Categories
Index

Carnival of Animals

Carnival of animals other than being reminiscent of a circus, brings to the mind a humorous piece of music composed in 1886 by  Camille Saint-Saëns. In the short composition of less than half-an-hour, the range of animals start with lions and capers on to kangaroos, elephants, donkeys, fishes, swans and even fossils! Peeking into our treasure trove, we found gems frolicking with animal-based humour from creatures addressed in the composition of Saint Saëns to frogs, pandas and even cockroaches. So, we decided to do a special dedicated to Carnival of Animals on the Animal’s Rights Awareness Week, June 20-25. May we live in harmony with all animals and see ourselves as part of the same kingdom!

Let us begin with poetry in the lighter vein.

Poetry

Carnival of Animals by Rhys Hughes. Click here to read.

Katsridaphobia by Aditya Shankar. Click here to read.

Kissing Frogs by Rhys Hughes. Click here to read.

Avian Stories , photo-poems by Penny Wilkes. Click here to read.

We conclude our poetry ensemble by dedicating a few lines to the most learned and privileged of animals — the human — and his other friends.

PhD thesis
By Mitali Chakravarty

The elephant with its pink nose, 
Flung up his trunk and with outstretched toes,
Danced a little  stutitu
In a violet pink tutu.

The lion stood on its tail
And did a jig on the rail.

The giraffe twirled its forked tongue
And sang a song with a guitar strummed
By an Orangutan in purple pyjamas
With a gold tooth from Bahamas.

The music pranced. 
The animals danced.

The future PhD stood entranced
And did a thesis on the hippo's glance.
The lissome 'potamus batted its lid
And solved problems by Euclid.
The future PhD stood entranced
And did a thesis on the hippo's glance.

Prose

Our next movement is prose. We have much starting with humorous retellings of cats — I wonder why these felines were left out of the musical composition of Saint Saëns! Our stories make up for it with multiple humorous telling of cats.

A Day at Katabon Pet Shop , a short story set amidst the crowded streets of Dhaka, by Sohana Manzoor. Click here to read.

Peregrine, a flash fiction about a cat who is named after a bird by Brindley Hallam Dennis. Click here to read.

Of Cats, Classes, Work and Rest, a musing by Nishi Pulugurtha. Click here to read.

Bugs of Life, a slice of life by Sohana Manzoor, highlighting her ‘affection’ or the lack of it for bugs. Click here to read.

As we come to the end of our ensemble, listen to the grand finale of the Carnival of Animals and tell us if you could trace resonances of the frolicsome spirit of the composition of Saint Saëns in this selection.

Courtesy: Shourjo

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

Categories
Index

Borderless, June 2021

Editorial

Restless Stirrings… Click here to read.

Interviews

In conversation with Fakrul Alam, an eminent translator, critic and academic from Bangladesh who has lived through the inception of Bangladesh from East Bengal, translated not just the three greats of Bengal (Tagore, Nazrul, Jibanananda) but also multiple political leaders. Click here to read.

In conversation with Arindam Roy, the Founder and Editor-in-cheif of Different Truths, an online portal for social journalism with forty years of experience in media and major Indian newspapers. Click here to read

Poetry

Click on the names to read

Jared Carter, Geetha Ravichandran, Heena Chauhan, Michael R. Burch, Ruchi Acharya, Jim Bellamy, Bibek Adhikari, Rhys Hughes, Ihlwha Choi, Sutputra Radheye, Jay Nicholls, Geethu V Nandakumar, John Grey, Ana Marija Meshkova

Limericks by Michael R. Burch

Nature’s Musings

Changing Seasons, a photo-poem by Penny Wilkes.

Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

In Never Knowingly Understood : The Sublime Daftness of Ivor Cutler, Rhys Hughes takes us to the world of a poet who wrote much about our times with a sense of humour. Click here to read.

Translations

Akbar Barakzai’s poem, The Law of Nature, translated by Fazal Baloch. Click here to read.

Kazi Nazrul Islam’s poem, Shammobadi (The Equaliser) translated by Shahriyer Hossain Shetu. Click here to read.

Tagore’s Amar Shonar Horin Chai (I want the Golden Deer) translated by Mitali Chakravarty, edited and interpreted in pastel by Sohana Manzoor. Click here to read.

To mark the birth centenary of Satyajit Ray, Ratnottama Sengupta translates from Nabendu Ghosh’s autobiography experience of Pather Panchali ( Song of the Road) — between covers and on screen. Click here to read.

Musings

An Immigrant’s Story

Candice Louisa Daquin tells us what it means to be an American immigrant in today’s world. Click here to read.

Navigating Borders

Wendy Jones Nakanishi, an academic who started her life in a small town called Rolling Prairie in midwestern US, talks of her journey as a globe trotter — through Europe and Asia — and her response to Covid while living in UK. Click here to read.

I am a Jalebi

Arjan Batth tells us why he identifies with an Indian sweetmeat. Click here to read why.

The Significance of the Roll Number

Shahriyer Hossain Shetu writes of ironing out identity at the altar of modern mass education. Click here to read.

Musings of a Copywriter

In Creative on Campus, Devraj Singh Kalsi with a soupcon of humour, explores young romances and their impact. Click here to read.

Adventures of a Backpacking Granny

Sybil Pretious visits volcanoes and lakes in Frenetic Philippines. Click here to read.

Essays

Here, There, Nowhere, Everywhere

‘Did life change or did I change from the events of the last year,’ ponders New Zealander Keith Lyons who was in the southern state of Kerala when the first cases of Covid-19 were detected in India last January. Click here to read.

The Story of a Bald Eagle & a Turkey

A photo essay by Penny and Michael B Wilkes on the American bald eagle to commemorate their Independence Day. Click here to read.

The Day Michael Jackson Died

A tribute  by Julian Matthews to the great talented star who died amidst ignominy and controversy. Click here to read.

Remembering Shiv Kumar Batalvi

Amrita Sharma has written a memorablia on the Punjabi poet, Shiv Kumar Batalvi, who wrote in the 1960s. Click here to read.

Tagore and Guru Nanak’s Vision

Parneet Jaggi talks of the influence Guru Nanak on Tagore, his ideology and poetry. Click here to read.

Bhaskar’s Corner

In Amrita Sher-Gil: An Avant-Garde Blender of the East & West, Bhaskar Parichha shows how Amrita Sher-Gil’s art absorbed the best of the East and the West. Click here to read.

Stories

Flash Fiction: Peregrine

Brindley Hallam Dennis tells us the story of a cat and a human. Click here to read.

The Crystal Ball

Saeed Ibrahim gives us a lighthearted story of a young man in quest of a good future. Click here to read

The Arangetram or The Debut

Sheefa V. Mathews weaves lockdown and parenting into a story of a debuting dancer. Click here to read.

Ghumi Stories: The Other Side of the Curtain

Nabanita Sengupta explores childhood and its experiences. Click here to read.

The Literary Fictionist

Sunil Sharma explores facets of terrorism and its deadly impact on mankind in Truth Cannot Die. Click here to read.

Book Reviews

Neelima Dalmia Adhar’s The Secret Diary Of Kasturba reviewed by Meenakshi Malhotra. Click here to read.

Shrilal Shukla’s Fragments of Happiness translated by Niyati Bafna and reviewed by Rakhi Dalal. Click here to read

Bhaskar Parichha reviews Transformational Leadership in Banking edited by Anil K. Khandelwal. Click here to read.

Book Excerpt

An excerpt from Enter Stage Right by Feisal Alkazi with a visual of young Alkazi dancing in one of the earliest discos of New Delhi. Click here to read.

Categories
Editorial

Restless Stirrings

As we stand on the threshold of a new normal that will eternally rewrite the history of social interactions, of movements across the globe, of new world orders that will have to be more inclusive and more transparent to world view, we will, perhaps, feel the need to redefine business laws so that even countries with lesser wealth are able to access vaccinations and peace. We are now looking  up to leaderships which seem to be in crises themselves. Sitting securely on a tiny island that is well governed, an island where affluence and well-being set it adrift from the turmoils of countries around it, I wonder thirty years from now, what will mankind be like…  Will we be forever marred by the current events of the world? Globalisation has ensured that none of us can be secure on any secret island. There can be no land of lotus eaters hidden from the rest of mankind and accessed by only a few anymore. Even if one region is affected by the virus in any corner of the world, can the rest of the world be pandemic free? Perhaps, a question that those who peddle in vaccines and human well-being can address.

These issues have not only been highlighted by the news media but have also found echoes in some of our content this time. Keith Lyons’s essay talks of his last stay in India, when a tourist carried the  the pandemic  unwittingly into Kerala in February 2020 and subsequent repercussions. More stories and poems that dwell on the spread of the virus this year cry out for compassion. One hopes young poet Ruchi Acharya’s verses are born true.

One day the roses of hope will grow
Meeting the horizon,
Roses that, even plucked, will not die
But will bloom and bloom
Every single day that passes by.

We have young writers on the virulence of the virus and mature pens like that of globe-trotting academic Wendy Jones Nakanishi, who maps the pandemic from UK. Perhaps, we will find a new direction eventually.

There have been calls for uniting above divides as a single unit called mankind earlier too, from greats like Tagore and Nazrul. This time we carry translations of both — Nazrul’s translated poem calls for uniting against artificial divides drawn by man-made constructs and Tagore’s translation talks of redefining through self-reflection. An essay on Tagore by academic Parineet Jaggi talks of the impact of the teachings of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, on Tagore.

We have essays on writers and icons from around the globe. A photo-essay on the bald eagle, heralding the American Independence Day on the 4th of July, gives a humorous anecdote on how the eagle was chosen above the turkey. We have more variety by Candice Louisa Daquin, an immigrant in US, who shows how important human movement across man-made borders is to the development of a country. Michael Burch has given us beautiful poetry reflecting the history of America and American dreams, one of them with the voice of the legendary Mohammed Ali. These verses add substance to the concerns raised by Daquin. Jared Carter brings to us the colours of life with his poetry.

We have humour in verses from Rhys Hughes and even from a young poet, Sutputra Radheye. Limericks from Michael Burch and Penny Wilkes photo-poetry on ‘Changing Seasons’ puts us in a more cheerful mood.  More poetry from multiple writers across the world, including Nepal, Macedonia and Korea, have found their way into our journal.

Hughes has also given us a comprehensive and interesting essay on a twentieth century poet called Ivor Cutler, who said much as he sang his poetry and was encouraged by Paul McCartney of the Beatles. The brilliant poetry of Akbar Barakzai continues translated on our pages by Fazal Baloch and one must give many thanks to the translator for his indefatigable energy and for bringing us wonderful fare from Balochistan. An excerpt translated by eminent journalist Ratnottama Sengupta from Nabendu Ghosh’s autobiography ends with Satyajit Ray’s starting his famed career with Apu’s triology (based on Pather Panchali, a novel by Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay). These three films have become iconic in cinema history.

We were fortunate to have Professor Fakrul Alam agree to an interview. An eminent translator, critic and academic who has lived through the inception of Bangladesh from East Bengal, Alam has translated not just the three greats of Bengal (Tagore, Nazrul, Jibanananda) but also multiple political leaders like Mujibur Rahman. In this exclusive, he has taken us through the annals of history, reflecting on less-known perspectives of the Partition. Also, in conversation with Borderless, is Arindam Roy, a journalist with forty years’ experience and the founder of Different Truths who started his writing career, much in the tradition of Cyrano de Bergerac on a humorous note.

This time our backpacking granny, Sybil Pretious, gives us a glimpse of her wisdom, wit and compassion while visiting Philippines and talks of an ancient death ritual, volcanoes and strange mud baths. Devraj Singh Kalsi explores young romance in his tongue-in-cheek fashion. We also have more semi-humorous musings from young writers across borders. While Sunil Sharma has explored facets of the impact of terrorism, the other stories are told in a lighter vein.

Our book excerpt from Feisal Alkazi’s Enter Stage Right has a picture of the young artiste in a discotheque dancing in abandon — check it out. It made me smile. Rakhi Dalal has reviewed Jnanpith Award winner Shrilal Shukla’s Fragments of Happiness translated by Niyati Bafna. The book review by Meenakshi Malhotra of Neelima Dalmia Adhar’s The Secret Diary of Kasturba brings out an interesting facet on Gandhi and women in the Independence movement. It makes one notice the contrasts in the perspectives of Gandhi and Tagore, who created women like he saw around him in fiction. Kasturba’s life also contrasts with the independence found in the life of the avant-garde artist, Amrita Sher-Gil, who lived around the same time. In an essay, Bhaskar Parichha has shown how Sher-Gil lived out her dreams, blending the best of the East and West, while Malhotra writes, that though “Gandhi called women to join the national movement … he was not seeking to emancipate, but more to call forth their capacity for self-abnegation and self-sacrifice.”

Parichha has also introduced us to the need for changes in the banking sector in India while reviewing Transformational Leadership in Banking edited by Anil K. Khandelwal. Perhaps these will be part of the changes that will ultimately lead to a revision of old systems and the start of new ones. Changes, though not always welcomed or convenient, hopefully will lead to progress that can mould our future into a happier one. Restless stirrings transformed mankind from cave dwellers to an intelligent race that can assimilate nature and technology to survive and dream of a future, living among stars.

As Borderless reaches out to unite mankind transcending artificial constructs, its attempts can bear fruit only with support from each and every one of you. I would like to thank all our editorial team for their wonderful support, contributors for being the backbone of our content, and all our readers for continuing to patronise us.

Do take a look at our current issue for the writers who remain unmentioned here but create phenomenal bridges towards a borderless world.

Best wishes,

Mitali Chakravarty

Categories
Interview

In Conversation with Fakrul Alam

'Translation as Possession'
Professor Fakrul Alam

Fakrul Alam, an eminent translator, critic and academic, has been impacted by major voices in both scholarship and history. Edward Said, who is known for his work on orientalism and postcolonial studies, and the ‘father of Bangladesh’, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, were the major influencers in his life. We can see the impact of Said in Alam’s critical viewpoints perhaps when we look at his latest venture, an upcoming publication, Reading Literature in English and English studies in Bangladesh Postcolonial perspectives (2021), a sequel to an earlier book of essays, Imperial Entanglements and Literature in English (2007). He has more books on the pipeline, both on criticism and another translation of nearly three hundred Tagore songs.

A recipient of the Bangla Academy Literary Award (2012) and SAARC literary award (2012),  Alam, born in 1951, has lived through history. This interview with him takes us on an adventure in time — mulling over different phases of South Asian struggles to gear up as individualistic, independent entities based on the concept imported from Britain, nationalism. It is an interesting journey moving with him through Pakistan dominated East Pakistan to modern Bangladesh under Sheikh Hasina where he not only translated Mujibur Rahman’s autobiography but also the nineteenth century Bengali epic Bishad Sindhu and the poems of Jibanananda Das. Without more ado, we are privileged to present to you Professor Fakrul Alam —

What got you interested in translations?

In Dhaka’s St. Joseph’s High School where I did my “O” levels, we had a Bengali teacher who was a great fan of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhay. Sir would ask us students to translate passages from his novels fairly regularly. Since he was the only Bengali teacher we had for four years, I ended up translating quite a few pages of the novelist’s work in school! But our teacher taught us almost nothing and just graded our papers after skimming through our work without saying much about the work we had submitted. Then in 1992, when I was hard up for money, a friend working in the World Bank said I could make some by translating government documents for them. This I did for more than a year. But I hated the work and gave it up. Once again, it was work that taught me nothing much and interested me only marginally. In other words, my initial ventures into translating once again did not really get me interested in translation.

I really became interested in doing translation in the mid-1990s when I started reading Jibanananda Das’s poems. They possessed me and I read them again and again. Without thinking about what I was doing, I began translating lines from his signature poem, “Banalata Sen” into English. Once I had started, I went on and on. After I had finished this poem, I took up another of his poems. I showed my work to a few people I was close to. Encouraged by what they said, I published them. Readers seemed to appreciate them as well. That encouraged me a lot. And that is how I really got interested in translating literary works. Looking back, I realize that there was something obsessive about my Jibanananda translations. But I guess I also wanted to come close to the poems and find out why they were so beautiful, haunting and overwhelming. You could certainly say this was translation as possession!

You are bringing out a book of translated Tagore songs in Bangladesh. How many songs have you picked and what was the basis of selection?

Yes, I hope to have a book of my translations of Rabindranath’s song-lyrics out in a few months’ time. I haven’t really counted, but I think I’ll have over 300 of them collected in the book.

What was the basis of my selections? Most important was my love of them. I listen to Rabindra Sangeet, that is to say, the songs of Rabindranath Tagore, every day without fail, unless I am travelling outside Bangladesh. Over the years, some songs by a few singers became so much a part of me that I began translating them. As was the case with my Jibanananda Das translations, you could say that translation was an act of homage as well as a way of coming really close to what you love. It strikes me also that many of the songs I ended up translating are by my favourite Tagore song singers — artistes like Debabrata Biswas and Kanika Bandhopadhyay for instance.  Once again, translation as an act of possession!

As I contended in an essay I wrote some years ago which is now part of my collection, Once More into the Past, I grew up with Rabindranath’s songs, for my father loved them immensely. Whenever he was home and Rabindranath’s songs were being played on the radio, he would increase the volume so that we could all listen to them with him. My sisters learnt the songs formally from music teachers at home. I even accompanied one of my sisters on the tabla for a few years as she learnt Rabindra Sangeet or the songs of the poet. And the songs were very much part of the resistance movement against Pakistan — the nationalist movement that led to the birth of Bangladesh. The songs that I end up translating are very much influenced by my experience and love of them.    

Recently in an article in Daily Star based on a lecture that you gave in Berkley, you quoted Tagore who had said : “Sometimes the meaning of a poem is better understood in a translation, not necessarily because it is more beautiful than the original, but as in the new setting the poem has to undergo a trial; it shines more brilliantly if it comes out triumphant.” What exactly did you mean by using this quotation? Would this be applicable to Tagore’s own songs?

I wanted actually to say that when we hear someone singing a song, it is the melody that primarily grips the listener; the lyrics tend to be secondary for most of us. The tune will stay in memory for a long time with the best songs; but their words won’t. At best, and unless you have an exceptional memory, you will remember only the opening lines after a while. But it is only when you translate a song that you can savour the way the composer has blended words with the music throughout to make an organic composition. The sound echoes the sense and the way the poet-musician strings words with music is what is most compelling. I think only the translator and the singer who has given thought to what the song is about can get to understand the song in its fullness and grasp the essence of the composer’s work. And just as a singer feels triumphant when she or he has captured the essence of the song through his or her rendering, the dedicated translator can get the satisfaction of catching a lot of what is intrinsically elusive through her or his work.  

Of course, most of the music is inevitably lost in translation, but it is at least something if translators can come somewhat close to the original by making use of their auditory imaginations as well as their ability to interpret the words on the page. I had used as an epigraph to my Berkeley lecture the opening line of a Rabindranath song-lyric where the poet expresses his delight at catching “uncatchable loveliness in rhyme’s bids”; that is exactly how a translator feels when she or he has captured the essence of a Rabindranath song-lyric, although, and of course, I’m always aware that there is a lot lost —after all, the original composition’s melodic elements can’t be captured fully in translation. But if the best of the original can be approximated surely the translated poem will shine in a new context.          

You have translated both Jibanananda Das and Tagore. What made you opt for two Brahmo poets?

First of all, and as far as I can tell, Jibanananda’s Brahmo family background has had little or no impact on his work. To me, he became more and more of a modernist with every passing decade of his life. With Rabindranath, however, his religious background is central to many phases and aspects of his creativity. Indeed, there was a period when he was completely immersed in Brahmo religious thinking and deeply influenced by its practices. But to me, also a student and admirer of Emerson and the Transcendentalists of mid-19th century America, this was something to contemplate and admire but it did not become a part of me except when I listened intensely. To present my position somewhat differently, though I am captivated by the religious poems of Rabindranath, the non-religious poems where Brahmo beliefs don’t matter are equally appealing to me. Rabindranath surely does not have to be restricted to his Brahmo origin and beliefs. I opted for poets affiliated to the Brahmo Samaj by birth or inclination, but they speak to me because of their poetic/lyric qualities and of feelings that go way beyond religion.

Did you find a lot of cultural difference while translating the above two poets as technically, they live on the other side of the border? Do you feel Bangladesh is culturally closer to West Bengal or Pakistan? Why?

You forget that Jibanananda spent most of his life in East Bengal. He spent only a few years in Kolkata. He did higher studies there for a few years and spent only the last decade of his life in the city. His Ruposhi Bangla poems are all about the flora and fauna of our part of the world. Indeed, has anyone represented our part of Bengal as feelingly as him? As for Rabindranath, let me remind you that coming to Shelaidaha and getting exposed to the Padma and the lush, green landscape of riverine Bengal was decisive for a lot of the poems, songs and short fiction he wrote. And of course, the bulk of the superb letters of Chinnopotra originate in East Bengal. Indeed, I have never felt that Rabindranath and Jibanananda are writers from the other side of the Bengal. I can’t resist saying to you in this context that the first time I went to Jorasanko during my second visit to Kolkata, once I got down from the taxi and asked people the exact location of the Tagore family home, I came across some who seemed not to be able to speak Bengali or could do so only using a non-Bengali accent! In Central Kolkata, you may even get the impression you are not in Bengal. And of course, we have a shared culture with West Bengal, the key here being not only language but also geography and proximity. The border is a divide, but only up to an extent!    

Bangladesh uses Bengali a little differently from West Bengal. Would this be a true statement? Does that make translating from the other side of the border more difficult?

I don’t find this to be the case for educated people writing in Bengali. We may have different or distinctive accents, depending on the level of our education and the part of Bangladesh we are from, and a few words that we use of the language here and there may be unique and unfamiliar to people in West Bengal, but I have rarely found myself misunderstood or out of place when I speak to people in my visits to, let’s say, Kolkata or Santiniketan. This means that my use of Bengali is at best marginally different from a West Bengali’s use of the language.

How many dialects of Bengali are in use in Bangladesh? How is it there are so many dialects of Bengali?

The reason why we have so many dialects in Bangladesh, however, has to do with geography. We are a land of rivers and some of them are huge. It is almost always the case that in a big river like the Padma or Jamuna, people on either side have different dialects because of the physical separation. After all, in the past communication was difficult and economic exchanges were limited. In Sylhet and Chittagong, the hills have played their part in the formation of distinctive dialects. And in the heart of Dhaka, the Mughal heritage has meant that we have the distinctive Dhakaia dialect, uniquely favoured by Urdu/ Persian diction. In other words, there are all sorts of reasons why we have so many different dialects in Bangladesh.  I don’t know exactly how many dialects, but the wiki entry lists seven.

What are the hurdles of translating from Bengali to English?

In my own case, the first hurdle is my limited Bengali vocabulary. When I was translating the late nineteenth-century Bengali novel, Bishad Sindhu (Ocean of Sorrow in my translation), I had to consult at least two Bengali-to-English dictionaries all the time as well as look for archaic/obsolete words in a Bengali-to-Bengali dictionary.  When I am translating Rabindranath’s song-lyrics, quite often I come across words no longer used in everyday speech or even contemporary written prose that send me to the dictionary repeatedly. The problem is not only that these words are no longer in use but that before I took up translating Jibanananda, my exposure to the Bengali language was somewhat limited by an English medium education in an “O” level school in the Pakistani period where only “easy” Bengali was taught, and where literature was scanted except for the Sarat Chandra novels I mentioned earlier. Indeed, I sat for an “Easy” Bengali examination for my “O” levels. And as I indicated above, our teacher taught us almost nothing there.

The other hurdle, and this is true for all translators, is translating the musical elements of a song-lyric. Bengali is a language that to me is intrinsically melodious. Rhymes come naturally when you speak in Bengali and soft and musical cadences abound. It is more difficult to rhyme in English and if you try to do so consciously, you sound artificial, especially in our time when rhyme is no longer in fashion. And yet in translating song-lyrics from Bengali, one must retain at least some of the music. This, however, is an almost impossible task. Not poetry but it is melody that is lost in the translation of Bengali song-lyrics into English!  

You had written an interesting piece on Shakespeare bringing in Tagore’s poem on Shakespeare. Did Shakespeare influence Tagore or have an impact on Bengali literature?

The influence is no doubt indirect. But we know that Rabindranath translated parts of the Macbeth at an early age. And it is well known that Shakespeare was very popular in the late nineteenth Kolkata where he grew up. The English Bard clearly had an impact on the stage then as we know from the translations done at that time. But any influence must have been indirect and limited.  Tagore’s dramaturgy is completely different from that of Shakespeare.  

You have translated Mujibur Rahman’s autobiography, Oshampto Atmojibani (The Unfinished Memoirs). Can you please tell us a bit about it?

Sometime in late 2006, I was invited by a very good friend whose family is closely connected to that of the man we called Bangabandhu—Sheikh Mujibur Rahman—to meet Sheikh Hasina, then the Leader of the Opposition, and for a long time now the Prime Minister of our country. She had obviously heard of my Jibanananda Das translations and knew perhaps as well that I was beginning to translate Rabindranath’s poems and song-lyrics. She wanted me to translate the work that we now know as Oshomapto Atnojibani from the manuscript left behind by Bangabandhu that she and others had managed to first retrieve and then copyedit. I was delighted at the opportunity and began work. But because she was imprisoned by the caretaker government that usurped power in Bangladesh, the work stopped for a while. I had received only part of the manuscript by then. In the end, work resumed after Sheikh Hasina settled down as our Prime Minister and resumed supervising the translation project. The translated book was eventually published in 2012.  I should add that I subsequently translated two other manuscripts that were also rescued from oblivion by our present Prime Minister and her sister. These are The Prison Diaries (2019) and New China—1952 (2021).   The Unfinished Memoirs was published jointly by UPL in Bangladesh, Penguin India and Oxford UP, Pakistan and has by now been translated into several other languages. The two other volumes have been published by Bangla Academy but have not yet reached the international market. 

We had heard of Mujibur Rahman as a national hero of Pakistan when we were kids, right after the 1971 war. Did you meet Mujibur Rahman in person ever? What was the impact he had on you?

Sheikh Kamal, Bangabandhu’s older son, was my batch mate at the university of Dhaka. He was friendly, unassuming and full of life and ideas. Soon after we met in the campus in late 1969, he took me to his house on at least a couple of occasions, along with a few other friends. On one of these occasions, he introduced us to his father. On another occasion, when the election campaign that would soon lead to an overwhelming majority for his party was on, Sheikh Kamal took me and a few other friends one day to attend at least two public meetings where Bangabandhu would be speaking. I missed the most important public speech that he gave, which was on March 7, 1971 (I have, however, translated it and it is available in websites) but I was there to listen to his second most important speech, which is the one that he gave on his return to Bangladesh from a Pakistani prison on January 10.

Of course, he impacted me. In fact, he is unforgettable. He is for us not only “Bangabandhu” or the “friend of Bengal” but also “jatir pita” or “father of the nation”. If you are a Bangladeshi at heart, you will have to acknowledge him in that manner. The more you know about him, the more you will be overwhelmed by his love for Bangladesh and its people, his courage, indomitable spirit, and self-sacrifices.   

Having worked intensively on Rahman’s autobiography, do you feel, looking at the course of history, the Partition based on religious differences was a necessity?

In retrospect, Partition was perhaps not necessary, but surely it was inevitable the way things had been going. I have written about this a bit elsewhere but let us remember that there were three partitions– “Bongobhongo” (the breaking of Bengal) — or the short-lived partition of Bengal in 1905; the partition of the subcontinent in 1947; and the parting of ways for us in East Pakistan from the people of West Pakistan in 1971. It is easy to be wise after the event, but it is also easy to see now that in 1905 most educated East Bengali Muslims welcomed a split that would give their backward region not only autonomy but also economic and political empowerment. This partition was of course revoked in 1911 but it did give East Bengali Muslims a feeling of the kind of empowerment they had been denied previously. The 1947 Partition looks decisive now, but that it was not the last word is testified by 1971, when Pakistan split into two and we departed permanently from Pakistan. I should add that I am totally secular and regret that religion-based politics has made a comeback all over the world. I keep hoping we will have something like the European Union in the subcontinent — where though there are borders, we can move freely and connect with each other easily —border or no border — whenever we want to — and travel with only an ID cards and/or our passports and sans visas.

While writing of the founding of Dhaka university, you wrote of the Muslims keeping away from institutions of higher learning in pre-Partition India. Why was that the case? Was it because they did not want to be part of the British babu syndrome or was it some other reason?

There are two things to keep in mind. The fall of the Mughals and Siraj ud-Daulah’s defeat meant that the Muslim aristocrats would no longer be in power. They also either fell out of favour with the British or were steadily deprived of the culturally rich/lavish lifestyles they had been used to. Upper class Hindus in and around Kolkata, however, not only came closer to the British but also embraced English education and prospered in every way. This meant that Muslims on the whole would be late to realize the benefits of higher education in English. It took a while for Bengali Muslims to realize that though they constituted the majority in East Bengal, they were in the minority as far as jobs and upward economic mobility were concerned and would stay that way unit they resorted to higher education. 

You are an established critic too. I read something about an upcoming book of essays. Can you tell us a bit about it?

Actually, translation is only a part of what I do and it is something I came to only mid-way in my academic career. By training I am a literary critic. I specialized in 18th century British literature and the American Renaissance writers. Back home after graduate work in Canada in the mid-1980s I became a postcolonial critic. That led me to South Asian writing in English and eventually Jibanananda Das. I am saying all this because I initially published a book on Daniel Defoe and then one on Bharati Mukherjee. I edited a big book on South Asian writers in English for the Dictionary of Literary Biography series in 2006. And in 2007, I brought out a fairly substantial collection of postcolonial critical essays and reviews on south Asian writing in English titled Imperial Entanglements and Literature in English. The book of essays that you mentioned is another large collection of critical essays I have assembled on postcolonial and South Asian literature in English. I have titled it English, the Language of Power, and the Power of Language: Essays and Reviews. It should come out as soon as the pandemic is on its way out.

Bangladesh and West Bengal seem to share much in common, including the three great poets Tagore, Nazrul and Jibanananda. You have translated two of them. What about Nazrul? Any plans afoot to translate him?

Actually, I have translated at least a dozen Nazrul poems, a couple of songs and one short story. Perhaps I will translate a few more. But Rabindra Sangeet will always make me do more and more translations of his songs. And I do plan to go back to Jibanananda Das’s poems, since so many of them came out after I had published my selections of translations of his poems in 1999.

But as I end, let me say: “Thank you” and all good wishes for you and the journal.

Thank you very much for your time and your lovely responses.

To read Dr Fakrul Alam’s translations housed in our new section, Tagore & Us, click here.

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

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Categories
Review

The Secret Diary of Kasturba

Book Review by Meenakshi Malhotra

Title: The Secret Diary of Kasturba

Author: Neelima Dalmia Adhar

Publisher: Tranquebar, Westland Books

The Secret Diary of Kasturba by Neelima Dalmia Adhar was an interesting experience as it traverses known ground, albeit from a feminine perspective. The book lays no claim to authenticity or historical veracity since Kasturba was barely literate, obdurate in the face of her husband’s efforts to educate her. Adhar’s retelling of the personal life of the Gandhis is obviously inseparable from Mohandas Karamchand’s huge public persona which acquired almost mythic status during his own lifetime, as he became the “father of the nation”. That the public role came at a certain cost is what this fictionalized memoir/ autobiography makes clear. The fight against imperialism also took its toll and some aspects of this fictionalized biographical account might be seen as a sort of collateral damage.

Married off at a young age when both were thirteen, she describes the sexual passion between the two which cemented their conjugality. At the same time, his early experience of lust and unbridled passion fills Gandhi with guilt and remorse and his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, comes out strongly against the practice of child marriage, as he feels that it stunts the growth and potential of children trapped in the practice.

The other reason for his guilt is the fact that his ailing father was on his deathbed when Mohandas was overtaken by desire. That sense of guilt plagues him later, since he leaves his father’s room knowing well that the father’s chances of survival were slim. Soon after, he receives the news of his father’s death. Later in life, he took a vow of celibacy, but his decision of celibacy was taken unilaterally without consulting Kasturba, who felt resentful about being excluded from something that concerned them both. While Gandhi’s behaviour towards his wife, his tendency to dominate and control, were within the expected parameters of conjugality in late 19th century, they would stand out as oppressive by today’s standards.

Two episodes stand out in this context, both providing ample anecdotal evidence of Gandhi’s high-handedness and tendency to dictate terms to his wife. One is his injunction to clean out the chamber-pots of guests in the house in South Africa. When she refuses to do so, he is ready to throw her out of the house. On another occasion, when they are about to leave South Africa, Kasturba is given gifts of jewelry as a goodwill gesture. Gandhi forbids her to keep any of it and she is forced to relinquish all of it against her will. Her resentment is not because she is greedy but is based on the instincts of a middle-class homemaker who has, in the past, been a mute witness to her own jewelry being sold off, to fund Mohandas’s journey to England to study law. At every step, Kasturba, who comes from a relatively affluent background, has had her desires thwarted. Strong-willed and decisive in many things, with definite opinions of her own, Kasturba is curbed and controlled, her will broken by her overbearing husband.

 A similar pattern follows as far as his children’s lives and education are concerned. The book also shows Gandhi’s attempt to control and shape the lives of his children and his growing rift with his eldest son, which ensues as a result. His ideas of self-sacrifice and austerity do not always sit well with his sons, who view his refusal of a formal education to them as a disprivilege and a denial of opportunity. Ironically, he helps his nephews and other associates, but his immediate family is always put through impossible tests. Not only is the bar raised for them, but they are also made to forego all legitimate desires and aspirations, for example their desire for proper schooling. While there could be an element of exaggeration in Adhar’s book, some of these facts are on record. Adhar quotes a letter from Gandhi to his friend:

“I don’t know what evil resides in me,” he wrote to a friend, “I have a streak of cruelty in me that compels people to attempt the impossible in order to please me.”

The eminent historian K.M. Pannikker once wrote that the Indian national movement was India’s version or an equivalent of the suffragette movement in the West, since it served to grant women equal rights to citizenship of the country. My caveat is that these rights were only in the domain of the political, that too construed in a limited way. While Gandhi called women to join the national movement that he was in the forefront (and practically the face) of, right from 1918 to 1948, he was not seeking to emancipate, but more to call forth their capacity for self-abnegation and self-sacrifice. He was definitely not seeking to challenge the entrenched structures of Hindu society, but seeking to marshal women’s energies to bring about a sea-change in the minds and hearts of men and political system. His attitude to the Dalit-Bahujans was similarly status quoist. His nomenclature for them-“Harijans” or children of God was refused by them; instead they chose to foreground their own oppression by calling themselves Dalits.

There is no denying that Gandhi strode into the national movement like a messiah. He also gave the world a moral substitute for war. Yet his subsuming of all other aspects of his wife’s and children’s identities and aspirations to serve the cause of the nation seems excessive and impossibly demanding. As the blurb phrases it: “He is the Mahatma, a man the world venerates as a prophet of peace. But for Kastur, the child bride who married the boy next door, Mohandas was a sexually-driven, self-righteous, and overbearing husband. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was sworn to poverty, celibacy and the cause for India’s freedom; Kastur spent sixty-two years of her life, juggling the roles of a devoted wife, a satyagrahi and sacrificing mother, who was eclipsed because of a man who almost became God for India’s multitude.”

Ready to sacrifice his family at the altar of the nation’s freedom, Gandhi’s demands as a husband along with his intolerance and harshness as a father, threaten at times to exceed the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. Such are the paradoxes that constitute history or is glossed over in its official versions. For the longest time, feminist historiography has sought to redress the imbalanced and skewed nature of official history. This book could be seen as an attempt to fill the blanks and gaps in a narrative which tells us about one of the most revered and reviled figures in South Asia.

Neelima Dalmia Adhar’s book is interesting and engaging. Some embellishments and degree of artistic freedom are permissible and in line with historical fiction and fictionalized history. On the whole, the book conforms to well known facts of Gandhi’s life, basing itself on already existing documentation of it.

The Secret Diary performs an important function as biographical/historical fiction. Experiences like the time in South African are detailed in Gandhi’s autobiography but this fictionalized account fleshes it out, adding effect, conflict and detailing tensions of a kind we perhaps know well, both in his public life and between an authoritarian and self-righteous husband/father and his wife and growing children. It captures the everyday, in a layered and nuanced way, helping us to unravel and capture a sense of the various strands that are woven together to weave the fabric of the daily life of Mohandas Gandhi (before he became the Mahatma) and his family. The ‘truth’ that autobiographies, biographical and historical fiction express in never one-sided or singular or a monolith but is often many-sided, plural and multi-faceted. Such a work lends a chiaroscuro effect, where we see the life of the great man sometimes in light, sometimes in shadow, adding up to a complex whole.

For a colossus of a man, who was committed to righteousness and treading the path of truth, he did not seem to have acknowledged or come to terms with the fact that his truth might have clashed against the truth of other life-journeys. The search for truth is a fraught task, a journey up a slippery slope, provisional and contingent and comes perhaps at a cost.  

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  Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi and has been involved in teaching and curriculum development at 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 and/in literature and feminist theory.       

    

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Categories
Bhaskar's Corner

Amrita Sher-Gil: An Avant-Garde Blender of the East & West

Bhaskar Parichha explores how the life and art of Amrita Sher-Gil was an amalgam of the best of India and the West

Much before the Punjabi diaspora spread its wings across continents, there was one woman who not only became a venerated name in the field of art but also gave art an altogether new identity in India. She was Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941). Born to Umrao Singh Sher-Gil Majithia, a Sikh aristocrat and a great scholar of Sanskrit and Persian, and Marie Antoinette Gottesmann, a Jewish opera singer from Hungary, Amrita inherited a legacy that was consummate and effervescent. 

Amrita was the eldest of the two daughters. Her younger sister was Indira Sundaram, mother of   painter Vivan Sundaram. Amrita spent her early childhood in Dunaharaszti, Hungary. She was also the niece of the Indologist Ervin Baktay. It was Baktay who guided her — by being a critique of her works — and gave her the academic underpinning that helped Amrita flourish. Ervin also taught her to use domestic helpers as models; and the reminiscence of these models eventually motivated her to return to India. 

Sher-Gil’s quest for the fine art led her to Paris, with her mother, when she was barely sixteen. She studied first at the Grande Chaumiere under Pierre Vaillant and subsequently at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where she was taught by Lucien Simon.

In her early twenties, Sher-Gil returned to India in 1921. The family began living in Shimla. She was by now an accomplished painter, equipped with some of the most essential modules that make one a great artist. She had an unquenchable thirst to be on familiar terms with the grammar and the language of painting, a virile tenacity of purpose and the single-mindedness about her role in life. 

 In 1924, she went to Italy and joined Santa Annunciata, a Roman Catholic institution. In Santa, Amrita Sher-Gil got an exposure to the works of Italian artists. While studying in Paris, she had already been influenced by the works of European greats like Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin. Her later paintings would echo a strong influence of the Western artists, chiefly from the Bohemian circles of Paris of the early 1930s.

 In 1932, she displayed her first important work, Young Girls, which led to her appointment as an Associate of the Grand Salon in Paris in 1933, making her the youngest ever and the only Asian to have received such recognition. In 1934, while in Europe, she was haunted by what is known through her letters ‘an intense longing to return to India’ and ‘feeling in some strange way that there lay my destiny as a painter’. 

After her return, she began a rediscovery of the traditions of Indian art which would continue till her death. It was also during this period that she pursued an affair with Malcolm Muggeridge. In the mid-thirties, Amrita Sher-Gil’s mission for exploring further into Indian art began. It was a never-ending journey and her contributions to art was a breakthrough and uniquely superb. From Mughal miniatures to the Ajanta paintings and Southern styles, the Indian influence on her work was complete and irreversible. 

 In 1936, at the behest of Karl Khandalavala, art collector and critic, Amrita pursued her lifelong passion for realizing her Indian roots. She found inspiration in the Pahari School of painting. Later, in 1937, she toured South India and produced the famous South Indian trilogy paintings- ‘Bride’s Toilet’, ‘Brahmachari’ and ‘The South Indian Villagers’. These paintings mirror   her passionate sense of colour and an equally passionate empathy for Indian subjects. Poverty and despair constitute a major theme in Amrita Sher-Gil’s works and they find plentiful representation on her canvas. Her works also showed an engagement with the works of Hungarian painters, especially the Nagybanya School of painting in the interwar years.

In 1938, Amrita married her Hungarian first cousin, Dr. Victor Egan. After this marriage, they moved to Gorakhpur (UP) and, still later, the couple shifted to Lahore where she lived till her death in 1941.

Amrita Sher-Gil was one of the most gifted Indian artists belonging to the pre-colonial era. Her works reflect her deep ardour and perception for colours. Her profound understanding of the Indian subjects comes so vividly in her works that it is difficult to find parallels elsewhere. The works of Amrita Sher-Gil have been declared national art treasures by the Government and most of her paintings adorn the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi. There is also a Delhi road named after the painter — Amrita Sher-Gil Marg. 

Amrita Sher-Gil’s legacy stands at par with those of the masters of the Bengal renaissance. She is said to be the ‘most expensive’ woman painter in India. Besides remaining an inspiration to many contemporary Indian artists, she was the muse for one of the longest running Urdu plays, Tumhari Amrita (1992), directed by Javed Siddiqi, with Shabana Azmi and Farooq Sheikh playing the lead roles. Her works are also a central force in the novel, Faking It, authored by Amrita V Chowdhury. The beauty and depth of Amrita Sher-Gil’s paintings has earned her inordinate admiration and recognition beyond her days.

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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Categories
Independence Day Poetry

Colours of Life

By Jared Carter

         Cicadas in the Rain

Only when it began to rain could I hear it,
in late summer, after they had all risen high
in the saucer magnolia tree – a soft, slow rain
at first, while the light still held in the west.

That sound so familiar, so unhesitant, but never
during a storm, and yet with drops plashing
and pelting through the leaves, their voices
coalesced in ways I had never heard before –

some strange harmonic of summer’s ending,
some last reinforcement or challenge – mounting
against the rain’s insistence, trying to outdo it,
seeking a pulse within the larger immensity,

and succeeding, as though a door had opened,
and I heard pure sound issuing forth, stately
and majestic, even golden, while all around it,
darkness, rain falling, trees bent by the wind.

(Excerpted from Darkened Rooms of Summer)


        Slaughterhouse

There were no cattle prods back then.
          We beat and whipped
The ones that broke away. The pens
          were re-equipped

To move them more efficiently.
          For some, a sheer
Incomprehensibility
          took over.Fear

Made them submit.Convulsed with pain,
          a few cried out
To something that could not explain
          or hear their shout.

Jared Carter’s most recent collection, The Land Itself, is from Monongahela Books in West Virginia. His Darkened Rooms of Summer: New and Selected Poems, with an introduction by Ted Kooser, was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2014. A recipient of several literary awards and fellowships, Carter is from the state of Indiana in the U.S.

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Categories
Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

Never Knowingly Understood : The Sublime Daftness of Ivor Cutler

Ivor Cutler (1923-2006) was the daftest of the daft poets, and this is meant as the most sincere of compliments, because to entertain listeners and readers with an unremitting stream of original and uplifting daftness is not as easy as one might suppose. Cutler composed songs that were poems and wrote poems that were songs and he recited or sung them while playing the harmonium or piano. His voice is a distinctive one and once heard is never forgotten. His records are little treasures.

Born in 1923 in Glasgow, Scotland, Cutler joined the Royal Airforce (RAF) during the Second World War and became a navigator but was demoted on a charge of “dreaminess” and reduced to working in a storeroom. The story is that he was caught too many times looking at the passing clouds while flying and wondering aloud what animals they most closely resembled instead of carrying out his technical duties.

After the War he worked in schools in deprived areas of London, teaching music, dance, drama and poetry, refusing on principle to punish his pupils for misdemeanours and encouraging them to write verses about killing their siblings. He remained an inner city teacher for three decades. Writing poetry was only a hobby for him, but he appeared on BBC Radio on occasion, and in 1959 released his first record on the Decca label, Ivor Cutler of Y’Hup, which includes two quintessential Cutler tracks, ‘Pickle Your Knees’ and ‘Gravity Begins at Home’.

An unapologetic eccentric, Cutler preferred to dress in old fashioned clothes and kept a set of ivory cutlery in his house because of the pun on his name. He travelled everywhere by bicycle while communicating with sticky labels that he made himself. These ‘stickies’ featured Cutlerisms, his life’s philosophy distilled into slogans and maxims, the most famous of which became “Never Knowingly Understood”, a direct allusion to his working method of allowing his subconscious mind to do all the creative exertion on his behalf. This is a technique associated with Surrealism, but Cutler had a lighter, quieter, sparser approach to the weird, macabre and illogical than the majority of surrealists. The darkness is transmuted into mischief and the savagery into play. There is melancholy in some of the poems, even despair, but it tends to be counterbalanced by the charm and daftness. The result is calmly invigorating.

Two more records on the Decca label gave him a small following but wider success remained elusive for many years. Not that he cared much about his popularity. His ambitions were refreshingly modest. Who Tore Your Trousers? and Get Away from the Wall, both released in 1961, are now fairly difficult to obtain. It was an appearance on a television show three years later that proved to be a turning point in his career. He was noticed that night by Paul McCartney who then invited him to appear in the Magical Mystery Tour film. This led to him working with renowned Beatles’ studio engineer George Martin, who in 1967 produced Cutler’s album Ludo, the most traditionally musical of all his releases and still his best selling record.

Despite the whimsicality and apparent simplicity of his poems, Cutler had a solid grounding in jazz and collaborated with many groundbreaking musicians, including Robert Wyatt and Fred Frith. His name appears with great frequency on billings of music festivals devoted to jazz, fusion and experimental music from the 1960s and 70s, much of it abrasive, raucous and difficult. He was taken seriously by a host of virtuosos and accepted by them (something that never happened to the equally eccentric Shooby Taylor at the same time). Yet he disliked loud music and was a member of the Noise Abatement Society. He rarely raised his voice and asked his audiences to applaud as gently as possible.

For live performances he obtained the services of Phyllis King, who would contribute readings of brief prose passages. Brevity was dear to the heart of Cutler, who preferred his short stories to be no longer than one page in length and his songs to last no more than two minutes. Many of his poems consist of just a few lines, yet they often have a resonance and depth that eludes more complex works. “Women of the world take over / Cos if you don’t, the world will come to an end and it won’t take long” is the whole of the poem entitled ‘Women of the World’ and does it really need to be any longer?

Personally I hold in special regard those poems and songs where there is brilliantly simple but effective wordplay at work. He relies on a trick that humorous writers have been using for centuries, namely that if there is a possibility that a word or phrase has more than one meaning, the less obvious meaning will be chosen as the pivot on which the work revolves. In this way Cutler is not dissimilar to Spike Milligan and other absurdist comedians who were prominent at the time. Cutler’s song ‘Shoplifters’ from the album Ludo is a good example of the technique, demonstrating not only his penchant for strange placid humour but also ultimately his compassion and optimism:

Is your shop right down on the ground?
Then let us lift it, lift it for you.
There’s plenty of room in the blue
for your shop, and for you.

A woman whom once I knew
had a shop, it sold bananas and calico.
She said, ‘Lift up my shop’
so we lifted it two thousand hundred yards into the sky.
She thought she was going to die.
But we gave her the big reassure.
There was plenty of room to spare.

‘Good Morning! How are you? Shut up!’ from the same album is an even more ingenious and wry demonstration of the duplicity of words and meanings. The protagonist expresses a morning distaste for “small talk” and insists on “big talk” instead (“elephants, elephants, oh I love that big talk”) but soon changes his mind and asks for small talk (“Flies, mice and spiders. Mice, flyders and spice. Spice, mice and flyders. Microscopes, microscopes, oh I love that small talk”) before reverting to a desire for big talk again (“Cows, yaks and mammals. Maks, yammals and cows. Yaks, yows and cammals. Cacks, mammals and cows. Have you finished with your big talk? Yes, hello!”)

Having said that, if I had to choose just one favourite piece from his output, I might settle for a song without any wordplay at all in which the hilarity is generated by pure ridiculousness paired with a smile-inducing calypso rhythm. ‘I Believe in Bugs’ from his 1974 album Dandruff is a tonic for all our troubled souls. It helps to restore an unspecified hope to the ravaged world. The daft is mighty! Cutler shows us that it is best to never grow up in the first place, but that it is not quite too late for those who have unfortunately already grown up.

Cutler generally made no real distinction between his records and his books, seeing them as variations on each other. Life in a Scotch Sitting Room, Vol. 2 (there is no Vol. 1)is autobiography with an absurd twist, designed to be read, listened to and looked at. The record was released in 1978 and the illustrated book in 1984. Tales of an impossible childhood in Scotland, where parents drag out their children into the rain to enjoy nature (“Look, said father, a patch of grass!”) but where chores intrude like monsters to quash curiosity, are presented with minimal inflection and fatalistic understatement. One wonders how such damp surroundings can result in such astoundingly dry humour.

The titles of his records and poetry collections and other books are frequently wonderful in themselves, one line absurdist poems in essence that tickle the eyes. Cockadoodledon’t!!! (1966), Jammy Smears (1976), Grape Zoo (1991), Is That Your Flap, Jack? (1992), and the quartet of books featuring the character Herbert, all released in 1984, Herbert the Chicken, Herbert the Elephant, Herbert the Questionmark, Herbert the Herbert, and the wonderful collection of some of the stickers that Cutler would hand out to random people, Befriend a Bacterium: Stickies by Ivor Cutler (1992), among dozens of others.

Cutler’s eccentricity was authentic and never contrived for the sake of a public persona. He was once found in an empty theatre chastising his malfunctioning harmonium. “Right, that’s it. I told you, I warned you. I’m leaving you.” True to his word, he abandoned the instrument and it eventually found its way into the hands of a theatre troupe who staged a play based on Cutler. The jazz musician Robert Wyatt remembers Cutler as friendly and funny, but denies that his poems and songs were comedy and nothing more. “Neither quite comedy or tragedy, his work took you to another place, like a sort of East European Samuel Beckett.” Despite his seemingly primal Scottishness, Cutler’s ancestors were Jewish and the Jewish musical traditions remained in his family, though Cutler himself cited Paul Robeson as his favourite singer.

Useful advice in an emergency situation is always welcome. It is best to conclude this brief appreciation of Ivor Cutler with a ‘Jungle Tip’ from Life in a Scotch Sitting Room, Vol.2. If confronted by a lion in the wilds of Scotland (or in any other place where lions are largely unlikely) the following poetic suggestion might save your life…

If a lion attacks
stoop swiftly.
Pick up two medium sized rock stones
and insert them deftly up his nostrils.
He will forget your presence temporarily
in an attempt to remove the foreign bodies.
But do not wait around
for he will bound after you
and you will not play your trick a second time.

More videos from Ivor Cutler:

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

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Categories
Poetry

American Dreams

By Michael R Burch

Vasco Nunez de Balboa, the first Spanish conquistador to sail the Pacific Ocean; with inset bust profile
America's Riches
 
Balboa's dream
was bitter folly—
no El Dorado near, nor far,
though seas beguiled
and rivers smiled
from beds of gold and silver ore.
 
Drake retreated
rich with plunder
as Incan fled Conquistador.
Aztecs died
when Spaniards lied,
then slew them for an ingot more.
 
The pilgrims came
and died or lived
in fealty to an oath they swore,
and bought with pain
the precious grain
that made them rich though they were poor.
 
Apache blood,
Comanche tears
were shed, and still they went to war;
they fought to be
unbowed and free—
such were Her riches, and still are.
 

Ali’s Song
 
They say that gold don’t tarnish. It ain’t so.
They say it has a wild, unearthly glow.
A man can be more beautiful, more wild.
I flung their medal to the river, child.
I flung their medal to the river, child.
 
They hung their coin around my neck; they made
my name a bridle, “called a spade a spade.”
They say their gold is pure. I say defiled.
I flung their slave’s name to the river, child.
I flung their slave’s name to the river, child.
 
Ain’t got no quarrel with no Viet Cong
that never called me nigger*, did me wrong.
A man can’t be lukewarm, ’cause God hates mild.
I flung their notice to the river, child.
I flung their notice to the river, child.
 
They said, “Now here’s your bullet and your gun,
and there’s your cell: we’re waiting, you choose one.”
At first I groaned aloud, but then I smiled.
I gave their “future” to the river, child.
I gave their “future” to the river, child.
 
My face reflected up, more bronze than gold,
a coin God stamped in His own image—Bold.
My blood boiled like that river—strange and wild.
I died to hate in that dark river, child.
Come, be reborn in this bright river, child.

(*This had been said by Muhammad Ali: “no Vietcong ever called me nigger” while referring to racial discrimination.)
Muhammad Ali, The Greatest(1942- 2016) Courtesy: Creative Commons

Michael R. Burch has over 6,000 publications, including poems that have gone viral. His poems have been translated into fourteen languages and set to music by eleven composers. He also edits The HyperTexts (online at www.thehypertexts.com).

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Categories
Humour Poetry

Carnival of Animals

By Rhys Hughes

 Silky Salathiel

Silky Salathiel was a travelling cat

with the taste of the Orient on the tip of his tongue.

He wandered the streets of Mandalay

enticed by the scents of ginger and lime,

where the oldest songs are sung

in the Rub-Al-Khali

he scratched at the rugs in Bedouin tents.

.

I knew him well when I was young.

We sailed the Brahmaputra in an old sea-chest,

lived in a basket in Kathmandu,

climbed the mountains of the Hindu Kush,

bathed in fountains of milk in Xanadu,

and I was the friend whom he loved best;

the oldest fish in the Caspian Sea.

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But of course I lived longer than him

(now he is gone memories are all that remain).

He was not just a cat but a travelling cat

who danced flamenco in the castles of Spain,

licked the cheese in shady Provence

and drunk the ale in the snowy Ukraine.

Silky Salathiel the travelling cat

with the taste of the East on the tip of his tongue

and the taste of the West

on the tip of

his tail.


THE CASANOVA KANGAROO

The Casanova Kangaroo
    is a bounder
       but he’s no cad
    or utter rotter
(and if he was an otter
    he wouldn’t be
fishy either). He’s not a
        womaniser
who disguises his desire
as charm. In fact
the only thing he has in
      common with
the original Casanova is
that they both wrote
      their memoirs.

       Chapter One,
‘My Early Life in a Pouch’


PANDEMONIUM

Pandemonium is
not a state of disorder
but a state ruled
by pandas. They
will try to bamboozle
you with booze
made from bamboo
shoots and seduce
you with the music
of bamboo flutes.

The capital of the state
of Pandemonium
is called Nebulosity
City but I don’t know
why. No one actually
lives there. Pandas
prefer the countryside.

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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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