A tribute from Ravi Shankar to a fellow trekker& a recap of their adventures in the Himalayas
A very fit and energetic person strode into my office. My good friend, Varun, accompanied and introduced him as a newly joined faculty member in the Physiology department at the Manipal College of Medical Sciences (MCOMS), Pokhara. My friend always called himself Ashutosh though he quickly became famous at MCOMS by his surname Bodhe.
Bodhe was always in perpetual motion. During our five years of close interactions, I rarely saw him sitting quietly in one place. He was a member of the college mess but rarely ate from there. I sometimes saw him around 2 or 3 pm having noodles and eggs from the private food stall located within the mess. He was fond of repairing things. He could put back together nearly everything — except maybe, broken hearts. His tool kit consisted of a soldering iron, screwdriver, screws, insulation tape, clamps, and a multimeter; rather strange appurtenances for a doctor.
During my conversations with him, I came to know that he had always wanted to be an engineer and had secured admission into a premier engineering college in Mumbai, India. He also later qualified for admission to the medical course and his family insisted that he switch over to medicine. He would walk around the city of Pokhara, Nepal at strange times of the day and night. He would walk from the lakeside to the college campus after 10 pm. This seemed strange in a city that usually goes to sleep by nine.
Bodhe, on occasions, also joined us on day hikes in the Pokhara valley. Pokhara is a trekker’s paradise. The walk up to the Shanti Stupa on the hill slopes overlooking the Fewa lake can be a good Saturday morning activity. Rowboats are available on the shore of Fewa Lake and are mainly used to visit the Tal Barahi temple located on an island in the middle of the lake. The stupa was built by a Japanese monk with the help of locals in the early 1970s. The stupa stands on Anadu hill in the onomatopoeic village of Pumdi Bhumdi and is a good hour’s climb. After the visit, you can climb down to Damside, continue to Lakeside, and return after a delicious lunch.
Occasionally, Bodhe would join us on our Saturday walks to Lakeside. The walk would take about 90 minutes. We continued along the lake to a ‘Korean’ restaurant. The restaurant constituted of small huts by the side of the lake with tables and chairs. It was a magnificent location for a feast! We used to have Nepali daal bhaat tarkari maasu (lentil curry, rice, vegetables and meat, usually chicken). In many Nepalese restaurants, food is usually prepared fresh after you order. The food takes around an hour to be prepared. This leaves plenty of time for conversation. The food by the lake was always fresh and piping hot. The country chicken was beautifully spiced, and the green leafy vegetables were perfect.
Our other go-to place for lunch on Saturdays (the weekly off in Nepal) was the Pokhara Thakali Kitchen. Thakalis are originally from the Thak Khola (the upper Kali Gandaki River) around the Nigiri Himals to the north of Pokhara. They are successful businessmen and run some of the best hotels and restaurants in the country. I simply loved their rich, thick green daal and their potatoes fried in ghiu (clarified butter). The other specialty was dhido (a thick paste) made from either corn or buckwheat flour.
Bodhe, me, and a group of students hiked to the Everest Base Camp and Kala Pathar. We flew to Lukla (from Kathmandu) and the Tenzing Hillary airport at around 2800 m. This is one of the most dangerous airports in the world and accidents were not uncommon. The runway was only around 600 m and then it is a steep drop to the river below. We had lunch at a lodge in Lukla while we waited for our porters. Most hikers spent the first night on the trail at the settlement of Phakding. The first thing we noticed was that the Everest region was much colder than the Annapurna trekking region just north of Pokhara. A large portion of the hike is at heights of over 3000 m.
The peak autumn trekking season was underway and there were large groups of hikers on the trail. We were racing against each other to find a place for the night. Those were the days before online booking and land telephone and internet access were still not available in Khumbu.
Namche Bazaar, the ‘Sherpa Capital’ was packed with tourists, and we were lucky to find rooms at a small lodge. The next morning dawned clear and frosty and the views of the Himals were spectacular. Bodhe, while chewing tobacco, was busy clicking photos and we were dancing vigorously to various songs. He really liked the song Kaanta laga. He would reminisce about the wild morning and mention the ruckus we had created, chewing his usual wad of tobacco for he seemed addicted to the stuff.
Bodhe was a man with tremendous energy and a useful person to have on a long trek. He was impulsive and a practical joker but a kind soul with the energy to get going when the going becomes tough. He sprinted uphill on hikes and then climbed a tree or went off sprinting into the bushes. He did not reach a lodge or a settlement early as he was easily diverted by wayside attractions. He was fascinated by the term boche which stands for a flat land seen from a hilltop. In a very rugged and mountainous landscape, flat land is a coveted commodity. There are many boches in the Everest region – Pangboche, Deboche, Dingboche, Pheriche Tengboche among others.
We eventually reached the settlement of Gorak Shep at 5300 m. The weather was cloudy and freezing. The temperature was well below zero. We were shivering under our quilts in the lodge. It was the eve of Kojagiri Purnima, and the moon was beginning to rise. Bodhe motivated a group of students to carry and pitch a tent on the slopes of Kala Pathar (Black Stone) in the freezing cold. They donned all the winter clothing they had and spent the night on the rock photographing the world’s highest mountains in moonlight. The cold chilled their marrows and sleep was out of the question. They arrived around eight the next morning with wild stories of their hair-raising night.
We eventually returned to Lukla and reconfirmed our flight tickets for the following morning. Our flight was scheduled for eleven am and the last night at the lodge was a wild one. Bodhe was in full form and we were all relieved that the trek was over, and we were flying back to Pokhara. It was raining heavily the next morning and our flight was repeatedly delayed. Flights to and from Lukla are notoriously fickle. We were the last flight to take off as rainy weather closed in.
It was a long drive in the rain from Kathmandu to Pokhara. Clouds and mist draped the hills. Soon after reaching the hostel, one of the students who had joined us on the trek mentioned that the next day was a holiday as the roof of the Manipal Teaching Hospital had collapsed. We chided him for his fertile imagination but slowly realised that he was telling the truth. The hospital roof had collapsed that afternoon killing a few patients in the waiting area and seriously injuring a few others.
We hiked with Bodhe, some other faculty, and a few postgraduate students to the village of Ghandruk. Ghandruk (also called Ghandrung) is the second largest Gurung village in Nepal. The hike was along a rocky riverbank and then through stone staircases. The sun was up full force and our trek to the village was hot. Mule trains raised dust clouds as they move up and down the trail. The village is the headquarters of the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP). There are several excellent lodges in the village and the Annapurna South and Hiunchuli Himals can be viewed from there. One of the finest lodges in the village was the Himalaya lodge, a Kerr and Downey resort located at the top of the village. The lodge was an additional twenty-minute hike, but it is well worth the effort. The views are stupendous and the rooms beautiful. They provide down jackets and slippers for the comfort of their guests. There was a good porch and a magnificent lawn in front. Bodhe absolutely loved this place.
Sadly, Bodhe never stayed in touch after he left Pokhara. There were rumours of him working in the Caribbean, in Mauritius, and in different places in India. In a circuitous fashion, I came to know about his death last year. We do not know the details yet. Looking back on his life, I am reminded of so many unfulfilled promises. The man had a first-rate intellect and boundless energy. He could have achieved much only if he had been able to focus and channel his God-given gifts. But, he lived his life in his own terms. Dear friend, I sincerely hope you are finally at peace. Ashutosh Bodhe – tujhe salaam!
 The restaurant mainly catered to Korean tourists and used to serve primarily Korean food but also cooked Nepalese dal bhaat
Narrative by Paul Mirabile with photographs by Françoise Mirabile.
To have sojourned on Burgaz Island was such a marvellous experience. This experience resulted from the fact that I worked twelve years in Istanbul and had rented a small flat on the island from an Armenian woman whose daughter had been a student of mine at University.
I rented the small, rooftop flat for about five or six years. Then I met one of the protagonists of my story, Abi Din Bey, a Turkish Alevite who had been living on Burgaz since the 1940s in his two room wooden dwelling on the beach, opposite Yassi (Flat) Island and Sivri ( Pointed ) Island in the Marmara Sea, which he and his brother had built. He sold coffee or tea with little cakes or grilled cheese sandwiches to infrequent visitors, hikers or swimmers who happened to stumble across his home on the beachhead. That was in fact how he made his living. We got to know one another well, and soon he offered to rent me the smaller room of his lodgings whenever I arrived on the island for week-ends or for the longer holidays at a much more advantageous price than my flat in the village. I took him up on it without a second thought …
Abi Din Bey’s front gardens, peppered with shady fruit trees, under which he had placed long or square tables with benches or chairs for the occasional visitors, touched the stony beach. From those gardens one had a wide open view of the Sea of Marmara. It was truly a place of magic ! In the mornings we would take our coffee or tea in the gardens and contemplate those placid waters lapping the pebbly strand, a slight breeze coming in from the North, the sky and the sea, enamel blue. Hikers or visitors would stop in after eleven, and he would serve them cold beverages and grilled cheese toast, which he prepared in his kitchenette. I would help him on the week-ends when students arrived with their tents to stay on for a day or two on in the wooded areas.
Burgaz, the second of the four Princes’ Islands of the Sea of Marmara, known to the Greeks as Antigone, was as popular if not more than the first island Kınalada (Prōtē), the third, Heybeliada (Halki) and the largest Büyükada (Prinkēpos). Their Greek names fell out of use after the Greek-Turkish War in 1921, and following the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Burgaz was a world of poetry, in rhythm wth the movements of steamers coming and going, lapping waves and rough winds … screaming seagulls, the long solitary walks up into the hilly woods and along the sandless beaches, by the evening strolls amongst the white-washed nineteenth century wooden Ottoman-era mansions of Burgaz village, whose fretted pitches mounted from the cornice to the high gabled roofs of the façade. Bougainvillaea and wisteria of bright blues, purples and whites overflowed from the cast-iron balconied façades. Neatly kept gardens hugged the quiet lanes and streets fringed with mimosas and pomegranate trees, pricked here and there with aging trees, one of which near the House of the Alevites, was said to be over six-hundred years of age.
Indeed, life on Burgaz contrasts so starkly with that of Istanbul : no vehicles, no mass movements of people rushing to and from work, no tram, metro or train ; a world of enchantment and marvels, of monasteries, churches and cathedrals, of dancing boats at the piers, of leather-faced fisherman casting nets or having tea ; of forested hills, rocky cliffs, of bougainvillea sagging in great clusters and copses of cypress … of crimson sunsets dipping into the Marmara. Truly, Burgaz is ideal for the painter’s palette …
How I inhaled and exhaled those wonderful visions as I made my way down upon the winding path towards Abidin Bey’s home — splashes of roses, honeysuckles and oleanders blazing orange and crimson through the deep forest greens. And as I did, the voice of my foremost protagonist, the hero of this story, Sait Faik Abasıyanık, would implore me to reanimate his presence on this island paradise, to hearken to and bring forth, as if snatched up in some dreamy reminiscence of poetic éclat, that forlorn, melancholic voice :
Yes, that Sait Faik voice, elliptic, forlorn and melancholic, as if he solicited an unaffected sincere souvenir of his masterful art : the Art of Poetics … of the short-story, a palatable keepsake of his short-lived grandeur :
The wind that bears the salt to the shore,
I hear the swimming of the fish
I listen to the seaweed talking amongst themselves,
So many journeys into the past borne by that doleful voice of the solitary poet and story-teller of fishermen, wood-choppers, street vendors, birds, steamers, cafés ; of motley dressed street children, long, starry nights meditating the brushing waves of the Marmara Sea along the indented coasts of Burgaz … of insular Freedom …
What exactly is insular Freedom ? A land free of noisome noise; the islanders hear only the laughing seagull in flight, the chants of fishermen repairing their nets, the brays of donkeys, the wheedling of jays and the coarse hawking of merchants on market days, the neighs and snorts of work-horses, the cock-a’doodle doos of roosters at the break of dawn.
A land where the naked eye embraces gold-gilded sunrises and dragon-red sunsets at the not so distant point where the azures of the sky touch those of the briny sea.
A land of a myriad flowery perfumed fragrances, free from the toxic fumes of vehicle emission, from chemical discharge and human waste. A land of powerful telluric forces where the islanders’ footfalls tread dirt tracks, sandy or stony beachheads, soft, leafy trails ; where he or she communes with the trees, the sea, tastes the salty air free of pollution. Even the taste of Burgaz coffee smacks of that island brew, a nice commingling of robust richness and timeless tincture ! Freedom which releases all the senses from their ensnared urban uniformity, their artificial, conventional urbanity of foot-shuffling routine and tiresome ennui …
So I descended and descended towards Abi Din Bey’s strand home, winding steeply in zig-zag fashion, alive to that distant but clear, impelling voice :
When reading or listening to these verses I experienced a veil of despondency, a dash of fury that underscores a struggle of consciousness, of surpassing vanity as the principal motivation of solitude within an island envelope. The consciousness may be called nostalgia ; that is, suffering of and from a past, familiar lieu, a stead-sickness of some remote time within the fantastic unfolding of a man’s former existences. And yet, these former existences may not be as remote as I believed. So I continued to lend an ear as I approached the beachcomber’s humble abode :
Ah, Sait, you have been my faithful road companion ; the herald of the short story, of the furtive glimpse, of the snap-shot of possible realities which have been the ardent desire of our existential Way … the Flame of Life …
Here, at long last, Abi Din Bey has come to greet me at his welcoming gate — a hearty greeting indeed. Abi Din Bey towers over me in all his nobleness ; he is a descendent of the great Ali, fourth Caliph of the Sunna, first Imam of the Shia. He took great pleasure and pride in showing me his genealogical tree finely printed out on vellum in triptych form as he had done in the past every time I visited him. He had it done by specialists at the Vatican for a meagre fee. He never fully explained why he had it done at the Vatican.
Noble, humble, ascetic and combative like his distant descendant, he stands erect for his advanced age (perhaps eighty ?), and remarkably lucid when discussing religious matters and Sufi poets. He was well versed in Ali’s conquests as well as Sait Faik Abasıyanık’s life and personality, whom he knew personally in his younger days. How many nights under a speckless sky did my friend and host narrate Saik’s life to me, abridged of course, and oftentimes modified to enfold the atmosphere of that night’s solicitude, the turbulence of the waves pounding the jutting rocks, the scrapings of the pines against the rising cliffs that arched over his diminutive home.
It was the month of May in the year 2006. The mimosas were in full bloom as we sat in his front gardens, breathing in the fresh balmy air of the calm, morning sea. The fragrance of rose attar mounted from the morning dew which clung to the garden trees like hoarfrost. The tea, too, had a fresh taste to it. Abi Din Bey looked out upon the cool blues of the late morning sky and waters :
“Sait was a rebel !” he began abruptly in his deep, coarse voice. “You know, he didn’t look to transform the world like some revolutionary, he wanted to be as useless as possible to the whims and caprices of our political and economic decision-makers, to the ideological escapades of social redeemers or misfits so as to accomplish his own destiny for the benefit of all Humanity.”
“Is that why he wrote ‘The Useless Man’ ?” I ventured, a lovely short story that I had translated several years back.
“Yes, for the whole of Humanity,” he continued excitedly as if not hearing my rhetorical question. “That may sound strange because he lived such a hermit’s life, a socially useless life, especially here on Burgaz. However, if you’ve noticed, and I’m sure you have noticed, he always wrote ‘on the road’ : at the docks waiting for the steamers, on the steamers, in cafés, whilst strolling about the island plunged in his world of creative imagination … even when fishing or rowing. He loved to stroll up the dirt tracks into the forested hills and visit the Greek priest on Hristo’s Hill in his chapel.
“Nothing revolutionary. No message to peddle or to plead, only the solemn and sober cheerfulness of his flamboyant and oftentimes eccentric character which he consciously or unconsciously weaved into his short stories and poetry. His voice was not the authoritative, pompous voice booming from above, but the unfettered voice of pure simplicity, describing simple gestures, simple acts, simple conversations, freed from conventional social and literary shackles. A rebel is neither serf nor master : he is absolutely free from social rank and class …”
Abi Din Bey paused to take a sip of tea. This man, too, lived an unfettered, unconventional life in his two-room cabin on the pebbly strand of Burgaz, alone, besides the occasional visitor. But he was no rebel ; his parents had long since been deceased, and since he had never married had no children. His only brother died many years ago of alcohol in middle age. And so there we sat, alone, the sun rising high on the wooded hills of the Kalpazankaya peninsula bay, Abi Din Bey spinning his own tale of Sait, a timeless reminiscence where story-telling reveals not only the pleasures of listening, of sharing, but more important still, the essence of identification with the Other of that story …
“You know, he hadn’t always lived on Burgaz ; he had his schooling in Bursa, where he lodged at a boarding school for boys. His father wished him to be a merchant or a diplomat, but this lifestyle suited him not. Deep in his heart, Sait yearned to be a wandering, carefree writer who observes the details of life that wheel and whirl around him. It was in High School where he wrote his first story ‘The Silken Handkerchief‘ (Ipekli Mendil). It aroused much interest from his literature teacher who encouraged him to work harder to flesh out his ideas, rear in his galloping imagination. His father, on the other hand, disliked the route his son was taking, so he promptly sent him to Switzerland in 1931, I think, to study economics. Unstable as he was, the agitated student dropped his studies and left for France, exploring its towns and literature, especially those short stories of Maupassant, the finest of the French short-story writers, which he read in the original, as he developed a solid base in that language. Finally in 1935, he returned to Istanbul via Marseilles by ship, and there took up different employments, ignoring his father’s growing obsessions about lumber merchant opportunities. He even taught Turkish at an Armenian School for orphans …He translated, too. Since he excelled in French, he translated André Gide’s books for the literary journal Varlık (Existence). Translation served as an exercise in style and intellectual perspicacity for his own writings, which by the way, were gaining more and more attention within the small literary cliques of Istanbul.”
Abi Din Bey stopped for a moment to gather his thoughts. This was not the first time he was narrating Sait Faik’s story to me (and assuredly to others!), with of course the usual modifications. I noted, however, that his memory seemed to wane and to compensate for its loses and lapses, he filled in the gaps with judgemental remarks. Oddly enough, his attitude towards Sait became more and more distant, almost academic, as if Sait’s person, long since passed, betrayed Abi Din Bey’s own anguish of passing … His relation to Sait had been casual, not intimate ; yet, there were moments when recounting the events of Sait’s life that Abi Din Bey gave the impression that he was reliving his own past, concomitantly with Sait’s ! This might have explained the urgency in his voice, often broken, the lapses and chronological errors. Did he already know that he would be expropriated in the not so distant future ? I cannot say …
“He never earned a great deal of money from his stories, although they were quickly catching the eye of important literary critics and publishing firms. It was his father’s money that provided his bread, tea … and alcohol. More and more collections of his narratives poured out from his energetic pen, written in every possible place on every possible situation that he experienced. How many I cannot say or remember … I haven’t read them all …”
I interrupted to refresh his memory, “Semaver (The Sarmovar), Lüzsüz Adam (The Useless Man), Alemdağ’da Var Bir Yılan (There’s a Snake on Alemdağ), Son Kuşlar (The Last Birds), Az Şekerli (A Wee bit of Sugar), Havuz Başı (At the Poolside), Mahalle Kahvesi (The Neighbourhood Café), Şahmedan (The Pile Driver).”
“Yes ! Yes, so many stories in those collections !”
“There are twenty or so in each collection,” I added quickly.
“Have you read them all ?”
The question posed so bluntly caught me off guard. I shook my head : “No, perhaps twenty or thirty. I’ve only translated seven or eight of them.”
“Yes, seven or eight,” he echoed in a flat voice, gazing dreamily out to sea beyond his front garden fence. A few young people were strolling amongst the smooth rocks jutting into the sea.
“You know, Abi Din Bey, his stories are not easy to translate,” I rejoined, observing that my loquacious host remained unusually silent. “His vocabulary jumps from Ottoman word-hoards to Burgaz jargon ; from street talk to poetic solipsism. His syntax, so elliptic at times, coils like a snake on the branch of a tree on others ; to follow this coiling I had to slither like a snake.” Abi Din Bey broke into a wide grin : he enjoyed simile and metaphor. “Saik Fait’s reasoning defies Cartesian logic with his uncanny sounding rhythms and odd visual associations ; he had such an eye for details.” I pursued after Abi Din Bey had withdrawn into his cabin to procure a few cakes and returned to our table. “I’m sure I have done violence to the English language with my translations. Then again, my approach to translation has always been a Poetics one ; that is, a unique adventure by which Sait’s enonciations and utterances, his ‘style’ of writing if you like, are ‘transferred’ to my poetic expression in English. Poetics in translation is not one of language to language, but discourse to discourse …” Abi Din Bey nodded kindly in my direction. He knew nothing about translation, but had been grateful to me for having translated his deceased brother’s poems, a marginal poet amongst the plethora of Turkish poetic writers. Yet, Abi Din Bey refused that I seek out a publisher for them; his brother’s tragic death would not be flaunted and besmirched publicly by the blood-thirsty horde of scandalmongers who called themselves literary critics. His poetry, whatever its worth, translated or not, would remain a ‘family affair’ … which it did … Abi Din Bey poured out some more tea, then resumed his reminiscing. He was drifting into his favourite souvenirs, those to which, I am sure, he identified himself : “Many so-called critics despised Sait. Not his stories but his way of living ! They trumped up intrigues against him, accused him of political incorrectness, of social disorder. But this man never advocated any political ideology, nor did he mingle with criminals, as some imbeciles claimed. How the mediocre can conjure up calamitous falsehoods through jealousy, malice and hate. He reacted badly to these accusations and insinuations, withdrawing from the world’s fair ; it was also then that he began to drink very heavily and lead a very unproductive life.
“His father died, and Sait, fed up with all that puerile scandal-mongering, left for Burgaz, where he inherited his mother’s lovely two-storey house near the Greek Cathedral of Saint John. A whole new existential vista opened up for him on his island retreat, far from vanity and pseudo-intellectualism. On Burgaz, he regained that the freedom of the beachcomber, that artful notion of being humane to all living creatures, confronting Nature’s formidable forces, interlacing his childhood dreams and fantasies with natural surroundings. He explored the psychic of individuals of meagre living and of strenuous trades. Sait Faik’s daily existence transpired on the pages of his stories : modest or tragic family events, streets filled with vendors or motley children, fishing expeditions, prawn catching at midnight, flocks of seagulls on the wing and shoals of fish frolicking in gay abandon. He recorded the voices that echoed off the walls of cafés filled with fisherman, spoons tinkling in their glasses, the crisp sounds of cards shuffled or dominoes tumbling. His was an unaffected world of banal circumstances acted out in harmony or disharmony with roaming wildlife, teeming vegetation or simple, working people.
“Sometimes I met him at his favourite café, which no longer exists. There we chatted and chatted for hours ; I know he was using me as his first reader, narrating details of his day’s activities, and those of the islanders.
“You know at that time very little Turkish was spoken on Burgaz ; many of the inhabitants spoke Greek, Armenian or Jewish-Spanish. Sait savoured these foreign sounds, so exotic to his ears since he none of these languages. But he listened as if he understood them perfectly. Anyway, we would meet every now and then, stroll about or just have tea or coffee in the village. He led a simple, hermit’s life.”
“Like yours ?” I put in slyly.
He turned a bit red, the limpidity of his eyes losing their usual sunset softness. He rubbed his arching nose : “Perhaps. But I never wrote a sentence or verse in my life ; that was my brother’s destiny. And please, don’t publish those poems of his that you translated,” he admonished me in a colourless voice.
I promised not to do so for the hundredth time. Abi Din Bey, relieved for the hundredth time, resumed rather pedantically : “Sait rubbed shoulders with people of whom he had ignored the very existence, whether in Bursa or in Istanbul, and by all this rubbing, however awkward or uncouth, he came to realise that his Destiny was one of Freedom, a philosophy of Life, an Art of Existence that he gradually cultivated here on Burgaz, and which blossomed out into the most beautiful bouquet of literary flowers.”
“Yes, Abi Din Bey,” I began slowly, pleased at my host’s sudden poetic élan. “A Destiny of a sovereign being who regards each and every being as equal in value. An equality of value that can be gauged not particularly by choice of theme, but rather in the glimpses of detail that strikes the ear and eye: a miaowing cat, a reduplicated adjective or noun, the howling wind or soft breeze, a bright scarf on a darkening day, a bird hopping among the trees or on the wing ; details that play not a major role in the setting of his stories but should not be regarded as mere rhetorical artifice. They produce not a ‘local atmosphere’ but generate an intensity to his oftentimes plotless narratives or actionless plots. In fact, they rhythm the levels of narrative threads that weave the dramaless narrations no matter how insignificant or banal. I have never experienced a climax or a ‘dénouement‘ in any of his stories.”
Abi Din Bey agreed, then added : “Unlike most Turkish writing, Saik’s stories are written in plain language, they carry no overweening pomposity.” (Here I refrained from objecting : Orhan Pamuk does not write in any overweening, bombastic language !). “They are unburdened by bloated images. His choice of vocabulary captures the accents of Greek, Armenian, Jew and Turk of Burgaz and Istanbul at that time. You noticed, of course, that there are no proverbs in his writings, so salient in Turkish literature ?” I of course had noted. And it is true that Sait shied away from the Persian and Arabic influences in Turkish literature, still read in modern or contemporary Turkish writers. “You know why ?” I did, but shrugged my shoulders ; I preferred to hear his opinion on the subject. “Because proverbs are associated now with the Ottoman aristocratic literati, the çelebi we call them, now with the folk sayings of the Anatolian Turkish villagers. Sait created a new form of writing in Turkish …”
“On the road writing or insular writing ?” I chanced. He took out a handkerchief and wiped the perspiration from his large forehead. I wasn’t sure whether he subscribed to my viewpoint or simply ignored it. “Sait was not a writer who sought desperately to compose a great œuvre, but one who arranged movement by movement the myriad glimpses of human reality. There lies his universality !”
There followed a profound silence between us. The waves broke against the rocks. The pines scraped against the flat roof of his abode. The seagulls screamed. Abi Din Bey scratched the remaining white bristles on his round head then spoke in a half whisper :“He was such a mild-mannered man, so gentle, so attentive to others, never intrusive, only curious of life’s gifts to mankind.” He shook his big head sadly : “Can you imagine, the literati of Istanbul dared call him a tramp and a vagrant !”
“They were devoured by jealousy, Abi Din Bey. The majority of those critics hardly ever wrote one sentence that could rival with Sait’s whimsical seizing of gestures and conversations, his alacrity and precision in story-plot and transition. Had any one of them ever traced a vision of the world where animals commingle with humans, children with adults, elders with youngsters ? Ostriches and seagulls are compared to human beings; he even compares himself to an ostrich ! Had any one of them ever composed homespun characters who express their inner world of trials and tribulations without the narrator meddling in their affairs, however tragic or exuberant ? Had any one of them ever experienced the insular life as a source of narrative inspiration, then externalise it, touching the sensitive notes on the scale of universality ? His was the open, horizonless, borderless life, in spite of an existence as a ‘recluse’. Instead of sentences written at a desk and smelling of the oil lamp, his literary creations exude the aroma of cypress and spruce, the fragrance of the salty sea, of the fisherman’s catch and the common man’s labouring moils. The rusticity of his new life on Burgaz was in no way condescending, nor the parenthetical plunge of a dilettante.” I concluded.
“Sait never caroused with the literary lackeys and scribblers during his short life.” Abi Din Bey stated emphatically with a bit of harshness in his tone. “He told me that he had found comfort and inspiration here on Burgaz, and that we were all children of a timeless present … of a past fallen into oblivion.”
“So true,” I rejoined immediately. “The writer explores the many levels of reality which diverge and converge as silently and indiscreetly as dreams, phantasies and musings cohere with daily mundane events. Does this not mark the novelty of the modern short story, of which Sait was one of the initiators, artisans and masters ?”
“I shall not object to that !” he laughed. “He even won a prize for his stories, but I have forgotten the name.”
“The Mark Twain Prize,” I reminded him. “In 1953. I remember it because it was the year of my birth.”
“Mark Twain … an American short-story writer, I think ? Yes. How tragic, he died a year later of cirrohis, like my brother … They both drank too much rakı… Horrible stuff ! It has killed off many excellent Turkish poets. His doctor, the good Selahatin Hanın, warned him about his heavy drinking, but the doctor, too, would indulge in bouts of boozing with Sait ! What a shame … You know, we would sometimes meet. He would chat about the events of the island, his writing, or this or that. Then he would just get up and leave, stroll slowly along the beach, stop to converse with a visitor or an islander. He was not a man who impressed you by his stature or knowledge or personality ; he would just carry on a conversation whilst dreamily looking out to sea, or follow the flight of the seagulls. He never invited me to his home, although I visited it when it became a museum. What a shame …”
With those words said in a broken voice lacking in resonance, Abi Din Bey stood and with a half smile trudged languidly into his lodging to retire for an afternoon nap ; the heat was becoming unbearable. I observed him disappear into his room. I noted that his footfalls had lost that former blithe spring to them, and his hunched back seemed more and more enshrouded in a halo of solitude … of quiet resignation. I turned my attention to the sheen of the sea growing bluer and bluer, the seagulls plunging downwards to fetch their silvery prey. Tonight would be my last night on Burgaz. The next afternoon I had classes at the university …
In fact, it would be my last night spent with Abi Din Bey. For little did I know that in a few months I would begin a three-year teaching sojourn in Siberia. And when I did return to Istanbul, take the boat to Burgaz and amble down that old and winding path to my friend’s humble home nothing appeared to have changed : the steep path, the dense, leafy vegetation, the briny fragrance of the sea, the laughing seagulls. Yet upon reaching the welcoming gate it had been sealed shut by order of the municipality ! The shutters of his home were closed. The tables and chairs in his garden overturned and strewn about. The plants and trees unattended … lifeless. The barefoot islander who, for some unknown reason, would pile up the stones on the beachhead every day into huge cairns here and there, strolled over and informed me that the authorities had expropriated the ‘old man’s’ property, which forced him to leave Burgaz. Apparently he died of loneliness and of a broken heart. So said the bare-footed stone cairn piler of Burgaz …
Abi Din Bey was the last descendant of the great Ali ibn Abi Talib, and the last person to have personally known Sait Faik Abasıyanık, one of the finest short story writers of the twentieth century …
 Alevites are a branch of Muslim Shias who settled in Anatolia Turkey during the Middle Ages.
 Turkish writer, 18 November 1906 – 11 May 1954
 Ali ibn Abi Talib was Mohammad’s son-in-law, having married Fatima, the Prophet’s only daughter.
 Ali Ekbar Aksu, and his collection of poems ‘Bir Göz Orda Bir Göz Burda‘ (A Glance There A Glance Here) and ‘YaArif Kul Ya BoşÇul‘ ( Ether a Wise Servant Or an Empty Moneybags).
 Turkish novel writer who won the Nobel Price for literature in 2006.
 A strong alcoholic beverage commonly referred to as arrack in English.
Paul Mirabile is a retired professor of philology now living in France. He has published mostly academic works centred on philology, history, pedagogy and religion. He has also published stories of his travels throughout Asia, where he spent thirty years.
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The summers of high school were eight weeks lived between a haze of pages, books borrowed and exchanged (even secreted away) with abandon.
The exchanges were facilitated with much gusto in rooms, parks, benches by the streets, friends looking over shoulders as the item in question was reverently drawn out of the bag. Some sealed the exchange verbally — “I’ll give it back to you in two weeks” — and the deed was done. Others laid out sacrosanct rules. “Don’t fold the corners. Don’t mark the pages. And for God’s sake, don’t underline anything”.
I have an elderly neighbour who keeps two copies of each book — one for reading and the other for lending. When asked why, she said, “my books are sacred”.
“Sacred” has been used as a stand-in for “religion” for so long that it’s become almost synonymous. But there’s a class of ‘sacred” that refers to things set apart with special meaning and not necessarily connected to anything religious, spiritual or metaphysical.
Sounding very much like German theologian Rudolf Otto, American psychologist JH Leuba suggested that the experience of the sacred is characterised by “an element of awe… The sacred object has a hold upon us, we stand in dynamic relation with it, and this relation is not one of equal to equal, but of superior to inferior.”
I like to observe this in others — the reverent handling of pages, the ginger grip over a paperback so the spine doesn’t crease. Much like the devout scrabble to touch the feet of statues or hold hands with holy seers, even the most upright can fall to weeping at the sight of certain books, begging to hold them in their hands. In essence, they feel what author, educator and priest, Andrew Greeley describes: “By the sacred I mean not only the other-worldly, but also the ecstatic, the transcendental, that which takes man out of himself and puts him in contact with the basic life forces of the universe.”
If you’ve said— or heard someone say —something to the effect of “I lost myself in a book”, you’ve felt this. If you’ve curled up to read a novel and felt as though there were two of you — one curled up on the couch and one hurtling through the pages — then you’ve felt this sacredness.
But like there’s more than one way to love someone, there’s more than one way to love a book. Of course, some cults and sub-cults declare the other blasphemous, but the truth is simple: one book can be revered in many ways.
The platonic lovers read books and keep them only in their hearts and minds, if at all. They don’t actively disrespect the book, but they don’t leave way-markers to say they were here, either. If one “buys books intending to read them” and “reads books only in certain situations” were a Venn diagram, platonic lovers of books would fall into that overlapped territory. They’re most likely to pack a recent bestseller in their rattan bag for a beach day or optimistically buy one at the airport bookstore but crack open only a few pages before falling asleep.
There are the preux lovers, for whom form is inseparable from message. These are the ones who strive to preserve the purity of a novel assured to them by their first-hand bookseller. They carefully mark pauses with magnetic bookmarks and high-quality post-it notes aligned to the line they stopped at. Not for them the creased spines, dog-eared pages, and watermarks from dropping a V.E. Schwab into the bath one tipsy night.
No, these are for the physical lovers, the ones for whom some books are as familiar as a partner’s skin. Touch breeds intimacy — marks of use are marks of love. They leave their footprint — dried flowers, bus tickets, clean leaves off the floor, demonetised currency, letters from a daughter, strands of hair — behind with the boldness of a graffiti artist in broad daylight. The book itself is but a vessel, and they prop it open with whatever’s within arm’s reach: the dog’s tail, an AirPod, or the wrapper of a Twix bar. These are the people who know what it is like to love something to pieces.
And then there are the intellectual lovers, who care to pry open layer after layer and document what they find. The most permanent way-marker— writing in books — has haters and zealots in equal proportions, and this is the class of the latter. After all, the margins — or “sophisticated information-processing space”, as mathematician-philosopher John Dee calls them — often hold more heart-stirring epiphanies than diaries can hope to match. These people might also prefer to read vandalised books over virginal ones, getting caught as much in the flow of the text as in the passions of the reader that came before them.
When I was younger, I was much like the preux booklover I describe: a young novel for a young girl. Smudges, watermarks and left-over mementoes invoked the same ‘ick’ in me that vaguely disgusting bugs did. When you’re young, it’s customary to assume ageing is something that happened to other people — I, however, extended that belief to my straight-spined, pristine novels.
Cut to now: in my late twenties, grey hairs are shooting up from my skull at an alarming rate (a hereditary disposition I give my father much grief about). My oldest books haven’t fared any better, ravaged as they are by time, bathwater, and a 2-month sea voyage from Nigeria to India in ‘06. My early-edition Harry Potter copies, in particular, are now perilously held together by duct tape and makeshift covers. (I’m yet to find Inkheart’s Silvertongue in the real world, but I continue to hope).
Over time, I became less preux and more physical, choosing secondhand books over pristine copies for the same reasons that I’d once detested them. “Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore!” exclaimed Henry Ward Beecher once, and while I can stand strong in a Crossword or an Amazon, before my favourite Church Street antiquarian store, I am weak. My excuse is that it’s a lot more exciting to be the next in line for the throne of a kingdom contained within 600 pages.
I still draw the line at marginalia, though. It feels too much like watching a movie at the cinema while Chris Hemsworth’s dialogues are punctuated by boos, expletives or, if it were Mark Twain sitting beside me, vicious comments like “The Droolings of an Idiot”.
Inscriptions are yet another marker on the long-winding road of time and an invitation to re-imagine what circumstances this book has been through. These are marks that even preux lovers can’t deny because they rank highly in the eyes of a true bibliomaniac, glossing over the worst wear and tear. Even at their briefest, they tell a story, like a lovingly inscribed “To Mom” in a heartbreakingly unused novel on a used-book shelf. Indeed, a stroll through a secondhand bookstore is a study in betrayal, distance, and the melancholy effects of time. A secret taken to the grave is now out in the open for hundreds to witness.
In a Ziploc on one shelf in my library sits a battered first edition copy of Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, passed on to me by another elderly neighbour whose home was suddenly devoid of seating space. An inscription on the flyleaf (instead of the title page where only heathens write) reads: “Berhampore, 1908”. This doesn’t hold a candle to most inscriptions out there, including Lord Byron’s 226-word note to Countess Guiccioli, which ends with, “Think of me sometimes when the Alps and the ocean divide us — but they never will, unless you wish it”. But it is a relic of our colonial history, bequeathed to me.
So it’ll remain: the small book’s journey over Hill Difficulty and the Valley of the Shadow of Death ending on this twenty-something-year-old’s shelf, cheek and jowl with other hand-me-down slices of history and mystery.
Sindhu Shivaprasad is an essayist. Her work has been (or is set to be) published in The Yorkshire Post, Kitaab, The Curator, Thrive Global, and more. When not at her day job or curating for her magazine, Ex Libris, she’s usually curled up in a patch of sunlight with a paperback and lemon tea.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
The Sun had already set behind the hills. Dark clouds were gathering all around us. We could see occasional flashes of lightning and peals of thunder. The trail was getting difficult to see and was rough and slippery. The forest was dark. It started raining. Our only option was to continue till we came across a lodge. Eventually, we reached a clearing and a lodge by the trailside. The room was fine but the toilets were not in good shape. Trekking articles about Nepal always talk about toileting. Over the years we have got used to comfortable and hygienic toilets and want our time spent there to be as pleasant as possible.
Cellular services were now available. The night was peaceful, and we got up early the next morning. We set out early the next morning as we had a long way to hike. Our target was to reach the settlement of Tiwari and walk to the road head at Syarubesi, the following morning. The hike was long, and it was only after sunset that we reached the Bob Marley guest house at Tiwari. The last part of the hike was along the newly constructed road. The guest house is colourful and located on the banks of the Langtang River. The lodge is well designed but may be past its days of glory. A variety of factors ranging from new road heads, alternative trails, and different trekking groups can make a lodge less popular and lodge owners usually cannot do much about it.
Nabin Ban (Nabinji) is our all-purpose man at Kathmandu Medical College in Lalitpur and has been with the institution from the very beginning. He is a musician, videographer, farmer, craftsman, and small businessman. He is from Bhaktapur in the Kathmandu valley, and his village is on the way to the tourist resort of Nagarkot. He farms his land and raises chickens and breeds dogs and other animals. He is a resourceful and kind person and very useful in an emergency. I was back in Nepal after a long gap and was doing the Langtang trek, the nearest trek to Kathmandu which puts you among the snow-covered mountains.
The 2015 earthquake had hit this region hard and the old Langtang village was still buried under the rubble. We stayed in newly built lodges in the village. The views of the Himalayas were spectacular. I was finding the going difficult. The trail was rough, and I was carrying my winter gear and other necessities. Nepalese usually trek lighter and manage with the clothes they have on them. A large group of Nabin’s classmates were also hiking and planning to visit Gosainkund, the holy lake.
Nabin loved to travel and had hiked in various regions of Nepal. In the less touristy areas, the trails are rougher and the accommodation more basic. Nearly a decade ago we had hiked in the Gauri Shankar region. This trekking region was newly developed and had community lodges built in different villages. Each lodge would also serve as a gathering place for the villagers and had a local store. Dr David Wells, a chiropractor and applied kinesiologist from Singapore accompanied us on our trek.
We took the local bus to the village of Barabhise and started climbing and our first night was in the village of Karthali. The community lodge is situated among smiling mustard fields. Each lodge is built along similar lines. They have a store, a kitchen and dining room on the ground floor, and three bedrooms with bunk beds on the first. There is a balcony on the first floor. Organic fruits and vegetables are grown around the lodge. Karthali is in the gently sloping mid-hills. The next day we climbed steadily to the lodge at Dolangsa, a Sherpa village. The mountainous terrain has both blessed and disadvantaged Nepal. The crinkled landscape ensures a much bigger surface area for the country. There are several hills of around 5000 m in height. People who follow Hinduism stay at the lower elevations in caste-based villages while people of Tibetan descent reside higher up the hill.
From Dolangsa it is a steep and difficult climb to the Thingsang pass. The forests looked dark and menacing and prayer flags and stones were everywhere. David mentioned that he could sense evil vibrations and the shrines were to protect the valley from evil forces. The path eventually reaches flatter grasslands dotted with ponds. It often rains here. The Hindu shrine of Kalinchowk is nearby. On a clear day from the pass, the Gaurishankar and Rolwaling massif can be seen in the distance.
The descent to the settlement of Bigu is long and you descend through a hillside charred by a forest fire. The community lodge at Bigu painted a dark orange is my favourite. The didi at the lodge prepares delicious food and I enjoy having pooris and aloosabzifor breakfast. The settlement is dominated by the Bigu gompa. Most visitors start their day with a trip to the gompa and attend the morning prayers. The gompa is huge and has an interesting history. After the devastating 1934 earthquake, a Drukpa lama along with the headman of Bigu constructed the monastery. There is a huge population of nuns in residence. The nuns had played an important role in the construction of the monastery and were said to be engaged in long-term silent meditation retreats in caves high up the mountain.
After a heavy breakfast, we set off to the Chettri village of Loting. The lodge is surrounded by fields and is in the middle of the village. Nabin and David were engrossed in playing Baghchal, a Nepalese board game. The lodge has good views of the settlements on the surrounding hill across the river. Laduk is a large village, and the lodge is next to the village school. David was attracting a lot of attention from the village children. We passed through the old farmhouses of Bulung and the settlement of Orang. The sky was cloudy, and it started raining. Just below the lodge were the fields and a farmer was carrying a huge plough on his shoulder. The clouds parted and we had a clear and spectacular view of Gaurishankar. A young lady studying in Kathmandu had come home for the Dusshera holidays and efficiently took care of us.
Singati at 1100 m is the headquarters of the Eco Himal project and a major local centre. Red flags were everywhere, and I later read that the area was an important base of the Maoists during the civil war. With increasing access to information and travel people are becoming aware of the world beyond their villages. They become better informed and unhappy with their lot. There has been a population explosion in the hills and most young people are unwilling to till the land and live the meagre life of their parents and grandparents. There was a landslide on the road to Charikot, and the road was not passable to buses.
We stayed in a hotel and took a jeep to Charikot the next morning. From there we took an extremely crowded bus to Kathmandu. Many were returning to the city after the Dashain celebrations. Trekking with Nabin is always fun. He is adaptable, resourceful, and enterprising. He has travel in his blood and music in his soul. I look forward to more journeys with Nabinji!
 Elder sister literally but here used as a term of respect
Ratnottama Sengupta gives a glimpse of the life of a woman impacted by the Partition, spirited enough to be a celebrated performer and to have a compelling saga written on her life posthumously, Zohra: A Biography in Four Acts by Ritu Menon, published by Speaking Tiger Books. This feature is based on the book and Sengupta’s own personal interactions with the aging Zohra Sehgal.
Zohra Sehgal mirrors, in a strange kind of way, the story of the Indian subcontinent.
Born a Khan in 1912, raised in purdah by the Nawabs of Rampur in palaces and mansions in Lucknow and Dehradun, educated in Queen Mary’s College of Lahore; trained in Western dance in pre-Hitler Germany; whirling through the globe and basking in limelight as the dancing partner of the phenomenal Uday Shankar; setting up her own dance school with husband Kameshwar Segal in pre-Partition Lahore; rising to carve a niche for herself as a member of Prithvi Theatres; dominating the screen as a nonagenarian cast against the legendary Amitabh Bachchan… Sahibzadi bestowed with an impulse to find her way in the world, made of her life what she would.
So, was it all sunshine and moonlight in the life of the lady who, when she turned 100, had the wit to say, “You are looking at me now, when I am old and ugly… You should have seen me when I was young and ugly…”? No. She had seen the failure of Uday Shankar Cultural Centre in Almora; the closure of her own dance school in Lahore. She’d relocated to Bombay and be a less appreciated ‘side-kick’ to her ‘prettier’ younger sister in Prithvi Theatres. She performed in makeshift stages more often than in the Opera House; traveled in third class compartments with the troupe, slept on trunks, washed her own clothes. She had to worry about providing for her children and their father. She had to cope with the whimsicality, alcoholism, depression and finally, the suicide of her husband… But the caravan of misfortunes never dampened her spirit. “If I were to be reborn, I’ll be back as a blue-eyed, five feet five, 36-24-36,” she could repartee with humorist Khushwant Singh.
But then, much of the tragedy unfolded around the Independence cum Partition at Midnight. And I thank Ritu Menon’s ‘ABiography in Four Acts’ for lifting the curtain on this side of Zohra Segal – the phenomenon I had the good fortune to know through the years we spent in Delhi’s Alaknanda area.
Zohra’s father, Mohammed Mumtazullah Khan had descended from Maulvi Ghulam Jilani Khan, the warrior chieftain of a clan of the Yusufzai tribe and a religious scholar of repute who came to the Mughal court in Delhi possibly in 1754. Along with infantry and cavalry and the title of Khan Saheb he was given Chitargaon Pargana in Bihar, but since the British rulers were taking over Bengal and Bihar, he fled to Rohilkhand and joined the Rohilla chieftains who survived the battle against the Nawab of Awadh and rose to become Nawab of Rampur.
Zohra’s mother, on the other hand, descended from Najibuddaulah, another Rohilla Pathan in the service of Ahmad Shah Abdali and the Mughals, who founded Najibabad in 1740 and received the hereditary title of Nawab. By 1760, the tract of land he ruled included Dehradun, Najibabad, Meerut, Muzaffarnagar, Badayun, Bijnor and Bulandshahar. After 1887 his descendents, being incharge of the Regency Council that looked after the affairs of the Nawabs, set up schools to teach English, impart western education, encourage education of girls…
So, like many of India’s Muslim royalty and landed gentry, the Mumtazullahs were largely liberal, often westernised, and mostly secular. Their daughters, educated in English medium schools, went on to become hightly qualified professionals, including as ophthalmologist or Montessori teacher. Their sons went abroad for further studies, as did Zohra’s betrothed Mahmud — her maternal uncle’s son who went to school in England, graduated from Oxford, became a Communist, married a comrade and distributed all his inherited land in Moradabad to the peasants. Her elder sister Hajra married Z A Ahmed, an alumni of the London School of Economics who, as a committed communist, organised railway coolies, press workers, farmers and underground members of the then CPI.
Yet, even for such a family it was unusual to send the daughter to a boarding school — Queen Mary College, founded in 1908 — in a distant city like the cosmopolitan Lahore. It was a purdah school for girls from aristocratic families from where Zohra matriculated in 1929. By then she had imbibed the secular, broadminded values of her mostly-British teachers, and of an education that placed equal emphasis on physical activities – sports, to be precise. Here Zohra was initiated into both, art and acting – two passions of Uday Shankar who proved providential in her life.
It wasn’t so surprising then, that after matriculating, she set out on an arduous, even hazardous, overland trip across Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey and Middle East, with a kindred spirit: her strong willed maternal uncle Memphis who, being a maverick much like Zohra herself, endorsed all her unconventional choices. He enrolled her in Mary Wigman Tanz Schule in Dresden; he financed her stay as too her owning a teeny-weeny car so she wouldn’t have to travel by train! None of this, however, ruled out her performing Namaz five times a day or reading the Koran. Years later, it was he who unreservedly stood by her decision to marry Kameshwar Sehgal when her own family was wary of the choice. And they spent their honeymoon in his house ‘Nasreen’ – now well-known as Welham Girls’ School. Built by an Irishman on five acres of land, it had pointed roofs, gables and half-timbering with extensive lawns, gravel pathways and exotic trees…
‘Can you dance?’ Mary Wigman had asked Zohra. It wasn’t to her disadvantage that her sheltered childhood did not have the scope for that. A radical artiste herself, Wigman had rejected formal technique in favour of improvisation although Zohra had to master theories, alongside choreography and dramatic pieces that entailed limbering up exercises for the whole body, from fingertips and wrists to arms and shoulder, neck, head, back, chest, hips, knees, legs, toes… There were no mirrors: the training did not allow them to look at themselves while composing since, Wigman held, “consciousness and awareness should proceed from within rather than from an external image.”
All this was different from the grammar of classical Indian dancing – and by the end of her third year, when Hitler was hovering on the horizon, she was nimble on her toes dancing foxtrot, waltz, polka and tango. When she returned to Dehradun, she enjoyed a newfound freedom that expressed itself in cutting all her silk burqas to make petticoats and blouses!
Zohra delighted in the adventure of travel, in discovering new places and people. She sought out travel agents, pored over brochures, spotted packages to travel with groups, by trains or buses, walked with friends, rucksacks on their back and sandwiches in their pocket, to Norway, Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, France. This was the time when Uday Shankar and Simkie – Simone Barbier – were crisscrossing Europe. These stars of the Uday Shankar Dance Company were rapturously received by audiences who were mesmerised by the oriental exotica that had little to do with classical or folk dances of India. Instead, it offered romance and sensuousness wrapped in myth and mysticism. The blithe Adonis and his graceful energy cast a spell with his ‘physical beauty,’ ‘transcendental expression,’ ‘grandness’ and ‘command of muscles’. The ‘deep charm of the indescribable nobility’ of his dance became the face of ‘the rare yet mysterious personality of Modern India.”
When she joined Shankar in Calcutta as he prepared to tour Rangoon, Singapore, Moulmein and Kuala Lumpur, Zohra not only learnt to apply western make-up on an Indian face. She had to adapt if not unlearn her training at Wigman’s, to discipline her body and rehearse, rehearse and rehearse. For, at Shankar’s, there was no rule or theory. Instead, there were parties and dinners, meetings with the Viceroy and the Governor of Bengal, driving fast cars and boating, ballroom dances and cabarets too! If Zohra reveled in this, she also soon imbibed the almost religious atmosphere of Shankar’s performances that required them to travel regardless of the time of day or night and be in the theatre well before the hour in order to shed every thought other than the dance — one in which movements radiated from a concept and merged back into it.
Most of all, Shankar’s physical beauty and creative iconoclasm proved irresistible, and Zohra happily succumbed to the dancer and his stage lights. She saw how his unorthodox dance imagination reveled in sensuality and she marveled at its potential. None in India then was experimenting with form and movement nor choreographing for an ensemble. And then, Shankar was using a unique orchestra of violin, sitar, piano, sarod, gongs, drums and cymbals. The musicians composed for the dance, the dancers in glittering costumes moved on dazzling sets to their music. This transported audiences to unexplored aesthetic heights and conquered the world.
With Shankar, Zohra performed in Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Greece, the Balkans, Czechoslovakia, Italy, Switzerland. Belgium, Holland, Poland, Italy, France. By now, the company included Allauddin Khan, Ravi Shankar, Kathakali artiste Madhavan Nair, and Zohra’s younger sister Uzra. Names, all, that would go on to shine long after Shankar set up the Almora Dance Centre – modeled after Dartington Hall, a country estate in Devon, UK that promoted forestry, agriculture and education too, besides the arts. Before that, however, Zohra toured America performing love duets with Shankar, in New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia. Wherever they went, they were greeted by applause and bouquets, photographs, reviews and receptions. Besotted audiences treated them like rockstars and on one occasion Pearl S Buck presented ‘the princess’ an autographed copy of The Good Earth.
On a subsequent visit to Bali with Shankar, she had the heady experience of romance and passionate discovery – of the splendours of dance and music on the island as much as her very being. The magnetic field that was Shankar aroused her senses thrilling awareness of her body. And on her return to India, she met Rabindranath in Santiniketan…
When the Uday Shankar Cultural Centre opened in 1940 at Almora, there were only ten students. As its repertoire kept growing, so did its popularity. Soon they were joined by Nehru’s nieces, Nayantara and Chandralekha; Guru Dutt who would one day become a celluloid maestro; Shanta Kirnan — later Gandhi — who’d shine on stage; Sundari Bhavnani who’d become Shridharani, the founder of Delhi’s Triveni Kala Sangam; and Shiela Bharat Ram, of the industrial family, who gained stardom as Baba Allauddin Khan’s disciple. Classes in technique combined with training under gurus of Kathakali, Bharatanatyam and Manipuri — Sankaran Namboodiri, Kandappa Pillai, Amoebi Singh — and to music by Shankar’s brother Ravi, and Baba’s son, Ali Akbar.
Zohra, besides assisting Shankar just like Simkie, also prepared a five-year course for the learners to improvise intricate movements. If theories of Shankar’s art gave form to his dreams, Zohra also learnt the importance of walking elegantly, suppleness of facial expression, and relaxation of mood, prior to dancing. The training evoked in his dancers the consciousness of the body as a whole. A body that moved in space to form patterns of intrinsic beauty.
Kameshwar Segal, a Rossetti-like boy, slim and fair with curly locks, slender hands and feet, fitted right into the scenario. The great grandson of one of the dewans – prime ministers – of the then princely state of Indore, he was well versed in Urdu and Hindustani besides his mother tongue, Punjabi. Soon he was a painter, set designer, light designer, mask-maker, handyman. Though Zohra, being involved with Shankar, had decided never to marry, she admired Kameshwar’s ingenuity, loved his humour and responded to his banter. Soon he proposed to his teacher. Zohra, senior to him by eight years, was aware of the odds against them. Yet she responded, perhaps because by now, the air in Almora was thick with romance and its byproduct, jealousy. Besides Simkie, so far recognised as his prime dance partner, there was Amala Nandi, whom Shankar would garland as his life partner. Simkie herself settled down with Prabhat Ganguly; Rajendra Shankar married Lakshmi Shankar, and Ravi Shankar married Baba’s daughter, Annapurna.
Uzra, who had met Hameed Butt in Calcutta, also married the same year – 1942 – as Zohra. But, unlike Uzra she had to reconcile with a vegetarian, orthodox Hindu family of Radha Soami sect. Surprisingly, her uneducated mother-in-law welcomed the alliance more readily than Zohra’s own father who was used to the interfaith marriages of his own communist sons but didn’t wish for either Zohra or Kameshwar to convert. Jawaharlal Nehru was to attend the civil wedding which took place on 14 August 1942, in Feroze Gandhi’s mother’s house in Allahabad, Zohra had learnt from his secretary. Her brother-in-law being Nehru’s secretary, the future prime minister of India had even shared that he would gift them Persian rugs. But two days before that the Quit India Movement started, and Jawaharlal Nehru was jailed. Zohra, ever her sprightly self, had revealed her own story to me: “My brother received him on his release, and the first thing he asked was ‘Where is the young couple?’ I asked my brother, ‘Why didn’t you ask him where are the Persian rugs?’”
However, the dream wedding may have been the peak moment of happiness in the life of Kameshwar and Zohra. There on the WW2 gained in intensity, transportation became difficult, food and money too got scarce. In a couple of years, Shankar downed the shutters at Almora and went on to film his dream project, Kalpana. Simkie soon left India never to return. Sachin Shankar set up his ballet unit in Bombay. But before that, when Zohra put her all into starting Zoresh Dance School in Lahore of 1943, Kameshwar staked his claim as director.
When the school was inundated with students, she was forced into motherhood. When she returned to the stage, they went on a national tour with boxes and curtains from Lahore to Amritsar, Bareilly, Dehradun, Meerut, Lucknow, Allahabad, Patna, Asansol and Calcutta. Artistically a huge success, the school, however, left the coffers dry. More importantly, at the end of the Big War in 1945, Britain didn’t rule the waves and India was restive. The Muslim League was at loggerheads with the Congress, equations between the Hindus and Muslims had soured, their Muslim friends were looking at them with misgivings. Lahore clearly was not an ideal place for a couple like them. Kameshwar and Zohra relocated to Bombay, where Uzra and Hameed had set up home.
But in the city of celluloid dreams Zohra did not stand a chance in cinema. Not only was she short, somewhat plump, not quite a beauty; in cinema, a nachnewali was merely a nautch girl. In fact, she did not ever dance on stage again. She re-invented her fluidity of movement and expression to make her mark as a choreographer in Prithvi Theatres where her sister was already a leading lady. Eventually, in mid-1950s she choreographed for a few films such as Navketan’s Nau Do Gyarah and Guru Dutt’s CID.
Their bungalow on Pali Hill – a neighbourhood that was home to British, Catholic and Parsi families — was surrounded with Uma and Chetan Anand, his brothers Dev and Goldie, Balraj and Damayanti Sahni, Meena Kumari, Dilip Kumar, the Kapoors… Frequent visitors included Guru Dutt, Raj Khosla, Mohan Segal, Geeta Dutt, Nasir Khan, writers Sahir Ludhianvi, Sardar Jafri, Vishwamitra Adil, Amita Malik, composers S D Burman, and Ravi Shankar … Names that would in the next decade become Bollywood royalty.
Cinema was of course the big thing in Bombay of 1940s. Bombay Talkies had already heralded glory days with titles like Achhut Kanya (1936, untouchable maiden), Kangan(1939, Bangles), Bandhan (Ties, 1940), Jhoola(Swing, 1941), Sikandar(Alexander the Great, 1941). Devika Rani, Ashok Kumar, Leela Chitnis, Sohrab Modi, Prithviraj Kapoor were stars who would soon be joined by Punjabis from Lahore such as K L Saigal, Jagdish Sethi, B R Chopra, F C Mehra. Partition wasn’t a certainty yet, in the city of the political beliefs of Right and Left, mixed with industrialists and progressive writers and struggling artistes, the cry for freedom had created a ferment of ideas and the house resounded with scripts, arguments, reading, dancing, painting. K A Abbas, Sajjad Zaheer, Sadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chughtai, Shahid Lateef – they would associate with Utpal Dutt, Ritwik Ghatak, Salil Chowdhury, Hamid Sayani, Ebrahim Alkazi, Balraj Sahni and Prithviraj Kapoor, to pledge that they would present the crisis of the times through the medium of theatre.
Prithviraj, although a superstar on screen, believed that theatre should proliferate every city, not temples and mosques. Instead, he urged, “spend on theatres that would become centres for cultural education.” After the first election, when he was nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 1952, he’d said, “In that temple called theatre, a Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jew, Parsi and Sikh all come together. No one cares whether it’s a pandit or a mulla sitting next to them. Communists sit with communalists, to laugh together and cry together. It would be the biggest temple for the benefit of the nation.”
Such a person could not reconcile to the Partition of the subcontinent. It meant, in his own words, that “You will turn me out of Peshawar, and leave my unfortunate Muslim brethren here in the lurch, with their roots uprooted from the soil!” His protest took the shape of four plays that started in 1945 by underscoring the folly of dividing lives on religious basis.
The quartet began with Deewar (Wall), an original play thoroughly contemporary in its politics and communicating its message in a language everyman could follow. The Partition was symbolised by two brothers who, egged on by the foreign wife of one brother – played by Zohra – insist on dividing their ancestral home into two halves by erecting a wall. At a time when Jinnah was raising his pitch for a Muslim nation, the play interpolated the dialogue with speeches by him, Gandhi and Macaulay. So prescient was the message that the British government refused to allow the performance without a green signal from the Muslim League, despite the go-ahead by its CID and the IG Police.
Eventually, despite objection by certain Urdu papers, the play continued to play till 1947 with the peasants pulling down the wall in the climax. In reality, though, the Radcliffe Line concretised the division on the midnight of 14/ 15 August, unleashing bloodshed and misery for millions. On that fateful day, the play was exempted from Entertainment Tax for one full year. Deewar was performed 712 times between 1945 and 1959, until Prithvi Theatres folded up.
The secular credentials of the company is summed up in one practise: The actors began their days with voice production handled by Prithviraj himself, and singing rehearsed by the music director Ram Gangoli. And what did they sing? The base tones were practised by singing Allah Hu! While the high pitches intoned Ram! Ram!
In another expression of his secularism, after the Direct Action Day riots unleashed on August 16th by Jinnah’s demand for Pakistan, leaving 5000 dead and 15000 homeless in Calcutta alone, Prithviraj drove through the city in an open truck with Uzra and Zohra on either side. However, this Hindu-Muslim amity resulted in death threats for them.
And on the eve of Independence, the entire company gathered in the compound of Prithvi Theatres, unfurled the Indian Tricolour, sang Vande Mataram, then took out a procession. Zohra danced with abandon on the streets of Bombay, while Prithviraj’s son Raj Kapoor played the drum. The euphoria did not last: at a personal level Kameshwar was annoyed; on a larger level, death and destruction stalked the streets and the country was engulfed in the horror of untold violence.
Prithviraj’s immediate response was to stage Pathan, the story of two friends – a Muslim Pathan and a Hindu Dewan. When Tarachand dies, Sher Khan promises to look after his son as his own. Local feuds result in a revenge killing where Vazir is implicated. When tribal custom demands an eye for an eye, Khan sacrifices his own son, Bahadur. And when this scene was enacted, there would be no dry eye in the auditorium. Uzra and, in particular, Zohra immersed herself in the play along with Raj and Shammi, the two sons of Prithviraj, who played the two boys. Raj, then only 23, also travelled to Peshawar to design and redesign to perfection the single set of the play. The play was staged 558 times between 1947 and 1960, when curtain fell on Prithvi Theatres.
When rehearsals for the play were on, so was rioting in the cities and towns across India. Prithviraj would, without fail, visit the affected mohallasand hold peace processions. The one dialogue that resonated long after the play ceased to be staged is still pertinent: “Do you want that Hindus should sacrifice their lives for Muslims and the Muslims should not sacrifice their lives for Hindus? Why should they not when they know they belong to one country, eat the same food, drink the same water, and breathe in the same air? Knowing this, you still raise this hateful question of Hindu-Muslim?”
Prithviraj truly believed that religion does not make for conflict, only the abuse of religion, turning it into the handmaiden of vandals, created conflict. “And it is the responsibility of art to present the true aspect of reality.” So, his next production, Ghaddar (Traitor) covered the period from Khilafat Movement to 1947 to deal with the question of the four million Muslims who had remained in India. If they were traitors, who had they betrayed – Islam or Pakistan? Prithviraj as Ashraf and Uzra as his wife join Muslim League but remain staunch nationalists. Shattered by the violence unleashed in Punjab after August 15, he vows to stay back and serve his motherland. He is therefore shot dead by a ‘friend’ Muslim Leaguer.
Zohra loved the cameo she played of a maidservant who refuses to go to Pakistan. Fully identifying with the sentiments of the character — whom she crafted after the family retainers in her mother’s home — she would add extempore dialogue, and these endeared her to the audiences. She was deeply pained that the Partition created personal loss in her family as many of her own people moved across while she, married to a Hindu, never even considered it. But, in covering the thirty-year span of the play she had to enact an old woman – and “feeling old from within” was against the grain of the ever-exuberant lady who, even at 102, would go to bed with a smile on her lips as she whispered to her long dead husband, “Wait just a little longer Kameshwar, I’m on my way to be with you…”
As with Deewar, Ghaddar too faced problems with censor board clearance. The chief minister of Bombay asked Prithviraj to approach the Central government. Sardar Patel introduced him to Nehru, who sent him to Maulana Azad. The Education and Culture minister not only gave him a letter of clearance but also a 50 percent reduction in train fare for all cultural troupes. But the Muslims boycotted the play; Muslim Leaguers in Cochin threatened to burn down the theatre; and some crazy elements wanted to shoot Prithviraj. When he invited people from Bhendi Bazar to watch the play, they concluded that, “People who have been shown as Ghaddar deserve to be shown as traitors.”
Meanwhile the entire population of villages — where their neighbours were their community, their family — were being uprooted in Punjab and Bengal. They were going crazy trying to decide, “To go or to stay?” People who didn’t know any borders were figuring out if, by crisscrossing the imaginary line, they would remain Indians or become Pakistanis. Would they forego their lifestyle by going or ditch their religion by staying? The questions assumed frightening proportion as two of Zohra’s brother, one of her sisters, and even her dearest Uzra relocated themselves in Lahore and Karachi.
However, the real tragedy in all this for Zohra was that Kameshwar had distanced himself from her. Never having found a foothold for himself in Bombay, he had taken to alcoholism, substance support, and perhaps occult activities. Her touring with the Theatre did not make matters easy. But the need to put food on the table combined with the draw of footlights, and acting became Zohra’s calling and, yes, her second nature.
Ahooti (Sacrifice), Prithvi’s final play in the Partition Quartet, was the story of Janki, who is abducted and raped on the eve of her wedding. She’s rescued by Mohammed Shafi and reconciled with her father in a relief camp. But when the family moves to Bombay, she is subjected to slander, and although her fiancee is willing to marry her, his father forbids that, compelling her to commit suicide. The story mirrored the life of countless ‘Partition widows’ – on either side of the border — who have found place in literature and, much later, in films like Shahid-e-Mohabbat Buta Singh(The Sacrificing Lover, Buta Singh, 1991) and Gadar:Ek Prem katha (Rebellion: A Love Story, 2001)too. The published estimates of the number of women abducted by the governments of both the fledgling countries put the figure at 50,000 Muslim women in India and 33,000 non-Muslim women in Pakistan. The enormity of the problem led the two governments to enter into an agreement to locate, recover and restore all such women to their respective families. But what of the women who had, in the meantime, acquired a new family?
In the original script it was to be the story of a mother and daughter but since Uzra had left the country, Prithviraj rewrote it as the story of a father and his daughter. Zohra did not have her heart in the play: first, becaue Uzra was not there; then, because her original role had been altered. Here too, she discerned Prithviraj’s self-indulgence. The play opened in 1949 to tepid reception and dull reviews that dubbed it ‘boring’. But the Deputy Genral of Bombay Police was moved by the girl’s plight and offered his services to help all such women. Prithviraj introduced him to one refugee whose daughter had been separated in the chaos of fleeing – and within days the daughter was found and restored to him. That is not all: at the end of the play the larger-than-life personality would stand with shawl spread out to collect any donation dropped into it, to help the relief work. Such was the emotional response that women even dropped their jewellery in the shawl – which Prithviraj soon requested them to desist from doing.
The Partition Quartet was to first perhaps to see where the rhetoric of religious difference can lead, the contest over territory can entail, the violence and violations that can result. Whatever the quantum of success or criticism they earned, they certainly provoked debate and affected political discourse that still hasn’t lost its sting. Zohra’s heart would swell with pride when Prithviraj rose to address conventions; call on people to turn his moves into a movement for peace. Through him she found herself performing in Punjab’s Firozpur jail, for prisoners who sat with hands and feet in chain… and she also got to witness the hanging of a man scheduled for the next dawn.
All this changed Zohra in a fundamental way: she shed her arrogance; she learnt to respect the dignity of everyone she worked with; she understood the transformative power of theatre. And perhaps she came to love her country, her people, her roots a little more.
Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. Ratnottama Sengupta has the rights to translate her father, Nabendu Ghosh.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
Meredith Stephens sails the Australian coastline, recording her experiences with words and her camera.
Maybe because I am an applied linguist, one of the pleasures of travel is the novelty of learning unfamiliar place names. Sailing north from Eden in southern New South Wales towards Wollongong, south of Sydney, provided ample opportunity to indulge this pastime.
We were relieved to arrive at the township of Eden after the long crossing of Bass Strait from Tasmania to the mainland. Too tired to disembark, we spent the evening recovering on the boat after availing ourselves of a public mooring. The next morning, we rose afresh and resolved to explore Eden. We made our way to the wharf but found that it was formidably higher than our vessel. As much as I was looking forward to Eden, I suddenly realised that climbing onto the wharf looked impossible.
“I can’t do it!” I complained, as I often did, to my sailing companions Alex, Katie and Verity. They were all taller than me and leapt up to the wharf.
“I don’t mind staying here and reading a book. You all go off and enjoy the town,” I urged, as I looked down at the green water in between the boat and the wharf. It wasn’t the first time. Whether climbing a mountain, or hiking, I just couldn’t keep up with the others. Rather than holding everyone up I would prefer to stay back and read.
“No, you have to come with us,” Alex insisted, as always.
I lifted my left foot onto the tyre and my right onto the beam, grabbed hold of the side of the wharf and somehow made it to safety, as the others encouraged me on.
We climbed up the hill and walked along the coastal road to the centre of Eden, taking in shops and the Eden Killer Whale Museum. Then we wound our way downhill back to the boat, ready to sail across the bay to the Sea Horse Inn, where we planned to dine later.
After anchoring Alex decided to attend to boat maintenance before heading across the water to the inn. Alex always attended to business before pleasure, but I was hungry and couldn’t wait for the inn to open at 6 pm. I had to be patient because Alex wanted to fix his anchor light. He climbed into his bosun’s chair. Katie and I winched him up the mast with the electronic winch. Katie released the rope steadily. We had to watch carefully because he would give a hand signal when he wanted to pause. As he moved higher and higher up the mast it became harder to crank our necks backwards to keep him in view. The only way we could keep our eyes on him without bending over backwards was to lie on the deck facing upwards. It might appear that we were lounging around but in fact we were doing our best to keep him in sight. Alex repaired the anchor light and then Katie and I slowly and carefully winched him back to the deck.
Having performed the essential maintenance, we were ready to hop into the dinghy and motor to shore.
After disembarking we dragged the dinghy as far onto the sand as we could and secured it to a branch with a rope. We walked up to the restaurant and wiped the sand off our bare feet before putting on our shoes. We were greeted by a smiling Maitre d’. His expressions changed to concern when he saw Verity.
“I need to see your ID. You can only come into the bar if you are over 18.”
We tried to suppress our giggles. Verity was 28.
“Don’t worry, She’s an adult,” I reassured him.
“We have to check. Until we don’t. Some people get upset when we stop asking them,” he quipped.
After presenting her ID we sat outside and basked in the sunset sitting on the outdoor furniture facing the bay. Then we made our way into the dining room. Although our first choice on the menu had been sold out, my second choice of smoked salmon proved to be the most delicious of the trip. Alex was just as impressed by his serving of sole.
Our destination was Shellharbour, near Wollongong and we were due to sail north along the New South Wales Coast. After having sailed through the fierce Southern Ocean to circumnavigate Tasmania, and the notorious Bass Strait, I was relieved that land would be in sight for the rest of the voyage.
The most memorable stop was South Durras, because as soon as we arrived on the shore we were greeted by a kangaroo grazing and scratching her belly with her forearm. We walked through the caravan park to a rainforest lined with ferns underfoot which led to the shore. We circled back to the shore, treading over rock pools on our way to the beach leading back to the boat.
The next stop had an enchanting name – Ulladulla. If somewhere was named Ulladulla, I simply had to stop there. I kept practising the pronunciation as we sailed into the bay. We anchored, and as usual, took the dinghy to a wharf. As we approached the wharf, we noticed barnacles. The sharp barnacles could easily cause a puncture and it was too late to turn it around.
“Push back as hard as you can!” urged Alex.
We pushed the dinghy away from the barnacles. Then we motored to the wharf on the other side of the bay and disembarked. We walked up the hill into Ulladulla, and unexpectedly Alex announced, “Let’s visit the secondhand bookstore. There’s a sign over there.”
We followed a narrow arcade to the end and spotted the bookstore. My attention was immediately drawn to a signed copy by Heather Morris, a bestselling author.
Sailing often entails many hours of crossing vast distances at the slow rate of 6 knots. When the seas are rough there is nothing for me to do but take an anti-seasickness pill and sleep in the cabin while Alex, who doesn’t suffer from seasickness, takes the helm.
But when the seas are calm there is ample time for reading, if you have enough crew to take turns at the helm. Thankfully Alex’s boat library takes pride of place. Even so, the addition of Heather Morris’ book was welcome and the long hours at sea passed quickly as I read this.
The seas were calm as we headed to Shellharbour, a new marina south of Wollongong, another city with a mellifluous name. We sailed through the many empty berths to the heart of the marina and located our assigned berth. Katie put out the fenders, and then we leapt onto the dock to tie the boat to the cleats. Relieved to have made this long sail to Wollongong, Alex cracked open some of our sparkling Tasmanian wine, with which we celebrate the completion of each leg.
Next, we had to clean up the boat before our flight back to Adelaide. We still had plenty of unopened food in the fridge, so Alex went to offer it to our friendly French Canadian boat neighbours, Gerard and Heloise. They happily received it. Then we asked them the easiest way to get to Sydney airport, after which they offered to drive us to Wollongong station. It was our first time to see Wollongong, and we were astounded to see the lush vegetation so unlike our home state of South Australia. We caught the train from Wollongong to the airport, passing all too quickly through the temperate rainforest. We then flew back to Adelaide to unlimited hot water and clean sheets, as we slowly discarded our sea legs. Not least, I was proud to have learnt beautiful place names such as Ulladulla and Shellharbour, although I still couldn’t manage to spell Wollongong without a spellchecker.
* All the photographs are courtesy Meredith Stephens.
Meredith Stephens is an applied linguist from South Australia. Her work has appeared in Transnational Literature, The Muse, The Font – A Literary Journal for Language Teachers, The Journal of Literature in Language Teaching, The Writers’ and Readers’ Magazine, Reading in a Foreign Language, and in chapters in anthologies published by Demeter Press, Canada.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
I ran through the dark narrow corridor into the cold night air. I had been having a pounding headache since my arrival and lacked the appetite for my evening meal of spaghetti and eggs. My stomach churned violently, and the bile rose in my throat ejecting the contents into the frozen ground surrounding the lodge. Vomiting always makes me uneasy and brings back unpleasant memories of my early childhood when vomiting accompanied most maladies. Luckily this was the only serious episode of altitude sickness that I had during my high-altitude travels.
We had broken most rules of acclimatising to the altitude during this trip. We had flown to the Humde/Hongde airport at Manang from the lakeside town of Pokhara, a day before. Pokhara is at around 800 m above sea level while Humde is at around 3400 m. Most flights to Manang are from Kathmandu and many Manangis are rich and sophisticated traders. The pilot did a visual inspection tour walking around the twin otter aircraft. He seemed satisfied and we were soon skyborne. The view of the Annapurna Himal (snow mountain in Nepali) in the morning sunshine was breath taking. We had lunch at the Airport Hotel in Humde and then hiked up to Khangsar at 3800m. We spent a night at a lodge run by a relative of our Humde didi and started walking to the Tilicho Tal after a substantial breakfast of buckwheat bread, late in the morning.
A cold wind was blowing, and the trail wound through scree slopes. The hike was becoming treacherous, and we did some of the worst sections on our hands and knees. The mountain views were becoming spectacular as the Himals closed in on the valley. Our heavy backpacks threatened to unbalance us and push us over the edge to the Khangsar Khola and Marsyangadi river far below. Thorny bushes grew in the arid landscape and snagged our down jackets. We were worried about the condition of these jackets that we had rented in Pokhara. The shop owner was a patient of my fellow trekker, Dr Praveen Partha.
We could see the Tilicho base camp lodge far below. The descent was along sheer scree slopes. The soil was loose, and the ground could vanish at your feet! Running descents down 45-degree slopes were battering to the knees. Time seemed to stop as we negotiated the vertigo-inducing slopes. Eventually, we reached the valley below and the final stretch was a short level walk. The lodge was dusty and cold. There was some problem with the solar lights and only the dining room was lit.
The next morning dawned cloudy and grey. It had snowed the previous night and I was still feeling nauseous and light-headed. The lodge owner told us about an ultra-marathon race being held that day and that we might meet the runners on our way up. It was a long climb to the lake. The trail initially wound through scree slopes and then climbed more slowly through snowfields. A freezing wind was blowing, and we wore sunglasses with side blinders to protect our eyes from the reflected sunlight and avoid snow blindness. My nose was becoming numb due to the cold. We were struggling at the high altitude (above 4500 m) and in my weakened state, I was finding the going difficult.
The runners were racing through the landscape. Their fitness was astounding. The ones we had met during the early stages of our hike were now returning from the lake. We saw the trail to Yak Kharka and Thorung La in the distance. Our plan was to cross the pass and descend to the holy site of Muktinath and the city of Jomson on the other side.
The mountains provided a stark contrast. The north-facing slopes were cloaked in the snow while the south-facing ones were bare. The power of our star, the Sun even at 152 million kilometres was awe-inspiring. We continued climbing. A steep climb along a snow-covered slope and the dark blue waters of the lake could be seen in the distance. The race organizers had set up stations for the runners and race flags and posters were seen on both sides of the trail. The wind was bitterly cold. The snow-cloaked landscape was breathtakingly beautiful. The lake is located at an altitude of 4940 m. No aquatic organisms have been recorded in the lake.
Tilicho lake is believed by Hindus to be the ancient Kak Bhasundi lake mentioned in the Ramayana. The sage Kak Bhasundi told the epic to Garuda, the king of birds near this lake. The lake was also the location of the highest scuba dive by a Russian team in 2000. A trekking route skirting the lake and reaching Thini Gaon in the Kali Gandaki valley is becoming popular.
This route requires at least a night of camping as there are no lodges (tea houses) after Tilicho Base Camp till you reach Thini Gaon. I have never camped during my travels in the Himalayas. Camping gives you more options but may be more challenging in terms of logistics. Many lodges also have well-maintained camping places.
The trekking lodges in Nepal started as converted tea houses. They were places to have tea, exchange gossip, and eat food. They had been around in the hills for a long time. People hiked the trails for different reasons ranging from trade, visiting family and friends, and pilgrimage. As trekking became more popular many of these started offering travellers a place to sleep. They used to charge only for the food. Later the rooms became more elaborate and private accommodations were created. In big towns and popular locations, some have become hotels.
The cold soon drove us down from the lake and the descent was easier on the lungs. Runners were still running up the slopes. The weather was becoming cloudy, and the sun was soon cloaked by clouds. Light snow started falling. In the mountains, it often snows around noon. I was beginning to feel better but was still weak. It was around four in the afternoon when Dr Partha and I reached the base camp lodge. My appetite was slowly returning.
The next morning, we started mid-morning to the settlement of Khangsar and eventually continued to Manang village. The village has some excellent hotels and spectacular views of the Gangapurna glacier. Manang is at 3500 m and the plan was for me to rest here and see how I felt the next morning and then decide whether to continue to do the circuit trek through the pass or return down to the road head of base town of Besishahar. My bout with altitude sickness had sapped my confidence and we decided discretion was better and slowly headed down. I felt bad for Praveen who was keen to do the circuit before heading off to the greener pastures of the United Kingdom.
The Thorung pass still remains on my bucket list. Hopefully one day I will be able to do it. The Annapurna circuit trek has steadily contracted over the decades as roads have made deeper inroads into the mountains. The trek used to start from Dumre on the Kathmandu-Pokhara highway, then the trailhead shifted to Besishahar, and with the construction of the new road to the district headquarters of Chame. On the other side, there are regular buses from Pokhara and Kathmandu to Muktinath.
Tim Cahill, a travel writer from Montana, wrote, “A journey is best measured in friends rather than miles.” Praveen was perfect company. We gelled well together, we were adaptable and took the rough with the smooth. We did some interesting treks together and I am sure he must be continuing his walks in the cold English air as he thinks about medicine, health, love, happiness, and eternity!
Dan Meloche visits a contemporary Canadian novel written as an animal fable to draw an unexpected inference
Apologues, or animal fables, deepen our understanding of aspects of the human experience. In both Richard Adams’s Watership Down and George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the authors’ anthropomorphised rabbits and farm animals struggle with class division, malevolent leadership, and violence. Mirroring current or historical political realities, these books remain popular as cautionary tales. Similarly cautionary, Andre Alexis’s award-winning novel, Fifteen Dogs: An Apologue (2015), provides a twist to the typical apologue genre. Alexis’s animals are not attributed human qualities but become human-like when transformed with human consciousness. Less politically and more philosophical, Alexis’s apologue highlights each dog’s response to the dubious gift of human consciousness and intelligence:
“‘I’ll wager a year’s servitude,’ said Apollo, ‘that animals – any animal you choose – would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they had human intelligence.
An earth year? I’ll take that bet, said Hermes, but on condition that if at the end of its life, even one of the creatures is happy, I win.’”
Only three dogs embrace the gift of human consciousness that leads to a “new language flowered within them”. This new language is most significantly embraced by Prince, the only dog that is happy at the end of his life. Throughout the novel, Alexis traces Prince’s journey and the path that leads to his happiness. His path begins with exile after defying pack leadership by refusing to curb his desire for language expansion and poetic expression. Also separated from the pack are two other human consciousness embracers, Benjy and Majnoun. When Benjy and Majnoun die, Prince becomes the lamplighter of their endangered language. Until his death, Prince carries with him Hermes warning: “if you die, your way of speaking dies with you.” By passing on his poetry, Prince abides the warning, saves the language, and ensures his happiness in his darkest hour.
At the outset, Prince revels in his expanded consciousness in the face of threatening forces. Following their escape from the veterinarian clinic, the dogs gather in a coppice to begin the sorting out of dogs wishing to stay “dog” and dogs willing to explore their new expanded consciousness., Atticus, the “crumpled-face” and “natural hunter of small animals,” assumes pack leadership and encourages his fellow canines to stay “dog” and deny the gift of human consciousness. For Atticus and his sycophants, denying human consciousness means denying language development and other ‘non-dog’ behaviour. According to Atticus, dogs already have a language of barks and growls sufficient to communicate basic need and social standing. To Prince, who “entirely embraced the change in consciousness,” language expansion is necessary to express the “new way of seeing, an angle that made all that he had known strange and wonderful.”
Overwhelmed by the wonder of his heightened consciousness, Prince moves beyond his old ‘dogness’ to declare his expanded awareness and express himself in verse:
“The grass is wet on the hill.
The sky has no end.
For the dog who waits for his mistress,
Madge, noon comes again.”
In the last line, Prince plays on the name of his friend Majnoun, a similarly awoken dog. This connection with Majnoun affirms Prince’s poetic spirit and establishes fidelity to the new language. However, Atticus’s henchmen Max, Frick, and Frack are more interested in affirming pack order and want to tear Prince to pieces. Oblivious to Frack and Frick’s menacing postures, Prince, encouraged by from Athena, Bella, and Majnoun, indulges his small audience with more verse:
“Beyond the hills, a master is
who knows our secret names.
With bell and bones, he’ll call us home,
winter, fall, or spring.”
With his cryptic suggestion of a new order of things, Prince’s words are enlightening to some and enraging to others. This second poem entrenches the pack’s two camps: those wanting more poetry, thereby embracing the gift of consciousness, and those unsettled by the “strange talk.” Threatened by Prince’s poetry, the latter camp acts to secure pack order.
After a murderous pack cleansing, Prince escapes into exile to revel in his expanded consciousness. With that comes more poetry, more language. Yet, what good is a language in solitude? Rambling through Toronto’s urban expanse, Prince craves reunion with his pack mates: “But what am I without those who understand me?” Also exiled, Majnoun and Benjy remain psychically connected to Prince. Inspired by Prince and his artful musings on his expanded consciousness, Majnoun tries his hand at poetic expression. Despite its curious subject, Majnoun’s verse is presented as love poetry to his master Nira:
“In China, where wild dogs are eaten,
I am dismayed to be in season.
I curse men who think of me as food
and dream of rickshaws, and lacquered wood.”
Also inspired by the poet dog, Benjy draws on Prince’s courage to ponder what is seen through their new human lens. Looking across the limitless expanse of Lake Ontario, Benjy wonders: “Why should this bluish, non-land be? And how far did it extend?” Benjy’s philosophical rumination then causes the poet dog, Prince, to magically appear.
Overcome with joy and “tongue lolling out,” Prince revels in his delight in seeing Benjy. Mostly, Prince is happy to affirm that their pack language lives on in at least one other dog. With hope renewed, Prince circles the embarrassed Benjy: “It was as if he were chasing the delight that animated him.” His animation is quickly deflated when Benjy tells Prince of the pack’s obliteration in the Garden of Death. For Prince, the dwindling pack size threatens preservation of the pack’s language: “And his cries were such an unfettered expression of grief that even the humans in the distance stopped to listen.” To affirm the language’s vibrancy, Prince offers a poem as balm:
“With one paw, trying
the edges of the winter pond,
finding it waters solid,
he advances, nails sliding,
still far from home.”
Nonplussed, Benjy shows no interest in Prince’s description of a dog’s tenuous existence: “He knew no word for boredom, but the feeling was accompanied by a nearly palpable desire to have Prince stop talking.” Less interested in the pack language, Benjy is more interested in reciting Vanity Fair to his master. For Benjy, this party trick secures home and comfort better than a dying language. When Benjy brings Prince home with him, the English speaking, literature quoting Benjy receives an enthusiastic reception while Prince is shown the curb: “In this way, as suddenly as he’d regained a pack mate, Prince lost the dog he believed was the last to share his language.” As the three remaining dogs approach death, the fate of their pack language moves closer to extinction.
While Prince dies happy, his consciousness embracing counterparts, Benjy and Majoun, share crueler fates. After killing off most of the pack (Atticus, Rosie, Frick and Frack) by leading them to a “garden of death,” Benjy invokes a retributive Zeus. Fulfilling Atticus’s final wish, Zeus punishes Benjy with a horrific death: “as if a fire were moving deliberately through the den of his body”. In his moment of death, Benjy “conjures hope” for a place where a just world establishes “balance, order, right and pleasure”. Although Hermes pleads his case that hope is a manifestation of happiness, Apollo dismisses hope as “a dimension of the mortal, nothing more.”
After a five-year vigil pining for his missing master, Majnoun approaches death heavy with the ravages of unreciprocated love. Tormented with more than just a broken heart, Majnoun struggles with unresolvable questions: “What, he wondered, did it mean to be human?” As Hermes tried to explain to Majnoun, a dog will never understand love the same way as a human. Unable to square his canine-human experience, Majoun rests uneasily “adrift between species.” Bearing witness to Majnoun’s philosophical torments, Zeus strong arms the Fates to mercifully cut short the thread of the lovestruck dog’s life. Heart-broken, philosophically perplexed and, consequently, unhappy, Majnoun makes his transition.
How, then, is Prince’s response to consciousness different from the experiences of his awoken confederates? Benjy’s final appeal for a just world can only be followed with the unhappiness that results from recognising that such a thing is impossible. Also given to unreasonable expectations, Majnoun cannot find happiness as he’s unable to neither bridge the canine-human divide, nor mend his broken heart. While Benjy and Majnoun base their happiness on things over which they have no control (the entire world and Nira’s love), Prince’s goal is to preserve the pack language: “There was at least one thing he loved, one thing that would be with him always; his pack’s language.”
By saving the pack language, Prince saves himself from misery. In his death throes, Prince loses his sight. Fearing the same fate for his language, “in a heroic effort to preserve his language, Prince began to speak his poems to the woman.” When Prince hears his human guardian repeat his poetry, happiness comes: “Somewhere, within some other being, his beautiful language existed as a possibility, perhaps as a seed.”
For Hermes and Apollo, that seed represents access to the eternal. As they both agree to the indisputability of Prince’s happiness prior to death, the sons of Zeus acknowledge the notion claimed by all immortals that “all true poetry existed in an eternal present, eternally new, its language undying.” By preserving the language and passing on his poetry, Prince gains access to the eternal. As his poetry exists eternally, so will he, thus overcoming the greatest fear of those governed by human consciousness. In a uniquely human way, Prince’s happiness comes from realising that the surest antidote to the fear of death is the most transcendent and eternal of emotions: “In his final moment on earth, Prince loved and knew that he was loved in return.”
Dan Meloche is a full-time professor at Algonquin College in Ottawa. When he isn’t teaching English and economics, he reads widely and writes literary criticism, reviews, poetry, and personal account essays.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
The water was hot and the pressure optimum. For me the shower was a moment of pure bliss. I had heard poetic descriptions from fellow trekkers of the shower at the Eco Lodge. The hot water condensed in the cold air forming a welcome cocoon of warmth around me. Unfortunately, the shower duration was limited to five minutes. The water was heated using gas as was common throughout the Everest trekking region of Nepal. In the Annapurna region, north of the city of Pokhara, solar water heaters were common. Gas heaters always make me feel guilty about the environmental impact.
The water washed away the accumulated grime and sweat. The shower was expensive, and I was on a tight budget. My funds only permitted a shower once every ten to fourteen days. We were researchers involved in a clinical trial on high-altitude illness. The participants were enrolled at Pheriche more than 700 meters below and the study end point was at Lobuche (4900 m). Participants received two medical check-ups at high altitudes and two cups of tea/coffee for participating.
The Eco Lodge was an upmarket lodge in Lobuche in the year 2007 and we were staying there for over a month. Participants came to the lodge to complete the study and receive a second medical check-up. We listened to their chests, provided a physical examination, and measured their blood pressure and oxygen saturation. We had received a discount on the room rent but the food was expensive. Lobuche is situated at the foot of the Khumbu glacier. Everything had to be hauled from below.
For a long time, Lobuche had an unwelcome reputation due to the poor quality of the lodges. The restrooms were dirty, and the bedrooms flimsy. Maintaining hygiene in the cold dusty environment was a challenge. The Eco Lodge was the first upmarket lodge offering wood-panelled bedrooms with glass windows and clean toilets. The lodge had night toilets inside and day toilets outside. We were allotted an inside room in the main building. Dr Anup and I were the two doctors at Lobuche. The rooms were unheated and freezing though the main dining room had the ubiquitous cast iron heater burning yak dung. Yak dung is precious as fuel at these altitudes. It burns well with minimal smoke and residue and the flame is hot.
We were also the only doctors camped at Lobuche though some of the larger groups did have a doctor and the Sherpa guides were well-versed in altitude sickness. We did receive occasional calls for assistance. The Mountain Medicine Society of Nepal (MMSN) and the Himalayan Rescue Association (HRA) conduct clinical trials in the Everest and Manang regions of Nepal every fall. These provide medical students an opportunity to work with foreign experts and develop an interest in the subject. You receive transportation to the site, the services of a porter and a subsistence allowance.
Participants in the study had been instructed to check in with us after they had settled in Lobuche. In the evening we used to go around the other lodges looking for participating trekkers who had not yet met us. The evenings were chilly, and a freezing wind blew from the high Himalayas across the glacier. On climbing the moraines of the glacier there were spectacular views of the snow peaks. Sunset on Mt Lobuche and Mt Nuptse is not to be missed. The peaks turn golden yellow, then red, different shades of pink and finally the light is slowly extinguished.
The dining room at the Eco Lodge was smaller than the one at Nuru’s place in Pheriche and there was no green house. Dining rooms are the beating hearts of trekking lodges. At Lobuche the Sun was often covered in clouds and a cold wind blew off and on. The lodge did have glass tiles in the roof to capture the Sun. At night the dining room was cosy, and we met some interesting persons there during our stay. In those days there was no telephone service and no internet. A satellite phone was available in case of emergencies.
Nights in the room were freezing and I was reminded of Peter Matthiessen’s descriptions in the book The Snow Leopard of the long freezing nights in his tent at Shey Gompa in Dolpa. Our room was inside and out of the wind, and we also had a glass roof to catch the Sun. Anything kept outside in the room would be frozen solid by the morning. You had to keep stuff with you inside the quilt so that it could be gently warmed by your body heat. The long silent nights were conducive to meditating about life (and death).
From Lobuche it is a four-hour hike to the Everest Base camp at 5400 m. The hike is through the Khumbu Glacier and through stones and boulders. Some of the boulders were larger than a house. Global warming has resulted in significant shrinking and drying of the glaciers and the Khumbu and Ngozumpa glacier in the Everest region have both retreated significantly. The hike passes through the settlement of Gorak Shep and the weather can change dramatically in a few minutes. I had started my trek on a clear, sunny day but halfway through clouds gathered and the mountains were shrouded in white. Soon it started snowing heavily. The boulders became slick and slippery in the snow and walking became difficult.
During a previous visit I had visited ‘The Pyramid’, a scientific research station run by an international consortium in association with the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology (NAST). The research facilities were great, and the station is located at a 20 minutes’ walk from the trail. The station is entirely powered by solar energy. The location is spectacular, and the station is located far from the trials and tribulations of our imperfect world.
Staying in a trekking lodge for over a month is a different experience. Trekkers come and go but we continued to remain in the lodge. The cold was our constant enemy. The tips of your fingers became numb after a few minutes in the cold wind. The ultraviolet rays were strong at the high altitude, and I was soon tanned a dark shade of brown. Lobuche was the highest altitude at which I had stayed for nearly 40 days. All things considered I still preferred staying with Nuru at Pheriche where the climate is more hospitable, and life was gentler.
My friend Anup left at the end of the month. I had changed my place of work and still had some time before I joined a new medical school being set up in the Kathmandu valley and could stay longer till the next group of doctors could reach Lobuche and manage the study. The settlement of Lobuche was set up to meet the requirements of trekkers to the Everest Base Camp and to Kala Pathar (black rock), a famous Everest viewpoint. I was alone in my room, and it felt strange. The second team soon reached us, and I briefed them about what had been done and handed over the study material. Soon it was time to trek down to Pheriche, Pangboche, Tengboche, Namche Bazar (the Sherpa capital) and eventually fly out from the Tenzing-Hillary airport at Lukla to Kathmandu.
As mentioned, Lobuche for a long time had a terrible reputation. The quality of the lodges has steadily improved from bunk beds in dormitories to individual rooms. I was searching for lodges in Lobuche on the web recently. Many lodges now offer free wi-fi. The Pyramid also offers lodging at the 8000 Inn. With all these welcome developments, Lobuche can confidently and maybe, indignantly shrug off its reputation as the ‘arm pit’ of Nepal!
Dr. P Ravi Shankar is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education (ICE), International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He enjoys traveling and is a creative writer and photographer.
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Kabir’s life still holds importance in a society in pursuit of the one true Lord, steeped in religiosity and caste. He was born at a time when the Hindu-Muslim strife was raging across the subcontinent. Divided into various sects, Hindu society was already engaged in conflict and the arrival of the Muslims and the expansion of Islam intensified the conflict of the time. The two camps – followers of foreign and indigenous religions – could not find a way to come together. Arbitrary rituals and sacrifices were damaging their dignity and short-selling God’s glory. In such a time, Kabir was the most significant of intellectual sages who bridged gaps through his clarity of thought, unwavering devotion to the Lord, and humanist reading of all belief systems. In simple, clear and logical language he pointed out the irrationalities of men, without outright attacking any faith. His teachings were not only effective to his devotees but were helpful to adherents of other doctrines as well. One did not have to be part of his sect to receive his teachings and capture the meaning behind his words. Anyone free from the shackles of self-interest were able to accept it.
Though there is little to deny in Kabir’s words, there is much debate among the experts regarding the period of his birth and death. The historical facts contain many contradictory components as well. Evidently, one sees that there are two versions of Kabir’s life visible. One has been constructed through analysing historical data, the other through beliefs and commentary provided over the ages by his followers and devotees, though all such projection by his disciples cannot be understood in the same light. Yet it should be noted that the accuracies regarding some of Kabir’s facts of his life do not pose any doubt to his teachings and appreciation for beauty. Still, in light of the contemporary commentary, a brief biography of the poet is outlined here.
According to Kshitimohan Sen (1880-1960), a scholar and acting chancellor of Visva-Bharati, Kabir was born on 1398 in Varanasi and died on 1518 in Maghar village. While specifics are understandably hard to gather, most experts agree that he was of the time when Sikander Lodi (1458-1517) ruled over Delhi’s throne. Kabir had met the man, too. Lodi had arrived at Varanasi in 1498. Rabindranath had talked of this in his translation of Kabir’s One Hundred Poems, which was published from Macmillan. There, it is said he was born in 1440. Though Kabir’s Hindu devotees liken him as a devotee of the Vaishnava poet-saint Ramananda, it is still a matter of debate, for Ramananda was born in 1298 and most texts that refer to their connection can only be traced a hundred years after Kabir.
In his writings, mentions of the poets Jayadeva (1170-1245) and Namdev (1270-1350) are found. Though one was active in the 12th century and the other in the 14th. Moreover, one can find references to Kabir in the works of Raydas, Garib Das, Dharma Das, Pipa and Tukaram. Some of Kabir’s verses can be found in the Sikh religious text Guru Granth Sahib too.
There is much debate over his parentage and religion too. However, it is taken as fact today that he was born in a Muslim family or was raised in one. It is hypothesised that he had come from a family of Muslim weavers, who had a trade in cloth. Another legend had him as the virgin son of a Brahmin woman, born through seedless conception and then he was abandoned and found floating in a basket. The fact that he was born in a Muslim family is mostly evidenced by the fact that he had an Arabic name, which meant “Great”. There is further doubt on his race and caste. According to Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, Kabir belonged to a Yogi community, for he would refer to his father as Gosai, meaning Guru. They were principally disciples of Nath-Panthis – worshippers of Shiva. While they had accepted Islam as their religion, they continued in their old ways as of yore. But Kabir did not proclaim himself as either a Hindu or a Muslim. As a result, many surmised that he probably wanted to be known as someone from the lower caste, who remained out of these two binaries.
The issue of caste might have irked him as well. It might have had no importance to him. This reticence had led to most communities intending to co-opt him for them, constructing all sorts of imaginary relationships. A Muslim guru of the time, Sheikh Taqi, had complained to Lodi that Kabir saw himself as a deity. His low-born caste led him to a path of constant discrimination. There are accounts of this discrimination in texts. He had been humiliated for proposing the idea of a formless God. Many a time he had been tied behind his back and beaten up. Let me account some of the accounts of his torture here.
The Emperor of Delhi, Sikander Lodi, had demanded Kabir be arrested and brought to his court. When he was somehow brought over, he stood there in silence.[i] The Emperor grew angry and asked, “Why don’t your curse at the Emperor, Kaffir?” Kabir answered, “Those who understand the other’s torment are called Pir, and those who don’t are termed Kaffirs.”
When the Emperor asked him why it took him so long to get to his court, he replied that he had seen such a scene on the way that he could not but be late. A line of camels was entering a gully as narrow as a needle’s eye. The Emperor thought he was being ridiculed and grew angrier. But Kabir said, “Oh Emperor! Can you feel the distance between the heavens and the Earth? The distance between the Sun and the Moon can be filled with innumerable elephants and camels, yet we can see these stars through a drop in our eyes.” The Emperor was so moved by the statement that he let him go.[ii]
Once, after a few Brahmin priests had complained, the Emperor ordered his death by tying him to a stone and throwing him off a boat. But while the boat itself drowned, Kabir was said to have been found unharmed and floating. When they tried to burn him, the fire wouldn’t take to his skin. They even accused him of being a witch and tried getting a mad elephant to stamp on him. But the animal got scared seeing Kabir and ran away – there are numerous myths of these nature surrounding Kabir.
Kabir did not receive a formal education. He did not know how to read and write. There is no evidence of him attending a school to learn of language and philosophy. Moreover, he had barely any experience with his weaving. Many are of the opinion that the “guru” he talks about in his texts refer to God or the Creator and that he did not have any mentors. However, researchers at times hold the opinion that he was a devotee of the Sufi mystic Sheikh Taqi. It is evident he was influenced by Sufism. He had similarities with the Persian poets Attar, Hafez, Khayyam and Rumi. Besides, he was considered a key disciple of the Hindu monotheist mystic Ramananda. Kabir hadn’t mentioned anyone directly in his texts. But through his songs, various interpretations are made by the public. Kabir’s best teacher seems to have been just life. The hypocrisy, short-sightedness, superiority regarding one’s beliefs and inconsistencies of men and society around him angered him, it made him anxious. This torment had put him to the path of sage hood. Kabir characteristically expressed his perceptions through simple and irrefutable arguments devoid of any personal animosity toward anyone.
Kabir was not an ascetic who abandoned his family to attain higher forms of consciousness. He lived with his wife and son and daughter. In his writings, he showed contempt against the sages who left their families. His wife was called Loi and his son and daughter were Kamal and Kamali. His second wife was Ramjania. According to Dr Ramkumar Verma, the second wife was possibly a prostitute. However, Kabir was not quite happy in his marriages. His devotion to his poetry and philosophy made him less attentive to the task of earning a livelihood through weaving. Some days, his family found themselves short of food after feeding his visiting devotees. He was thin, meditative and enthusiastic, and hated to beg for alms to survive.
We know from his works that he visited many places. It is believed he had gone on pilgrimage to Mecca. But it isn’t clear if he really physically visited the place or had a transcendental experience. Similarly, there isn’t any evidence of his visiting Baghdad, Bukhara and Samarkand. But it has been proved that he had visited many of the local pilgrimage sites around him.
Like his birth, the date of his death is cloaked in controversy. Some say he lived till the age of eighty. Others maintain that he was alive when he was 120. There’re broadly four dates that could refer to his passing. 1447, 1511, 1517, and 1518 AD.[iii] There is doubt, too, about his resting place. Some say he died in Ayodhya, some claim in Puri. The latter place is mentioned in the Mughal Emperor Akbar’s book Ain-i-Akbari.
Kabir’s literature and philosophy
The divisions and discriminations of religion had a profound effect on him. The communal conflict and the blatant ownership of God deeply tormented Kabir. He realised that God did not exist for any particular religion or people. He wasn’t a single entity either, but omnipresent. His realisations were a result of the overarching philosophical conflicts of his time. The clash and assimilation of various cultures into the Indian way of living had given way to myriads of philosophies and religions in the region. Among them, the radical ones, which professed to one sect’s superiority over the other were beginning to widen separatism in society. The first of these great conflicts were between the Aryans and Non-Aryans. It took many years for the two to assimilate.
Kabir and Rabindranath
Rabindranath had a prominent role in spreading Kabir’s words in Bengal. About a hundred years ago in 1910, he had written a preface to a book of translations of Kabir’s poetry. Kabir was among the few poets whose works were preserved at Santiniketan. Kshitimohan Sen had grown up in Varanasi, among the saints there, nursing a love for Kabir from a young age. A few months before his translations had come out from Santinektan’s press, Rabindranath had published Gitanjali. It was not possible to avoid drawing comparisons, with some claiming Rabindranath was inspired by the sage’s poetry. In Prasanta Kumar Pal’s biography of Tagore, the matter is discussed at length. He had written that in the original manuscript of Gitanjali, there were poems of various poets of such ages written over. Dr. Rameshor Mishra thought they were written by Rabindranath, but Pal could not agree with him. He had maintained that Kabir had been well-known as a poet over the years. Even before Kshitimohan’s translation, it would not have been unlikely for the young poet to have been aware of Kabir. Kshitimohan himself had dwelled on the matter saying that he had introduced Kabir’s poetry to Rabindranath after reading Gitanjali and finding the similarities in the balance of tone.
Whatever the case was, the fact that Rabindranath and Kabir wrote in a similar spirit cannot be denied. Rabindranath was heavily influenced by the Persian Sufis. One could clearly see the presence of both Sufism and Vaishnavism in Gitanjali. Rabindranath’s father was a devotee of the Persian poet Hafez. Hafez impacted Rabindranath as well. He had talked about this when visiting Iran at the end of his life. “My father was an admirer of Hafez,” he had said, “I have listened to his recitations and translations many a time. It is that beauty of Iran that has entered my heart during my travels here.”[iv] Around this time, he was studying Sufi theory as well. Therefore, one cannot claim it was solely Kabir who had an influence on Tagore’s Gitanjali. But Kabir did have an effect on Rabindranath, if for a little while.
Rabindranath began to work on Gitanjali in the early 1900s. He had written to Kshitimohan around then, saying, “I have been expecting Kabir. Do not delay.” The next year he wrote back to say, “Give my respects to him.”[v] From these letters we can see that Rabindranath had a good deal of interest in reviving Kabir. In one of those letters, he had maintained, “I have told you. One should not deviate from the principle aspect. If there is ambiguity regarding the literalness, then be it. Some of it is needed, or else the poetry loses some of its meaning.
“It is better to use the next most literal word when there is no direct translation possible. Kabir uses ‘word’ to express his songs and it seems that particular word does not work in all instances. There is a historicity to ‘word’ – one thinks of a child’s first cry, the first chants of creation. It is quite simpler and more complex than a song.”
Published as part of Santiniketan’s book series, Kshitimohan wrote in the preface of his translation that without the encouragement and help of Rabindranath he would not have been able to publish a work like this, that he was quite grateful to him. Rabindranath had a hands-on approach to Kabir’s translated poetry. That this happened around the time the poet was working on Gitanjali was a thing of co-incidence. Kshitimohan himself had talked of how he had brought Kabir to the poet’s attention after hearing about Gitanjali.
However, the matter has refused to die down. In books on Kabir, there have often been calls for Rabindranath to recognise the debt of Kabir in his texts, that Tagore’s mysticism had arrived solely from Kabir, which was merely given an occidental polish to accommodate the Poet’s international audience and that Rabindranath’s fame came from a decoration of mysticism for the pleasure of Europeans. Even as one notices the ludicrousness of such claims, it is understandable that much of Rabindranath’s spiritualism is a product of Sufi mysticism. Moreover, there was always a strain of India’s old traditions that included Kalidasa and the worship of beauty. He had discovered the bauls (minstrels) when looking for folk literature in his youth. He was fascinated with Lalon. However, Kshitimohan Sen had claimed that Rabindranath was not one to be heavily influences by these mystics. “The era of Gitanjali came head-to-head with the revival of these mystics. No one is indebted to anyone here.”
But how much of Kabir was on Rabindranath’s mind? Many would go ahead and say a great deal. That he had devoted to Kabir more so than Gitanjali in this period. Perhaps the indulgence toward both texts was a united effort in the pursuit of true worship. Two events around this time are noteworthy. One is Ajit Kumar Chakravarty’s translation of Kabir under Rabindranath’s guidance and the other is his own translations of Kabir. This was when Ezra Pound, too, was interested in Kabir’s poetry. There is no doubt that it was Tagore who had got Pound into it during their discussions on mysticism. Helped by his encouragement, Pound, who had little knowledge of Hindi or Kabir, made ten translations of Kabir’s poetry with the help of Kalimohan Ghosh. They were published in the 1913 January issue of Modern Review under the title, “Certain Poems of Kabir/ Translated by Kali Mohan Ghosh and Ezra Pound/ From the edition of Mr. Kshitimohan Sen.”
Rabindranath could have had the biggest scandal in his life regarding Kabir due to Ajit Kumar’s English translation. Ajit Kumar had decided to translate about 114 poems from the 4-volume work of Kshitimohan Sen while enjoying his summer vacation in Orissa. He was helped by Pearson. Rabindranath had to face quite a lot of criticism after winning the Nobel, both at home and abroad.
In his travels to America and Britain, he had to explain the mysticism apparent in Gitanjali. Moreover, when the text was published there, many Christian preachers had taken to saying that Christ had said it way before already. That Rabindranath had written these inspired by Christ’s sayings. This was a reason why Rabindranath felt it was important for the West to be acquainted with medieval poets and mystics such as Kabir, so that the long Indian tradition of spiritualism wasn’t co-opted by the West as one of their own. He even wanted to take Kshitimohan there and get to translating some of this poetry himself. He wished to show that the sages in India were preaching these truths long before the Europeans had arrived in their shores. If there is a sliver of debt that Rabindranath should recognise it is in this context. Gitanjali is not a deviation from Indian poetry; rather it is part of the land’s grand tradition. However, Rabindranath’s own translations did not seem to have gone far enough. He relied on Ajit Kumar’s.
Before leaving for America, Rabindranath was introduced to Evelyn Underhill, a Catholic writer and pacifist. She was a great admirer of both Jesus and Indian mysticism, authoring a book on the subject in 1911 called Mysticism. Rabindranath had referred to her as quite highly educated and influential in his letters. Tagore had even told Kshitimohan that with her help it would be possible to publish Kabir’s biography and poetry from Harvard University, urging him to take all necessary equipment with him. He had told Ajit Kumar that with the help of Ms. Underhill they would polish their translations and make it worth publishing. A review of the correspondence is enough to see that this translation project would come out under Ajit Kumar’s name. But that did not happen in the end. It came out as One Hundred Poems of Kabir, as translated by Rabindranath Tagore with a preface by Underhill.
Both Ajit Kumar and Kshitimohan were upset with this. How this had happened no one could know clearly. Whether it was Underhill’s doing or of Rabindranath himself, one could not know. From reading Rabindranath’s letters, it was quite evident that he had also thought the manuscript would come out under Ajit Kumar’s name. He had assured him as such in more than one letters. That Underhill might cut him out bothered Ajit and Rabindranath had written to him saying, “You have misunderstood. Evelyn does not wish to take your name off the Kabir Manuscript. Secondly, it is not my wish to leave you and Kshitimohan out financially.” In another letter he had said, “I don’t know how your book would do financially. Of course, there won’t be any lack of trying, but it is better to not hope much. Be content with what they give you.” [vi]
All we have in this case are conjecture. No concrete facts. Underhill in her preface had merely thanked Ajit and Kshitimohan and nothing more.
This had sparked a bit of controversy then and Rabindranath was accused of depriving Ajit Kumar of his credit. Rabindranath’s explanations regarding this matter was that it wasn’t intentional. That he did not even know this had happened until it was too late. It was Macmillan house that did this to bring more sales to the book. Rabindranath claimed to have sent in Ajit’s name under the title, but the publishers had disregarded it. It was the West’s commercialism at play, he said.
“Getting into the literary scene here is quite difficult. One is hard-pressed to enter if they don’t possess any reputation beforehand,” he said. But whatever Tagore’s excuse was, many did not see it sympathetically. Referring to his letters to Ajit, many pointed out his growing fascination with the manuscript. In one of the letters Rabindranath had said, “I finished the Kabir book after all this while. It seems that if I had done these translations it would’ve taken me far less an effort to read them through. I’ve had to write many poems but yours does make one clap.”[vii] There is no doubt that Rabindranath got most of the credit for the Kabir book that Macmillan had published. But many found the omission of Ajit had left a bad taste. Many felt his name should have at least been part of the conversation.
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[i]Who Invented Hinduism: Essays on Religion in History. David N. Lorenzen
[ii]The Bijak of Kabir. Kabir. Oxford University Press.
[iii]Bharatiya Madhyauge Sadhanar Dhara. Kshitimohon Sen. Pg.61
[iv] “Rabindranath Tagore’s Syncretistic Philosophy and the Persian Sufi Tradition”. Lewisohn, L
Mozid Mahmud is a poet, novelist, and essayist based in Bangladesh. Some of his notable works include In Praise of Mahfuza (1989), Nazrul – Spokesman of the Third World (1996), and Rabindranath’s Travelogues (2010). He has been awarded the Rabindra-Nazrul Literary Prize and the country’s National Press Club Award, among others.
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