As autumn gives way to winter, here are explorations that give us a glimpse of the season, its colours, its feel across different parts of the world and their varied interpretations. We have the vibrancy captured in colours by Sohana Manzoor and Sybil Pretious. There are reactions to events that happened at this time in different parts of the globe from Ratnottama Sengupta and Sutputra Radheye — have we healed after these events? Have things got better?
As Europe starts a new wave of pandemic lockdowns, Mike Smith takes us for a trip to Trieste, rich with the heritage of James Joyce, Umberto Saba and Baron Von Trapp of Sound of Music. Prose from Tagore(1861-1941) translated by Somdatta Mandal showcases some of his reactions while traveling in Japan, America and Europe in the autumn of his life. We can vicariously travel to different parts of the planet! While verses by Michael Burch and George Freek explore the season and the autumn of life, poetry by Rhys Hughes and Sekhar Banerjee add zest to the fall with humour. Revathi Ganeshsundram brings us a poignant narrative of new friendships. A short story from maestro storyteller from Holland, Louis Couperus(1863-1923), translated by Chaitali Sengupta, paints a darker hue of autumn while Tagore’s poetry gives us a festive feel generated by the season in Bengal. Enjoy our melange of autumnal lores!
A riot of colours starts the day
with happiness, vibrancy and hope,
dispelling the winter of discontent
with whispers of new lores…
Devi (The Goddess) is a 1960 Satyajit Ray film, based on a story by a writer called Prabhat Kumar Mukhopadhyay, that showcases nineteenth century India, where the silence of a young girl who is deified, wreaks havoc in her home, village and life. In an interview, Satyajit Ray contended that the film was to make people rethink ‘messiahdom’. The exact words he used to state this was that the film was against ‘religious dogmatism’ as the film and story literally dealt with the deification of a young bride. Tagore had similarly questioned blind deification in a number of his poems and plays. These (as Ray spelt out in his interview) did not address religion per se but malpractices, among them, the tendency to worship an idol to a point where flaws are justified, accepted and emulated. Satyajit Ray and Tagore were both Brahmos — which can be seen as a reform movement. These two were not criticising religion but talking of rising above gawky hero worship to think logically and arrive at logical conclusions. When we talk of characters from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, other mythologies or substitute the adulated with stars, writers, politicians and businessmen who run huge concerns, we tend to idolise them. But these were and are all characters with flaws, whether fictitious or real. We can well learn from their mistakes, rather than deify and worship them to justify bad behaviour by quoting instances from lives of past legends or prominent persons in the current world.
Akbar Barakzai, a poet exiled from Balochistan, talks in a similar vein in his interview. You can see it in his poetry too — some of which can be found translated by Fazal Baloch in our pages. Barakzai talks of transcending barriers we draw for ourselves in the real world, of writing with honesty and sincerity. He has shared vignettes of his life as he changed countries to continue his work. Baloch has also brought to us another excellent poet in translation, Munir Momin. A major poem by Nazrul (the ‘bidrohi kobi’), ‘Bidrohi or Rebel’ has wound its way to our pages translated by Professor Fakrul Alam. We are honoured and grateful that Prof Alam chose to share this excellent translation with us. We have more translations: Jibonananda’s ‘Motorcar’(1934) by Rakibul Hasan Khan, a Korean translation by Ihlwha Choi, another short story from Nepal and Tagore’s powerful poem, ‘Morichika or Mirage’, which is a wake-up call for the inert affluent who hold themselves aloof from common masses. We have also interviewed a major prose translator of Tagore, Professor Somdatta Mandal. With much to share on Santiniketan, Nabanita Deb Sen and many interesting anecdotes, Mandal talks of her extensive work with her translations spanning many more writers from the past.
We have a colourful ensemble this time almost as vibrant as the autumnal colours that have invaded nature in some parts of the Northern Hemisphere. Michael R Burch has given us beautiful poems on autumn, including the autumn of life. We have a poem in a similar vein by George Freek whose work continues influenced by Liu Yong (1719-1805), an influential minister and calligrapher in the Qing Dynasty. Ryan Quinn Flanagan touches on Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in his poetry. Rhys Hughes has given us humour in both his poetry and his column. Our other humorist, Devraj Singh Kalsi has given us darker, more caustic black humour in his narrative. We have lovely photographs from Penny Wilkes with her verses in Nature’s Musings. It is amazing the way she photographs birds in flight. Stories from Malaysia, Bangladesh, India and America add to the richness of our oeuvre. Sunil Sharma has given us an avant-garde telling of Odysseus’s voyage in the modern world, transcending the borders of time and ethnicity.
A well-known senior journalist, Ratnottama Sengupta, has also travelled through time to give us a recall of her experience at the 35th Cairo Film Festival one November, nine years ago. Her narrative about the time that the Shariat law was adopted by Egypt reminds me of the way things moved in Afghanistan few months ago and what is even more stunning is the way in which organisations dubbed extremists earlier are allowed to run countries now. Is it really not yet time to get rid of messiahs and look for one world?
Do pause by and find many more authors who dot our November edition. As usual, naming each one will keep you away from our delectable reads for longer. We thank all our readers for their continued patronage, and I would like to thank my fabulous team who are now even providing visuals to brighten our pages. A huge thanks to Sohana Manzoor and Sybil Pretious, who write as well as they paint. Thanks to all our wonderful contributors for making Borderless a reality.
His poetry rings with the spaces between mountains. It rushes like the wind of freedom, taking you to the heart of the land and people he writes about.
Balochistan has a bit of the blood and bones of many cultures and people through the ages – dating back to Harappa and Indus Valley civilisations. Akbar Barakzai, the Baloch poet and activist, writes about transcending the suffering that exudes from hurts inflicted on humankind. He urges the masses to voice out against oppression.
Don’t ever bury the word
In the depth of your chest
Rather express the word
Yes, speak it out.
The Word brings forth
Freedom and providence.
--Akbar Barakzai, The Word
He writes for freedom from injustices and lives by his beliefs and principles. Having been forced to move countries to run journals, he is an immigrant in quest of a future that will unite the East and the West. Gently opposing oppressors with his writing, beliefs and ideas, Barakzai made news when he turned down the Pakistan Academy of Literature award last year because he says; “The Pakistan Academy of Literature is sponsored by the Islamabad rulers. I cannot accept an award from an organisation that operates at the beck and call of the tormentors of my people.” A writer who continues to emote for his people and their rights, he has been translated to English by a lecturer, Fazal Baloch, and published.
Barakzai calls himself “a part time poet” – but his poetry moves our hearts and minds – it makes us think, imagine a better world. Is he really a part time poet or a major inspiration crying out for mankind to move out of ‘messiahdom’, dogmatism and take charge of their own lives? In this interview, Barakzai not only reveals his life but also his sense of freedom from oppression, his love of human rights which forced him to move countries to conserve the voice of his people.
Since when have you been writing poetry? What set your muse going?
I started writing poetry in 1954 when I was still in school. I was inspired by our people’s long struggle for freedom and justice against the Pakistani and Iranian occupiers.
Your poetry mixes many strands of thoughts and many lores. Can you tell us what influences your writing? Books, music, writers?
My writing has been influenced by many poets and writers from different languages and cultures. The lasting influence on my art has been that of classical Balochi poetry. However, I must mention some great names from diverse poetic traditions who have had an impact on my poetry, such as the Persian poets Hafiz, Rumi and Nima Yushij; Urdu poets Ghalib and Mir; English poets Shelley and Keats; Russian poets Pushkin and Pasternak and the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.
Your poem ‘Waiting for Godot’ depicts the theme of the play by Samuel Beckett. It has a beautiful mingling of East and West. What led to it?
Beckett’s Godot is perhaps the most mysterious character in modern (world) literature. My poem is a reminder that the so-called Messiahs never return to this world. Mankind has to find its own solutions. East and West are two different aspects of the same coin. Unlike the infamous poem by Rudyard Kipling, that great apologist of Western imperialism, the East and the West are slowly but steadily inching towards each other. Despite enormous odds “the twain” are destined to “meet” and be united to get rid of the geographical lines created by imperialist powers.
You deal with both the political and the spiritual in your poetry. How do you attune Che Guevara with the God who even if ruthless exists in your poetry?
I made peace with God quite some time ago. I hope we understand each other better now. I do not believe that God is necessarily ruthless. It may sound strange, but my spirituality is not religious at all, it is based on humanism. Your interpretation of my poem is different from what I had intended. I am not sure if such a dichotomy exists in the poem. However, it appears that poetic curiosity in the end has succeeded in detecting some kind of duality. With regard to Che, he symbolizes the primordial fighter for justice. He embodies all those millions of people who have fought against the forces of darkness. Hence the allusion to Phoebus Apollo and the ever-conquering brilliance of the sun.
Do you write only in Balochi? You must be fluent in English having lived in England for many years. Why do you not write in English? Or translate your own poems?
I used to write in Urdu and Persian in my younger years, until I discovered that I could write a lot better in my mother tongue. As far as writing in English is concerned, I do not feel confident enough to write in it.
Your poetry, the little I have read, takes on elemental truths and uses nature, intermingles those to arrive at larger truths toward the end. Is it all spontaneously expressed? Or do you need to work on it? Tell us a bit about your poetic process.
My experience of the poetic process tells me that it is spontaneous. Design and architecture of the poem occupy a secondary position. After a poem is formed in my mind my main concern would then be to revise and improve its language. This process may take any length of time. I must confess that I am an obsessive reviser. For example, one of my longer poems took many long years to complete.
As a poet, you continue shrouded in mystery. Tell us about your life.
My life is and has always been an open book. I don’t think a few random poems are sufficient to reveal the life story of any poet. However, without these fistful of poems, I would have appeared to be a greater mystery. My life, like the billions of ordinary people in this world, is indeed very ordinary. My great grandfather migrated from Western (Iranian) Balochistan as a result of the brutal military operations in the early twentieth century in which thousands of old men, women and children were killed and injured and thousands of others migrated to Sindh. My great grandfather was a small-time farmer. As a result of the Iranian atrocities, he was forced to abandon his land and livestock and move to Eastern (now Pakistani) Balochistan and finally to Sindh. In 1928, Reza Shah of Iran ultimately succeeded in occupying our country. Once they settled in Sindh my great grandfather and grandfather worked as labourers until they saved enough to buy a small shop.
My father had a basic English education. He had left high school when still in the 4th or 5th grade to support the family with odd jobs. A few years later, he opened his own shop, a ration shop. These shops had mushroomed all over during the war as the English authorities introduced a food rationing system in India. I believe with this background I must have belonged to the lowest rungs of the class system. But my family worked hard to improve their lot.
When I was ten or twelve, my father thought I was strong enough and responsible enough to work in the shop. I would go to school in the morning. As soon as I finished school, I would rush to the shop to help my father.
A few years before I finished high school, my father got a job in the Directorate of Civil Supplies as the manager of a warehouse. He rented out the shop. With two incomes our lot did improve a little. I was now in high school. I didn’t have to work in the shop anymore. During this period, I became interested in books – any books. These were mainly Urdu, Persian, Sindhi and Balochi books. I read a lot, but my reading wasn’t systematic. I wrote a few nondescript poems during this period and became interested in politics, particularly in Baloch politics. By then I was in college reading literature and related subjects. However, I was more interested in politics than in my studies which meant I wasn’t a good student. Despite this I somehow managed to graduate from Karachi University. My father wanted me to study further and enter the Civil Service. But by then I was completely radicalised. I think I disappointed him then by refusing to continue my studies in order to take competitive exams to join the civil service. However, a few years later as a result of the escalating Pakistani military operations in Balochistan, he told me that although at the time he was not happy with my refusal, he confessed wholeheartedly that my decision was absolutely right. I was so proud of him that he had finally approved of my decision. Although he passed away a long time ago, because of this confession I do love him and miss him more.
This rather lengthy snapshot of my life should be sufficient to explain why my poetry is expressly concerned with social and political issues.
What led to your move to England?
This was the busiest period of my political activism. It was the time when General Ayub Khan had imposed Martial Law in Pakistan and was trying to consolidate his rule by hook or by crook. In Balochistan he had re-ordered the military to crush the Baloch resistance once and for all. But the resistance has outlived Ayub Khan, and his military might. It has grown stronger and stronger with the passage of time albeit with huge sacrifices sustained by ordinary people. The rulers treated the Baloch people like dirt and our leaders as traitors who “deserved” to be hanged. By 1965, the military government stepped up its operations in cities and towns, especially in Karachi where the Baloch formed a sizable minority and naturally supported the struggle for freedom. By this time the majority of our leaders were imprisoned in various Pakistani jails. Hundreds of young activists were also put behind bars. I was constantly harassed by the secret police. They raided my house three times and confiscated all my books and papers. These included some precious manuscripts left by a maternal uncle of mine. I was told that they would be returned “in due course”, but I never saw them again.
In those days, at least in the big cities, the government showed that they believed in the legal system. However, things would soon change. They started arresting people at will, without producing them in a court of law. People would languish in prisons for many years without any charges brought against them. They kept on introducing new forms of brutality, including bombing the population and “disappearing” activists and ordinary people. Under their “kill and dump” policy, they to this day torture and kill activists and then dump their bodies in the periphery of a town or village. So far, they have “disappeared” about 5,000 activists and their family members. Recently they have started abducting young female activists and then dumping their bodies. Almost all of these victims have been assaulted and raped.
I was picked up twice by the secret police. The second time they brought the great poet Gul Khan Naseer (the Baloch Nazrul) from prison. We were both delighted to see each other. We hugged and exchanged greetings in Balochi. We were told firmly not to speak in Balochi. We protested at this suggestion. Without reacting, they started the interrogation which took about three or four hours. Naseer was taken back to prison. I was told to go home but be prepared for further sessions.
I was advised by our leadership to go underground and eventually leave the country and head for the Gulf region to organise the Baloch migrants working in that part of the world. I did exactly as I was instructed to do. Because of visa problems, I could not stay in the Gulf for long. I therefore moved to Syria, Lebanon and finally to Iraq where in 1973-74, I was joined by some other friends. Together we used to edit a monthly newspaper in Balochi called Tipaakie Raah (Path of Unity). In fact, this used to be the Balochi edition of the paper which was also published in Arabic, Persian, Azari (Azarbaijani) and Kurdish editions. We also managed a daily radio programme in Balochi. Additionally, we published a monthly newspaper in English from London which was called People’s Front. This task was assigned to a senior friend who moved from Baghdad to London for this purpose. Our stay in Iraq would soon be short lived. After Saddam Hussain and the Shah of Iran met in North Africa to end the dispute over Shatt al Arab waterway, the situation in Iraq changed drastically. We were told very politely that the “world situation” had changed. We would still be welcome to live in Iraq, but the publication of the newspaper and the radio broadcasts must stop. It was therefore decided I should move to London. With the help of a doctor friend, I obtained a British visa and moved to London.
Your poetry still cries out for your motherland. Do you want to return? Is a return possible?
Who wouldn’t want to go back to the country they love? But it is not possible. I am only tolerated if I keep silent and remain as far away from Balochistan as possible.
Why did you turn down the Pakistan Academy of Literature award?
The Pakistan Academy of Literature is sponsored by the Islamabad rulers. I cannot accept an award from an organisation that operates at the beck and call of the tormentors of my people.
You have published very selectively — do you have more writing which you have not published? If so, do you have plans to publish those?
I have never been a prolific writer or a poet. I keep on telling people that I am a part-time poet.
What message would you like to give to emerging writers?
As a part-time poet I don’t feel I am in a position to advise young writers. I can only say this much to them — be honest to yourselves and your art.
Akbar Barakzai was born in Shikarpur, Sindh in 1939. He is ranked amongst the proponents of modern Balochi literature. His poetry reflects the objective realities of life. Love for motherland, peace and prosperity and dignity of a man are the recurrent themes of his poetry. His love for human dignity transcends all geographical and cultural frontiers. Barakzai is not a prolific poet. In a literary career which spans over half a century, Barakzai has managed to bring out just two anthologies of his poems, but his poetry has depth and reaches out to human hearts with its profundity. Last year, Barakzai rejected the Pakistan Academy of Letters (PAL) award, quoting the oppressive policies meted out to his region by the government as the reason.
Renowned film analyst Ratnottama Sengupta revisits a page from her past, weaving history and films into an eyewitness account of events that had occurred as chaos reigned on the streets of Cairo, Egypt.
Cairo Film Festival, November 27 – December 6, 2012
“This one week will change everything,” Amir told Farah in The Winter of Discontent. Ibrahim El Batout’s recapitulation of the Arab Spring had inaugurated the 35th Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) on November 27 of 2012. “It will take them one week to find out who uploaded the protest on the net,” the activist tells the journalist, “but one week later this government may not be there.” These words were borne true in January of 2011. They had sounded ironic when the festival was flagged off on the sixth day of Tahrir Square 2 — by Egypt’s Minister for Culture, Mohamed Saber Arab. He had hugged festival director Ezzat Abu Ouf who was in tears as he said, “In difficult times, it is important to protect one’s freedom of expression.”
It surely must have been difficult to host the festival that was paused following the Revolution. “I am Positive” was the slogan of CIFF that urged ‘positive thinking’ on revolution and freedom. Besides the inaugural film by Ibrahim El Batout, who mastered shooting in war zones for international channels, there was an entire section devoted to cinema of revolution. These documentaries included Good Morning Egypt that displayed people’s mixed emotions on the eve of dismantling Mubarak’s regime. The Road to Tahrir Square searched for the roots of the Egyptian revolution in the country’s labour movement. Eyes of Freedom and Street of Death documented the demand to speed up Presidential elections and handing over of authority from the Military Council to a Civilian government. By the end of the day in January 2011, the police and army had attacked the demonstrators and forced them to evacuate Tahrir Square, outraging the world by the human rights violation.
All this would have been perfect material “to express the heritage of the past, the reality of the present and the dreams of the future” – to quote the city’s Governor, Osama Kamal. For, “cinema records and relays to the world stories of our lives, our thoughts, feelings, social issues, principles…” And “meaningful art is one of the basic pillars of struggle and progress of a people,” he declared. That is why the logo of the revived CIFF depicted the hawk, a symbol of the pharaohs, perched on the metal arm of the revolutionaries in the precious metal of gold.
But it had turned ironic as the awards were cancelled due to the reality outside the Opera, close to the Square and venue of the festival that seeks to empower the youth by providing a platform for their talents. On Thursday, Qasir el Niel bridge leading to Tahrir Square had been blocked off. The museum housing the treasures of Tutankhamen was closed as it was on the turbulent Square. People — reportedly paid by the Brotherhood — were being trucked in for Saturday’s show of strength. Deaths were being reported from outlying areas where the Opposition was more restive as the channels were agog with news that the draft of the Constitution was ready and “any hour now” President Mohamed Morsi would sign it, pre-empting the opposition by the judiciary, intelligentsia, and the liberals who would lose much of their freedom if the Shariat laws would be enforced in Cairo’s open society.
The “action replay” on Tahrir Square was protesting the President’s move to arrogate himself extraordinary powers “until the new Constitution is in place.” Their objection was that he had pushed out the Christians and liberals from the Constituent Assembly, in order to ensure a smooth passage of the Constitution and present it as fait accompli before its expected date.
Yes, that one week in November 2012 had once more changed the course of history on Tahrir Square.
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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Title: Turmeric Nation: A Passage Through India’s Tastes
Author: Shylashri Shankar
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books
Shyalashri Shankar is an academic whose third non-fiction, Turmeric Nation: A Passage through India’s Taste, won a woman author’s award in India called the AutHer Award (2021). This book is a detailed and rich journey through India’s multiple cuisines and culinary cultures divulging interesting facts like Aurangzeb was a vegetarian.
In the literature of food writing, we have both advocates of diversity, food fusionists as well as food fashionistas. Shankar’s approach is fairly eclectic and informed, drawing on the anthropology and sociology of both food and the cultures they originate from. Professing to write a “food biography” of India, she also realises that such a task is both “challenging and daunting”, given the magnitude and diversity of the task involved. She describes Indian cuisine as layered and pluralistic, where there is no one cuisine which can be described as ‘Indian’. Her book proceeds to map these regional diversities not only in food and food cultures, but also cooking styles.
Giving veritable gastronomic glimpses into the fascinating world of the great Indian kitchen, Shankar explores food histories of ancient India dating back to Harappans, while keeping a keen eye for networks of customs, habits and styles of living. From time to time, the cuisine has absorbed new methods of food processing and cooking and been hospitable to new and foreign influences. At the same time, it has at times exerted injustices since the sociology of food is shown to be intricately linked to the that of the caste as shown in the section on Dalit foods. Shankar rightly refuses to mythify or romanticise food, instead she refers to social anthropologist James Laidlaw’s notion that nowhere in the world are food transactions socially or morally neutral, and that the politics of and around food are probably the sharpest in South Asia.
She draws from the theories of ethnologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who, she argues, analysed different cooking techniques to put forward an influential structuralist idea of the raw and the cooked. Food, according to this theory, is a medium between nature and culture. The activity of cooking performs a process of civilising nature.
Shankar asks more fundamental questions: Did our ancestors determine the way we eat? What is the DNA of food preferences? Which is a better diet — vegetarian, non-vegetarian or paleo (what Is paleo)? Does food have a religion? What food creates ardour and desire? What are the transgressions and taboos on certain kinds of foods? What is the purpose and function of certain rituals around food — for instance, the logic of feasting and fasting? As Shankar takes us on this fascinating journey of culinary exploration, we see the emergence of a rich map of cultural anthropology.
Turmeric Nation is an ambitious and insightful project which answers these questions, and then quite a few more. Through a series of fascinating essays—delving into geography, history, myth, sociology, film, literature and personal experience—Shylashri Shankar traces the myriad patterns that have formed Indian food cultures, taste preferences and cooking traditions. From Dalit ‘haldiya dal’ to the last meal of the Buddha; from aphrodisiacs listed in the Kamasutra to sacred foods offered to gods and prophets; from the use of food as a means of state control in contemporary India to the role of lemonade in stoking rebellion in 19th-century Bengal; from the connection between death and feasting and between fasting and pleasure, this book offers a layered and revealing portrait of India, as a society and a nation, through food. It takes us on a fascinating culinary journey through the length and breadth of the subcontinent.
The proof of the pudding, many might feel, is in the eating. Why such a learned dissertation on food, gastronomy and culinary traditions? Is it ultimately to map unity, diversity, and work towards an idea of syncretism? Either ways, the book is worth keeping on our shelves and stocking in libraries, swelling the corpus on food studies which is now studied as an important part of Cultural Studies in many universities. The book ultimately gives us much food for thought as it theorises the practices of cooking and eating across Indian cultures.
Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor of English Literature at Hansraj College, University of Delhi, and has been involved in teaching and curriculum development in several universities. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition to numerous published articles on gender, literature and feminist theory.
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A story of dochgirs (embroiderers) in Balochistan by Tilyan Aslam
As a Baloch girl when I walk into a room full of people, what outwardly attracts them is my cultural Balochi attire. I often get compliments from people telling me how beautiful and enthralling our Balochi dresses are. I remember once this lady came up to me in an international fair to photograph me for her magazine-project because of the way I was dressed – in a traditional Balochi dress. I have heard it more than enough times about the beauty and creativity of Balochi dresses, but regrettably, those compliments never really got into a point where we could discuss the people and hardwork behind those dresses.
Balochi dresses are the result of utmost passion, hardwork and dedication. The professionals who make Balochi dresses are called ‘dochgir’ in the local Balochi language, and they are the key reasons behind these breathtaking outfits. They make these dresses out of scratch without technology and other resources. They make up their own designs by doing a lot of experiments and end up making something creative and later name it as per their convenience and the structure of the ‘Doch’ (embroidery).
Luckee, a tremendously diligent and hardworking woman in her mid-forties from a village named Saami (Makran, Balochistan), is one of the reasons that I had to write this piece. Her story, unlike any other person I have come across, is rare. Even though, most of the embroiderers are Baloch women who sew dresses to support their families financially, but Luckee’s story is unusual.
In tribal Balochistan, the means of livelihood is either agriculture or livestock. The lives there are very primitive, far from technology and present-day facilities. Baloch women have sewn dresses for centuries for the upkeep of their families, helping their male counterparts from within the house. The handicraft skills of the people of Balochistan are ancestral, passed on from generations.
Dochgirs not only sew or doch (embroideries) in their own villages but travel near and far to make these dresses from almost anyone especially those who they are familiar with already. A few months ago, I got a chance to have a conversation with Luckee about her life and I was amazed with what she shared with me.
The tale of agony, striking poverty and lack of platform for Baloch dochgirs was so gut-wrenching to know from the one already suffering with it. “I was married to a man who didn’t earn. He was a drug addict,” she continued with grievance. “I got divorced after undergoing domestic abuse from my husband.” Long before even Luckee got divorced, she was the only one in her family working and earning. “I have no option, even till today, but to sew dresses and raise my two sons,” states Luckee.
The village of Saami, where she lives, has drastically reduced the population since the past years. The Nawabs and Gichkis who have ruled these places for years, have moved to cities long ago except few of the families. “The only people who haven’t moved out of the village are those who cannot afford to live in big cities – people like us,” she shared, “I used to live with my other family members in their house, but the space was inadequate as my older son got married. So I had no chance, but to buy a cheaper house from someone who no longer lived in the village,” she added. The house she bought is shabby, but gives her a shelter and she is grateful for that. “I had to work hard to sew many Balochi dresses to get money for a committee to buy the house. I still haven’t paid the total amount of my home,” said Luckee, her eyes filled with tears.
When I asked her about the education of her younger son, who passed his 10th grade, her words gave me shivers down to my spine. “Don’t you know about the inflation in the country?” she asked, to which I replied, “Yes, I do, but I’m also well aware of the fact that without education you cannot improve the lives you are living – in poverty and ignorance.”
Her reply was quick and truly upsetting to hear from her own words, “Education is expensive. It is for the rich ones. We barely manage to find meals of our day. With an empty stomach, you cannot think of educating your children, but feeding them,” she also added, “I wish my son could go to college and become a great person after 10th grade, but we cannot afford it.”
In a resource-rich province like Balochistan, the people are enduring poverty in a way that for them two basics of life, food and education still remain the biggest hurdles of life.
Balochistan is a home of arts, culture and creativity. It is very unfortunate to know that the baseline of the creative works; dochgirs, regardless of the efforts they put into their work, rarely manage to find adequate sustenance. Creativity takes courage. Every Baloch dochgir puts their heart and soul in their embroidery work, but sadly their hardwork is not compensated by enough returns.
It is about time that these dochgirs should be given the opportunities and recognition that they deserve. Our government should take steps to promote art and culture in the country and make policies that provide dochgirs with a platform to showcase their talents and skills to a wider community. Hardworking people like Luckee deserve to be given chances to flourish with their handicraft works which deserve coverage, for it is worth it.
Tilyan Aslam belongs to Turbat, Baluchistan who has recently got admission in Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad. She has been actively writing since 2019 on various social and gender issues, cultural and travel blogs in different newspapers such as The Daily Times, Balochistan Point, Balochistan Express, Balochistan voices , The Baloch News and some other local websites.
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My Father’s Last Smile
The rain has returned to the city.
Puddles are forming on the road
And children are running in joy.
Kidding along, I play with them
Until I suffer from a coughing fit.
Unsteady, my heart starts flipping
As I sit there amid woeful eyes,
And in the blur could hear sounds afar
Of birds singing and me darting
With my father feigning to catch me.
I could see his blurred outlines
Coughing and sitting holding his heart.
I was laughing and he smiled at me.
He never talked about his failing health,
As more and more often he got nailed
To his bed, but his smile was intact.
The street was getting busy,
Yet, living with this everlasting memory,
I walked back to my home infused
With the last smile of my father’s love
Anchored to the silence of my heart.
Pramod Rastogi is an Emeritus Professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne, Switzerland. He is a Member of the Swiss Academy of Engineering Sciences. He is the 2014 recipient of the SPIE Dennis Gabor Award. He is currently a guest Professor at the IIT Gandhinagar, India.
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Kalaw was tourist hub at the edge of Inle Lake, with its attitude of holiday resort and its air of clean crisp quality. The indigenous Shan people live predominantly in four main cities around the lake, including Kalaw where we were staying, in the numerous village along the lake’s shores, and on the lake itself. The last two days of our stay along the way to the former capital Rangoon gave us the opportunity to enjoy what the lake had to offer. For our two-day excursions on and around the lake, we boarded a long, narrow hand-made boat of teakwood, painted black and powered by a small motor in the back. The lake itself was quite large, covering nearly 45 square miles, giving ample opportunity for long, leisure rides in the early morning and late afternoon, while in between, we spent much of the day visiting the local sights on the lake itself.
The first morning on the lake took us on an extended ride deeper into the expansive waters. You can see local fishermen fishing there. They live on the lake. The local Burmese fisherman are known for practicing a distinctive style of rowing. They stand on one leg on a small platform in the stern of their long fishing boat, similar to the boat we were riding in, while they wrap their other leg around the single oar as they steer and make their way along. Together with the tubular distinctive fishing nets that lay along the bow of the boat, the fisherman, dressed in their sand-coloured baggy pantaloons tied at the waist with a rope and their white cotton/linen shirts and triangular straw hats that provide mercifully ample shade, offered a picturesque sight as we sped by in our own boat on our way deeper into the interior of the lake. I couldn’t help but think when I saw them again on the way back into Kalaw late in the afternoon just before sunset, that it must have been a long, tedious day indeed, alone out there on the waters, rowing in slow motion with their single foot and finding what fish they may that would provide them with a livelihood for them and their families. I was touch by the nobility, the simplicity, the hardship of the scene, a stolen glance into the lives of others that exotic travel sometimes provides.
Further glimpses into the local culture and way of life as we stopped around noontime at a textile factory that stood in the middle of the lake surrounded by other houses, all built of teakwood and bamboo and rising out of the waters on stilts. Throughout our journey overland heading south from Mandalay on the way to Yangon, we had a number of opportunities to visit handicraft and textile shops in order to gain a deeper insight into how these handicrafts are born and worked by the local people. I would like at this point to focus on the textile industry, but before going into the details, let me make passing mention the intricate and incredibly fine and detailed work done by the local people in creating woodcarvings, lacquerware and silverware. The wood carvings are traditionally made from the softwood teak, a high-quality of wood found in abundance throughout the country. The unique art of this craft is handed down from father to son.
I stood in wonder before these young men and women sitting cross-legged on the floor as they meticulously and with great care carved scenes of mythical creatures, deities, fruits and flowers on panels, frames and doors as if it were second nature to them. Such focus and patience that called for these artisans to work throughout the long day from eight in the morning until five in the evening with breaks only for tea and lunch was amazing. They worked with such intimacy between the mind, the hand and then applied to the texture of wood. To watch them work gave an insight into how a work of art is born through not only sheer skill, but also with the devotion and love for the craft that has been handed down generations. Similarly, I went to a lacquerware factory where individuals sat in rows working through the various stages of production of the cups, jewelry boxes, vases and combs, all constructed from bamboo and horsehair, that make up an exquisite repertoire, all finalised in the colourful intimacy of hand-painted scenes from the sap tapped from varnished trees into works of art with all the delicacy of lace.
I am not that interested in precious stones and wear no jewelry, but if you are, then exotic Burma is the place to go. Rubies and sapphires are popular, but jade is the stone most abundantly available. One can easily pick up an exquisite bracelet or necklace for under $10. Of special interest were the beautiful parasols that are so characteristic of old Burma. The parasol is considered a necessity when heading out onto the street to protect oneself from the sun. In Myanmar, many still favor the traditional style, made with bamboo (for the frame and handle) and cotton, which is stretched over the bamboo frame and then decorated with a hand-painted traditional Myanmar design. It is very common to see monks carrying an orange version of the parasol as they go through the streets on their morning rounds with their begging bowl in hand.
As much as I would like to describe in meticulous details all the handicraft shops I visited while in Burma, I will focus my efforts on my experience visiting those textile shops where I climb the wooden stairs from off the dangerously swaying, hand-crafted boat that led up into the inner sanctum of the textile “factory” standing on proud stilts upon the waters of the lake. I place the word factory in quotations marks because it was like no other factory ever visited or ever will visit.
You hear the looms that create these fabulous textiles before you see them — the clear, punctuated sound, the steady beat, the rhythmic sense that something is happening, something is being made. Then the door opens to looms, row after row, casting thin shadows in the late afternoon winter sunlight. The wooden structures seem primitive, skeletal, and yet they are designed to perform and in performing produce minor miracles in the shapes and textures of cloth which are vibrant enough to take on a life that is born of pure art. It took me some time to understand for I had never seen a loom up close before. The spinning wheels of fairy tales were a part of my imagination, but never a part of my reality. Now I stood in the midst of mythical looms from which the fabric of the universe has been created, at least in principle, a loom that could have been in the distant halls of the Greek gods.
There was a seat before the loom and the weft and the warp were drawn by strings up and down and across, moving threads cast in coloured dyes that could have been spun by black forest spiders or perhaps sea snakes from the deep blue. How I loved the whole business of it! I stood there spellbound, unconscious of Peter, the guide, the light and shadows of the room, the wayward dust motes in the air, only this vision of infinite patience. The rhythms of the multiple looms created an exotic and mesmerizing melody of perfected industry. The simplicity and skill of the crafted machine came together to produce a lasting image. There it was, the smell of the wood, the shush of the shuttle, the satisfying way that weft stacks upon weft and the waft intermingled to create this single unity of fabric.
As I said, a simple wooden seat stood before the loom and upon the seat sat a simple Burmese woman, middle-aged bending forward with slight elegance as if in protection of her loom. Her hair jet black and oiled were pulled together into a bun with a wooden hair clip. The hands of the woman steady and sure, the mind of the woman focused and clear, the face of the woman detached and enduring. This was a labour of love in its finest moment. I stood there — spell-bound, conscious of the moment that would pass, but to be forever etched in my mind as a lasting memory, a moment in time that will never fade. Later, we saw the finished products, filled with colour and light, as though cast down from the rainbows of heaven to shine of glory in their own right. I took away with me a piece of fruit of the loom, in the form of a lotus scarf, made from the thread-like sap drawn from the stem of a lotus flower, a valued treasure that I will keep until my end of days.
In 2006, the Myanmar government established the modern capital of Nay Pyi Taw, north of the former capital Yangon, formerly more commonly known as Rangoon. We reluctantly left the serenity of the Lake Inle and Kalaw for the airport for a short flight down to Yangon for the final several days of our trip. In the heart of downtown Yangon lay the remnants and reminders of the old 19th century colonial style city that has come to be known in the former British colonies. The British seized Rangoon and all of Lower Burma in 1852-53 during the Second Anglo-Burmese War. On the afternoon of our arrival, after checking into our hotel, Peter and I were able to take advantage of enjoying the look and feel of colonial Rangoon as we walked through the spacious parks and lakes, the old colonial buildings, the Parliament and the old Railway Station. The city name, meaning “the end of strife” was once called “The garden city of the East.”
On our last full day in Yangon, we took the opportunity of visiting the famed Shwedagon Pagoda, the Golden Dagon Pagoda, a gilded golden stupa that dominates the skyline in downtown Yangon. Built upon a hill in the center of the town, the golden umbrella dome atop the stunning pagoda shone brilliantly in the crisp winter sunlight. Conveniently, we rode multiple escalators up to the citadel at the Eastern Gate to the enclosure. The most sacred Buddhist Pagoda in Myanmar, it is believed to contain relics of the four previous Buddhas of the present kalpa (an extended cycle of time). Not surprisingly, the extended area in the shadow of the golden dome was crowded with people, tourists mostly from Asia, especially China, and locals from other parts of Myanmar who come to visit as a pilgrimage. The place was also crowded with monks draped in their signature orange monastic robes. I enjoyed how much they seemed to like taking group photos of each other, pushing and shoving just as all young people do everywhere in the world.
At this point, I was perhaps suffering from pagoda-fatigue, sitting image and reclining Buddha fatigue, and yet one cannot help but be caught up in the drama, the sacredness and the mystery of the moment, walking through the grounds that have survived wars and pestilence across the millennia. Historians and archaelogists suggest that the pagoda was built by the Mon people between the 6th and the 10th centuries. However, according to legend the Shwedagon Pagoda was built more than 2,600 years ago, making it the oldest pagoda in the world. The stupa’s pedestal is made of bricks covered with gold plates. Above the base are terraces that only monks and other males can access. Next is the bell-shaped part of the stupa, followed by what is called the turban, then the inverted alms bowl, the inverted lotus petals, the banana bud and finally the umbrella crown. The brown is tipped with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies. Immediately before the diamond bud is a flag-shaped vane. The very top – the diamond bud – is tipped with a 76 carat (15 g) diamond!
After strolling around soaking in the exotic ambiance that has endured for centuries across the ages under the light of the sun and moon, we finally made our way over to an elaborate enclosure that housed a monumental bell, many times the size of Peter, reminding me of the cracked Liberty Bell on view in Philadelphia! The Maha Gandha (lit. great sweet sound) Bell, a 23-ton bronze bell cast in 1779, was carried off by the British with the intention of shipping it to Kolkata, but because of its abundant size, it fell into the river instead. When the British failed in their attempts to recover it, the local people offered to help provided it would be restored to the stupa. Divers sent down and tied hundreds of bamboo poles underneath the bell and floated it to the surface where the massive ornate bell was safely return to the stupa and now sits in all its glory in a pavilion in the northwest side of the pagoda platform.
On the final night of our stay, in search of our last dinner in Yangon before leaving Myanmar the next morning, Peter and I ambled down a side street in back of our hotel in Chinatown wondering where to eat. At first, the street was quiet and subdued, with little coffee shops and bars invitingly bedecked with red Chinese lanterns. We saw in the distance the street illuminated by overhead fluorescent lighting and larger crowds of people. We soon arrived to see little open-air restaurants spilling out onto porches, sidewalks and the street, with plastic tables and little stools filled with all sorts of people eating dumplings, noodles and fried rice expertly with their chopsticks. It all looked so inviting, I motioned for Peter to stop. After all, so many people couldn’t be so wrong about their choice of where to dine, especially these locals. Peter moved on, undoubtedly thinking of the days at the beginning of the trip and the nights spent going to the bathroom. But his appetite had returned “with a vengeance”!
Then I saw it, at the edge of the curb, tucked in amid the seemingly ravenous diners and pedestrians: a make-shift steel barbeque grill with six sizzling fish spread forth in abandon upon the flaming hot coals whose smoke wafted into the air as well as into my nostrils. I looked down to get a closer look, only to be met by the restaurant’s owner, making gestures of invitation to come inside and sit. I looked inside and saw an empty table amid the crowds. “Is this river fish,” I asked, thinking of the river we had walked alongside earlier in the afternoon. “Yes, yes, li-li-liver fish,” he replied eagerly, having characteristic trouble pronouncing the Western R. “How much,” I growled, deadpan, not wishing to appear the green-eyed tourist. “Six thousand kyat,” he said and smiled. You may recalled what I wrote at the beginning of this tale, that one dollar represented 1,500 kyat. A quick mental calculation told me that this glorious jumbo fish, bursting out of its skin, sizzling in its own juices and cooked to perfection, the fish skin singed to a crisp golden-honeyed brown, cost a measly $4, a bargain, a steal, by anyone’s reckoning. “Peter,” I cried, pointing to the inviting delicacy, “could anyone ask for better than this. Peter turned up his nose, sniffing: “Will it make me sick?”
“How,” I cried, “no herbs or spices, just the freshest possible fish ever.” Against his better judgement, Peter was sorely tempted I could see, and finally agreed with a resigned shrug. “Trust me, Peter, nothing will happen, and you will love this.”
We had drinks and finger snacks until our two fish finally arrived sizzling and steaming in their own juices, “Let’s take a picture,” I suggested, but Peter looked down at my fish more closely with a frown. “Your fish is bigger than my fish,” he said in earnest. “You can have my fish, Peter, no problem, be my guest. You can have the bigger fish and some of mine as well. After all, I could never eat all of this.” And that was our final night, there in Chinatown, in the backstreets of 19th century Rangoon, where people eat fresh fish to their heart’s content as pigeons sit patiently in rows on electric wires overhead as the street cats of Yangon made ready for their own feast.
Leave-taking comes far too soon. As the great leviathan of the plane responded to the lift of the wind, I looked down one last time at the countryside below. I was remembering the great rivers that I had ridden upon, that wound like snakes through the forested landscape speckled with stupas and pagodas, golden domes shining in the sun, the majestic lakes where people lived over the placid waters on stilts that rose their wooden houses with walls of woven bamboo into the blue of the sky, the black wasteland of mountains that huddled like sleeping animals wishing to be aroused into wakefulness, exuding a peacefulness to accompany the surrounding silence of the emerald forests, where only the wind could stir its silent heart with its whispers. I was remembering the people, the stoic, rounded faces, the street-smart, good-humored guides who took care of us as they would take care of their brothers. They too still whisper their greetings and their farewells in thankful gratitude that we had come to visit, and they had had the honor to lead us through the heart of their homeland.
The journey could be at an end, but the adventure of travel will never finish. It lies there within the mind and heart as a desire to escape from oneself, to let the world reveal itself, to go to places people have never gone before, from the edge of the mind to far beyond the horizon of the world. The pagodas, stupas and temples of ancient lore now a living part of a shared experience, where distant cultures come together in the same way that strangers come together to become friends. Farewell Mandalay — once the mirage of dreams, now the very stuff of a never-ending journey leading to new destinations and new climes, where the sun shines and eagles roam under ancient blue skies, where travelers like me roam across the earth under Heaven’s infinite dome.