Tagores’ Lukochurihas been translated from Bengali as Hide and Seek by Mitali Chakravarty. Click here to read.
These narratives are written by youngsters from the Nithari village who transcended childhood trauma and deprivation. The Story of Rajesh has been written by Yogesh Uniyal in a mix of English and Hindi, and translated fully to Hindi by Nirbhay Bhogal. Clickhere to read.
In An Encounter with the Monet on Naoshima, Suzanne Kamata writes of snacking on Claude Monet’s hundred year old recipes while savouring his art and that of the famed artist who makes bold art with polka-dots, Yayoi Kusama. Click here to read.
For when your troubles starting multiplying
And they just might
It's easy to forget them without trying
With just a pocketful of starlight
Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket
Never let it fade away (never let it fade away)
Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket
Save it for a rainy day
'Catch a Falling Star' by Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss
Perhaps, it is time to find that fallen star popularised by pop singer Perry Como is 1957. Optimism glimmers faintly, sometimes even conceals itself, in a world passing through a dark phase in history. For instance, few of us would know that we might find more answers to tackle climate change as dinosaur fossils (from the time an asteroid hit the planet) have been unearthed recently. That sounds like solutions can be had to what was perceived as inevitable doom.
Another bit of news that perhaps will cheer some is the first anthology of Borderless Journal will soon be available in market. It has been accepted by a publisher, an old, trusted and reputed name from India, Om Books International. They have bookshops splattered all over — should make it easy for buyers to access the book. Hopefully, you can target the anthology for your Diwali or Christmas gift hampers. Om Books has one of the most iconic editors-in chief, Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri. A multiple award-winning editor, he has worked in Penguin and Harper Collins and is currently churning out wonderful books from Om with a fabulous production team, working with whom has been a pleasure. Ray Chaudhuri is an outstanding film writer and poet. He is part of a group that is creating a film archive online. To know more about him or his views on publishing, you can read our online conversation with him.
The energy one gets from optimism like starlight from a fallen star, lightens the darker shadows that create gloom with the war leading to rise in prices and threats of recession in a post pandemic scenario. Lesya Bakun, the refugee from Ukraine whose story we carried last month, finds her starlight by sharing updates of her story. She added to her narrative with the news that her cousin has been taken as a prisoner of war by Russia from the besieged factory in Ukraine. Though sharing does not alleviate suffering, Bakun’s ability to cling to hope and imagine a future where she gets her dream highlights the strength of her convictions. The other thing that is revealed by her narrative and media coverage is exclusivity and boxes of ideology split humankind, erase families, cities, countries, lives and sanity. The war can appease only the lust of warlords. Against this desolation caused by the devastation, what could be the starlight that would lead to a happier future?
Laughter. Unleashing the ability to laugh at oneself is as potent as laughter that generates relief and lightens our mood, so that we can view differences as whimsical, treat them with tolerance and compassion and not destroy the diversities that add colours to the world. Perhaps, that is why Tagore took to humour too. Somdatta Mandal has translated a series of humorous skits by Tagore. We are featuring one of these called the ‘Ordeal of Fame’. Yet another translation or transcreation of a poem called ‘Lukochuri’ or ‘Hide and Seek’ reflects the playful in Tagore’s oeuvre. These, along with Rhys Hughes humour on the pandemic in poetry and prose, bring good cheer into our journal. Hughes has also used his column to tell us why he curated a new humorous anthology of verses by seventeen poets called Wuxing Lyrical. I wonder if he is serious or joking!
As we trot around the globe, Suzanne Kamata tells us about a Monet museum in Japan where she ate madeleines made with the artist’s recipe! Meredith Stephens sails to Tasmania with her camera and gives us a glimpse of nature’s plenty. Ravi Shankar relates his trekking adventures among the Himalayas in Nepal, with awesome photographs of these mountains, while Kenny Peavy who lives in Indonesia dwells on the value of falling down and getting up in a light humorous vein against the backdrop of nature – though metaphorically perhaps the world needs to do that. We have G Venkatesh’s story about his stay in Johannesburg where he discovers that skin tones do not matter.
Ratnottama Sengupta makes the whole world look like a home with the story of a legendary screenwriter, Jean Claude Carriere, who wrote the script of Mahabharata for Peter Brook’s play (1985) of the same name and the subsequent film (1989) — with characters drawn from all over the world. Candice gives us an overview of the pandemic, with more focus on US where she lives.
Mike Smith travels back to another time when an ailment called World War II raged and has revived a writer from the past, HE Bates (1905-1974). We have another essay by Dan Meloche on a legendary book which turned 100 this year — Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. Rakhi Dalal revisits more than a century old translation by Devabrata Mukherjee of Tagore’s The Post Office which bears relevance to the present day as it shows how the human spirit endures over even the darkness of death.
Before winding up, I would want to extend my thanks not only to our team and contributors, but also to our publisher who is willing to republish our content with some tweaking. Thanks to our readers who, I hope, will be excited to have selected content between their palms as a hardcopy anthology with 49 of our most iconic pieces. We have more than a thousand published works. This anthology will be an iconic sample that you can carry anywhere with you even if there is no internet – that would include Mars and Moon!
I wish you happy reading, happy dreaming and hope… plenty of it.
Sandman, the mythical dream maker from Scandinavia, is said to sprinkle magical sand on sleeping children’s eyes to inspire beautiful dreams. What could Sandman have in common with a much-fêted editor who has worked with many celluloid stars and writers?
They both vend dreams – one makes dreams for children and the other is tries to fulfil dreams of writers attempting to create a beautiful book. Meet one such seeker of serendipity Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri, an eminent award-winning editor, who has brought out books on and by film personalities of India as well as assisted less-known writers find a footing in the tough world of traditional publishing. His magical sand is impeccable editing and an open outlook that stretches beyond the superficial glitter of fame and delves deep to look for that hidden well from which he draws out the best in a writer.
Books commissioned and edited by him have won the National Award for Best Book on Cinema twice and the inaugural MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Images) Award for Best Writing on Cinema. In 2017, he was named Editor of the Year by the apex publishing body, Publishing Next. He has worked with famed writers like Gulzar and Arun Shourie as well as Bollywood stars like Rishi Kapoor and with the prestigious Satyajit Ray Archives. He has a book called Icons from Bollywood (2005) with Penguin on films, a set of fifteen essays. And he writes wonderful pieces on films for various sites like Cinemaazi, an archival film website,and Free Press Journal regularly.
But, Ray Chaudhuri is not just a film buff as he tells the world. He has a well-kept secret like ABBA’s ‘Nina Pretty Ballerina’, who would wear dancing shoes after work and turn into a phenomenon. He emotes beautiful poetry but hesitates to publish…He does have a book of verses though called Whims brought out by the Writers’ Workshop. In this exclusive, Ray Chaudhuri, who has worked in Penguin and Harper Collins and now is the Editor-in-Chief of Om Books International, tells us how he turned from a dry accountant to a seeker of serendipity and what it takes to publish with traditional publishers.
Please tell us what started you out on your journey as an editor and writer.
I have always loved the word serendipity. It accounts for whatever good I have experienced. I loved reading of course but went on to become an accidental editor. I started very early – loved books. Went through the age-specific lists – Hardy Boys, Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators, and Tintin (which I love still), then slowly to Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse, Satyajit Ray, Feluda and Shonku, Somerset Maugham, Camus and others.
In fact, I remember, during summer vacations, my mashis [aunts] would often ask to pluck grey hair from their heads and would pay me at Re 1 per hair. So, if I managed 25, I would have money to buy a Tintin. Or novels that were sold in second-hand shops at Rs 10-15. I wanted to study literature and humanities but at the time the stream was looked down upon. People whose opinions we respected kept saying, ‘Will you be a schoolteacher after studying humanities?’ I wish I had said yes at the time.
Anyway… Science I was sure I wouldn’t take. And humanities I wasn’t allowed to. So, I took up commerce, graduated, did my M.Com, studied for chartered accountancy and cost accountancy. Then for years worked in accounts and finance. And hated it. I would leave jobs and go off quite regularly.
Meanwhile, I had started writing poems and on films (as a means of escaping the drudgery of accounts and finance). These were published in magazines regularly. In fact, I won the Filmfare Best Review Award that they had every month a few times. Then, Writers Workshop published my first book of poems. And by this time, nearing thirty, I had had enough of accounts. I realised that any creativity in accounts would lead to jail! And I was damned if I could put up with another day of matching debits and credits. I enrolled for a mass communication course at XIC Mumbai, then started a magazine on cinema on my own, and subsequently moved to publishing and editorial.
What pushed you into publishing others over writing yourself for we can see you are an excellent writer too?
I have often asked myself: do I have anything to say that will make a difference to someone reading? Can I ever write an opening sentence as eloquent as Camus’s The Outsider? Or create a character like Larry Darrel in Maugham’s Razor’s Edge? Or one line like Rilke’s ‘For the Sake of a Single Poem’. Or, in fact, a draft of an unpublished novel a young friend of mine, Ramona Sen, asked me to read recently to comment on editorially – it is so good … could well be the next big thing in publishing. And the answer has always been ‘no’.
I look at what goes for writing today. It dismays me that books have become all about posting your picture with the cover and getting likes – it has to be more than getting FB likes, more than announcing your book as bestseller on social media. I would be mortified about unleashing anything as mediocre as these on anyone.
And then there’s also the question of what being a ‘writer’ means for you as an individual. Some of these authors and poets I meet are so conceited … I have doubts about myself as a person … you know, as Matthew 16:26 says: For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? These doubts about whether my writing amounts to anything, whether it says anything about me as a person have kept me from writing and more importantly publishing my writing – barring of course my columns and features on cinema.
Editing and publishing other people’s work is more impersonal – I can keep myself out of the equation. Though when you really like a book, you do tend to get emotionally involved.
I guess both came off just like that – I wonder if there was a case of wanting to show off at the time I had published them. Today, I would think twice. The book of poems, Whims, was published by Writers Workshop, and I was rather proud at one time that Professor Lal deemed it worthy of being published. I often told myself that some of the best Indian poets began with Writers Workshop. I just sent it off to him on a whim.
Iconsfrom Bollywood was a more organised affair. I was working at Penguin at the time. Its children division was doing a series of books on icons – the arts, science, music, etc. Since everyone knew my interest in cinema, I had even met a few of the icons, the publisher, Sayoni Basu, asked me and I agreed. Eventually as no two people could agree on the ten names for the book – all the books in the series had ten icons – this ended up having fifteen names, the only book in the series with fifteen essays. It did rather well, got some good reviews in Dawn and Guardian and a few others.
Is authoring a book more challenging than editing and publishing for another? Or is it the other way? Please elucidate.
Of course, writing a book is more challenging. When you edit, you are working on adding some value to what a writer has already put down. You are not creating the world. At best, you help the author develop his work. It is challenging because often you are the first reader outside the author’s circle and your opinion also shapes the book. But writing is way more difficult. You are literally creating something out of nothing. Even writing a single line of good poetry is tougher than editing.
Tell us what moves your muse for poetry and prose?
That’s tough. It could be anything. For instance, in my college days DTC buses used to have a single passenger seat right at the front. I would often look at it and imagine how lonely it might feel. I eventually wrote a poem on that. Or when my folks narrated the story of Gulzar’s film Lekin to me, I was moved enough to write a poem. The sight of a battered old man, dead-drunk, lying by the roadside led to a story – what if that man had a past when there was hope and love in his life. Being in love has been a muse: I once wrote 21 poems for a beloved friend’s twenty-first birthday. The sight of my son’s sleeping face, his soft breathing, when I wake up at night and look at him. Even hate inspires you. The sense of disillusionment I felt about a ‘great’ poet’s pettiness and hypocrisy led to one of my best poems. My own frailties. The light at dusk, a tired day going to sleep. Lost friends … lost ideals. A good film. A bad film. Anything really.
We have read a lot of film pieces by you. When did your interest in writing for cinema start and how did it take off? Did it ever stray to film industries in other countries?
I think the love for cinema developed once I started studying commerce. The subjects bored me. Films offered me an escape. It helped that there were 4-5 cinema halls within walking distance of both my home and my college. I would often get away from college and make my way to a theatre. In the three years of graduation, I watched 169 films in halls. I watched the first-day-first-show, 12-3, and then would make my way to the evening one 6-9. I used to make a list and write down synopsis of what I felt. This was the 1980s, theatres were in awful shape, a really bad time for films and so most of what I watched were utter crap. But that was a lesson in itself. And I really enjoyed the escape to another world, even if a trashy one.
Slowly, with the coming of cable TV, there were more options. The VCR had come in and with that a few more options. Pirated prints from Palika Bazar. I had meanwhile written a few reviews for Filmfare and won a series of best review awards. That boosted my confidence in both my writing and my understanding of cinema. I also did a course in film and TV from the XIC, Mumbai. I started contributing to journals. I ran and wrote for the journal I started in Bombay, Lights Camera Action. But things took off after I started writing on Bengali cinema for Film Companion. And then with my association with Cinemaazi. I must thank Anupama Chopra and Sumant Batra for this. Couldn’t have happened without them.
I publish primarily on Bengali and Hindi cinema but write on a lot of international films for my own self. It’s tough finding time to watch, write, while keeping to the demands of a regular job and other freelancing assignments that one needs to do to keep the home fires burning. I envy the people who have money to spare, don’t have to worry about a job, and can keep churning out books.
Please tell us a bit about Cinemaazi – is it a website founded by you? It seems to be an archive, there is mention of an encyclopaedia?
Cinemaazi is the kind of serendipity I have been looking for as editor and film lover. It’s an initiative to document the history of Indian cinema across languages under the umbrella project Indian Cinema Heritage Foundation, a public charitable trust. The Foundation is also creating a freely accessible digital archive and encyclopaedia of Indian cinema and its people. No, I am not the founder. It’s entirely the brainchild and vision of Sumant and Asha Batra. Sumant is the kind of collector you can only be in awe of. I met him first at the Kumaon Lit Fest that he runs. And we shared a common love of cinema. In 2019, he started talking of a site to document the history of Hindi films, using his huge collection of film memorabilia. My only contribution, if you could call it that, was suggesting we make it a site on pan-Indian cinema, not just Hindi. He agreed and I worked on getting some material on Bengali and some other languages. Also kept contributing to it with articles and some video essays – we did a six-hour-long oral history project with Dhritiman Chatterjee. Cinemaazi got off to a very good start in January 2020. But by March 2020 we were all locking down. And it affected an endeavour taking its first steps. But it kept on working thanks to a small dedicated team. And now it’s poised to take off in a big way. I would have been very happy to engage in a bigger way with Cinemaazi, but as Sumant says, ‘he can’t afford me’, whatever that might mean. Sigh! I guess one ceases to be useful after a time. I am happy to have been a part of it in a small way in its first years.
You have worked with many icons of the Indian film industry like Rishi Kapoor, Satyajit Ray, Gulzar. Please share with us a few of your more interesting experiences.
The big names I worked with like Gulzar and Rishi Kapoor and Arun Shourie were like perks of the job. Yes, they were FB like/share moments except that I seldom shared those days. I miss Rishi-ji a lot … and often go through the WhatsApp messages he sent me… With Gulzar-ji, it was all about poetry and translations. Never worked on a book of films with him, though I did commission a series of monographs on three of his films that came out after I had left the publishing house.
The Satyajit Ray association was immensely satisfying. We ended up publishing five very rare books that I think not many editors would have dared to – imagine doing a book on Satyajit Ray’s unmade film on Ravi Shankar! The ones I really enjoyed were the first-time authors I was privileged to publish, people like Balaji Vittal, Anirudh Bhattacharya, Akshay Manwani, Rakesh Bakshi, Parthajit Baruah … and so many. They had no reason to trust me as editor and publisher. I have never been a big-name editor. But to have had them trust me with their books, books that did well, was quite humbling.
I was privileged to have someone like Vishal Bhardwaj trust me with his first book of poems in English. And through Vishal, I came to know Rekha and worked on a series of festival appearances with her – she has so many stories that she should do a book. With Sharmila Tagore, I worked on a book on Mansur Pataudi that did very well. Authors like Krishna Shastri, Sathya Saran and Gajra Kottary became close friends. Rakhshanda Jalil … whom I love and admire – she did a wonderful book on Shahryar with me and a couple of other translations of Gulzar and Kaifi Azmi. There was Nasreen Munni Kabir and her book on Zakir Hussain…
The more interesting encounters are the ones that ended badly. An author, who again published first with me and went on to publish 4 more, turned on me because I took on his rabid right-wing wife on the CAA and their obnoxious reference to ‘urban naxals’ … I was abused and received a lot of threatening messages and calls … I lost a friend and an author, but I am glad I could take a stand on a matter on which many of our ‘liberal’ friends and authors remain silent. Another ‘great’ poet, someone I considered God, turned out to have feet of clay and whose behaviour I find traumatic even today. But those are for my memoir! They taught me a better lesson than anything else could.
You have worked with big multinational names like Penguin and HarperCollins and even brought out collection of books on films. And now you have moved to working with one of the oldest and most iconic publishers from India. Is the experience any different?
Well, the best thing about not being with an MNC is that one is not part of the toxic environment they breed. It was killing after a point. And often they wouldn’t take on an idea just to spite you, even though some of the books that got commissioned were unbelievably bad, had me scratching my head, wondering what I had missed. And they can be very demeaning to authors. And short-sighted too. I remember signing up Rahul Rawail’s memoir of Raj Kapoor. And the publishing house actually reneged on its commitment after sending him an offer. It put me in such a bad place with him. Thankfully, I could get him another MNC publisher. And the book is now getting such rave reviews.
Yes, it’s challenging working in a smaller space. You have nothing going for marketing – not that the biggies do anything much on this either, unless you are already a big name which makes it easy to market. Then you don’t have budgets for advances and for marketing. So, immediately your commissioning acquires a different take. But that also makes you look for good young talent. I am glad I have found quite a few, thanks to agents like Suhail Mathur and some goodwill I might have built up in the last few years. Authors I am sure I wouldn’t have been allowed to publish in the MNCs. Now, whether they sell and work in the market is a gamble.
Writers find it challenging to use traditional publishing. In an attempt to make their writing visible, many are turning to self-publishing and publishing with independent small publishers. What do you think of this trend?
I think it does take a little more time in going the traditional publishing route. Self-publishing is quicker. But then authors also need to be patient. Traditional publishing can give them benefits of a good editor. Give them more time to polish their text. However, it seems more and more authors are in too much of a rush to publish. Getting FB likes and shares is more important than working on your text. Authors don’t feel like they need good editorial intervention. Publishing is all that matters, whatever be the quality of writing.
Unfortunately, traditional publishing too has failed to give good editorial inputs. Some of the stuff I read by the MNC publishers are atrocious. I think everyone wants a book out too quick. When I started out as an editor, we had months to work on a book. These days, authors tend to ask for a marketing plan even before they have completed the first draft of the text. And publishers are only too willing to get on the treadmill. And the post-publication efforts of MNCs also operate on the 90-10 principle: 90 per cent of marketing budget is spent on 10 per cent of the biggies. So, I guess self-publishing works. Some of the most successful mass-market writers we have today started with vanity or self-publishing, then were picked up by the traditional publishers. And the writing continues to be as bad.
Can you tell us as a publisher, what do you look for when you accept or reject a piece of writing?
I don’t think any publisher has figured out what makes a book work. Most of them go by herd mentality: mythologicals are selling, let’s do them, in trilogies, since it’s fashionable these days. Short stories don’t work. Fitness/self-help, yes, let’s do.
Basically, one looks for (i) is the content engaging (ii) is the writing interesting. Take, Akshay’s book on Sahir … I found the content wonderful. And so well done. Or Balaji-Anirudh’s book on RD Burman … the research was impeccable. And though people were sceptical, saying these people had been dead for decades, one felt that these books had that special something. Or more recently, the anthology on motherhood that Om is publishing. I was immediately interested in the theme and the variety of essays on offer – to have Kamala Das and Mannu Bhandari, Shashi Deshpande and Shabana Azmi between the same covers is…. There’s a collection of essays on the pandemic that I have commissioned, coming out soon – again, from Shashi Tharoor and Vidya Balan to an anonymous gravedigger and migrant worker – the range is incredible. The book that we are doing with Borderless Journal, for example. What a wide variety of international writing! Or the book on cybersecurity. Or for that matter, Suman Ghosh’s Soumitra Chatterjee book, which gave some fascinating insights to the director-actor relationship. I knew people would think it niche, but what if we could make it big? It has the potential.
Thank you for that. What is your vision as a publisher and writer of the future of publishing and writing?
I am too small fry to talk of the future of publishing. It’s a tough time for publishers. At the end of the day, all those 500 likes on FB won’t help if those liking don’t buy books. Social media reach is no guarantee of either good writing or good sales.
The way Westland folded says a lot about how untenable big advances are. Authors must realise that. While publishers must make efforts to sell more of the books they publish so that even if advances are small, the royalty on sales works out.
I think there’s also a lot of snobbery around English-language publishing in India. On the part of publishers, authors, translators, agents, literary festivals. I know an agent, one of India’s most successful, who doesn’t deign to pitch books to me because I am not with the top MNC publishers. Though apart from a hefty advance, there is nothing I cannot deliver that the biggies can. One of the most popular cover designers, who worked closely with me when I was at Penguin and Harper, just put me out to dry when I approached him for a cover on the Soumitra Chatterjee book. He couldn’t be bothered even to respond given that I was with a smaller publisher now. The most popular translator won’t give me time of day, though I edited his/her first book. There’s this author couple I published after both their individual books had been rejected at other publishers. But once they realised that prosperity lay in ingratiating themselves with what they perceived were other more popular and powerful editors … though none of their books have worked in terms of sales so far in the last ten years.
Most editors I have come across give off vibes like they are god’s gift to the language. I mean, not even two per cent of the population engages with the work you do. What are we so uppity about? The local cobbler attends to more people than what your average book gets as readers.
And this snobbery impacts the kind of publishing we do. We are suckers for big names, big advances. We have to move out of that. And out of this herd mentality of publishing. Give new writers, new themes a chance. At the same time, new young authors need to reflect on their work and not rush into becoming a ‘published’ author. It’s not instant noodles or coffee. Books and authors take time to develop. We need to give books that time.
Thank you for giving us your time and also taking on our anthology.
A stranger than fiction book that starts with a limerick and ends with a rhyme, supposed to be a scholarly work on perhaps the first Australian novelist-cum-lawyer-cum-journalist who sold cheap paperbacks for women readers traveling by train in India in the nineteenth century — probably British readership — fought a case for Rani of Jhansi – wrote for Charles Dickens’s Household Words – This can be the description of Amit Ranjan’s John Lang the Wanderer of Hindoostan, Slanderer in Hindoostanee, Lawyer for the Ranee (Niyogi Books). Why would one do a book on a maverick like this Australian journalist-cum-writer of the nineteenth century who opposed the British? What led to such a book? The quest for a ghostly ‘Alice Richman’ who lived in Pune in the 1800s, says Ranjan. And the author’s quest continues…spanning the shores of Australia, ‘Hindoostan’ and America…
The other most interesting thing about this book is the way the story is told – Ranjan claims he is using magic realism to write non-fiction. While the research input is awesome, the style is non-academic and even flamboyant at times. It is a book that brings a smile to your face with its obvious cheekiness. But this is also the kind of book you keep on your bookshelf and pull out when you have time to mull over a discussion on historic links and syncretism – for that is the sap that flows through the book concealed behind a laid-back narrative style of a nineteenth-century writer. Who is this Ranjan who has tried to re-invent pedantry and scholarship, treat the serious business of research and academia with such flippancy?
Ranjan is a Visiting Fellow at UNSW [University of New South Wales], Sydney; and a Fulbright Scholar-in- Residence at Miami—with eye to the sky, and ear to the ocean. His poetry collection, Find Me Leonard Cohen, I’mAlmost Thirty, came out two years ago, and his biography of Dara Shukoh is due out soon. Without more ado, as John Lang would have it, we present to you Amit Ranjan –
What was it that made you map your journey of unearthing Lang in the form of his writings instead of writing about his life directly? You have used the forms of limerick, poetry and the epistolary technique along with essays and Lang’s own writing to build your case. An amazing amalgam — Why? It is rather an unusual form of storytelling.
This is an interesting question, or a set of questions. I think poetry is a powerful medium. At a certain time, it was supposed to regale and break tedium; now it seems to create tedium – the trajectory of human taste is interesting indeed. So, unable to write a book in verse (Vikram Seth debuted with a novel in verse only a little more than three decades ago, with elan), the least I could do (and generally do with prose) is having poetic invocations at the beginning and the end. I’ve also tried to maintain a certain poeticity through the book – it does add some funk and spunk, I believe.
About the form of writing – what was available to me was writings about Lang, and writings by Lang. Lang’s own voice is richer and wittier than his contemporaries and commentators, and therefore it came naturally to speak about his voice, rather than speak about what has been spoken about his voice. Unfortunately, the personal papers and artefacts of Lang have all been lost – it would certainly have been a riot to peruse his letters. And since letters by him are missing, I decided to write a letter to him (which is the first chapter) much in the way he’d have liked to write or receive a letter.
Also, about the form of writing – history writing and academic writing is caught in its self-referential niche writing – and needs to be freed from that cage, or that page in the history of stylistics of writing. Much influenced by the Latin American novelists, as also the frame narratives like Bocaccio’s Decameron and Alif Laila – I thought it would be an interesting to approach non-fiction and/or history like a novel of the “lo real maravilloso” genre (well, almost). So one could call it creative non-fiction (this work is completely and heavily annotated, so there’s nothing ‘fictitious’ in the work – just to add that disclaimer). I think these experiments are exciting, much like ficto-criticism as a foil of this form.
You have an interesting tone of narration which is half flippant, but it delves deep into research. Tell us a bit about your research.
The tone is what one makes of it. It is also very Victorian in its language, to keep in sync with Lang’s age. The alleged flippancy is a deliberate device I guess – as a tribute to Lang’s own voice that is playful and yet serious, as also to demonstrate that playful writing can be effective and serious.
Telling a “bit” about this research will occupy a bit of space, for dwelling in the haunt of 19th century is a bit of a habit with me now. Those puns aside, the road of this research has been thrilling across space and time. On the home turf, it took me to Meerut, Mussoorie, Agra and Calcutta. We, being good recyclers of papers, the works by or about Lang barely survive here. The copies of his newspaper, The Mofussilite, published from the above-mentioned cities (minus Mussoorie) weren’t available anywhere except London, Canberra, Chicago – and interestingly Islamabad. And so, I went to UNSW at Sydney for my PhD research, courtesy of Endeavour and Inlaks fellowships. There I met a very interesting 86-year-old gentleman, Mr Victor Crittenden, who was a retired librarian, and who had a very keen interest in John Lang. He had republished a lot of Lang’s work, and it was amazing to have conversations with him. The only little problem was that he was such a hopeless Romantic that he had ascribed several anonymous or pseudonymous works to Lang. This, then, became a daunting task, to research about each of these works and see if they could actually be Lang’s. And of course, it also resulted in funny arguments. Meanwhile, I relaxed the scope and the methodology, made it broad and unorthodox, to see where I could get. I met descendants of Lang’s half-brothers; a rabbi in Melbourne who believed Lang was Jewish; a member of Italian nobility in Paris, bitter about the politics in that family, and so on. At one point I emailed one Motee Persaud in hope that he’s a descendant of Jotee Persaud – only to cause him anxiety, for there was some court against him, and he thought my email was a subterfuge for a bigger design! When I returned from Sydney, I lost a pen drive with scans of Lang’s newspaper, for it was in a pretty UNSW backpack that someone took fancy to. I think I met the purloiner for a fleeting minute a few months later! The bit can go on, but I think this bit should be contained before I write a short story about it here.
Was the journey of discovery as interesting as your discovery of Lang?
Oh yes indeed! I think some of that has been revealed in the previous answer. It’s still an open book, an ongoing journey, I am still working with The Mofussilite. In my three fellowships to Miami (none about Lang), I purloined time to peruse Lang’s journal. The journey has been a thriller all through, I would like to believe – including my not being able to find Lang’s grave ever. Once, my friends and I rolled down Mussoorie hills into Camel’s Back Cemetery and the eight of us hunted for Lang at the haunted forest on a rainy afternoon. No luck, and never after in my subsequent visits, though the directions are fairly easy.
One of the most fun discoveries was that a picture of Lala Jotee Persaud, a client of Lang’s, was printed in The Illustrated London News as Nana Sahib’s! I was thrilled to receive that picture from ILN.
Ruskin Bond, a writer many of us deeply admire, found Lang in the Camel Back cemetery in Mussoorie in 1964. Then an Australian scholar investigated him. Lang finally found a way to instigate your pen to take up his cause. What moved you to research and write on him?
I met Mr Bond in 2009 I think, and my friends and I had a great fan moment. His father had some Lang novels, and that is what interested in him. Almost simultaneous, John Earnshaw was interested Lang’s life in Australia, and he wrote a short 30-page account detailing his timeline. And then the interest was lost for 40 years, when Victor Crittenden and Rory Medcalf of Australian High Commission reinvigorated interest in the matter.
All this, unbeknown to me, I was hunting for Alice’s history. Alice Richman, a girl who died at 26 in 1882, is buried in Alice Garden, Pune University, surrounded by a forest and many urban legends. Not knowing how to go about finding anything about her – I followed the Hanuman methodology – pick up the whole mountain if you can’t identify the herb. In reading about Australians in India in 19th century, I stumbled upon Lang, and since then, there’s been no looking back.
So, Alice the ghost sparked your interest in him from her very presence in Pune, what was it about Lang that attracted you to take a decade long journey into his adventures? Tell us a bit about how Alice pushed you to it.
In the pursuit of Alice, I read about the interesting Australian women missionaries in India (they were brought to India to be ‘tamed’); camels and camel drivers that went from India; and several such fascinating stories. The pursuit of Alice prepared my reading list, and that is how I found Lang. A white man fighting a white empire, with a nuanced understanding of India, and with an infective invective – seemed like a natural resonance to me. It is beyond the scope of this interview to get into the thrilling details of discovering things about Alice’s life too throughout this decade you’ve mentioned. Suffice it to say that it is actually the pursuit of Alice I have been on, and she keeps rewarding with some Lang legend and legacy every now and then.
Did you feel there was a need to bring out Lang to the fore? Is he relevant for our times?
Absolutely so. He was the man who took on Lord Hardinge in his newspaper on a daily basis, to the point where the Governor General summoned him. Lang merely said that he made more profit by writing against him, than he could ever by singing paeans to him. He was a rebel, and witty. Today’s journalists across the world from the age of democracy can take a lesson or two from a man from the time of the Empire.
To understand where we are, we need to look at where we come from. The tedious legal system; the workings and trappings of army; racism; casteism; evolution of sciences and belief in pseudosciences – are explained in detail with wit, rigour and humour in Lang’s writings. To understand our postcolonial ontology, it is very important to understand how deeply colonialism affects us.
Please introduce the most interesting fact about the ‘Wanderer of Hindoostan’ to our readers. Tell us a bit about him concisely, especially as we are told in your preface: “Suddenly, there was an interesting piece of news doing rounds: that the Indian PM gifted his Australian counterpart with John Lang documents to demonstrate how far back the relations between the two countries went. I was not acknowledged. However, it was also a backhanded compliment. Lang had finally found an afterlife.”
Lang died in 1864; his name and works survived until. About 1910. For the afterlife of a writer, critics are important. Shakespeare, for example, was resurrected by the Romantics in the 19th century. After 19th century, Lang was lost until John Earnshaw’s minor interest in the 1960s; and then Victor – as already stated. My research was awarded as a PhD thesis in 2012. Interestingly, in 2014 he was showcased in this prime ministerial meeting. The rest you have told in your question – sometimes one has to take backhanded compliments with high spirits! Of course, it was an anxious time for me, for the cat was out of the bag, and I had to hunt for a publisher fast. However, as stated in the book – Stories forgotten or lying in the cold, find their own time to be told – and therefore finally a book, half in size of the original, in 2021. The advantage of including Lang is of course pushing India-Australia ties to mid-19th century, an idea which has never really been thought of.
Was the John Charnock you mentioned in your book related to Job Charnock, the founder of Calcutta? Was Lang related to him and did that impact his choices? Job Charnock was after all a rebel too in a manner of speaking.
That’s a difficult connection to figure out, which I will try to, on some idle day when curiosity gets the better of me. Job Charnock, the alleged founder of Calcutta, died in 1693; and the reference in the Lang book about John Charnock is from 1843 (p362). Lucy, wife of John Lang, had a sister, Mary, a poet who was married to John Henry Charnock. Mary’s book Legendary Rhymes (1843) was published posthumously, and her husband wrote a preface to this book. This Charnock was Lang’s brother-in-law, so they would have known each other well. John Charnock himself was an agriculturalist and a drainage expert and wrote books on this matter. To answer the last part of the question, in my opinion, Job Charnock and John Lang are as different as chalk and cheese – the former being a thorough imperialist and the latter, the opposite.
In the start of a chapter, you have said: “Lang had foreseen Google.” Elucidate.
Oh, that’s a joke to complement and compliment one of Lang jokes. The novel Ex-Wife revolves around the predicament of a Eva Merrydale, divorced by her husband for “criminal familiarity with another man.” (p370) Eva’s brother tells that this case has been mentioned 114,227 times in the media, with 107 times in the Times alone. These kind of figures are something one would see in a google search result – 114,227 results for “Eva Merrydale divorce”
That is Lang lampooning the British media for its obsessing over a poor divorcee through the exaggerated figures. However, one wonders, if there were people employed to keep track of a particular news appearing in the media.
As a digression to this essay, Lang indeed was looking into the future of journalism – sensational headlines, scandals and so on. In one lead article about the Gorham case, which had been talked about to death, Lang just wrote –‘Damn the Gorham Case!’ – and captured the public sentiment!
What was the purpose of this book? What kind of readership did you expect?
I guess the purpose of a prose book, fiction or non-fiction, is to tell a good story. However, my purpose was to fulfil a calling – I had at hand, the figure of a character lost for a century. It then becomes one’s responsibility to resurrect the figure as one has been entrusted by destiny, too. And of the course, the more general idea holds – the keys to the present lie in the past, as has already been discussed.
In terms of readership, I was looking at anyone who is interested in an interesting story of a maverick figure. This is why the language is jargon free, the stylistics are that of a novel. However, of course, one is also looking at the countries Lang is lost to – India, Australia and UK – and to have them remember an important critic and figure of their past. I expect students of literature and colonial/ postcolonial histories to pick this work up; but I’d love it much more that it appeals to the general reader of fiction and non-fiction.
John Lang had encounters with Dickens, Rani of Jhansi — a very wide range of historic personalities and influenced, you have claimed even George Bernard Shaw. Yet, all these personalities lived on while he faded to obscurity. Why do you think that happened?
Lang fought the British imperial sword with his pen, was declared a “hospital bed novelist” by the critics and buried to the British posterity. He wrote in Australia with convicts as heroes, which of course, didn’t go down well with the convict settlement. For Indians, who he had so much adulation for, he still got lost to history. Probably his interest in wine and women did not go down well with Indian historians too; or he was difficult to slot, being an interloper.
One of the things that does come across is Lang faded to obscurity as no one knew of him. Do you feel the role of historians and critics critical to the survival of an author? Or do you feel the colonials he often wrote against were happy to bury his writings?
Both aspects are at work. As already pointed out, the colonial press gave him bad reviews all the time. Subsequent critics were not kind either. This gone on to suggest how deeply ideological and long drawn out the colonial project was.
How was Lang a rebel in his times? Do you feel your own journey has been a rebellion against pedagogical practices of the current times? After all, can a book based on this much research start with a limerick and end with a tongue-in-cheek rhyme?
Two leitmotifs would suffice to settle the matter about being a rebel. It is said, in Lang’s multiple novels, about the white British protagonists – “India he loved, England he despised.” The second motif is strong women characters, some of them very deliberately parodying Victorian women and Victorian novels.
If my writing is considered rebellious to the current conventions, I would take it as a compliment, and not a back handed one. I wish I wrote the entire book in verse. I hope to pull off that trick successfully someday.
Maybe you will – an upcoming one – Alice’s story…Do you have an upcoming book? What about a novel on the ghostly Alice?
A new poetry book titled The Knot of Juggernaut, Or The Mystery of (Miami Mambo) Vexuality was just released, a day before I left Miami to come back to Delhi. It will be out here soon, too, in a month. This collection has poems written about journeys between the Bay of Bengal and the Bay of Biscayne. The title was suggested by The Right Honourable KB Con, Ducktor Albatross.
A biography of Dara Shukoh is scheduled for the year end.
The Alice book – definitely, whenever Alice wills it!
First published in Shishu (Children) in 1909, Lucko Churi (Hide and Seek) is also a part of Tagore’s collection called Sanchayita. It captures the endearing, playful relationship between a mother and her son as well as the innocence of the child.
HIDE AND SEEK
In a playful mood, if I were to
Bloom as a champa flower on a tree,
At dawn, O mother, I would frolic
Amidst the branches of young leaves.
I would win in this game of hide-and-seek.
Would you have recognised me?
You would call out, “Khoka, where are you? “
I would only laugh silently.
When you do your household chores
I would watch from high above.
After a bath, with your wet hair spread on your shoulder,
When you would walk under the tree
To go to the prayer room
While inhaling the perfume of the blooms —
You would wonder how
Your Khoka’s scent mingles with the breeze!
In the afternoon, after everyone has lunched
When you relax with a Mahabharat,
The shade of the tree by the windowsill
Would fall on your back and lap.
My tiny shadow would sway
On the words of your book.
But you would not know the shadow
Of your darling wafts before your eyes.
In the evening, after lighting a lamp,
When you go to the cowshed,
I would finish my game
And drop down from the tree.
Again, I would be your Khoka.
I would say,”Tell me a story.”
And you would ask,”Naughty! Where were you?”
I would reply, “I will not tell you my secret.”
(This poem has been translated for Borderless Journal by Mitali Chakravarty with editorial comments from Sohana Manzoor and Anasuya Bhar.)
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A humorous skit by Rabindranath Tagore, translated by Somdatta Mandal
The lawyer Dukori Dutta is sitting on a chair.Kangalicharan enters nervously, ledgers in hand.
Dukori: What do you want?
Kangali: Sir, you are a well-wisher of the nation –
Dukori: Everyone knows that. But what do you actually want?
Kangali: You have devoted your life for the welfare of the ordinary man –
Dukori: And I do so while I am carrying on my legal business but what is your point?
Kangali: Sir, actually I don’t have much to say.
Dukori: Then why don’t you finish soon.
Kangali: Think for a while and you’ll have to admit “ganat paratrang nahi”, that is to say, nothing is better than music —
Dukori: Look here, man. Before I admit anything, I need to know the meaning of what you just said. Say it in Bangla.
Kangali: Sir, I don’t know the exact Bangla meaning. But the main idea is that one loves to listen to songs a lot.
Dukori: Everyone doesn’t like them.
Kangali: Anyone who doesn’t like songs must be —
Dukori: Lawyer Dukori Dutta.
Kangali: Sir, don’t say such things.
Dukori: Then should I lie?
Kangali: The sage Bharata is the first Aryan to have…
Dukori: If you have any lawsuits to file against the Sage Bharata then tell me. Otherwise stop giving a speech on him.
Kangali: I had a lot of things to say.
Dukori: But I don’t have the time to listen to a lot of things.
Kangali: Then let me state the case in brief. In this city we’ve established a society called “Gannonati Bidhyaini” – The Society for the Betterment of Music. Sir, we want you —
Dukori: To deliver a lecture?
Kangali: No, Sir.
Dukori: To be the chairman?
Kangali: No, Sir.
Dukori: Then tell me what it is that I have to do. Let me tell you before hand, singing songs and listening to songs – I have done neither previously and will not do either of these things in future.
Kangali: Sir, you won’t have to do either. (Advancing a receipt book) Just some donation–
Dukori: (Startled, gets up) Donation! Good grief! You aren’t an easy man to please. When you came in you appeared to be a good-natured man and came in with an embarrassed face – I thought then that you were in legal trouble. Take your donation booklet immediately or I will file a police case against you for trespassing.
Kangali: Wanted a donation but got a beating! (To himself). But I I’ll teach you a lesson.
Dukori Babu with newspapers in his hand.
Dukori: This is great fun. Someone called Kangali Charan has informed all English and Bengali newspapers that I have donated five thousand rupees to their “Gannonati Bidhayini Society”. What donation, the only thing I didn’t do is throw him out by the collar. In the meantime, I’ve gained a reputation that will be very good for my business. They will also benefit from this. People will think that since they have got five thousand rupees as donation, it will turn out to be a huge meeting. No doubt they will get greater donations from elsewhere. Nevertheless, fortune will surely favour me.
The clerk enters.
Clerk: Sir, have you donated five thousand rupees to “Gannonati Sabha?”
Dukori: (scratching his head and smiling) Well, it is just a story some one has made up. Why do you listen to it? Who told you that I have donated? Suppose I did, so what? Why make a fuss about it?
Clerk: Oh, what humility! Paying five thousand rupees in cash and then trying to conceal the deed is no feat for an ordinary man.
Servant: Plenty of people have assembled downstairs.
Dukori: (To self) See! In one day, my income has increased. (Gladly) Bring them upstairs one by one – and bring paan leaves and betel nut as well as some tobacco.
The first supplicant enters.
Dukori: (Shifting a seat) Come – be seated. Sir, have some tobacco. Who is there? Hey—could we have some paan.
First Supplicant:(to himself) Really, what an amiable person! If he doesn’t fulfil one’s desires desires, who will?
Dukori: And what could have brought you here?
First Supplicant: Your generosity is famous all over the country.
Dukori: Why listen to such gossip?
First Supplicant: What humility! I had heard about you earlier, but today the difference between sight and sound has been eliminated.
Dukori: (To self) I hope he will come to the point now. Plenty of men are waiting downstairs. (Openly) So, what do you need?
First Supplicant: For the development of the nation, from the heart —
Dukori: Yes, it is good of you to mention the heart.
First Supplicant: That’s right. Great honourable persons like you are India’s —
Dukori: I am agreeing to all that you are saying so why don’t you concede this part to me? And so —
First Supplicant: It’s the habit of people who are full of humility that when it comes to their own virtues –
Dukori: Spare me sir. Come to the point!
First Supplicant: You know, the fact is that day by day our country is regressing —
Dukori: That is because people don’t know how to say things concisely.
First Supplicant: Our once rich and glorious motherland is now mired in poverty.
Dukori: (Like a long-suffering person, covering his head with his hand) Go on.
First Supplicant: Day by day sinking in the well of poverty –
Dukori: (In a pleading tone) Sir, what is the point?
First Supplicant: Then let me tell you the real thing –
Dukori: (Enthusiastically) That’s better.
First Supplicant: The English have been looting us.
Dukori: This is something worth pursuing. Collect proof and I will appeal to the magistrate’s court.
First Supplicant: The magistrates too are sharing the spoils.
Dukori: Then I will lodge an appeal in the court of the District Judge.
First Supplicant: The District Judge is a dacoit.
Dukori: (Surprised) I can’t figure you out.
First Supplicant: Let me tell you, all the money from the country is being sent abroad.
Dukori: That is terrible!
First Supplicant: So, a meeting –
Dukori:(Alarmed) A meeting?
First Supplicant:Yes, see this is the booklet.
Dukori: (Wide-eyed) Booklet?
First Supplicant: Some donation would be –
Dukori: (Jumping up from the bench) Donation! Get out — out — out!
Quickly the table is turned, ink spilled, the first supplicant tries to exit hurriedly, falls down, gets up, chaos ensues.
The Second Supplicant enters.
Dukori: What do you want?
Second Supplicant: Your country-wide munificence —
Dukori: I’ve gone through it all once before. Tell me if you have anything new to say.
Second Supplicant: Your patriotism –
Dukori: Good lord! He seems to be saying exactly the same things!
Second Supplicant: Your virtuous acts for the motherland –
Dukori: This is too much! Come straight to the point!
Second Supplicant: A meeting.
Dukori: What? Another meeting?
Second Supplicant: Here, see this booklet.
Dukori: Booklet? What booklet?
Second Supplicant: To collect donations.
Dukori: Donations! (Pulls his hand) Get up, get out, out – if you love your life —
The man leaves without saying anything else
Enter third supplicant.
Dukori: Look, here. Appeals to my patriotism, generosity, politeness – all these have been exhausted. Try something else.
Third Supplicant: Your openness, philanthropy, and liberal views –
Dukori: That’s somewhat better. At least he’s saying something new. But sir, leave all those things and start our discourse.
Third Supplicant: We have a library –
Dukori: Library? Not a society?
Third Supplicant: No sir, no society.
Dukori: Oh! I’m relieved. Library! Excellent. Go on.
Third Supplicant: Here, see the prospectus.
Dukori: Sure this isn’t a subscription booklet?
Third Supplicant: No sir, not at all. Merely printed leaflets.
Dukori: Oh! What next?
Third Supplicant: Some donation.
Dukori: (Jumping up) Donation! Who’s there? There’s a dacoit in my house today. Policeman! Policeman!
The third supplicant escapes as fast he can. Enter Harashankar Babu.
Dukori: Come in, come in, Harashankar. I remember our college days. But we haven’t met since then. You don’t know how happy I am feeling after seeing you.
Harashankar: I too have a lot of pleasant and unpleasant things to share with you. But I will do those things later. First let us finish a piece of business.
Dukori: (Excited) I haven’t heard anyone talk to me about business for a while now, brother. Tell me, tell me so that I can fill my ears with business talk. (Harashankar takes out a booklet from under his shawl). Oh, what is that? I see a booklet coming out!
Harashankar: The boys in my locality have decided to hold a meeting –
Dukori: (Startled) Meeting?
Harashankar: Yes, sort of. So, for some donation –
Dukori: Donation! See I have loved you for a long time now but if you utter that word in my presence, we will become enemies for ever.
Harashankar: Is that so! You can donate five thousand rupees to some “Gannonnati Sabha” of Khargachia but cannot sign a cheque of five rupees at the request of your friend? One must be a heartless person to step in here to seek your company!
Exits with great speed. A man enters, notebook in hand.
Dukori: Notebook? Bringing a notebook to me yet again? Get lost, will you?
The Man: (Scared) I’ve come from Nandalal Babu —
Dukori: I don’t care for Nandalal or anyone else. Leave immediately.
The Man: Sir, what about giving some money—
Dukori: I won’t pay you any money. Get lost.
The man runs away
Clerk: Sir, what have you done? He was trying to return the money Nandalal Babu owed you. We need to get the money back today. We can’t do without it.
Dukori: Good grief! Go and call him back.
The clerk goes out and comes back a little later
Clerk: He’s gone. I couldn’t find him anywhere.
Dukori: This is a problem indeed.
A man enters with a mandolin in hand.
Dukori: What do you want?
The man: We need connoisseurs of music like you. What haven’t you done for the advancement of music! I will sing a song for you.
He starts playing his mandolin immediately and sings a song set to the tune of Raga Iman Kalyan.
Glory be to Dukori Dutta
In the world his munificence saw…etc etc.
Dukori: What nonsense! Stop, stop.
Enter a second man with a mandolin in hand.
Second man: Sir, what does he know of music? Listen to my song:
Dukori Dutta you’re a blessed man
Whoever knows your greatness can…
First man: Glory – g—l—o—r—y
Second man: D—u—u—u—u—kori—i—i
First man: Duk—o—o—o—
Dukori:(With fingers in his ears) Oh my god! I can’t take it anymore!
A man enters, tabla in hand.
Player: Sir, a song without a musical accompaniment? How can that be?
He begins playing. A second player enters.
2nd player: What does he know of accompaniment? He cannot even hold the tabla correctly.
1st singer: Stop.
2nd singer: Why don’t you stop!
1st singer: What do you know about singing?
2nd singer: What do you know?
The two start arguing about the scales and rhythm of music. Then they fight with their mandolins.
The two players start bandying the beats used in tablas such as “dhekete didhey ghene gedhe ghene.” The contest climaxes with a tabla fight.
Enter a group of singers and some more men with donation booklets in hand.
1st person: Sir, song –
2nd person: Sir, donation –
3rd person: Sir, meeting –
4th person: Your benevolence –
5th person: A khayal in Raga Iman Kalyan –
6th person: For the welfare of the country –
7th person: A tappa song by Sari Miyan—
8th person: Shut up, shut up!
9th person: Please stop, brother. Let me finish my words.
Everyone starts pulling Dukori’s shawl and shouts of “Sir, listen to me, Sir, listen to my words” can be heard etc.
Dukori: (ina voice admitting defeat) I am going to my uncle’s place. I will stay there for a while. Don’t give my address to anybody.
The brawl between the singers and the musicians continues in the house for the whole day. In the evening the clerk tries to stop the quarrel, gets injured, and collapses.
 [Translated by Somdatta Mandal from “Kshatir Birambana” B.S. Magh 1292].
Somdatta Mandalis a former Professor of English and ex-Chairperson, Department of English, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, India. A recipient of several prestigious fellowships like the Fulbright Research and Teaching Fellowships, British Council Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship, Rockefeller Residency at Bellagio, Italy, Salzburg Seminar and Shastri Indo-Canadian Faculty Enrichment Fellowship, she has been published widely both nationally and internationally. She has also an award from Sahitya Akademi for the All India Indian Literature Golden Jubilee (1957-2007) Literary Translation Competition in the Fiction category for translating short stories series ‘Lalu’ by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya.
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The Post Office by Tagore was written, translated and performed in multiple languages throughout Europe, eventually made into a Bengali film by Satyajit Ray (Postmaster, 1961). Rakhi Dalalrevisits the original translation done by Devabrata Mukherjee in 1912,
Title: The Post Office
Author: Rabindranath Tagore
Translator: Devabrata Mukherjee
Publisher: Niyogi Books
Dakghar was written in Bengali by Rabindranath Tagore in 1911. Devabrata Mukherjee, an Oxford University student at the time, translated the play into English in 1912. It was first published in London by Cuala Press in 1914 with an introduction by W.B.Yeats. He, along with Lady Gregory, had also directed its first staging in English in 1913 by the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. The production then transferred to the Court Theatre, London, later the same year before the Bengali original was staged at Tagore’s Jorasanko theatre in Calcutta in 1917.
This play was translated into French by André Gide and was read on the radio the night before Paris fell to the Nazis. During World War II, there were 105 performances of The Post Office in concentration camps in Germany. Perhaps one of the most noteworthy was its staging by Janusz Korczak, a Polish-Jewish educator who ran a Jewish orphanage in a ghetto in Warsaw. It was there that the play was organised for children just a few weeks before they, as well as Korczak, were deported to the concentration camps of Treblinka.
The story revolves around a young child Amal, an orphan adopted by his Uncle Madhav, who suffers from an ailment. On the instruction of the physician treating him, he is restricted within the house and is not allowed to go outside. In his quest to explore the world beyond the confines of his home, he sits near a window facing a road and talks to people passing-by. He becomes fascinated by the newly constructed post office near his window and imagines receiving letters from the king. The play presents a vivid picture of Amal, his longings, his ideas of life and the limitations that he faces.
Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee, in the introduction to this edition, quotes the bard from the letter he wrote to Andrews in 1921 where he says, “Amal represents the man who has received the call of the open road – he seeks freedom from the comfortable enclosure of habits sanctioned by the prudent and from the walls of rigid opinion built for him by the respectable.”
The narrative traverses through the realms of a mind born free, eager to understand and appreciate the beauty of the natural world and, yet with time, constrained by the ideas fostered as acceptable by societal norms. Amal would rather venture outside and hop like a squirrel than sit at home, toiling at books which his Uncle thinks makes a man learn. He would rather cross mountains and go farther to seek work than be disheartened by their imposing structure. To his Uncle, the hills are barriers whereas to Amal, they are the hands of earth raised into the sky, beckoning people from far off.
The play also explores the nature of human dealings with outsiders, the usual conventions of a society while dealing with persons we may only come across as strangers and seem to emphasise upon the virtue of the sense of fraternity which the otherwise busier life tends to disregard. Amal meets a dairyman, a watchman, a flower gathering girl, a gaffer and a headman while sitting at his window and leaves an impression on each of them. He endears as a persona in harmony with nature as well as in his interactions with other people through his life so that the journey becomes more joyous for everyone.
This play is written in two acts. In the first act, Amal wishes to discover the world outside his restrictions while sitting at his window. In the second act his condition worsens, and he is confined to his bed where he spends his time waiting for the postman to deliver a letter from King. And finally, he sinks into his last sleep.
In its October issue of 1914, The Times Literary Supplement wrote: “This is the first impression that the play gives, as a play should: an impression of actuality, complete within the limits of human life as seen and heard in a real world.” The second act may be seen as a wait for the messenger of God/death which delivers the final fate for Amal. W.B. Yeats says that the “play conveys to the right audience an emotion of gentleness and peace” which is epitomised by Amal’s character.
This play translated by Mukherjee more than a hundred years ago continues to touch hearts to this date. Given our present context, impaired by the excessive capitalistic tendencies of the age, marred by wars, blurred by frenzies of hatred seeping into the fabric of societies, this comes as a gentle reminder of the necessity to live in peace, to approach nature and humans, even strangers, with compassion and to show more consideration in our dealings with them. It helps us understand that a mind that can live in harmony with nature and with humankind, can eventually embrace the final call in tranquillity.
The Post Office is a splendid play written with a poetic cadence which has elements of tragedy and yet manages to leave the reader with a sense of serenity that seems to be the writer’s message for a life to live in harmony with nature, with humankind and with oneself.
Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ .
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Back in 2012, I started my own small press, a very modest affair indeed, with the main aim of publishing my own short stories. Various publishers had issued slim chapbooks of my tales and these chapbooks had gone out of print. I gathered as many of them as possible together and published them in one big volume as The Tellmenow Isitsöornot, a curious title that probably needs an explanation. Edgar Allan Poe, in one of his strange comedies (he wrote comedies as well as tales of terror and they are almost as disturbing as his more famous macabre and wholly serious masterpieces) invented a fictional tome to match The Thousand and One Nights and he called it The Tellmenow Isitsöornot because those words seem to evoke ancient mystery and cryptic secrets, but in fact if you say them in an Irish accent you end up with ‘Tell me now, is it so or not?’ and as this struck me as a delightful joke, I appropriated the title.
At first, I only published e-books but then I decided that it would be nicer to publish paperbacks too. Also, I wanted to publish writers other than myself. The idea occurred to me of publishing an anthology with a specific theme. I chose to put together a book of cat stories and poems entitled More Than a Feline and so I imagined that this was the start of publishing many such anthologies. But our plans often go wonky. No more anthologies appeared. I published collections of my own work and a couple of volumes of poetry by individual authors, but still I felt the urge to issue an anthology. I conceived a project called Coconut Moon that originally was too ambitious to work well, four interconnected volumes that would be released over the span of one year. The cover of the first was designed and I received lots of good work, but the project soon became disorganised and even chaotic. I lost my enthusiasm for the books, while recognising that I ought to pull my socks up and issue them anyway.
I needed something to perk me up and I hit on the idea of putting together a much simpler anthology. If I could publish this book, then my enthusiasm for the neglected Coconut Moon project would return. The momentum generated would keep me going. But I am getting ahead of myself. The idea of creating an easy anthology in order to get a difficult one moving again came to me because of a happy set of circumstances.
Many years ago, I wrote down a joke and this is something I often do. When I was young, I used to wonder who were the people who invented jokes, little suspecting that one day I would be one of them. I had forgotten the joke but then I was reminded of it. I decided to turn it into a poem. This is a method I use to freshen my old jokes and turn them into a new kind of object. People often seem to prefer my jokes when they take the form of poems. The joke was about my sign in Chinese astrology and how it might humorously be misunderstood. I am a fire horse. What if this was misheard as ‘fire hose’? It could prove disastrous and exquisitely absurd.
I wrote the poem and shared it and, shortly afterwards, a writer by the name of James Bennett responded with a poem of his own about a water rat, which I assume is his own sign in Chinese astrology. It was then obvious to me that a poetry sequence had been set in motion. As I know little about astrology of any kind, I had to do some research to discover that in the Chinese system there are twelve animals that combine with five special elements, giving a total of sixty personality types. Why not a poem for every animal-element combination? This seemed a good objective, but I had no great desire to write all the poems myself. It was clear that I needed to recruit other poets!
I imagined I would be able to assign the animal-element combinations in a rigorous way, but of course this was not to be. My organisational skills are too poor for such a course of action. Poets were asked to contribute and those who agreed were allowed to choose whatever combinations they found appealing. It was a better system for me, but it meant that some combinations were doubled or even tripled. Metal and fire turned out to be the most popular elements while wood and earth were the least popular. Water floated somewhere in the middle. Dragons and snakes seemed to provide more inspiration than rabbits and goats. Instead of insisting on exactly sixty poems for the anthology, I decided that the project would be complete only when every combination had been covered at least once, which happened after I received seventy-eight poems. These appear in the book in the order that I received them.
As for the title, that was easy. I like punning titles. I learned that ‘wuxing’ is an ancient spiritual system connected with Chinese astrology and from there it was a small step to play a word game with the phrase ‘waxing lyrical’. I still needed to design a cover for the book, but I had designed several covers in the previous few months and felt I could accomplish the task reasonably well. It is true that creating an anthology requires a lot of work but only after it has been published comes the truly hard part: marketing it effectively and efficiently. It is an unfortunate fact that books are unable to sell themselves. How nice it would be if they did! Then we could move on to the next project smoothly and without worrying about exposure, reviews, popularity.
Wuxing Lyricaltook less than a month from the initial concept to the actual book. It now seems to me that I will be able to return to the abandoned Coconut Moon and get it launched after all. I also think that more anthologies are feasible, and I have been toying with themes for these. Some themes might be broad and open to interpretation while others could be extremely precise and particular. An anthology of mini-sagas seems very likely to happen (a ‘mini-saga’ is a story or a poem exactly fifty words in length). Anthologies with the themes of ‘animals’ and ‘planets’ appeal to me. I am also half inclined to put together anthologies of poems about puddings, chess, robots, weather and islands. Maybe I should seek an illustrator for these future projects. Illustrated books of poetry are nicer than plain ones, especially if the poetry is humorous.
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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Suzanne Kamata writes of snacking on Claude Monet’s hundred year old recipes while savouring his art and that of the famed artist who makes bold art with polka-dots, Yayoi Kusama
When I heard that the annual convention of the Association of Foreign Wives of Japanese would be held in nearby Takamatsu, I signed up. I would be able to meet other women with Japanese husbands and attend workshops in wine-tasting or yoga. At night, there would be a big banquet. During the day, there would time to visit the island Naoshima.
I’d heard about this island, once used primarily as a site to dump industrial waste. Now it was full of art museums, and part of the Setouchi Triennale, an art festival which takes place every three years, including this year. Among the permanent exhibitions is one of Claude Monet’s famous water lily paintings, housed in the Chichu Museum designed by world-renowned architect Tadao Ando.
Monet’s art has long been popular in Japan. The French artist had admired Japan. His garden in Giverny, France was designed in the Japanese garden style. A garden modeled after the one in France has been constructed farther south in Shikoku, but the painting was on Naoshima.
At the convention, I met up with my friend Michelle, an artist who sometimes works in coloured pencils, and sometimes in dust. She wanted to go to the island with all the art museums as much as I did. Michelle, Elana, an Italian woman whose husband is an art history professor, and I decided to visit Naoshima together. There are no bridges connecting Naoshima to Shikoku. The only way to get there is by ferry. We took a taxi to the ferry terminal and bought our tickets.
We decided to sit outside on the deck of the ferry. The wind whipped our hair and reddened our cheeks as we watched the city receding. The smaller islands scattered off the coast grew larger. Finally, we approached the dock at Naoshima. We could see the giant red polka-dotted pumpkin sculpture created by Yayoi Kusama, perhaps Japan’s most famous contemporary artists, known for her Kool-Aid colored wig and obsession with dots. Having been diagnosed with schizophrenia, Kusama has lived in a psychiatric hospital for many years. She continues to make art in her studio at the hospital.
Once off the ferry, we were confronted with a row of mom-and-pop restaurants. A bus runs from the harbour to the museums, but we decided to walk. It wasn’t far to our destination. Later that evening, we would be eating a lavish dinner and drinking wine. We needed the exercise.
The Chichu Museum was built into the side of a mountain, like a bunker, and lit only by whatever sunlight came in through the windows. The walls were grey concrete and most of the staff wore white lab coats. The brochure advised us to “maintain a quiet environment in the museum.”
As we were mainly there to see the Monet, we made that our first order of business. We descended an elevator to a dark hall and came upon a rack of slippers.
“Please change your shoes,” the docent said.
I removed my sneakers and slid my feet into a pair of vinyl slippers. Michelle and Elana did the same. Now we were ready to enter the hallowed space.
The room was circular, the walls blindingly white, offsetting the deep blues and purples of Monet’s sun-lit pond. We spent several seconds before each panel. The paintings were called “Water Lilies, Cluster of Grass,” “Water Lilies, Reflection of Weeping Willows,” and “Water Lily Pond.”
Michelle, who was a big fan of Monet, sighed happily. It was the off-season. We were the only ones in the gallery besides the docent. There were no other visitors in slippers waiting to shuffle in after us so we were allowed to take our time.
Michelle plopped down on the clean, white floor. Such irreverent behavior in this holy space! She leaned back and admired the paintings from this new perspective. Was she the first person to ever sit down on this floor?
“What the heck,” I thought. I admired her free spirit. I sat down on the floor beside her.
The docent stepped forward. Our unusual actions had clearly made her nervous. We weren’t touching the art or taking pictures. We weren’t doing anything bad. She had no reason to scold us, but she kept her eyes on us.
“Monet would laugh!” Michelle said. “He was messy. He would think it was funny that we had to change into slippers to look at his art.”
I was inclined to agree. I had seen photos of him. He had an unruly beard. His clothes were rumpled. Later, I would watch a video clip of Monet painting in his garden. He had a cigarette in his mouth even as he touched his brush to the canvas. Little dogs ran around at his feet. No smoking would ever again be allowed near his water lily paintings. Not these ones, at least. No dogs, either.
We visited the rest of the museum then had lunch in a café overlooking the sea which served desserts made from Monet’s recipes. In addition to painting food, he had enjoyed cooking it himself. I sampled his madeleines and apricot jam – delicious! — then bought a cookbook from the gift shop so that I could make them at home.
Suzanne Kamatawas born and raised in Grand Haven, Michigan. She now lives in Japan with her husband and two children. Her short stories, essays, articles and book reviews have appeared in over 100 publications. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times, and received a Special Mention in 2006. She is also a two-time winner of the All Nippon Airways/Wingspan Fiction Contest, winner of the Paris Book Festival, and winner of a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award.
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The true woman who possesses exceeding wisdom,
She consults a tablet of lapis lazuli
She gives advice to all lands...
She measures off the heavens,
She places the measuring-cords on the earth.
Naina read those lines which she had written on the first page of her journal. They were lines from a hymn written by the ancient Sumerian priestess, En Hedu’anna, written in two-thousand three hundred BCE. Every time she read those lines, she felt a sense of awe, as well as of sadness. How grand, how inspiring those lines were, those lines written millennia ago, during the dawn of civilisation? She sighed. Once, she too had wanted to be like En Hedu’anna, an astronomer, or at least a poet. But that was not her destiny. She was stuck in her corporate job, one that seduced her with the prospects of a financially stable existence, and refused to let her escape from its web. She idly turned the pages of the journal with the intention of starting a new entry. Perhaps that would help her fall asleep.
She was not sure why she kept waking up in the middle of the night. It was not the first time, in fact she had been facing such interruptions for a while. She would go to bed at eleven, only to wake at around two, and she would then be unable to fall asleep again till around four. She had tried to force herself to sleep a few times, but she was unable to do so. I might as well embrace it and turn this into my new routine. She thought of the article she had read the other day about how medieval Europeans slept in two phases. They would go to bed in the evening, wake up s a little after midnight and wait for around an hour for their second sleep. In the interlude, they would pray or do chores or work or study. The article actually suggested the practice might not even be unique to medieval Europeans, rather it could be something found all over the world, for centuries, millenia even. If it was so common, then how harmful could it be? Only, she had nothing to do in the interlude. The idea of doing office work at that hour nauseated her, nor did she think she wanted to read or watch anything at that time. She thought she could write in her journal, but as she held the pen, she found out that no words flowed from it at that time.
Sighing, she decided to go to the terrace, to get some fresh air.
Naina looked at the stars. She had always thought there was something magical about them. She used her fingers to trace the tiny pinpricks of light, wishing she could identify constellations. There was a time when she knew how to, but she had forgotten. Orion was the only one whose location she could remember. The Hunter. There was a time she wanted to be an astronomer, but she eventually realised it wasn’t very realistic a dream for her. En Hedu’anna’s verse came back to her mind.
She measures off the heavens
Her mind turned to another female astronomer, from the pages of history. Maria Cunitz, from seventeenth Silesia, who authored a book that refined the works of Johannes Kepler. She imagined being an astronomer in those times, getting to look at a night sky sans light pollution, trying to calculate and make deductions without a calculator or the internet. Wasn’t it strange that it was that way for most of human history, yet such a life was unimaginable for those in the present? Naina’s mind went back to the Silesian astronomer and the life she had led. It must not have been easy to be a woman of science in those times.
Naina then thought again, of sleeping habits in the past. Biphasic sleep must have been the norm in Maria Cunitz’s time. Did she look at the stars between her sleep cycles as well? She hoped she did. It would be nice to have something like this in common with her, Naina thought as she descended the stairs.
Nileena Sunil is a student and a writer from India. She has previously written short stories for The Collapsar Directive and Flash Fiction Addiction, anthologies by Zombie Pirate Publishing.
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