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Contents

Borderless, November 2022

Art by Sohana Manzoor

Editorial

We did it! … Announcing our first anthology … Monalisa No Longer Smiles… Click here to read.

Conversations

Suchen Christine Lim, an iconic writer from Singapore in conversation about her latest book, Dearest Intimate. Click here to read.

Blazing trails, as well as retracing the footsteps of great explorers, Christopher Winnan, a travel writer, delves into the past, and gazes into the future while conversing with Keith Lyons. Click here to read.

Translations

Rows of Betelnut Trees by My Window by Nazrul has been translated from Bengali by Professor Fakrul Alam. Click here to read.

A Day in the Life of the Pink Man is a story by Shankhadeep Bhattacharya, translated from Bengali by Rituparna Mukherjee. Click here to read.

The Clay Toys and The Two Boys is a story by Haneef Shareef, translated from Balochi by Fazal Baloch. Click here to read.

Saturday Afternoon is a poem by Ihlwha Choi, translated from Korean by the poet himself. Click here to read.

Tagore’s poem, Tomar Shonkho Dhulay Porey (your conch lies in the dust), has been translated from Bengali by Mitali Chakravarty as The Conch Calls. Click here to read.

Poetry

Click on the names to read

Jared Carter, Asad Latif, Rhys Hughes, Alpana, Mimi Bordeaux, Saranyan BV, Luis Cuauhtémoc Berriozábal, Quratulain Qureshi, Jim Bellamy, Sourav Sengupta, Ron Pickett, Davis Varghese, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Jonathan Chan, Terry Trowbridge, Amrita Sharma, George Freek, Gayatri Majumdar, Michael R Burch

Poets, Poetry and Rhys Hughes

In Infinite Tiffin, Rhys Hughes gives an unusual short story centring around food and hunger. Click here to read.

Musings/Slices from Life

The Scream & Me

Prithvijeet Sinha writes of how Edvard Munch’s painting, The Scream, impacts him. Click here to read.

A Fine Sunset

Mike Smith travels with a book to a Scottish beach and walks in the footsteps of a well-know novelist. Click here to read.

The Death of a Doctor

Ravi Shankar mourns the loss of a friend and muses on mortality in his experience. Click here to read.

My Contagious Birthday Party

Meredith Stephens writes of her experience of Covid. Click here to read.

Dim Memories of the Festival of Lights

Farouk Gulsara takes a nostalgic trip to Deepavali celebrations in Malaysia. Click here to read.

Musings of a Copywriter

In Strumming Me Softly with His Guitar…, Devraj Singh Kalsi talks of his friends’s adventure with the guitar. Click here to read.

Notes from Japan

In Therese Schumacher and Nagayoshi Nagai: A Love Story, Suzanne Kamata introduces us to one of the first German women married to a Japanese scientist and their love story. Click here to read.

Essays

My Favourite Book by Fakrul Alam

The essay is a journey into Fakrul Alam’s evolution as a translator. Click here to read.

The Ultimate Genius of Kishore Kumar

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri, an eminent film critic, writes on the legend of Kishore Kumar. Click here to read.

T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land: Finding Hope in Darkness

Dan Meloche muses on the century-old poem and its current relevance. Click here to read.

The Observant Immigrant

In Piano Board Keys, Candice Louisa Daquin talks of biracial issues. Click here to read.

Stories

The Funeral Attendee

Ravi Prakash shares the story of the life of a migrant in rural India. Click here to read.

A Letter I can Never Post

Monisha Raman unravels the past in a short narrative using the epistolary technique. Click here to read.

Red Moss at the Abbey of Saint Pons

Paul Mirabile takes us to St Pons Abbey in France in the fifteenth century. Click here to read.

You have lost your son!

Farhanaz Rabbani gives a light story with a twist that shuttles between Dhaka and Noakhali. Click here to read.

Book Excerpts

An Excerpt from Manoranjan Byapari’s How I Became a Writer: An Autobiography of a Dalit, translated from Bengali by Anurima Chanda. Click here to read.

An excerpt from Evening with a Sufi: Selected Poems by Afsar Mohammad, translated from Telugu by Afsar Mohammad & Shamala Gallagher. Click here to read.

Book Reviews

Reba Som has reviewed Aruna Chakravarti’s Through the Looking Glass: Stories. Click here to read.

Somdatta Mandal has reviewed Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises. Click here to read.

Basudhara Roy has reviewed Afsar Mohammad’s Evening with a Sufi: Selected Poems, translated from Telugu by Afsar Mohammad and Shamala Gallagher. Click here to read.

Bhaskar Parichha has reviewed Rahul Ramagundam’s The Life and Times of George Fernandes. Click here to read.

Borderless Journal Anthology

Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

Categories
Editorial

We Did It!

That good things happen despite darkness, despite prognostications of doom, that light glimmers hope if you strive to focus on your strength in hard times is borne true both in fiction and in life. Perhaps, we cannot get back the old ways (but is that what we want?) but new paths emerge. Old gives way to new. And while trying to gather pearls of human excellence — borne not of awards or degrees but of bringing out the best, the kindest, the most loving in human hearts — we managed to create with a team an outstanding anthology. Woven with the writings of old and new — we created a tapestry together that the editor in chief of our publishing house said was “classy, literary, engaging and international”. That one of the oldest and most reputed publishing houses in India with bookshops countrywide took it on was also an unusual event! We are truly grateful to Om Books International, Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri and Jyotsna Mehta along with all our writers and readers who made our anthology a reality, and to Radha Chakravarty and Fakrul Alam for the kind words they bestowed on our effort.

Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

Please greet our first anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles, with love and friendship. It could be the perfect Christmas gift in the spirit of the season! And as the blurb says, “it will definitely bring a smile to your face because it is a celebration of the human spirit.”

The anthology is different from our journal in as much as it has a sample of an eclectic collection that has been honed with further editing and has some new features. Most of the writing is from our first year and showcases our ethos, except for Lesya’s poetry and interview. Lesya Bakun from Ukraine is still on the run, looking for a refuge — she cannot return home like you or I can. Her family is scattered across number of countries. Her cousin, who was guarding the factory at Azovstal, was taken prisoner. We included her story in the anthology hoping to create global empathy for refugees as the numbers will increase not only due to war but also due to climate change.

The reason we felt a hardcopy anthology was a good idea was because nothing beats the joy of having a bunch of interesting reads in the warmth of your hands (especially where internet cannot reach or is unavailable). In any case, books with the feel of paper, the rustling whispers which carry voices of leaves can never be replaced as Goutam Ghose had also said in his interview which is now part of our anthology.

And that is why we celebrate more books… this time we feature Singaporean prima donna of literature, Suchen Christine Lim, with her new book Dearest Intimate, a novel that spans more than hundred years including the harrowing Japanese invasion during World War II. She shared sound advice with writers: “Suffering is good for the writer. It will deepen lived experience and expand the heart’s empathy.” And perhaps that is what is echoed through the experiences of the other writer interviewed on our pages by Keith Lyons. This is a writer who not only brought out his own books but was a regular contributor of travel pieces for Frommer’s and National Geographic traveling to unexplored destinations — Christopher Winnan. Another writer Lyon had interviewed recently, Steve Carr, has passed on. We would like to convey our heartfelt condolences to his family and friends.

We have a number of books that have been reviewed. Reba Som reviewed Aruna Chakravarti’s Through the Looking Glass: Stories that span eras spread across time. Somdatta Mandal has reviewed Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises and Bhaskar Parichha, Rahul Ramagundam’s The Life and Times of George Fernandes. Basudhara Roy has written of Afsar Mohammad’s Evening with a Sufi: Selected Poems, translated from Telugu by the poet and Shamala Gallagher, verses that again transcend borders and divides. We have an excerpt from the same book and another from Manoranjan Byapari’s How I Became a Writer: An Autobiography of a Dalit, translated from Bengali by Anurima Chanda.

More translations from Bengali, Balochi and Korean enrich our November edition. Fazal Baloch has translated a story by Haneef Shareef and Rituparna Mukherjee by Shankhadeep Bhattacharya. We have the translation of an inspirational Tagore poem helping us find courage (Shonkho Dhulaye Pore or ‘the conch lies in the dust’). Another such poem by Nazrul has been rendered in English from Bengali by Professor Fakrul Alam. He has also shared an autobiographical musing on how he started translating Tagore’s Gitabitan, which also happens to be his favourite book. More discussion on the literary persona of TS Eliot and the relevance of his hundred year old poem — ‘The Waste Land’ by Dan Meloche adds variety to our essay section.

Evoking the genius of another outstanding artiste, Kishore Kumar, who happened to pen thought provoking dialogues in some films, is Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri’s essay, review of a recent book on the legendary actor-singer and an interview with the authors. Infringing the boundaries of literary with popular culture and art and integrating all forms into a wholistic bundle has been part of our ethos. In that spirit we have a musing by Prithvijeet Sinha on Edvard Munch’s famous painting called Scream. We have non-fiction from Australia spanning Meredith Stephens’s recent brush with Covid, Mike Smith visits a Scottish beach in the footsteps of a novelist, Ravi Shankar has given us a poignant piece for a late friend and Candice Lousia Daquin talks of the existence of bi-racial biases. In contrast, Suzanne Kamata sent a narrative that bridges divides showcasing a German wife of a Japanese scientist that draws us to conclude that biases erode over time to create an acceptance of bi-racial people. Devraj Singh Kalsi brings in humour with his funny narrative about a guitarist. Rhys Hughes writes in a lighter vein on Indian cuisine in his column and spouts more funny poetry bordering on the absurd.

Jared Carter has shared beautiful poetry on murmuration in birds and we have touching verses from Asad Latif for a little girl he met on a train — reminiscent of Tagore’s poem Hide and Seek (Lukochuri). Michael R Burch has given us poems setting sombre but beautiful notes for the season. We host more poetry by Luis Cuauhtémoc Berriozábal, Quratulain Qureshi, Jim Bellamy, Gayatri Majumdar, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Alpana, Jonathan Chan, Saranyan BV, George Freek and many more. We have stories from around the world: India, France and Bangladesh.

Gathering all of your thoughts in strings of words from all corners of the world, we present to you the bumper November issue of Borderless Journal . Thank you all for sharing your thoughts with us. Thanks to Sohana Manzoor for her fantastic painting and more thanks to the whole Borderless team for seeing this issue through. We would not have been able to do the anthology or these issues without each one of you — writers and readers.

Thank you all from the bottom of my heart.

There is always hope for a new tomorrow!

Mitali Chakravarty

borderlessjournal.com

Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

Categories
Interview Review

The Storyteller of Singapore: Suchen Christine Lim

Singapore moved from being a little island to a trading port to an affluent glamorous city that bridges the East and the West. Spanning the spirit of the wide expanse of this movement within a century are some iconic writers. One of them is Suchen Christine Lim, an award-winning author who writes narratives embedded in history, lined with hope and love — two values that need to be nurtured in today’s war-torn world.

Dearest Intimate is her most recent novel that shuttles against the backdrop of Japanese invasion of not just China but of what was then Malaya and modern-day Singapore. The story revolves between the worlds of Chan Kam Foong and her granddaughter, Xiu Yin. A passion for Cantonese opera that spans across generations weaves all the threads together into a single multi-layered rich tapestry of life. That life is never about a single strand or a single facet is brought into play by her intricate craftsmanship.

Suchen has taken seven years to complete this novel creating a story that immerses the reader in different time periods. The time periods are congealed with a variety of techniques of narration. Both, the first-person narrative — the voice of Xiu Yin — and the third person — the diary which unravels her grandmother’s story — are seamlessly knit into a whole. Though to me, the diary is perhaps more compelling with its historic setting and its interludes of amazing passionate poetry, like these lines:

“Though hills and mountains, rivers and plains separate us,
nothing can separate our thoughts and dreams.
Though a thousand li separate our bodies, no mountains nor
rivers, not even the Four Mighty Oceans can separate our heart.”

As the book progresses, it unfolds Xiu Yin’s journey towards rediscovering her strength and love. She rises from the ashes of an abusive marriage which is in sharp contrast to the marriage of her grandmother, Kam Foong, arranged by the family in a traditional Chinese village in the early part of the twentieth century. That victimisation and abuse see no borders of education and can be born of a sense of frustration and an over-competitive outlook is skilfully reflected in the marriage of Xiu Yin, whose husband is from an educated Westernised Catholic background. She had been brought up on traditional lores among Chinese opera artists. Interesting observations on gender issues and local concerns — like the housing policies in Singapore — are wound into the narrative.

To me, one of the most enduring qualities of Suchen’s novels are that they deal with the common man against a historical backdrop. In an earlier interview, she had said: “I wanted to see the past from the perspective of coolies, the illiterate, who have largely been left out of history books. And yet without them, who would pick up the nightsoil?” In this novel too, she has dealt with the common man — farmers and opera singers only the historic setting and their responses have changes because of changed circumstances. We live, feel, emote with the common people before, during and after the second World War to the modern twenty first century Singapore. The author’s skilful characterisation enlivens her creations. The cruelty of Japanese invaders during 1940s is highlighted in the suffering of the people and their abuse. Published around the same time as Sumantra Bose’s Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s Life, Struggle and Politics, which shows how the Indian leader thrown out of Congress took support from the Axis powers (German and Japanese), it gives a contrasting perspective. Though this is fiction, Singapore history does corroborate that the Japanese invaders were extremely brutal in their outlook, even among the colonials.  Suchen’s reiteration of their cruelty is heart rending.

She has through her characters reiterated on the need of art not just to express but to make people laugh, give them hope and cheer them in dark times. This is an interesting theme which in itself makes one wonder if it is a comment on the perspectives of writers depicting unmitigated darkness. We find this strand of hope in great fiction from the last century — like JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series or Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. They all end with hope as do Suchen’s works.

Suchen’s oeuvre very often encompasses the story of migrants as it has done here. And the interesting progression in this novel is the migrants’ complete acceptance of their new homelands — Singapore and Malaysia. In an earlier interview, Suchen had said, “A man can rise and go beyond borders but the land that he leaves will always be in his bones and heart.” And some of her protagonists had headed back to China. But in this novel, one is left wondering if the characters from China have not transcended their national frontiers to embrace the Cantonese opera, declared an intangible cultural heritage, like Durga Puja, by UNESCO.  Art and love have overridden all kinds of borders — and perhaps, that is why the name of the novel Dearest Intimate, which is used by Kam Foong for her love and for Xiu Yin by her beloved justifies the title. At the end, it is a heartfelt love story between humans and even between humanity and an art form that evolved to embrace the common man. Like all good books — it touches hearts across all borders with its message of love and acceptance as do Suchen’s other novels. To discuss, her world view and her novel, we had a brief conversation with Suchen —

What made you write this novel, Dearest Intimate? What led you to it?

I had a strange dream while I was on the Writers Immersion and Cultural Exchange (WrICE) residency in the ancient city of Hoi An in Vietnam. I dreamt of a pale orange pillow embroidered with two mandarin ducks and two rows of Chinese characters. When I woke up, I wrote down the two sentences in English, which eventually became the opening paragraph of this novel. So, you can say it was an unexpected gift from the universe that led me to write this novel.

In your earlier novels like A Bit of Earth the protagonist always felt for part of their homelands. However, in Dearest Intimate, the protagonists dwelt on the theme of love and Cantonese opera, not so much on homeland. Has your world view changed since your first novel? How and why?

Well, I don’t think there is a quick easy answer to the how and why of change in worldview. The time gap between the publication of my first novel, Rice Bowl, and the latest, Dearest Intimate, is more than 30 years. Over that span of time my novels had examined issues of political /historical import, race and identity, moving from the past to the contemporaneous. Over the course of 30 years, it is natural for an author’s ideas and obsessions to change.  I would be very worried if I do not change, or my characters and themes do not change. For example, my sudden interest in the pipa led to the writing of The River’s Song, which in turn led me to Chinese music and Hong Kong Cantonese opera and the learning of Cantonese.

Tell us about why you took up the Cantonese opera in a major way in this novel?

It was the strange gift of a dream of two mandarin ducks embroidered on a pillowcase, which reminded me of the Cantonese operas I used to watch as a child with my grandmother and mother. Such pillowcases with embroidered mandarin ducks were symbols of love and fidelity and were sewn by young women in love in Chinese operas. Cantonese opera was a part of my childhood that was largely forgotten till this dream. Looking back, I think in writing Dearest Intimate I was reclaiming that forgotten part of my childhood.

Why did the novel take seven years to write? What kind of research went into the novel?

Partly because the research was such fun. I wasn’t concerned about deadlines. I had already flung away deadlines the moment I resigned from the Ministry of Education years ago. And I must admit I was fortunate that I didn’t have to write to fill my rice bowl. My research obsession began after I had watched a Hong Kong Cantonese opera troupe perform at the Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre, and later, other operas at the Esplanade during Moon Festival. Curious about the actors’ training, I went to the National Archives and listened to the many interviews with old opera actors and actresses of local Chinese opera troupes. Every year, I flew to Hong Kong to watch one or two Cantonese operas, and once I even met Chan Poh Chee and Bak Suet Xin, the icons of Hong Kong’s Cantonese opera. When I started writing the novel I would watch one Cantonese opera on YouTube every afternoon, even re-watching a few favourites. Unhappy that I could not understand the literary Cantonese used in the operas I joined a Cantonese class in Chinatown to deepen my understanding of Cantonese.

Why did the novel take seven years to write?  Well, one of the reasons is my troublesome health. I had several health issues to deal with. Very boring chronic issues which, naturally, gobbled up my time and distracted my attention. The most serious of these troublesomes was a minor stroke that affected my movement and speech for some months.

You have written many children’s stories, a play, short stories, non-fictions and novels. What is your favourite form of storytelling and why?

The novel. It is humanity’s greatest literary invention. Within the novel, raw messy lived experience is transformed into coherent narrative.

All your novels have a sense of hope and seem to reach out with the message of love and acceptance. Why is it you feel reiterating this is important?

I am glad you think my novels have a sense of hope. Hope is often the reason we live another day. Hope is what helps us to endure, to wait. To write, to make art is an act of hope.

What in your opinion is the purpose of art? You have repeatedly mentioned in your novel that people will respond better to hope or laughter in opera in dark times. Would you say this also applies to writing? Do you think people in dark times prefer books that give hope? Please elaborate.

I will quote Master Wu in the novel: “Play our music! Tell our stories! Sing our songs! Write our histories! Preserve our humanity! That is what the arts are for. Never, never for one moment forget who we are …”  in the age of robotics, story-generating AI and Twittering twitterati. 

Do you have any advice or message for budding writers?

Suffering is good for the writer. It will deepen lived experience and expand the heart’s empathy. 

Thank you for your wonderful answers and for giving us the time.

(The book has been reviewed and the interview conducted online by emails by Mitali Chakravarty)

Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

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

Categories
Tagore Translations

Your Conch Calls by Rabindranath

Written in May 1914, Tomar Shonkho Dhulay Porey (Your Conch lies in the Dust) was a part of Tagore’s poetry collection called Balaka (A flight of Swans, 1916).

A Conch Shell. Courtesy: Creative Commons
How will I endure 
Your conch fallen in the dust? 
At this dreaded juncture, 
The breeze and light stop — stunned. 
Come fight with your flag, be strong. 
Sing out loud if you have a song. 
If you want to walk, walk along. 
Come forward, fearless, 
The conch of valour lies long
In the dust, listless. 

I was going to pray
with an offering of flowers.
After toiling the whole day,
I yearn for peaceful bowers.
I had thought my wounded heart
Would be a thing of the past. 
Washed, I would at last,
Emerge unbruised, untouched. 
I saw again in the path
Your great conch lying in the dust. 
 
Is this the lamp lit for orisons? 
Are these my dusk’s recourse? 
Is this red jaba* garland woven?  
Oh, for the chaste tuberose! 
I had hoped we could resolve, 
Our differences, dissolve
The debts, sort, solve;
Have the numbers accounted.
And then, I heard the call--
Your conch resounded. 

Wake us with the elixir 
Of eternal youthfulness. 
Like a lamp, let your raga stir, 
Illuminate with blissfulness. 
Let the darkness fly, 
Celebrations reverberate in the sky.
Chase the gloom away by 
Terrorising it to distant lands. 
We will hold your conch high
Today with our two hands. 

I know sleep will not reign
In my eyes any more.
I know arrows will rain
On my chest galore. 
Some will join us, weep
Or breathe deep,
Nightmares will chase sleep
Away from cots. 
Today, joy will sweep
To your great conch calls. 


I found myself shamed
When I sought comfort from you. 
Now, adorn all of us with coats of mail
And weapons of war anew. 
We will not flinch or bolt
Under any kind of assault. 
Even if my heart vaults
In grief, victory will still flow unstaunched. 
Our strength will be forged
With the fearless call of your conch. 



*Hibiscus

This poem has been translated by Mitali Chakravarty with editorial input from Sohana Manzoor & Anasuya Bhar.

Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

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

Categories
Essay

My Favourite Book by Fakrul Alam

Professor Fakrul Alam

My favourite book? Over the years, I have had many favourite books, and have been totally captivated by at least one of them at any one period of time. Indeed, once I began to take literature in English seriously, I was completely swept away by one book or the other that I came across at the University of Dhaka B. A. (Hons.) and M. A. English department syllabuses year after year. In my first year as an undergraduate, for instance, I read D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913)compulsively, finding in its protagonist Paul Morel’s growing up into a young man’s storyline parallels with mine—although he was a miner’s son in Nottingham in the early twentieth century and I a boy growing up in Dhaka in the 1950s and 60s and the son of middle-class parents. A couple of years later, it was Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice(1813), for the story of the Bingley girls and their marriage encounters sounded familiar to me, for I too had four sisters whose marriages had become central to my parents’ thinking in all kinds of ways. And in my M. A. I read a book which harpooned me fully for many a decade—this was Melville’s Moby Dick (1851)—a whale of a book, I’m sure many of you in the virtual audience will agree. In all three cases, I read not only the novels I mentioned but almost everything by Lawrence, Austen and Melville I came across. Indeed, Melville’s fiction became the subject of my M. A. dissertation at Simon Fraser University.

But in the 1990s, I began to pay attention to Bangla writing seriously —something I had neglected for long, thanks first to an English medium education exclusively geared to the “O” levels that scanted our own literature and then my specialisation in literature in English afterwards. I began to read Bangla poetry intensively for the first time in this decade, although I had read some fiction in the language over the years. And it was sometime in the middle of the 1990s that I came across Jibanananda Das’s verse in an edition of his selected poems by the Bangladeshi poet-critic Abdul Mannan Syed. I would like to stress that this poet was born in 1899 in Borishal, a very green district crisscrossed by innumerable rivers all heading ultimately for the nearby Bay of Bengal; he died in what seemed to be an accidental death in Kolkata in the mid-1950s. Das’s verse possessed me completely, leaving me, who had till then read only some Bangla poetry but had concentrated mostly in fiction and non-fictional prose in English, with the urge to translate his verse into English. For the next three years, I kept going back to Das’s poems for their beauty, for the way they immortalised in verse the beauty of Bengal, and for the way they made me the poet’s intimate, for it is only when one translates intensely, all caught up in the source text, that one comes closest to the mind speech as well as the deep emotional life of the poet.

Having translated Jibanananda Das—surely the greatest modern Bengali poet—I felt I had to try to translate Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry—the greatest poet and literary personality Bengal has produced. Even though in the 1960s and 1970s, I had only paid sustained attention to poetry, fictional and nonfictional prose and plays in English, how could I have escaped Tagore then? He was everywhere in the Dhaka I experienced and very much part of the mindscape of us Bangladeshis as we moved towards becoming citizens of Bangladesh. His work was championed in the media; his songs were sung in events such as the Bangla new year festivities in mid-April; cultural events everywhere spurred by nationalism highlighted him in one way or the other. Besides, my father was addicted to Rabindranath’s songs and listened to him on the radio whenever he could, making us share his delight in the melodies then. My mother, for her part, quoted him all the time to give her children a sense of what we should be emulating and where we were going wrong.

In other words, Rabindranath was very much part of my consciousness, although I had occluded him till now. As I began to read him in the turn of the decade after translating Jibanananda, I felt I had to read as much of his works as I could. Inevitably, I began to translate many of his poems. By the time his sesquicentenary came up in 2011, I was invited to co-edit an anthology of his works and that led to the extensive reading of the myriad-minded writer’ work and increasing familiarity with this wonderful personality as well as writer.

And this is how I came to my favourite book of the last decade or so—Tagore’s Gitabitan. It is a book that is always on my study cum desktop computer table’s shelf over ten years now. It is something I resort to every time I listen to a Rabindranath song on YouTube in my desktop’s audio system. Sung melodiously and passionately by a favourite singer, a song by Tagore so allures me into rendering its spirit in another language that I feel I have to come as close to it as possible by translating it to the best of my ability. This means not only listening to the song again and again but also reading it on the printed page repeatedly, word by word, line by line, and stanza by stanza, time after time, till I feel I have been able to capture every aspect of it nuanced by Tagore by blending the tune and the song lyric as well as I could in the English language. In the end, of course, I fail to do so after a point, but the fascination of what is so appealing when heard, even if in the last analysis the task is an impossible one, induces me to render it into an alien language system after repeated readings and attempts to come up with a version that is close to the original in every way. I hope thereby to come to the heart of the song and am content to spend an hour or so on a few lines so that I can make its meaning clear to myself and then to others.                

Truly, there is a magical quality in the songs collected in my favorite book of this time—Tagore’s Gitabitan. It is a book that has also kindled the imagination of quite a few people—singers, musicians and translators— over eighty years now, making them represent the song-lyrics either as songs to be sung or as translations meant for foreign and even Bengal language speakers who might otherwise listen to a song swept away by the tune and opening lines without bothering with the later lines or making no attempt to understand its content.  The net result at the end of a few hours spent first reading many of the song closely, then reading my own translation again and again, is the satisfaction that I have been able to capture its essence in English through my translations. After all, and as Tagore himself has said, “the essence of a song is universal, even if its dress is local and national” (77). Why should I as a translator then not attempt to translate his songs for the world at large as well as myself even if their loveliness is uncatchable in the last analysis? He himself had led the way, and had learnt lessons along the process that were worth considering for later translators. I am hoping to bring out my own collection of translations of 350 plus songs by Tagore by the beginning of next year.

Let me point out that the title Tagore gave to the volume indicates that Gitabitan is meant to invite readers and musical devotees of the poet-composers to his “garden of songs.”  In all, the volume contains over 2,300 songs, nearly 1800 of whose tunes can be found in the musician-poet’s Swarabitan with their musical notations. In fact, there are sites now that you can google and access where you can find the Bengali words, some English translations, and notations, and even brief histories of the origins of the most commonly heard songs.

Let me point out too that Gitabitan itself is divided into six sections—songs of devotion, love, the six seasons of Bengal, patriotic songs, songs for festive and miscellaneous occasions, songs written for his plays and other publications. In their final form, the Gitabitan was published in 1941—the year the poet died. By now it has been reprinted, with new inclusions from scattered sources, innumerable times.

To conclude, why is Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitabitan my favourite book? He had himself said to Bengalis in 1939, “You can forget me, but how can you forget my songs?” Tagore’s collection of songs connects me to him endlessly, becoming a way of linking me as well with the universe and the Supreme Being and even my departed parents. They stir my patriotic side and make me one with the seasons of my country and its landscape and whatever is still romantic in me. And as I head towards the Great Unknown, they console me that there are possibilities of communion after we depart from this world as well!   

Fakrul Alam is Supernumerary Professor of English at the University of Dhaka

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Categories
Poetry

Rows of Betelnut Trees by My Window

Written by Kazi Nazrul Islam in 1929 in Chittagong, translated from Bengali by Professor Fakrul Alam

Areca nut or betel nut trees. Courtesy: Creative Commons
Farewell, neighbours of my nightly vigil, 
Standing aloft next to my window,
Companions, the night of parting elapses.
From this day ceases our secret exchanges,
From this day ends our quiet conversations....

Putting its worn forehead on the porch of the setting sky
The moon cries, “Traveler awake, night is all but over”
Night spreads across the forest deep; overcome with sleep,
It glances back, clasping in its hand its dark disheveled hair!

Startled, I wake up, wondering: whose breath brushes my forehead?
Who fans my warm forehead, who wakes up by my bedside?
I rise seeing by my window the sentinel of my dreams,
Companions of my dark nights, the row of betel nut trees!

Hadn’t we once viewed each other through fluttering eyelids?
Friends, I recall what we said to each other all night long!
When tears flowed from weary eyes beginning to burn,
Your leaves appear to me to be like the cooling palms
Of my beloved. The rustling of your leaves reminded me
Of her plaintive voice, calling out mournfully.
I saw in your leaves the kohl-dark shape of her eyes.
Your bodies in silhouette suggested her slim shape.
The gentle breeze wafting by evoked her delicate air.
Your branches seem to be draped with her sari’s borders.
And you fanned me as tenderly as she did with her hands!

These thoughts troubled me as I entered sleep’s domain.
As I slept, I felt the frill of your dark blue dresses lying
Unfurled besides my pillow. I saw in my dream you entering,
Furtively and fervently kissing my warm forehead.

Perhaps in the dream I extended my hands to touch you
Only to touch the window. Then I clasped your hands shyly.
Companions, now that window will have to be shut.
The path beckons, fellow travelers shout, “time to depart!”

This day before I take my leave
I feel like revealing myself to you as well as knowing you.
I feel close to your feelings; yet why does my insatiable mind
Yearn to hear from you the thoughts lodged in your bosom?
I know—we will never get to know each other physically,
Our hearts will only keep playing a tune of pain mournfully! 
 Perhaps I’ve seen a vision of you that is not like you at all.
But how can that harm you, if it does enough to swell my heart?
If my tears transform you into a thing of beauty,
If I can build a monument stirred by love of someone
As the Taj Mahal was built from the pain of losing Mumtaz,
Tell me, what harm will that do to anyone?
I won’t adorn my room with you, won’t create a paradise.... 

Perhaps birds never lighted on your branches,
In your bower, amidst your foliage, cuckoos never sang. 
Looking up to the heavens in exaggerated appeal
You kept vigil in the dark, though none stayed up
To open the window. But I was always the first to arrive,
And look at you in rapt attention in the dark. Departing lovingly,
On your leaves I wrote my first letters of love.
Let that be my consolation, whether I meet her or not....

Companions, I’ll never wake up again to look at you
I won’t interrupt anyone’s trance after a tumultuous day.
Silently, all alone, I’ll burn the incense of my suffering.

I shouldn’t ask, but can’t help doing so before leaving today—
From behind your wooden screen, did you view me lovingly too?
Did you also take a look at me when I opened the window?
Was it the wind or my love that made your leaves sway?
When behind your green borders, the moon will go to sleep,
And I will have to repress all happy feelings—
In your joyous moments, will you recall this passerby’s brief visit?
Will your voice resound in this empty room in loud lamentations?
Will the moonlight become insipid in your vision then?
Will you open shutters and look at the formless world outside?
Or will you keep standing rapt in your thoughts all day long?

Tied to exhausted earth, you’ve become a row of helpless trees,
Your feet are soiled with dust, your heads enveloped in emptiness.
Your days scald in the sun’s heat, your night’s chill in the dew,
You lack the strength to cry, you seem to be in a deathlike stupor.
If your problems fail to arouse you, companions, and stir you,
What can I hope to gain by burdening you with my gift of pain?...

*                  *                  *                 *                 

If I come to your mind by mistake, try to forget me,
If by mistake my windows open again,
Please shut them again.... Don’t look out in the dark at all
Through your wooden screen—for the one no longer on earth

The poem recited by Nazrul’s son, Kazi Sabyasaachi, in Bengali

Born in united Bengal, long before the Partition, Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976) was known as the  Bidrohi Kobi, or “rebel poet”. Nazrul is now regarded as the national poet of Bangladesh though he continues a revered name in the Indian subcontinent. In addition to his prose and poetry, Nazrul wrote about 4000 songs.

.

Fakrul Alam is an academic, translator and writer from Bangladesh. He has translated works of Jibonananda Das and Rabindranath Tagore into English and is the recipient of Bangla Academy Literary Award (2012) for translation and SAARC Literary Award (2012).

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Categories
Essay Interview Review

The Ultimate Genius of Kishore Kumar

An exhaustive essay by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri, one of the best film critics from India, an editor and writer along with an interview with the writers of the book, The Ultimate Biography, on the film legend and genius called Kishore Kumar

Kishore Kumar

Introducing the Genius of Kishore Kumar

Singer, composer, lyricist, director, writer, actor — Kishore Kumar was all this and more. Apart from Satyajit Ray, I can think of no other person in cinema whose talents ranged across so many departments. As a playback singer, he had no parallels – not Mohammad Rafi, not Hemant Kumar, no one came close. As an actor, he was almost surreal in comedies like Half Ticket and Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi[1]. It is only because we do not view comedy as an artform at par with tragedy and melodrama that his contribution as an actor has not been acknowledged. As a director and writer, he balanced the almost surreal Badhti Ka Naam Dadhi [2] with the minimalist Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin[3]. It is immensely sad that he did not have more films and songs to his credit as a composer and lyricist.

Take a look at these dialogues —

Kya dekh rahe ho, Prashant?

(What are you seeing Prashant)

Uss raaste ko jo duur pahariyon ke beech kho gaya.

(I lost myself in that distant road among the hills)

Haan, musafir aur raaste ka gehra sambandh hai. Shayad uss raaste ko dekh kar tum apni naye safar ke shuruwat ke barey me soch rahe hogay.

(Yes, the traveller and the road has a deep relationship. Perhaps seeing that road, you are thinking of a new start for yourself)

Jindegi ek safar hai, Joseph sahab, aur uss raaste ka koi anth nahin. Har purani raah ek nayi raah ko janam deti hai aur manzilon ke silsile kabhi khatam nehi hote. Sirf uska saath denewale musafir badal jatein hai.

(Life is a journey, Joseph sahab, and that way has no ending. A new path is born of old roads and the stories never end. Only the traveller changes.)

Theek kaha tumney, Prashant. Saath denewala musafir hamesha badal jatey hain. Magar na jane kyon log phir bhi jazbaati ho jatein hai. Darasal zindagi ka maqsad hai zindagi ka saath nibhana, par tum in raston ka saath nibhakar chaltey ho. Aisa kyon?

(You are right, Prashant. The travelling companions always change. But people for some unknown reason become emotional. Actually, the goal of life is to be with life, but you walk along the paths. Why?)

Unhi raaston mein hi toh zindagi hai, Joseph sahab … kahin khushi, kahin ansoo, kahin dukh, kahin hahakar, kahin itni bhook aur lachari ki insaan par zindagi bhari hain, aur kahin itni khushiyan ki aadmi sambhal hi nahin sambhalta. Hamein in sab ka saath nibhatey chalna hai … uss anjaney andekhe path par … jiska koi anth nahin…

(Those paths is where you find your life, Joseph Sahab… Our Life is full of happiness, tears, sorrows, despair, sometimes it is full so much hunger and desperation that life becomes a burden and sometimes there is so much happiness that it spills over. That unknown, untrod path knows no end.)

– A sequence from Door Ka Rahi[4], 1971

So entrenched is his reputation as a comic star that it might come as a surprise that this exchange above was scripted, directed and acted by Kishore Kumar in one of his most atypical roles.

In the wake of his madcap antics in Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1958) and Jhumroo (1961), and the sustained lunacy of Half Ticket (1962, where he plays Vijaychand vald Lalchand vald Dhyanchand vald Hukumchand alias the child Munna, as also his own mother, in a performance that has no parallel in Hindi cinema), Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein [5](1964) was probably what audiences and critics of the era might have least expected from Kishore Kumar.

Why only audiences and critics? As film folklore has it, even elder brother Ashok Kumar was sceptical of his ability to deliver the emotion required for serious songs. Composer Chitragupt had reportedly composed the beautiful ‘Itni badi yeh duniya’ [6](Toofan Mein Pyar Kahan[7],1966) only with Kishore Kumar in mind and even recorded it. Only to have the star of the film, Ashok Kumar, on whom the song was to be picturized, veto it. Ashok Kumar felt that his younger sibling did not have it in him to give the song the pathos it required and that only Mohammed Rafi could do it justice. The song was recorded again, this time by Rafi who did a brilliant job.

And yet in his directorial ventures, Kishore Kumar time and again presented a facet of himself that other filmmakers never tapped and no other producer had the vision to explore. Which is why each of these films had the singer multitasking as producer, director, actor, writer and composer.

Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein

Based on the 1958 Western The Proud Rebel, starring Alan Ladd, Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein is the story of a soldier, Shankar (Kishore Kumar), who returns from a war to find that his wife and father have perished in a fire that has destroyed his house. The trauma has robbed his ten-year-old son Ramu (Amit Kumar in his maiden film appearance) of his voice. Shankar sets out on a quest to treat his son and restore his voice. On the way, they are waylaid by a villainous Thakur (Raj Mehra) and his thuggish sons (played by Iftikhar and Sajjan). They are rescued by the kind-hearted Meera (Bengali superstar Supriya Devi), who shelters them and becomes a surrogate mother to Ramu.

It is unlike any film that Kishore Kumar had starred in (barring probably Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Musafir[8]). And though the inspiration may have been James Edward Grant’s story directed by Michael Curtiz, it is the influence of Satyajit Ray that is apparent in the making. The singer-director had reportedly watched Ray’s Pather Panchali[9] thirteen times before embarking on his directorial debut. The setting is rural (barring one sequence set in the city) and the director gives us a close look at the landscape, the ramshackle hutments, the swaying fields, the water rippling in the ponds, even the dog that follows Ramu every step of the way.

The film is of course now part of Hindi film legend because of its songs. Kishore Kumar himself wrote that ultimate father-son anthem ‘Aa chal ke tujhe’, a sequence that in the bonding between the two recalls the final sequences of Ray’s Apur Sansar[10]. Shailendra penned the other classics, including Koi lauta de meray[11]and Jin raaton ki bhor nahin hai[12]and two Asha Bhosle gems. But it is in the way that Kishore Kumar eschews all trappings of his comic persona to capture the little moments around the characters that the film stands out in the midst of the fluffy entertainers that characterised the era. Interestingly enough, Iftikhar, who plays the main villain, also designed and painted the film’s title cards.

The film was critically well-received, with even the impossible-to-please Baburao Patel of Filmindia calling it a film that “just misses out on being a classic”. Though not a big commercial success, the film did well enough, and Kishore Kumar had the last laugh vis-à-vis another film at the time which was expected to be a blockbuster. As Kishore Kumar narrated in his now-cult interview with Pritish Nandy, “It started with an audience of 10 people in Alankar. I know because I was in the hall myself … Even its release was peculiar. Subhodh Mukherjee, the brother of my brother-in-law, had booked Alankar for 8 weeks for his film April Fool[13], which everyone knew was going to be a blockbuster. My film, everyone was sure, was going to be a thundering flop. So, he offered to give me a week of his booking. Take the first week, he said flamboyantly, and I’ll manage within seven. After all, the movie can’t run beyond a week. It can’t run beyond two days, I reassured him. When 10 people came for the first show, he tried to console me. Don’t worry, he said, it happens at times. But who was worried? Then, the word spread. Like wildfire. And within a few days, the hall began to fill. It ran for all 8 weeks at Alankar, house full! Subodh Mukherjee kept screaming at me but how could I let go the hall? After 8 weeks when the booking ran out, the movie shifted to Super, where it ran for another 21 weeks! That’s the anatomy of a hit of mine. How does one explain it? … Can Subodh Mukherjee, whose April Fool went on to become a thundering flop?”

Door Ka Rahi[14]

With Door Ka Rahi (1971), Kishore Kumar goes a step further with his character. Hindi cinema seldom has a drifter as the protagonist. As a people, we do not take to characters who do not have a definite goal in life – in the world of Hindi films that either means pursuing the girl you love or avenging the death of your family and loved ones. Prashant (Kishore Kumar) is unlike any hero in Hindi cinema. He does not have a love interest. He has no family of his own. He refuses to settle down at one place. Prashant reminds me of Larry Darrell, the protagonist of Somerset Maugham’s Razor Edge[15].

The film opens with a sequence of an old man trudging his way through the snow before collapsing. As he breathes his last, he reminisces about his life and the many people he has known and whose lives he has touched. There’s Karuna who wants to set up home with him, there’s a group of orphans he takes care of, there’s his friend Vimal (Abhi Bhattacharya) and his family that includes his wife and her brother Jeetu (Amit Kumar) who are being exploited by their local zamindar and moneylender. In the final episode of the film, he comes across a widow Monica (Tanuja) and her father-in-law Joseph (Ashok Kumar). He reminds them of George, Joseph’s son and Monica’s husband. Even as Joseph proposes that he stay back and make a life with Monica, Prashant has to take a decision on the larger calling that beckons him.

If one thought that Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein would be a hard act to follow musically, Door Ka Rahi goes one better with what are possibly the finest philosophical numbers in any Hindi film ever. No other Hindi film in my view has songs that so evocatively capture the essence of a film. If Shailendra’s ‘Chalti chali jaaye[16]’, rendered by Hemanta Kumar in a splendid baritone, echoes the eternal journey that is life, Irshad’s words in ‘Panthi hoon main’, ‘Khushi do ghadi ki’ and the ephemeral ‘Beqarar dil tu gaaye ja’ evoke a spirit that few lyricists in Hindi cinema have managed. There’s also Manna Dey’s ‘Ek din aur gaya’ and the Kishore songlet ‘Mujhe kho jaane do’.

Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin

While Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein and Door Ka Rahi marked a break from the standard film fare of the times and Kishore Kumar’s image as an actor, Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin (1980) demonstrated his penchant for experimentation – one that earned the filmmaker plaudits from none other than Satyajit Ray himself.

He not only did away with songs – in itself a huge creative decision given his stature as a singer – he decided to shun music altogether in the film. Thus, you have that rare Hindi film that does not have a background score. Instead, there is a remarkable array of natural sounds filling in – the crunch of feet on snow, the rustle of leaves, the soughing of the breeze, and silences which accentuate the bleak and forlorn ambience of the film. 

The film begins with an extreme close-up of a pair of eyes watching a bird in flight against the vast expanse of the sky, accompanied by the azaan[17] on the soundtrack. The camera pulls back to reveal a man holding on to the bars of a prison window. Aslam (Kishore Kumar) is serving a term in this jail set in the middle of inhospitable mountainous terrain. He talks to the warden (Raza Murad – who is nameless in the film and is always addressed as ‘Inspector Sahab’) about how suffocating imprisonment can be for a man, and how envious he is of birds. At the first opportunity he gets, Aslam makes a run for it with his prison mate Ghulam Ali.

While Ghulam Ali dies during the escape, Aslam finds himself in a farm inhabited by a mother-daughter duo, Olivia (Bindu, in quite a turn with her grating voice, in one of her rare starring roles) and Jennifer (Shyamalee). His presence sets off a chain of events involving the women, both of whom take a fancy to this man from nowhere. Interestingly, if in Door Ka Rahi, Prashant is a free spirit refusing to be tied down to one place or any human attachment, in Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin, Aslam seeks to break free but fails. The escape from the prison only leads him to another one in the form of Olivia and Jennifer’s house. As he tells the inspector at the end, the world, life itself, is a prison. The only difference with his erstwhile prison is in scale. And the only escape lies in death.

Mamta Ki Chhaon Mein[18]

The last of these atypical films that he directed was his final outing too – Mamta Ki Chhaon Mein (1989). Unfortunately, Kishore Kumar passed away while the film was in production and it was Amit Kumar who completed it. Unlike the others in this list, Mamta Ki Chhaon Mein is not a very distinguished piece of filmmaking with a dated story celebrating the greatness of motherhood that belongs more to the hoary 1950s. It is surprising that Kishore, who broke away from established mores in the other films, zeroed in on this hackneyed theme for his swansong, which looks more like a love-letter to wife, Leena Chandavarkar.

The film tells the story of Gauri (Leena Chandavarkar) who brings up her son Niranjan (Amit Kumar) single-handedly. She nurses a secret about Niranjan’s father which forms the crux of the film. Niranjan grows up with the question about his father haunting him all his life. He travels to the nearby town for his higher studies, and it is here that he comes in contact with a man (Raj Babbar) who claims to know Gauri and gives Niranjan an unsavoury take on her past. Niranjan confronts his mother, but she refuses to divulge her secret, leading to the two falling out. The rest of the film deals with the story of Gauri’s past and Niranjan’s realization that he has been unfair to his mother.

It’s a poor film in every respect but it’s impossible not to feel nostalgic about a film that recreates one of Kishore’s cult crazy songs, ‘Allah Allah … Bhagwan bhagwan’ (Hum Do Daku[19], 1967). Or one that has what is probably Kishore’s last playback for Rajesh Khanna (who has a cameo in the film), aptly titled ‘Mera geet adhoora hai’[20]. It was reported in the media at the time that the director had wanted Amitabh Bachchan in the role. However, the star was not forthcoming and that affected the relationship between the two. Kishore in fact hinted at this in an interview at the time and named Manmohan Desai as the one responsible for the rift between him and the star whose voice he was.

Then there is the music of course. A standout album, this has some of Kishore’s most lovingly crafted songs. He himself sings two gems while Amit Kumar has four numbers which count among his best, including ‘Main ik panchhi matwala re[21](which he had earlier rendered in Door Ka Rahi) and the life-affirming ‘Beeti jaaye[22](the mukhda[23] of which harks back to the antara[24] of one of his hits from Jhumroo, ‘Ge ge ge geli jara Timbuktoo’[25]. The composer in Kishore Kumar could not have asked for a better album to bid adieu.

The Call of the Distant Horizon

There are certain aspects that one finds in common across these films. An old man looking back on life. A loner as the protagonist – a man with a love for the road as well as the road less taken. A man with a unique philosophy of life. Time and again in these films you have the protagonist articulating that he does not know who he is, nor where he comes from or is bound for. As the character in Door Ka Rahi says – door ko apne qareeb bula leta hoon aur khud ko apne se door kar leta hoon (I embrace that which is faraway while I distance myself from me). There’s a lingering sense of the fleeting nature of life, a longing for a lost past. These lines from the film that Kishore hums hold true for almost all the protagonists across these films:

Mujhe kho jaane do duniya ki nigahon se parey

Jahan na dhoond sakey koi nazar mera nishaan

Koi awaaz na pahunche, koi aansoo na bahey

Kisi tinke, kisi zarre ko na ho mera ghuman

Meri laash par rakhde kudrat hi ek safed kafan

Rooh ko meri nazaron mein hi kho jaane do

Dastaan meri hawaon ko hi dohrane do[26]

There’s an affinity for birds and the freedom they epitomize, for animals roaming in the wilderness, and for people at the margins, for example, the madman who befriends Ramu in Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein. And a genuine feel for harmony. It says something that the protagonist in Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin is a Muslim (the climax has a beautifully understated sequence where Aslam offers namaz while the police officer waits to arrest him) while Christians are pivotal characters in two of these films.

None of these films is set in a city. The cinematography (Aloke Dasgupta in the first two and Nando Bhattacharya in the rest) captures the everyday sight and sound of the countryside. There’s a song in a bullock cart in each of these films (barring Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin) which articulate a philosophy of life and that of the film – Door Ka Rahi and Mamta Ki Chhaon Mein begin with such a song. There’s a feel for the topography that is very ‘Western’ in its look. Parts of Door Ka Rahi evoke Shane [27]as the man rides from one destination to the next (Shane was probably a favourite of the singer as his unfinished film Neela Aasmaan[28]has a song, ‘Akela hoon main is jahan mein[29]’, inspired by Shane’s theme). Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein is of course based on a Western and Kishore invokes the look of the original at many places. Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin stands out for some breath-taking shots of the barren snowy terrain against which the drama plays out.

These film of Kishore Kumar may not have been great commercial successes. And his craft as a filmmaker may not secure him a rank among the best. There is however no denying his desire to go out on a limb and give us films that leave you with something to reflect on. He was seemingly unperturbed by the fact that the films wouldn’t run. As he told Pritish Nandy, “I tell my distributors to avoid my films. I warn them at the very outset that the film might run for a week at the most … Where will you find a producer-director who warns you not to touch his film because even he can’t understand what he has made.”

And yet he made them. Why? “Because,” as he said, “the spirit moves me. I feel I have something to say.”

On the evidence of these films, despite their flaws, the spirit behind them has the power to move the viewer too.

Book Review of The Ultimate Biography

Given the range of his contribution and the eccentricities that defined his personal life, a biography of Kishore Kumar that adequately covers his life and times is a tall ask. Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Parthiv Dhar’s exhaustive biography of the legend, audaciously titled The Ultimate Biography, pulls it off – well, almost.

For one, it is a pleasure to come across a biography of a legend like Kishore Kumar that does not seem like an armchair hack job (refer to, say, Aseem Chhabra’s book on Shashi Kapoor, Yaseer Usman’s on Guru Dutt, Rajeev Vijaykar’s atrocious ones on Laxmikant-Pyarelal and Dharmendra and the many banalities that go for biographies these days). At close to 600 pages, this one is a painstakingly researched tome. And it does not even talk about his repertoire as a singer in that great a detail. As co-author Anirudha Bhattacharjee tells me, “If I were to make a selection of even a hundred of his songs – an impossible task – and talk about them, this book would have gone beyond 2000 pages.”

Despite that, what the book covers by way of the trajectory of Kishore’s life is commendable. The authors have gone to great lengths to get first-person accounts, supplementing that with a great eye for trivia and other obscure facts. They incorporate all of this in bite-sized chapters, most of them three to four pages long, so that the reading never gets tedious. It also gives the book that essential quality in an era of short attention spans: you can open to any page and start reading. Though it does come at the cost of a detailed analysis of any one aspect.

And it is a delight to have such detailed indexes – a general one and a song index – in a book. Most publishers have abandoned the index to cut costs.

If I say the authors ‘almost’ pull it off, it is because the language leaves something to be desired. It could have done with a more rigorous copy-edit. The book gets off to an unfortunate start with the preface whose first paragraph had me scratching my head. And the inelegancies continue to haunt the careful, close reader off and on, with erroneous words, wrong sentence construction, often the syntax at odds. The authors seem to get carried away with the information they have to share, and some passages are a trifle overblown.

One would also have loved to see the authors playing it a little less safe, assessing Kishore Kumar vis-à-vis his contemporaries, or providing a more comprehensive reading of his directorial ventures. Or for that matter talking of what accounts for his popularity in the years after his death. During my growing years, I distinctly remember reading about him being dismissed offhand – Naushad’s comments are part of cinematic folklore (he in fact left the jury when it was decided to honour Kishore with the Tansen Samman). I grew up with people who swore by Rafi and Manna Dey, Naushad and Madan Mohan. And Kishore, despite his popularity, was someone who always came off second best in these conversations. Something shifted in the last thirty years. It would have been fascinating to understand what did. In response to my question on this, Parthiv Dhar says, “Nothing changed. Naushad was an aberration.” He goes on to mention the crowds at Kishore’s funeral. Which is not the issue here. Something in the way we consume music has led to a Kishore and RD [30] fandom like it probably never existed during their lifetimes. Why is it that with the opening of the airwaves, so to say, Kishore and RD have ruled almost all channels broadcasting music? None of their contemporaries – not Rafi, not Laxmikant-Pyarelal, definitely not Naushad or Mukesh – have enjoyed the kind of revival they have. 

The authors do not leave anything out – but the text often tends to become a chronological litany of facts. Fascinating, no doubt. And invaluable. But I could never shrug off the feeling that a book that has so much history and offers such delights, with authors who know the subject so well and don’t stint on research, should have been a little more.

Interview

Tell us something about the process of writing the book. Given that all the dramatis personae are long gone, how difficult was it to put information together.

Parthiv Dhar: Anirudha-da and I go a long way. In fact, around 2004-05, we started a campaign for the Bharat Ratna for Kishore Kumar, and did quite a fair bit of work. Probably it was at that time that writing a book on Kishore Kumar crossed our minds. I remember, we were clueless on the structure of the book owing to the multidimensional persona that Kishore was. My visit to Khandwa in 2010 and Anirudha-da’s book on R.D. Burman (with Balaji Vittal) winning the national award provided the much-needed impetus. Graduating to Kishore was a natural progression.

The visit to Khandwa made me realise that it would be a crime not to write a book on him, given the paucity of knowledge. Kishore himself did not help matters much by being extremely economical with the press. The Khandwa and Indore visits brought me close to his friends and their families, his caretaker at the Ganguly House, his college professors who went out of their way in sharing with us breath-taking anecdotes and documents. Fittingly, the book is dedicated to Khandwa. Apart from that we had a fantastic time at Bhagalpur, interacting with his relatives like Ratna-di, daughter of his cousin Arun Kumar, getting a treasure trove of unknown events related to his maternal side. Meeting his secretary Abdul was also a high point in the making of the book.

The decision to structure the narrative by ragas and their times: dawn, afternoon, evening. You slot Aradhana[31] in the evening. I found that interesting.

Anirudha Bhattacharjee: The structure with ragas developed organically given the enormous amount of material we had. The first draft was over a 1000 pages long. Giving it the structure enabled us to get clarity. As for Aradhana appearing under an evening raga … Madhubala passed away in 1969. That was probably a setback. His mother too passed away after a year. Kishore’s tenure as a hero had almost come to an end. He was forty. If we go back in time, K.L. Saigal passed away at the age of forty-two. Critics were urging Lata to stop singing in the late 1960s. She withdrew from the Filmfare awards after 1969. Hence, we equated the time with the evening of their lives. And extrapolated it to Kishore Kumar’s as well. Kishore had great strength of character and turned the tide … but that’s another story.

Would you say that Kishore was the one true maverick genius of Hindi cinema, maybe even Indian cinema? The only other person who comes to mind is Satyajit Ray.

Parthiv Dhar: Kishore Kumar was a phenomenon, the likes of whom you rarely encounter. He was perhaps the only person in showbiz whose reel and real lives were mirror images of each other. Precisely why there was no reason for him to ‘act’. You never knew whether he was acting on screen or being his own self. That held true even for his real life. His ratio of hits to total songs composed must be one of the highest in the world. He tried everything that the camera and the studios offered but unfortunately there were occupational hazards that clipped his wings. Had some of his unreleased songs and movies seen the light of day, he would have been unassailable. That he did all these only by pure observations and without any formal training made him a genius. As Rama Varma told us in a chat, he had the ability to identify shortcomings in a particular guitar string in the midst of a session without even looking at the guitar or the guitarist. Genius would be too small a word for him. However, we have not assumed much in the book and left the readers to judge for themselves.

What in your view is his greatest contribution to the art of playback singing in India? The one thing that sets him apart from all the rest.

Parthiv Dhar: Definitely the fact that he made singing appear so easy that emulation became an everyday affair. The clones would, of course, realise that the songs were after all not everybody’s cup of tea. But everyone would attempt a Kishore song. The very fact that he was an actor made him think like one when he would playback. Also, he was perhaps the only one to develop his texture and baritone with infrastructural progress each decade after independence. This led to him being probably the only one to realize that tragic songs need to make the audience cry, not the singer.

Anirudha Bhattacharjee: All our male singers except Bhupinder and too some extent Yesudas have been tenors. Maybe the timber has varied, but they are tenors, nevertheless. In my opinion, K.L. Saigal, Kishore Kumar and Pankaj Mullick were tenors who had a unique quality in their voice: ‘dhaar’ and ‘bhaar’ (sharpness and weight). This they used to great advantage. For other singers, it was a case of either/or. Hence, Kishore could playback for Dev Anand using his ‘dhaar’ (Hum hain rahi pyaar ke[32]), complement it with some ‘bhaar’ and ‘mizaaz[33]’ when he sang for Rajesh Khanna (Kuch toh log kahenge[34]), and use his ‘bhaar’ when he sang for Amitabh Bachchan (O saathi re[35]). He also had a strong swarranth[36], which gave the songs resonance. Plus, his flux density was unique. Even with such a heavy voice, it would remain steady when negotiating long notes, something very difficult to achieve. I know from experience as I sing.

He sang Saigal’s ‘Dil jalta hai[37]in reverse, set the Malthusian theory to tune, introduced scatting, yodelling, nonsense/gibberish words (bam chik chik) to music in India … where would you place these innovations in his output? Do you think his comic genius came in the way of him being taken seriously as a singer for the longest time?

Parthiv Dhar: He was born to innovate, and his childhood is testimony to that. Lateral thinking and he went hand in hand. Domesticating jackals, singing in reverse, giving nicknames to almost every friend, composer … the list is endless. How he handled the goof-up in Baap re Baap [38]is a terrific example of his innovation. Similarly, making a wardrobe malfunction in Badhti Ka Naam Dadhi the reason for executing anything and everything as a director’s prerogative could be another.

However, it is probably not true that his comic persona had anything to do with his singing. He started his career with several serious songs while simultaneously making people laugh in his movies. He gained recognition as a serious actor courtesy his roles in Bandi[39] and Naukri and was known as a sufficiently good actor. He sang for all the top music directors till as late as 1958. That he had a long gap after that could be attributed to his preoccupation with Madhubala’s health.

Let’s talk about him as an actor … would you agree that as a comic he had no parallels in India? It is only because comedy is not regarded as a genuine art form in India that there has been little recognition of him as an actor.

Parthiv Dhar: A very difficult question and not proper to say that he had no parallels. It should not be forgotten that he was a hero in almost 99 per cent of his films, a fact renowned actors would be proud of. While reviewing Bandi, critics had placed him above his more famous brother (in those days). As mentioned earlier, he did not enact comedy, it was in his DNA although by nature he was an equally serious person. His comedy was a mix of slapstick, mimicry, antics. Very few would enact comic role as a hero for the entire length of time without appearing stale. Kishore Kumar had that quality.

Where would you rank him as a filmmaker? Do you think he tended to overcompensate for his madcap image with his own films which were ‘serious’? Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin is a rather daring experimentation, even if the execution is amateurish. Even Ray commended its sound design. Your comments.

Anirudha Bhattacharjee: As a filmmaker, he was a lateral thinker. He tried unique subjects. But the issue is that he got entangled in too many activities at the same time and could never devote himself properly to making films. Had he concentrated only on filmmaking, he might have made some great films. Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein and Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin could have been classics.

You devote an entire chapter to Laxmikant Pyarelal. His songs with LP are not spoken of as much. You correct that, though you focus on their early collaborations…

Anirudha Bhattacharjee: We focused on Mr X in Bombay[40], Sreemaan Funtoosh [41]and Hum Sab Ustaad Hain[42] primarily because these films gave him the dimension of a singer first and a hero later. Till then Kishore was viewed as an actor who also used to sing. People forgot Mr X in Bombay (it was a bad film) but remembered ‘Mere mehboob qayamat hogi[43]. Ditto for Sreemaan Funtoosh and Hum Sab Ustaad hain. Most did not even see these films. But ‘Yeh dard bhara afsana[44]’ and ‘Ajnabee tum jaane pehchane se lagte ho[45] became classics. So, on one side, Kishore emerged as a singer, while the actor gradually faded into the background. LP had a key role in this transformation.

(Originally published in The Telegraph, Kolkata)

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is a film buff, editor, publisher, film critic and writer. Books commissioned and edited by him have won the National Award for Best Book on Cinema twice and the inaugural MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Images) Award for Best Writing on Cinema. In 2017, he was named Editor of the Year by the apex publishing body, Publishing Next. He has contributed to a number of magazines and websites like The Daily Eye, Cinemaazi, Film Companion, The Wire, Outlook, The Taj, and others. He is the author of two books: Whims – A Book of Poems (published by Writers Workshop) and Icons from Bollywood (published by Penguin/Puffin).


[1] 1958 movie produced by Kishore Kumar, also the lead actor.

[2] 1974 movie directed by Kishore Kumar, also the lead actor.

[3] In the Distant Valleys, 1980 film directed by Kishore Kumar, also the lead actor.

[4] The Distant Wayfarer, 1971 film

[5] Under the Shelter of the Sky

[6] Such a Large World

[7] Is there Love in Stormy Weather

[8] Traveler, 1957 film where Kishore Kumar played the lead

[9] Song of the Little Road, 1955 Satyajit Ray film

[10] The World of Apu, Satyajit Ray film 1959

[11] Someone return my… lyrics of a song sung by Kishore Kumar

[12]  Where nights do not have a dawn… lyrics of a song sung by Kishore Kumar

[13] 1964 film

[14] The Distant Traveler, 1971 film written, directed by Kishore Kumar who acted in the lead role.

[15] 1984 book with a title based on the Upanishads

[16] Let’s go on… lyrics of a song

[17] Prayers calls of the Muezzin

[18] In the Shadow of a Mother’s Love

[19] We, Two Bandits

[20] My song is half sung

[21] I am an intoxicated bird

[22] Past goes

[23] Middle of the song

[24] Start of the song

[25] Those who go to Timbuktoo

[26] Translation of the lines:

Let me loose myself from the sight of the world
Where no one can find me:
No voices reach me, no tears be shed for me, 
No straw, no inklings trace my thoughts.
Drape my body in a white shroud.
Even spirits should lose sight of me --
My being should only waft in the breeze…

[27] 1953 American film

[28] Blue Skies, 1961 film

[29] ‘I am alone in this world’

[30] RD Burman (1939-1994), Indian music director who composed film scores for more than 300 movies.

[31] Worship, a 1969 film

[32] ‘We are wayfarers of love’

[33] Mood of the song

[34] People will say somethings…

[35] O Companions…

[36] Ending of the song

[37] ‘The heart burns’ sung by legenedary singer KL Saigal(1904-1947)

[38] My God!, 1955 film starring Kishore Kumar

[39] Slave, 1957 film starring Kishore Kumar

[40] 1964 film starring Kishore Kumar

[41] Mr Funtoosh, 1965 film starring Kishore Kumar

[42] We are all Experts, 1965 film starring Kishore Kumar

[43] ‘My Sweetheart will be a astounding’

[44] ‘This moment filled with pain’

[45] ‘Stranger you look familiar’

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is a film buff, editor, publisher, film critic and writer. Books commissioned and edited by him have won the National Award for Best Book on Cinema twice and the inaugural MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Images) Award for Best Writing on Cinema. In 2017, he was named Editor of the Year by the apex publishing body, Publishing Next. He has contributed to a number of magazines and websites like The Daily Eye, Cinemaazi, Film Companion, The Wire, Outlook, The Taj, and others. He is the author of two books: Whims – A Book of Poems(published by Writers Workshop) and Icons from Bollywood (published by Penguin/Puffin).

Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

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

Categories
Essay

T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land: Finding Hope in Darkness

By Dan Meloche

One hundred years ago, T.S Eliot wrote ‘The Waste Land’ to find meaning in troubled times. As we wrestle with trouble in our own times, an examination of Eliot’s paean to chaos can prove instructive. Horrified by the return of war in Europe, disturbed by the looming threat of environmental collapse, and fatigued by over two years of a resilient pandemic, we crave relief and inklings of hope. In Eliot’s poem, relief does not come without tarrying with the darkness. In his 433-line poem, slivers of hope are crowded by the ubiquitous memento mori, the constant reminders of death. With his own hope compromised by a series of personal crises, Eliot’s fractured self mirrored a Europe fractured by the incomprehensibility of the millions sacrificed on European battlefields. To heal the fracturing, the poem represents a therapeutic exercise not only for the poet, but also a generation. After the questionably named Great War, cultural revisions produced modernism, representing a significant departure from traditional poetic sensibilities. 

Before World War I, war retained a nobility exemplified in the “six hundred” of Tennyson’s ‘Light Brigade‘ (1854). After World War I, Tennyson’s sentiment of “Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die” no longer reflected the misery and absurdity of millions sacrificed for a few acres of mud. As the world changes, so does its art. To restore both a fractured mind and a fractured generation, ‘The Waste Land’ assembles meaning from ruins and conflated mythologies to spring hope. Rife with allusions, sometimes obvious, often obscure, Eliot’s poem aligns with modernist principles as multiple narrative voices range freely across landscapes of time and memory.

In the poem’s opening section, hope does not sing forth as in a Dickinson (1830-1886) poem, but lays disassembled in the ruins of desolate imagery. A spark of hope is initiated by a female narrative voice recalling an idyllic childhood tobogganing episode: “In the mountains, there you feel free.” The pleasant recollection shifts dramatically into the middle of a land of “stony rubbish,” “broken images,” and a “dead tree (that) gives no shelter, the cricket no relief”. In a parenthetical note, a whispering narrator offers a hint to relief: “Only there is shadow under this red rock, (Come in under the shadow of this red rock).” The secret told in that shadow comes in the following four lines:

"And I will show you something different from either 
Your shadow at morning striding behind you 
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you: 
I will show your fear in a handful of dust."

What you leave behind is the past and what rises to meet you is the future. The “something different” is what lies between: the eternal present. In ‘The Waste Land’, our reckoning with death produces a despair that can only be relieved by moving meditatively out of time.

In 1922, the war has ended, yet trauma echoes within the workers who return to re-ignite the engine of economic growth. In the final stanza of the opening section, the poet gives us London’s financial district (The City) and a crowd flowing over London Bridge. Emotionally wrought automatons, the men carry a despair that manifests their drudgery: “Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled, / And each man fixed his eyes before his feet”. Within this crowd, the narrator recognises his comrade and calls to him: “Stetson! / You were with me in the ships at Mylae!” He does not recognise him from Passchendaele or the Somme, but from the first Punic War between Rome and Carthage in 330 B.C. Whether in modern Europe or ancient Rome, war is inevitable, and solace is often elusive. The dead, “planted” and sustained in our collective memory, can serve to assuage our despondency: “That corpse you planted last year in your garden, / Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?” April is indeed “the cruellest month” as the lilacs bred “out of the dead land” are fertilised by dead soldiers. Such is the dubious shape of hope in the aftermath of industrial scale war.

To conjure further hope, Eliot assembles mythologies and merges fragments with references to the Hindu Upanishads, Shakespeare, and the myth of the Fisher King. In the poem’s final section, reference to the Upanishads serves as an incantation to “controlling hands” of a governing Thunder that gives, sympathizes, and controls. Like a “broken Coriolanus”, we are compelled to surrender on the path of cruel iniquities that lead to our “obituaries”. Without surrender, we may suffer the same fate as Coriolanus, whose excess pride cost him his life. As Thunder exhorts humility, Eliot, as narrator, assumes the place of the Fisher King, the wounded sovereign who governs his barren lands: “I sat upon the shore / Fishing, with the arid plain behind me”.  In ‘The Waste Land’, will a hero fulfill the myth of the Fisher King by arriving to restore both the wounded king and the “arid plain”? Eliot’s answer comes with the rhetorical question, “Shall I at least set my lands in order?” A hero will not come, and the fracturing of both Eliot and his generation endures as aridity persists. In the worst times, the only way to elicit hope comes with adjusting our expectations. For Eliot, his “fishing” is the resumption of his creative endeavours despite the prevailing aridity. To carry on, we must make peace with the circumstances of our time. Eliot invokes this in his final line with the chant that ends each Upanishad: “Shantih     shantih     shantih.”

In his notes on the poem, Eliot equates this final line with Philippians 4:7 and the “peace that passeth all understanding”. Sifting through the ashes of a destroyed Europe or diagnosing the causes of psychological fracture will not yield peace. Peace comes not from understanding why the trauma happened, but from reaching outside the chaos to a higher order. Eliot’s final allusion marks a harbinger to his conversion to Anglicanism in 1927, wherein he found community and peace for the rest of his life.

As the war continues in the Ukraine, memories of the dead live on in the trauma of the living. To cope with that trauma, hope sustains those huddled in the Kyiv metro stations. Below the missile bursts above, Ukrainians singing traditional songs and the national anthem will not bring back the dead, but it will limit the fracturing: “The glory and freedom of Ukraine has not yet perished.”

.

Dan Meloche is a full-time professor at Algonquin College in Ottawa. When he isn’t teaching English, social psychology, and economics, he reads widely and writes reviews and personal account essays.

Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

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Categories
Poetry

Murmuration by Jared Carter

Starlings’ Murmuration. Courtesy: Creative Commons
MURMURATION

Nothing that can last, only this
          vast enchantment,
This breaking through – the sudden shifts
          and turns, torrents

Of light and dark unerringly
          expanding, now
Dissolving – stark asymmetry
          revealing how

What vanishes returns. These are
          the magi, drawn
To ancient practice, journeyed far,
          still moving on.

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
Poetry

Poetry by Asad Latif

Courtesy: Creative Commons
TARINI

As the Intercity
takes a bend
a six-year-old runs
to a carriage's end.
Sixty-five years
have left me here.
"Where are you going?"
she asks.
"Oldcastle," I say.
"On this Newcastle train?"

She laughs
her way back
to the front.
Ballerina of a
swaying stage,
two minutes later
she's fetched
a colouring book
with parrots and
trees waiting to
be painted
in all the
hues
known
to light
or shade
before
this evening
is finally dead.

"How old are you?"
she demands.
"Guess."
"Eleven."
"Yes."

Infant balladeer
of my laughing age,
let's get serious.
Your name
carries mortals
across the rivers
of life and rage.
Here and now
Sing, sing and sing
of the seasons
winging their
way back in
to me
on a long
Australian evening
that abhors
any thought
of summer dying.

A station
approaches.
"Sweetie, come,"
her mother calls.

Oh no
Tarini.
Don't go away.
Can't you stay
to send me
on my way?
I wish
you'd see,
the traveller
receding in me.
When this train
comes to rest
won't your
eyes lift my feet
from platform
to concourse
and then
to the street
overhead?
Won't you see
my breath 
never break
its promise
to my knees
to rise in respect
to the nearness
of the new?
Won't you see
an old man
bowing
to the storm
in you?

Tarini
stay
or return.
Tarini
shape
my passing
into form.

 Asad Latif is a Singapore-based journalist. He can be contacted at badiarghat@borderlesssg1

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