Meena Alexander


Meena Alexander’s novel Nampally Road takes place in the city of Hyderabad amidst unrest and opposition to Chief Minister Limca Gowda, whose oppressive and violent rule has spurred the city’s residents into protest. Set during India’s fraught state of emergency from 1975-1977, enacted by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, where in the aftermath of war with Pakistan, elections were suspended and the government launched a massive crackdown on civil liberties and any forms of opposition. The book focuses on a young woman who has returned from England in order to both teach literature and make sense of herself and her own history. Mira Kannadical has returned after finishing her education in England. Arriving in a changed city, she becomes involved with Ramu, a passionate political activist. As her relationship with Ramu deepens, so too does her understanding of the political situation in Hyderabad. Mira struggles to reconcile her studies, her love of poetry and literature, with the violent reality of her city. The novel’s vivid and poetic language traces Mira’s burgeoning political awareness as she witnesses life on Nampally Road and grows more involved with the protests surrounding the brutal gang rape of a young Muslim woman, Rameeza Be, and the murder of her husband at the hands of police. In this two-part excerpt, Mira attempts to explain the beauty and relevance of Wordsworth to her students. As Mira searches for a way to make sense of what literature can mean when confronted with such bloodshed and to examine what Wordsworth can signify for a people terrorized by the state, Ramu arrives to take her to the police station where Rameeza is being held. What follows is a strange moment of clarity as Mira is pulled from the classroom, her space of abstract thought and poetic meditation, and into the middle of a fierce protest at the police station. Originally published in 1991, the novel has been reprinted by Orient Blackswan in 2013. - Shakti Castro

Chapter Five
Wordsworth in Hyderabad

The classroom was a makeshift one, a converted bedroom in what had once been the home of the poet Sarojini Naidu. The window at the back was plugged up for painters who had to dangle from the scaffolding trying to fix plaster. There was no lectern. Folding metal chairs borrowed from the cafeteria were placed in a semicircle. The rim of the semicircle grew larger and more disorganized as it spread outward until the very edges of the room seemed to burst with the burden of students making small talk, putting out cigarettes, straightening their hair or spectacles while they waited for me to start the day’s work. I pulled my sari tight around my waist and cleared my throat.

To gain courage I glanced at the students I knew best: Sowbhagyavati, delicate, wrapped in a printed sari, her two long plaits, tucked behind her, perplexed as she often was by my behavior, so her aunt had once told me.

“She admires you greatly, though,” the woman had added. “She knows no one else who reads poetry so well.” 

We were standing side by side in the SuperBazaar, at the checkout counter. I had smiled in a tight, embarrassed fashion, though I was pleased too. Now the young woman was staring at me. Next to her was Bakshi, cocksure, his cloth cap thrust back on his head.

“Theme of lecture, madam?”

I could tell he was trying to help me on. He knew I wrote poetry and that sometimes my mind did not quite latch onto the particulars of Wordsworth or Arnold, until a line of an image sang out. Clearly today I was in some trouble. Behind him was fierce young Chandrika, her eyes covered by thick spectacles. She was a card-carrying member of the CPM and openly critical of some of my speculations. Yet she was surprisingly sensitive to Matthew Arnold’s anguish. She seemed to understand it. Or perhaps it just confirmed her political views on the necessity of change. 

In his early twenties, Chandrika’s father had been a secretary of Subhas Chandra Bose, and the ideals of using violence to combat violence were quite clear in his daughter’s mind. She was contemptuous of what had become of the Gandhians in our lifetime. She observed the way in which petty politicians swarming around Limca Gowda picked up the clothing and overtly abstemious habits of the Gandhians, using it all in public to confound the populace and gain votes.

At Sagar Talkies about a month earlier there had been a documentary to promote good habits in Hyderabad. Little Mother had been keen on going and asked me along. So one evening after a light supper we walked down the road together and sat in the red rexine seats watching the show. Small bits of common sense shot through the script. Little commands peppered it. Do not stand near an exposed light switch during a thunderstorm. Do not pick up a poisonous snake in your bare hands (this always provoked great laughter). Do not drink. Do not try to have more than two children. Do not throw waste into the streets. Do not spit in buses. In the fashion of late eighteenth-century didacticism, each command had a little episode that illustrated the implicit moral. But there was nothing subtle about the film. The maid servant with disheveled hair who plonked herself down near the light switch during a thunderstorm, shuddered terribly as lightning struck. Finally she was permitted to expire. The man who raced imprudently into the busy street to toss out his rubbish got hit in the side by a rickshaw. The youth leaning over to spit in a bus started to choke. And so it went.

At the end of the documentary came a film clip of Gandhi just before the Salt March started, the wind blowing on his taut figure, the sun in his eyes, the specter of the British troops massed against the satyagrahis filling us all, so that the earlier commonsense dicta faded into the sepia of his figure and the frame of our lives seemed momentarily continuous with the past in a longed-for myth. We were magnified in our own eyes and forgot the peeling theater, the crowds leaning forward in their hot seats, the small children chewing toffees.

Then, in a quick cut, came images of Limca Gowda, Chief Minister of Hyderabad, so startling that we held our breath. His large figure was dressed in khadi, and he was standing at the edge of the post office in Hyderabad, or was it by the river? The background was so blurred that it was hard to tell. The wind was in his clothing too. His hands were held aloft. “Father of Hyderabad,” shouted some voices, which were picked up and heightened so that the sound track resembled the confusions of a morcha, of the kind where hundreds of peasants were driven in from miles away in the terrible heat of noonday. The promise of a free meal brought them in. Refusal had its costs too. And so it was that Limca’s name was chanted at demonstrations or at those special events orchestrated for dignitaries from Delhi.

The following day in class, in a discussion of Romantic myths of the Golden Age I mentioned Limca’s public relations film. Chandrika leaned forward and announced in a clear, loud voice that for her study group she was doing an analysis of the Limca film clip. 

“He’s making myth of himself. You know that, don’t you?” she challenged me. “In some way its tied up to all this Wordsworthian stuff you’re teaching us, Miss. I’m sure it is.”

She had looked tired that particular day. And she needed a response. But all I had said was, “Come let’s talk about it sometime?” It was a mild suggestion, intended to let me off the hook and everyone realized it.

Now my own vagueness latched in my mind as I saw her watching me. Was she right? Was there some link I had missed between Limca and the kinds of poetry I loved? I dismissed the thought. I would start from where I was. I would say what I wanted to say, and they would hear me out.

I gripped the edge of the blackboard. I drew a diagram, rather like a conical hat. It was a rough triangle with arrows running from top to bottom and left to right. “World Out There” I put on the right-hand side. “Inner Self” I wrote on the left, and at the top, where the arrows met in a slightly smeared point, I put “Romantic Object.” It gave me some pleasure to watch the students bent over in their notebooks copying my picture. 

I started in a monotone: “Romanticism is the belief in the self, the sense that the object only has value insofar as it is lit by the gaze.” This sounded good, almost like a book. There was a small fruit fly bothering me. I flicked it away.

“Now let’s bring this a little closer to hand.”

To start with I read out the phrases on the diagram. This composed me a little, allowed my voice to reach out. 

“This morning on my way to Sona Nivas I passed Optical Palace. I am sure that all of you know that shop. It stands at the corner of Nampally Road. I’ve seen at least one or two of you take your custom there.”

Everyone was listening. I too was waking up. The world was pouring into me. We were coming closer to home. Now the laughter of the painters hanging on the scaffolding outside did not matter so much.

“They have quite a display on the street front, hundreds of spectacles. Some have plastic rims, some metal rims, some bone rims. The lenses are all kinds of colors, pink, purple, blue, green, gray. See how we can transform the world?”

I smiled, relaxing a little. I noticed that Chandrika was frowning at my humor.

“There are literally hundreds of spectacles, and they twist and turn on their little wires catching all that’s to be seen, a multitude of images, all fractions of our world: the pavement, the seller of mangoes with his twisted knee, the edge of the Gandhi statue, the poor orange seller, the fat liquor merchant, even the blind beggar who stands there day after day, his back so straight against the sign that reads OPTICAL PALACE, VISION’S GLORY. Remember it?”

I paused. I did not want to lose my listeners. All this was from the world we lived in, and it was quite far from the Wye Valley poem that they were supposed to have read from today. But if I couldn’t make a connection what was the point? I continued with the thread of my argument.

“If caught and fixed for an instant, would those hundreds of lenses capture the world? Would they tell the truth about Nampally Road? And how would that truth relate to the ‘picture of the mind’ the Wye Valley poet talks about? Mr. Wordsworth, remember him? Is there any connection at all?”

Bakshi was stirring in his seat. He started to roll up his shirt sleeves in a slow, lazy fashion. 

“Or is there a world, indeed, apart from our seeing it?”

I stopped short. I had to keep them listening.

“Of course, Chandrika, you would argue that was foolish, no? Even a pernicious question? Of course the world exists. The question is, how does it form us? How does history make us?”

Across the open doorway, across the balcony that ran the length of the first floor of Sona Nivas I could make out the shabby tin-roofed buildings of the income tax office, the bolder red-painted walls of the liquor shop, and then the blue gates of the Diving Life Temple, so close that when its loudspeakers were turned on the devotionals drowned out all our voices.

Each year hundreds of devotees came to Hyderabad from as far away as California and Perth. They dressed in thin saffron clothing and sang in the streets, sometimes entering the college to try to gain a few followers. Mostly the students just stared at them or engaged them in chitchat about Capitalism and the Wrongs of Religion. The devotees, often young men and women who had fled their difficult parents and intransigent worlds, smiled docilely and repeated truths about Krishna’s love, which coming from their mouths hung like innocent butterflies in our air, weightless, irresolute. Right now none of the devotees were visible, but I could see the queues that had formed outside the income tax office. Its steps rose up in the heat. A sudden reminder of the other steps I had just seen. I stared at Bakshi. His uncle was a policeman.

“I am troubled, my friends. There is trouble in our streets. Two days ago some innocent orange sellers were struck on the head as they were trying to organize a peaceful protest against taxes. That too is our world. The world in which we sit trying to read the Wye Valley poem. Trying to bring it closer to home. The orange sellers, the woman raped and beaten.” 

I stopped. I forced myself to go on. I could feel the old choking sensation coming on me. If I didn’t continue I would have lost out, and all my words would lie inside me, churning in chaos.

“The use of the ‘picture of the mind,’ as he calls it so elegantly, is that it clarifies the world. Our world even. And Wordsworth is quite truthful about doubts and dismays, the slow workings of the consciousness.”

Outside, the sun was getting hotter and we were fanning ourselves with bits of paper. Up on the high gopiram of the temple the sacred lotus shone, its thousand and one petals clearly visible in the cloudless sky. I longed to stop. But I had to make sense, at least to myself. The students were all listening, watching intently as if I were a trickster at a fair who swallows pin and plate and apple and struggles to make them all rise up, whole and clean from her guts. Or will she make a pure new thing, a living dove or a hummingbird from all that stuff?

“Just after this class, if all goes according to plan, we will have a department meeting. At the meeting Professor Saab will ask me to keep notes in triplicate. Why triplicate? It was a practice set in motion by the East India Company. Lest one paper get lost, one important notation perish, each was copied in threes and each copy sent out in a different ship. Why should we do it? Is the question akin to why study Wordsworth in our new India?

“It’s a good question. I value Wordsworth for his great privacy of mind and his power. For his illuminations about memory. For his voice so refined that we can listen intently and then say, no our lives are not like that. We live with turmoil and disturbance, with the abuse of law. But as young man he knew a little about that too. Let me tell you.”

I never finished the remark. Ramu ran in through the door. His face shone with sweat. He was shaking with fatigue, with some intense emotion he was struggling to contain.

“Mira, you have to come with me. Dismiss your class now and come.”

I did not stop to question him. Something in me was prepared already. I turned back to the students who had half risen.

“There is an emergency. I am terribly sorry Wordsworth will have to wait. Please read ‘Tintern Abbey’ over again.”

Then I ran along the balcony with Ramu. The leaves of the neem trees that grew in the garden were level with our faces. I saw the small hairs on his forearms. His skin was golden in that gentle light screened through the guave branches that grew in Sarojini Naidu’s garden. The heat did not matter anymore. As we hurried down the staircase toward the street I could hear the loudspeaker in the temple cranking up. Soon the devotionals would flood the street.

“Little Mother, she’s very ill, but Rani and the apothecary are with her. I promised her I’d tell you. But the Gowliguda affair is more urgent still. We have to rush to the police station now or else they’ll finish her off. She’s half dead as it is. She’s a witness, Mira. She can tell us what really happened.”

He gripped my arm and we both raced down Nampally Road. 

Chapter Six
Rameeza Be

Our running had a life of its own, as if the haste and breathlessness were a world entire. I had felt the same uncertainty in the long air voyages that took me away and brought me back to India when I was a student. Worlds suspended, lives closing up, hanging fire. Now I felt as if I were breaking apart as I ran, and the little splinters hung in the air, in the crows, in the glittering particles of the lotus set atop the temple. Beggars sat hunched over in the courtyard of the temple. They had come from great distances for a handful of grain. Small children clung to their mothers. The heat made my sari stick to my legs, and I had to lift it off my ankles in order to run. 

We passed the crossroads by Mirror Mahal, a shop run by a Punjabi salesman. He hung his mirrors out on the pavement and the world shone into them and broke loose at dizzying speed. The catch of my foot soles on the ground was a comfort. I saw a woman cobbler bent over, cutting up small pieces of leather. She had spread a cloth on the pavement, a little to the right of Mirror Mahal. She was so intent on what she was doing that she missed us waving at her. I knew her a little. From time to time she mended my chappals. Ramu did not slow down at all, and I was coughing and gasping for breath before we reached the open space where the Gowliguda police station stood.

When Ramu came to pull me out of Sona Nivas, at first I had no clear idea of where he was taking me. When he told me that Little Mother was terribly ill, my first instinct was to run to her side. But he wouldn’t let me. His grip was like iron. And somehow I trusted him. It was like trusting the rough surface of Nampally Road, or the air that sometimes makes you cough as smoke drifts south from the bicycle factories or when tires are burned at night during demonstrations, making the nostrils of those who watch grow puffy and red. But still one goes on breathing, trusting the air.

So I ran with him down the side road, past the New Mysore Café and round the railway station, past the sellers of sandalwood and incense, past the young mothers clutching their infants to their swollen breasts. I could hear the rickshaw drivers cry out as we raced past them, I could hear the fishwives and the sellers of vegetables, all the way to the open space where the police station stood. 

Already a small crowd had gathered. People stood talking in knots. They were agitated, unresolved about action until a lion of a man tugged off his red shirt, unwrapped his bandana, and with shoulder muscles gleaming above his great chest, raised his arms with a loud martial cry. He was clearly a kabbadi master and proud of his art. He turned his body into a piston, bending forward, exerting huge pressure on the arm muscles. Beside him scores of men and women thrust hard against the main doors of the police station. The wood was old and gave way easily. A stream of people burst in behind the kabbadi master, up the stone steps where two nights earlier the policemen had dragged Rameeza. 

Ramu and I got there just in time to see the kabbadi master stride up the steps. It was obvious Ramu knew him, but I did not know from where. He called after him but with the jostle of people all around, the large man did not hear. This time we both entered the building.

The police office had been built by the British in the style of cantonment architecture: stone steps, a gracious verandah, white pillars, and the whole edifice whitewashed to keep the heat at bay. But as we entered, the main room seemed curiously empty. It had a low wooden platform with a large teak table, three chairs behind it all in a row, and on the polished surface a leather-bound book propped open, a steel pen attached to the spine with a bit of string. Two portraits hung above the platform, to visitors from our history: Gandhi drawn in faded brown ink with parted lips, tiny brown spectacles and a bent nose. He held a telephone in his right hand. I noticed the mosquitoes buzzing over the bit of the glass frame where his spectacles were. To the right was a portrait of Nehru, erect, handsome, his cap pointed, polished on his head. His teeth gleamed in the photograph, clearly brushed each morning, an aristocrat lacking a phone line with the future. 

Her sari was stiff with blood. I could tell by looking. She lay curled up on the mud floor of the cell just behind the wooden desk. Her face was held up by the mud. In spite of the mosquitoes buzzing over her, both eyes were open. She was breathing in jagged, irregular breaths. I gripped the cell bars and stared and stared at her. I bent forward, and half crouching put my hand through the bars and touched her damp forehead. The hair from her head was plastered in a light mat on her cheeks, held together with blood. It was all dark, the blood, the smear of earth from the cell floor, and the great welts on her face. Her cheekbones were so fine, they might have been composed with clear brush strokes. 

There was a commotion just behind. A group of young men struggled with a policeman. They had caught him in surprise.

“Where is she? Where have you taken her?”

I could hear the words shouted as several policemen came forward from a cubicle at the back of the room. I turned away from Rameeza and noticed the brilliant ribbons, the golden epaulettes stitched to the policeman’s uniform. He had an immaculate mustache and a swagger stick under his arm. I watched in a daze as men swarmed over each other, shouting in the corner of the main room and others pounded up the steps, swarming forward. Smoke was everywhere. I started coughing. Someone pushed me aside. Hands tore at the bars. Someone used an iron rod. Finally the padlock gave way and several arms reached in and lifted up Rameeza. I saw her pupils dilate as they carried her out, irises rimmed with the night, so black, whole cities might have plunged in them and remained intact, flooded by ruin on the other side of hell. I thought I heard her babbling something, but in that crush of men and women I could not be sure, for I was trying to save myself from being trampled.

To the cries of men and women using milk bottles and soda bottles and bottles filled with kerosene, bearing sticks and stones and bits of lumber in the clear afternoon heat, the police station started burning. It burned very well. Almost as if the old plaster and worn-out teak beams were waiting for an excuse. Toward the end only the metal bars from the cells were left, red hot, bent into S shapes.

“Like infernal serpents,” Ramu told me later.

A cur dog was found in the ashes, roasted alive. Its toenails were intact, miraculously saved by the bricks that had fallen over its legs, pinning it down in the blaze. Of the two portraits, nothing was left, not even the metal frames.

Now Rameeza’s story spread through Hyderabad like smoke from the burning police station. A young woman had come in from the mountains with her husband. They had gone to see the celebrated Isak Kataha at Sagar Talkies. It was late at night. Walking back to the home of relatives, along the deserted road in Gowliguda, they fell prey to a horde of drunken policemen. Rameeza was gang raped. Her husband had his brains beaten out. His body was recovered from a well behind the police station. Swollen, the eyes puffed out, it was identified by his brother, a lorry driver in Hyderabad. Now the police station was burning, iron bars and all, a quick sudden revenge. 

By the time the hundreds of reserve police and the gangs of the Ever Ready men arrived on the scene, there was nothing much to do except watch the police station burn. Rameeza had been carried away to a safe house, and most of the people had dispersed. Those who remained, throwing bricks and bottles at the handful of policemen on duty, were quickly arrested and carted off in the black vans.

The Chief Minister’s birthday was coming closer and the disruption had to be “contained.” That was the verb used in the Deccan Herald and announced on the radio news. A search was on for the enemies of the law and for the woman Rameeza, source of the turbulence. Rewards were announced for finding her. Five noble policemen suffered head injuries, the news said, though no one was seriously hurt. The Ever Ready jingle.

Ticktock ticktock
Ever Ready Ever Ready
EverReady Battery –o

was played louder than ever before. There were several items of news on the All-India Radio about encounters with armed students, members of the Naxalite groups in the hills north of the city. The next day dozens of student leaders, workers, and a handful of intellectuals who were thought to be subversives were rounded up and arrested. They were to be held in “protective detention,” it was said, until the Chief Minister’s birthday was over. No one knew where Ramu was. It was not clear if he has was among those who had been arrested.

Sitting by Little Mother’s side as she lay on her sick bed, I listened carefully to the radio announcements. The broadcasts said large forces of reserve police were being sent to Hyderabad by the central government. I turned the radio off and listened to the sounds from the window. The window was closed tight at the apothecary’s advice, lest the night air harm Durgabai. I could hear very little. 

Meena Alexander was born in Allahabad and raised in both India and the Sudan. She is the author of two novels, Nampally Road, and Manhattan Music, and seven collections of poetry, among them Birthplace with Buried Stones and House of a Thousand Stones. She is the author of several books of essays and an autobiography published in 1993. She received her Bachelor’s degree in French and English from Khartoum University in Sudan, and her PhD in English from the University of Nottingham. She is currently Distinguished Professor of English and Women’s Studies at CUNY. Professor Alexander is an award-winning scholar, poet, and writer whose work frequently focuses on issues of identity and migration.