Categories
Poetry

More Poems from Arundhathi Subramaniam

When God is a Traveller
(wondering about Kartikeya, Muruga, Subramania, my namesake)

 
Trust the god
back from his travels,

his voice wholegrain 
       (and chamomile),
his wisdom neem,  
     his peacock, sweaty-plumed,
     drowsing in the shadows. 

Trust him 
who sits wordless on park benches
listening to the cries of children
fading into the dusk,
     his gaze emptied of vagrancy,
     his heart of ownership.

Trust him
who has seen enough --
revolutions, promises, the desperate light
of shopping malls, hospital rooms, 
manifestos, theologies, the iron taste 
of blood, the great craters in the middle 
                           of love.
                 
Trust him
who no longer begrudges 
his brother his prize,
his parents their partisanship.

Trust him
whose race is run,
whose journey remains,

who stands fluid-stemmed
knowing he is the tree
that bears fruit, festive 
     with sun.

Trust him
who recognizes you –
auspicious, abundant, battle-scarred, 
                     alive --
and knows from where you come.

Trust the god
ready to circle the world all over again
this time for no reason at all
     
other than to see it 
through your eyes. 



(Excerpted from When God is a Traveller, Bloodaxe Books, UK, 2014)

Eight Poems for Shakuntala


1


So here you are,
just another mixed-up kid,
daughter of a sage
and celestial sex worker,
clueless
like the rest of us
about your address  --
     hermitage or castle
     earth or sky
     here or hereafter.

What did you expect? 

What could you be 
but halfway,
forever interim?

What else 
but goddamn 
human?

 
2


The trick, Shakuntala,  
is not to see it
as betrayal 

when the sky collapses
and closes in
as four windowless walls

with a chipped Mickey Mouse magnet
on the refrigerator door

or as eviction

when the ceiling crumbles
and you walk 
into a night of stars.

 
3


Yes, there’s the grizzled sage Kanva
his clarity
      that creeps into your bones
      like warmth on a winter evening
as you watch
the milky jade
of the river Malini flow by,
serene, annotated 
by cloud

and there’s a home 
that will live evergreen
in the folklore of tourist brochures, 
      detonating 
with butterflies.

But what of those nights
when all you want 

is a lover’s breath, 

      regular, 
      regular,

starlight through a diaphanous curtain,
and a respite 
from too much wisdom?  

 
4


Besides, who hasn’t known Dushyanta’s charms?

The smell of perspiration, 
the sour sharp beginnings 
of decay

that never leave a man 
who’s breathed the air 
of courtrooms and battlefields.

A man with winedark eyes who knows
of the velvet liquors and hushed laughter
in curtained recesses.

A man whose smile is abstraction 
and crowsfeet, whose gaze 
is just a little shopsoiled,

whose hair, mussed 
by summer winds, still crackles 
with the verbal joust of distant worlds.

Who hasn’t known
a man cinnamon-tongued,
stubbled
with desire

and just the right smear
       of history?



 
5


The same hackneyed script.
The same old cast. 

Springtime
and the endless dress rehearsal --

a woman lustrous eyed,
a deer, two friends,
the lotus, the bee,
the inevitable man,
the heart’s sudden anapest.

Nothing original
but the hope 

of something new
between parted lips.

A kiss --
jasmine lapis moonshock.

And around the corner
with the old refrain, 
this chorus,
(Sanskrit, Greek, whatever):

It’s never close enough
It’s never long enough
It’s never enough
It’s never


 
6


As for his amnesia,
be fair.

He recognized the moment
when he saw it --

    sun    springtime    woman --  

and all around
thick, warm, motiveless 
green. 

Can we blame him 
for later erasing the snapshot
forgetting his lines
losing the plot?

We who still wander along alien shorelines
hoping one day to be stilled

    by the tidal gasp
    of recollection?

We whose fingers still trail the waters,
restless as seaweed,
hoping to snag
the ring in the belly of a deep river fish --

    round    starlit    uncompromised?

 
7


What you might say to the sage:    

It only makes sense
if you’re looking for me too

wild-eyed 
but never despairing,

certain
I’ll get through eventually

through palace and marketplace,
the smoky minarets of half-dreamed cities,

     and even if you know
     how it all ends

I need to know you’re wandering the forest 
     repeating the lines you cannot forget --

my conversations with the wind and the deer,
my songs to the creeper,

     our endless arguments
     about beginnings and endings.

Let’s hear it from you, big daddy
old man, keeper of the gates.

I need to know wise men
weep like little boys.

I need to hear your words,
     hoarse,
     parched,
     echoing

through the thickening air
and curdled fog 
of this endless city --
 
‘Come back, Shakuntala.’

 

8


And what you might say of the ending:  

Yes, it’s cosy --
family album in place, 
a kid with a name
to bequeath to a country,

perhaps even a chipped magnet 
on the refrigerator door.

I’m in favour of happy endings too
but not those born of bad bargains.

Next time
let there be a hermitage
in coconut green light,
     the sage and I in conversation,

two friends at the door, weaving
     garlands of fragrant dream
          through days long and riverine

and gazing at a waterfront
stunned by sun,
     my mother, on an indefinite sabbatical  
          from the skies.  

And let me never take for granted
this green into which I was born,

this green without ache,
this green without guile,

stippled with birdcall,
bruised with sun,

this clotted green,
this unpremeditated green.

And as wild jasmine blooms in courtrooms
and lotuses in battlefields

let warriors with winedark eyes
and hair rinsed in summer wind

gambol forever with knobble-kneed fawns
in the ancient forests of memory.



(Excerpted from When God is a Traveller, Bloodaxe Books, UK, 2014) 


The Fine Art of Ageing

1. 

It’s not that Avvaiyar* doesn’t admire
the green impertinence 
of sapling bodies

or the way a middle-aged woman
can smile 
at an ex-lover, an ex-rival,   
and effortlessly attain a kind 
of goddesshood.

She’s not against play-acting either. 
She enjoys the smell of fiction,
knows it’s fun to pretend
at immortality.

She knows centuries are separated
by historians, not poets,

that now and then
are divided by
the thinnest membranes
of belief,


that there’s not much difference
really

between lush shola grasslands 
stunned by a blue fusillade
of kurinji flowers

and urban jungles 
moistly evergreen 
with people on the make.

But she knows the journey
from goddess to gran,
sylph to hag, 
prom queen to queen mum,
is longer than most,
more tortuous.

She knows also
that folklore has its stories,
newspapers too,
of old kings 
dewrinkling 
into young men

(a man called Yayati, for instance,
conqueror of free radicals, victor of fine lines,
high on a son’s sacrifice, women, fine wines,

collagen, spirulina, vitamin E,
macadamia nuts, extracts of green tea, 

triclosan, selenium, proplylene glycol,
alpha hydroxy acids, bergamot, retinol).

Avvaiyar makes
another choice.

Spare me the desperation of the old, 
she says, 
and the puerility of the young.

Spare me the glamour 
of being youthful wife to five princes --
Draupadi, the fruit everyone wants to peel.

And spare me the sainthood
of mad women mystics 
who peel off their own rind
before others can get to them
          (vaporizing  
           into the white jasmine scent 
           of hagiography).

Avvaiyar makes
another choice --

fearless friend to gods,
ally of peasants,

counselor to kings,
traveler of the darkest streets,

she walks the world alone.

And on such a path, she says, 
it’s best to be 
a crone.



*Avvaiyar: legendary poet and wise woman of Tamil literature. The name (literally ‘respectable old woman’) was probably accorded to more than one poet in the canon.

Arundhathi Subramaniam is a poet who has recently won the Sahitya Akademi Award, 2020, for her book When God is a traveller (2014). She has authored a number of books and won multiple awards and fellowships. She has been part of a number of numerous anthologies and journals.

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Categories
Musings

Leo Messi’s Magic Realism

By Saurabh Nagpal

Though it emerged as a political response to Eurocentric, objective forms of literature, magic realism is a postcolonial literary mode, which in its most elementary sense, fuses the fantastic, the magical, the mythical, the imaginary, the supernatural with the realistic, displaying the unbelievable in everyday, modern society in a very normal and acceptable manner. Unlike surrealism, this literary form does not make grandiose claims of transcending reality and unlike realism, it does not aim to represent one absolute Truth, rather it seeks to amplify the scope of and incorporate variant realities. One way in which magic realism functions is that it strives to defamiliarise the mundane, that is, to open alternatives, differing points of view on commonplace things and phenomena for its audience, thereby presenting newer realities. This literary form aspires to heighten the awareness of life’s connectedness or hidden meanings for its reader.

German intellectual, Franz Roh, coined the term ‘magic realism’ in 1925, however, the sense in which he used the term differs mightily from the literary genre that was responsible for the Latin American literary boom of the 1960s and 70s, and the revival of the novel form. The genre of magic realism finds its essence and context in the socio-political reality of Latin America. Alejo Carpentier, in his essay, On the Marvellous Real in America, delineates that in magic realism “improbable juxtapositions and marvellous mixtures exist by virtue of Latin America’s varied history, geography, demography, and politics – not by manifesto.” Gabriel García Márquez, a champion of this form, often elucidated that magic realist writings were unfathomable or were things to marvel at for a Western or a non-Latin-American reader, but for the natives, the so-called magical or imaginary was merely a part of their reality.

Lionel Andrés Messi, born on June 24, 1987, in Rosario, Argentina, hails from the land of literary giants and masters of the magic realism genre like Jorges Luis Borges and Julio Cortazar. Anyone who even has an inkling of football would have, most certainly, heard the name of Messi. Those more familiar with the beautiful game would be aware of the ridiculous records that he has set, the feats that he has achieved, the trophies that he has won, individual and collective, and so forth.

While his achievements are quantifiable, to a limited extent, in terms of goals, assists, trophies, and in the numerous new forms of statistical and analytical data catalogue tools that are emerging with the speed of light in the football industry, his greatest accomplishments still remain in the qualitative and emotional realm – he is a professor of joy and jubilance; a distributor of dreams; an inspiration to millions; a poet of bodily, sporting, and physiological aesthetics.

Messi’s astonishing or as the commentator Ray Hudson might put it, “magisterial” goals and moments of sheer excellence on the greens of a football turf are unforgettable and hence, very well documented, whether it be the dribbling wondergoal against Getafe in 2007 or against Real Madrid in the 2011 Champions League semifinal or against Athletic Bilbao in the 2015 Copa Del Rey final or that herculean header against Manchester United in the 2009 Champions League final or the outrageous chip against Real Betis in La Liga in 2019 or against Bayern Munich in the 2015 Champion’s League semifinal or the motley of searing free kicks that he has scored over the years. Honestly, the list is unending.

However, I want to emphasize that there is magic present in most, if not all, games that Messi plays in; that this magic is his every game reality; that he, in a way, defamiliarises football through his ability and body. This magic does not only exist in the dumbfounding, jaw-dropping goals that he scores or the killer assists that he makes (although it is most perceptible in such moments) but it also percolates through his whole manner of playing. It even resides in the seemingly less productive or significant things and movements that he performs on the field.

He stands at 5 feet 6 inches and visibly does not have the towering physique of an ultra-athlete that is fast becoming the norm of the game. He often slouches, bides his time by walking during a game, but his strolls are purposeful. While sauntering, he usually reads the game, mentally maps his surroundings, and acquires a nuanced kinesthetic awareness of his region. He does not have one of the fastest brains in the game for no reason.

Messi speaks the loudest when he has the ball at his feet. One of my friends said that his feet possess a strong spiritual connection with the ball. With the ball, he behaves like a child who just would not let go of his favourite toy. The thirty-four-old has championed the skill of dribbling and demonstrates it in its easiest, simplest form. He hardly performs flamboyant tricks, rather he makes efficient use of speed, time, and space by cunningly manipulating them. He can accelerate and stop dead and go again with rapid quickness. He shimmies, skims, skitters, skips, scampers with the ball at differing speeds and intensity in differing contexts, but is always oriented to solve some footballing problem. Repeatedly, with a drop of a shoulder or a twist of his body or a sudden change of direction, he opens newer perspectives and avenues to exploit on the field, making the viewer feel like a fool for not perceiving earlier that this move was also a possibility, that this route could have also been a reality. Similarly, the range of passes that he pulls off combined with his incisive vision that again and again opens the football field, like it is mozzarella on a pizza, show the diversified points of view that are visible to him, and with actions, he makes them visible to others as well. This is what is meant by defamiliarising events on a football field.

From his interviews and social media presence, Messi comes across as a shy, humble, quiet person in his private life but on the pitch, he is La Pulga Atomica, which translates as The Atomic Flea. A week after the start of 2021 Copa América, Jonathan Liew wrote in The Guardian, “Even at his (Messi’s) advanced age, is there a more purely expressive footballer in the world right now? A footballer with a richer or more varied vocabulary? Perhaps it’s no surprise that when you can perform something to the proficiency and complexity of language, a lot of people will confuse it with talking.” Like Liew, many others have also stated that Messi talks and expresses through playing football. I would like to take this notion further and assert that – like many postcolonial (among others) authors who understand language’s limitedness and its inability to express something fully, yet they seek to expand the scope of language by using innovative ways and choosing genres like magic realism (among others) – Messi too, through his style of play, his movements, his use of his body, in a way, tries to broaden the scope of footballing language.

Pep Guardiola once said, “Don’t write about him, don’t try to describe him, just watch him.” While Guardiola was implying that the genius of Messi was beyond description, he was also, through words and language, paradoxically describing the Argentinian. Articulating through paradoxes and by breaking binaries is another deconstructionist, postcolonial technique that writers regularly resort to when employing the conventions of the magic realist genre. And to comprehend what Messi does on the field, we are forced to make avail of paradoxes, contrasts, metaphors, and extra-terrestrial epithets because simple language fails us, even though he simplifies and unwraps football.

Eduardo Galeano, in his book, Soccer in Sun and Shadow appropriately pens, “The technocracy of professional sport has managed to impose a soccer of lightning speed and brute strength, a soccer that negates joy, kills fantasy, and outlaws daring.” However, Leo Messi, Barcelona and Argentina’s magical reality, drops his shoulder, shifts his body weight, and gracefully ballets pasts this assertion to stand for everything Galeano was longing for. Even in this contemporary football industry, Messi makes us feel the sport with such an intensity, such a passion that we are moved to express his play while, simultaneously, failing to do justice to it in our expression. 

Saurabh Nagpal is an aspiring sports journalist who loves cricket, football, and tennis, but a lot more than that also, beyond the field of sports. Follow him on Instagram @SportMelon_, Facebook @SportMelon, and Twitter @saurabhnagpal19

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Categories
Poetry

Myths & Michael

Poetry by Michael R Burch

Circe


She spoke
and her words
were like a ringing echo dying

or like smoke
rising and drifting
while the earth below is spinning.

She awoke
with a cry
from a dream that had no ending,

without hope
or strength to rise,
into hopelessness descending.

And an ache
in her heart
toward that dream, retreating,

left a wake
of small waves
in circles never completing.



The Gardener’s Roses


Mary Magdalene, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, “Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.” 


I too have come to the cave;
within: strange, half-glimpsed forms
and ghostly paradigms of things.
Here, nothing warms
		
this lightening moment of the dawn,
pale tendrils spreading east.
And I, of all who followed Him,
by far the least . . .

The women take no note of me;
I do not recognize
the men in white, the gardener,
these unfamiliar skies . . .

Faint scent of roses, then—a touch!
I turn, and I see: You.
My Lord, why do You tarry here:
Another waits, Whose love is true?

Although My Father waits, and bliss;
though angels call—ecstatic crew!—
I gathered roses for a Friend.
I waited here, for You.			


To Have Loved


Helen, bright accompaniment,
accouterment of war as sure as all
the polished swords of princes groomed to lie
in mausoleums all eternity ...

The price of love is not so high
as never to have loved once in the dark
beyond foreseeing. Now, as dawn gleams pale
upon small wind-fanned waves, amid white sails ...

Now all that war entails becomes as small,
as though receding. Paris in your arms
was never yours, nor were you his at all.
And should gods call

in numberless strange voices, should you hear,
still what would be the difference? Men must die
to be remembered. Fame, the shrillest cry,
leaves all the world dismembered.

Hold him, lie, 
tell many pleasant tales of lips and thighs;
enthrall him with your sweetness, till the pall 
and ash lie cold upon him.

Is this all? You saw fear in his eyes, and now they dim
with fear’s remembrance. Love, the fiercest cry,
becomes gasped sighs in his once-gallant hymn
of dreamed “salvation.” Still, you do not care

because you have this moment, and no man
can touch you as he can, and when he’s gone
there will be other men to look upon
your beauty, and have done.

Smile—woebegone, pale, haggard. Will the tales
paint this—your final portrait? Can the stars
find any strange alignments, Zodiacs,
to spell, or unspell, what held beauty lacks?

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

Categories
Stories

The Cockatoo

By Revathi Ganeshsundaram

A Cockatoo. Courtesy: Creative Commons

She moved softly towards the edge of the balcony and stood there for a moment looking at the well-kept garden below. She could see an old man sitting on a bench, leaning heavily on one armrest, and she smiled in aesthetic pleasure at the picturesque contrast his grey shirt and trousers made with the dark brown wood on which he was seated and the sea of bright green grass that surrounded him. A row of colourful parakeets dotted the back of the garden seat and its other armrest in an uncannily equidistant arrangement, thereby completing the scenic view.

Although the old man was facing away from her, she was struck by his drooping shoulders and the overall impression he gave, of flagging hope. What ailed him?

Was he a convalescing patient, or an anxious relative? Was it a sick spouse he was waiting on, or an injured grandchild?With a pang, she thought: Is it a birth that awaits him, or…?

So many questions!

She sighed, a little disappointed that she would not be here when the answers came, in their own sweet time.

Something large and white swooped down just then, and she saw that it was a cockatoo, eagerly pecking at something in the as-yet dewy lawn, and as she watched, she saw two more alight nearby. She vaguely remembered reading something mystical about these birds but could not recall exactly.  

Some distance away, a rather ugly turkey waddled onto the scene, and she could not stop herself from thinking that it somehow spoilt the pretty picture-postcard effect. She smiled then, a little guiltily. Who was she to judge?

Someone had left a wheelchair out here, which was rather strange, given that they always seemed short of wheelchairs when you asked for one. Although she no longer needed it, she felt an urge to go over and seat herself in the rather abandoned-looking contraption. That was when she realised that there was something wrong with one of its wheels. No wonder it was not in use right now!

But it was still most disorganised of housekeeping to have left it out on the balcony, she thought as she settled herself in it, anyway.

It was so calm and peaceful out here in the early morning and she was glad of the solitude. Before long, there would be bedlam in the ward, but for now, she was on her own.

So quiet, so strange. Nothing had prepared her for this – it was really, so very peaceful.

And yet, why did she have this unfulfilled feeling, this one unchecked item in her bucket list?

Could it be that she had wanted it too much? Perhaps, she had wished too hard.

What was it they said – Let it go, then it will come to you? Perhaps she had never really let go…

She sighed again. Nothing to complain about, after all. A good husband, although he had died many years back, may he rest in peace. Good sons, who were taking turns looking after her. Why, even now, one of them was sleeping soundly back in the room, exhausted no doubt, by the several night-time interruptions that he uncomplainingly stayed awake to attend.

Her eldest. Her heart went out to him. She wished she could tell him that she had not meant to be a bother, that she had not wanted to trouble any of them. But they had never really been good at expressing feelings to each other.

Well, things would be all right. Eventually.

She was aware of the stranger’s arrival on the balcony even before she saw him. She let him stand there for a moment and get his bearings before she turned to acknowledge his presence with a smile. He smiled back.

It felt as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

He leaned over the railings to look down into the garden and she too turned to look again at the bench below. The old man was now rising from his seat, using the armrest to propel himself into a standing position while resting his weight on a stick. She noticed that his walking aid had a clawed foot with four prongs. It was strange that she could count them from this distance, but she supposed it was one of the perks of her situation.

On the man’s stirring from his hitherto statue-like posture, the parakeets on the bench took flight and rose into the air as one, like a multicoloured festoon on an invisible string. How pretty!  

Her companion on the balcony had turned around now and with his back against the railings, was looking at her. She gazed back at him serenely and they smiled at each other once more. It seemed that no words were needed.

But it would still be nice to talk.

Almost as if he read her thoughts, he said, “It’s so peaceful, isn’t it?”

She nodded, raising her eyebrows in agreement.

“What a contrast…!” he continued, gesturing with a circular motion of his hand towards the inside of the building and indicating a lower floor. “I mean, down there…”

She understood.

“Heart attack?” she queried gently.

It might have seemed a terribly rude question to anyone listening, especially since they were her very first words to a total stranger – her sons would certainly be horrified if they knew – but she was over eighty and old age brought with it certain privileges that the young could never understand.

He did not seem to mind, anyway, as she had known he would not. He raised his fist in a thumbs-up gesture and smiled at her again. Such a sweet smile he had, too.

“And you?” he asked.

“Well, just old age – all sorts of little complications… That is how it starts, you know.”

He looked doubtfully at her. “You don’t look that old to me – I mean, really – I’m not just flattering you…”

It was interesting that he could blush, even now.

She laughed. “I’m eighty,” she said and at his look of surprise, went on with a smile, “I believe you – that you are not flattering me – people always said I was very well-preserved…!”

He snorted. “What an expression! Sounds as though they’re referring to a bottle of pickles!”

She laughed again and looked at him with interest. “You can’t be above sixty-five yourself…”

He cast a sidelong glance at her, looking both pleased and self-conscious as he replied, “I’m seventy-two.”

They smiled again. It was such a comfortable feeling, this camaraderie with a perfect stranger. And yet, it did not feel like he was a stranger at all.

“What kept you?” she asked. Another strange question it would seem, to any eavesdropper, but to him it made perfect sense.

“The doctor would not let me go,” he said. “A very conscientious young chap… It was awful to see the look on his face – I felt I had let him down…”

She nodded. It was ironic that one tended to feel sorry for the people who left, when it was those left behind who needed sympathy. Her thoughts went to her sons, and then she wondered about her companion.

“Who do you have here with you?” she asked, a little curiously.

He coughed in embarrassment. “Nobody, really. A neighbour brought me here, and I guess my friends will be in sooner or later…”

“I’m sorry.” She really was. She thought again of her two lovely sons and was grateful.

She looked away through the railings and was once more impressed by the scene before her: It was as if someone had daubed bright streaks of paint onto a green canvas – a few large and white, and several smaller ones of varied hues – only, none of those spots of colour were still; some of them took wing even as she watched.

She was aware all the while that he was glancing at her on and off, so she was not surprised when he asked again, “And you?”

There was the faintest trace of anxiety in his voice, and she thought she caught a flash of jealousy in his dark eyes before he looked quickly away.

“My elder son is here with me now. He’s the more responsible one though he hates to show his affection openly…” She smiled with a mixture of fondness and regret as she thought of their most recent disagreement. She had not wanted to be hospitalised, but then she became so sick that she no longer had any say in the matter.

Looking back now — all those arguments seemed such a waste of time. And life. Or perhaps both were the same.

She looked up to see him listening intently and went on, “The younger one is more talkative and has been keeping me amused during the day – he should be here too, shortly…”

She waited a moment to hear the unspoken question she knew he was bursting to ask, but he was silent. Taking pity on him, she decided to answer it for him, “My husband is no more. He died many years ago.”

“Oh – I am sorry…” he said in genuine contrition.

She spread her hands philosophically. “It is okay, it was a long while ago. And I suppose we were just two good people blundering along together…”

He looked sharply at her then and she went on, “Somehow, we didn’t really connect – otherwise, he would be with me now, don’t you think?”

He looked down at his feet, his hands on the railing behind him. “My wife and I divorced a good many years back…” He coughed again. “I never really wanted to try again after that.”

She nodded. “You were waiting, but nothing ever happened.”

He glanced up at her in surprise. “You understand?”

She smiled, then. “I waited all my life.”

Perhaps it was something in her voice, or maybe it was the way she tilted her head when she looked at him. Nevertheless, that was when the shock of realisation hit him. He kept staring at her speechlessly until she asked gently, “What kept you?”

This time her meaning was different, yet he understood her perfectly. He came forward eagerly then, and reaching down, took her hands in his.

“I don’t know, I’m not sure… Was it Fate?!”

Their eyes met fully for the first time. Such dark eyes, a lifetime of longing. And his smile – the sweetest thing she had ever seen.

Behind them, the ward was coming to life. She thought she could discern sounds of panic, some sort of a flurry.

“Shall we?” he asked, still holding her hands. She rose from the wheelchair, but then could not resist turning to look towards the rooms.

“Don’t,” he said, gently. “If you do, he will feel your pain and be haunted by it for the rest of his life.”

“How do you…?” she began, but he answered in anticipation, “My mother. I felt it for years afterwards…”

She wavered in indecision, saying wistfully, “If only they could know how peaceful it is, it would not hurt them so much…”

He nodded then, but said again, firmly, “He will be all right – they both will. You’ll see.”

Just a while back, she had been amused by his boyish jealousy. And now, he seemed so much wiser than she. Perhaps, age and time and space meant nothing hereafter?

A large white bird flew up and landed expertly on the balcony railing. As it gazed boldly at them, she suddenly remembered what she had read and felt a strange compulsion to reach out and touch it.

“Don’t! You could lose a finger…!” he cried out, and then they both laughed at the absurdity of it.

She reached out, and the cockatoo – that symbol of light, and change, and of the end of the tunnel – fluttered up and seemed to rest lightly for a moment on her outstretched arm. Then it took off, and as they watched, it flew upwards towards the trees and out of their sight.

“Shall we?” he asked again, and this time, she was sure. They smiled at each other, the sweetest smiles, and it was the most natural thing in the universe.

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Revathi Ganeshsundaram finds the written word therapeutic and loves reading and writing fiction, sometimes dabbling in poetry. Her work has been published in Borderless Journal, Kitaab, Literary Yard, and Readomania

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Categories
Poetry

Be And It All Came Into Being

Balochi poetry by Akbar Barakzai, translated by Fazal Baloch

Folio from an `Aja’ib al-Makhluqat (Wonders of Creation) of Qazwini (late 16th century).Courtesy: Creative Commons
Be and it All came into Being
(A Poem for Atta Shad*)

The heavens and the earth 
The moon and the sun 
Stars, galaxies and clouds
Space and spacelessness
Indeed the entire creation
God created all in just seven days 
All praise be to God!
 
On the seventh day 
Tired of hard labour 
He thought of heavenly delights
Of fair damsels and houries
Thus hurried to the garden of the paradise 
All praise be to God!

’Tis not all His fault 
If unaware He is of worldly woes and worries 
Of the agony of love and longing
Of the harsh nights of hunger and famine
'Tis not his fault if He is unaware
Of the monsters of tyranny and suppression     
Ours is a world too far from Him
Let us not disturb Him in His heavenly abode
He must have other more important things on His mind
May the curse of Allah befall these blasphemous thoughts!
Indeed how would Akbar, a mere minion of God
Know His never ending mysteries!
A mere poet and wordsmith 
He seeks His forgiveness
All praise be to God!

*Atta Shad (1939-1997) is one of the most cherished modern Balochi poets.

Akbar Barakzai was born in Shikarpur, Sindh in 1938. He is ranked amongst the proponents of modern Balochi literature. His poetry reflects the objective realities of life. Love for motherland, peace and prosperity and dignity of a man are the recurrent themes of his poetry. His love for human dignity transcends all geographical and cultural frontiers. Barakzai is not a prolific poet. In a literary career which spans over half a century, Barakzai has brought out just two anthologies of poetry, Who can Kill the Sunand The Lamps of Heads, but his poetry has depth and reaches out to human hearts with its profundity. Last year, Barakzai rejected the Pakistan Academy of Letters (PAL) award, quoting  the oppressive policies meted out to his region by the government as the reason.

Fazal Baloch is a Balochi writer and translator. He has translated many Balochi poems and short stories into English. His translations have been featured in Pakistani Literature published by Pakistan Academy of Letters and in the form of books and anthologies. Fazal Baloch has the translation rights to Barakzai’s works and is in the process of bringing them out as a book.

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Categories
Essay

Once Upon a Time in Burma: Of Babies and Buddhas

John Herlihy takes us through more of Myanmar with his companion, Peter, in the second part of his travelogue through this land of mystic Buddhas

My friend Peter had slept poorly, the reason being that he had spent much of the night visiting the inner sanctum of the toilet. Alas, the revenge of the spices from last night’s adventure was finally exacting its heavy toll. While I remained free of any stomach trouble, poor Peter had fallen victim to the age-old trials and tribulations of those with no experience with the culinary delights of Asia. We had gone to “the best restaurant in town” according to our Google advisory and indeed, it had turned out to meet our expectations when compared to the mosquito-infested nightmare that Peter had experienced the night before; the swarms of mosquitoes hadn’t condescended to touch, much less bite me. For the cost of about $6 or 9,000 kyat (a tidy sum if you live on the local economy), we were wined and dined with an array of fabulous foods.

The restaurant actually employed a system that I quite liked, namely, that the diner ordered a main course, and an array of side dishes was brought to table, including soups, breads and spicy sauces. I ordered lamb casserole in a creamy, curried dahl (lentils) stew baked in a pewter pot that was utterly delicious and Peter followed my lead in figuring out the best selection from local menus letting me order for both of us. The waiter brought on a dazzling array of sides dishes and a delectable soup that we both wolfed down in various gulps, being hungry after the long day’s trek and the far distance of the hotel breakfast. We tasted everything from curried chickpeas to braised eggplant seasoned with garlic, tomatoes and pine nuts. We need more, I thought to myself as Peter and I fought for the meager remains, but there was no need. The waiter quickly refurbished the little bowls with ample tidbits to last a lifetime, much less the evening meal. Peter, of course, had ordered an extra bowl of rice, two bowls in fact, in addition to the one he had. I had warned Peter about the little sauces served up in small dishes that were intended to be added drop by precious drop to the food to enhance the flavor with a hint of hot chilli. But Peter, in his traditional style, put heaping teaspoons into his food as if he would never taste these things again and needed to remember their flavour. I noted he begrudgingly scooped up the last remaining kernels, the fieriest part of the hot pepper, on his plate at the end of the meal. Indeed, now he was recalling their exotic flavours in unexpected ways.

The next day on our busy tour, we were scheduled to visit the Mahagandayon Monastery, but first we made a quick stop at the local market to find a remedy for the gentle giant’s diarrhea and dehydration problem. “Sticky rice,” Swun immediately said when I mentioned the problem to him. These local remedies can be quite effective; I knew from my own past experience on other trips. I had recommended doses of fresh lemon juice that had worked for me; but Peter wasn’t having it. When Swun suggested the sticky rice by saying, “I know just the place where we can get it,” I thought, yes, the perfect solution. Peter trudged along behind at a reduced pace through the hectic market until we found Swan’s contact standing before a large vat of sticky rice, nearly empty at that hour of the morning. The woman dolloped out several heaping spoonfuls of the steaming mass of rice in a plastic bag sealed with an elastic band. Not exactly pharmaceutical splendour, but it promised to do the job. Swun’s smile concurred as I laughed myself content. We returned to the car and insisted that Peter swallow the heaping brew which he gulped down quickly making grimacing faces that would scare the hand-carved gargoyles we saw earlier in some of the temples.

Our first stop was the Mahagandayon Monastery where more than a thousand monks live and study. A large group of tourists had gathered under the morning sun to see hundreds of monks return from their morning trek through the village with their begging bowls seeking food for the main meal of the day. Security police and a few senior monks, curiously chubby looking, created order of the disarray of Chinese tourists of every size, shape and colour behind police barriers, clear of the roadway where the returning monks would be walking. A hush and then a rumble of whispers announced that the monks were approaching down the street from the distance of the nearby village, walking briskly in a single file, holding their begging bowls, now filled or filling up fast with the charity offered to them. People from the sidelines approached with fruits, packages of biscuits, and the like, and even money, a thousand khat here and there which actually represents less than a dollar, but in local terms meant something; and given the size of the crowd could add up to a reasonable hoard. I took note of the soft, youthful faces of the young monks, their heads shaved clear and wearing the traditional orange wrap-around robes that we have become familiar with in Thailand. Some of the monks were very young indeed, children, eyeing the onlookers impishly and seemingly ready for flight. My friend Peter had a clear advantage as his giant stature afforded him the luxury of towering over everyone in sight to have an unimpeded view of the procession of the monks into the monastic enclosure. The monks soon disappeared into the surrounding buildings where they would have their one and only late morning meal of the day.

U Bein teak Bridge. Photo Courtesy: John Herlihy

A short, pleasant drive down lush tree-lined streets soon brought Swan, Peter and I to our next destination, the more than 100-year-old U Bein teak bridge, built in 1850, the oldest and longest teak-wood bridge in the world. The 1.2 km bridge spans the Taungthamam Lake near the ancient royal capital not far from Mandalay to an island nearby that could service the local villagers who wanted to get to the mainland across the broad lake to sell their crops. It features 1,086 pillars that stretch out of the water. Though the bridge largely remains intact, there are fears that an increasing number of pillars are becoming dangerously decayed. Damage to these supports have been caused by flooding as well as a fish breeding program introduced into the lake which has caused the water to become stagnant.

Of course, the old kilometer long bridge represented a challenge to Peter who was anxious to “make tracks” across the waters in his traditional swaggering style, leaving nothing behind in the wake of his hurried footsteps but a gentle wind. I also valiantly followed in his footsteps; but soon lost him as he made his way ahead into the thickening crowd. The local Burmese, many of them villagers and many of them in groups of families who were tourists, were making their way across the bridge as they have done for hundreds of years. I was prepared to put up a brave front and make my way across without complaint under the cool winter sun, but as I tripped my way forward across the creaking wooden planks, I became increasingly more uncomfortable. A kind of phobia took hold, as one might experience in confined spaces or riding shaky elevators. The truth was the bridge looked none too stable. The wooden planks were aged, chipped and broken throughout; gaping holes yawned where planks had broken through.

I took note of the fact that the bridge itself was fairly narrow, wide enough for three or four people, but there were no guard rails, just a gaping chasm on either side and a sizeable drop several hundred meters down to the murky waters below. I made my way forward nearly to the halfway point, where I saw Peter up ahead towering over the crowds of people, waiting for me under a make-shift wooden structure with the traditional pointed roof that marked the halfway point. Other elderly people had the same idea as I had; time to rest and take stock. “You go on ahead and make it to the other side,” I told Peter. “You can tell me about it when you come back. I’ll wait for you here.” And my valiant companion was off without further coaxing.

I tucked myself into a shady corner of the narrow bridge, which at that point was extended a little to accommodate the wooden structure marked there as a resting point in the river crossing. It was time to rest, to be alone for a few minutes, to gather myself into my own space and reconstruct the blessings of solitude as the crowds of people made their determined way back and forth across the age-old bridge. It was a cool mid-morning with a gentle breeze under the warming light of the winter sun. At my feet sat a local Burmese woman, with her jet-black hair collected into a wooden hair clip and adorned with a cluster of wildflowers. Her pudgy face held an eternal smile that matched the smile she held in her eyes. At her feet were the goods she was selling to the tourists and other local travelers crossing the bridge, as women have probably done for the last several centuries since the bridge was built. She had a good business for all that, seasoned sticky rice, spicy noodles, and a variety of fruits, all sold for pennies and packed into a little plastic sack and tied with an elastic band for safe keeping. I wished I could understand her chatter; but contended myself with the bird sounds that the Burmese language sounded to me as I listened.

A little boy, probably about one-and-a-half years old, sat at her sandaled feet. He sucked contentedly on a tangerine rind and half dozed with heavy eyelids as if he sat on the fringes of heaven and not on the fold of the wrap-around longyi (the Malays call it sarong famed for its batik cloth) of his young mother. I watched the child as he sat in dreamy splendour without a care in the world as if woken up by the breeze, or perhaps the chatter of the passers-by sounding like river stones. He now looked around as if interested in everything. It wasn’t long before his infant gaze fell upon me, an old man on a journey, lost in his own trance. Children are like cats; one doesn’t like to intrude on their space without alarming them; but leave them to their own devices and they will make their own way. I sat there contentedly; it was enough to rest my weary bones and take in the colour of the local life. I do love children, especially infants, and can sit and watch them for hours, their antics, their inventiveness, their curiosity, their sweet, angelic innocence remind me of another time and another place. I also wonder from where they have come and where they might be going.

When suddenly, the infant’s random glances fell upon me as I sat on the bridge resting. I pretended not to notice, not wishing to interrupt the rhythm or the intensity of his gaze. Indeed, children can come to us uninvited, as if they have known or are wanting to know. They do not bring with them all the excess baggage that we carry around as adults, who seldom look into the eyes of another, and if or when we do, we feel uncomfortable. The child looked at me with intense interest, as if he were remembering something and was still lost in thought. I smiled at him, and he immediately smiled back. I scowled backed him and he immediately scowled back. We seemed to be on the same wavelength. Some inner harmony had struck its chord. The years dissolved and the miles between disappeared as he threw the tangerine rind aside and began to crawl on all fours. His mother was distracted by a sale and was stuffing mango cubes and their sweet juice into a plastic container, selling the pulp for pennies to the taste.

The determined little fellow made his way over as I sat on a low stool. When he reached my legs, he extended his arms as if reaching for the open sky. No doubt, I looked to him like a grand patriarch with my thick mustache and bone-white beard. He soon found his way onto my lap, where he again sat content as if lost in reverie to the surrounding lake and countryside just as I was lost in sweet reverie, so unfamiliar to me, so familiar to him. “Found a friend, did you,” my companion Peter asked with a broad smile. “Children sometimes like me,” I mumbled embarrassed. The mood was broken, the happy child returned to his mother with a longing, backward glance and this is my backward glance to him in the only way a writer knows how, in the love and beauty of words written down on the page in sweet remembrance that will never die.     

We met our guide Swan after breakfast the next morning. Oh yes, a word (or two) should be written about our delightful buffet breakfasts that both Peter and I had come to look forward to. We had established a routine of a solid breakfast, followed by a full day of activity and touring the countryside, but no lunch or snacks of any kind, until evening time, when we took pains to find a nice place for dinner. By now, Peter was well over his stomach trouble, the sticky rice acting effectively as a sealant that put him to rights. We knew he was feeling much better at breakfast the next day. We would rise early, to get the jump on the waves of Chinese tourists that seemed to appear, especially in the breakfast room to lay waste the buffet table like hungry locusts.

I usually went to the egg station as soon as possible to get my order in. “Two eggs,” I whispered timidly, “Over easy,” I said, showing with an upside-down wave of the hand what I wanted, and then sliced down dramatically, “and cut the yoke.” The last thing I wanted were runny, undercooked eggs. The eggs were made in buttered splendor – they actually tasted like real eggs – and not the tasteless fare that we usually get in most modern metropolises. I skipped over with my plate of eggs to another table to pick up my freshly made toasted brown bread awash in melted cheese and butter.

“That should take care of me for the day,” I thought happily, when suddenly I heard a booming voice from the egg station. “Six eggs, please,” Peter cried, holding up a handful of fingers, plus one, to make sure the cook knew how many he meant. He returned to our table with a stack of untoasted bread to wash down the eggs in great gulps. Not to be outdone, I tiptoed back to the cooking station and asked for a crepe. I had seen the cook making a feather-light and thin pancake served up with Burmese honey and fresh cream that was cooked to perfection; but Peter had the final word with his stack of six pancakes dripping in honey and assorted jellies.

Photo Courtesy: John Herlihy

After breakfast, we met up with our beloved guide Swan again in the hotel lobby. “Not another pagoda,” I cried out in mock dismay, but Swan was now attuned to my humour and took up the slack by affirming that indeed we would be visiting another remarkable pagoda surrounded by 845 small stupas as though in deferent tribute to the richly decorated central pagoda. Work began on the pagoda in 1939 at the start of the Second World War and was finally completed in the March of 1952. There are many buddha statues row upon row in niches along the walls, all coloured gold, a truly sublime sight filled with religious nostalgia. The entrance is protected, not by the traditional mythical lions, but by the statues of the magnificent white elephants that are sacred and auspicious in Buddhist symbolism. Thereafter, we took a short walk through the nearby banyan tree grove Boddhitataung, where a thousand Buddha images lie at rest among the sprouting banyan trees. Ah, walking through the aged banyan trees is like walking through an ancient grove associated with the mythic gods of Greece. One half expects a centaur or unicorn to come trolling through the corridors of trees in this mystical setting. The banyan trees is considered sacred in places like India and Burma and is well known for the mercy of its abundant shade. In fact, in India, the leaf of the banyan is said to be the resting place of the Lord Krishna.

But even the shade of the banyan tree faded into darkness, and it was time for us to move on, even if we did feel most welcome in the the banyan tree’s embrace. We were scheduled to go down to the river and bid goodbye to our guide Swan, as we would be making our way by riverboat down to a town further south called Bagan. We were to meet the new guide on the boat who would escort us there. It was a little sad to bid goodbye to Swan. He was such a charming little fellow, a student who would complete his university studies soon. He worked on the side as a guide and had done this for the last few years. It doesn’t take long under these circumstances to get to know and like the guide, so it was with a heavy heart that both Peter and I bid him farewell.

However, Swan was to help me through one last challenge. After bidding me goodbye, he helped me down the side of the dusty hill to a steep embankment at the edge of which lay the river boat that would take us south to Bagan. When I saw the wooden plank that I had to walk across to get onto the boat, I stopped dead in my tracks. I can’t do this, I immediately said to myself. At my age, I now know what I can and cannot do, and crossing that narrow, wooden plank sagging perilously in the middle and crossing a no-man’s-land muddy cliffs and water about 50 meters seemed an impossible task.

Swan took me by the hand and coaxed me on, not wishing perhaps to have his charge stranded along the way without any option of moving forward. Peter, of course, was already up ahead on the plank himself with his usual bravado, but he also almost slipped and was standing on one leg before balancing himself once again, preventing himself from falling unceremoniously down in the muddy waters below. I took a deep breath and mounted the plank. Mercifully, two people stood nearby, a woman on the riverbank’s edge and her husband perhaps on the boat itself holding a lengthy bamboo pole that I was able to hold onto as a kind of makeshift handrail as I perilously crossed the narrow wooden plank like an infant learning how to walk in his new toddler shoes. Once on the boat and tucked into the lounge chair, I breathed a sigh of relief that I hadn’t made a fool of myself.

Traveling on Irrawaddy River from Mandalay. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Click here to read Part one of Once Upon a Time in Burma

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John Herlihy, travel writer and poet, has published two collections of travel essays, Journeys with Soul and his more recent Distant Islands and Sealight, available at online booksellers and Amazon.

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Categories
Poetry

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By Jared Carter

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(Glen Cooper Henshaw, American impressionist,
was born in Windfall, Indiana, in 1880 and 
died in Baltimore in 1946)

What I first knew of a life of art
was what he touched last -- the summer studio
where I was allowed to wander as a child
through high-ceilinged rooms, up stairways
lined with tapestries unraveling: bronzes
gathering dust, wrought candlesticks, rows
of Chinese vases, the August light shuttered
like strands of Aunt Carolyn's uncombed hair,
the huge easels with their unfinished seascapes,
the closets thick with stacks of pastels
where mice made burrows, and damp seeped.

Beginning there, at the last turn
of the stairs, at the view of the Salute
by moonlight, in its great gold frame –
beginning with the packets of letters,
the yellowed clippings, the photograph
with the calico cat perched on his shoulder –
I followed him from farm, school, bistro,
through the sketchbooks of Market Street
and the Lower East Side, the pushcarts
and railroad flats, the life classes
in the blue cold of the old Academy rooms
in Munich, the boat trains to London,
the first commissions and sittings,
the laughter in the salons, the bare shoulders
of the soprano who stands beside the piano,
the young women with braided, coiled hair
lifting their skirts as they come up the stairs,
the afternoons wandering among the bookstalls,
the cafe conversations with Matisse –

all this rippling from a single stone –
and the force that carried it gone, leaving
only the slow parchment whispering
of old voices in nursing-homes, recollections
of places where they met and talked, seances
around an oak table, a picnic at Fontainebleau,
the crowds in Maxwell Street before the War.
Gradually the surface resumes a smoothness:
second wife buried, paintings knocked down
and scattered, studio burned, each letter
traced, each name marked off, finally
only the quiescence of paperwork – index cards
and conjectures, learned comparisons, polite
notes of inquiry from graduate students,
the curator's handwritten invitation for brandy,
spools of microfilm humming in the machine.

What I first perceived, then, wandering alone
among those vanished rooms; what I last
have come to understand, having followed
that trajectory even as it began to merge
with my own: the face in the photograph, taken
when she left Boston to come to him
on the Rue Monsieur-le-Prince
in the springtime of that fresh year,
that new century.  Her long auburn hair
enveloping that nakedness, the purl
of gas jets turned down in the hallway,
the bell curve of the lamp chimney
by the bed, the swirled perfection
of her sleeping: the configuration
of time, of love, of youth, of art
like an elaborate watermark visible
only when held up to the light.

(First published in University of Minnesota Research)


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
Review

Songs of a Rebel

Book Review by Basudhara Roy

Title: Song of a Rebel and Other Selected Poems

Author: Bina Sarkar Ellias

Publisher: Red River, 2020

With what word to reach into the future,
With what word to defend human happiness --
It has the smell of freshly baked bread --
If the language of poets cannot search out
Standards of use to later generations?
	Czeslaw Milosz

For centuries, poets have vested ardent faith in the ability of poetry to not just effectively describe the world but also to contour, transfigure and transform it by its disruptive power, its clairvoyance and its messianic faith. In light and dark, hope and despair, and accomplishment and loss, poetry has stood firmly beside life as a pathfinder and witness, leading it to refinement and wisdom. Questioning the world’s logic, battling its ideas and speaking truth to power, poets continue to be its “unacknowledged legislators”, speaking eloquently and memorably on behalf of its disillusionment, rage and suffering, and leading the way for constructive social action. Bina Sarkar Ellias’ Song of a Rebel and Other Selected Poems is a fine collection of fifty-one poems that engages with the injustices of the world in this fiery spirit of moral questioning.

Poet, writer and art curator, Bina Sarkar Ellias is the founder, editor, designer and publisher of International Gallerie, an award-winning global arts and ideas publication from India. Song of a Rebel and Other Selected Poems is her fourth collection of poems, her earlier collections being The Room, Fuse and When Seeing is Believing . An experienced art-critic, her poetic voice draws richly from her committed engagement with art and her poems have found a home in many languages of the world through translation.

“It happens that we live in a world fraught with fragility,” writes Ellias. “There are certain forces that prefer to divide and disrupt humanity and there are certain forces that feed our souls with peace and serenity. Through time, the poems in this book arrived unannounced as all poems do; each time, it was an outrage or a helplessness that compelled a response to assaults on humankind by scheming minds.”

In putting forth a narrative of megalomania and oppression, the book, indeed, documents the keen angst of a sensitive and thinking mind in a callous, unprincipled world. Here are poems that emerge, wave-like, from the depths of fury and despair to speak out against the looming issues of our times – cultures of dictatorship, suppression of the forces of democracy, stifling of plurality, erasure of rights, jingoism, colonisation of nature, blatant capitalism, identity-conflicts and violence against women, amongst others. Ranging from the sufferings of Syria, Zimbabwe, Kashmir, Bangladesh, Istanbul, Baghdad, Lahore, Manchester, the Indian farmers, the Rohingyas, Nirbhaya, our imprisoned student activists and so much more, Ellias poignantly conjures before our eyes a global collage of infringement, discrimination and injury.

In Ellias’ poetic narrative, the only division that exists in the world is between the callous and the compassionate. The former dwell in an unending wilderness – “these minds/ that cannot/ decipher/ the essence/ of humanity/ these minds/ that are mowed/ and manicured/ to erase all/ reason;/ that believe/ a gun or grenade/ can complete/ the circle/ of life; can part/ the sea/ of reason so the/ bludgeoned brain/ and sterile heart/ may cross.” (‘If it’s Not Me, it Will Be You’)

In ‘Cement in Our Souls’, the poet laments the world’s stark sterility – “the dignity/ of life drowned/ in a desire so distant/ from Van Gogh’s/ lust for life/ or Monet’s tranquil pond/ so far from/ Hiroshige’s pastorals,/ so distant/ from Tagore’s/ Song of the Road/ so removed from Lennon’s/ Imagine./ must we celebrate/ concrete?/ must we be robots/ and cement/ our souls?”

For the committed activist that Ellias is, a poem is no leisurely arrival into the world but an urgent statement of its status, “an invasion of clean air.” (‘This is Not a Poem’) Her language, in its fidelity to the colloquial rhythm and its determined, energetic flow across difficult sentiments does away with all impediments of punctuation so that the overall impression that the book offers the reader is one of a tremendous, roaring waterfall intending to sweep all in its restless questioning. Note the primal power of ‘Assault’, for instance, a poem worth quoting in its entirety:

assaulted by malls and high rises
that tower like beasts on the streets
suffocating your breath assaulted
by robotic yearnings for more and
more assaulted by neons that wink
and beckon like lecherous pimps
on the wayside I navigate the city
walking warily through mine fields
of consumption that suck the
energies out of every cell, every pore
of my untrained body that craves to
curl into a cave of nothingness.

The beat of the poem fills one with a sense of desperation, exhaustion and collapse – the exact emotive signification of the idea of ‘assault’. And yet, in the midst of this roaring disquiet, the poet does not fail to remind the reader that her chosen genre of protest is poetry and not prose. Every now and then, she lets fall a rhyme for the perceptive ear and as her lines flow relentlessly, often unforgivingly like rain, the chaos of the world is watermarked by the poetic faith of hope’s resurrection. Mark the following lines in ‘Manufactured Fear’:

manufactured fear
i do not dread
fear that is force-fed
into my flesh
fear of who i am
and who i cannot be
fear of flags
that dictate my identity
fear of food
that betrays my religion
or my lack of one
is seen as blasphemy.

Ellias’ images are assiduously wrought as she consistently attempts to summon both shock and tenderness to her verse. In ‘Intangible Knowing’, conformity is the myopia of those who live “barren linear lives” with “mathematical/ precision,/ and weigh/ life’s moments/ with the entitlement/ of acquisition.” In ‘This Skin of Freedom’, freedom is the fragile skin that all have the right to lay claim to. Rivers become arteries in ‘Ode to Bangladesh’. ‘Call of Resistance’ visualizes the hammering of the coppersmith barbet as a ceaseless call of resistance. In ‘It Was Then’, Shaheen Bagh and Mumbai Bagh are “sister fields – fertile/ with bloodied wounds” that blossom “when the fires of hate/ had burnt them.” The poet selects her allusions from a sprawling cosmopolitan canvas of art and life as she steadily links minds and agonies across the cultures and conflicts of continents in a seamless whole. In ‘Ode to Utopia’, utopia assumes the form of a diffuse oneness of mind – “it was as if raag bhairav/ was in dialogue with/ Mozart’s Nocturne/ and a shamisen strummed/ to the tinkle/ of the African kalimba -/ it was as if/ spring had migrated/ into our lives/ for permanent/ residency.”

Making way into the world of Song of a Rebel and Other Selected Poems is to be receptive to the poet’s testimony of the acute disjointedness of our times and the imperative for healing through acknowledgement of the need for dissent. In ‘Rebel’, the poet compares the rebel to “a tired/ moth-eaten/ leaf/ that once/ knew/ its green/ shield/ could battle/ arrogant winds/ that swept/ over its/ tree abode.” It is easy and legitimate, perhaps, to bow down and give in to helplessness and dismay in the face of the rampancy and ruthlessness of our times. However, as Ellias reminds us, the act of resistance is a duty both civic and humane:

life can be bitter –
but you can dwell
with love and courage
if you repel.

life can be better
if you repel-

life can be better
if you rebel.

In ‘books’, the poet writes, “a book is a river; a voyage into the unknown/ on a paper boat.” Bina Sarkar Ellias invites her readers to make this voyage with conviction and faith in the possibility of a better world. To rebel, as her poems point out, is no more a philosophical choice but a compelling necessity given the depravity of our times. We are living through an important moment in history dominated by tales of “tattered democracy” and “new age fascists” (‘I Hear’). The choice is no longer between whether to rebel or hold on to silence but overwhelmingly now, a question of life and death.

Song of a Rebel and Other Selected Poems is a wake-up call to humanity worldwide to adopt defiance as a mode of life if being is to chosen over annihilation.

Basudhara Roy teaches English at Karim City College affiliated to Kolhan University, Chaibasa. Her recent (second) collection of poems is Stitching a Home (New Delhi: Red River, 2021). She loves, rebels, writes and reviews from Jamshedpur, Jharkhand, India.

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Categories
Poetry

Versus

By Srinivas S

Versus


On a piece of paper
The work of a pen is
a complex tale 
of love and war:
It is a history
of breaths, carcasses and rebirths;
And an inky body 
of evidence for life
in the Mars of minds
and the Venus of hearts.
On a screen, though,
It seems a simple story,
its flow stripped
of effort and emotion:
It is a mystery
of words which haven’t fought wars;
And an empty cloud
which shrouds, like death,
the moons of mood
and the stars of thought

Srinivas S teaches English at the Rishi Valley School, India. His poems have found a home in places such as Indian Ruminations, Amethyst Review and The Hong Kong Review.      

    

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Categories
Stories

Of Days and Seasons

 A parable by Louis Couperus (1863-1923), translated from Dutch by Chaitali Sengupta

The forest was somber, and the air dark; it was a long night without the solace of the stars, it seemed to sink into infinity, sink deep into all that was mortal in this world. It was at a time like this when the young boy woke.

He was a boy of some years, and he did not remember anymore, whether he was lost or abandoned in that forest, because he had slept for such a stretching length of time. Shuddering, his eyes large and full of fear, he looked around himself. But the way forward was lost behind him.

“Where am I,” the little boy thought, in that soul-shattering darkness. “And who am I and where am I to go…”

A vague remembrance stole upon him, a memory of shimmering light and warmth. Like a weeping, wafting out of the warm sun palace. But more than the weeping, he remembered nothing much. Now, fully awake, he became aware of being alone, abandoned, lost in a forest of horror.

The very thought made the little boy cry out in childish despair. The fear of beasts and that of robbers assailed him. Then, he saw a silvery twilight moving across towards him, in silence. Was it the wild man, he wondered? In his deep consciousness, the thought rose death-like. His little heart throbbed wildly in his throat and his small eyes bulged out in terror.

Soon, he realized the beaming twilight, that glided on his way, was not the wild man; it was a white woman.

The little boy, in the twinkling of an eye, thought he recognized her: a woman, very white, the kind of white woman he liked. With mingled fear and expectation, the little boy ran up to her.

“White lady!” he begged, folding his hands in a gesture of prayer that perhaps he had been taught in the sun palace, many, many years ago.

Tall and slender, the white woman’s veils were the whitest white, flashing against the gloomy, dark depths of the forest. She bent over the child, and her gaze caught him through her veils; her white hands were briefly extended, as if she wanted to see better; better, with her deep dark eyes, as deep as the black, shadowy forest.

“White lady!”, the child pleaded again.

“Who are you, my child?” asked the white woman. Her voice sounded primeval, thick and dark. “And where have you come from and where are you going?”

The small boy began to cry again; the woman’s voice frightened him, and he did not know who he was, where he had come from, or even where he was going…

“Come with me then”, said the white woman gravely, and she stretched out her hand to him. The little boy held out his hand to her too, and went beside her, with weeping eyes.

“Don’t cry anymore,” said the white lady. “Hold my hand safely, let me lead you: do not be afraid. In this forest, there are no beasts or robbers.”

The child felt a gentle trust wash over him, especially now that the cold hands of the white lady were warmed by his own small, warm one, but he still stumbled very often, and his short legs grew tired soon.

“Then, let me carry you, my dear.” Saying so, she lifted the child to her breast and held him very lightly between her white veils: her footfalls were light, floating, like unheard-of steps. In her arms, the child fell asleep and dreamed of the sunshine and white women, and also of white children. She walked on.

 When he awoke, the child smiled and peered into the dark depths of her eyes.

“You are a good white lady, aren’t you?” asked the child, as confidence sparkled in him. He wrapped his little arms around her neck.

“Yes,” said the white woman. “I am a good white lady, my child.”

 “Are you not tired of carrying me, good white lady?”

“No, my child, I am not tired. I never rest, I always go.”

  “Always?”

 “Always.”

  “Through the whole forest?”

 “Through the whole forest. See, the morning breaks magnificently, through the branches, and the way ahead seems clearly visible.”  

 “Now I can walk again, white lady.”

The white lady put him down, carefully on his feet, and wrapped herself closer in her veils. The child walked on beside her, happy now that all the mystery of the night had been resolved in the smile of the morning.

“Oh!” cried the child; “See what a beautiful flower that is!”

“And there, what a beautiful butterfly!”

 “Oh!” said the child joyfully. “I would like to have them, the butterfly and the flower.”

 “I shall give you the butterfly and the flower,” said the white lady; “but then, you must also give me something in return.”

“And what can I give you, white lady?”

“In lieu of the butterfly and the flower, my child, you must give me this morning hour.”

 “Oh, beautiful is the flower, and beautiful is the butterfly: oh, white lady, I gladly give you this morning hour, in return!”

The white lady smiled. With a mysterious, dark look she looked at the child.

Then she caught the butterfly in her veil and bent over the precipice to pluck the blue flower. She offered both to the child, who rejoiced with happiness.

 “O white lady, O white lady,” the happy child spoke out in joy. “How happy I am with my flower and my butterfly!”

But in his joy, the boy squeezed the butterfly to death and the flower withered in his little hand. “Oh, but how soon, O white lady, is my flower wilted and my butterfly died!”

 “But dear child, butterflies do not live long, especially not in the hands of children, and flowers wither even faster. But if you give me this new day of spring, I will bring up thousands of butterflies and thousands of flowers, by magic, all along your path today.”

“A thousand of butterflies and flowers! Oh, white lady, for so many flowers and butterflies, I will gladly give you my day in spring.”

Now the glowing sun had completely burst forth, and the forest no longer wore a black garment; it sparkled with golden-green spring. And along the shining road, the child walked in springtime, and picked the blooming flowers and caught the colorful butterflies, for they bloomed and fluttered all along the road.

But by evening, the flowers had wilted, and all the butterflies were dead.

“Still, it was a lovely spring day,” said the cheerful child, now with sleepy eyes. Exhausted, he wrapped his arms around the white lady and slept on her heart, between her ephemeral white veils.

Night fell, the white lady walked on, and in the depths of her shadowy eyes, a peal of wistful laughter broke quietly. “But that glorious spring day is now mine!” murmured she, in a nameless, deep, dark voice.

The white lady took the little boy to the city, among other people and children. The child grew up there. He became big and strong among those he assumed were his parents, his brothers, and sisters, relatives, and friends.

Many seasons later, the white lady appeared to him again. The white lady of his yesteryears, the one whom he had forgotten completely. Now, her deep dark eyes frightened him, even though he was now a young man of eighteen.

“My son,” the white lady called him. “I have not forgotten you.”

“I was ungrateful, white lady,” confessed the young man. “You saved me, a lost and forsaken child, from the gloomy forest of night And, you gave me butterflies and flowers.”

“Yes, thousands of butterflies… in exchange for one spring day!”

“Yes… thousands… for one day in spring. You brought me to the city, and I found my parents.”

“And they fed you and cared for you until you became a man, my son, a young man of eighteen. But don’t you remember, the promise? What returns would you give me now?”

“Oh, yes, white lady, I remember very well. A spring day in exchange for the butterflies and flowers. I also remember the eighteen spring seasons of my life, which you demanded to bring me into the city where I could be with my parents, and they would raise me with my brothers and sisters, and with my relatives and friends.”

“If you still remember that promise, my son, the white lady is now content… And she’s happy. In exchange of just eighteen, withering spring seasons, you have received youth and a youthful time of pure happiness.”

“But now, white lady, my happiness is over, and I am bitter with grief,” cried the young man. “For I love a girl as beautiful and as soulful as no other girl in the world, and I should like to call her my wife. But alas! She does not love me. I have but little possessions and one among them is my anguish, that I cry out on my violin.”  

“My son, you know how much I love you. If you can give me, no more than twenty blooming summers of your life, I will gladly give you happiness, a consort, and money. Twenty blooming summers, in exchange for the bride, and the gold that will make you great among men. Do not lament in music anymore; music must fill the void and is more transient and rarer than what I’ve asked of you…. Your spring days and summer months…”

“But music has comforted me, white lady.”

“Yes, live happily then, my son,” said she. “Be happy with what I give you, with your bride and the money…”

“Oh, white lady, oh white lady, for so much I’d willingly give all my blooming summers to you!”

The white lady looked with deep dark eyes at the young man, and she did not come back in years.

The young man married the lady of his dreams, the one whom he desired much, and as the years slowly turned, he attained prestige, wealth and power, until the war erupted. Then, the country was in turmoil, and the smoke of crumbling, burning cities darkened the sky and the horizon.

The white woman appeared to her foster son for the third time. She looked terrible to him. Her face was lean and sunken, her arms bony and her outstretched hand, threatening.

“O white lady, O white lady,” exclaimed the man, full of passion. Worries had already wrinkled his face; pride was scorching his soul. “Years ago, you offered me happiness in exchange for twenty summers of my life. But I never found happiness… Like the flower and the butterfly, my love died and wilted, and my wealth never brought any joy. Now I only wish to be very powerful, for if I attain supremacy, that must surely bring happiness. I wish for a crown that would sit on my temple.”

“Foster son,” said the white lady, “my dear child, I never forgot you: if you will give me in exchange for the crown of this land, fifty purple autumn seasons of your life, I will cause a happy outcome in the war; it would make you the king of this land.”

The ambitious man hastily accepted the exchange, and a terrible battle raged for seven days. The battlefields were strewn with corpses: death seemed to reign supreme. The foster son of the white lady took a sword in his hand, fought fiercely in the front lines, and a mysterious power seemed to protect him and make him invincible in the heat of the war. He, at the head of the troops of the country, gained the victory, and they pressed the crown on his head.

He grew old under the weight of that crown, until war raged again, and rebellion broke out. Deserted by all his people, he fled the land half-naked, feeling miserable. He reached the same gloomy forest, collapsed there, where he had been once found as an abandoned boy by the white lady.

Old and dejected, he lay down in the twilight of the sinking evening, when she appeared before him, looking like a terror: gray hair fanned out around her face, which grinned like a skull; and now, she had hollow eyes.

“O white lady, O white lady,” cried the unhappy king.  “You thought to gift happiness to me with this crown. You turned the war in my favor, in exchange for fifty purple autumn seasons of my life. But this crown has only brought me trouble, nothing else. I’ve never known happiness, except perhaps for that very first day of spring, when you conjured up butterflies and flowers for me! And yet I considered you to be my life! Why have you been so cruel? O white woman, O white lady! Now that I lie here, feeling miserable, abandoned, I beg of you. You who are so powerful, please bring a glimpse of happiness and life, to my poor suffering subjects, to my children… in whichever form it may be, flower, butterfly, bride, gold, or crown…”

“O my son, O my son!” raved the white lady. “You’ve always been ungrateful.  You’ve cared neither for the flower, nor for the butterfly, nor bride or wealth, not even for the crown. But if you give me this last icy winter hour, well then, I’ll grant your children and your subjects life, and a glimpse of happiness.”

Helping him stand up, she led him on. Sobbing now, he entrusted his last winter hour to her. And she led him to a monument, whose bronze door she opened out for him.

“Get in there,” she said threateningly now. “So that I may receive everything: all the days of spring, summer and autumn, and also the last hour of winter: all that you have promised me, in exchange for my countless favors.”

The old king stumbled and staggered.

“But… but… this is a tomb!” he said, looking at the monument.

“This is a king’s tomb,” she corrected him. “Tomorrow your praise singers, O son, will engrave upon it, the words of glory, glorifying you for eternity. Get in there now, so that I may receive what you owe me.”

And she held open the bronze doors for him.

“Were you not my life then?” asked the King, on the threshold of the sepulcher. “Oh, tell me… Aren’t you, my life?

“No,” said the white lady gloomily.  “I was never your life. I am not Life. I am Death.”

And she pointed him to go inside.

He obeyed; slowly, she turned the bronze door, which creaked in heavy hinges.

“And my life?” asked the old king in a begging voice, anxious, as he peered through the still open crack of the slowly closing tomb door.

The white lady said more softly, “You’ll get your life, but only when you have paid me your debt of the days and the seasons…

Then she closed the door, for thousands of years.

Louis Couperus (1863-1923) is one of the foremost figures in Dutch literature. His oeuvre contains a wide variety of genres, including lyrics, poetry, short stories, fairy tales and historical novels. Over Lichtende Drempels (About luminous thresholds) is a collection of four fairy tales and an accompanying story by Couperus. Published in November 1902 by LJ Peat, in Amsterdam, “Of Days and Seasons” (Van dagen en seizoenen) is a parable from this collection.

Chaitali Sengupta is a writer, translator, a language teacher, and a volunteer journalist from the Netherlands. Her first prose-poem collection Cross-stitched Words was published in February, 2021. Her published works also include two translations “Quiet whispers of our heart” and “A thousand words of heart”.

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