Nabina Das (2011-2012)

nabina das

Most recently the author of a short fiction collection The House of Twining Roses: Stories of the Mapped and the Unmapped (LiFi Publications, Delhi) and a poetry collection Into the Migrant City (Writers Workshop, Kolkata), Nabina Das’ debut novel Footprints in the Bajra (Cedar Books, Delhi) was longlisted in the prestigious "Vodafone Crossword Book Award 2011". An MFA from Rutgers University, US, and an MA from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, Nabina’s debut poetry collection Blue Vessel (Les Editions du Zaporogue, Denmark) was nominated as one of the best of 2012. Nabina’s poetry and prose appear in several international journals and anthologies, the latest being The Yellow Nib: Modern English Poetry by Indians, Queen’s University, Belfast. A contributor to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Prairie Schooner literary journal blog, Nabina is the winner of the 2012 Charles Wallace Fellowship in Creative Writing, University of Stirling, UK, and the 2012 Sangam House Lavanya Sankaran Fiction Fellowship besides other prizes in major national poetry contests. With a background in journalism and media, Nabina is trained in Indian classical music. She teaches Creative Writing in classrooms and workshops, and occasionally blogs at

Time at Stirling

The 2012 Charles Wallace Fellowship in Creative Writing with University of Stirling, Scotland, is not just an award but an experience. As a poet and novelist one would know that residencies and fellowships are abundant for the qualified and the interested, but CW is a project that permeates into the non-writing life of the writer as well. Once in Stirling on April 1, 2012, I realized, the CW Fellowship is never meant to be a chore or a set of “duties” the writer has to report hour by hour or day by day. Provided with an office equipped with desks and computers, an intercom line, and copying and printing facilities in the Pathfoot Building, where the English department is housed, the CW Fellowship was a constant reminder that I have an excellent support system to lean back on.

The office staff with smiling faces and ever accommodating attitude helped me set up my Internet access, replaced my laptop with an office one when the former died a temporary death, sorted out the finances (I had to borrow some cash in the first week, thanks to my crazy planning on the date of arrival), and helped me get my way around the university library system. Jacqui Harrop as the nodal administrative staff sorted all my travel, accommodation, and general queries. Besides, she became a dear friend in such a short time.

My fellowship application was chosen by Prof. David Richards and Prof. Gemma Robinson (both postcolonial scholars) of University of Stirling, along with Mr. Richard Alford who is in charge of disbursing the scholarship from the Charles Wallace India Trust. In an informal chat with Prof. Richards, he informed me that my application made it to the top from the largest pool of applicants that year, especially when those that applied also included graphic novelists and travel writers. Needless to say, I cherished the fellowship even more.

My experience at University of Stirling was singular and vibrant. I came in with a fledgling novel manuscript and a humongous poetry manuscript that I was struggling to put in order. Revisions are the greatest tools of a writer, I believe, as also a bane when it comes to finding time and inclination for it. At my office in Pathfoot Building, I spent a number of mornings and afternoons -- surprisingly focused – working on my revisions. The novel got some framework worked upon, a long pending task. A short fiction manuscript went through crucial changes. The humongous poetry collection got split up into three manuscripts.

One of the manuscripts, titled BLUE VESSEL, was picked up for publication by Les Edition du Zaporogue, Denmark. This collection was nominated as one of the best Indian poetry books of 2012 by renowned Indian poet Sudeep Sen. Writers Workshop, a prestigious art press in Kolkata, India, recently published INTO THE MIGRANT CITY, which has a very favorable foreword from Keki N Daruwalla, one of India’s top veteran poets. I’m hoping the third poetry manuscript, titled NARRATIVE LIMITS, will soon find a good home too.

Alongside with the above, the short fiction collection called THE HOUSE OF TWINING ROSES has come out from LiFi Publications, Delhi (2013-14), with a generous introduction from Ashok Banker and jacket blurbs from the Indian writer-translator Arunava Sinha and the bestselling US genre writer Kris Saknussemm.

While largely the CW Fellowship is an open field for the writer to do as she pleases – no one forces her to do office time, sit at the bureau, submit daily or weekly reports/proofs of writing, or even deliver administrative or teaching duties – there is one specific aspect to it. An exciting one at that. There is one formal reading that the Fellow does for the department and related forums. I had the unique opportunity to read with two Royal Literary Fund fellows in front of the English Studies faculty and students, two Creative Writing classes, and several others. The reading went exceptionally well for which I can only thank the English department at University of Stirling.

Teamed with a children’s writer and a short fiction writer, I wondered in the beginning if poetry would hold the attention of the audience, especially, the students. Poetry all over the world, after all, is not the most desired public literary presentation, unless it is a wedding dedication or a funeral tribute, as Charles Simic has discussed somewhere. However, I was thrilled to gauge comments and reactions from the students after my reading. As a Creative Writing instructor, questions on craft and revisions were exactly the ones I expected to answer.

What else does one do during the CW Fellowship other than write, revise, read and research? Well, the English department colleagues are wonderful scholars and friends to get to know. Lunch in the canteen with everybody and coffee thereafter over discussions on teaching methods, students, books, and topics of common interest kept me occupied. Other than the faculty providing me eloquent company in a new country, I obtained the privilege of being invited to lunches/dinners, theater shows, concerts, outings, and also got tips on how to travel around Scotland or the UK in general.

This brings to me the travel aspect of my stay as a CW Fellow, a rather important activity. The fellowship time spent in CWIT provides one enough scope for exploring other things. Not only did I have ample time to pop in to nearby Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dunblane, but also travel to London, and of course, the Highlands.

The Highlands may be called the grand finale to my Scotland sojourn. One cannot be in Scotland and not be in the Highlands. Therefore, end-June, I set off on the scenic heritage rail route via Fort William to Mallaig, the westernmost tip of the UK. We all know the Jacobite train is a treat to the eyes, although it didn’t run on the Sunday I went to Mallaig. Most people these days also know it as the Hogwarts Express of Harry Potter fame. In all, this rounding off of my CW Fellowship before I flew back to India left a deep imprint on my mind. The spirit of Scotland rings true in these lines for me:

My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here, 
My heart is in the Highlands, a-chasing deer; 
Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe, 
My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go. – Robert Burns

Hyderabad, India

Creative writing extracts

Dera Ghazi Khan, 1925

They had coarse cotton on spindles 
They had coarse hands on cows’ udders 
Utter summer sun melting before the lentils boiled up.

They brought red dust of a dirt-tracked Multan 
They could read only the forehead lines of their old 
Older than border lines, not the footsteps both ways

They told stories of sad rivers that never were 
They revved up stolen bikes when easy money jingled 
Jimmying up the narrow lanes where kids and dogs ran

They have evening songs to old sleepy goddesses 
They have dreams of where the dead speak aloud 
They now laud bringing water and history in saved brass jars 
From a Dera Ghazi Khan of lonely broken doors left ajar.

Goodbye to Ballimaran

I’ve heard about riled up days that despised names of verses 
they preferred riding jaunty jeeps through the old town 
earlier than the rooster, stopping for certain numbered doors

Possibly those sweaty days turned swear words into Molotovs 
singed bamboo screens drying after summer’s whimsy and rain 
left a few blackened posts under roofs where couplets lived

Possibly I imagined my footsteps would precede yours there 
even now, waiting, a tender pastured horse munching rhymes 
your leftover half-ghazals, their florid maktas, for this was love

Didn’t Ghalib live here? My rickshaw man pedaled and smiled 
He bought his quarter peg here every evening, walked from there! 
No wonder I imagined your beard hair on the banister, wind-tangled

If you still exhaled behind that cindered verandah I would not know 
holding broken bangle pieces of a departed love, post intermission 
Alvida, you must’ve said in a sad refrain, adding in English, “So long”.

Summer of 2006, Rue du Faubourg-St. Antoine, Paris

For Czeslaw Milosz

Walking into the fish 
store I pick 
up a herring, see 
its dying eyes. 
All the while 
the Senegalese 
butcher keeps asking me 
over and over something 
I don’t understand: 
perhaps fillets or steaks, 
how I want them, whether 
I eat them 
with lime or lentils. 
Or perhaps 
his gesture 
is at the unaccustomed 
cherries falling 
out of my shopping 
bag touched 
by skins of hands from continents. 
They were many:

“… from Jassy and Koloshvar, Wilno and Bucharest, Saigon and Marrakesh”

A man paints 
the wall in front 
of a studio that has 
my scarf flutter 
from the window 
where I hang 
my showered arms 
in the evenings 
to watch all 
expressions rally 
towards the somber 
Bastille holding bright 
placards and greens and fish 
and balloons. Men 
and purple mothers 
on the sidewalk 
wearing boubous pushing prams 
with kids that answer ‘Oui!’ 
into the red-wine 
evening of the street, 
the silent statues, roundabouts. 
Then I see the horseman 
rise at Place 
de la Nation 
a wanderer who forgot what 
he’s looking for, watching 
civilizations take shape 
as my fingers sink 
deep into the fresh country 
baguette the old Romanian baker 
hands me minus the change. 
I then wade in the street 
to see how deep 
run the tears of milling 
beggars, teenagers hop- 
scotching on skateboards 
between poppies in the grass, 
the smiles of older men 
of heavy leathery faces 
playing petanque 
in a dusty park passing 
sweaty bills from hand to hand. 
They were many… 
I wait for the Turkish 
grandfather to skim 
tender meat 
for my sandwich, flare up 
the harissa 
and words come 
back like sleepy embers: 
Where’s your home and do 
you miss your wife or horse? 
Mundane exchanges 
that hold like branches to the trees 
lining my Rue 
du Faubourg-St. Antoine 
stretched from the wings 
of a spent owl 
that perches only at night 
hooting hoo hoo hoo 
at our taboos 
like the one I left 
under a peepul leaf 
in an earthen jar 
drinking the sap of dust 
from our feet 
all over this fist-flattened world.

We are many 
not only

“… from Jassy and Koloshvar, Wilno and Bucharest, Saigon and Marrakesh.”

Death and Else

age seven:
a white-sheeted stomach
an upward motion
drowning breath.
i’m  just a fly
on the wall thinking
why the old man
won’t sit up any more
get his shirt
worn-out leather belt
soaked dentures
and just go.

age eleven:
grandma is all marigold petals
her widow kitchen
shut and swept clean.
the hens she shooed
from the porch
aren’t happy either.
they miss her
rant as much as i do
her cow-dung mud floors
ladles bent
brass plates lying idle.

she recounts the story
at our sleepover --
her sister had sat
where i sit
under the same ceiling
fan from where she
later dangled.
they had a song
about skirt hems
secret love letters.
her voice rebounds
against the ceiling’s hurt
old rose wall
sister’s school sash
the familiar ant crawling up.

early youth:
newspaper packagings never fail
to surprise, to raise curiosity
about a life in black and white, so
i sit down cross-legged poring
with no dateline.
soon the newsprint too
gets shredded --
strip limbs
defaced alphabets
police-record names.

time of lust:
we kiss in a living shadow
away from the dead
body lying gently
in the front yard.
no one notices us
and the mourning
tastes like his stale
my chipped nails
fail to dig into his skin
and we miss the dead.

the other day:
my father’s face
is held in four frames
that don’t contain
his timex watch
the steel-rimmed glasses
a karl marx tie pin
and a pen of many decades.
the frames box him
like all things past,
they smooth his
tender jaw and here
he is young
he is in love.


On the slate-colored Seine:
someone told me
of Papon’s dead
still floating at
the murky base.

Boats swam
under sublime bridges
their golden domes blinking
in the sun fishing
history with
their reluctant squint.

On the Seine:
summer’s heat wiped
shriveled faces of old
stories rising
in vapors.

Hands clutched tight
some tied
their voices
a distant diesel-motor roar
perhaps gurgling
out: je m’en charge…

The Sea near Battery Place, New York

The gray gulls nod and talk to
the Museum of Jewish Heritage
they sit on a stone-man’s head
right by the shingled jetty

It’s afternoon and children
cheer at the sea, rolling waves;
we stand next to a waterside wall

The police have stopped traffic
it seems some car has knocked
down one of those burrito men

Nagged by chilly winds we
spot darkness under the seagulls’
wings. They’re now still, stoned with
the torpor of fading siren chimes.

No Country, No Names

The young girl in a sari was
Off to the library, her hands
Clasping books, she didn’t see
The truck crawl up behind her
Stuffed with soldiers wearing
Leafy helmets, false implants in
The heart of that shell-shocked
Macadamized Bengal town

Her face a sorry storybook
Quite a few pages torn
When they found her by
A garbage dump, stared at
By the ancient panhandler
The poor bastard refused arrest
Shouted abuses, got suitably
Thrashed by the police

A young man had whispered
The night before: show your palm
The red henna peacock from
The evening’s merry festivities
And she read him a poem
About crocodiles in snare
Until they fell asleep in
Each other’s arms, dreaming

There was a river, grass and
Flowers shrouding its banks
Its depth unknown, but easy
For the rebels who could swim
The same night Yahya Khan
Made quick plans to strike
Universities where students
Danced to songs of Tagore

That was a night when nervous
Sirens screamed on and on, his
Would-be bride was picked up
And thrown. Folding up
Maps that fooled, didn’t show
A country of hearts, he left
A peacock mourned for her
And him. No country yet for them.

The River on a Pyre

Eyeing the Brahmaputra
Flowing with its whale-body
And the faraway banks smoking
She thought death stood quiet.

Quietly performing the ritual
Of mouth-fire for her own for
The bodies that once talked
Laughed and spread guile.

Eyeing the strong-arm river’s sweep
Carrying unsuspecting dolphins
And last night’s smoky limbs
From the pyres she watched
Across her verandah over the
Monsoon’s damp dribble.

She searched out the smell
Ashes in the wind stuck
Like the stunned river’s pride
The look of a living face
smoke-screened in twilight.

(All poems from INTO THE MIGRANT CITY, Writers Workshop, India, 2013)