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All was ready in the breakfast room: upon each placement were the buttered toast, sectioned grapefruits, cereal and milk, and coffee for my parents. A jar of mother’s freshly cooked grape jelly sat in the center of the table with the condiments. Through the Venetian blinds sunrays slanted upon the walls like a military band in procession, or so I fantasized. Strains of “Pistol Packin’ Mama” came from the kitchen.

This was a special morning, and I knew it. I sat on the edge of my chair, waiting as I glanced at my siblings dressed in play clothes and jawing, taking swipes at each other; then, studied my heel, tender from new sandals. Mother was settling my youngest brother in his highchair when I heard his footsteps in the hall. It was my dad. It was about to happen.

In resounding tones, he said, “Happy First of September, everyone!” His warm smile briefly assuaged my chronic anxiety, as he took his place at the head of the table and opened his napkin. I could breathe in his presence. So breakfast and the beginning of a new month began, September being the most dreaded with the parochial school reopening after Memorial Day.  

Throughout my childhood, I anticipated this ritual and was never disappointed: his way of sharing joy, despite stresses from work which also required wearing one of his three-piece suits and tie, with the edge of a folded handkerchief peeking from his breast pocket.

His early death, however, prevented me from fully appreciating his selflessness, his knack for telling Irish jokes when tensions mounted over the supper meal. Dad served us very well and I’m grateful.

Graced storytellers, from all times, seize imaginations of their readers and plunge them within new learning, not always pleasant.

Such a storyteller is the Indian-American author Sejal Badani. Because her maternal grandmother’s shocking experience in the1940s still smarted, she felt compelled to weave some of her story into the novel The Storyteller’s Secret (2018). It unfolds like a finely wrought tapestry with panels of shimmering and jarring colors.

Meticulous research into Central India’s Madhya Pradesh contextualizes Amisha’s impoverished village: the irritant of the British Raj’s occupation, Gandhi’s teachings firing imaginations with independence, the Brahmans’ domination of the natives, the despised untouchables, arranged marriages and dowries, wives subservient to their husbands and their families, temple festivals and dancing, and household shrines with favorite gods and goddesses. Within this milieu barefoot Amisha works out her destiny wearing plain saris.

On every page tactile images engage the reader’s senses: feeling oppressive monsoon rains and scorching heat, smelling garbage-strewn roads and the dung of oxen, cows, and dogs, seeing candles illuminating the Hindu temple’s pantheon and oil lamps in homes, tasting spicy foods, hearing temple bells, shrieks, children’s laughter, and worked up by “joinings” or sexual activity—and always, the incense.

Badani’s dialogue works extremely well in propelling the story forward. Yet silences are pregnant with meaning: hurt, disappointment, violence, ecstasy, dread, and romance.

The New York Times and Amazon bestseller, The Storyteller’s Secret by Sejal Badani features Amisha, a spirited woman admittedly ahead of her time—the stuff of storytellers’ artistry. Do let Amisha touch you with her buoyant selflessness.

 

 

Diaries, letters, and photos access times past and enable researchers to ferret out their dark secrets. Publication of such materials makes present and up-close experiences of the human family from which we benefit, if we have the courage.

Wearing the Letter P: Polish Women as Forced Laborers in Nazi Germany, 1939-1945 (2016) is one such narrative. Its Polish American author Sophie Hodorowicz Knab undertook this challenge to honor her mother Jozefa, enslaved in 1943 within the munitions factory in Ulmstead, not far from Hanover, until the end of the war. She was thirty-two years old when taken from her Krakow home in her house slippers. Upon the right breast of her clothing was the hated purple P upon a yellow patch, stitched there following the 1939 occupation of Poland; its people were considered racially subhuman and expendable.

Her mother’s reticence to speak of her experiences later prodded Knab to comb the Archives in the United States, Poland, Germany, and England for evidence of the plight of forced civilian women in Nazi Germany: such only appeared in the 1980s. Her research uncovered records of their conscription, their divided families, filthy transit camps and cattle cars, abject poverty, extreme weather conditions, multiple diseases, malnutrition, starvation, forced abortions, crippling humiliations, 12-hour work days in agricultural and industrial settings, and newborns left to starve.

What fueled Knab’s research was the discovery of diaries, letters, and photos taken by these women. Interweaving them with the bitter facts of their enslavement added an indescribable poignancy to this scholarly work.

Indeed, the words and faces of these 105 women still tell their story.

 

 

Available on Amazon

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