Keith Lyons introduces us to Kenny Peavy, an author, adventurer, educator and wilderness first-aider who has travelled far and wide and wishes everyone could connect with the natural world right outside their door. Click here to read.
Ideally, I would love to start the New Year with laughter and happiness! Then perhaps, the whole year would be dotted with humour …
Laughter clubs often practice laughing for health benefits. I know the pandemic makes both guffawing outdoors or in a group hard but think of the funniest possible thing and, perhaps, you will start laughing. For me what works other than children’s and monkeys’ antics, are my trips to the dentist, especially the trip where I wondered on the fringe benefits of ‘laughing gas’ (as given in the PG Wodehouse novel of the same name), only to be informed that it was used exclusively for young children. For me, an adult, there was only — you have guessed it — the jab that numbs your lip function to lubber. I discovered if I could make light of a dentist drilling by learning from Harry Potter (the spell to get rid of the terrifying boggart, who took the shape of the thing you feared most, was to imagine the funniest thing, focus on the humour in it, and shout ‘Riddikulus’ with a wand pointed at the creature in the form of your worst nightmare), then I could pretty much get rid of most fears.
The other thing I have been wondering for sometime is can one write an editorial that is humorous when the content is serious? I would have wanted to ask that question to many, including Ruskin Bond, who continues as one of my idols. I would love to touch hearts with the humour and the sensitivity that flavours his writing. It is tough to convey a complex thought with the simplicity and elegance of a writer who can be read and understood easily. I think we have a few of them around and I interviewed one. You all probably know him well— Rhys Hughes. I have given the reasons for the interview in lieu of Mr Bond, who continues a distant star beyond the horizon of online interviews. We discussed humour and its role in literature, leaving out completely in the cold, the fictional Mr Bond who answers to the names of James and 007 and has made entertaining films, which can be seen as serious or non-serious.
Another major issue in this world currently is climate change. In keeping with the need for acceptance of this reality, Keith Lyons introduced us to a nature lover, author and adventurer Kenny Peavy, who loved the fictional adventurer called Indiana Jones and has been working towards living in harmony with nature. He moved to Indonesia from America and is trying to raise awareness. You can find much, though not elephants, in the interview that encompasses the story of a man who cycled across a continent on a bike made of bamboo. However, you can find some writing on a king who acquired the skill to ride and tame elephants in our book excerpt from Shazi Zaman’sAkbar: A Novel of History. The excerpt does not showcase his elephant taming skills as did the Bollywood blockbuster Jodha Akbar but is focussed on bringing out the syncretism in the Mughal monarch’s outlook which made him seek out exponents of other religions. Sangita Swechcha’s and Andrée Roby’s anthology, A Glimpse Into My Country, with excerpts of short stories from Nepal and Zimbabwe, like Kenny Peavy, cycle across multiple borders as does our fiction. We feature stories from within and without the continent with Fazal Baloch recombining a couple of folklores from Balochistan to a single tale. Fiction from young writers highlight compassion and a varied perspective. Steve Ogah has a story from Nigeria which almost rings with overtones of Alex Haley’s Roots. Sohana Manzoor has given us a poignant narrative with an inspiring twist at the end, an absolute antithesis of the humorous one she rolled out for us last month. Candice Louisa Daquin has also given us an exceptional short fiction along with her column where she discusses the changing face of families in the current context.
While Daquin’s focus is mainly towards the West, we have an essay from Sanjay Kumar on families that live in the greyer zones of big cities, children from an outcropping called Nithari in Delhi, where they or theirs suffered neglect, abuse, carnage and cannibalism in their formative years. Introducing the impacted children, Kumar explains how they transcended the wounds that lacerated their lives. This piece is a precursor to a column called ‘Children of Nithari’. Starting February, the abuse victims will give us a story a month which will be translated by young volunteers from pandies’, an activist theatre group founded by Kumar, and published in Borderless. Another article from Balochistan reflects on the lack of literacy and efforts to bring children into the folds of schooling. Pakistan ranked 99th out of 132 countries on the literacy survey in 2021. We are privileged to be the voice of the unheard.
Two essays that ring of concerns raised in the Kenny Peavy interview are to do with climate crisis in the Sunderbans and waste disposal in Delhi. Both of these are written by researchers who are working on these issues.
We have travel pieces from Australia – one is a sailing adventure by Meredith Stephens and the other is about a trip to the Sand Dunes of Western Australia by Shernaz Wadia. Ravi Shankar has also taken us through winters from the Everest to New York with his globe-trotting non-fiction. Penny Wilkes takes us on a flight of creativity with beautiful photography.
We have a stellar layout of translations. Professor Fakrul Alam translated another poem by Jibananada Das and Borderless is honoured to publish it to the world for the first time. We have a translation from Korea and another of a Brahmo hymn, Aji Shubho Dine, by Tagore, which is sung often during festivals. The icing in our Tagore section in this issue is Ratnottama Sengupta’s translation of the Kobiguru’s ‘Two Birds’ (Khanchar Pakhi Chhilo) along with a musing which reflects on the perspectives of the two contemporaries, Tagore and Saratchandra. She has also translated a well-known Bengali poet, Michael Madhusudan Dutt. Dutt wrote just before the advent of Tagore and had an interesting past which has been vividly depicted by Sunil Gangopadhyay in Those Days (Sei Somoy in Bengali), a novel that has been translated by Aruna Chakravarti. Bhaskar Parichha has given us a tribute on the occasion of the birth anniversary of Fakir Mohan Senapati, who, he claims, has the same standing in Odia literature as Tagore in Bengali or Premchand in Hindi.
Parichha has also reviewed Amit Ranjan’sJohn Lang; Wanderer of Hindoostan; Slanderer in Hindoostanee; Lawyer for the Ranee. It looks like an interesting read where an immigrant Australian came supported Rani of Jhansi in India. Rakhi Dalal has reviewed Selma Carvalho’s Sisterhood of Swans, again a story of migrants and their lives. The theme seems to echo among the books that have been reviewed this time, including Gracy Samjetsabam’s take on Anuradha Kumar’s The Hottest Summer in Years, a story about a German immigrant to India in the twentieth century. Meenakshi Malhotra’s review of Somdatta Mandal’s translation of A Bengali Lady in England by Krishnabhabini Das (1885) highlights the views of a traveller rather than an immigrant as the lady did return home after a ten-year sojourn in Britain. As Meenakshi contends, “The process of travel offers opportunities for emancipation where exposure to other cultures offers her a way of viewing and of gaining a perspective on her own experiences and that of her sisters in India. Krishnabhabini constantly refers to her Indian sisters and bemoans their sorry state and ignorance when she sees how active British women were in their families and societies…”
I was supposed to try my hand at a humorous editorial, but I realise that is tough when the ground is small. For humour, we need rolling acres where we can etch out each detail till it cannot be milked further for laughter. But I promise you I will keep trying to please the readers till one evolves to write like Ruskin Bond.
I would like to thank my fabulous team who even if not actively contributing to content are always at hand to advise and help. I would especially want to thank both Sohana Manzoor and Sybil for their fantastic artwork, which is as wonderful as their writings. I would like to give heartfelt thanks to all the contributors who have made this journal possible and each reader who comes back to our journal for more every month. Some of the pieces remain unmentioned adding to the mystery of the content, just like, Christmas gifts which need to be unwrapped and continue a reality even in January in some parts of the world – the Russians celebrate on January 7th and the Spaniards extend their festivities to January 6th.
Do take a look at this month’s edition for not just the stories mentioned here but for more.
I wish you all a wonderful New Year filled with laughter.
Keith Lyons introduces us to Kenny Peavy, an author, adventurer, educator and wilderness first-aider who has travelled far and wide and wishes everyone could connect with the natural world right outside their door.
American Kenny Peavy has spent three decades getting people outdoors. He believes that by playing in and exploring the natural world, we can discover or re-kindle a deep connection with Nature and learn to respect and take care of the planet we all share.
For the last twenty one years, he’s been based in Asia, working in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. He’s currently at possibly the coolest school in the world, made of bamboo and nestled in lush jungle, the Green School Bali. Kenny is an advocate for education and learning outside the classroom.
In this conversation, we are going to learn about growing up in the South of the US, how his environmental awareness was instilled, what brought him to Asia, and some of the biggest cultural differences (including breakfast). In addition to his questioning memoir ‘Young Homeless Professional’, in 2007 Kenny co-authored the pioneering environmental education handbook, As if the Earth Matters, and recently, an illustrated book, The Box People , was re-released digitally to enable children, young people and their parents and educators anywhere in the world to use the book. He also created Waffle House Prophets: Poems Inspired by Sacred People and Places.
In efforts to raise awareness about conservation and sustainability in Southeast Asia, he’s paddled around the island of Phuket in Thailand, and ridden a bamboo-frame bike from Thailand through Malaysia to Singapore and Bali. As well as being a nature guide, project fundraiser and science teacher, Kenny is also a qualified wilderness first responder and first aid trainer. In Bali, he had to flee with his family when an erupting volcano threatened their village.
Kenny has some advice for city-dwellers afraid of the ‘sometimes scary’ world away from concrete and mobile phones.
Tell me about growing up in Georgia, as I only know it being famous for peanuts, and being the birthplace of Julia Roberts, Kanye West, Martin Luther King Jr, Ray Charles, and Hulk Hogan?
I was born in 1969 so, essentially, I was a kid in the ’70s and ’80s. Since the ’80s were my high school years, I consider myself a child of the ’80s in all its hair metal, boom box, Pac Man and Donkey Kong glory!
It was very rural. A lot different then. We weren’t as aware of the outside world and didn’t have access to a lot of things like we do now.
I distinctly remember going to my first ‘real mall’ in about 1984 or maybe 1985. It was Gwinnett Place Mall. A huge commercial shopping centre. Up until then, we only really had local mom-n-pop shops. So, it was astounding. One of my friends could drive and he had a car.
None of us had much money so we all pitched in a couple of dollars for gas. The parking lot was dizzying and the mall was an amazing place to watch people. We tried this new thing none of us had ever heard of called a Gyro wrap and it was absolutely delicious and strange. Then afterwards I had an Oreo ice cream. Something I had never experienced before since we only had vanilla, strawberry and chocolate ice cream at the local shop. It was all brand new.
Growing up in the countryside we didn’t have that sort of food or flavours so even those simple things we take for granted today were fascinating novelties back then!
Aside from that, as I said, it was very rural. Most folks had land and cows or chickens. A lot of pine trees which means pulp mills to make paper. Plenty of dirt roads. Atlanta was the BIG CITY and most of us were kind of afraid to go there because we never heard anything but bad news about city folks.
What was the environment you grew up in like?
Most folks were into fishing, hunting and other similar recreations. I went to a public school and took the free bus to school. We definitely had jocks, hicks, geeks and other ‘distinctive’ social groups. Me and all my friends were into hard rock and heavy metal and we saved our money so we could see all the shows from AC/DC, Bon Jovi, Ozzy Osbourne and White Snake when they came to Atlanta (even though we were scared of the Big City and fast talking city folks).
Our big entertainment was cruising the strip mall where they had a McDonalds and a hardware store. We’d all just drive in circles wasting time and gas while blasting The Scorpions so we could wave at people we’d seen at school the very same day.
I think most families were basically Blue Collar with jobs in construction, factories or some kind of farming. We all grew up working and my first job at age fifteen was washing dishes at a steak house in town. Other jobs we had as teens were cutting grass, painting curbs, running cashier in a gas station and other similar tasks.
How did you get into writing, was it something you developed a talent for early on, or did you have some inspiration and guidance from others?
I always wanted to be a poet and swoon the girls with poems and fancy quotes from far-flung novels. It never worked.
I also wanted to be that professor with the patches on the elbows of his tweed jacket and a pipe dangling from my mouth as I pontificated wise philosophical diatribes to impress the masses. I’m still working on that one!
Your interest in Nature, the environment and science, where did that come from?
Essentially, from growing up and playing outdoors. We were always outside and not allowed in the house during the day. So, we’d get bored and flip over logs, explore the creeks, go fishing and ride our bikes all over the trails in the woods.
This lead me to get curious about the critters we found under the logs and hiding out in the rocks in the stream. Combine that with a love for hunting and fishing and I eventually studied biology at university.
I basically wanted to know how Nature worked. What made it tick? How did all the pieces fit together? That also lead to jobs at the Institute of Ecology at the University of Georgia where I learned a heap about aquatic macro-invertebrates, ichthyology (fish) and ecology — and had a private lunch with the Father of Modern Ecology and author of the very first ecology textbook, Professor Emiritus Eugene Odum.
That’s why I firmly believe that a childhood spent outdoors playing and exploring will later lead to an insatiable curiosity for Nature and an ethic for conservation and stewardship.
You document in your book Young Homeless Professional about a time in your life when you immersed yourself in the natural world, and were searching for answers. What did you learn from that time about the world and yourself?
I essentially have many of the same questions today. I think I understand the inner workings of Nature and life’s mysteries a bit better now. With a modicum more insight and quite a few more experiences under my belt than 20+ years ago, I think what’s most important is the process of questioning. The ability to stay open to life’s possibilities is key. We most likely will never fully comprehend or understand life, our roles in the cosmos and Nature’s mysteries, but if we stay curious, keep exploring, stay open to the possibilities and keep questioning then I think that’s the key to finding a place in this world we all share.
How did you end up moving from the US to teaching in Asia?
On a whim. I wanted adventure. I wanted to see and experience new cultures, try weird foods, learn about different religions and philosophies. Speak strange languages. So with US$ 8,000 in the bank, a teaching degree and a hankering to see the world I set out for Kuala Lumpur in the year 2000: I’ve never looked back!
What are the biggest differences between life in the US and your current life and environment in Bali?
The biggest difference has to be that it’s a majority Muslim country. My wife is Muslim and I’ve grown quite comfortable being married into a different culture and religion. And here in Bali, it’s mostly Hindu which is vastly different from Islam. Growing up in the Southern US, I was only ever exposed to Methodist and Baptist forms of Christianity. All of this was new to me 20 years ago when I moved here.
I think the tropical climate and easy-going beach lifestyle are also very different from growing up in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.
Another HUGE difference is having rice for breakfast! I was always a hash browns and eggs or better yet, grits, kind of guy. We don’t really have either one of those here. But instead, they eat rice with a spicy sauce and crispy chicken or fish for a typical Indonesian Breakfast!
As well as being a teacher, you’ve done a lot of activities, organising events, initiating projects and raising funds. What’s your motivation for doing these?
I feel like we should give back. Whatever we have to share, to teach, to give to others is valuable. Being part of something bigger than ourselves, whether it is a project, a group, a movement or an ideology is fundamental to achieving a sense of fulfilment and belonging. When we give, we receive back way more joy and happiness than we originally gave. It gets multiplied! Through giving of ourselves and sharing what we have, we receive a sense of being part of a larger cause and a sense of contentment which is multiplied many times over.
One of your most notable achievements, in addition to your writing and educational work, is riding a bamboo bicycle across Southeast Asia from Thailand to Bali to raise awareness on sustainability. What was the hardest part of that adventure?
It was all fun with plenty of excitement and adventure. There were actually very few hiccups and hardships. But I would have to say that cycling some of the monotonous palm oil plantations through peninsular Malaysia from the Thai border to Singapore was hot, boring and so sad. It was heartbreaking to see what was once a beautiful rainforest converted into endless palm oil plantations and a never-ending paved highway.
You also kayaked around the island of Phuket to raise awareness about marine conservation. How important is tangible action to bringing about change?
Taking action is paramount. We can say anything we want. We can project an image of being eco-friendly and sustainable. We can GreenWash anything. But if you want to see what someone truly believes, watch what they do. Pay attention to their actions. Tangible action, hands-on, in the field, is where it’s at! Especially, if we truly want to bring about change and make a difference we have TO DO, not just SAY or BELIEVE.
Environmental education seems to be at the heart of your mission, how do you encourage students, teachers and adults to re-connect with Nature?
Ironically, I spent 2 years researching this question as part of my MS degree and what I discovered and concluded after hundreds of peer-reviewed papers, conferences, surveys and questionnaires is that the best way to connect to Nature is simple… get outside and play!
Free time, exploring and playing in Nature are way more effective than any curriculum or lesson plan. When we take time to just wander and wonder we connect in ways that can’t be facilitated through constructed lessons or planning. It happens naturally and spontaneously when we get lost in play, discovery and exploration.
What are people’s (particularly city-dwellers) biggest fears about the natural world?
I think the main thing people are afraid of is boredom. They don’t know how to wallow in boredom until the sense of wonder kicks in. We’re so used to instantaneous entertainment that we’ve become afraid to just sit, observe and take things as they come.
Another big one is mosquitos! And leeches. People are terrified of leeches!
It’s basically a teacher training manual and activity guide. We wrote it back before there were any resources to train teachers in Southeast Asia. So, the activities are meant to get kids connected to nature through exploration and engaging the senses. We put an emphasis on showing Southeast Asian flora and fauna as well as locals in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia as instructors and participants to make sure it would have a multi-cultural approach to environmental education.
I am hoping to take some of the activities in the book and update them and create a much smaller activity packet. I think it’s now more important and relevant than ever that we try to connect kids and adults to Nature.
As well as working as a nature guide, trek leader, science teacher, you are also a wilderness first aid instructor. What inspires you to be so active?
I think the main driver and inspiration comes from a sense of curiosity. I always wanted to be a National Geographic explorer, or some kind of adventurer!
When I was young, I was inspired by the Indiana Jones movies, David Attenborough and TV shows that featured people exploring exotic places, getting lost in mysterious jungles, landing in the middle of some kind of misadventure or a quest.
Those images stuck with me and keep me excited and curious to this day! There is always something new to learn, a new place to see, a new style of music to hear, and new flavours to be tasted.
You’ve also done some personal service projects, such as in Bali helping those affected by the volcano eruption. How challenging is it to initiate projects, particularly in a foreign country?
It’s easy to do a project but it’s incredibly difficult to do it right.
The key seems to be relationships. If you have a relationship with someone in the village or even someone that knows someone in the village then things tend to go well.
The main issue I see is that many foreigners want to help in some way but they simply don’t know how. During the Mount Agung crisis, we were at a refugee camp and saw a car pull up and start tossing food into the crowd. The local villagers were then forced to run around and grab the donations up off the ground. It was very demeaning. I vowed to never approach any type of service project that way.
Essentially, you just need to ask the village what they truly need. This is the crucial step and it’s often overlooked. What I mostly see are people with good intentions making assumptions about what a village needs and then donating completely irrelevant or unwanted and unneeded stuff. Whether this is inappropriate food items that won’t be used, hot thick blankets in the tropics or painting a wall at a school when the funds and volunteer time could be used much wiser the missing ingredient is always communication with the locals to find out their true needs.
In the case of Mount Agung, what we discovered after meeting the heads of the villages is that they wanted fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, spices, electric fans and N95 masks. They said everyone had donated rice and instant noodles and that they needed something they could cook to go with it! In the end, we delivered those items based on their needs and wants not on assumptions.
So, if and when folks want to help out and do service projects it’s most helpful to find a trustworthy local that can help facilitate communications to ensure that the project is effective and truly wanted and needed.
How much do you feel you are an American in Asia, or a global citizen of the planet?
I don’t feel very American anymore. Aside from my mom, dad and sister, I don’t have many connections to my country of birth these days.
I’ve been overseas for more than 20 years now. I’ve changed quite a bit personally and the USA has also changed a great deal in that time.
I would say nowadays I definitely feel more like a global citizen and can be comfortable in almost any situation. These days I’m used to being surrounded by, working with and keeping company with locals of whatever country I am working in.
Being surrounded by people of diverse cultures, exploring and learning about different peoples, traditions, foods and ecosystems are what keep me happy!
When it comes to communicating and writing, what’s your process?
Ideas always come to me at the strangest times. The best ideas seem to come when I am not thinking about writing but instead, when I am on the motorbike, bicycle, drifting off to sleep or distracted or focused on something entirely different. To catch those ideas, I always keep a pad of paper and pen next to the bed, my phone has a note-taking app and I have a zillion sticky notes. I even e-mail ideas to myself sometimes! So that’s step one. Catch the idea and record it.
Then I tend to forget about it until I come across a similar thought or idea through reading, listening to a podcast or hearing something or someone that triggers more thought. That’s when I tend to gather up those ideas from the emails, sticky notes and note-taking app and start to map them out and write an outline. Then I forget about it again for a while.
Finally, when I revisit those ideas, I try to develop them into an essay, poem or even a book!
For the writing, I try to use my Southern American voice and interject colloquialisms. I normally write it. Edit it. Re-write. Edit again.
I find the editing is ongoing and every time you ‘rest’ in between versions and then look at your writing with fresh eyes you catch phrases that could be written better, sentences that can be shortened and different ways to say and express things that make them more interesting. Lastly, the thesaurus is my best friend!
What advice do you have some someone reading this, who wants to find their purpose, and also make a difference in the world?
Stay curious. Stay open. Seek out adventure. Don’t be afraid to fail. Keep learning new skills and spend long periods of time reflecting on who you are and what you have to contribute to the world.
Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer who gave up learning to play bagpipes in a Scottish pipe band to focus on early morning slow-lane swimming, the perfect cup of masala chai tea, and after-dark tabs of dark chocolate. Find him@KeithLyonsNZ or blogging at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com). .
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
I have always wanted to interview Ruskin Bond who lives in Landour, near the hill-station of Mussoorie in India. Bond, now 87, grew up in Dehradun, tried a stint in England and returned to the country that had nurtured him to write stories that make us laugh and yet bring out the flavours of love and kindness in the Himalayas. Sadly, no one seems to be able to get me an online interview with him. So, I did the next best thing…
I interviewed Rhys Hughes.
You have to see it from my perspective, here was a humourist migrating from UK to India, just like Bond. Both their names begin with R — Ruskin wrote of monkeys conducting a fashion parade in colourful pyjamas borrowed from him, perhaps permanently and Rhys wants to interview a monkey who took a bottle of coconut oil from his current home. Only, Hughes’ monkey happens to be in Sri Lanka and Bond’s monkeys were in India. In fact, I told Hughes he could be the next Bond and could perhaps get into an apprenticeship. He has the basic compassion and humour in his writing that endears Bond to so many hearts. However, Hughes has not made it across to India as yet. He waits on the lush shores of Sri Lanka to make a landfall on the Coromandel Coast or … maybe the Himalayas… as the pandemic continues to upheave in tsunami-like waves. Maybe, Rhys Hughes will become the Ruskin Bond of Sri Lanka! Let us tread into the world of Hughes to check out what he thinks.
Tell us since when have you been writing? What gets your muse going?
I began writing when I was six years old or so. My earliest stories were inspired by films and comics I enjoyed and mostly were about monsters, adventures, space travel, robots, dinosaurs and ghosts. I doubt if any of them made much sense.
The first short story I wrote with a plot I remember was about a man who jumps off a cliff so that he will turn into a ghost and can create mischief in his village, which he does, but the twist is that he survives the fall and only thinks he is a ghost. The enraged villagers chase him back over the same cliff, and he isn’t frightened because he believes he can float on air, but he can’t and this time he doesn’t survive. I was about ten years old when I wrote that. But I didn’t begin writing short stories in earnest until I was fourteen. That was the real beginning of my writing career. I have been writing regularly ever since. I don’t require prompting to write these days. It has become a habit, a reflex, something I just do. I still write about the same old things as always, monsters, adventures, space travel, etc, but I have added a few more themes since I was a young child and my style has improved considerably. At least I hope it has!
That story you wrote as a ten-year-old definitely has potential! And we enjoy your writing as we read it now. Now tell us why do you write?
Ideas come unbidden into my mind and they won’t leave me alone unless I put them into stories. The moment I embody these ideas in a work of fiction they stop bothering me. I get ideas all the time, especially when I am walking or travelling somewhere, but also in the middle of the night. I try to make notes so I can use them later but sometimes I neglect to note them down and I forget them. Then the ideas go away temporarily but return days, weeks, months or years later and bother me again. Only when I pin them down into a narrative of some kind will they go away forever. So writing is a compulsion for me as well as a voluntary activity. It wasn’t always like this.
In the beginning I found it difficult to come up with original ideas. I had to work hard at it. I would say that most of my ideas back then were fairly ordinary ones and only occasionally truly original. But I persisted and exercised my mind, and just like muscles do, the parts of my mind responsible for the invention of original ideas got bigger and stronger, and now the ideas come without effort. As it happens, not all these ideas turn out to be as original as I like to think they are. Sometimes I get excited that I have come up with a totally new concept only to later discover that some other author beat me to it years ago. But I do believe that originality is possible.
The oft-repeated maxim that there are no new ideas simply isn’t true. If originality is impossible, how were any ideas generated in the first place? I don’t mean to say that originality is the ultimate objective of writing, of course not, there are a great many other reasons to write, but I am talking about it from my own particular point of view. And all I am really saying here is that practice is the most important thing, the only essential thing. I write a lot and the very act of writing regularly seems to make writing in the future easier and smoother.
What is your favourite genre for writing and for reading?
The genre question is a difficult one to answer but I am going to say that if I had to choose only one genre to describe my own writing I would answer “comedy”. This doesn’t mean that everything I write is comedic, but a large percentage of it certainly is. And I don’t necessarily mean laugh-out-loud comedy but other types of comedy too, whether subtle irony, philosophical farce, absurdist and surrealist works. There are many grades of comedy, from wit to parody, and I enjoy most of them. When it comes to reading, I still have a focus on comedy, I suppose, but I will read very sober and serious works too. If I made a list of my favourite works of fiction, comedic works would be at the top of the list.
Broadly speaking there are two types of humorous literature, one in which incidents are funny and one in which it is the telling that is comic. Writers who combine both types tend to win my deepest admiration. Yet quite a few of my favourite books have no comedy in them at all, neither in subject nor in style, for example The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqrollby Alvaro Mutis ( 1993, translated by Edith Grossman, 2002) which is a sequence of tropical and troubling narratives, often sombre in tone, that nonetheless remains an enthralling and uplifting read.
Which writers have influenced your work? Are you influenced by other art forms?
I wanted to become a professional writer because of Robert Louis Stevenson. It was Treasure Island (1883) that opened the gates into the entire world of literature for me. I still admire him hugely but I have had much bigger influences since then. Delving deeper into the novels and short stories that were available to me, I was lucky enough to find authors who resonated with some deep part of my being and made me not only want to continue trying to be a writer, but to be a writer who wrote as they did. Of course, it’s better to develop one’s own style, but I suspect that ‘distinctive’ styles are really the result of amalgams of influences, a blend of prior styles. Italo Calvino (1923-1985) has been my favourite writer for more than thirty years, with Donald Barthelme (193i-1989), Boris Vian (1920-1959), Flann O’Brien (1911-1966) and Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006) not far behind. At the moment I am a keen reader of the work of Mia Couto (1955-2013). Alasdair Gray (1934-2019) is another favourite.
To answer the second part of your question, I have definitely been influenced by art forms other than writing, in particular music and visual art. I might even say that the paradoxical imagery in the artwork of M.C. Escher (1898-1972) has been at least as big an influence on me as the prose of any author. I was astounded and captivated when I first saw his graphic designs and have loved them ever since.
You have travelled to many places. How many countries have you visited? Has travel impacted your writing? How?
I have lost count of the number of countries I have visited. I used to keep a map and colour in the countries that I had been to, but I lost the map years ago. The truth is that probably the total isn’t as high as I think it is. Most of my travelling has been done in Africa and Europe, and I have only really dipped my toes into the vastness of Asia, and I haven’t even been to the Americas at all. No one is so well-travelled that they really know the world.
Travel has certainly impacted my writing, though. I can state that with confidence. I am often inspired to write stories set in the places I have visited and I guess I probably wouldn’t do so if I hadn’t been there. Having said that, I do occasionally set a story in a location I have never visited. Such stories can work well but there is nearly always a vital element missing, some immediacy that a certain level of familiarity gives to a work of prose. It’s far easier to create a convincing atmosphere when you are writing from experience rather than from research. Little details will give some solidity to the evocation of scenes, details that can’t be easily imagined without first-hand experience. This doesn’t mean that I think travelling is necessary for the creation of good fiction. Good fiction can be centred in nowhere, almost in no space or time if the author is talented enough. And there’s a paradox in the nature of travel, which is that even though the particulars of your surroundings might change, the essentials remain the same. We can put a lot of effort into the act of travelling only to discover that people are people everywhere. And would we have it any other way?
Tell us a bit about the world you grew up in — we have an interesting piece by you called ‘Dinosaurs in France’ — which claims you grew up in a world of different value systems. Would you see those as better or the present as better?
The past is another country. That’s one of the pithiest and truest maxims anyone has devised. In only half a century I have seen many changes, but in fact most of these changes came so gradually I didn’t notice that things were changing at the time. Only now, looking back, do I see the vast gulf between the present and my past. I was youthful in a world where information was much more difficult to obtain. There were rumours and suppositions and often no way of confirming or refuting them. People believed strange things and adjusted their attitudes to match these odd beliefs. People still do the same now, of course, but it somehow feels different. One can more easily check assertions now than before and learn much more quickly if they are true or false. The world I grew up in was one in which you had no choice but to take another person’s word at face value. So if a supposedly responsible adult, like the postman, told you with a straight face that he lived in a house made entirely from marshmallows, there was no easy way of disproving the claim. You had to take his word for it. I can’t say it was a better world and I don’t want to suggest it was a worse one. It was simply different, a world lacking ready access to information.
You have written a lot of humour. Not too many people do that nowadays. Could you tell us why your funny bone is tickled to create humour as it does? Do you think humour is a good way to address major issues?
Humorous writing has gone out of fashion to a certain extent in the anglophone world, yes, but it’s still there, in the background. There was a great tradition of British humorous writing that lasted about a century or so, and I was fortunate enough to grow up at the end of that phase. I am talking about a particular type of humour, dryly ironic but also theatrical, a sort of blend of surrealism and the old musical hall routines. J.B. Morton (1873-1979) was one of the masters of the form, and he was an influence on many of my favourite comedic writers, such as Spike Milligan (1918-2002), Maurice Richardson (1907-1978) and W.E. Bowman (1911-1985). These humorists also took the language and played with it a little, transforming it into something new, though I feel ultimately that such comedy derives more from the rhythms than the melodies of wordplay.
The entire range of comedic devices might be used but new ones invented as well. There can be over reaction to minor incidents and under reaction to major ones, constant misunderstandings, amplification of repetition, parody of existing forms. W.E. Bowman’s The Ascent of Rum Doodle is my favourite humorous novel, and its sequel, The Cruise of the Talking Fish, is also high on my list of best comedic literature. Bowman apparently wrote a third volume in the series that remains unpublished and is in the safe keeping of his son. If this is true, I hope it will appear one day.
Are you influenced by any specific humourist? If so, who?
Flann O’Brien is probably my biggest influence in terms of comedic prose. His work is quirky, inventive, curiously erudite, absurdist and often metafictional. I am staggered by the wealth of invention in his novels, the supremely silly but also highly ingenious conceits and concepts, and the bone-dry irony contrasted with farcical exuberance, the light touch and the dark tone. W.E. Bowman and Maurice Richardson are another two favourites. That is prose but when it comes to poetry I love Don Marquis (1878-1937), Ogden Nash (1902-1971) and Ivor Cutler (1923-2006) best, all of them with radically different approaches to comedy. Marquis in particular pushed humour in his free verse to a point where it often became profound, serious and socially critical. You asked if humour can be used to address major issues. Yes, sometimes it can, even with great force, but it doesn’t have to.
Tell us the extent of your work. How many books have you written?
I have published many books. The question is how do I count them. I tend not to count the self-published books. It seems to me that self-publishing is too easy. On the other hand, traditional publishing is maybe too difficult. I have forty or so traditionally published books and twenty self-published books out there, so I am going to give forty as my answer. Most of my books are collections of short stories. I have only written a few novels. My poetry collections so far have been self-published with the exception of one single volume called Bunny Queue.
It is one of my goals to have all the short stories I have ever written appear in my books. At the moment there are many of my short stories that exist in magazines and anthologies that have never been collected. And there are many unpublished short stories in my files too. My plan is to write exactly a thousand short stories and consider them as part of one big story-cycle. This project is almost done. In a few more months, with luck, I will finish writing my thousandth story. Thirty years in total it has taken. When that last story is finished I will devote myself entirely to novels, plays, poetry and articles. No more short stories! So, in reply to your question, I can say that I have written a great deal of work, maybe too much, but as I said earlier, writing has been something of a compulsion for me.
What are your future plans?
I plan to finish my big story-cycle of one thousand stories. Then I will write a few novels that I have been planning for a long time. One of these novels will be called The Hippy Quixote and will be about a young, deluded fellow who in his mind is living in the 1960s. He takes a guidebook written in that decade and follows the old hippy trail to India, blissfully unaware that so many things have changed in terms of societal attitudes and geopolitics. This idea seems to me to be a fruitful one for the creation of comic scenes.
I also have to finish a novel I began a long time ago, The Clown of the New Eternities, sections of which have already been published. It’s long overdue for completion. This novel is about a highwayman who has accidentally outlived his own age and is forced to adjust to the modern world. Another variant of Quixote, I suppose. I think that many or most of my longer narratives are a blend of the Quixote and Candide models with a bit of Gulliver thrown in. We can talk about our future plans all day, of course, but whether we are lucky enough to have a chance to make them real is another question altogether. I intend to do my best, as I have always done, but nothing is certain in this world of ours.
Thanks Rhys Hughes for your time and lovely answers.
I dislike giving advice almost as much as I dislike receiving it, but as a friend recently asked me if I knew of any easy techniques to generate ‘inspiration’ when creating an outline for a story or script. I replied to her request. Somewhat pompously and just a little ponderously, I’d now like to share the answer I gave to her with everyone, even with you out there. This is what I said:
(a) Don’t sit around waiting for inspiration.
(b) Don’t chase it too hard.
Some people appear to assume that ideas are difficult to come by, and if we mean very good ideas, then that’s true. But if we concentrate on workable ideas, the fact is that they can be manufactured easily. Strange useful juxtaposition is one reliable and simple way to create new ideas. Think of the elements hydrogen and oxygen. Pretty neat on their own? Yes, but a bit overdone.
Put them together and what do you get? Water! The first time water was created I am sure that its originality was astounding, far more astounding than might have been anticipated. After all, water is a fusion of hydrogen and oxygen but not just that. It is also something entirely itself, with all its own qualities and properties, most of which hydrogen and oxygen don’t have. Indeed it would be virtually impossible to anticipate the properties of water by examining the behaviours of the elements that constitute it, no matter how minutely detailed the analysis.
Water is a new thing. You can’t pre-empt thingness. It can’t be modelled before it exists. Only with hindsight can we have understanding. We may work backwards as a consequence and then model it as the necessary outcome of a combination of the two elements that constitute it, but this doesn’t change the fact that water is not obviously contained in embryonic form in hydrogen and oxygen. The empirical truth came first, the chemical formula followed, and only later did we nod at each other with the false wisdom of experience disguised as physics.
I repeat, there is nothing in the attributes of the atoms of elements to give us specific clues about the attributes of the compounds they would generate when they are clashed together. The same may be true for ideas, if we regard archetypes or clichés as the atoms of story elements and decide to combine them unusually. This method is one I might use when I want to come up with an outline for a story from scratch. I’ll take two things that aren’t connected and put them together to see what will happen. The less naturally connected those things already are, the better the process and the nicer the outcome, because you can have more fun trying to connect them, and more surprising ideas will be generated as a result.
These original ideas will come with very little effort, because they have no other choice. The simple act of colliding and fusing a pair of unrelated items will mean that such ideas naturally come into being, the same way that water comes into being when we bash hydrogen and oxygen atoms into each other. And one way of finding pairs of things that aren’t naturally connected is to flip open a dictionary at random and jab a finger down onto the page. The finger chooses a word, the first word, then repeats the process for the second word, and the two consequent words are the magnetic poles of the story. They run right through it just as the magnetic poles of our planet spear our globe like a blue pumpkin on a skewer.
I tried the method recently and here are my combinations:
Caffeine addiction and macramé.
Frogs and tangerines.
The fashion world and tropical diseases.
Astronomy and crossbows.
Economic downturn and pickled gherkins.
Liver salts and scarves.
Tinted windows and army trousers.
Bananas and canoes.
Howler monkeys and world peace.
Bellybuttons and cacti.
Castigation and dirigible accidents.
Zoetropes and cheese.
Almost any two unconnected things will work. Maybe pairing together ‘modulus’ and ‘reciprocal’ would cause difficulties. ‘Oneness’ and ‘duplicity’ too. ‘Contradiction’ and ‘congruence’. I am sure there are many others, and that you can devise pairs that defy my technique. But generally speaking the method is sound. And perhaps a very clever person could work perfectly well with all combinations, even those that cancel themselves out, especially with those, one suspects. It ought to be remembered that if two words are picked that the picker doesn’t especially like, the random page flipping can be done again. The method is a tool, not an order. ‘Tool’ and ‘order’ are two words that can surely be combined productively.
Recently I learned that the old British comedy show, The Goodies (1970-1982), used the same technique at the script stage. Perhaps that was where I learned it, for I was a devoted follower of the show when I was very little, but it must have happened by a process of mental osmosis, for I never consciously understood that this was how the writers Graeme Garden, Bill Oddie and Tim Brooke-Taylor generated their initial scenarios. In one episode, a satire on apartheid, the piano in the South African embassy had the white notes grouped at one end of the keyboard and all the black notes at the other. I am wandering off the point, of course, but the joke still seems especially poignant in its absurdity. Back to the day’s business!
There is absolutely no need to stop with only two unusually juxtaposed elements. More may be used according to taste. For example, three parameters may be selected for the structure of the story: (a) location, (b) activity, (c) participant. I open an atlas at random for the location, which turns out to be Rangoon. Now I need an activity. I turn on the radio, which is broadcasting a cricket match. Very well. Now a participant must be found. I look out the window and see a rabbi walking past. So the story must be set in Burma and involve a religious scholar who is a wicket keeper. The basics of the work are already in existence. But what happens next? Another application of the method will bring forth something for this fellow to do. He won’t sit around waiting for inspiration. Nor will he chase it too hard.
A lot of hydrogen and oxygen has combined in his vicinity. Rangoon is flooded. A canoe is provided for him and a bunch of bananas for sustenance. He paddles down the watery streets seeking his only friend, a tailor who has succumbed to malaria. The search is fruitless, so he moors his canoe next to a stall in the market and buys some tangerines while frogs hop all about him. Yes, he has already eaten the bananas. The day is over, night comes and the stars twinkle above him. He is surprised to observe a constellation previously unknown to him.
The twang of a discharged crossbow alarms him. A soldier on a roof is aiming at the new pattern of stars in the shape of a howler monkey. How might world peace be achieved with people like this about? Suddenly the stars vanish. Has the soldier killed them? No, it is merely an unlit dirigible looming from out of the sky. Let’s shout at it for doing so! There is no need for me to continue. The point has been made. The man in the tale has a fictional fate mapped out. This doesn’t mean that his adventures will be any good. That isn’t up to me, but you.
Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.
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ON THIS AUSPICIOUS DAY
On this auspicious day, let us go to our
Father’s heavenly abode.
Let us go. Let us go, you and I.
The level of contentment in His blissful
Home is unfathomable to us.
The three worlds are in ecstasy with
Festivities that spill over with joy.
Let us join the celestials singing in praise of him
Let us go there. Let us go, you and I.
Tagore like his father and grandfather was a Brahmo. The Brahmo festival, Maghotsav, is celebrated at the end of January, by the Bengali calendar on the 11th of Magh. Brahmo Samaj grew out of Brahmo Sabha. These were attempts at a reform movement on Hinduism initiated in the early part of the nineteenth century Calcutta by Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Dwarakanath Tagore, the poet’s grandfather.
(Trans-created for Borderless Journal by Mitali Chakravarty with editorial support from Sohana Manzoor and Anasuya Bhar.)
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Title: A Bengali Lady in England by Krishnabhabini Das (1885)
Translator: Somdatta Mandal
Publisher : Cambridge Scholars Publishing
Somdatta Mandal’s translation from Bengali to English, A Bengali Lady in England, is a first person account of the first ever woman’s travel narrative written in the late nineteenth century when India was still under British imperial rule. Krishnabhabini Das (1864-1919) was a middle-class Bengali lady who accompanied her husband to England for eight years between 1882 and 1890.Her narrative, England-e-Bangamahila was published in Calcutta in 1885.
Women’s travel writing in Bengal circulated /proliferated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century through the popular form of serialized publications in journals such as Bharati (1877), Prabasi (1901), Bangadarshan , Kalpataru, among others, but Krishnabhabini’s account was the first full length travelogue. Though there followed a rich output of travel literature, it would be a fallacy to box the many writings as a single, homogenous genre. Travel writing in this time undergoes several generic modulations and modifications as it journeys through the turn of the century. For example, Krishnabhabini’s account could also be described as ethnographic writing as she turns her gaze on British society, culture, customs , manners.
In addition to being a wonderful addition to the archive of women’s writing, Das’s account seems to reverse the gaze. It offers a fascinating glimpse into 19th century English life and culture, as she attempts to set the record straight in many ways. Krishnabhabini’s capacity for observation is admirable in its sociological detail, especially so when we consider that she was barely out of her teens when she wrote the book. A Bengali Lady in England also offers a wealth of ethnographic detail on English life, character, interaction between classes, marriage, attitude to work, family organisation and life.
As Krishnabashini responds to a spectrum of sights, sounds, affects during her extended stay in England, we come across many nuggets of information. The process of travel offers opportunities for emancipation where exposure to other cultures offers her a way of viewing and of gaining a perspective on her own experiences and that of her sisters in India. Krishnabhabini constantly refers to her Indian sisters and bemoans their sorry state and ignorance when she sees how active British women were in their families and societies. Her motive here is to overturn the largely negative view of British women that prevailed in colonised spaces like India, based on their view of the “memsahib” who were often stereotyped as being snobbish and indolent. Her endeavour seems to be to inform her Indian sisters that British women in England were more active than the colonial “memsahibs” they usually came across in India.
She is eloquent in lauding the virtues of British domesticity by pointing out the merits of companionate marriages, where the wife is active in being a true helpmate to her husband as well as being the custodian of the private domain. Her perception is that Indian women and men would benefit in emulating such models of domesticity, instead of remaining in segregation and separation. As the translator and editor Somdatta Mandal points out, Krishnabhabini’s opening of the veil as a means of freeing herself from the constraints of her family and society is probably the first step in “the discourse of freedom as mobility’’ that enables her to construct her own sense of self (Mandal p.xx). Though she deplores the materialism evident in English society, she is also acutely conscious of the difference between the two countries. Thus she writes, “the more I compare the two countries, the more I realise the great difference between them and looking at the poor condition of India, I keep on suffering within.”(150)
The translation and commentary by Somdatta Mandal, a translator and academic of considerable reputation and experience, highlights Krishnabhabini’s keen and observant eye, both in her translation and her comprehensive introduction to it. Her introduction shows evidence of her scholarship as she contrasts Krishnabhabini’s narrative account with her husband, Devendra N. Das, who with “an Orientalist agenda”(Mandal xxiii) was trying to “educate his fellow Britishers with the myths, religion and lifestyle of Indians back in India-speaking about the jogee, the astrologer, the zamindars, the nautch girls, infant marriage, the matchmaker, the Hindoo widow, funeral ceremonies, et al-his wife was trying to educate fellow Indians about different aspects of British life-English race and its nature, the English lady, English marriage and domestic life, education system, religion and celebration, British trade, labour ”, cityscapes and rural life. Both the editorial commentary and Krishnabhabini’s narrative are peppered with delectable nuggets of information.
Exposure to European literature, proliferation of print culture and ideas of romanticism percolated into the ‘Bhadralok” consciousness creating new modes of self-fashioning and new reading publics that made space for the publication of serialised travelogues . Much of the travel writing which did emerge and prove popular at this time were those authored by Hindu, upper class, western educated males, who were often renowned luminaries, scholars, or litterateurs in their own right. Several of the travel accounts are of men travelling outside India, usually to England. These works contained observations on western culture and a comparative study with India’s own. Romesh Chunder Dutt wrote Three Years in Europe: 1868- 1871, which was published in 1896. Both Rabindranath Tagore and Vivekananda authored various works on travel. An earlier account of travel writing was Bholanauth Chunder’s Travels of a Hindoo (1869) which chronicled his journey from Bengal to Punjab.
In contrast, socially sanctioned forms of travel for women till the mid nineteenth century was largely restricted to pilgrimage. However, with the advent of the railways and the opening of the Suez Canal, by the mid-nineteenth century we have instances of women, usually from educated Bengali upper-class families, travelling for entirely secular reasons—for convalescence, their husbands’ work, for leisure, or even for education. Aru Dutt and Toru Dutt went to England at around 1870 to pursue an education.
In 1871 Rajkumari Bandhopadhyay, wife of social worker Shashipada Bandopadhyay, became the first Indian woman to visit England. In 1877, Rabindranath Tagore’s sister-in -law, Jnadanandini , along with her children, travelled by ship to England to accompany her husband, Satyendranath Tagore(the first Indian ICS officer). This was against the wishes of her father-in -law, Maharshi Debendranath Tagore. In each of these instances, the act of travelling to a foreign land was deemed sacrilegious and transgressive, with the women facing extreme social backlash and, in the case of Rajkumari Bandyopadhyay, ostracisation. However, these acts set the way for further instances of travel, and more importantly, written accounts for the same. In 1894 Jagatmohini Debi set sail for England, and in 1902 published Seven Months in England (England e Saat Mash).
Krishnabhabini’s work is indeed a pioneering effort as far as Bengali women’s documentation of their travels, at home or abroad, are concerned. Yet her travel to England came at a personal cost; she had to leave her daughter behind with her conservative in-laws, resulting in lifelong estrangement. However, what ultimately makes this book unique it the quality of its specularity, its simultaneous awareness of the self and other. It is this quality of self-consciousness or self-reflexivity which makes it truly a text of modernity.
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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“Come and see the American wonder.” That was the one-liner the band of energetic kids sang. It was the song of an old city magician who had once come to fret coins out of villagers with old card tricks and die games. But the New Yorker thought the song would be useful for what he had to say at the drinking hut, so he had made the excited kids remember the song. This was a raggedy bunch of kwashiorkor-colonized kids, mostly naked from the top up. They clapped, danced and repeated the line as though it were the sweetest song in the world. Ahead of them, and not far away, was the New Yorker. He too was clapping with all the might in his palms as though he held two cymbals in his large hands, his New Yorker T-shirt sticky with soft sweats of the early morning, moving his thin frame as though the wind would cast him far away from land.
The on-lookers had no idea what the American wonder was, but most were eager to know what the astonishing thing was about America. So, the New Yorker led this gyrating group of kids through rutted village paths, headed for the village square and a drinking shack, where he would exhibit the bare American wonder. Some in the crowd thought he was the one and only American wonder the village had. They felt no urgent need to join the swelling throng of admirers of the circus.
Yet, they were those who felt the man wanted to lay bare some exciting features of America. Two sets of people flowed into the mix: those who assumed the wonder was a man and those who believed the wonder was a thing that had not been sighted in the village of Nkang before. Everyone who heard the shrieking kids was willing to tail them. Anything American was like a commercial hit in the village at any time of the day.
This area of the village was known as the wine groove and some villagers thought the village’s best speaker of high sounding words had perhaps consumed too much fresh wine at the root of a friend’s tree. He wasn’t a known tapster of wine and could only have intoxicated himself through the generosity of other benign villagers. This was the thread of thought held by most villagers, except Pa Okeke. The hut owner had seen the New Yorker before he monkeyed up a palm tree and the New Yorker had told him he wasn’t going to taste any other wine except his at the shack. “Your wine sets my tongue dancing like no other,” he had confessed to the amused old man.
“My palm wine must have a conga drum then,” Pa Okeke returned, forcing the New Yorker to wave him off with a laugh seated in his stomach, as he scanned the groove for the tree to bore a wine hole in.
Up above, at the neck of a tall palm tree, he hung as though a thing woven out of spider webs. He too couldn’t nail what this latest act of the New Yorker was about. If it were magic the man wanted to perform at his shack, he would fail with honors. He wasn’t turbaned like most Indian magicians. He wasn’t dressed in the long tail coats of television magicians, and didn’t bear any resemblance to the famed professor Pellar of Lagos. He hadn’t been to India to learn from the gods of magic. His abracadabra would yield no awesome tricks tonight. That was the tapster’s conclusion. Having drained the tree of its latest intoxicating content, he descended the lanky black and well-juiced palm tree. He would take a shorter route to his shack and lay out his drinking horns for the New Yorker and his crowd of enthusiasts. The day held the fat promise of drama and laughter at the village’s favorite haunt. It would be the night of American wonder by the African New Yorker.
The New Yorker had trimmed his caravan of kids as he went on his way to Pa Okeke’s drinking place. It was too early in the day for kids to wander away from their mothers. He had finished exploiting them and they weren’t allowed to sit in the shack, in any case. He had said to some, “You, off you must go to your expectant mother,” he sprayed them with intense looks of reprimand. “Some of you have not fetched water from the stream yet.” He shooed the kids on their backsides as if they were chickens who had failed to return to their coops on time.
With the kids out of the way, the New Yorker crowded his mind with the wonders he was going to unleash on the swelling crowd at Pa Okeke’s place. The kids had done a terrific job of advertising his presence to the whole village. Though, he was a well-known village lay-about, the New Yorker had needed the kids for a reason.
He needed a fix of wine and the more the crowd at the shack, the greater his chances of free wine. The children had been his talking drum. And they had indeed talked well to guarantee him endless jugs of palm wine from the whole village. The more the wine, the sweeter the tale, the New Yorker believed that; and the greater the intensity of listenership. His captivated audience would be the one to make his tongue set sail on its voyage of storytelling.
The New Yorker sat down at Pa Okeke’s hut. It was on this day and at this time, thinly populated. Well, he had the company of fat green flies buzzing around wine-stained benches and tables and used cups and drinking horns. This wasn’t the sort of company he had dreamt up and desired. He was disappointed.
“The Americans have decided to build a wall through their border with Mexico.” That was what the New Yorker revealed to his crowd of enchanted listeners. He was seated on a deep green hard bamboo bench, flanked in by drunken men on either side in Pa Okeke’s palm wine-perfumed drinking hut. The long wooden table in front of the gathering was dotted with plastic jugs of dirty frothy white-shy palm wine, and colorful plastic cups and rust-color calabashes circled with giddy giant green flies. Several of the insects were drunk and dead while others had just begun their round of alcoholic somersaults. In a little while, the men in the haunt would be like the insects, each one a mess of retched up gut contents and drunken odour. They would perhaps go home washed down in their own mess since the sky had darkened with impending rain.
The tale spinner had spoken and there was a collective gasp of bewilderment from the house which was by now crowded with onlookers and drunken bunch of villagers. Some kids who had strayed away from their parents had traced the New Yorker to his cherished hut. They stuck their bulging eyes and eager faces in the tiny spaces created between men at the windows, desperate to see some real American wonders. But all they heard was: “Wall! A wall? A big wall?”
Those were the words that flew around the gathering. The kids were as confused as those who had palm wine floating in their senses. Those villagers who had cell phones with them had begun to call out to absent regulars of Pa Okeke’s place. The gist in town was about the presence of the village’s best story weaver in Pa Okeke’s house. They believed his newest tale was yet another fabrication from his deep well of stories. This can’t be possibly true, many held. Those who had left the village in past journeys to townships had never seen walls between borders of two towns or between Nigeria and her neighbor, Cameroun. The only embankment many knew of was in the Bible, the walls of Jericho that they had heard about in Sunday schools and catechism classes.
“The Americans can’t do such a senseless thing!” That was the assertion that rose like the sudden burst of water from a pressurized pipe, from somewhere in the crowd. It was from a man with a bloated stomach and face, who also wore the several litres of wine he had being drinking in his eyes. The words had come off his lips with some difficulty as they seemed to have mixed with the wine in his mouth.
“What is it with these Americans? America, the wonderful!” That was his deep-rooted summary. He shook his misshapen ageing head from side to side, laced his fat lips with a derisive laughter and swallowed a slug of sour wine. “America, America,” he laughed, after the horn of palm wine had freed itself from the claws of his salivary mouth. He spewed a jet of wine between his legs. “Useless things,” he had chewed on a dead fly. He stamped on the already dead thing with all the might in his spindly legs.
There were some ripples of laughter shooting through Pa Okeke’s hut of revelers. The wine was working its way slowly through veins. This moved the old man to action as he dug into his hidden drums of wine for the best fermented drink for the house. He went behind and re-emerged in the gathering with a dull black aged gallon of palm wine. It was crusted with overflowing dirty white wine. Its embankment of security was made of fat green toilet flies that had found a permanent home in the drinking hut. They made sure no wine was wasted and knew which cup of wine intoxicated the most. They were the dutiful keepers of the shack and were rarely killed by the regulars. The people saw them as a congenital part of drinking in village huts.
“‘Americans are funny’, I once told us that.” The New Yorker reminded his audience and everyone nodded. Voices rose here and there. There were murmurs that the New Yorker couldn’t discern. Those who had been there when he made his revelation agreed that he was on point while those that hadn’t been there wanted to be told about the comic nature of all Americans, because they held the view that the Chinese were perhaps more comical than the Americans. The overwhelming view was that Jackie Chan was the most humorous and famous Chinese in the world. While Bruce Lee was another popular Chinese, he was seen as too consumed in his fights to want to grant the viewer some moments of humor. Many had seen clips of the makings of some of Jackie’s movies, where he would fail several times at different acts, to his own amusements.
“Americans can afford the liberty to be funny,” That was Pa Okeke. His voice was aged with wine and his breath perfumed with sugar. “They have the life that we don’t have.” He had something for the gathering of drunken men and puzzled kids.
Pa Okeke deposited the gallon on a dying and Chesnutt-coloured bench in the middle of the room. “This is on me,” he declared with that authority of one who truly owned the house. He rubbed his flabby chest down. Many shifted on their seats with itchy throats, anticipating the flow of fresh palm wine that was to come from the owner of the hut. This was going to be a night like no other for many. And Pa Okeke was dead certain many of his customers would crawl on their bellies to their various homes when night time fell. Those who wouldn’t be able to claw their paths home would sleep on their vomits, then wake to curse themselves and his wine. He knew they would still return when the clouds of drunkenness cleared from their eyes, because the villagers had once tagged his hut the “home of happiness.” He had believed the tag and had scrawled that in misshapen letters above the door of the hut.
“You want to get us all drunk?” The New Yorker asked without really meaning every word he had spoken. “Isn’t this one much for a gift?” He shot his empty cup towards the table. He rose and reached for the fresh wine which was dotted with dead bees and tiny raffia palms and flies. He shoved the undesired baggage aside with the bottom of his cup. He dug into the liquid with the force of one who hadn’t had a life-saving drink in days. There was a smirk around his lips.
“I want us all to be happy.” Pa Okeke left the scene. But he would return with more palm wine from his seemingly endless drums at the back of the hut.
The New Yorker wanted to be inebriated. He had come to the hut to get himself some drink and reveal the newest brand of wonder to the house. Many had thought he wanted to perform some sleight of hand tricks of some old penniless magician. But this man was from another world from most of his contemporaries. He wasn’t a magician and he just revealed that to his listeners. He was a moving cinema and a radio whose power never went down and out. And not few had been impressed in great measures. While he was a known village comic, he still had some ears for workings of the wider world. “America wants to cage itself in. Not cage the rest of us out. She will build a circular wall round all of her borders with her neighbors.” That was the summation of the wonder, the meaty part of his story.
Voices rose anew in the gathering. There were those who thought that was outlandish. America was a land of the wild and the free, a place where every dream came to life. That was a popular view in the hut. Why would free people want to fence themselves in? Would America erect a wall with her maritime neighbours? That was a question that was thrown the New Yorker’s way from a man who hadn’t been drinking much. “A wall inside an ocean?” That was his question. And before the New Yorker would say a word, the man bolted up and screamed: “Impossible!” He repeated himself. He drank what was a long draught of wine. He smacked his thin lips and waited for the tale bearer to bear down the fleshy parts of his tale on the house. And talk the garrulous New Yorker did!
“The Americans will build a wall taller than the Berlin wall and longer than the walls of Jericho.” That was how the New Yorker further shocked his crowd of enchanted listeners. “Some other cities will mount individual city gates.”
There was a collective breath of wonderment from the house. Not even the quarrelsome Koreans had erected a wall between each other. Was America at war with all of her neighbours? A question jutted out from somewhere in the crowd. It was from a man who sat with his jaws in his palms, stupefied by what he was hearing. “What is it with these Americans? America the wonderful!” That was his deep-rooted conclusion. “They are crazy! Today it’s a border wall. Tomorrow, they will yank us off the visa lottery list. Has anyone offended these people? I don’t get it!”
There were more ripples of laughter shooting through Pa Okeke’s hut of drunken men. This ignited a move in the old wine tapper. He went behind and reemerged in the gathering with a dull black aged gallon of palm wine. It was crusted with overflowing dirty white wine. The neck of the galloon was laced with fat green toilet flies that had attacked from all directions.
“‘Americans are funny,’ I keep telling people everywhere I go.” The New Yorker reminded his audience and everyone nodded. Some voices concurred while others demurred. There were grumbles that the New Yorker couldn’t understand. “And crazy too like someone has just told us, but Americans are not the only crazy people.” He drank some wine. “They will know what it means to be crazy when they finish that wall. Because some people will chisel that wall until it can let their bodies through. They will claw at it night and day. Sometimes it is better to die in a prosperous land than live in a wretched place.” Some heads nodded, while others drank up.
Pa Okeke deposited the gallon on a bench in the middle of the room. “There is more to come,” he declared. There was a certain audacity to the way he stood, as though he meant to dare someone in the house to a drinking contest. Many experienced drinkers saw danger ahead. He had much of the stale wine in his drums that he wanted to get rid of.
Voices rose again in the gathering. There were those who thought that Pa Okeke wanted them to swim home in alcohol and have their wives lock them out.
Would America stop receiving visitors? That was a question that was thrown the New Yorker’s way from a man who had being processing this latest revelation from the story teller. He even asked the New Yorker the source of his latest news.
“How many of you have a radio?” The New Yorker began. There was no response to his question. People just drank wine and adjusted on their seats. He interpreted that in many ways. “These homo-sapiens called Americans are capable of the impossible,” the New Yorker fired at him. “They killed a president that they voted for. They put a man on the moon when others were sending monkeys and tomatoes to the clouds.”
Now, there was a blanket of shock that descended on the house. Many in the gathering didn’t know about that. The New Yorker nodded his head after having drunk some wine. He told them that brutal act of killing a president was akin to children killing their own father. He told them the word for that was patricide!
“Wetin be dat?” Pa Okeke asked. “your grammar don dey too much: homo…wetin, partri…wetin. Abeg small grammar. No be all of us go America like you.”
The New Yorker found that gratifying and funny. Then he explained what the words meant as the hut owner had just reemerged in the scene and leaned on the door frame, his eyes glassy with wine just as his stomach carried more weight than before. He rubbed it down and guffawed. “Now, I get you.” He rubbed his chin. “But how will you enter America if you want to go back there?”
Most people in the hut found that an interesting question. They adjusted on their seats. Some took their cups and drank some more palm wine in anticipation of the response the New Yorker would give. “You don’t belong here with us. You are the only Americana we know.”
The New Yorker was deadpan. He told his listeners that the walls of Berlin and Jericho had since fallen. And he believed the American wall would collapse should it ever be erected. Some in the house didn’t believe his prophecy. Many felt the New Yorker had been drunk all along. Someone even said that to his wine-soaked face. The New Yorker needed to convince the house that he had his memory in place. So he told them to see Joshua 6: 1-16. But no one had the virtue of holding a Bible in the house.
“You have not answered my question?” That was Pa Okeke. He wanted the New Yorker to respond to his question, since he had often boasted that he would return to America any time he desired.
“I will do like the children of Israel did.” The New Yorker shot back, fuming. “I will join with other people and sing and dance and blow horns round the wall.”
Now, Pa Okeke was convinced the story teller had lost it. There was a general wild laugh in the house. “Will you be the priest?” Pa Okeke asked. “There were priests in the Bible.” He shook his head in disbelief. He returned to his large drums of overnight palm-wine behind his hut.
A man who had been sitting with his jaws imprisoned under his palms, emptied his cup, and began drumming on it, singing:
The walls of Jericho fell down flat
When the children of God
were praising the lord
The walls of Jericho fell down flat!
He was now standing and doing a jig. Some other drunken men picked up the lyrics of the popular church song and sang along, the wooden tables serving as superb percussion instruments. A circle was quickly formed in the hut. The gyration was infectious and had a shocking fraternal spirit, but the New Yorker didn’t join in the song. He just sat swallowing up all the happenings, the scene wavy and distorted in his eyes. He blinked rapidly and washed his face with his left palm. He dug into his trouser pocket for a crescent of kola nut which he popped in his mouth.
The sky had foreshadowed rain all day. Now it began to drizzle and those customers who were outside the hut hurried in and found spaces for themselves. The kids had since left the scene when they realised no magic doves were going to fly off the palms of the New Yorker. The story of the wall around some unknown borders sounded more confusing than a simple equation at school. With more people in the hut, the New Yorker thought this was the break he needed to break out from the hut. He had gulped enough free wine for one day. He felt some wine didn’t want to go down his throat again. The veins in his eyes had bulged.
“I don’t want this rain to meet me here.” That was the New Yorker. “I left some clothes out on the hanging line.” He meant those words to no one in particular as he was already on his way out by the time he uttered the last word. “Make way, please.” He forced himself through cracks between people.
He had given the whole place a life of its own and many customers were disappointed to watch him go. Nonetheless, different words of farewell escorted him out. Pa Okeke emerged on the scene with two jugs of fermented palm wine in both hands. He said he had brought them for his favorite customer. He too was saddened to learn that the New Yorker had vacated the scene. He left the wine for the house, wondering why the New Yorker had fled his place without informing him.
As the New Yorker staggered home, the lyrics of the song at the hut returned to him. He didn’t sing it the way he had heard it. He made up his own version instead. He began by whistling and clapping his large palms, hopping from one side of the street to the other; then he sang about how the great American wall collapsed when immigrants from all corners of the world gathered round it singing and clawing at it with hammers and crowbars. Those who passed him by suspected Pa Okeke to be the man who brought out the singing talent in Akpan Okom. Many passersby laughed at the man, and went on to tell stories to others that Pa Okeke’s wine had turned the storyteller into an international music maker. Some villagers even embellished what they had seen, adding that the New Yorker had gone mad and was hopping to the market square.
Two weeks passed without the New Yorker at Pa Okeke’s hut. This was a strange thing. Many regulars believed he had gone to America, to the wall at the border. Some who believed the tale about the inchoate madness felt he had indeed made it to the market square. They feared for him because it was a well-held belief among the villagers that any mad person who entered a market would never be healed. Other people felt his absence was because he had drunk too much wine weeks earlier, and had gotten home, vomited and fallen sick.
But several regulars still frequented Pa Okeke’s hut hoping to see the New Yorker and hear about the great border wall. They hoped they wouldn’t have to wait for long before the story teller draped them with the latest tale about the great American border wall.
Steve Ogah is a fellow of the British Council/Lancaster University Crossing Borders online writing program and the Voicesnet USA Poet of the Month (Feb.2002).
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The Hottest Summer in Years is just one of the two books published in quick succession by the author, Anuradha Kumar. The other A Sense of Time and Other Stories appeared a month before this one. Kumar has authored a number of books and writes for a number of journals. She has won the Commonwealth Award twice in 2004 and 2010 for her short stories. Earlier in 2021, in an interview, Kumar said that she lives and writes across continents and declared that she was “truly a borderless writer”. The Hottest Summer in Years (2021), is a testimony that upholds her declaration.
This novel opens with the protagonist, Hans Gerter, a perplexed young man caught in between dichotomies, in a world alternating between war and peace in the early 1960s, when India too as an independent country was young. The ‘Prologue’ sets the tone of the story. The protagonist is shown to be part of a German firm setting up the steel industry in a small town in the heart of India, a historical truth fictionalised with skill.
The first chapter starts with the puzzling murder of Ahmed Ali. It encompasses the formal and informal meetings of people, the ploy in the efforts to frame the Raja Sahib, the politics of governance and power play taking shape in a newly born India, the brewing Hindu-Muslim tension with a potential to ignite bigger flames in the future, and amidst all these Gerter’s attempt to protect the Raja’s family even as he whirls between his two worlds of the past and present. Gerter ruminates through the story and reflects on the heat in Africa of his childhood and the mirage-like images of all that happens after the night of the murder which holds the story together in what was supposedly one of the hottest years recorded in India, thus justifying the title of his novel.
Love, lust, and belonging criss-crosse across borders to amalgamate with the history and politics of the period from the 1940s to the 1960s. Gerter’s own history is beautifully linked to the Nazi regime and the German holocaust that followed. Through Gerter’s journey from Germany to his displacement in Rourkela and then to Dharamsala, a narrative that spans continents, Kumar brings out the futility of the big wars and their effect on the mental health of people across generations.
Blending facts and fiction, mesmerising scenes of love, abandonment, and mystery make the book an imaginative and compassionate read. Kumar manages to creatively flit through history wherein she props on the landscape people, forests, forest dwellers, animals, Adivasis, seas, the voyage, the call of the wild at night, the train and the railways. Each character and even the vehicles the Blue Daimler, Gerter’s constant companion, the green Austin or the ship SS Giovanni are brilliantly placed to add to the wealth of the narrative. Gerter battles with the fear of the inner demons that breed from his past and present. His taking up the role of a protector in the process changed him. Memory, love, and freedom drive the story with history and mystery gelled in.
The cosmopolitanism in the story is starkly evident but subtly worked on. It is interesting to note the nature in which his ideas of home and identity sway with the impact of the places his destiny takes him. Gerter brings out the beauty in being the young edgy global citizen, who is everywhere and yet nowhere, as he describes himself as “always on the margins” and that “no place had been home” despite being in many homes far away from home. With a childhood spent in the west of Africa and, in his early youth having awakened to the truths of war and of his country, Germany in the early 1940s, Gerter sped on greater realisations of people he had met or been with, in different places in time. Despite the despair, madness and gloom, a letter and the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) shines new hope in towards the end of Gerter’s narrative.
Kumar’s historical novel is a well-packed and well-paced story. It brings forth nightmares, conspiracies, insanity, secrets and fills them with love, hope and aspirations for a better world. The damages of war, the heartbreaks, the longing to mend the wrongs in life and history come together in Kumar’s fiction. In a blend of cultures and history, the story blends genres. Noir and mystery meet history in fiction. Indian writer, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, rightly described the novel as “… A noir-ish, brooding read, a book to be savoured delicately…”. Kumar, through Gerter in the novel, brings to light how we share different worlds, how multiple people seem to reside in one person and the varied lives we live. A beautiful cover illustration by Sanjhvi Noul rightly speaks to us on the climate of the book. Kumar’s The Hottest Summer in Years is definitely an all-season book.
Gracy Samjetsabam is a freelance writer and copy editor. Her interest is in Indian English Writings, Comparative Literature, Gender Studies, Culture Studies, and World Literature.
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Old Mr. Bubble sat in his armchair and observed the passers-by. The city rose in the morning when the clock struck five. The silence gave way to morning sounds.
Women walked and talked on the footpaths about educating their daughters and little sons. They believed every lesson should not be taught more than forty-five minutes. The leader’s inability to rule the country became a conscience of some new job holders. The morning walk seemed to be all about venting such problems.
The road ran across the suburban sight. No cargo trucks were parked in the morning although, the day ran on wheels. The path was spacious, and the children played without being deterred. The road carried buses, vans, students cycling to school amidst flocks of sheep that strayed into the road as they grazed along the greenery that often lined the edges or some abandoned patch of grass under the supervision of shepherds.
The city felt like it had to be observed more closely and that is where characters like Mr. Bubble stepped in. Mr. Bubble was a high school teacher. He lost his son during the civil war period in the army. His son’s memories haunted him and every day he washed the memories with a heavy heart. Every evening Mr. Bubble took a walk on the highway. He had lost spaces in his life. Now he seemed to be filling merely a vacuum. The lack of action in his life made him realise the pauses. Fishes do not think of dying when they are safe inside the water. Mr. Bubble was in his bubble and he was still safe until things started getting out of his hands like the time when his son died. He couldn’t stop his son from dying and that did him no good.
One evening while he was on his regular jaunt, he discovered a grassland beside the highway. There was a small pond which did not look dry although, the water was slightly muddy. The trees seemed to bear fruit and some looked burnt. The grass seemed to be smeared with chemicals so that they could not grow. If the place was meant to be abandoned why bother spreading chemicals on the grass so that they would not grow? Mr. Bubble was already inside that grassland and away from the road.
The evening sun was on its way to the dark land somewhere behind the moon. It was about to hide itself and let one part of the world be steeped in darkness. The sun knew when to get hot or when to get cold. Mr. Bubble thought that the world was a fabulous discovery till it was over-used by all.
One thing that Mr. Bubble’s pondered was why houses seemed deserted in the grassland? Perhaps nature took matter into its own hands when things were not cared for by humans, this was a fact and not fiction. Fiction, after all, had been manmade although it could contain natural ingredients. How we perceive every other reality can contain details like clockwork as even things have their hours, minutes and seconds that keep ticking. A beating heart has always been a clockwork before it could be forgotten for good.
Mr. Bubble was really alone after losing his son. When the closest people walk away or disappear, we really cannot make friends with inanimate things. There can always be a reality which engulfs the truth which is stranger than fiction.
A lonely house and again a vast grassland where wind blew alone without a purpose, the sight of an old man and somewhere far, how tides hit the beaches lining the ocean went unnoticed.
Mr. Bubble just waited for another day and another lonely walk away from people’s sight, but he wasn’t running away from himself. Old age was a thing that one could not run away from because death came slowly — speed was only for the escapists. Those who have the time to wait do not worry about the passage of hours, minutes and days…
Sushant Thapa is an M.A. in English Literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India, who lives in Nepal. His poems, essays, short stories and flash fictions are published in numerous journals and books.
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