Categories
A Wonderful World

What do We Need?

 “It is not enough to try to remove wants; you can never remove them completely from outside; the far greater thing is to rouse the will of the people to remove their own wants.” — Rabindranath Tagore, A History of Sriniketan by Uma Das Gupta, published by Niyogi Books.

Painting by Sohana Manzoor

Does political freedom eulogised by masses ensure housing, clothing, food, love kindness, self respect and education to all the beneficiaries of a newly structured country? Centring around this theme, we bring together writing around India’s Republic Day, when the country adopted its new constitution and called itself an independent republic with its own self-defined preamble. This happened on 26th January, 1950. Here we carry writing that reflects on the then and now of the people who have lived by that constitution defined in 1950. Some of the issues had been voiced centuries ago, by Akbar, the grand Mughal, subsequently by greats like Tagore who died long before India became an independent entity and more recently by Nabendu Ghosh. These issues, ranging from the basic needs of food, clothing, shelter, education, health have been variously taken up among people by NGOs and writers who have come forward to voice and act to awaken the majority to make a change. Are people then better off now than they were in the past?

Past Reflections

An excerpt from Shazi Zaman’s Akbar: A Novel of History detailing his interactions with Surdas and Braj, showcasing syncretic elements in the past, where homage to power clashes with spiritual aspirations. Click here to read.

Morichika or Mirage by Tagore: An early poem of the maestro that asks the elites to infringe class divides and mingle. Click here to read.

Give Me A Rag, Please:A short story by Nabendu Ghosh, translated by Ratnottama Sengupta, set in the 1943 Bengal Famine, which reflects on man’s basic needs. Click here to read

Current Musings

For the Want of a Cloth: Ratnottama Sengupta muses on an NGO who has won a Magsaysay Award for his work with cloth distribution in India contextualising it against the issues raised in Give Me a Rag, Please by Nabendu Ghosh. Click here to read.

Among Our People: Devraj Singh Kalsi gives a fictitious account of a common man’s quest for security in a country that is one of the world’s largest democracy. Click here to read.

We Consider Faith by Dibyajyoti Sarma: A poem that takes a look at the medley that defines faith in the current world. How has it evolved from Akbar’s times? Click here to read.

Potable Water Crisis & the Sunderbans: Camellia Biswas, a visitor to Sunderbans during the cyclone Alia, turns environmentalist and writes about the potable water issue faced by locals. The support often comes from beyond the border lines and from people who live through the ordeal. Click here to read.

The Malodorous Mountain: A Contemporary Folklore: Sayantan Sur looks into environmental hazards due to shoddy garbage disposal and describes how it can be resolved. Click here to read.

Dramatising an Evolving Consciousness: Theatre with Nithari’s Children: Sanjay Kumar gives us a glimpse of how theatre has been used to transcend trauma and create bridges. Click here to read.

Categories
Stories

Among Our People 

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

Sardar Dayal Singh had lived all his life in a predominantly Punjabi neighbourhood. The cluster of Sikh families provided a feeling of warmth, making him feel safe even when the threat to life and property assumed horrific proportions. In 1984, the entire colony was converted into an impenetrable fortress, with the men and boys ready with a stockpile of soda bottles and swords, prepared to put up a brave fight against the pillaging mob. Fortunately, the area remained safe from any such orchestrated communal attack. Despite the presence of over a hundred Sikh families, it was a mystery why Kishanganj was not looted when the entire city witnessed sporadic incidents of violence against the minority community in those three days. The most plausible reason that surfaced was its distant location on the outskirts of the city. 

The Sikhs of Kishanganj gave asylum to persecuted Sardars who fled from other localities and stayed with them for several weeks before returning to their burnt homes to salvage what remained, to collect the debris, and make a fresh beginning. For Sardar Dayal Singh, it was mentally less agonising as he realised how being together with people of the same community ensured safety when the entire city was up in communal flames. 

Three decades later, after retirement from his job, Sardar Dayal Singh was not the same man who basked in the warmth of his community. A series of incidents had shaken him. All he wanted was to sell the ancestral house in Kishanganj and move into a gated community, a mixed society where he would feel safe. With the young generation relocating to foreign countries in search of a better future, those left behind in Kishanganj were small traders and pensioners.  

With rising intolerance against the minorities, the high-rise complex was the safest place for Sardar Dayal Singh who did not want to flaunt his nameplate on the door. The flat number was a safe identity on the letterbox or the initials of his name on the main door of his apartment. The upper floor apartment in a high-rise building would keep him closer to God all the time and also provide him with safety from an irate mob. He did not expect any frenzied outsider, armed with a weapon, to climb the fifteenth floor to reach his flat and hack him into pieces. 

Sardar Dayal Singh and his spouse, Charan Kaur moved into a spacious luxury apartment, equipped with Jacuzzi and Spa, with an extra-wide balcony to enjoy the sunset and a glass of whiskey. His Canada-based son was glad to hear that he had sold his ancestral house and bought a three-bedroom flat where the old couple would now get trained to accept a cosmopolitan daughter-in-law.  

Charan Kaur, fondly called Charno by her friends and relatives, did not find the new life exciting. She missed her Punjabi friends in Kishanganj. Within a few months of moving to the apartment, Charno started feeling lonely — as if she was living in a foreign country. She had to mingle with neighbours who spoke other languages she was not fluent in. While Sardar Dayal Singh was happy to adapt, Charno often complained that the gurudwara was located far away from the residential complex. She had not found a single Sardar family in the entire building with who she could interact. This was the place where she felt she was living in a minority environment but in Kishanganj, with scores of Punjabi families around, she never felt she belonged to a minority community.   

To stay connected to her roots, Charan Kaur began to listen to Punjabi music and watched Punjabi channels. Even if others spoke in Hindi or English, she replied in Punjabi, as if it was her duty to keep the language alive and in circulation inside the residential complex. When she spoke to the housemaid, the liftman, or the security guard, she used Punjabi all the time without bothering to know if they understood it or not. 

Sardar Dayal Singh noted the emergence of a communal streak in his wife. He hoped the people would not take the old lady seriously. His advice to become liberal and speak in other languages was ignored by her. She started organising a small together every weekend and invited her Punjabi friends from Kishanganj, to make her new neighbours understand that she had a robust social network of Punjabi women who would rally behind her if the situation demanded. Charan Kaur was happy to spend time with them and sometimes she went to Kishanganj to revive old memories. 

During her last visit, Charan Kaur stood in front of their ancestral house that was demolished. A new building was yet to come up, but the old mango tree stood tall in the vacant land. She told her close friends she was not happy with the decision to sell such a big house and live in a flat. She blamed Sardar Dayal Singh for the reckless decision and wiped her tears. 

On the eve of their fiftieth marriage anniversary, she invited the entire Sardar community from Kishanganj to her flat. Sardar Dayal Singh used this opportunity to influence some other retirees to move into this residential complex by selling their properties in Kishanganj, but Charan Kaur fiercely opposed his suggestion, “Never sell your house. Guru would protect all in Kishanganj even if the younger generation is away.” Turning to Sardar Dayal Singh, she asked, “Is there a place or an address where death does not come, Sardarji?” He could not reply to her in front of the guests who supported Charan Kaur on this issue.   

Gathering the courage to explain his point of view in the hope that he would not be misunderstood by his people, Sardar Dayal Singh said, “Cluster living was dangerous for a small community these days. We did not have the option of apartments then, but now with so many complexes coming up we should mix and spread everywhere, to avoid detection based on religion. Mobs do not come looking for one or two heads – they need hundreds to loot and plunder and a Sikh locality is a prime target.”

His views were diametrically opposite now and there were no supporters. His old-time friend, Sardar Jasbir Singh finally spoke his mind, “Dayal, only the fear of death does not keep us together. We are together in Kishanganj because we love to be together, for culture and bonding. It is good for mental wellbeing and mutual help. You live in a flat now, but I am sure you miss the manji (charpoy) sessions in the courtyard where we sat together and drank and discussed everything under the sun.”

 The core point Sardar Dayal Singh was making was that the safety of Sikhs was high in residential complexes. He defended his stance: “Nobody knows a Sardar family is living here. I am safe from mad mobs, but you are still facing the same threat we survived in 1984. When you have a chance now, why not spread here and there? We can still keep meeting wherever we want and keep our social connections strong.” 

Sardar Jasbir Singh responded with greater conviction, “One crazy man is enough to kill a dozen. Such mad people are there in these residential complexes as well. If something untoward happens, if Sikhs hog the headlines for the wrong reasons anywhere in the world, imagine the possibility of the liftman stabbing you in the elevator to seek revenge. Have you given this a thought?”

Sardar Dayal Singh was hit hard, and he could deny this possibility. There were many such incidents of men going berserk and opening fire, those racial attacks of stabbing and firing at point black range. 

The next morning, Sardar Dayal Singh was wary of the liftman who glared at him. There was a case of sacrilege in Punjab and a youth had been lynched. The liftman charged him while he was coming out of the lift. “Sardarji, do you think what happened in Amritsar yesterday was right? All Sikhs come together and beat a young man to death. Is this Sikh justice?”

When the security guard also joined the liftman, Sardar Dayal Singh tendered an apology and condemned the incident. The tobacco-chewing security guard sought updates from the liftman who checked his smartphone for the latest feed on this issue.  

Sardar Dayal Singh came home from the market and sought a candid opinion from his wife, “How likely is that the liftman goes mad and stabs me in the lift?”

Charan Kaur gauged something was not right but maintained her calm demeanour. Handing him a glass of water, she replied, “It is very much possible. You are wrong to think the people inside this complex will not turn into a crazy mob and attack us if the situation worsens. If a riot breaks out in the city, maybe a big mob does not get in here but two crazy people like the liftman or the gardener can open fire at us. Even if they do not kill us, they can threaten us, abuse us, make barbed comments, or torture us. Such repeated attacks will hurt sentiments and disturb our mental peace.”

Sardar Dayal Singh kept observing their behaviour in the coming days. He found nothing worth complaining to the committee. But there were undercurrents he could feel. Such behaviour or reaction based on stray incidents in a far-off place was really strange and he was not supposed to answer anything. He thought if he complained and the liftman lost his job, he could become violent and seek revenge.   

Sardar Dayal Singh reduced his daily trips downstairs. He tried to placate the liftman with smiles whenever he met him. He followed the same strategy with the security guard who made a weird statement one evening: “We thought Sardarjis are good.” Sardar Dayal singh avoided answering it but his reticence seemed to annoy the guard who waited for a reply while he stepped out of the main gate. 

Sardar Dayal Singh spoke about the simmering discontent with his son on the telephone and he advised him to keep some emergency helpline numbers ready. 

When the farmer protests started, Sardar Dayal Singh sensed a fresh series of verbal attacks. He desperately wanted Sikhs to remain out of the headlines. Just keep the culture beat alive with Bhangra and Balle-Balle and keep making sacrifices at the border to keep the nation convinced of patriotic fervour. 

Whenever the Khalistan issue was raised abroad, the domestic atmosphere got vitiated. What happened on Republic Day was indeed shameful and he felt the Sikhs were inviting trouble for no reason. Those extremist-minded groups wanted to destabilise the state by demanding a separate homeland. He felt ashamed and wrote fiery letters to the editors. He felt it was important to assert his national identity to stay safe.   

Charan Kaur wanted to visit Kartarpur in Pakistan, but Sardar Dayal could not decide. On the one side, he also wanted to visit the place where Guru Nanak lived for so many years and on the other side, he was fearful of the consequences of visiting that country.   

“If you don’t dare to go, I will go there with my friends from Kishanganj,” Charan Kaur clarified. Finding her determined, Sardar Dayal Singh agreed to join her and Kishanganj friends on this pilgrimage trip. 

After returning from Kartarpur, Sardar Dayal Singh warned his wife to keep it a secret. He urged her not to reveal where they had been to, not to any neighbour or even the housemaid. But within a couple of days, he was surprised to hear the liftman say with a grin, “Pakistan settle ka plan, Sardarji?”  

Sardar Dayal Singh was numbed to hear that. He found almost the entire complex had come to know of their visit to Pakistan. So, there was no point denying and creating further discord. To be called a spy at this age would be really humiliating for the elderly couple. 

Sardar Dayal Singh remembered that the small reaction he gave to a national TV channel reporter at the border was a blunder. Neighbours started to isolate themselves and their gnawing silence was felt by Sardar Dayal Singh and his wife. There was nothing to explain but they thought he was a Pakistan sympathiser at heart. He had just gone to pay respects to Guru Nanak. Was this modern nation not going to allow him that?

His car parked in the covered parking zone was likely to be attacked. IK Onkar sticker on the windshield was immediately removed to avoid identification. But the security guard knew it was Sardarji’s car. Sardar Dayal Singh was reminded to be careful by the liftman whenever he met him. He felt the old couple could get killed in the flat by crazy people any day.  

Charan Kaur decided to move to Kishanganj, and Sardarji supported her decision. He rented his flat to a company instead of an individual and went to stay in a rented house in Kishanganj. Although Sardar Dayal Singh faced no direct threat, he lived under the gaze of threat all the time. A lot had changed in one year. The farm laws were repealed, and the farmers returned home after several incidents of violence.  

In Kishanganj, some TV reporters came to report the reaction of the Sikhs. They were bursting crackers to celebrate victory when the reporters arrived with guns in a black SUV emblazoned with a press sticker. “You Sardars still depend on Kirpan, have some AK-47, and stay secure.” 

Sardar Dayal Singh stood in front and urged them to go back with their guns. The local Sikhs chased them away and gathered their swords and soda bottles. They did not want to launch an attack but were prepared to defend themselves. The video of Sardars with swords on the rooftops went viral and they were projected as bloodthirsty goons. While no offensive was launched, it was a clever move to lure them with guns and get their reaction. The identity of those reporters who came with guns remained unknown. It was certainly an act of mischief, and the Sikhs were trapped.  

As Republic Day was approaching, Sardar Dayal Singh wanted the community to hoist the national flag, shoot a video and post it online. They wanted Kishanganj Sikhs to be seen as patriotic and nation lovers. 

While addressing the mixed crowd of Sikhs spanning three generations, Sardar Dayal Singh thundered: “Sikhs have to stop talking of past sacrifices. They have to make new sacrifices and avoid taking credit for what their earlier generations did. With new sacrifices, we become known as real patriots and assert our love for the country…We should be the first to hoist the flag early in the morning and conduct celebratory events the whole day. The blood donation camp is the best event planned for Republic Day tomorrow. Sikhs must give their blood to save the nation and save human lives. If health permits, all Sikhs must donate blood. Instead of spilling it on the roads due to mob attack, we should donate blood.”

Sardar Jasbir Singh raised a query at this point: “Should we call it Sikh Blood Donation Camp? Or Blood Donation Camp?”  

India Republic Day parade. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Notes:

1984: Riots between Hindus & Sikhs after the assassination of PM Indira Gandhi.

‘Pakistan settle ka plan’ — You plan to settle in Pakistan, Sardarji?

.

Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short stories and essays have been published in Deccan Herald, Tehelka, Kitaab, Earthen Lamp Journal, Assam Tribune, and The Statesman. Pal Motors is his first novel.  


PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Categories
Stories

Give Me a Rag, Please!

Translated by Ratnottama Sengupta from Bengali, Nabendu Ghosh’s short story brings out the absolute deprivation of basic needs of the common people during the Bengal Famine of 1943.

Courtesy: Creative Commons

Old man Ekkori was closing in on sixty. For two years his sight has been halved by cataract – in fact he’s as good as sightless. By doing this the Preserver of People’s Dignity had protected Harimati from the indignity of standing in the nude before her father-in-law – even her husband Teenkori admitted this.

Nude? Yes, what else but nude? The two saris that Harimati had been alternating on a daily basis had become so threadbare that, forget outings, it would be tough to maintain decorum even indoors if her father-in-law still had his power of vision. And this, even though they’re not gentlefolks, they’re mere peasants.

Harimati didn’t step out of the house until sundown. Fetching water, doing the dishes, washing the clothes – everything had to wait until darkness sets in. Yes, they’re from the lower strata but her sense of decorum and shame was not a mite less than that of a refined woman belonging to genteel society. It could actually be a bit more since Harimati had always been proud of one thing: Her father had studied till the Minor (primary) school examination – something beyond her husband Teenkori and his father Ekkori.

Still, she was managing. She was determined not to be bothered by embarrassment or chagrin. But things came to a head when an uninvited guest showed up with the claim of an uncalled for kinship. There was a time when a guest was worshipped as God but those times were long past. Time had taken that culture too with it. Now if things came to pass, a father disowned his son, a husband abandoned his wife, a mother sold her offspring. Even that could be excused – they may not have had any other option.

In a peasant’s family, even dire poverty did not deprive them of a coarse variety of rice and some greens that grew in their own courtyard. The bottle gourd climbing up their fence was about to blossom, the other end of the narrow stretch fenced off had a drumstick tree that caught attention with its healthy growth.

A distant cousin from Nandangachhi had showed up unannounced. Teenkori’s maternal aunt’s paternal cousin’s son Nandalal. Some work had drawn him to their town – he would go back the same evening. He was accompanied by a helping hand – belonging to the Tili community, a notch lower than them in social standing.

That wouldn’t be a problem. They’re guests for half a day – they could and would be taken care of. They would even be served a bowl of milk – borrowed from Tarini Mondal’s family who lived next door. But trouble arose when it came to serving them lunch.

It had been decided that Teenkori’s eleven-year-old sister Protima – the motherless Pooti – would serve the meal. But when it was time to seat the guest on the floor mats, she left on the pretext of fetching water from the nearby pond. Fact was, she too felt shy. A tense Harimati had called out to her two or three times but the girl didn’t look back. Consequently Harimati couldn’t avoid the task she was planning to all this while: she had to take upon herself the onus of serving food to the guests.

Teenkori started fidgeting halfway through the meal. A glance at his wife, and the food stuck in his throat. An old old sari soiled with time, torn in places and patch-worked at spots – she was trying to cover her body with the rag. Teenkori hasn’t forgotten the pedigree of the sari. Before the War broke out, before his stillborn son came into the world, when Harimati was given a shower in the seventh month, he had purchased a pair for two rupees and one anna. One of the duo had gone months ago, this one was worn occasionally and so had lasted a while longer. Since the last year, she was reduced to wearing it every single day, and now it was threadbare. Harimati had carefully draped it over her body, yet you could clearly make out the contours of her body. Her arms, her shoulder, fleshy bulge near her chest — they refused to be subdued by the rag. Had she the cover of a chemise, she would not feel so discomfited. But in a family where procuring a coarse sari barely five yards long was itself a feat, a chemise was a luxury they did not waste time thinking about.

Teenkori’s fidgeting could be traced to one more reason. All the men seated to lunch were focused on the meal, but the eyes of the boy accompanying Nandalal were restless, untamed. Even as he was gulping the mouthfuls, his oblique stare was devouring every part of Harimati’s body. She may not have been an eyeful, nor was she repulsive. Her youthful healthy body had an innate appeal. Earlier, she was even more healthy, even more sprightly. But the efforts to evade the decimation of the horrendous famine had taken a toll. She has withered, shrunk.

There was another reason. The famine that spared not a grain of rice, no food, not even greens that could sustain them, took with it the cynosure of her eyes, her two-year-old Khokon. But if Death is an inevitable truth, so is Life. Hence Harimati lived on. And at twenty-two she is not old enough to think of Death. So, youthful vigour was still overflowing her body. Naturally Nandalal’s helping hand would eye her every now and then. The effort to hide her nudity seemed to add to her appeal for the boy.

Harimati also realised that. That is why when she came in with the repeats, she took care to drape her father-in-law’s worn out gamchha over her chest. Teenkori looked at her, it seemed to him that tears had welled up in her eyes.

*

Precisely so.

Harimati did not touch her food. She was waiting for Teenkori. The minute Nandalal left with his help, and old man Ekkori surrendered to his siesta, Teenkori went indoors. Harimati came out of the kitchen and stood before him. The tears that she had so far kept within the guard of her eyelids now flowed over.

Teenkori took Harimati’s hand in his own. Trying to stem the hot spring of unhappiness with the palm of his right hand he asked, “What’s the matter bou?”

Harimati bit her lip so as not to break the silence.

Teenkori suddenly felt irritated. It was the monsoon month of Sravan halfway through the English month of July. There was so much left to do in the fields. It was just that there were guests at home, else he would have spent the whole day in tending to the fields. They held the key, the hope and happiness for the rest of the year. Rest, the unhappiness of the womenfolk, the need to love and be loved – now was not the time for all this. His debt was mounting at he moneylender’s who could now claim every hair on his head. With barely two rupees left to pull along till Diwali in November, he would have to borrow some more. Was this the time to cry?

“Why don’t you spit it out, woman?”

“Don’t you know what’s the matter? Can’t you see with your eyes?” – Harimati hissed at him like an angry serpent. She found it difficult to keep a hold on herself since their son died. At such times, the usually quiet woman terrified Teenkori.

“What? What’s the matter? How will I know if you don’t tell me, am I omniscient?”

“Your cousin’s help was gobbling me with his indecent eyes – didn’t you see that?”

“I did,” Teenkori hung his head low.

“Then do something about it. It’s better to go around nude than to be covered in revealing clothes!”

“What can I do about it?” Teenkori didn’t want to understand. And what could he actually do even if he did understand?

Sari! Sari!!” Harimati impatiently stretched out her arms to her husband, “give me a piece of cloth, a sari… It’s so long since I asked you for one, don’t you remember? It is more than a year since you gave me one, for the pujas – can it last an entire lifetime? So many times I brought up the subject, you kept postponing it, ‘Not tomorrow, day after surely!’ ‘It’s very costly, prices have gone up, once the prices come down I’ll get you on…’ Words, words, words to fill in for inaction. You’ve caused me to go around semi-naked. Now? Now it’s impossible to go around. You get me a sari at any cost.”

The force of her words made Teenkori lose track of his thoughts. An indescribable impatience made him angry. So he spurned logic and picked on a phrase of Harimati, to vent his bitterness. With reddened eyes he glared at Harimati, “I’ve caused you to go around semi-naked?” he roared.

“You, you, you have. You’re the man of the house, can’t you get me a sari?”

“Where will I bring it from if there’s none in the market?” he demanded..

“I don’t care where you’ll get it from – just get it. I MUST HAVE IT. Issh! What an able husband, mine! Don’t they say…”

Tthaash!

Before she could say another word, Teenkori slapped Harimati hard on her cheek – he simply couldn’t take it any more.

“Hit me..! You hit me?!” Harimati’s fury fizzled out like water poured over a stove. Only tears streamed down her cheeks.

“Yes I hit you.” Teenkori grit his teeth and sat down to rummage through their trunk.

Old man Ekkori’s voice floated in, “What’s on with you guys, hunh?!”

“Nothing – go to sleep.” Teenkori shouted back at him.

“If you say so, son!” The old man’s voice echoed the dejection of the Blind King Dhritarashtra of the Mahabharat.

Teenkori extracted a few coins wrapped in a piece of rag kept safely in one corner of the trunk. They added up to some seven rupees, he counted before stashing them away in his waist. Then without a word he stepped out of the house.

*

But soon as he stepped out, he caused another uproar.

Pooti had just returned with a pitcherful of water poised on her hip. She was draped in an old gamchha around her waist, covering only the lower half of her body. That was all.

The sight of her stoked his asperity. Where was the need for the lass to go fetch water? Always evading work, always looking for fun.

“Pooti!”

“Yes?”

“Come here.”

Pooti put down the pitcher on the kitchen veranda and walked up to him. She could not fathom the reason for the summon in a grave voice.

The minute she stood by him, Teenkori traced the outline of all his five fingers on her cheek. “Where did you disappear, you brat? Didn’t your boudi tell you not to go, hunh? Went to fetch water!! Why did you go, hunh? WHY??”

The unexpected slap stunned Pooti. Pain and hurt choked her voice. She could not say a word in reply, only tears welled up in the large eyes like a dumb animal.

The reply came from Harimati. She was trembling with rage.

“So what if she had gone, why are you bossing?”

“Why should I not?”

“No, you cannot. You don’t have the right to. If you can, cast a glance on her chest.”

Teenkori cast a glance. It made Pooti swiftly retire into the kitchen. But that momentary glance was enough for Teenkori to ralise something that made him shut up.

He’d forgotten that Pooti has completed eleven. He’d forgotten that, in Bengali homes, this age spelt a lot of metamorphosis in a female anatomy. He only remembered that Pooti was his younger sister, much younger to him, even now.

But Teenkori does not know that there are glances other than a brother’s – glances that pierce through layers of clothings, so what to say of bare bodies. These glances do not make any concession for the innocence of a pre-teen girl.

Harimati chewed out every vowel, “She’s no longer a lass, she’s on her way to becoming a maiden. At this green age she’s more shy than I. Don’t you realise that?”

“Ayn?!”

Teenkori scurried out at the speed of an arrow released from the bow.

*

Teenkori walked some way at a very fast pace. Why, which way, he’d not stopped to think. He was still fuming in his mind. If his head were made of clay, then it might have let out steam into the air. Fortunately for all, his head was not made like an earthen pot.

Nibaran Dutta’s son Manish was walking down the mudpath. A young man of about twenty-six or –seven, he’d been incarcerated for five years for his involvement in the Nationalist movement. On his release three years ago he’d returned to the village. He still engaged in Nationalist activities. Dressed in a pleated Khadi dhoti, a half-shirt and a leather sandal on his feet, he had a cross-chested bag dangling by his side. It always held an assortment of books and papers. Every now and then he summons them, discusses various things about their well being, about the country’s well being. During the recent Famine and the epidemic he worked so hard – amazing! This was something to remember him by forever.

They – Manish and his partymen – were also agitating about the rationing of cloth, Teenkori was aware. At that moment he was like light at the end of a tunnel for Teenkori.

“O Manish Babu!”  

“What’s new, brother?” – Manish smiled at him.

“I need something,” Teenkori’s vice bubbled with agitation.

“Tell me. But before that, come under the shade of that tree. I’ve been walking a long way you know, all the way from … Nimdanga.”

They walked under the banyan.

“Tell me what you want.”

“It’s become impossible to do without a sari.”

“That, I do know,” he smiled feebly. “That is exactly why I am going in every direction. Tomorrow we will take out a procession. All the boys and girls from poverty stricken families in the neighbouring villages will walk to the city to file an application. You must also join us without fail.”

Teenkori could not wait to communicate his own woes, he broke in, “Yes yes, I will but I must have one right away Manish Babu.”

Manish looked at Teenkori without speaking a word.

“You’re doing so much for the nation, and you can’t do this much?” – Teenkori’s voice lost its bite and sounded pathetic.

“Nation?” Manish smiled. “Yes, I am striving for the nation but Teenkori, it is still not swadesh, my country.”

“It might be so but you have to do this favour to me Manish Babu. You simply HAVE TO. If you don’t believe me, just go and take a peep at Pooti and her boudi.”

“No need,” Manish protested. “I don’t wish to add to your woes and humiliation. But what is the matter – haven’t you been to Fakir Miya’s yet?’

Fakir Miya was the president of the Union Board and secretary of the Food Committee. He’s the one who gives out the permit for clothes.

“Yes I’ve been to him. Several times. My shoes have worn out, so many visits I’ve made. But I haven’t got the permit.”

“Really? Come with me, let me see what can be done.”

*

At every step Teenkori thought to himself, “Something will surely materialise now.” Because, like everyone else in the village, Fakir Miya also had a lot of respect for Manish.

But nothing worked out.

Fakir Miya shook his head and said, “There’s no way to give a permit, because there is NO CLOTH.”

“Nothing at all can be done?” Manish asked with gentle smile.

Fakir Miya took a deep puff of his hookah and said, “How can it be? You’ll understand once you hear me out. There are 813 families in the village and the total of dhotis and saris we have received is 65. Now you tell me, who do I give and who do I deprive?”

“Whom have you given?”

“Those who came first.”

“And those who have references, and influences, isn’t it so?” Manish softly added with a grin.

A reddish tint played on Fakir Miya’s visage for an instant. He gave a gentle twist to his mehdi-tinted goatee, then said, “See Manish, I really hold you in deep regard, that is why I am not taking any offence at what you just said. But you have indeed spoken the truth. That is why I have decided that I will distribute the next lot only among the destitute and the needy. I will care for the poor first. This time I can’t help you – you really have no idea how helpless I feel.”

Manish smiled again. “I do understand, everything. I hope you will actually carry out what you are planning to do next time. Never mind: for the time being, do give me a permit, whether you have the stock or not. I have promised it to Teenkori, let me at least keep my word to him. Besides, his family is really finding it difficult to continue in society.”

Fakir Miya glanced at Manish, then at Teenkori who was waiting pale-faced and in all humility. Fakir Miya said, “I’ll honour your word Manish. I’ll write a permit.”

Manish went homeward. And, with the permit in his hand, Teenkori raced towards Chhaganlal’s shop, his heart beating fast, now with hope and now out of fear.

*

Chhaganlal Marwari has come to this village all the way from the deserts of Rajputana. From that distant corner of the land too he had learnt about the shortage of clothes in this unmapped village of Bengal – and in answer to that he had come via Kolkata with one lota and a bundle of clothings. In the weekly fairs that dot this and so many outlying villages, he personally carried such bundles of saris and dhotis for four full years. Then gradually, with the blessings of the Elephant-Faced God with a Big Belly he earned the benevolence of Goddess Lakshmi and prospered enough to own a double-storey building at the very front of the market – just like the Englishmen who came to trade with one ship full of goods and eventually built Fort William at the mouth of the Bay of Bengal.

This very Chhaganlal was reclining on a bolster post-lunch. Having loosened the knot of his dhoti around his tummy, he was glancing through the previous day’s accounts.

“Sethji!” – Teenkori called out softly.

Sethji looked up, “Yes? What is it?”

Teenkori brought up the permit, with the deference of a devotee offering flowers at the feet of a deity.

“What d’you want?” Sethji demanded again.

“Cloth – I mean a sari.”

“There’s none.”

“Here’s the permit. Fakir Miya himself gave it.”

Extremely irritated, Chhaganlal stood up. “So what if Miya has given a permit? If there is no sari in the stock where can I materialise it from? Leave now – come back next month.”

“I can’t go without one Sethji, please give me one.”

“Have you gone out of you mind, ayn? None – there is not a single sari, don’t you see all the almirahs are absolutely empty?”

“Yes I see that. Still, do give me one – it will be a big favour.”

“D’you want me to take off what I’m clad in and go naked?”

Teenkori could say nothing. He could think of nothing to say, he only looked around him vacantly.

His eyes fell on the colourful saris displayed from the hook at the shop window.

“Those – those are handloom saris?”

“Yes.”

“Price?”

“The lowest priced one costs twelve rupees and four annas.”

“Can’t you give for less than that?”

Chhaganlal lost his cool. “Go, leave now, go home right now… This isn’t a vegetable mandi, just go.”

Teenkori couldn’t buy a sari.

*

He walked some way, then sat down under a semul tree. The sun was strong. His temper was mounting too. Sitting there, under the semul tree, he tore up the permit into tiny pieces. In the depth of sorrow he felt like laughing. It wouldn’t be wrong on his part to laugh aloud – all the others who were passing that way were probably laughing at him! The difference was that Teenkori’s laughter was a distorted version of crying.

The village priest Mahesh Bhattacharjji was coming his way. He proudly displayed the twisted, unwashed sacred thread around his neck, his pigtail too was bobbing happily to declare his unadulterated Brahminhood. But he was clad in a lungi. Quite an example of how dearth helps people break tradition and adapt to new ways!

“Bhatt’charjji Sir, regards – pranam!” Teenkori strode up to him.

“May you prosper son! What news Teenu, all well?”

“How can things be well Sir?? But what’s this – Bhatt’charjji Mashai in a lungi!”

Bhattacharjji shook his head and smiled, a wan smile born of pain. His voice shook with emotion. He wanted to drape his wife’s sari but she warned him, “This is dearer than gold and gems now, it’s not for you to even touch.” Naturally he had to resort to this way of preserving his dignity – “can’t go out without a stitch on you, can you? And is this inexpensive? I had to kowtow to Manik Miya, go on pleading ‘Big Brother – you’re like my father!’ Only then I got it for four and half rupees. But I am not ashamed Teenu – the God who makes a lame climb mountains and a mute speak reams, is the same almighty who’s making a Brahmin dress like a Mullah!”

“Why, don’t you get offerings of sari and dhoti when you conduct pujas?”

“Ashes! Bananas!” Mahesh Bhattacharjji waved his right thumb in the air. “How many people organise pujas at that scale where you offer saris and dhotis? And even if they do, they just pay eight annas or a rupee saying, ‘Please buy yourself a cloth Sir!’”

Teenkori, though in deep anguish, couldn’t help but laugh.

They kept walking side by side. One of the village elders, Kalimuddin Sarkar was coming their way with something wrapped in a gamchha held under his armpit.

“How d’you do Morol {headman}? Where are you coming from?” Bhattacharjji hailed him.

“From the bazaar,” Kalimuddin grinned.

“You are laughing because I am in a lungi, aren’t you? Well, go on, laugh. But what’s that in your armpit, eh? So carefully you are clutching it – what’s it?” Bhattacharjji narrowed his sharp eyes.

Kalimuddin hesitated a bit before replying, “You won’t tell anyone, will you?”

“No dear, no –“

“Just bought a pair of dhoti from the Marwari.”

“Let’s see – let’s see –“ Bhattacharjji and Teenkori both said at once.

A pair of ordinary mill-produced dhotis.

“Did you get a permit?” Bhattacharjji enquired.

Hunh!” – Kalimuddin pulled a face. “The permit is still in my pocket. This I bought in the black market. That too because he is known to me. These days you don’t get these even if you have the money.”

“How much did he charge?”

“Fifteen for the pair. He’d asked for twenty rupees.”

“Bastard! Thief!!” Bhattacharjji’s face went pale.

“And d’you know the price of saris? The mill-made ones are for 25, 30… the handloom ones are no less…”

Teenkori let out a sigh. If one had the money to pay for it, one could buy everything even when the situation was to the contrary. One who did not save money had to go without food and clothing – this is what Lord Almighty had ordained. At least in today’s world!

He would organise some money.

But money wasn’t for the asking!

The moneylender Ramkanta shook his head. “Ten rupees you want – but what else do you have to mortgage? Have you kept track of the balance still due to me? When will you clear that?”

“I remember – five rupees six annas. Apart from the interest.”

Teenkori went to many other people. Everyone shook his head just like Ramkanta. “No.”

Experiences and realisations build up the philosophy of our lives. Hence Teenkori had no hope, only hopelessness; no happiness, only unhappiness. Hence his life view was tragic, wrapped in a cover of ink-smeared darkness.

Manish turned grave on hearing the full account. He kept silent for quite a while, then said, “This is why we will take out the procession tomorrow. Be patient for some more days brother – there has to be some resolution.”

Teenkori spent the rest of the day going hither and thither. The whole day was wasted. There was work to be done in the fields – all had been undone. The next day also he would not be able to attend to the work, he had to join the procession. The nationalists were right: neither Teenkori by himself nor others like him – alone they could gain nothing. The strength of the poor and the deprived lies in their union, their coming together.

The procession would not draw immediate result; joining a party or raising slogans would not get Teenkori a sari for his wife. Still, would it all be wasted effort? Everyone would hear, everyone would know that nudity was forcing them to shed tears day and night.

*

Teenkori felt small going home. After darkness, he returned like a thief, stealthily. He felt relieved. Nandalal and his page had left in the evening.

Harimati entered the room after a while. Teenkori did not have the will to lift his head. Harimati fixed him with her gaze, then laughed a satirical smile and said, “Didn’t get it, did you? If you simply can’t, then this rag will have to be carefully donned – for a year, what d’you say?”

Slowly she walked out of the room.

Teenkori’s humiliation and remorse went up manifold at night. Harimati shut the door to their room, turned down the lamp and said, “Turn your face the other way.”

“Why?”

“There’s a reason…”

In the darkness she peeled off the torn yardage clinging to her body. With great care she folded it up and carefully she hung it on the clothes rack. She covered herself with the discarded gamchha of her father-in-law and came to bed.

The moment his hand touched Harimati he exclaimed, “What’s this?”

In a grave voice Harimati replied, “Can’t you imagine what will happen to the rag if I sleep in it?

Teenkori started sweating in the depth of the night.

*

At daybreak Teenkori showed up in the school playground. That’s where everyone was to assemble.

Manish was already there, and another 150 villagers. A few elderly women and a handful of girls too were in the crowd. People from the lowly communities of Bagdi, Jele (fisherfolk), Tili, poor peasants from both Hindu and Muslim communities were present. The dearth of clothes and of food did not differentiate on religious grounds.

Before setting out Manish and another young man gave them placards – slogans mounted on bamboo sticks. In English and Bengali, they said more or less the same thing: ‘We want clothes’ ‘Down with hoarders!’ ‘End the Shame of Nudity’ ‘Down with Black Market’ ‘Perish, Profiteers!’

Minutes later they started the march.

Intermittently they bellowed – “We want Saris! We want Dhotis!”

One voice shouted out: “Hoarders!” All others refrained: “Perish! Perish!”

“Down With…”

“Hoarders! Profiteers!”

While crossing the market Teenkori looked at Chhaganlal’s shop. It had yet to open, but along with others who sought to be entertained, Chhaganlal too was crowding the balcony. A sly smile of disdain hung from the corner of his lips. The bright beams of the baby sun shone brightly on the gold chain around his neck, casting an aura around him.

As they kept progressing, four or five other groups from two-three surrounding villages joined them. Their numbers now totalled at five hundred. It took about an hour to reach the city. It was almost eight by then.

Manish with all his men arrived at the bungalow of the District Magistrate. A policeman had joined forces with the watchman at the gate.

“Raise your voices brothers!” Manish urged. Before anyone else could respond Teenkori screamed, “We want cloth!” Everyone else joined in, “We want Cloth! We want Cloth!”

“Profiteers must perish!”

“Stop the black market!”

“Magistrate Sahib, give us justice!”

“We want clothing! Give us cloth!”

The policeman and the durwan barked something in unison. But, just as a river’s song would drown in the roar of the ocean, so too was their command drowned by the “We want clothing!” demand of the crowd.

At that moment District Magistrate Carter was discussing international politics with his wife and daughter. The slogans reached him like the sound of waves breaking on a distant shore.

“What’s that dear? Let me check,” Mrs Carter said.

“The same old story of naked men – they want clothing,” Carter replied.

Mrs Carter parted the green raw silk curtains and peeped outside. Their daughter Joanna came and stood behind her. Beyond the green lawn fenced by rose bushes, beyond the iron gate, a crowd of uncouth, underclad men were clamouring loudly. What were they crying out for? Mrs Carter and her daughter could not comprehend. But the numbers and the loud expression of their want filled them with panic.

“How pitiable!” Mother and daughter both agreed.

Durwan Ram Singh came in and saluted them.

“What is it Ram Singh?” Carter enquired.

“They’re asking for clothes Huzoor!”

“Why here?” Mrs Carter flared up. “Is this a shop for clothes?”

“Father is not a Marwari cloth merchant!” Joanna commented. “Ask them to go to the shop.”

Carter stood up. “Let’s go,” he said, lighting up his pipe.

Mrs Carter stopped him. Her blue blue eyes gleamed from fright. The August of 1942 was still fresh in her mind. “Carry your pistol darling,” she pleaded.

“Yes daddy,” Joanna echoed her, “do take that.”

“Nonsense!” Carter laughed. “People who don’t lift  a finger even when they die of hunger, surely will not kill me for clothings!” He went off laughing.

Mrs Carter wasn’t pleased. These days you can’t trust Indians any more – the’ll go to any limit. What ought she to do? The sound of slogans was gradually rising outside.

“Mom – Mamma!”

“Yes?”

“Call the police please!”

“Right dear. I was also thinking of doing that.”

The sound of the phone being picked up filled the room.

Mr Carter stoutly stood at the gate. His pipe was ceaselessly blowing out the strong smell of tobacco while his other hand was twisting a white kerchief. On either side, stood a policeman and his personal guard, Ram Singh.

The assembly burst out like thunder, “Give us clothings!”

Chup raho, silence!” Mr Carter roared at them. “Tell me peacefully what you want.”

“Clothings – that’s all we want,” they bellowed again. “Just organise that…”

“What?” Carter scanned the faces. “Aye you – come here, HERE…”

Teenkori was at the forefront, he was shouting his lungs out. Carter summoned him. With a high jump Teenkori tried to lose himself among the crowd at the back. Gora Sahib! Englishman!! Magistrate!!! Oh God!

Manish strode forward in his place. Carter scanned him from head to toe and asked, “Are you the leader?”

“I am not a leader, but I will tell you what they are here to tell you.”

“Then say – tell me.” Carter put the pipe back in his mouth.

No good came out of the effort. Meaningless assurance was all Carter could give them – they had to go back with the vague assurance that something would be done. But when? What? No word on that.

Teenkori wasn’t pleased. Walking the distance, shouting at the top of his voice – what result did that yield? They ambled through the city’s thoroughfares for another hour and then dispersed. It was almost 10 by this time.

Teenkori thought to himself, “I should try the city shops, may be I’ll get something within my means.”

But that wasn’t to be either. The black market crafted by profiteers and cheats had created a stock that was not available to anyone who did not have a certificate stating “My Candidate”. And what was available to those privileged was beyond his pocket.

Teenkori returned home empty handed.

*

Pooti was down with fever in the evening. Malaria. She was lying in a delirium, wrapped in a torn quilt.

After lunch, Teenkori went off to the fields with his bullocks. The sight of them brought tears to his eyes – both shrivelled, their ribs showing through their hide, they were unlikely to survive too long. What will be their fate then? Perhaps the Master of their Destiny too has no idea.

Harimati was in a jam. The dishes needed to be washed, there was no water at home, and Pooti was in the clutches of fever. No option but for her to go out.

But draping a piece of cloth doesn’t cover everything. The bulge of the breasts stands out, and the abdomen? That too remains visible.

Of course the pond wasn’t too far. Harimati didn’t go to the one frequented by most of her neighbours. Shame! She chose the one less frequented so that she could be away from human gaze. It had rained plenty in October, the ponds were still overflowing. She only had to reach out.

She’d almost finished washing when someone wolf-whistled right behind her. Startled, Harimati turned around. The good-for-nothing village loafer Avinash was oggling the exposed parts of her body with wolfish eyes.

Harimati tugged at one end of her sari to cover herself but the old wornout fabric gave way.

Ahaha!” Avinash cackled, “you just tore your sari out of shame!”

“I’ll beat you lame, you monkey! Let Pooti’s brother come home from the fields…” Harimati retaliated.

Avinash cackled some more. “Damn all he can do. Why? What wrong have I done? I’ve not embraced you, not said anything indecent to you. I’m only gazing. God has given me eyes, and you have given things to gape at – so I’m looking. What’s wrong?”

Harimati swiftly gathered the vessels, filled up the bucket and took to her way.

Avinash called after her, “You need a sari, and I can get you one. Will you take it? Hear me!”

Harimati broke into a run, “God! Oh God!” she kept repeating.

The entity thus addressed did not reply.

Harimati started howling.

*

Teenkori’s veins were about to burst. “Quiet!” he said, not a word more! Just be quiet.”

Harimati’s wailing gave way to yelling. “Quiet?! What d’you mean, ‘Quiet’? I won’t shut up until you get me a sari.”

“How can I get one? Steal?”

“Do that.”

”All right, that’s what I’ll do.”

Teenkori stomped out of his house. It wasn’t too late at night, in fact they had not had their dinner yet. Only old man Ekkori had finished his dinner and gone to bed after dusk.

He actually went off?!

Harimati wiped off her tears, then went and stood outside. “Where are you?” she called out. “Where have you gone? I beg of you, come back and have your dinner.”

*

Teenkori did not ever come back to dinner.

In the middle of the night he was caught trying to steal a sari in Chhaganlal’s house.

Chhaganlal raised a huge hue and cry and gathered a large crowd. What a lynching Teenkori got! Slaps and kicks and boxing – it left him almost lifeless. The villagers who had gathered felt ashamed and sheepishly went back to their homes. In their heart they could not support Chhaganlal but openly they couldn’t let off Teenkori. All said and done, he had turned into a thief!

At daybreak Chhaganlal’s men took Teenkori all tied up to the police station. In that state he was left in their custody. His misery and despair had dried up his tears. His dejection and gloom made him only want to tear his hair.

*

The news reached Manish around 9 in the morning. “The docile, peaceable Teenkori could not keep a hold of himself!”

A few of the villagers pleaded with him to do something in the matter. Manish felt sorry for Teenkori. He felt it was his duty to do something, he hurried out.

When a man keeps asking for something basic and does not get it, what else can he do? Millions and zillion years of civilisation has taught him otherwise — today, how can he forget all that and accept nudity as normal? And, in terms of law too, how has Teenkori ‘erred’? How can age-old norms hold sway over changed circumstances and dire needs?

Manish went directly to Chhaganlal. He heard him out but refused to acquiesce. “That is not to be Manish Babu. He’s a thief, he ought to be jailed.”

Manish stood up, his eyes raining fire. “Don’t try to give a lesson in right and wrong. For the last time I’m pleading, with folded hands Chhaganlalji. Poor man, the lynching he has suffered has been punishment enough, please don’t send him to jail. If you destroy a family it will not bide well for you. Besides, I can prove that you are responsible for all this.”

Chhaganlal heard Manish speak and pondered over it. He has also been following the political trend, perhaps from afar, out of sheer curiosity, but yes, he has been following the trend. All of a sudden he felt that if the circle of time brings changes in history, when the present rule is over, perhaps he would find himself standing before these very people with folded hands. On that future date, it would not help to have these men as his opponents.

Chhaganlal also stood up. “Okay Manish Babu, I will do as you say, and let go of him. Come.”

Together the two went to the police station.

Not there. Half an hour before they got there, Teenkori had been transferred to the court.

Manish implored and took Chhaganlal with him to the court.

*

On hearing the news old man Ekkori had beseeched his neighbour Tarini and gone to the thana. The infirm, near-blind man had leaned on his walking stick and walked behind Tarini all the way to the police station and faced the policeman. He even met Teenkori. The son did not utter a word, only shed silent tears.

The station officer said, “How can I let him go, tell me? There’s a case filed against him. You better go to Chhaganlal.”

Oldman walked to Chhaganlal’s shop. Chhaganlal had just gone out.

Old man went back home, flopped on the floor and wailed, “I couldn’t, dear girl, I couldn’t bring him home!”

Harimati sat still like a corpse.

Ailing Pooti called out to her from inside, “Boudi I am starving. Give me a handful of puffed rice.”

Harimati made no reply. She went to the kitchen and tried to light a fire. She couldn’t, she just gave up. No fumes rising from the clay oven but her eyes were hurting, flooding with tears.

Harimati could almost see with her eyes that Teenkori had been sentenced to a long imprisonment. In the family that was already in dire straits, there was no one to bring home anything by way of livelihood. An emaciated father-in-law, a baby sister-in-law,  she herself with no capability. She had no mother or father, no brother, no one to fall back on. She had only her husband, now he was gone. Even if she mortgaged all she could, it would not sustain them for long. The nudity would have to come into the open. The hyena eyes would feast on her, the indecent proposals would go up manifold. One man’s adversity emboldens the beast in other men: this is an eternal truth as the history of mankind shows. Many will offer her a bellyful of meal and a cloth to wrap her body in but in lieu she’ll have to lose her all — dignity, home, fidelity.

What good would be such a life?

*

Manish returned at sundown with Teenkori. Yes, he had succeeded in freeing him.

As soon as they drew near Teenkori’s house, they could hear wailing and commotion.

“What’s happening?” Manish wondered. Teenkori couldn’t guess anything, “I know nothing.”

“Maybe they’re lamenting for you.”

“Possible.”

The minute they stepped into the courtyard, they could see Harimati’s semi clad body lying on the floor. Her dead eyes were wide open. She was surrounded by two-three elderly women, some men and a few children. Pooti and Ekkori were on the veranda.

Tarini was also present. He spoke, “She hung herself in the backyard of the Mukharjees. I found her an hour ago, on my way back with the cattle from the fields. Madhu has been dispatched to inform the police.”

Manish was speechless.

Teenkori was swaying.

Blind King Dhritarashtra had cried for a hundred sons – Ekkori was crying more than him for his only daughter-in-law. His weather-beaten face was swamped in tears.

Manish was immersed in thought. Are men and women governed by colonial rulers any better than dogs and wolves? So weak, so helpless, so pitiably helpless! Such tragedy befell them for the want of a piece of rag?! He turned his face away. The wailing, the howling, the half-naked body of Harimati – they were all taunting him, ridiculing his leadership, mocking his manhood.

A savage look had set in Teenkori’s eyes, the sort that descends in the eyes of soldiers when they confront their enemies. Many countless invisible enemies seemed to have aligned against him. His muscles swelled up. A desire to tear those enemies tingled at the tip of his fingers…

No, Teenkori would not cry.

Glossary

Anna — Currency. 1/16 of a rupee.

Gamchha — Coarse cotton cloth used like a towel.

Bou — Wife

Puja — Durga Puja

Boudi — Elder sister-in-law

Mandi — Market

Durwan — Security guard

Nabendu Ghosh’s (1917-2007) oeuvre of work includes thirty novels and fifteen collections of short stories. He was a renowned scriptwriter and director. He penned cinematic classics such as Devdas, Bandini, Sujata, Parineeta, Majhli Didi and Abhimaan. And, as part of a team of iconic film directors and actors, he was instrumental in shaping an entire age of Indian cinema. He was the recipient of numerous literary and film awards, including the Bankim Puraskar, the Bibhuti Bhushan Sahitya Arghya, the Filmfare Best Screenplay Award and the National Film Award for Best First Film of a Director.

Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. Ratnottama Sengupta has the rights to translate her father, Nabendu Ghosh.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Musings

For the want of a cloth…

By Ratnottama Sengupta

Roti Kapda aur Makaan/ Maang raha hai Hindustan…

India is demanding food, clothing and shelter…

Sometime in 1949 writer-director-actor Manoj Kumar had heard a young man recite these lines in post-Partition Punjab. The simple line had stayed on in his mind and almost two decades later he came up with the film Roti Kapda aur Makaan (food, clothes and housing). By then India had its third prime minister Indira Gandhi who had swept into the office in 1967 winning with a huge popular mandate on the wings of the slogan Garibi Hatao (Do away with poverty). The three tenets of identifying poverty then outlined were – yes, lack of food, clothing, and roof over people’s head.

These, needless to add, were the prime concern of millions who had been uprooted, disowned by the nation they so far knew to be their own, driven out of their ancestral homes with barely a change of clothes, spending days and nights in refugee camp queues for one square meal and perhaps the vaguest hope of some employment.

In 1949 the Constituent Assembly was already meeting but had yet to formally adopt the Bharatiya Samvidhan – the Constitution of India that came into effect on 26th January 1950, the day that is gloriously celebrated every year with a gratifying display of our military might and cultural wealth on the Rajpath of the Capital. Full seven decades ago the Constitution  laid down a framework that delineates the fundamental code, the directive principles that would govern the political structure, powers, and duties of the government and its institutions – as much as it set out the fundamental rights and the duties of citizens.

We were perhaps receiving our first lessons in civics when Indira Gandhi stepped into the prime minister’s office. We learnt by rote the Preamble that asserts the solemn resolution of the People of India to Constitute the land into a Sovereign Democratic Republic that would secure every one of its citizens Justice – social, economic and political; Liberty – of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; Equality – of status and opportunity; and Fraternity which would assure the dignity of individual and unity of the nation.

We were not, however, aware at that age that the two years before India gave itself the Samvidhan, nations of the world had united in declaring that recognition of the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. By the end of the barbaric World War II they had realised that disregard and contempt for human rights had resulted in the nightmarish acts that continue to outrage the conscience of mankind. By this time, universally, nations were keen to forge a world wherein humans would enjoy “freedom of speech and belief, freedom from fear and want.” These, it was proclaimed by one and all, were “the highest aspiration of the common man,” anywhere on the globe.

By the time the British left India to its destiny, the imperial power too had realised that, if man were not compelled to recourse to the last resort – rebellion against tyranny and oppression – then human rights ought to be protected by the rule of law.

So, in the Charter, the peoples of the United Nations reaffirmed their “faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, and in the equal rights of men and women.” The Human Rights Declaration was, then, meant “to promote social progress and better standards of life for larger freedom.”

By proclaiming the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations,” member States of the United Nations had pledged the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights as fundamental to every freedom. Keeping the Declaration constantly in mind, they will “strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms, and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance.”

*

When I read this, I am astounded that Nabendu Ghosh, writing five years before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was almost setting the charter for nations to follow once they lose the harness of imperialism and emerge out of the shadow of colonialism. “When, despite repeated pleas, a man is deprived of his basic needs, what else can he do?” – wonders the leader portrayed in the mould of a Gandhi in Bastrang Dehi (Give Me a Rag, Please). “Millions and zillion years of civilisation has taught him to cover his natural anatomy, today how can he forget that nudity is primitive and accept nudity as normal? How can age-old norms hold sway over dire needs?” the writer poses.

In the swiftly developing crisis that engulfs the entire community which is suffering the aftermath of rationing and subsequent profiteering in clothes, the village Brahmin Bhattachajji is not apologetic for wearing a lungi, the mark of a mullah: bhaagte bhoot ki langot bhali! – one could add the Hindi proverb to imply, when one is running to save one’s skin, even a loincloth is most acceptable (something is better than nothing). Profiteering, we realise before the end draws up, is the worst of crime against mankind, for it fishes in troubled waters.

The writer ends by describing two opposite reactions – one, of a leader; the other, of a common man. Nationalist Manish turns his face away from the howling surrounding the half-naked corpse of Harimati: the sight and sound was ridiculing his leadership, taunting the failure of his processions to procure more than false promises, mocking his manhood, he felt. But Teenkori, Harimati’s husband, does not cry. He is lynched, he is jailed, he becomes a thief in his attempt to procure a sari for his abused wife who eventually commits suicide – but no, he does not shed a drop of tear. He becomes vicious, a savage look descends in his eyes, his fingers tingle just as do soldiers’ when they confront enemies.

To me, representing a generation which has, since it started walking, celebrated Republic Day by singing paeans to the Hindustan better than the rest of the world, Bastrang Dehi brought home truths that no history book has ever taught. Yes, I knew about the Bengal Famine of 1943 that saw millions starved for the want of rice dying on the streets of Calcutta – the erstwhile capital of the jewel in the British crown. Yes, they were uprooted; they were compelled to leave their homes and hearth in the villages and flock to the city in search of a meal. Yes, I knew that they died of cholera and dysentery as they snatched food out of bins from the jaws of snarling dogs too. But did I know that clothes too were rationed, and sold in the black market, sending saris and dhotis beyond the reach of peasants? Once the ‘Quit India!’ slogan rang out, most Indians would not touch the clothes from the English mills while the British were sending everything — food and handloom clothings produced in the Province — to the Theatre of the War in the North East, where American GIs were joining British Tommies to beat back the Japs who were regularly bombing Bengal.

Nabendu Ghosh, a devotee of the Buddha, must have read this gospel. A disciple of the Enlightened One complained that one of his flock was indifferent to his sermons. He was sorely disappointed that Tathagata’s teachings were falling on deaf ears. One day the Buddha accompanied the disciple to the hut from where he had been shooed away. The Buddha offered the man a bowl of rice, then turned to his disciple and calmly said, “Could you see the man was starving? Truth can be served to him only in a bowl of rice.”

Ghosh derived the title of Bastrang Dehi from the popular invocation of Goddess Durga that rings through Bengal year after year after year, at the advent of the Autumnal Festival: Rupang Dehi, Jayang Dehi, Yasho Dehi Disho Jayee! ( grant me Beauty, grant me Victory, grant me Fame!) By adapting the prayer to seek something as mundane as a piece of cloth, the writer underscores that food, clothing and shelter may be basic individual needs, but if humans constitute society these must be enshrined as basic rights even before we enshrine political liberty, rule of law, equality of worship, freedom of expression… Else democracy and justice and other lofty ideals of human life will go for a toss.

Decades after the history books have changed the way we look at the past, why do I still cringe when I read Bastrang Dehi? Because I know that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

*

I am certain Anshu Gupta has never read Bastrang Dehi. But ‘Give me cloth’ was the plea that had launched his journey with Goonj – and it has earned him the Magsaysay Award, World Bank’s Development Marketplace award, Mother Teresa award, NASA’S Game Changing Innovation, the prestigious Ashoka fellowship… they are still coming in.

What had spurred the young man and his wife to start Goonj with merely 67 items of clothings? The realisation that clothing was overlooked as a basic human right. Today the NGO registered under Societies Act and for exemption under several sections and for foreign contributions etc, deals with more than 3500 tonnes of material every year. 

A real life incidence had prompted Gupta to start this arduous journey. One night, going home in Delhi’s winter, he met a three-wheeler scooter rickshaw driver, Habib. His rickshaw had this inscribed on its side: Laawarish laash uthaane wala (I pick up unclaimed dead bodies). Talking to him Gupta learnt that for every dead body Habib carried to the crematorium, he got twenty rupees and two metres of cloth. That, workload in winter was more than in summer. That, many underprivileged families don’t have enough clothes to stave off the cold. So much so that Habib’s little daughter Bano told Anshu, “When I feel cold, I hug a dead body to sleep. It does not turn around, it does not trouble me…”

Anshu Gupta deserves every single award that has come his way. For, unlike nationalist Manish of Bastrang Dehi, he did not turn his face away. That one meeting ignited in him the impulse to address the sufferings of millions due to shortage of clothing. He started collecting under-utilised used material, to maintain human dignity rather than to give them as charity. In the process he has triggered development with dignity across the land.

*

Saare jahaan se achha... I still sing on Republic Day, and I still sing Sakal desher shera amaar janma bhoomi Independence Day. But when I run into Anshu Gupta at a conference perhaps in Budapest, I hang my head in shame. I am elated that Goonj has clothed millions. But even today, if a Tsunami, an Amphan or a Yaas sweeps the shores of Midnapur or Sundarbans, a Kendrapada or Bhadrak, in Bengal or Odisha – even today, I hear the cries of women and men cry out, ‘Give me a rag, please!”

It is a cry to save their dignity.

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Glossary:

Saare jahaan se achha… A song written by Iqbal in 1904 and adapted as a song for marching by the Indian army. Literally, translated to mean, the best in the world.

Sakal desher shera amaar janma bhoomi A song written by  Dwijendralal Ray (1863-1913). Literally translated to mean, the best country is my land of birth.

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Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. 

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Contents

Borderless January, 2022

Painting by Sohana Manzoor

Editorial

Elephants & Laughter… Click here to read.

Interviews

Keith Lyons introduces us to Kenny Peavy, an author, adventurer, educator and wilderness first-aider who has travelled far and wide and wishes everyone could connect with the natural world right outside their door. Click here to read.

In Rhys Hughes Unbounded, Hughes, an author and adventurer, tells us about his inclination for comedies. Click here to read

Translations

Professor Fakrul Alam translates If Life were Eternal by Jibananada Das from Bengali. Click here to read.

Ratnottama Sengupta translates Bengali poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt’s Bijoya Doushami. Click here to read.

Korean poet Ihlwha Choi translates his own poem, Sometimes Losing is Winning, from Korean. Click here to read.

On This Auspicious Day is a translation of a Tagore’s song, Aaji Shubhodine Pitaar Bhabone, from Bengali by Mitali Chakravarty. Click here to read.

Give Me A Rag, Please:A short story by Nabendu Ghosh, translated by Ratnottama Sengupta, set in the 1943 Bengal Famine, which reflects on man’s basic needs. Click here to read

Poetry

Click on the names to read

Rhys Hughes, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Anasuya Bhar, Jay Nicholls, Anuradha Vijayakrishnan, Vernon Daim, Mathangi Sunderrajan, William Miller, Syam Sudhakar, Mike Smith, Pramod Rastogi, Ivan Peledov, Subzar Ahmed, Michael R Burch

Nature’s Musings

In Best Friends, Penny Wilkes takes us for a photographic treat. Click here to read.

Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

In Making Something of Nothing…, Rhys Hughes explores sources of inspirations with a dollop of humour. Click here to read.

Musings/Slices from Life

Wooing Children to School

Munaj Gul writes of how volunteers are engaged in wooing children from poverty stricken backgrounds to school in Turbat, Balochistan. Click here to read.

Historical Accuracy

Ravibala Shenoy ponders over various interpretations of the past in media and through social media. Click here to read.

The Ocean & Me

Meredith Stephens writes of her sailing adventures in South Australia. Click here to read.

Crotons

Kavya RK finds her fascination for plants flourish in the pandemic. Click here to read.

The Great Freeze

P Ravi Shankar trots through winters in different parts of the globe. Click here to read.

Two Birds

Ratnottama Sengupta muses as she translates a Tagore’s song. Click here to read.

Musings of a Copywriter

In The New Year’s Boon, Devraj Singh gives a glimpse into the projection of a new normal created by God. Click here to read.

Essays

Dramatising an Evolving Consciousness: Theatre with Nithari’s Children

Sanjay Kumar gives us a glimpse of how theatre has been used to transcend trauma and create bridges. Click here to read.

Potable Water Crisis & the Sunderbans

Camellia Biswas, a visitor to Sunderbans during the cyclone Alia, turns environmentalist and writes about the potable water issue faced by locals. Click here to read.

The Malodorous Mountain: A Contemporary Folklore

Sayantan Sur looks into environmental hazards due to shoddy garbage disposal. Click here to read.

Where Sands Drift Back in Time…

Shernaz Wadia explores Western Australia. Click here to read.

The Observant Immigrant

In The Changing Faces of the Family, Candice Louisa Daquin explores the trends in what is seen as a family now. Click here to read.

Bhaskar’s Corner

In Fakir Mohan: A Tribute, Bhaskar Parichha introduces us to Fakir Mohan Senapati, the writer he considers the greatest in Odia literature. Click here to read.

Stories

Folklore from Balochistan: The Pearl

Balochi folktales woven into a story and reinvented by Fazal Baloch highlighting the wisdom of a woman. Click here to read.

The American Wonder

Steve Ogah takes us to a village in Nigeria. Click here to read.

The Boy

Neilay Khasnabish shares a story on migrant labours with a twist. Click here to read.

Stranger than Fiction

Sushant Thapa writes of real life in Nepal, which at times is stranger than fiction. Click here to read.

The Solace

Candice Louisa Daquin takes us on a poignant story of longing. Click here to read.

The Doll

Sohana Manzoor tells a story around the awakening of a young woman. Click here to read.

Among Our PeopleDevraj Singh Kalsi gives a fictitious account of a common man’s quest for security in a country that is one of the world’s largest democracy. Click here to read.

Book Excerpts

An excerpt from Shazi Zaman’s Akbar: A Novel of History detailing his interactions with Surdas and Braj. Click here to read.

Excerpts from A Glimpse Into My Country, An Anthology of International Short Stories edited by Andrée Roby & Dr Sangita Swechcha. Click here to read.

Book Reviews

Meenakshi Malhotra reviews Somdatta Mandal’s translation of A Bengali Lady in England by Krishnabhabini Das (1885). Click here to read.

Gracy Samjetsabam reviews Anuradha Kumar’s The Hottest Summer in Years. Click here to read.

Rakhi Dalal reviews Selma Carvalho’s Sisterhood of Swans. Click here to read.

Bhaskar Parichha reviews Amit Ranjan’s John Lang; Wanderer of Hindoostan; Slanderer in Hindoostanee; Lawyer for the Ranee. Click here to read.

Categories
Editorial

Elephants & Laughter

Run, Painting by Sybil Pretious

Ideally, I would love to start the New Year with laughter and happiness! Then perhaps, the whole year would be dotted with humour …

Laughter clubs often practice laughing for health benefits. I know the pandemic makes both guffawing outdoors or in a group hard but think of the funniest possible thing and, perhaps, you will start laughing. For me what works other than children’s and monkeys’ antics, are my trips to the dentist, especially the trip where I wondered on the fringe benefits of ‘laughing gas’ (as given in the PG Wodehouse novel of the same name), only to be informed that it was used exclusively for young children. For me, an adult, there was only — you have guessed it — the jab that numbs your lip function to lubber. I discovered if I could make light of a dentist drilling by learning from Harry Potter (the spell to get rid of the terrifying boggart, who took the shape of the thing you feared most, was to imagine the funniest thing, focus on the humour in it, and shout ‘Riddikulus’ with a wand pointed at the creature in the form of your worst nightmare), then I could pretty much get rid of most fears.

The other thing I have been wondering for sometime is can one write an editorial that is humorous when the content is serious? I would have wanted to ask that question to many, including Ruskin Bond, who continues as one of my idols. I would love to touch hearts with the humour and the sensitivity that flavours his writing. It is tough to convey a complex thought with the simplicity and elegance of a writer who can be read and understood easily. I think we have a few of them around and I interviewed one. You all probably know him well— Rhys Hughes. I have given the reasons for the interview in lieu of Mr Bond, who continues a distant star beyond the horizon of online interviews. We discussed humour and its role in literature, leaving out completely in the cold, the fictional Mr Bond who answers to the names of James and 007 and has made entertaining films, which can be seen as serious or non-serious.

Hughes has of course, given some writerly advice not just in the interview but in ‘Making Something of Nothing’ – pretty much the advice that God had probably been given when he asked an unspecified friend on how to create the universe and multiple realities. Hughes has also added to our galaxy of poets where Michael Burch, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Anasuya Bhar, Vernon Daim, William Miller, Pramod Rastogi, Mike Smith, Jay Nicholls and many more continue to sparkle. Taking up the theme of God’s creations, Devraj Singh Kalsi has added to more humour with a dream of divine intervention to make the ‘New Normal’ in 2022 – a plan for this year. Will it ever be real?

Another major issue in this world currently is climate change. In keeping with the need for acceptance of this reality, Keith Lyons introduced us to a nature lover, author and adventurer Kenny Peavy, who loved the fictional adventurer called Indiana Jones and has been working towards living in harmony with nature. He moved to Indonesia from America and is trying to raise awareness. You can find much, though not elephants, in the interview that encompasses the story of a man who cycled across a continent on a bike made of bamboo. However, you can find some writing on a king who acquired the skill to ride and tame elephants in our book excerpt from Shazi Zaman’s Akbar: A Novel of History. The excerpt does not showcase his elephant taming skills as did the Bollywood blockbuster Jodha Akbar but is focussed on bringing out the syncretism in the Mughal monarch’s outlook which made him seek out exponents of other religions. Sangita Swechcha’s and Andrée Roby’s anthology, A Glimpse Into My Country, with excerpts of short stories from Nepal and Zimbabwe, like Kenny Peavy, cycle across multiple borders as does our fiction. We feature stories from within and without the continent with Fazal Baloch recombining a couple of folklores from Balochistan to a single tale. Fiction from young writers highlight compassion and a varied perspective. Steve Ogah has a story from Nigeria which almost rings with overtones of Alex Haley’s Roots. Sohana Manzoor has given us a poignant narrative with an inspiring twist at the end, an absolute antithesis of the humorous one she rolled out for us last month. Candice Louisa Daquin has also given us an exceptional short fiction along with her column where she discusses the changing face of families in the current context.

While Daquin’s focus is mainly towards the West, we have an essay from Sanjay Kumar on families that live in the greyer zones of big cities, children from an outcropping called Nithari in Delhi, where they or theirs suffered neglect, abuse, carnage and cannibalism in their formative years.  Introducing the impacted children, Kumar explains how they transcended the wounds that lacerated their lives. This piece is a precursor to a column called ‘Children of Nithari’. Starting February, the abuse victims will give us a story a month which will be translated by young volunteers from pandies’, an activist theatre group founded by Kumar, and published in Borderless. Another article from Balochistan reflects on the lack of literacy and efforts to bring children into the folds of schooling. Pakistan ranked 99th out of 132 countries on the literacy survey in 2021. We are privileged to be the voice of the unheard.

Two essays that ring of concerns raised in the Kenny Peavy interview are to do with climate crisis in the Sunderbans and waste disposal in Delhi. Both of these are written by researchers who are working on these issues.

We have travel pieces from Australia – one is a sailing adventure by Meredith Stephens and the other is about a trip to the Sand Dunes of Western Australia by Shernaz Wadia. Ravi Shankar has also taken us through winters from the Everest to New York with his globe-trotting non-fiction. Penny Wilkes takes us on a flight of creativity with beautiful photography.

We have a stellar layout of translations. Professor Fakrul Alam translated another poem by Jibananada Das and Borderless is honoured to publish it to the world for the first time. We have a translation from Korea and another of a Brahmo hymn, Aji Shubho Dine, by Tagore, which is sung often during festivals. The icing in our Tagore section in this issue is Ratnottama Sengupta’s translation of the Kobiguru’s ‘Two Birds’ (Khanchar Pakhi Chhilo) along with a musing which reflects on the perspectives of the two contemporaries, Tagore and Saratchandra. She has also translated a well-known Bengali poet, Michael Madhusudan Dutt. Dutt wrote just before the advent of Tagore and had an interesting past which has been vividly depicted by Sunil Gangopadhyay in Those Days (Sei Somoy in Bengali), a novel that has been translated by Aruna Chakravarti. Bhaskar Parichha has given us a tribute on the occasion of the birth anniversary of Fakir Mohan Senapati, who, he claims, has the same standing in Odia literature as Tagore in Bengali or Premchand in Hindi.

Parichha has also reviewed Amit Ranjan’s John Lang; Wanderer of Hindoostan; Slanderer in Hindoostanee; Lawyer for the Ranee. It looks like an interesting read where an immigrant Australian came supported Rani of Jhansi in India. Rakhi Dalal has reviewed Selma Carvalho’s Sisterhood of Swans, again a story of migrants and their lives. The theme seems to echo among the books that have been reviewed this time, including Gracy Samjetsabam’s take on Anuradha Kumar’s The Hottest Summer in Years, a story about a German immigrant to India in the twentieth century. Meenakshi Malhotra’s review of Somdatta Mandal’s translation of A Bengali Lady in England by Krishnabhabini Das (1885) highlights the views of a traveller rather than an immigrant as the lady did return home after a ten-year sojourn in Britain. As Meenakshi contends, “The process of travel offers opportunities for emancipation where exposure to other cultures offers her a way of viewing and of gaining a perspective on her own experiences and that of her sisters in India. Krishnabhabini constantly refers to her Indian sisters and bemoans their sorry state and ignorance when she sees how active British women were in their families and societies…”

I was supposed to try my hand at a humorous editorial, but I realise that is tough when the ground is small. For humour, we need rolling acres where we can etch out each detail till it cannot be milked further for laughter. But I promise you I will keep trying to please the readers till one evolves to write like Ruskin Bond.

I would like to thank my fabulous team who even if not actively contributing to content are always at hand to advise and help. I would especially want to thank both Sohana Manzoor and Sybil for their fantastic artwork, which is as wonderful as their writings. I would like to give heartfelt thanks to all the contributors who have made this journal possible and each reader who comes back to our journal for more every month. Some of the pieces remain unmentioned adding to the mystery of the content, just like, Christmas gifts which need to be unwrapped and continue a reality even in January in some parts of the world – the Russians celebrate on January 7th and the Spaniards extend their festivities to January 6th.

Do take a look at this month’s edition for not just the stories mentioned here but for more.

I wish you all a wonderful New Year filled with laughter.

Mitali Chakravarty

Borderless Journal

Categories
Interview

Nature & Kenny Peavy

Keith Lyons introduces us to Kenny Peavy, an author, adventurer, educator and wilderness first-aider who has travelled far and wide and wishes everyone could connect with the natural world right outside their door. 

American Kenny Peavy has spent three decades getting people outdoors. He believes that by playing in and exploring the natural world, we can discover or re-kindle a deep connection with Nature and learn to respect and take care of the planet we all share. 

For the last twenty one years, he’s been based in Asia, working in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. He’s currently at possibly the coolest school in the world, made of bamboo and nestled in lush jungle, the Green School Bali. Kenny is an advocate for education and learning outside the classroom. 

In this conversation, we are going to learn about growing up in the South of the US, how his environmental awareness was instilled, what brought him to Asia, and some of the biggest cultural differences (including breakfast). In addition to his questioning memoir ‘Young Homeless Professional’, in 2007 Kenny co-authored the pioneering environmental education handbook, As if the Earth Matters, and recently, an illustrated book, The Box People , was re-released digitally to enable children, young people and their parents and educators anywhere in the world to use the book. He also created Waffle House Prophets: Poems Inspired by Sacred People and Places

In efforts to raise awareness about conservation and sustainability in Southeast Asia, he’s paddled around the island of Phuket in Thailand, and ridden a bamboo-frame bike from Thailand through Malaysia to Singapore and Bali. As well as being a nature guide, project fundraiser and science teacher, Kenny is also a qualified wilderness first responder and first aid trainer. In Bali, he had to flee with his family when an erupting volcano threatened their village. 

Kenny has some advice for city-dwellers afraid of the ‘sometimes scary’ world away from concrete and mobile phones.

Tell me about growing up in Georgia, as I only know it being famous for peanuts, and being the birthplace of Julia Roberts, Kanye West, Martin Luther King Jr, Ray Charles, and Hulk Hogan? 

I was born in 1969 so, essentially, I was a kid in the ’70s and ’80s. Since the ’80s were my high school years, I consider myself a child of the ’80s in all its hair metal, boom box, Pac Man and Donkey Kong glory!

It was very rural. A lot different then. We weren’t as aware of the outside world and didn’t have access to a lot of things like we do now. 

I distinctly remember going to my first ‘real mall’ in about 1984 or maybe 1985. It was Gwinnett Place Mall. A huge commercial shopping centre. Up until then, we only really had local mom-n-pop shops. So, it was astounding. One of my friends could drive and he had a car. 

None of us had much money so we all pitched in a couple of dollars for gas. The parking lot was dizzying and the mall was an amazing place to watch people. We tried this new thing none of us had ever heard of called a Gyro wrap and it was absolutely delicious and strange. Then afterwards I had an Oreo ice cream. Something I had never experienced before since we only had vanilla, strawberry and chocolate ice cream at the local shop. It was all brand new. 

Growing up in the countryside we didn’t have that sort of food or flavours so even those simple things we take for granted today were fascinating novelties back then!

Aside from that, as I said, it was very rural. Most folks had land and cows or chickens. A lot of pine trees which means pulp mills to make paper. Plenty of dirt roads. Atlanta was the BIG CITY and most of us were kind of afraid to go there because we never heard anything but bad news about city folks.

What was the environment you grew up in like

Most folks were into fishing, hunting and other similar recreations. I went to a public school and took the free bus to school. We definitely had jocks, hicks, geeks and other ‘distinctive’ social groups. Me and all my friends were into hard rock and heavy metal and we saved our money so we could see all the shows from AC/DC, Bon Jovi, Ozzy Osbourne and White Snake when they came to Atlanta (even though we were scared of the Big City and fast talking city folks).

Our big entertainment was cruising the strip mall where they had a McDonalds and a hardware store. We’d all just drive in circles wasting time and gas while blasting The Scorpions so we could wave at people we’d seen at school the very same day.

I think most families were basically Blue Collar with jobs in construction, factories or some kind of farming. We all grew up working and my first job at age fifteen was washing dishes at a steak house in town. Other jobs we had as teens were cutting grass, painting curbs, running cashier in a gas station and other similar tasks.

How did you get into writing, was it something you developed a talent for early on, or did you have some inspiration and guidance from others? 

I always wanted to be a poet and swoon the girls with poems and fancy quotes from far-flung novels. It never worked.

I also wanted to be that professor with the patches on the elbows of his tweed jacket and a pipe dangling from my mouth as I pontificated wise philosophical diatribes to impress the masses. I’m still working on that one!

Your interest in Nature, the environment and science, where did that come from? 

Essentially, from growing up and playing outdoors. We were always outside and not allowed in the house during the day. So, we’d get bored and flip over logs, explore the creeks, go fishing and ride our bikes all over the trails in the woods.

This lead me to get curious about the critters we found under the logs and hiding out in the rocks in the stream. Combine that with a love for hunting and fishing and I eventually studied biology at university.

I basically wanted to know how Nature worked. What made it tick? How did all the pieces fit together? That also lead to jobs at the Institute of Ecology at the University of Georgia where I learned a heap about aquatic macro-invertebrates, ichthyology (fish) and ecology — and had a private lunch with the Father of Modern Ecology and author of the very first ecology textbook, Professor Emiritus Eugene Odum.

That’s why I firmly believe that a childhood spent outdoors playing and exploring will later lead to an insatiable curiosity for Nature and an ethic for conservation and stewardship.

You document in your book Young Homeless Professional  about a time in your life when you immersed yourself in the natural world, and were searching for answers. What did you learn from that time about the world and yourself? 

I essentially have many of the same questions today. I think I understand the inner workings of Nature and life’s mysteries a bit better now. With a modicum more insight and quite a few more experiences under my belt than 20+ years ago, I think what’s most important is the process of questioning. The ability to stay open to life’s possibilities is key. We most likely will never fully comprehend or understand life, our roles in the cosmos and Nature’s mysteries, but if we stay curious, keep exploring, stay open to the possibilities and keep questioning then I think that’s the key to finding a place in this world we all share.

How did you end up moving from the US to teaching in Asia? 

On a whim. I wanted adventure. I wanted to see and experience new cultures, try weird foods, learn about different religions and philosophies. Speak strange languages. So with US$ 8,000 in the bank, a teaching degree and a hankering to see the world I set out for Kuala Lumpur in the year 2000: I’ve never looked back!

What are the biggest differences between life in the US and your current life and environment in Bali? 

The biggest difference has to be that it’s a majority Muslim country. My wife is Muslim and I’ve grown quite comfortable being married into a different culture and religion. And here in Bali, it’s mostly Hindu which is vastly different from Islam. Growing up in the Southern US, I was only ever exposed to Methodist and Baptist forms of Christianity. All of this was new to me 20 years ago when I moved here.

I think the tropical climate and easy-going beach lifestyle are also very different from growing up in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. 

Another HUGE difference is having rice for breakfast! I was always a hash browns and eggs or better yet, grits, kind of guy. We don’t really have either one of those here. But instead, they eat rice with a spicy sauce and crispy chicken or fish for a typical Indonesian Breakfast!

As well as being a teacher, you’ve done a lot of activities, organising events, initiating projects and raising funds. What’s your motivation for doing these? 

I feel like we should give back. Whatever we have to share, to teach, to give to others is valuable. Being part of something bigger than ourselves, whether it is a project, a group, a movement or an ideology is fundamental to achieving a sense of fulfilment and belonging. When we give, we receive back way more joy and happiness than we originally gave. It gets multiplied! Through giving of ourselves and sharing what we have, we receive a sense of being part of a larger cause and a sense of contentment which is multiplied many times over. 

One of your most notable achievements, in addition to your writing and educational work, is riding a bamboo bicycle across Southeast Asia from Thailand to Bali to raise awareness on sustainability. What was the hardest part of that adventure? 

It was all fun with plenty of excitement and adventure. There were actually very few hiccups and hardships. But I would have to say that cycling some of the monotonous palm oil plantations through peninsular Malaysia from the Thai border to Singapore was hot, boring and so sad. It was heartbreaking to see what was once a beautiful rainforest converted into endless palm oil plantations and a never-ending paved highway.

You also kayaked around the island of Phuket to raise awareness about marine conservation. How important is tangible action to bringing about change? 

Taking action is paramount. We can say anything we want. We can project an image of being eco-friendly and sustainable. We can GreenWash anything. But if you want to see what someone truly believes, watch what they do. Pay attention to their actions. Tangible action, hands-on, in the field, is where it’s at! Especially, if we truly want to bring about change and make a difference we have TO DO, not just SAY or BELIEVE.

Environmental education seems to be at the heart of your mission, how do you encourage students, teachers and adults to re-connect with Nature? 

Ironically, I spent 2 years researching this question as part of my MS degree and what I discovered and concluded after hundreds of peer-reviewed papers, conferences, surveys and questionnaires is that the best way to connect to Nature is simple… get outside and play!

Free time, exploring and playing in Nature are way more effective than any curriculum or lesson plan. When we take time to just wander and wonder we connect in ways that can’t be facilitated through constructed lessons or planning. It happens naturally and spontaneously when we get lost in play, discovery and exploration.

What are people’s (particularly city-dwellers) biggest fears about the natural world? 

I think the main thing people are afraid of is boredom. They don’t know how to wallow in boredom until the sense of wonder kicks in. We’re so used to instantaneous entertainment that we’ve become afraid to just sit, observe and take things as they come.

Another big one is mosquitos! And leeches. People are terrified of leeches!

Tell us about the environmental education book you co-wrote with Thom Henley As if the Earth matters?

It’s basically a teacher training manual and activity guide. We wrote it back before there were any resources to train teachers in Southeast Asia. So, the activities are meant to get kids connected to nature through exploration and engaging the senses. We put an emphasis on showing Southeast Asian flora and fauna as well as locals in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia as instructors and participants to make sure it would have a multi-cultural approach to environmental education.

I am hoping to take some of the activities in the book and update them and create a much smaller activity packet. I think it’s now more important and relevant than ever that we try to connect kids and adults to Nature. 

As well as working as a nature guide, trek leader, science teacher, you are also a wilderness first aid instructor. What inspires you to be so active? 

I think the main driver and inspiration comes from a sense of curiosity. I always wanted to be a National Geographic explorer, or some kind of adventurer!

When I was young, I was inspired by the Indiana Jones movies, David Attenborough and TV shows that featured people exploring exotic places, getting lost in mysterious jungles, landing in the middle of some kind of misadventure or a quest.

Those images stuck with me and keep me excited and curious to this day! There is always something new to learn, a new place to see, a new style of music to hear, and new flavours to be tasted.

You’ve also done some personal service projects, such as in Bali helping those affected by the volcano eruption. How challenging is it to initiate projects, particularly in a foreign country? 

It’s easy to do a project but it’s incredibly difficult to do it right.

The key seems to be relationships. If you have a relationship with someone in the village or even someone that knows someone in the village then things tend to go well.

The main issue I see is that many foreigners want to help in some way but they simply don’t know how. During the Mount Agung crisis, we were at a refugee camp and saw a car pull up and start tossing food into the crowd. The local villagers were then forced to run around and grab the donations up off the ground. It was very demeaning. I vowed to never approach any type of service project that way.

Essentially, you just need to ask the village what they truly need. This is the crucial step and it’s often overlooked. What I mostly see are people with good intentions making assumptions about what a village needs and then donating completely irrelevant or unwanted and unneeded stuff. Whether this is inappropriate food items that won’t be used, hot thick blankets in the tropics or painting a wall at a school when the funds and volunteer time could be used much wiser the missing ingredient is always communication with the locals to find out their true needs.

In the case of Mount Agung, what we discovered after meeting the heads of the villages is that they wanted fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, spices, electric fans and N95 masks. They said everyone had donated rice and instant noodles and that they needed something they could cook to go with it! In the end, we delivered those items based on their needs and wants not on assumptions.

So, if and when folks want to help out and do service projects it’s most helpful to find a trustworthy local that can help facilitate communications to ensure that the project is effective and truly wanted and needed.

How much do you feel you are an American in Asia, or a global citizen of the planet? 

I don’t feel very American anymore. Aside from my mom, dad and sister, I don’t have many connections to my country of birth these days.

I’ve been overseas for more than 20 years now. I’ve changed quite a bit personally and the USA has also changed a great deal in that time. 

I would say nowadays I definitely feel more like a global citizen and can be comfortable in almost any situation. These days I’m used to being surrounded by, working with and keeping company with locals of whatever country I am working in.

Being surrounded by people of diverse cultures, exploring and learning about different peoples, traditions, foods and ecosystems are what keep me happy!

When it comes to communicating and writing, what’s your process? 

Ideas always come to me at the strangest times. The best ideas seem to come when I am not thinking about writing but instead, when I am on the motorbike, bicycle, drifting off to sleep or distracted or focused on something entirely different. To catch those ideas, I always keep a pad of paper and pen next to the bed, my phone has a note-taking app and I have a zillion sticky notes. I even e-mail ideas to myself sometimes! So that’s step one. Catch the idea and record it. 

Then I tend to forget about it until I come across a similar thought or idea through reading, listening to a podcast or hearing something or someone that triggers more thought. That’s when I tend to gather up those ideas from the emails, sticky notes and note-taking app and start to map them out and write an outline. Then I forget about it again for a while.

Finally, when I revisit those ideas, I try to develop them into an essay, poem or even a book!

For the writing, I try to use my Southern American voice and interject colloquialisms. I normally write it. Edit it. Re-write. Edit again.

I find the editing is ongoing and every time you ‘rest’ in between versions and then look at your writing with fresh eyes you catch phrases that could be written better, sentences that can be shortened and different ways to say and express things that make them more interesting. Lastly, the thesaurus is my best friend!

What advice do you have some someone reading this, who wants to find their purpose, and also make a difference in the world?

Stay curious. Stay open. Seek out adventure. Don’t be afraid to fail. Keep learning new skills and spend long periods of time reflecting on who you are and what you have to contribute to the world.

Enjoy the adventure of being alive!

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You can follow Kenny Peavy on Twitter @kenny_peavy or Instagram @kenny_peavy, and he will reply if you email him at kennywpeavy@gmail.com. Kenny also has a FB group about the Box People project (https://www.facebook.com/groups/boxpeopleunboxed ), and there is more information about the book on Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/Box-People-Out/dp/B09M4R6PRB/), or direct from Kenny via email kennywpeavy@gmail.com

Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer who gave up learning to play bagpipes in a Scottish pipe band to focus on early morning slow-lane swimming, the perfect cup of masala chai tea, and after-dark tabs of dark chocolate. Find him@KeithLyonsNZ or blogging at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).
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Categories
Interview

Rhys Hughes Unbounded

In conversation with Rhys Hughes

I have always wanted to interview Ruskin Bond who lives in Landour, near the hill-station of Mussoorie in India. Bond, now 87, grew up in Dehradun, tried a stint in England and returned to the country that had nurtured him to write stories that make us laugh and yet bring out the flavours of love and kindness in the Himalayas. Sadly, no one seems to be able to get me an online interview with him. So, I did the next best thing…

I interviewed Rhys Hughes.

Rhys Hughes in Srilanka

You have to see it from my perspective, here was a humourist migrating from UK to India, just like Bond. Both their names begin with R — Ruskin wrote of monkeys conducting a fashion parade in colourful pyjamas borrowed from him, perhaps permanently and Rhys wants to interview a monkey who took a bottle of coconut oil from his current home. Only, Hughes’ monkey happens to be in Sri Lanka and Bond’s monkeys were in India. In fact, I told Hughes he could be the next Bond and could perhaps get into an apprenticeship. He has the basic compassion and humour in his writing that endears Bond to so many hearts. However, Hughes has not made it across to India as yet. He waits on the lush shores of Sri Lanka to make a landfall on the Coromandel Coast or … maybe the Himalayas… as the pandemic continues to upheave in tsunami-like waves. Maybe, Rhys Hughes will become the Ruskin Bond of Sri Lanka! Let us tread into the world of Hughes to check out what he thinks.

Tell us since when have you been writing? What gets your muse going?

I began writing when I was six years old or so. My earliest stories were inspired by films and comics I enjoyed and mostly were about monsters, adventures, space travel, robots, dinosaurs and ghosts. I doubt if any of them made much sense.

The first short story I wrote with a plot I remember was about a man who jumps off a cliff so that he will turn into a ghost and can create mischief in his village, which he does, but the twist is that he survives the fall and only thinks he is a ghost. The enraged villagers chase him back over the same cliff, and he isn’t frightened because he believes he can float on air, but he can’t and this time he doesn’t survive. I was about ten years old when I wrote that. But I didn’t begin writing short stories in earnest until I was fourteen. That was the real beginning of my writing career. I have been writing regularly ever since. I don’t require prompting to write these days. It has become a habit, a reflex, something I just do. I still write about the same old things as always, monsters, adventures, space travel, etc, but I have added a few more themes since I was a young child and my style has improved considerably. At least I hope it has!

That story you wrote as a ten-year-old definitely has potential! And we enjoy your writing as we read it now.  Now tell us why do you write?

Ideas come unbidden into my mind and they won’t leave me alone unless I put them into stories. The moment I embody these ideas in a work of fiction they stop bothering me. I get ideas all the time, especially when I am walking or travelling somewhere, but also in the middle of the night. I try to make notes so I can use them later but sometimes I neglect to note them down and I forget them. Then the ideas go away temporarily but return days, weeks, months or years later and bother me again. Only when I pin them down into a narrative of some kind will they go away forever. So writing is a compulsion for me as well as a voluntary activity. It wasn’t always like this.

In the beginning I found it difficult to come up with original ideas. I had to work hard at it. I would say that most of my ideas back then were fairly ordinary ones and only occasionally truly original. But I persisted and exercised my mind, and just like muscles do, the parts of my mind responsible for the invention of original ideas got bigger and stronger, and now the ideas come without effort. As it happens, not all these ideas turn out to be as original as I like to think they are. Sometimes I get excited that I have come up with a totally new concept only to later discover that some other author beat me to it years ago. But I do believe that originality is possible.

The oft-repeated maxim that there are no new ideas simply isn’t true. If originality is impossible, how were any ideas generated in the first place? I don’t mean to say that originality is the ultimate objective of writing, of course not, there are a great many other reasons to write, but I am talking about it from my own particular point of view. And all I am really saying here is that practice is the most important thing, the only essential thing. I write a lot and the very act of writing regularly seems to make writing in the future easier and smoother.

What is your favourite genre for writing and for reading?

The genre question is a difficult one to answer but I am going to say that if I had to choose only one genre to describe my own writing I would answer “comedy”. This doesn’t mean that everything I write is comedic, but a large percentage of it certainly is. And I don’t necessarily mean laugh-out-loud comedy but other types of comedy too, whether subtle irony, philosophical farce, absurdist and surrealist works. There are many grades of comedy, from wit to parody, and I enjoy most of them. When it comes to reading, I still have a focus on comedy, I suppose, but I will read very sober and serious works too. If I made a list of my favourite works of fiction, comedic works would be at the top of the list.

Broadly speaking there are two types of humorous literature, one in which incidents are funny and one in which it is the telling that is comic. Writers who combine both types tend to win my deepest admiration. Yet quite a few of my favourite books have no comedy in them at all, neither in subject nor in style, for example The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis ( 1993, translated by Edith Grossman, 2002) which is a sequence of tropical and troubling narratives, often sombre in tone, that nonetheless remains an enthralling and uplifting read.

Which writers have influenced your work? Are you influenced by other art forms?

I wanted to become a professional writer because of Robert Louis Stevenson. It was Treasure Island (1883) that opened the gates into the entire world of literature for me. I still admire him hugely but I have had much bigger influences since then. Delving deeper into the novels and short stories that were available to me, I was lucky enough to find authors who resonated with some deep part of my being and made me not only want to continue trying to be a writer, but to be a writer who wrote as they did. Of course, it’s better to develop one’s own style, but I suspect that ‘distinctive’ styles are really the result of amalgams of influences, a blend of prior styles. Italo Calvino (1923-1985) has been my favourite writer for more than thirty years, with Donald Barthelme (193i-1989), Boris Vian (1920-1959), Flann O’Brien (1911-1966) and Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006) not far behind. At the moment I am a keen reader of the work of Mia Couto (1955-2013). Alasdair Gray (1934-2019) is another favourite.

To answer the second part of your question, I have definitely been influenced by art forms other than writing, in particular music and visual art. I might even say that the paradoxical imagery in the artwork of M.C. Escher (1898-1972) has been at least as big an influence on me as the prose of any author. I was astounded and captivated when I first saw his graphic designs and have loved them ever since.

You have travelled to many places. How many countries have you visited? Has travel impacted your writing? How?

I have lost count of the number of countries I have visited. I used to keep a map and colour in the countries that I had been to, but I lost the map years ago. The truth is that probably the total isn’t as high as I think it is. Most of my travelling has been done in Africa and Europe, and I have only really dipped my toes into the vastness of Asia, and I haven’t even been to the Americas at all. No one is so well-travelled that they really know the world.

Travel has certainly impacted my writing, though. I can state that with confidence. I am often inspired to write stories set in the places I have visited and I guess I probably wouldn’t do so if I hadn’t been there. Having said that, I do occasionally set a story in a location I have never visited. Such stories can work well but there is nearly always a vital element missing, some immediacy that a certain level of familiarity gives to a work of prose. It’s far easier to create a convincing atmosphere when you are writing from experience rather than from research. Little details will give some solidity to the evocation of scenes, details that can’t be easily imagined without first-hand experience. This doesn’t mean that I think travelling is necessary for the creation of good fiction. Good fiction can be centred in nowhere, almost in no space or time if the author is talented enough. And there’s a paradox in the nature of travel, which is that even though the particulars of your surroundings might change, the essentials remain the same. We can put a lot of effort into the act of travelling only to discover that people are people everywhere. And would we have it any other way?

Tell us a bit about the world you grew up in — we have an interesting piece by you called ‘Dinosaurs in France’ — which claims you grew up in a world of different value systems. Would you see those as better or the present as better?

The past is another country. That’s one of the pithiest and truest maxims anyone has devised. In only half a century I have seen many changes, but in fact most of these changes came so gradually I didn’t notice that things were changing at the time. Only now, looking back, do I see the vast gulf between the present and my past. I was youthful in a world where information was much more difficult to obtain. There were rumours and suppositions and often no way of confirming or refuting them. People believed strange things and adjusted their attitudes to match these odd beliefs. People still do the same now, of course, but it somehow feels different. One can more easily check assertions now than before and learn much more quickly if they are true or false. The world I grew up in was one in which you had no choice but to take another person’s word at face value. So if a supposedly responsible adult, like the postman, told you with a straight face that he lived in a house made entirely from marshmallows, there was no easy way of disproving the claim. You had to take his word for it. I can’t say it was a better world and I don’t want to suggest it was a worse one. It was simply different, a world lacking ready access to information.

You have written a lot of humour. Not too many people do that nowadays. Could you tell us why your funny bone is tickled to create humour as it does? Do you think humour is a good way to address major issues?

Humorous writing has gone out of fashion to a certain extent in the anglophone world, yes, but it’s still there, in the background. There was a great tradition of British humorous writing that lasted about a century or so, and I was fortunate enough to grow up at the end of that phase. I am talking about a particular type of humour, dryly ironic but also theatrical, a sort of blend of surrealism and the old musical hall routines. J.B. Morton (1873-1979) was one of the masters of the form, and he was an influence on many of my favourite comedic writers, such as Spike Milligan (1918-2002), Maurice Richardson (1907-1978) and W.E. Bowman (1911-1985). These humorists also took the language and played with it a little, transforming it into something new, though I feel ultimately that such comedy derives more from the rhythms than the melodies of wordplay.

The entire range of comedic devices might be used but new ones invented as well. There can be over reaction to minor incidents and under reaction to major ones, constant misunderstandings, amplification of repetition, parody of existing forms. W.E. Bowman’s The Ascent of Rum Doodle is my favourite humorous novel, and its sequel, The Cruise of the Talking Fish, is also high on my list of best comedic literature. Bowman apparently wrote a third volume in the series that remains unpublished and is in the safe keeping of his son. If this is true, I hope it will appear one day.

Are you influenced by any specific humourist? If so, who?

Flann O’Brien is probably my biggest influence in terms of comedic prose. His work is quirky, inventive, curiously erudite, absurdist and often metafictional. I am staggered by the wealth of invention in his novels, the supremely silly but also highly ingenious conceits and concepts, and the bone-dry irony contrasted with farcical exuberance, the light touch and the dark tone. W.E. Bowman and Maurice Richardson are another two favourites. That is prose but when it comes to poetry I love Don Marquis (1878-1937), Ogden Nash (1902-1971) and Ivor Cutler (1923-2006) best, all of them with radically different approaches to comedy. Marquis in particular pushed humour in his free verse to a point where it often became profound, serious and socially critical. You asked if humour can be used to address major issues. Yes, sometimes it can, even with great force, but it doesn’t have to.

Tell us the extent of your work. How many books have you written?

I have published many books. The question is how do I count them. I tend not to count the self-published books. It seems to me that self-publishing is too easy. On the other hand, traditional publishing is maybe too difficult. I have forty or so traditionally published books and twenty self-published books out there, so I am going to give forty as my answer. Most of my books are collections of short stories. I have only written a few novels. My poetry collections so far have been self-published with the exception of one single volume called Bunny Queue.

It is one of my goals to have all the short stories I have ever written appear in my books. At the moment there are many of my short stories that exist in magazines and anthologies that have never been collected. And there are many unpublished short stories in my files too. My plan is to write exactly a thousand short stories and consider them as part of one big story-cycle. This project is almost done. In a few more months, with luck, I will finish writing my thousandth story. Thirty years in total it has taken. When that last story is finished I will devote myself entirely to novels, plays, poetry and articles. No more short stories! So, in reply to your question, I can say that I have written a great deal of work, maybe too much, but as I said earlier, writing has been something of a compulsion for me.

What are your future plans?

I plan to finish my big story-cycle of one thousand stories. Then I will write a few novels that I have been planning for a long time. One of these novels will be called The Hippy Quixote and will be about a young, deluded fellow who in his mind is living in the 1960s. He takes a guidebook written in that decade and follows the old hippy trail to India, blissfully unaware that so many things have changed in terms of societal attitudes and geopolitics. This idea seems to me to be a fruitful one for the creation of comic scenes.

I also have to finish a novel I began a long time ago, The Clown of the New Eternities, sections of which have already been published. It’s long overdue for completion. This novel is about a highwayman who has accidentally outlived his own age and is forced to adjust to the modern world. Another variant of Quixote, I suppose. I think that many or most of my longer narratives are a blend of the Quixote and Candide models with a bit of Gulliver thrown in. We can talk about our future plans all day, of course, but whether we are lucky enough to have a chance to make them real is another question altogether. I intend to do my best, as I have always done, but nothing is certain in this world of ours.

Thanks Rhys Hughes for your time and lovely answers.

Click here to read prose & poetry by Rhys Hughes.

(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)

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Categories
Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

Making Something of Nothing…

I dislike giving advice almost as much as I dislike receiving it, but as a friend recently asked me if I knew of any easy techniques to generate ‘inspiration’ when creating an outline for a story or script. I replied to her request. Somewhat pompously and just a little ponderously, I’d now like to share the answer I gave to her with everyone, even with you out there. This is what I said:

(a) Don’t sit around waiting for inspiration.

(b) Don’t chase it too hard.

Some people appear to assume that ideas are difficult to come by, and if we mean very good ideas, then that’s true. But if we concentrate on workable ideas, the fact is that they can be manufactured easily. Strange useful juxtaposition is one reliable and simple way to create new ideas. Think of the elements hydrogen and oxygen. Pretty neat on their own? Yes, but a bit overdone.

Put them together and what do you get? Water! The first time water was created I am sure that its originality was astounding, far more astounding than might have been anticipated. After all, water is a fusion of hydrogen and oxygen but not just that. It is also something entirely itself, with all its own qualities and properties, most of which hydrogen and oxygen don’t have. Indeed it would be virtually impossible to anticipate the properties of water by examining the behaviours of the elements that constitute it, no matter how minutely detailed the analysis.

Water is a new thing. You can’t pre-empt thingness. It can’t be modelled before it exists. Only with hindsight can we have understanding. We may work backwards as a consequence and then model it as the necessary outcome of a combination of the two elements that constitute it, but this doesn’t change the fact that water is not obviously contained in embryonic form in hydrogen and oxygen. The empirical truth came first, the chemical formula followed, and only later did we nod at each other with the false wisdom of experience disguised as physics.

I repeat, there is nothing in the attributes of the atoms of elements to give us specific clues about the attributes of the compounds they would generate when they are clashed together. The same may be true for ideas, if we regard archetypes or clichés as the atoms of story elements and decide to combine them unusually. This method is one I might use when I want to come up with an outline for a story from scratch. I’ll take two things that aren’t connected and put them together to see what will happen. The less naturally connected those things already are, the better the process and the nicer the outcome, because you can have more fun trying to connect them, and more surprising ideas will be generated as a result.

These original ideas will come with very little effort, because they have no other choice. The simple act of colliding and fusing a pair of unrelated items will mean that such ideas naturally come into being, the same way that water comes into being when we bash hydrogen and oxygen atoms into each other. And one way of finding pairs of things that aren’t naturally connected is to flip open a dictionary at random and jab a finger down onto the page. The finger chooses a word, the first word, then repeats the process for the second word, and the two consequent words are the magnetic poles of the story. They run right through it just as the magnetic poles of our planet spear our globe like a blue pumpkin on a skewer.

I tried the method recently and here are my combinations:

  • Caffeine addiction and macramé.
  • Frogs and tangerines.
  • The fashion world and tropical diseases.
  • Astronomy and crossbows.
  • Economic downturn and pickled gherkins.
  • Liver salts and scarves.
  • Tinted windows and army trousers.
  • Bananas and canoes.
  • Howler monkeys and world peace.
  • Bellybuttons and cacti.
  • Castigation and dirigible accidents.
  • Zoetropes and cheese.

Almost any two unconnected things will work. Maybe pairing together ‘modulus’ and ‘reciprocal’ would cause difficulties. ‘Oneness’ and ‘duplicity’ too. ‘Contradiction’ and ‘congruence’. I am sure there are many others, and that you can devise pairs that defy my technique. But generally speaking the method is sound. And perhaps a very clever person could work perfectly well with all combinations, even those that cancel themselves out, especially with those, one suspects. It ought to be remembered that if two words are picked that the picker doesn’t especially like, the random page flipping can be done again. The method is a tool, not an order. ‘Tool’ and ‘order’ are two words that can surely be combined productively.

Recently I learned that the old British comedy show, The Goodies (1970-1982), used the same technique at the script stage. Perhaps that was where I learned it, for I was a devoted follower of the show when I was very little, but it must have happened by a process of mental osmosis, for I never consciously understood that this was how the writers Graeme Garden, Bill Oddie and Tim Brooke-Taylor generated their initial scenarios. In one episode, a satire on apartheid, the piano in the South African embassy had the white notes grouped at one end of the keyboard and all the black notes at the other. I am wandering off the point, of course, but the joke still seems especially poignant in its absurdity. Back to the day’s business!

There is absolutely no need to stop with only two unusually juxtaposed elements. More may be used according to taste. For example, three parameters may be selected for the structure of the story: (a) location, (b) activity, (c) participant. I open an atlas at random for the location, which turns out to be Rangoon. Now I need an activity. I turn on the radio, which is broadcasting a cricket match. Very well. Now a participant must be found. I look out the window and see a rabbi walking past. So the story must be set in Burma and involve a religious scholar who is a wicket keeper. The basics of the work are already in existence. But what happens next? Another application of the method will bring forth something for this fellow to do. He won’t sit around waiting for inspiration. Nor will he chase it too hard.

A lot of hydrogen and oxygen has combined in his vicinity. Rangoon is flooded. A canoe is provided for him and a bunch of bananas for sustenance. He paddles down the watery streets seeking his only friend, a tailor who has succumbed to malaria. The search is fruitless, so he moors his canoe next to a stall in the market and buys some tangerines while frogs hop all about him. Yes, he has already eaten the bananas. The day is over, night comes and the stars twinkle above him. He is surprised to observe a constellation previously unknown to him.

The twang of a discharged crossbow alarms him. A soldier on a roof is aiming at the new pattern of stars in the shape of a howler monkey. How might world peace be achieved with people like this about? Suddenly the stars vanish. Has the soldier killed them? No, it is merely an unlit dirigible looming from out of the sky. Let’s shout at it for doing so! There is no need for me to continue. The point has been made. The man in the tale has a fictional fate mapped out. This doesn’t mean that his adventures will be any good. That isn’t up to me, but you.

Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.

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Categories
Tagore Translations

A Hymn By Rabindranth

‘On This Auspicious Day’ is a trans-creation of a Brahmo hymn, Aaji Shubhodine Pitaar Bhabone, by Rabindranath Tagore. Written in 1883, this song was first published in TatwaBodhini Patrika, a magazine brought out by the splinter group from Brahmo Sabha led by Tagore’s father, Debendranath Tagore.

A Bengali Rendition of the song by Debabrata Biswas
ON THIS AUSPICIOUS DAY

On this auspicious day, let us go to our 
Father’s heavenly abode. 
Let us go. Let us go, you and I. 

The level of contentment in His blissful
Home is unfathomable to us. 

The three worlds are in ecstasy with
Festivities that spill over with joy.

Let us join the celestials singing in praise of him
Let us go there. Let us go, you and I.

Tagore like his father and grandfather was a Brahmo. The Brahmo festival, Maghotsav, is celebrated at the end of January, by the Bengali calendar on the 11th of Magh. Brahmo Samaj grew out of Brahmo Sabha. These were attempts at a reform movement on Hinduism initiated in the early part of the nineteenth century Calcutta by Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Dwarakanath Tagore, the poet’s grandfather.

(Trans-created for Borderless Journal  by Mitali Chakravarty with editorial support from Sohana Manzoor and Anasuya Bhar.)

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