Get to know… Manjula Datta

I was born and brought up in Nairobi. My parents were from Calcutta and although Bengali was my home language I also spoke Hindi, Punjabi and Gujerati with friends, while English was for learning at school. I grew up listening to and singing the songs composed by Rabindranath Tagore, in Bengali. His world-view subconsciously gave me the strength to face the unknown and find harmony and peace in the here and now. Looking back I feel it also laid the foundation for me to connect with poetry in a different language and a different culture. We went back to Calcutta when I was 12 where I attended Loreto Day School.

To this day I remember my wonderment as a 13-year-old sitting in a classroom in the sweltering heat of Calcutta and an incessant flow of serpentine traffic outside, how the opening lines of Wordsworth’s poem, The Solitary Reaper, gripped me and transported me to the Outer Hebrides, as my teacher, Mrs. Saldanah, read:

Behold her single in the field
Reaping and singing by herself

– which awakened my memory of the intertwined link between imagery and emotions, I came across in Tagore’s songs and poems. This, as well as the profound line in the poem:

Will no one tell me what she sings?

– which resonated in my memory of a holiday in Darjeeling, where women tea-pickers soulfully sang in a language I did not know.

From thereon, reading poems in English became a joyful experience. Thus inspired, I went on to study English for my First and Second degree at Calcutta University. I came to the UK in the 1970s and trained as a primary school teacher. I started teaching in an inner-London school which boasted 19 different home languages. Here I used poetry as a tool for teaching and learning higher level literacy skills in English. The children’s developing awareness of metaphors was interesting. They were always fascinated by the ‘pictures’ in the poems ‘made with words’, and I encouraged them to create unique descriptions and metaphors in English, that drew on their personal linguistic and cultural knowledge, which became a key theme of my book – Bilinguality and Literacy. I went on to become a university lecturer, involved in teaching and research for over 30 years. I am happy to note that my book is now in its 2nd edition, and is used in teacher education across Britain.

I have recently completed my first novel, Name in the Sand, and am currently working on a poetry collection, Music from the River, bringing together my translations of Tagore’s songs on rain as well as Bangla folk songs and writing my memoir.

I met Writing Room Director Kate Pemberton at a literary event in Haringey where I read extracts from my novel, Name in the Sand. Kate was a great source of inspiration and helped me with editing the
work. More recently, she invited me to look at the online creative writing courses via Zoom run by Writing Room. The idea of writing Flash Fiction, as something new, attracted me. I enjoyed the course
taught by Giovanna lozzi. It taught me how to write succinctly, how to edit my work closely to meet the criteria of flash fictions effectively. I enjoyed Gio’s teaching. She was always well informed and well-prepared, capable of holding the group’s interest, as well as being sensitive to the collective and individual needs of students.

Following that I joined her Life Writing & Memoir Workshop. Here too, I enjoyed Gio’s teaching as well
as working with a group of people in the process of writing their memoirs, to the extent that I enrolled again for a follow-up course. Needless to say I was motivated by Gio’s lively interest in the topic as well as the group’s cooperative spirit. My memoir writing became alive with Gio’s perceptive comments and insightful support, plus regular interactions with a dynamic group of writers. I learned and wrote a lot and I’m hoping to publish my memoir at some point next year.

I would welcome any kind of help or event towards publication of my writing. I’m open to any discussion on possibilities…

Thanks to Writing Room for your support throughout.

Pushing My Trolley

‘Sister, do I need to know anything about London before I board the plane to Heathrow?’ I asked Sister Eithne, the Irish Principal of my school in Calcutta.
‘Not much,’ she said calmly, ‘… except that you’ll have to push your own trolley…’
‘WHAT? Push my own trolley? Don’t they have coolies at Heathrow?’
I was baffled, my mind walking in a fog…
Sister Eithne absorbed my shock. She was keen to reassure me. ‘Don’t worry Miss Datta, you’ll get used to it,’ she continued in her soft Irish lilt, her hand on my shoulder.
‘Will I?’ I mused; the fear of being caught in a whirlpool of the unknown travelled with me.

I had been teaching at Loreto Day School for the past two years, and this would be my last conversation with her. I liked Sister Eithne. She looked elegant in her flowing floor-length white habit with a black headdress and veil, always kind, always cheerful. I quietly admired the way she looked after the non-fee-paying students in the school – located in Elliot Road, on the edge of Central Calcutta with a high proportion of Anglo-Indians in the milieu – her mantra being, ‘We’re all god’s children…’
I too felt looked after, comfortable in my role, I enjoyed teaching and was sad to leave it all behind when the call came from London to join my new husband and start a new life in uncharted waters.

On the day of departure, home was buzzing with frenetic activity. My oldest cousin had hired a mini bus to carry me and my escorts – mother, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousin brothers and sisters as well as friends – to Dum Dum airport. Father didn’t join us. He couldn’t bear to say goodbye to me. When the moment came to leave our house, I walked over to him to receive his blessings.
‘Let me look at your face one more time,’ he said. He did not see my eyes filled with tears as I bent down to touch his feet.

I felt quiet inside me as the mini-bus drove past rows of coconut and palm trees, lakes and ponds and upcoming high rise buildings. At the airport I was met with a big crowd again, from my mother’s side. Everyone rushed to help me with my bags and belongings, coolies were swiftly discharged. We exchanged many hugs and tears. The elders in the crowd blessed me, ‘May god keep you safe and happy in your new journey…’
Mother walked over to me tearfully and hugged me tightly, whispering, ‘May Goddess Durga’s strength travel with you and stay with you all your life…’

It was time for me to walk up the steps to the Air India plane. I moved slowly, looking back at my family and friends, and waved to them one last time.

Sitting on the plane, my mind fluctuated between what I was leaving behind and what I was walking into… Until I remembered Father’s favourite Tagore-song:

On your journey to the unknown
If no one holds your hand
Treading the aching path
Walk through your pain
Walk alone, walk alone, walk alone

I arrived at Heathrow Airport late evening on 26 June 1971, wrapped in a bright-orange pure-silk sari with silver motifs and decked in my mother’s gold jewellery. Looking around I instantly became aware of my shocking bright colours. My antennas on alert I frantically tried to copy others, and pulled out a trolley and stood by the forever moving conveyor belt loaded with all sorts of baggage. When I spotted mine coming, I panicked and failed to pick it up. As I saw it coming second time round I was willing myself not to let it bypass me, a kind gentleman lifted it for me. He must have seen the horror on my face the first time round. I was immensely thankful.

The real trouble began when I tried to push the trolley laden with bags. I was trapped! Totally stumped! I found out pushing a trolley was no mere task. I had no apprenticeship in pushing one. My trolley just refused to go straight like other trolleys around me, no matter how hard I tried! It kept on going this way and that. I started sweating unable to control it, my face as hot as a burning charcoal. Total embarrassment! I avoided looking around. I felt the whole of Heathrow had come to a standstill watching this foolish Indian woman struggling with a humble trolley!

Coming out of the Customs I was besieged by hundreds of people waving at arriving passengers. I felt lost. By this time I was perspiring like a racing horse, and still battling with my unruly trolley. In my rage I kicked it, which didn’t help. Moreover, it’s not possible to kick hard wrapped in six-yards of silk! I stood still and furiously scanned the crowd for my husband. When he walked up to me I handed over the miserable trolley, letting off a cosmic sigh of relief. ‘It was such a trial pushing this thing…’ I said.
‘I know what you mean but you’ll soon get used to it,’ he said. Those words again!