she, fashionable Anna bound for London, fit in? It wouldn’t work he said, long phone calls that were expensive and weekends that just skied with the same regularity into his life.

She, a city girl, needing to settle down, and he, a country boy, wishing to roam? It never had.

Now we could see his point –of- view very clearly, but could we accept it? It would be betrayal. Would it not? And so in that split second that we had looked into each other’s eyes, we looked away. Which of us could say to her, so he’s right isn’t he? Which of us could? German Ingrid, Zimbabwean Margaret, Jewish Rebecca, or I of India.

But before we could she saved us, "He’s right, it really couldn't work." We boldly looked into each other’s eyes, with the complicity of being the first to agree before we had been pre-empted. "He says he loves me still", she continued, "wants to come down and see me".

Ah the dumping became easier to bear, to console her with. So he loved her still, but since he was seeing how their relationship was going nowhere, leading to nothing, he was gentleman enough to warn her. That was not bad, not half that bad. "But I told him he shouldn’t, there is no point, is there?" Anna's eyes upon us again. Was there any? Again looks were exchanged but nothing given away before hand. "With exams coming up it would only upset me further." Yes, yes, we agreed rather hastily. We could not have her crying like this all over again. It seemed sensible to part now, after all he would just reiterate all he said over the phone, it was best left be.

Those finger tips began to withdraw, turn to bags of broccoli, cheese, milk, meats, each to separate continents withdrew, dinners to be cooked, assignments looked through. The crying had stopped, there was no more need.

But Anna sat on, I with her. Wasn't she the one who had first understood from me the rhythm of a rejected world?  Now that world was she.   When she spoke again it was as if from afar; "They are growing upon me, the years, are they not, I can see them."  Discreetly from under my eyebrows I speculated; lines had come upon Anna’s face, and her hips carried the weight of the chocolates she had consumed on her way to thirty six. "Don’t tell me they are not, don’t deny", she burst out noisily, "Oo there will be no man for me…. Never."

I couldn’t leave her like that, crying? I had to do something.  Hastily I slipped into the common area of the apartment. No one else was about. I quickly took down her phone book, Ivan, Ivan, where are you Ivan… I had to tell himSomeone had to tell him. There, under frequently used phone numbers he was. I dialed. The ring seemed to go on interminably. Finally it came. “Ladbrokes”, said the voice at the other end. Insurance Agents, can I help you?” After a split second I repeated, “ Ivan….? Ivan ? “ “But there is no Ivan here, Madam. There never was. I'm afraid you have the wrong number.”

Artist Woman

These are my works of art, eating, sleeping, breathing, can yours do that? Can yours come alive and ask you, whyI gave to them of my body my agony, when I lay sweat-soaked in an air-stilled hospital room. When I was scrubbing, washing, cleaning, tending to them and their growing needs you were smeared in paint. When I kneaded dough to make chapaties on a hot gas stove through the swelter of blue summer you were clicking snapshots of desert women. Documenting, you called it, as you drove in your air-conditioned jeep to exotic destinations for your camera to see weary- linedfaces of. For me no camera;  in my heart here I carry the pain of my first born's death, of our mother's crippled arthritic bones as she hobbles to the bathroom, the stench of bedpans and soiled sheets.

When you went to New York to mount your exhibition at the Feminist Congress I was in the hospital room watching the drip squeeze into swollen vein. I stayed on to iron shirts, to wash and clean after father.

You needed the quiet for your craft.

You had the studio over the garage under the flaming gulmohar tree. I had the flat where the children studied in a makeshift box-room, where the folding cots were stacked in the day to make space for Ma to hobble around, beside that tin trunk of hers in which her worldly belongings were locked when her house was sold. Choose of your best, I told her, impatient packers at the door, and in it she put a picture by you painted when still at school, of a coconut tree tall, with lush undergrowth. It makes me recall how slim and straight she is, she told me of you. 

Every now and then when I do her bed and fold her clothes she says to me; take out my picture, take it out and let me look at it. Slowly in her thin knobby fingers she will hold it at a distance, putting the magnifying glass to her eye and she will read you in it. And then she will take out her album where she has cut your reviews and pasted them in slowly by slowly. See, she tells my daughter, this is Masi, what a fine woman she is. I travelled second class last week to some hill station where it rained and where the children could eat nothing as we had to pay high price for the room. Potato cutlets were ten rupees a plate and coke was sixteen!  I ran my whole kitchen and a day's vegetables on that money. I longed to go back worrying for her,left alone to the care of a neighbour. I counted the hours when I could run into my own kitchen and toss up enough to feed the children.

Taking  our  bags  down at the station and  flagging  an  auto-rickshaw  we  were happy to be back, back home where I wiped the kitchen and put water to boil. Rupees ten for tea! The paper was at the doorstep. Turning the pages we saw a review of the new photos you had taken…of Artist Woman. The children clapped-wasn't their aunt brave and strong. I turned the key in the lock and began dusting. Then I went to the corner store to fetch milk and boiled it. And when they went for baths I got the kitchen running and put lunch on the table, called my neighbour to ask how Ma had been in my absence, to tell her I would fetch her in the evening. They scampered off to friends, my daughter singing, I will be an artist like Aunty when I grow up... while I cleared the table. My soiled fingers brushed against your face splashed on the newspaper, streaking it with grease. They lingered on, deepening the stain. Sister, why did you go so far to look for an artist  woman? Wasn't she in your own home, creating, right here her works of art?