Sunday, September 19, 2010

Dhonai Tells a Story, by Nitoo Das

It is best not to look at the crow now. With its five-fingered blast of wing, it can summon you into the geometric trickery of trident, cross and circle. And then, there is no escape. It is best not to look at the crow because this story is not about it. This story is about a man and it took place some time ago. Do not ask me when because I will be unable to answer truthfully. Let me clarify further. This story is about me and in those days, I was a man. Not too tall, dark-limbed, wiry. A man who was called Dhonai by everyone who knew him. Some people say my name was Dhonokanto, but I do not remember anybody ever calling me by that name. So, Dhonai I was, all through my life.

From the time I was a child, I was taught the craft of my parents. They painted gods, birds, suns, trees heavy with fruit, colourful brides and much more on mud-wet walls. When I was around eleven, my father started drawing on cloth, but we were poor and did not have much cloth to spare. My mother drew only on walls and always thought father’s desire to draw on cloth was a strange modern corruption. My uncles and neighbours laughed at him. But father was stubborn in a way only artists can be and he sat sullen and sorrowful whenever he was confronted with a wall that needed painting. He stared at the blank, brown space for hours together and finally, after much contemplation, he would scratch the lampblack with his neem-stalk brush and draw a crow. Always one solitary crow. Sometimes flying, sometimes on an austere branch, sometimes just staring out at nothing.

Father grew increasingly aloof. Whenever he found a piece of cloth, his imagination pounced on it. But still, he drew only crows. More crows. Crows that were fluttering scratches on the rags he found. All his colours--pollen, turmeric, sap of leaves, indigo, palash flowers-- crowded around them. Colours for the trees, margins, skies, in-between spaces. Everything else was soot, cowdung, charcoal and lampblack for his crows. Thousands and thousands of them. Sometimes, he drew them with great care. Perfect lines, round eyes, clear claws. At other times, he drew them like they were sounds--cawcawcaw of black. People grew wary of him. He did not get too many jobs. The burden of drawing for the whole family fell on mother and we grew poorer.

One day, some months before he died, father called me to him and told me a story:

Dhonai, when I was your age, I heard a voice crying out to me. It was a full moon night and I could see the fields around me. I walked towards the voice shouting, “Who are you? What do you want?” There was no response, just a wild moaning and wailing. After a while, I started shivering in fear, but I kept walking. My clothes were wet with my sweat and my feet felt each pebble on the road. I saw a cow approach from the left. After a while, I realised it was not a cow, but a big, white bird and it carried a crow in its beak. The crow was dying and it had tears in its eyes. I reached out to touch it, but at that very moment, the white bird flapped its wings and disappeared into the night.

After telling me this story, father went back to his habitual silence and I went to the forest to brood. It was not easy having a father like him. I was almost relieved when he was found dead by the water hyacinth pond. But this story is about me and I should get back to it. I wanted to draw on cloth like my father. It was easier for me. The new cotton mill in our village threw away a lot of cloth and I went there every week to pick up the ones I wanted. My mother sometimes looked at me with worried eyes. Perhaps she feared I would turn out like my father. I did not talk to her much; did not explain things to her. I was certain this was the way to be…the new way to draw. I did not have to rush against time; paintpaintpaint without thought while the walls dried fast and furious.

When I turned twenty-five, crows began to interest me. I remember the day well. Sharma Master had asked me to come and paint his son’s nuptial room. I was given tea in the cup kept aside for people like us. The whole day I painted the usual: mating snakes, cooing doves, butterflies on scarlet hibiscus, young couples garlanding each other. And just before I ended, just as the day drew to a close, a few crows. Sharma Master flew into a rage when he saw them and shouted at me, “You’re as mad as your father. Erase the crows, you lowborn bastard!” 

I walked home. Inside me, I felt the need to draw more crows. I knew I could not do it in my mother’s presence and went off to the forest whenever I heard the crowbite in my fingers. It was a longing I could not control. In fact, I did not want to. Approximately a year later, I saw the first changes in me and soon, Dhonai, the man turned into Dhonai, the crow. I embraced the change with blue-black wings. My mother never found out. She had always been rather shortsighted; all those years of poring over colours, fussing over brushes had done that to her. I sometimes cawed when she was near me to see if she noticed. She never did.

I went wherever I wanted to. I looked at people’s eyes and knew their secrets. I sang songs with the fishermen. I bathed in the sacred river and flew away from their temples before they could throw stones at me. 

Nitoo Das teaches English at Indraprastha College for Women, University of Delhi. Das is one of the featured poets on Poetry International Web's page on India. Her poetry has been published in online sites like Pratilipi, Eclectica, Muse India, and Poetry with Prakriti, as well as in several anthologies. Her first collection, "Boki", was published by Virtual Artists Collective, Chicago, in September 2008.


  1. My favorite part of this short story was the imagery. I thoroughly enjoyed the story as a whole, especially because of the different type of family dynamic it portrayed; that was really intriguing to read. However, the imagery really made this story shine; as I was reading I could vividly picture every painting, every cloth and every crow. It really came alive. I also think that the picture is a great counterpart; the story certainly isn't what I expected to go along with this photo, but it definitely works well.

    -Alicia Lazzaro

  2. alicia

    nitoo is definitely a talented writer. she does many things well. poetry is her first voice, which i think comes through in her use of language here.

  3. I really enjoyed this story because it is very creative. They show a different type of family. Families are not perfect. This particular story shows how people view different families and how family members see themselves. I especially liked the descriptions of the crows and how they appear in the characters' lives. The picture itself I think tied in really well because it relates completely to the story, and even though it is part of the story, it is not the main focus.

  4. your observations about the tentative, but indefatigable link between image and word is astute.

    nitoo is a fantastic photographer. it was hard for her to choose one from the hundreds of lovely shots she has taken.

  5. I agree to Alicia how the use of imagery really shines this story. All descriptions were very vivid and imaginable that I was capable of visualizing the story in my mind as I was reading it. The father’s “habitual silence” really touched me. When everyone said no to his art, he truly enjoyed himself in doing it and he managed to live in his own world, excluded from the family and the society.
    After the father's death, I liked how the son inherited the father’s gift and uniqueness in art; I thought it was ironic but interesting.

    Green Shin

  6. Ralph-

    I agree with both Alicia and Green that the imagery of this piece is captivating. In a narrative style that I typically stray from, this descriptive language drew me in and made me keep reading. I was especially drawn in by the little details that he tells the reader but does not explain, much like the dynamic of his and his mother's relationship. One specifically includes his name. Why does he not associate by his former name? Is he shamed by his family?

    After reading the entire piece, I recognized how mesmerizing it is as a whole. The author even warns in the beginning: "It is best not to look at the crow now. With its five-fingered blast of wing, it can summon you into the geometric trickery of trident, cross and circle. And then, there is no escape. It is best not to look at the crow because this story is not about it." It seems as though the narrator, too, has trouble not looking at the crow, not looking at himself. He frequently looses sight of his topic and goes on tangents about his mother's painting, his father's death, his father's artwork. But as readers, we are reminded to remember that this piece is not about anything or anyone but the man, himself.

    I would like to read more of the author's work, actually. Her voice is beautiful.

    -Kierston Rusden

  7. Ralph- I love this piece of work. Yes, the imagery is both vivid and captivating. However, It is the sense of nostalgia that I find most compelling. This character is an artist, a thinker. He says the story is not about the crow, which i find ironic. To me, this story may not be about the crow itself, but it is about what the crow represents for Dhonai; what he realized he could do, what he could be, where he could go with it...It has a sense of self exploration, and i find it moving. I definitely relate, both as a person and as an artist.
    Blayke from Literature of Photography

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  9. green, blake

    nitoo definitely has a way with words. and the tale is definitely non western in its tone and use of language. nitoo lives in new dehli. this is definitely influential on her voice.


    For more of nitoo's work, go here.

    don't hesitate to leave here a comment or two. tell her you know me.