Read time: 4 mins

My Dream House & Helpless City

by Basudev Sunani
9 August 2021

Translated from Odia to English by Animesh Mohapatra

Translator’s note

I felt drawn to the poems by Basudev Sunani because they articulate experiences not generally explored in modern Odia poetry. His poems meditate upon forms of deprivation and the ways in which the downtrodden are stripped of their humanity. They are suffused with understated yet powerful irony. These elements presented special challenges when I translated the poems into English. Since the poems embody a compelling response to extraordinary social crises, a translator runs the risk of reducing them to statements. So, I paid particular attention to the music of words, syntactical structures and the nuances of the images. While translating the poems, I have avoided being absolutely faithful to the words on the page as an overemphasis on literalness would have diminished the appeal of the poem to the reader. For example, I silently dropped reference to the Gita in ‘My Dream House.On occasion, I have omitted translating words which I thought were repetitive and redundant to achieve intensity of effect.


 

My Dream House

 

I think

I’ll build a house.

 

Borrowing the plan

from the weaver bird

I’ll engage the spider,

even if I have to pay a little more,

to be the mason.

 

And as for the plot on which to build it

I am sure

someone will spare me

five feet five inches

in the heart.

 

When the house is ready

I’ll stock in the courtyard

the tweet of sparrows,

the click of geckos,

and in the kitchen

I’ll store the squeak of rats.

 

And what will be the subject

of the painting I’ll hang on the wall?

 

Not a boat on the sea

nor tigers in the forest

nor even Krishna on the battlefield in the Mahabharata.

 

No, for such images

adorn every house.

 

Instead I’ll hang a painting

of Poda Majhi boarding a bus

on his way to the brick kiln

carrying his tin box on his head

and holding aluminium pots and pans.

 

I’ll hang this painting

with his name written beneath it

on the wall facing my bed.

 

Listening to the wonderful choral sound of

tweet, click and squeak

and focusing on the painting

I’ll be lulled to sleep.

 

For centuries I’ll sleep.

 

And when archaeologists

unearth this house

after many many years

they won’t find

the sparrows’ tweet

the geckos’ click

the rats’ squeak.

 

They may not even find

my bed or my bones.

 

But the painting would

still be on the wall

making historians imagine

that people in the bygone age

were traders and that

Poda Majhi was their leader.


 

Helpless City

 

Like a python

the lonely road

lies asleep.

 

The timid stray dog

once afraid of crossing the street

now roams like a lion.

 

The road knew well

the bustle of the traffic and people

who scurried in swarms like the winged ants

fly out of their hill

 

And also knew

the soiled palms

that kept it clean

and the sweaty feet

that pedalled on it tirelessly.

 

It knew the parched throats

that drained water from the pipe

in the public toilet

 

And the guts

that hurriedly swallowed rajma-chawal

bought from the street vendor.

 

Long days ago, having crushed underfoot

their wives’ love

their children’s tenderness

their well-wishers’ concern

and the pull of their ancestral land

they had rushed to Delhi

a burden of hunger

their sole possession.

 

Their dreams, sweat and skills

breathed life

into the city.

Homes, drains, streets

chowks, malls, offices, parks

stations, bazaars

every place their hands cleaned

and brought smiles to a million faces.

 

A film of arrogance

dropped between our eyes and

the miserable shanty towns

and the roadside trees

they perilously struggled under.

 

A dreadful loneliness

fills these empty roads now.

 

Invisible are those

palms, feet and guts.

 

Their hunger and misery

bundled in a cloth

they head for

the broken walls

and torn thatch

of the homes

they were forced to abandon.

 

Like a dead python

lies Delhi

helpless.

 

The city teems with

mighty millionaires and powerful politicians.

 

 

And yet

the head of the state

pleads with folded hands

all the worthless feet and palms

to stay back.

 

Tell me why?

 

Who depends on whom?

 

Does the city need them

or do the feet and palms, Delhi?


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Illustration by Rohini Mani

About the Author

Basudev Sunani

Basudev Sunani (born 1962) is an award-winning writer, in Odia and English, from Odisha. His poems (‘Asprushya’, ‘Karadi Haat’  and ‘Chhi’, among others), novels (Padaa Podi and Mashanee Sahara Delhi), stories, essays (in Dalit Encounter, Ambedkarism: A Way of Life, among others), translations, science writings and documentaries are widely read. His works have been translated into […]

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