Silent Questions from the Wife of a Worker Who Reads: A Response to Brecht

Questions From a Worker Who Reads

Bertolt Brecht

Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will find the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished
Who raised it up so many times? In what houses
Of gold-glittering Lima did the builders live?
Where, the evening that the Wall of China was finished
Did the masons go? Great Rome
Is full of triumphal arches. Who erected them? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Had Byzantium, much praised in song
Only palaces for its inhabitants? Even in fabled Atlantis
The night the ocean engulfed it
The drowning still bawled for their slaves.

The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Did he not have even a cook with him?

Philip of Spain wept when his armada
Went down. Was he the only one to weep?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Year’s War. Who
Else won it?

Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every ten years a great man?
Who paid the bill?

So many reports.
So many questions.

(“Fragen eines lesenden Arbeiters” – translated by M. Hamburger in Bertolt Brecht, Poems 1913-1956, Methuen, N.Y., London, 1976)

Silent Questions from the Wife of a Worker Who Reads

Manali Chakrabarti

So you say, it is you not the kings, who built the Thebes of the Seven Gates.
Your forefathers hauled lumps of rocks when Babylon was Resurrected all those Several time – after each demolition.

You ask about the Houses where the Builders of gold glittering Lima lived,
I ask silently who kept the houses, the children, the future builders.

You ask, where did the masons go when the Great Wall of China was finished,
History did not record it.
But what about the patient unheard voices who made the shacks and hovels Homes,
Who waited with hot gruel for the masons?
Who do not even have the Great Stone Wall of China as a Silent testimony,
Should a Future day Historian choose to enquire.

Alexander conquered India, Caesar beat the Gaul,
Philip of Spain laughed and cried with the fortunes of the Spanish Armada,
Yes they had soldiers to fight their wars.
And cooks too, and a thousand others to assist them in their noble endeavours.
Their triumphs and their losses in the battlefields and the seas were not theirs alone.
There were the ‘not so great men’ behind these ‘Great Men’
Should you dig O! Present day historian you may still find them

But wasn’t there anything else happening then, when the men, Great and Small,
Were making History?
Wasn’t there an ordinary child being born and nurtured anywhere?
And houses kept, vegetables grown, clothes made and rice dehusked.
Who made the ends meet in times of war and scarcity?
The Men were away.
Who sang lullabies while the roaring canons decided the victors?

I listen to you, while you question the past with your new found knowledge.
You roar, you thunder, I sew silently a pattern on the pillowcase.
Would my story visit you in your dreams – mine that I share with my foremothers?
Would my child be able to decipher the words hidden in this pattern,
As you do now for those in the history books?

I did not cook for the victors; I did never cook for the past,
I always cooked for the future – where every morsel was important.
It was no feast – lavish fare strewn around and men doused in drinks,
I never cooked to commemorate great events,
I cooked the humble daily gruel soaked in parsimony and care,
This was to write a different history,
A history  for the future.

Behind your vocal questions to history and all its records and reports
Is the Great Wall of my Silent questions.
Who has the Answers?
I wonder.
Maybe I do.

Manali Chakrabarti is an economic historian, presently affiliated with the Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata.
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