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Essay

When West meets East and Greatness blooms

Debraj Mookerjee explores how syncretism permeates between the West and the East — how the two lores do meet

Cultural influences travel at the speed of human imagination. In the modern world it is easy to plot the journey of cultural influences across the planet, thanks to the seamlessness created by communication technologies. The Internet links us all. But we also know cultural influences travelled through the globe since the earliest migration of humans.  We know the Chinese invented paper some 2000 years back. We know potato came to India from the new world through the Portuguese and became widely popular only around the 19th century. We know Marco Polo brought pasta from China to Italy. These are things we know. We also know because these are things. But along with things, ideas also travelled, as did poetry and song. Philosophy travelled, and ways of knowing and experiencing the world travelled. How many of us know for example that Ibn Rushid, an Andalusian of Arabic descent born in Islamic Cordoba, Spain, in 1126, translated Aristotelian philosophy into Arabic? Or the fact that these translations were further retranslated to Latin by Thomas Aquinas, a mediaeval scholar who was influenced by, though he differed strongly with, Ibn Rushid? Such is the power of ideas. Ideas are borderless. That is their power.

Within the context of the so-called East-West encounter, there are so many cross-cultural influences we are unaware of. Influences that travelled to and fro the West and India seeped into the cultural experiences of either worlds. History and society can be viewed in many different ways. Politics often invents a vocabulary that insists on differences. Art on the other hand weaves patterns that merge into each other, producing beautiful new forms. Art and the philosophy surrounding it bring different cultures into play with each other. We will walk around some examples of such cross-fertilisation. And in the process perhaps expand the borders of our own minds and how we look at the world. I shall dwell on two such instances of cross-cultural influences. First, I shall look at Gandhi and the influences he shared with the West and the sharing of political ideas and philosophies they produced. I will explore the diverse trajectories his core ideas of nonviolence and civil disobedience took in shaping up to what they eventually became, and even the influences they have had after him. I shall thereafter present Tagore and begin by looking at the shaping of his world view as a thinker and as an artist, reading closely into his specific interactions with particular milieus in England. Finally, I shall look at Tagore iconic music (Rabindra Sangeet) and trace the influence Western (especially Welsh) music had on his works.

 “You can love a person dear to you with a human love, but an enemy can only be loved with divine love.”
“Let us forgive each other – only then will we live in peace.”

Who would you imagine might have spoken these words?

Gandhi? Almost, but not quite. These are Tolstoy’s words. Tolstoy was a writer, a philosopher and a religious thinker. Gandhi was particularly influenced by Tolstoy’s ‘The Kingdom of God is Within You’ and his essay on ‘Christianity and Patriotism’. Tolstoy’s ideal of “simplicity of life and purity of purpose” had a deep and abiding impact on Gandhi’s core thinking. In ‘Christianity and Patriotism’, Totlstoy writes: “Patriotism may have been a virtue in the ancient world when it compelled men to serve the highest idea of those days — the fatherland. But how can patriotism be a virtue in these days when it requires of men an ideal exactly opposite to that of our religion and morality — an admission not of the equality and fraternity of all men but of the dominance of one country or nations over all others? But not only is this sentiment no virtue in our times, but it is indubitably a vice; for this sentiment of patriotism cannot now exist, because there is neither material nor moral foundation for its conception.”

Gandhi had carried Tolstoy in his heart for the longest time. But shortly before Tolstoy passed  away in 1910, as Gandhi began the active phase of his fight for human rights for Indians in South Africa, and thereafter his struggle for India’s independence, he wrote to Tolstoy, prompted by the writer’s ‘Letter to a Hindoo’, in which he paves a path for freedom sans violence. The letter from Tolstoy was addressed to Tarak Nath Das, editor of Free Hindustan, who advocated the violent approach. Gandhi apprised Tolstoy about the Indians’ ‘passive resistance’ against racial oppression in Transvaal. He wrote that nearly half of the total Indian population of 13,000 in Transvaal had left Transvaal rather than submit to the degrading law, and ‘nearly 2,500 have for conscience’s sake allowed themselves to be imprisoned, some as many as five times. Tolstoy’s letter explained why non-violent resistance and a resolve by Indians to become free were the only solution. Gandhi sought Tolstoy’s confirmation of the referred to above being written by him, and his approval to his friend printing 20,000 copies of the same for distribution and having it translated. He had ‘taken the liberty’ to write the letter ‘in the interests of truth, and in order to have your advice on problems the solution of which you have made your life-work.’ Gandhi quoted Tolstoy thus, as he introduced his letter, when indeed it was widely distributed: “Do not resist evil, but also do not yourselves participate in evil: in the collection of taxes, and in the violent deeds of the law courts and (what is more important) the soldiers. Then, no one in the world will enslave you.”

But there is a bigger symmetry at work here than just the transfer of wisdom from Totstoy to Gandhi. Thiruvalluvar was the legendary Tamil poet who lived some time between the fourth and first century BCE. His work Thirukkural is an unparalleled treatise on ethics, communicated in verse. The first translation of the Thirukkural in a European language was done in Latin by Constanzo Beschi, a Jesuit Missionary, in 1730. Beschi himself was a Tamil scholar and poet, known as Viramamunivar. Tolstoy is said to have read a German translation of the work. And his ‘Letter to a Hindoo’ was apparently inspired by what he’d read in the Tamil saint-poet’s work. Around the time, Gandhi wrote an article, ‘Tolstoy’s Satyagraha’, showing how thousands, acting on his views ‘advising people not to obey the laws of the Russian Government, not to serve in the army, and so on’, were going to jail. Tolstoy’s writings, though proscribed, were being published, leading to the imprisonment of his agent. Tolstoy thought that ‘my views are true, and that it is my duty to propagate them.’ Gandhi concluded: ‘True freedom is to be found—only in such a life. That is the kind of freedom we want to achieve in the Transvaal. If India were to achieve such freedom, that indeed would be swarajya.’

Gandhi had told Rev. J.J. Doke, his first biographer (1909): “It was the New Testament which really awakened me to the rightness and value of Passive Resistance. When I read in the Sermon on the Mount such passages as ‘Resist not him that is evil’, I was simply overjoyed, and found my own opinion confirmed when I least expected it. The Bhagavad Gita deepened the impression and Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You gave it a permanent form.”

When we imagine Gandhi, along with perhaps Asoka and the Prophet Mohammad, as among those historical figures who imagined society and politics through the prism of morality, we ought to know the influence of Tolstoy’s thoughts. Tolstoy thought of morality as a category that steps beyond politics. Gandhi could not afford that luxury. India needed freedom. So he introduced morality into politics. 

Gandhi harvested patriotism through the principles of Ahimsa and Satyagraha — Non-violence and truth force. The latter was the goal and the former the means. In these he drew influences from ancient Indian philosophy, and from thinkers like Tolstoy and the transcendentalists of America — more on the latter in a bit. So, we find a saint-like figure, a Russian aristocrat and also among the more celebrated writers of his time, conversing across time and space with one whom Churchill infamously labelled the ‘Naked Fakir’, but who went on to become the Father of a Nation.

Here is the interesting thing, and we need to frame this in the context of the Cold War that was to commence soon after the assassination Gandhi – that the other major influence on Gandhi came from, of all places, the United States of America. The Transcendentalists were radical thinkers of the early 19th century who rejected organised traditional religious belief systems. They believed in the ‘oneself’ of the self and the universe. Ralph Waldo Emerson, thinker, poet, writer philosopher, and the most famous of the transcendentalists, once wrote: “Within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty; to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE.”

Emerson took interest in Hindu texts thanks to his aunt Mary Moody. His idea of the over-soul, the universal oneness can be read as a derivative of the idea of Brahman – the singular force signified by the chant ‘Aum’. In this poem by Emerson entitled ‘Bhrama’, the oneness mentioned above is emphasised, as an idea subsumed in the concept of ‘Brahman’, which goes beyond this or that or even the specific injunctions of scripture:

 If the red slayer think he slays,
 Or if the slain think he is slain,
 They know not well the subtle ways
 I keep, and pass, and turn again.
  
 Far or forgot to me is near;
 Shadow and sunlight are the same;
 The vanished gods to me appear;
 And one to me are shame and fame.
  
 They reckon ill who leave me out;
 When me they fly, I am the wings;
 I am the doubter and the doubt,
 I am the hymn the Brahmin sings.
  
 The strong gods pine for my abode,
 And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
 But thou, meek lover of the good!
 Find me, and turn thy back on heaven. 

A contemporary of Emerson and one deeply influenced by him was Henry David Thoreau, who advocated both self-reliance and civil disobedience, elaborately discussed in his book, Walden Pond, which is an account of his experiments with asceticism. His practices were motivated by his encounter with yoga. Thoreau seldom was ecstatic. And yet he wrote: “What extracts from the Vedas I have read fall on me like light of a higher and purer luminary, which describes a loftier course through a purer stratum, free from particulars, simple, universal.” 

He was fond of quoting from the Bhagwat Gita, as was Gandhi. Gandhi was significantly influenced by Thoreau experiments and ideas. Gandhi, in his 1942 appeal ‘To American Friends,’ wrote, “You have given me a teacher in Thoreau, who furnished me through his essay on the ‘Duty of Civil Disobedience’ scientific confirmation of what I was doing in South Africa.”

At the Second Round Table Conference in London in 1931, the American reporter Webb Miller, a long-time admirer of Thoreau, asked Gandhi, “Did you ever read an American named Henry D. Thoreau?” Gandhi replied: “Why, of course I read Thoreau. I read Walden first in Johannesburg in South Africa in 1906 and his ideas influenced me greatly. I adopted some of them and recommended the study of Thoreau to all my friends who were helping me in the cause of Indian independence. Why, I actually took the name of my movement from Thoreau’s essay, ‘On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,’ written about eighty years ago.” 

Miller noticed that Gandhi, a “Hindu mystic,” adopted from Thoreau the philosophy which was to affect millions of Indians and inspire them to defy the powerful British Empire. “It would seem,” Miller concluded, “that Gandhi received back from America what was fundamentally the philosophy of India after it had been distilled and crystallized in the mind of Thoreau.”  

The back and forth does not end here. We all know how Martin Luther King Jr was influenced by Gandhi. He once wrote, “While the Montgomery boycott was going on, India’s Gandhi was the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change.”

So ancient Indian philosophy influenced the transcendentalists. The transcendentalists influenced Gandhi. And Gandhi went onto influence King Jr. Kipling might have written that “East is east, and the West is West. And ne’er the twain shall meet”. At the cost of sounding frivolous, perhaps he had not read Mark Twain’s famous poem, ‘A passage to India’.

Gandhi and Tagore were in conversation in the deepest sense of the term, both captured by the tight frame of history, yet never ever contained by it. It is apposite, therefore, to try and capture within the rubric of the larger argument, the influences and intellectual trajectories of both Gandhi and Tagore. Tagore, India’s iconic poet, the first non-European to receive a Nobel Prize, who travelled to England in 1912 clutching a collection of 103 self-translated English poems, became a world phenomenon in a little more than a year. Though Tagore is revered among Bengalis and indeed all Indians as ‘Kavi-Guru’ (Poet Guru, as it were), his development as an artist was syncretic. 

As a young boy, he spent a month in Amritsar with his father and was greatly impressed by the devotional songs sung inside the Golden Temple, with his father often joining in. While a landlord in East Bengal during the 1890s he became familiar with the great Baul tradition of Lalon Shah. He absorbed Western influences, especially in his poetry, but also influences as diverse as the paintings of specific communities in islands as far-flung as New Ireland in Papua New Guinea! Tagore took to painting later in age and was never quite sure of his own work, but they have a magical haunting quality that is all too difficult to pin onto a singular culture.  

One of the first persons whom Tagore wanted to know was Stopford. Tagore, being a prominent member of the Brahmo Samaj, which was closely allied to Unitarianism, had heard so much of him, and had perceived an alignment of convictions. Sir William Rothenstein,in his account of Tagore’s days in London, says “Stopford Brooke asked me to bring Tagore to Manchester Square; ‘but tell him’, he said, ‘that I am not a spiritual man’.” Soon Tagore would become quite the toast of young poets, who would seek him out, Ezra Pound being prominent among them. Among others whom Tagore met were Shaw, Wells, Galsworthy, Andrew Bradley, Sturge Moore, and Robert Bridges. In a 1915 letter to Robert Bridges, Tagore wrote, “I know what this war is to you… Please let Mrs. Bridges accept my heartfelt sympathy and reverence [for one] whose son is fighting for the cause of liberty in one of the greatest wars in the history of mankind.” Bridges included Tagore’s poems in his Anthology The Spirit of Man in 1915. On his part, Tagore was struck by the breadth of view and the rapidity of thought that he found among his new friends. Addressing his English audience, he said: “Those who know the English only in India, do not know Englishmen … All you people live, think and talk while a strong, critical light is constantly focussed on you. This creates a high social civilisation. We in India, on the contrary, live secluded among a crowd of relations. Things are done and said within the family circle which would not be tolerated outside; and this keeps our social standards low.’ 

Tagore famous novel, Ghare Baire (The Way of the World, 1916; tran. 1919) presents his disquiet with insular nationalist sentiments, to the exclusion (of what he believed) larger humanist imperatives. His protagonist, Nikhil articulates liberal universal values and is willing to sacrifice his life to ensure peace in his domain (he is a landlord). His fiery friend, the nation (as mother) worshipping ultra-nationalist radical Sandeep, stokes the violence that ultimately consumes Nikhil, but from which he himself stealthily slinks away.

Tagore absorbed more than just ideas from the West. His music, especially the scores of many of his songs, was influenced by his interactions with the West. On his 2012 visit he’d heard the music hall songs and folk tunes that he later incorporated into his distinctive musical genre, Rabindra Sangeet. As a child, he’d heard his siblings play myriad instruments. His older brother Jyotirindranath, significantly, played the piano and violin. From him, Tagore developed an early ear for western musical lilts. Lively English, Irish, and Scottish folk tunes impressed Tagore, whose own tradition of Bhramo hymnody was subdued. Tagore confesses: “At seventeen, when I first came to Europe, I came to know it intimately, but even before that time I had heard European music in our own household. I had heard the music of Chopin and others at an early age.”

Of particular note is Robert Burns, whose poetry and music were quite widely known in metropolitan Bengal. His work was particularly popular with Bengali students in the early days of Hindu College (now Presidency University), Calcutta. The Scottish missionary to India, Alexander Duff, remembers students in Henry Derozio’s (poet and assistant headmaster of Kolkata’s Hindu Collge) discussion group reciting Burns’s poetry and singing his democratic anthem ‘A man’s a man for a’ that’. Two of Burns’s sons served for many years in the Company army, and one of them, James Glencairn Burns, was later appointed judge and collector of Cachar (in Assam), and became an expert in Hindi, instructing company cadets in the language on his return to England in 1839. Burns’s songs pervaded 19th century British India and were well known to many Indians: Rabindranath Tagore adapted at least three of them and set musical scores to the Bengali versions of the original melodies.

Tagore created one of his most popular songs, ‘Purano shei deener katha’, on the model of the old Scottish folk song collected by Robert Burns: ‘Auld lang syne’ (1788). Whereas the Scottish is in dialect, its Bengali counterpart in the standard tongue. There can be no literal translation in songs transcreated, as it were in a different language, since the nature of the two languages is different. And yet, there are great similarities between the songs. The original communicates the eternal sentiment of nostalgia for old friends, memories of good times and longing to revive the same. Tagore communicates the same basic sentiment. One should remember that even though Tagore adapts the tune of the western songs, he very often varies the tempo and the rhythm to suit his own creative needs. The mention of ‘dola’ (swing), ‘banshi’ (flute) and ‘bokuler tolay’ (beneath the bokul tree) introduces interesting indigenous cultural symbols. These words introduce the concept of the god Krishna and his worldly amour divesting them of both divine and erotic connotation. The Bengali song stands as an eternal paean to reunion of friends of all categories.

Tagore’s ‘Phule phule dhole dhole’ is a transcreation of Burns’ ‘Ye banks and braes of bonny Doon’ (1792), the tune of which is based on ‘The Caledonian Hunt’s delight.’ The first four lines of Tagore’s song evokes faint sweet breezes, rippling gurgling stream, cuckoo song and an undefined longing. It is close to the mood of the ‘Ye banks and braes,’ though more mystic and abstract. In Burns’ original version, the nostalgia and longing are rooted in unfulfilled love. In the Bengali, there is no hint of narrative, though the narrative is obviated when sung in its proper context. Sung independently, it appears as a universal romantic desire for an unattainable ‘something,’ intensified by the beauty of nature. 

But Burns was not the only one to influence Tagore’s music.  In 1885, much before his heydays, Tagore composed ‘Kotobar bhebechhilnu’, using the tune of Ben Jonson’s ‘Drink to me only with thine eyes’. The tune of the original English song is adapted to his original Bengali lyric. Tagore’s song raises interesting cultural issues. The words are radically different, though the mood of love is dominant in both, the English song is much more sensuous, redolent of physical and Petrarchan appeal. Tagore’s Indianisation is romantic, idealistic and self-effacing, but with a witty twist in the last two lines: “Now that you yourself have come to ask me/ How can I explain how much I love you?” Another Irish folk song that inspired Tagore was ‘Go where glory waits thee’ (1807), which was collected by Thomas Moore (1779-1852) and was based on ‘Maid of the Valley.’ Tagore’s songs ‘Ohe Dayamoy’ and ‘Aha aji e basante’ (O Kind One and It is Spring Today) are based on these two originals. 

There is a general consensus that Western and Indian songs are essentially different in that in the former the rhythm may change many times within the same song, while it remains the same in most Indian songs. Tagore nevertheless finds the change of rhythms ideally suited to express different facets of feeling (see Tagore’s essay ‘Sangeet o Bhab’). One cannot be entirely sure as to the exact source of his musical preference, whether it comes from Western music, or even from his ear for ‘kirtan’ (popular Bengal devotional music associated with the Vaishnavite tradition). But what is certain is that his music comes from a syncretic imagination, which was able to discern beauty and form beyond the restrictions of nation and culture.  

Debraj Mookerjee has taught literature at the University of Delhi for close to thirty years. He claims he never gets bored. Ever. And that is his highest skill in life. No moment for him is not worth the while. He embraces life and allows life to embrace him.

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Essay

Beyond Ideological Borders

By Anu Karippal

I was doing an interview with a retired college professor and Bharatanatyam dancer a few weeks ago for Humans of Kerala Instagram page. The interviewee, a teacher by the name of Gayathri, learnt to dance as a child, is a single mother and teacher, and when she was about to retire, resumed dancing and has performed widely in the last four years. Her voice was filled with the affection of a teacher and humility for her achievements. Something distinct in the interview was that, she was not a product of any -isms and ideologies that define our generation today — feminism, liberalism, environmentalism, activism, atheism etc. Gayathri was different. She belonged to another era when there were no burdens of ideologies for a layperson to attain something or establish an identity. She became a professor and a dancer and accomplished everything unbound by any ideological objective. She was only bound by her passion. Doing something or defining ourselves within an ideological framework was not popular back then as it is today.

This is not to discount the values such ideologies have enriched our lives with. Feminism empowered women and men. Liberalism opened up the rights discourse. Environmentalism educated us to own up to our responsibility towards nature of which we are a part. Activism taught us that we need to be a collective and make a little noise to stir meaningful and useful changes. I, as a girl, was sent to school just like my brother without a second thought because of the years of the struggle by the women who fought for it in the past.  Labour unions can challenge the exploitative and environmentally destructive changes because ideologies provided us with the sense of awareness of the power dynamics. To forget this is to undervalue the achievements of such struggles that have now given us a comfortable life. While it empowered us and made us better people in many ways, they also came with their limitations.

One must be aware of all of the above ideologies and question power in our daily life, what if in the attempt, our life becomes ideology-centric? When an environmentalist sees everything solely as an environmental issue or an activist sees everything solely as an issue or propaganda by state or corporate, one loses out on the other perspectives of seeing life and makes life a war to be fought. An old saying is worth remembering here, “If you look with yellow eye, everything will look yellow”. This can turn dangerous. Probably, this is something that the dance teacher, Gayathri, could have taught our generation — that we can do good, accomplish our passion without being ideologically assertive and let our life speak as our identity/ideology.

Perhaps, the rising interest to define our lives within dictates of any ideology has intensified with the intrusion of social media into every aspect of our lives, acquainting us with several ideas. I can vouch for it because I have done it too, and continue to do this over and over again. The way ideological battles are fought out in politics and public domain shows how listening to an opinion that is not in agreement with our ideological orientation is becoming an impossibility.

While opinions regarding public matters were left to a few earlier, it is in the hands of anyone with a phone and internet now. This has promoted inclusion of opinions, but it has also led to polarisation of identities and ideologies. Internet was supposed to uphold the spirit of democracy, but it has actually made people intolerable towards each other. There is a continuing loss of intimacy among people in the name of ideologies, easy judgement of people and the constant use of “unfollow” button that we easily press when somebody does not agree with our ideological thoughts on social media. We forget that we cannot press a “delete” button in the real world and that the world is always made of different people with different perspectives.

It took me three year-outside-academia life to begin to understand that life and its ways cannot be contained in any ideology. During my three-year stint at ATREE (Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bangalore, India), my dear friend Kumar taught me several things on our post-lunch walks. Once our topic was feminism, its possible misinterpretations among men and women and how it might be taking the wrong track. I was immediately angry and asked him why.

He said, “These days sometimes women want to do something because men are doing it. The fact that you want to do something should drive your goals and not the question whether or not men are doing it.” He added, “Do you want to dance, sing, jump, swim, be a CEO, pilot, doctor, anything? Go do it. But do it because you want to and not because men are doing it.” It took me months to understand the gravity of what he was saying. This is not to imply that we shouldn’t ask questions regarding why men and women do different things or why we are different. Our question should be a quest to understand than to react. And our goals should emerge from our passion.

As I was sharing these thoughts with a friend, she told me that doing something for the sake of any ideology gives a “restricted contentment”. When you do something because you like it, it is a fulfilment, a larger contentment of inner peace and elation that cannot be fit into any ideology. If you don’t want to buy a pink doll because pink has largely been associated with feminine, that is a vain battle to fight. If you like a pink doll, buy it. If you want to reduce plastic use because capitalism has been environmentally drastic and overpowering, then it might not give you enough contentment. Reduce plastic use because you care immensely about nature and you want to do your part. If you decide to grow long hair because men have primarily been associated with short hair and wants to break the stereotype, that is a limiting happiness. Grow long hair if you like long hair. If a husband and wife begin to look at everything in life through rights and equality, then marital life might create tensions and frictions. One who mocks arranged marriages as traditional and one who mocks love marriage as modern both know that despite the nature of acquaintance before marriage, married life anywhere is filled with adjustments and compassion. Life is always beyond ideologies.

Once, as the man I first fell in love with and I were walking back after our class. I was walking on the pavement to his right, touching the road. He held my hand and moved me to his left side, away from the road. He wanted me to be safe and if anything happened, that I would be spared. We were just friends at that time, so I smiled inside, enjoyed how my heart had felt a free fall and walked with him. If I were to call this as an instance of benevolent patriarchy and tell him I can take care of myself, I would be being so unfair to that act of love and destroy my happiness and his.

Even if it were a power relation, can it be scraped off with a reactionary attitude like a stain on the plate? Probably we are then replacing one form of power with a politically correct, elegant looking form of power. How ironic! And this is one of limitation of any ideology. If we begin to look at every little thing through liberalism, feminism and rights discourse, then all we might see is inequality, power and our life can get burdening. If we look at it through love, respect and kindness, life can be easier to live.

How easier said than done, right! I try to let go of my personal ideological thoughts, but it is one of the most difficult things for me to do. In the few retrospective moments of thinking and writing, it is easy to appreciate that one must go beyond the ideologies to understand life. Difficult as it may be, we must still try to not let ideologies influence all our actions. Life can best be viewed in simple terms. At the end of the day, environmentalism, feminism, activism and liberalism can turn as restricting as capitalism and fascism if we don’t treat them carefully. Even the idea of freedom can be limiting and can bind us. Ideologies are as transient as anything else in this world. Yuval Noah Harari shows how the world has gone through different historical epochs such as imperialism, communism and now liberalism in 21 lessons for the 21st century.

Let’s ask questions to understand and not to react. If we approach anything with a predisposed reactionary attitude, we will merely spread our opinion on the matter before understanding it. If we do something in the name of an ideology despite wanting something else, our life wouldn’t be as fulfilling. This self-fulfilment is not be misunderstood as selfishness, but as the open-mindedness to see life beyond ideologies and live a fulfilling life.

An ideology can get twisted and turned and corrupted in no time. But staying true to your passion and dedicating your time and effort,  will give a certain contentment that is unparalleled. In one of his lectures, the Indian mystic, Sadhguru, despite his biases, refers to the thought that our minds are becoming a market place, where we weigh everything. The thought struck me. If we give something and expect the exact quantity in return in friendships and romance, we might end up being disappointed and angry at everything. Moving beyond ideologies; feminist, liberal, capitalist, activist, right-wing, left-wing etc. can probably lead us to a satisfied life. 

Social media is all intrusive. While it brings lost friends and families together and keeps the world functioning even as the pandemic struck, it also catalyses polarising identities and proliferation of ideologies. While we imagined our house or immediate locality to be the world before, now we imagine our self-curated social media to be the world. We follow and unfollow people to create a desirable world of similar ideologies that we can easily agree with and offer a collective critique of ideologies we disagree with. And we become intolerable of the vast differences of opinion in the real world. Paying attention to passion is probably more important and fulfilling than assembling a life out of ideology, only to be discounted by another ideology of sound arguments. Writer Howard Rheingold wrote: “Attention is a limited resource, so pay attention to where you pay attention”.

Anu Karippal is a student of Anthropology and Sociology at Graduate Institute, Geneva. She is from Kerala and she writes personal essays, movie reviews, short stories and poetry occasionally. 

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Essay

Photo Essay: Birds & Us

Photo essay by Michael B Wilkes And Penny Wilkes: Text by Penny Wilkes

White Pelicans

We share a variety of words with bird activities and sounds.  

             Stop that squawking. Start feeling chipper. 

                      If a pelican . . . so can you. 

White Pelicans

Wake up and feel fine feathered.

White Headed Sparrow

Or, maybe you’re just winging it today?

Black Phoebe

Michael Wilkes, my husband and a retired architect, used to take photographs of the built environment. I asked him to take a photo of my favorite bird, a black phoebe. He did and won first place at the San Diego Fair. Ever since he has enjoyed taking bird photographs with his big lenses. 

Saying one is feather-brained is a compliment.

Lesser Golden Finch
Seagulls

Just keep your beak up. Don’t get in a twitter unless it turns into a trill of birdsong. Stay Tweet.

An Osprey

Spend time on the fly.

If you feel peckish, find your favorite snack.  Then keep your head down and work. 

A house sparrow

We had moved to an apartment while we remodelled our house. I spent free time at a park next door writing. A black bird kept flying by. When he flew upside down in  twirls, I noticed a heart on his chest. The next day I brought him seed and he paid no attention. He cocked his head at me as if I really had no clue. Which I didn’t.  That night I searched and discovered he was a flycatcher and ate bugs.

Black phoebe (flycatcher)


I watched him for days until he brought a friend and did a flying dance in the middle of the park. I got close but not too close. They led me to a nest with little heads popping up.

Peregrine season is about to begin where the pair romance, build an aerie, and take turns minding the nest. When the fledges toddle out, the parents teach flying and hunting lessons. I love to watch what I call, “flying fisticuffs” where the fledges  attack one another in mock battles as they learn self-defense. We have lots of photos of their activities.

A pair of romancing peregrines

Lady Jane was frustrated with her mate because he did not bring food as he just wanted to romance her.  Eggs are due soon. Then he will have to focus on the nest and feeding and all that . . . beyond the fun he enjoys.

A solo peregrine

I prefer to photograph with my cellphone. I want “moments in movement” so I do not have to set up a tripod or carry a huge camera around. As for the challenges of bird photography, one word: patience. Today I heard a woodpecker and chased him for two blocks. No photo. During my morning runs, a black phoebe flies and lands and flies away again. They hunt for insects and are called flycatchers. I enjoy photos I can take. The eyes enjoy what the camera cannot capture. Then when I least expect it, a fun opportunity arrives like the photo below.

This is an example of what I love to capture. A finch landed on a photograph of a bird. 

A finch perched on a bird picture

Sing beyond a peep. Get raven about your successes. 

Raven

Don’t duck opportunities and challenges. 

Ducks with ducklings

You don’t have to get all your ducks in a row to find success and have fun…

Penny Wilkes,  served as a science editor, travel and nature writer and columnist. An award-winning writer and poet, she has published a collection of short stories, Seven Smooth Stones. Her published poetry collections include: Whispers from the Land, In Spite of War, and Flying Lessons. Her Blog on The Write Life features life skills, creativity, and writing:  http://penjaminswriteway.blogspot.com/ and at penjaminswriteway.blogspot.com. My photoblog is @: http://feathersandfigments.blogspot.com/

Michael B Wilkes is an award winning architect and  photographer who has collaborated on three books of poems with his wife Penny Wilkes. On two occasions he has received recognition among the 100 Most Influential peoples in San Diego by the San Diego Daily Transcript. Michael B Wilkes site:  http://mbwilkesphotography.com

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Reflections on Nobel Laureate Bunin’s ‘Un Petit Accident’

Mike Smith reflects on a short fiction by Russia’s first Nobel Laureate, Ivan Bunin. Could it be a precursor to flash fiction?


Portrait of Ivan Bunin by Leonard Turzhansky, 1905. Courtesy: Wiki

Un Petit Accident‘ (A small Accident) is one of those tales which will need more words to discuss than will be found in it.

First published in the late 1940s as part of a trio of short pieces this little tale might be seen as a forerunner of our present-day flash fictions and micro fiction. Yet it is in a tradition that stretches back through the prose poem or Illumination to the anecdotes and exemplars of much earlier times. Only recently cast into English, this translation is attributed to Maria Bloshteyn and dated 2017.

Ivan Bunin (1870-1953) fled to France in 1920 in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution but unlike many émigrés he was already an established writer and his work is not solely related to the experience of exile.

‘Un Petit Accident’ in my paperback copy of Russian Émigré Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky (ed. Bryan Karetnyk, Penguin Classics), runs to a mere 29 lines, yet it packs a punch you might think would need a much wordier arm behind it. For me it’s both a master work and a master class in the short story, illustrating perfectly Hemingway’s ‘iceberg’, and his advice to ‘take everything out that isn’t the story’.

Like a slow camera pan, it traverses the cityscape of Paris. It takes in the sunset, the Palais Bourbon, the Seine, the Place de la Concorde and the Eiffel Tower, before zooming in, near The Madelaine, on the rushing, choking traffic of a Parisian evening. The final shot, in what, to twist the metaphor slightly, might be thought of as a slideshow rather than a moving picture, focuses on a single detail, the significance of which we are left to consider.

There are no named characters, seemingly no protagonist and antagonist, no obvious cycles of increasing jeopardy. The ‘Inciting Incident’, if it is not that sunset, might be in our imaginations and for later. Or perhaps the ‘Obligatory Scene’, if it is that final image, must serve the function of both. It seems that everything that happens in this story has already happened by the time we see it. Yet there is no sequence of actions as such, only the sequence of images that we might mistake for mere setting.

As with much longer short stories, there is the vestige of that common structural oddity of placing the most striking event or revelation slightly ahead of the actual ending, making it part of the preparation and contextualisation of the true ending. And following that shock there is a little addition which poses the question, raises the issue, on which I believe the author wishes us to ponder; the view to which he has brought us.

The collection is furnished with a section of notes about both the writers and individual stories. What they say about this story reveals a lesson in the form. Bunin is quoted; “ ...even with the greatest writers, there are only isolated good passages, and between them – water…”

Karetnyk’s notes go on to say: “these miniatures are an attempt to distil prose into its purest form.” Presumably, that is by getting rid of all that water.

Earlier in the piece he has described Bunin’s tales as ‘terse’, but in this case I did not find it so. Rather the opposite. I’d want to use the word lush. That opening sunset, painted in a three and half line, verbless sentence – which a professor of English in the nineteen seventies categorized because of that lack as being a ‘label’ rather than a ‘message’– is rich with colour: “…the enormous panel of sky covered in strokes of murky colours, mellow and many hued…” The city too is awash with description: ‘Slim spikes of greenish gas flames are strewn throughout the pistachio haze of the city,’

It’s one of the most description packed little tales I’ve read. It brought to mind the startling contrast with an earlier and longer tale by Mary Mann, in which a bare half dozen words sprinkled throughout describe the rural Norfolk in which her story is set. It is sometimes averred that description kills story, disrupts the narrative, brings action to a halt, but here Bunin’s tale is almost all description, a colourful, noisy kaleidoscope of sights and sounds. “Now darkness falls, and the candelabra of the Place de la Concorde cast their reflective silvery glow, while up in the black summits the lugubriously flowing lights of the Eiffel Tower flicker like lightning.

The sequence is constructed of easily imaginable images, and when we have reached the ending and come to re-read the piece, we might pay more attention to the ambience of those sounds and sights. They are what make the context for our arrival at the final image. They are what prejudice our frame of mind for understanding and speculating about the deeper meaning of what we are being brought to encounter. The purpose of the story, and you might argue, the storyness of it, is in our reaction to what we ‘see’. Conrad is quoted as saying he wanted to “make us see” in his writing and Bunin here does just that. But it is up to us alone to grapple with the significance of what we have been told.

On closer inspection we might see that Bunin has given us more than just intense colour, form, and movement. That it is a single paragraph story is notable. In a story of thirty lines there is room for a handful of paragraphs, but the fact that Bunin uses one alone need be no ‘petit accident‘. It gives the story a structural unity, such as you might expect to find in a painting or photograph.

The painting has it for me, with those ‘murky’ and ‘many-hued’ colours, but a painting of what? Despite the lack of protagonist or antagonist, at first glance, there is the anonymous man on whom our gaze comes to rest at what might be called the ‘crisis’ of the action, and there is one other ‘character’, referred to rather than present, and whose ‘unseen hand is smoothly conducting’. At this change point in the story, as the traffic locks and our focus is narrowed down onto and into a single vehicle, it ‘seems as if the hand has flinched’.

Seems’ is one of those words that, in a short story especially, should set our radars tingling, because it usually denotes, or at least raises the possibility, that what seems is not what is. And whose hand might that be which might be doing something other than flinching? It certainly isn’t a human hand. Is it a hand that has acted decisively? And the ‘fiery Babylon’ that Bunin describes with its ‘spikes of greenish gas’, its ‘darkness’ blazing, might seem more Hellish than Heavenly. I was reminded of apocalyptic visions in John Martin’s paintings.

My last paragraph contains a ‘spoiler’, and those who read to find out what happens next might prefer to stop here!

When we reach the story’s end, we are told of a “fast little auto, vividly yet softly lit inside” where a man in evening dress is “slumped over his steering wheel“. The narrative thread is almost imperceptible. The movement, lights and sounds, have seemed random rather than directional. Bunin’s tale has been told in the present tense, yet here, at the sticking point of the end, we are seeing events not so much unfold as having already unfolded. The focus neatly closes in, with mention of ‘matte top hat’, then closer still: “His eyes are closed…” The final words pull back a little, as we have recoiled from what we have recognised: “his young, tritely classical face is already looking like a mask.”

It is a mask, we understand, from behind which the spirit of life has already withdrawn.

Russian commemorative coin issued on Bunin’s 125th birth anniversary. Courtesy: Wiki

Mike Smith lives on the edge of England where he writes occasional plays, poetry, and essays, usually on the short story form in which he writes as Brindley Hallam Dennis. His writing has been published and performed. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com 

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Persian Perspectives: The Third Perception of Man

Translated to English from Bijan Najdi’s essay in Persian by Davood Jalili

Bijan Najdi is often identified with the collection of short stories, Cheetahs who ran with me. But he was a poet at heart. His melodic prose and his powerful stories have the traces of poetry between words. The flow of poetry in his stories evolved into a very exquisite flow of thoughts and perceptions. Najdi wrote an article entitled ‘The Third Perception of Man’ in which he considers poetry to be the outflow of the most intense emotions.

Man’s first perception of fire must have been to touch and burn himself, that is, to feel the burning with direct contact. The next step was to understand the fire to learn from his earlier experience. That is, we see the fire, and without touching it, we know that it burns. This third stage is understanding the fire of “poetry”. That is, if you can, without the fire in your presence, think of it, feel the burning in your fingertips that you have to put your hands under the tap, you have achieved a poetic moment in your life, without the help of words.

Now you can transpose this third stage from fire to the suffering of others, to the history of your land, to the massacre in Palestine, to freedom, to the mass burials in Herzegovina. Poetry does not need “words” in such circumstances. It is the highest form of expression of the most intense suffering of humankind.

The study of the traces of life and the survey of dreams, the nightmares of cavemen and the psychoanalysis of designs and shapes carved in stone prove that even before the advent of calligraphy and language, man had experienced all three stages of perception. The drawings on the stone that depict a human with bird wings on the back and legs of a deer and a human profile are an object of the same third sense.

Is suffering and love born of lines and words the only foundation for poetry? Does our understanding of God depend on our learning to write the word “God”?

However, it was but natural that after the evolution of language and the emergence of calligraphy, man tried to write that “third comprehension”. Henceforth, poetry was no longer seemingly independent of time. Poetry proved its objectivity with the help of the “word”.

In simpler language, basically, any kind of understanding does not necessarily need words, but with words, understanding can be built.

Form and content are a philosophical and academic discussion. They have nothing to do with poetry or at least they have nothing to do with the moments of composing poetry.

There are two types of thinking. Both can, perhaps, influence poets as well.

Some people look at their surroundings with inductive reasoning and want to get a whole by identifying and analysing the details. On the other hand, some people deduce by accepting and prove from a general rule.  They would accept the thought for the presence of each component.

Both methods have scientific values. Poetry as the “third perception” is born of intense feelings that frees the poet from both when writing poetry: form and content.

There are poets who believe that form is the manifestation of poetry. In my opinion, this kind of formalism is just a way of thought; that they want by looking at an apple, to get an idea of ​​its taste and smell, with the help of the word, and they want to reach “sense and understanding”. There is nothing wrong with that, but I think it conflicts with the “essence of knowledge.”

However, no one can stop this group from trying.

Volume has dimensions in its geometric definition, so it has an inside and an outside. However, the enclosed space is not the object of discussion. Every point of space is either in or out. That is, each point of it can be both inside and outside at a time. Volume poetry[1], according to Royaee[2], one of the most famous poets of this school, is the transcendence over length, width and height to float in the contraction and the expansion of the soul of the universe, which the poet enters with the “help of words”.

Volume poetry is a look at nature, objects and words that create a sense of yearning by discovering the form and inherent talent of the word to explain the inside and the out to escape from volume.

The spatial poetry of Royaee steps out of the volume enclosed in the words, to get help from the hidden spaces between words, oblivious to the consciousness of being a man. But in such poetry, you can neither sense the history nor the historical identity of the poet.

Nevertheless, poetry of Royaee is full of eagerness to know. But because he is not able to convey his eagerness in his manifesto of volume poetry, his adherents and he have diametrically opposing outputs. I think this is a kind of crisis in poetry, but we should not be afraid of it.

A real crisis arises in poetry when people’s eyes, ears, and minds become accustomed to only one type of poetry.

The crisis was the same as we had in the years before the revolution, when some people did not consider Sepehri[3] a poet because of his Marxist views.

The crisis was that under the pretext of modernism, poetry based on belief and mysticism could be rejected in a society. The culture of any society is the result of social behaviors. If these behaviors are restricted in a certain way, a crisis does arise.

The basic bedrock of any art is freedom, and no one should and can ignore the value of lyricists or post-revolutionary idealist poetry because of their interest in white poetry[4].

However, I do not know what poetry is and what good poetry is.

I have no reason to like a good poem as I feel a burning sensation in my fingertips without touching the fire. Believe me, I am neither a poet nor a novelist, I just love the literature of my country very much.

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(Published with permission from Bijan Najdi’s wife and family)

 Bijan Najdi (Persian: بیژن نجدی‎, pronounced [biːʒæn nædʒdiː]; (15 November 1941 in Khash, Iran – 25 August 1997 in Lahijan, Iran) was an Iranian writer and poet. Najdi is most famous for his 1994 short story collection The Cheetahs who ran with me (Persian: یوزپلنگانی که با من دویده‌اند‎)).

Davood Jalili (1956, Iran) is an Iranian writer, translator and poet. He has published many articles on Iranian websites and magazines and has three published books.


[1]– Volume Poetry is a type of poetry written evolved around 1967. In 1969, Royaee and several poets published the essence of the volume poetry. Volumeism, mental movement, volumetric vision, mental distances, three-dimensional attitude, are other names that have been applied to this type of poetry

[2]Royaee is an Iranian poet (1932) who now lives in Paris. He wrote a Manifesto of volume poetry

[3] Sohrab Sepehri (born October 6, 1928 in Kashan – died May 1, 1980 in Tehran) was an Iranian poet, writer and painter. He is one of the most important contemporary poets of Iran and his poems have been translated into many languages ​​including English, French, Spanish and Italian. 

[4] White  Or Sepid poetry or Shamloui poetry is a type of modern Persian poetry that appeared in the 1930s with a collection called Fresh Air by Ahmad Shamlou and may be compared to free poetry (in French : vers libre ) in Western literature. The main difference between these works and previous examples of new poetry  was in the form of poetry. In this style, the rhyme of prosody is generally not observed, but the song and music are reflected. In the classification of modern Persian poetry, sometimes any poem that does not fit in the form of Nimai poetry (Nima Youshij the innovative of New Poetry) is called white poetry.

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The Kali Project: From Start to Finish

An exhaustive account of the inception and the fruition of the Kali Project by Co-Editor Candice Louisa Daquin

At the beginning of 2020

I had a conversation with Indian surrealist poet Devika Mathur about an anthology of Indian women poets. I had just edited Devika’s first poetry collection, Crimson Skins (Indie Blu(e) Publishing), and been reintroduced into the world’s love affair with Indian poets. Devika being so young and gifted, inspired me, along with Aakriti Kuntal, another trail-blazing Indian poet whom I have worked with many times, to approach successful Indian/American editor/poet/blogger Megha Sood about co-editing an anthology.

The purity of my appreciation for Indian poets writing in the English language, and their astounding ability to do this better than most native speakers, had struck deeply and fortunately. Megha Sood was as passionately interested in putting together a representative collection. We both agreed, given the current news reports of girls still being raped and molested in India, this would be our starting point and this gradually evolved into a fully-fledged project, with a book at its center.  As soon as we put a call out, we were literally flooded with interest, and this is still the case. Not a day goes by when I do not get someone asking if they can write for The Kali Project, though the submission deadline closed in October 2020. That’s a fierce testament to the level of interest and need.

When my colleagues at Indie Blu(e) Publishing agreed to publish us, Megha came up with the unforgettable and utterly perfect name The Kali Project, and Kali was reborn! I felt confident, working alongside someone of Megha’s caliber, we couldn’t fail, but it was nonetheless a daunting task for myself, a French/Egyptian immigrant to America, I needed to further educate myself on Kali and what the women of India experienced. I was very lucky to find and befriend a huge group of Indian women poets and artists who through their generosity and knowledge, more than filled my head with relevant information and ideas. They are literally a whirlwind, a force to be reckoned with, and it only left me aware of how hard Indian women work.

We wanted to ensure we had a true mix of talent. It is never sufficient to invite only famous, or notable poets, but to consider all; all kinds of voices, all levels. The Kali Project has authors and artists as young as nine and well into their eighth decade. Those just starting out, those who have been doing this a long time. Kali is not exclusive to women. It is imperative men access The Kali Project and the reception we have received from our male readers thus far, has also been very positive. What good would it ever do to alienate the entire male gender, just to get across the point, gender inequality has to end?

Inception: Indie Blu(e) Publishing gets involved

Christine Ray and Kindra Austin, the women who created Indie Blu(e) Publishing, have actively sought to publish marginalised and oppressed voices from the very inception of their company, and it has remained their primary focus. Combining incredible authors with edgy, raw writing is the core of their mission as publishers. When they saw some of their Indian sisters speaking out about another atrocity of rape and murder of a young woman in India, there was no question they had to be involved.

As Christine Ray, Editor-In-Chief of Indie Blu(e) said: “The Kali Project is another example of setting alight the inequality of women in India by sharing their talented voices with an English-speaking audience. We wanted to introduce to our Western readers, those talents within India who speak with the same fierce voice and share the same goal of equality and an end to oppression. Indian writing has gravitas and brutal honesty that has existed for millennia, influencing poets from around the world.”

Poetry lovers may be familiar with how gifted Indian writers are, but an entire collection of women writers from India, sharing their experiences is a powerful cohesion of all aspects of oppression and defiance. From the very young to experienced, renowned writers, The Kali Project brings together the voices of Indian women speaking their truths. Be it infanticide, family violence, the emerging LGBTQ community in India, or the marital inequity Indian women face, these struggles are penned in exquisite poetry to enlighten and further awareness.

The Kali Project was born from a deep appreciation for Indian authors who write so beautifully in English despite it often being their second or third language. The craft and ability of these incredible writers is furthered by their passionate, vocal understanding of caste systems, familial inequality, subjugation, sexual assault, and ultimately, survival. It is important to note, those women at the extreme end of marginalization are harder to locate for an anthology edited and published in the West in English and we wish we had been able to access their voices because they remain, the most subjugated and continue to not have enough direct attention.

India is set to become the largest populated subcontinent in the world and already influences the West enormously with their art and eloquence of feeling and expression.  Western readers can now appreciate an entire anthology devoted to Indian female poets, and their voices rising as one, for equality and respect. The Kali Project is an umbrella for all woman in India who have needed the strength of ‘Maa Kali’ during their life and speaks to every woman worldwide, who can tap into the fierce energies of The Kali and what she represents.

Indie Blu(e) Publishing continually offers the urgent subjects that matter most but are often overlooked by the mainstream. It has long been their mission to be that voice for indie authors and beyond, and they are delighted to offer The Kali Project a safe space to flourish. Having received over 1500 submissions, The Kali Project speaks to Indian women’s growing influence and power in the world, they are truly a force to be reckoned with, and Indie Blu(e) is extremely honoured to publish this collection. www.indieblu.net

Project Outcome

As The Kali Project is the most ambitious project Indie Blu(e) Publishing has published, in terms of size, we also had to address the elephant in the room; Is it appropriate for a Western press to publish Indian authors? Some had thought it wasn’t and didn’t submit for this reason, as is their right. This is how we saw it: Movements succeed when all groups of people support them. The original movements in the sixties here in America would not have succeeded as much, had people of all walks of life not joined them. Therefore, there is no exclusivity to the support of a movement. Where one has to be careful is in the handling of subjects beyond one’s experience. Hence why, even with the best intentions in the world, you would not publish a book about Black Lives Matter solely by Anglo authors, it just wouldn’t be representative or speak directly.

It felt publishing and editing a book of this magnitude required cultural knowledge and sensitivity, and we were lucky enough to have Megha Sood on board for The Kali Project. Born in India and of Indian heritage, Megha could speak directly to the experience of women in India. She also is a highly accomplished editor and writer in her own right. Additionally, we tried to be as receptive and responsive to concerns raised along the way. Of course, with any large project, it is impossible to please everyone and there were those who walked away from the project because Indie Blu(e) Publishing is an equal rights publisher, promoting feminism and LGBTQ themes.

The project was very positively received and the support and enthusiasm from the community we became a part of, has been a life-altering experience for us all. One must be particularly aware when working with a culture different from your own, but with the right team, and listening to the community, this can be achieved. The important thing is to put the people first and let their truths be heard. No wrong can come from that.

Another consideration was the graphic nature of some of the poetry received. Indie Blu(e) has not shied away from publishing graphic works. Be it in response to the #MeToo movement (We Will Not Be Silenced), the LGBTQ community (Smitten, This Is What Love Looks Like), or the recent #BLM, #Trump, #Covid-19 year of hell (As The World Burns). As a small press, we feel our social conscience is our touchstone.

Women of India have boldly addressed subjects of; rape, sexual inequality, racism, casteism, and femicide and despite some daunting obstacles, not least the threat of violence and retribution, Indian women’s courage has lent their voices an unparalleled power. The Kali Project identifies, acknowledges and emboldens that change, and aspires to act as a vehicle of social change. The graphic nature of say, a rape scene might be blatant, but it was decided that, as with most art and expression, this shouldn’t be dissuaded.

The balance of classical poetry, alongside more modern themed works, and art, lends the project a fluidity and relevance that fits the inauguration of the first female American Vice President, Kamala Devi Harris, of Indian and African heritage. We are experiencing a cultural and gender shift in how women and different races are perceived and what they are able to do in society. The poets and artists of The Kali Project are an expression of this galvanization toward complete expression and freedom of thought.

With a President in power for four years, who many women felt, didn’t speak for them, and many immigrants felt, didn’t support them, we now see the potential for change that could begin to open more ways to utilize art and language for social progress. As much as social media is invaluable, the true grit remains on the streets, with the people. Print books have gained a massive resurgence. Paper is still powerful. Maybe coming off 2020 the hardest year in a while, we’re primed for social action like never before.

All along our intention was to utilize The Kali Project as a tool for change, not simply a book. It was always our intention to effect change through increasing awareness in the West, as we had with, We Will Not Be Silenced, which was Indie Blu(e)’s inaugural publication. We were founded on the principle of equality and enlightenment. What we have personally learned from this experience has been momentous and the outcome of the project has only just begun. By opening up taboo subjects, we enable marginalised and frustrated voices to speak about continuing inequality. Indian women have done so much already but it cannot hurt to continue to highlight this in any way we’re able.

We wanted to contribute to a bigger picture. Start conversations. Shift thinking. We regret not being able to reach those most affected in India and were aware how difficult it would be to reach the most rural and poorest Indian women who do not have access to computers, who do not speak English, who cannot be easily reached on social media. As much as possible, we solicited contributions from women of diverse ages, gender identities, sexual identities, social class, oft-published writers as well as writers and artists who had never been published before.  Is Kali completely representative of ALL Indian women?  It cannot be. Can any anthology be completely representative? It’s a challenge.  We do our best, despite knowing we omit some of those who still desperately need to be heard. It doesn’t negate the value of the project, but it’s a regret.

It should be mentioned, The Kali Project doesn’t resonate as ‘negative’ and ‘bad news’ at all. Of course, there is the reality, and the reality can be very painful. It can also be joyful. This must not be forgotten. The love, enriching strength, and joy of Indian women is also borne out in The Kali Project. We were particularly moved by N. Meera Raghavendra Rao’s poem ‘My Mother-In-Law Surprises Me’, an account of the author as a young bride, and her positive experience “When two women understand each other / And feel at home with one another.

It is just as important to show all sides of being an Indian woman, for every atrocity, there is hope, and strength, and this is why Kali was the perfect Goddess to represent the project, she is multi-faceted and both nurturing and powerful. “Kali / embodies the / boundless freedom / epitome of Shakti / of strength and power / standing unbound from all / restrictions.” Mehak Varun, ‘The Kali in Me’.

Balance is everything. For every negative, there is a positive and we tried to reflect that balance throughout the collection, with hopeful poems, even on difficult subjects: “Do not call me Lakhi meye (good girl) / And tell me I’m an angel / When you only try to teach me wrongly that love lies camouflaged / within your dominant behavior” …“Stop saying I am not enough, not worthy, not great / Because I know I have conquered mountains and moons, flown / across the skies, over the waves / I have danced and taught and painted and calculated and done / everything you told me I could not.” Mandrita Bose, ‘Do not call me Durga’.

Other Influences

Just the other day I watched  Rama Rau’s fascinating documentary, The Daughter Tree (2019), and was struck again, as I have been throughout time, to the necessity of speaking up for women. In the region of Punjab, 1000 boys are born for every 750 girls.  The documentary is about a midwife in Punjab state challenging the tradition of aborting girl babies. There are other causes to care about, as a person of Sephardi Jewish descent, and LGBTQ I know this acutely. But we gravitate toward those who capture our hearts. In my case, equality.

I hear many times that equality for women is ‘complete’ and there is no need for feminism anymore. That simply isn’t true. There are countless examples of inequality persisting and those who say feminism is dead or should be dead, you wonder what the real motivation is behind that desire to shut it down? How can equality exist with statistics and realities saying otherwise? Take The Great Indian Kitchen, an Indian Malayalam–language film written and directed by Jeo Baby (2021). The experience of many Indian women and other women worldwide, is that of submissive, chained-to-the-kitchen wife, who is ‘unclean’ when she menstruates. With realities like this, women’s move for true equality cannot be diminished or ignored.

I’ve always wondered, if someone wants to shut feminism down so badly, what do they get out of that? Where is the benefit? And what is the harm in being a feminist, which only means, believing women and men can and should be equal. This is a lengthy subject, but I speak for many women in saying, as long as a woman is paid less than a man for doing the same job, as long as a woman’s reproductive rights are controlled by a system and not by herself, as long as she is told whom she can love and whom she cannot, as long as she is derided for her age, appearance, sexuality and gender, then feminism is relevant. And feminists are not man-haters. They are equality makers.

The Daughter Tree provoked a consideration I have had ever since we first talked about creating The Kali Project, which is; How do we speak directly to those most affected, and are their voices heard? I would have to say, no, the most affected voices were not heard either by The Kali Project or anything else, and that is the real problem. When you have mass poverty, illiteracy, control of female populations, then how can you speak directly to the women?

The poetry and art in The Kali Project is in part, an indirect observation of, rather than a direct experience of, for some of the authors. That’s because in India, those who are bilingual, with regular access to a computer and have the time to write, are invariably a higher income than those most affected. It is not to discount the suffering of all walks of life, but we did regret not having some way to engage with those whom we couldn’t even contact, because we are English speakers in a foreign country. Yes, that is a regret. But what do you do? Do nothing because you cannot do it completely? Or hope that by starting a dialogue you are making inroads? I would say the latter.

That said, it is our wish always to be inclusive, to show all sides of something, to give everyone a chance to speak. It was a frustration watching The Daughter Tree, not to have been able to reach those women and girls who cannot write, nor speak in a foreign language, nor have access to a computer. I would dearly have liked to have their stories and shared their views. Because until we do, we risk having a very selective approach to a multi-facetted, complicated subject. As The Daughter Tree points out, there are reasons for some of the traditions enduring, there are factors of consideration and outcomes borne from no better option, and until we address all of those, maybe nothing will really change.

But with awareness, comes progress, and whilst many girls are still sold into marriage or married very young and denied choices and education, the shift comes in all directions and we hope The Kali Project will contribute to this shift. As women, we all know there is work to be done in every country, India is not alone, and that was the point, to ensure Indian women knew, their sisters in other countries were watching, they heard them, they stood with them. Just as when Black Lives Matter movements occurred in the USA, they were taken up by people in all countries. It is that universalism bequeathed us by technology, we can harness and run with.

Finally, the financial considerations related to The Kali Project were long discussed. It has never been our goal to indiscriminately profit from authors, as anyone who works in publishing can attest, this is a lofty goal at the best of times. Indie Blu(e) has actively sought to promote affordable, worldwide publications that can be purchased by everyone, hence why we publish in Kindle and print. The Kali Project’s contributors are primarily based in India, as such we harnessed Pothi, who are based in India, to be another more affordable option for purchasing. In addition, we are set to produce a hardback version of the book for collectors.

For some, a poem’s title alone will stand as testimony: “Disrupting boundaries / Challenging the forecasts / Mocking at man-made wonders.” (Kaikasi V. S., ‘Why are Cyclones Named After Women?’) Others are simply universal in their gendered strength: “I have all the light I need; you’re here, stuck with me.” (Himangi Nair, ‘light & dark’). Some poems just resonate with rebellion and honed fortitude: “No one looked into our eyes with love. / If they had, they’d have heard our souls talk. / Instead, all they said was / She’s hysterical. Women are like that, / especially when they menstruate, / especially when they stop menstruating, / especially as they approach death.” (Anna Sujatha Mathai, ‘Hysteria’). It is truly rare to find a book at 600 pages where you keep going from one incredible read to another.

Kali as received by others

Of all the anthologies I have worked on, I have never seen such an enthusiastic outpouring and this included the terrific reviews we received. I share but a fraction with you:

Featuring poets from India and the diaspora, creating the bond of shared experiences across continents The Kali Project draws in the voices of women as women, and women as professionals – teachers, mental health workers, writers, doctors, lawyers, bankers, social workers – adding newer dimensions and a sharper understanding of the inner realities that are sought to be silenced by the patriarchal structures which society, religion, community, and class sanction and sanctify.”

— Charanjeet Kaur, Former Chief Editor and Features Editor of Muse India, and currently the Contributory Editor for Indian writing in English of MI. Consultant Editor of the SPARROW (Sound & Picture Archives for Research On Women)

From my love of history, I was acquainted with the basics of the Hindu faith and one of their goddesses, Kali/Devi. It was immediately apparent, reading The Kali Project, why Kali had been chosen to represent this poetry anthology. To many in India, irrespective of faith, the depiction of Kali is a sign of a woman’s strength. Whilst Kali is both death and goddess, she has a strong nurturing/mother-figure side with the possibility of compassion. In this, we can contrast her with the Christian Virgin Mary. Kali exceeds the potential power of any idol, because she has an active persona, her ‘shakti’ (feminine energy) is a reality and she has several expressive incantations that give her a wide range within the Hindu faith. Thus, it is no wonder Kail became the natural spearhead of The Kali Project.

— Dr. Belinda Román, Economist/Researcher/Historian

“Fierce feminine energy of Kali is rising today so that we can save ourselves from total annihilation. This volume is a sublime expression of that emergence.”

— Dr. Neela Bhattacharya Saxena, Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Nassau Community College, USA. An academic expert on Kali, Dr. Saxena wrote our detailed foreword and continually supported this project of women speaking their truth.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the writer.

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Candice Louisa Daquin is a Sephardi immigrant from France who lives in the American Southwest. Formerly in publishing, Daquin is now a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com

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In Praise Of Translations

Ratnottama Sengupta, eminent journalist and daughter of Bengali writer Nabendu Ghosh, has been a force behind translating Bengali literature and bringing it to the doorstep of those who do not know the language. In this exclusive, she discusses how translations impact the world of literature.

I have often been asked, “Nabendu Ghosh was a literary figure and a screenwriter. How much importance did he place on translation?” Truthfully, because he was a literary person, my father placed a lot of importance on translations which, as he once pointed out, has given us access to almost all the first books in a bevy of Indian languages.

Let me elaborate. Adi Kavi Valmiki, the harbinger poet in Sanskrit literature, composed the original – ‘mool’ – Ramayan long before the first century BC. But Krittibas Ojha’s 15th century rendition in Bengali ‘Panchali’ style is not merely a rewording of the original epic, it gives a description of Bengal’s society and culture in the Middle Ages. It also explores the concept of Bhakti which later contributed to the emergence of Vaishnavism in the Gangetic belt.

This is said to have had a profound impact on the literature of the surrounding region. In Bihar of 16th century Goswami Tulsidas heightened the Bhakti quotient as he retold Ramayan in Hindi, as Ramcharit Manas. The same happened in Orissa. Earlier it had been adapted, with plot twists and thematic adaptations, in the 12th century Tamil Ramavataram; 14th century Telugu Sri Ranganatha Ramayanam; several Kannada versions, starting in 12th century; Ramacharitam in Malayalam; into Marathi also around this time.

My father had inculcated in us this love for multiple languages when I was about ten. As we all sat around after dinner, he would read from these texts – Valmiki’s Ramayan, Tulsi’s Ramcharit Manas, The Old Testament from the Bible, Buddhist Jataka Tales, and Sri Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita wherein Mahendra Nath Gupta recounts, word for Bengali word, the conversations and activities of the 19th century Indian mystic. Published in five volumes between 1902 and 1910, this work summing up the life philosophy of Ramkrishna Paramahans through simple anecdotes and parables, has been translated into English and Hindi.

Before that, at the young age of nine, I was also initiated into the crème de la crème of world literature – Tolstoy, Gorky, Mark Twain, and Shakespeare too – through translations into Bengali. Abridged versions of Crime and Punishment, Mother, Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Blue Bird, and Hamlet, Lear, Othello, Romeo and Juliet were published by Deb Sahitya Kutir — among other Bengali publishers — for young readers. Later in life, as a student of English Literature, I realized that our understanding of the ways and woes of our world would be so much poorer if Iliad and Odyssey had remained confined to Greek readers; if Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House had not crossed the frontiers of Norway; if Don Quixote were to be read only in the Spanish that Miguel Cervantes wrote in; if The Hunchback of Notre Dame was meant only for those raised in French, or if Faust were to be played only to German viewers.

And, talking of viewers: how would the world have known about the Russian Sergei Eisenstein, the Japanese Akira Kurosawa, the Greek Theo Angelopoulos, the Italian Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini, the French Jean Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, the Swedish Ingmar Bergman, the Polish Andrzej Wajda, the Czech Jiri Menzel, the Argentinian Fernando Solanas, the Turkish Yilmaz Guney, the Chinese Zhang Yimou, the Iranian Abbas Kiarostami, or our very own Satyajit Ray? Unthinkable, the world of cinema without subtitles in this day and age when Hollywood films come with subtitles in not just English and Hindi – the two official languages of India – but also in its umpteen regional languages to reach viewers in pockets that speak only Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Marathi, Bengali…

The importance of translation is best exemplified by the Song Offerings. If Rabindranath Tagore had not translated the poems of Gitanjali, Asia would have had to wait longer for its first Nobel Prize. Incidentally the central theme of this work too is devotion – and it is part of UNESCO’s collection of Representative Works. And it is my belief that no other Nobel for literature has come to India because we have not come up with any worthy translation – say, of Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay? At least, not until recent years, nor in a big way.

Also, it is my own experience that only after Me and I — translated from the Bengali original, Aami O Aami by Devottam Sengupta — was published by Hachette India that a major international publishing house got interested in translating Nabendu Ghosh into French.

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That brings me to the frequently asked question: “Why are you translating Nabendu Ghosh rather than publishing his Bengali originals?” The answer takes me back to 1940s when Baba’s Phears Lane was translated into Urdu and published in Lahore. Clearly Nabendu Ghosh was a ‘star’ in Bengali literature then. Allow me to quote Soumitra Chatterjee, the thespian who we lost so recently and was a Master in Bengali: “I had known about Nabendu Ghosh even before I took to studying Bengali literature, since Daak Diye Jaai (The Clarion Call) was a sensation even when I was in school. His writing was not confined to urban setting and city life. He went to the villages and wrote about the man of the soil too. His characters were always flesh and blood humans.”

But the Partition of India had halved the market for books and films in Bengali, dimming the prospects of even established directors and writers who sought a new opening on the shores of the Arabian Sea. Thus, when Bimal Roy – a celluloid star after his meteoric debut with Udayer Pathey ( In the Path of Sunrise, 1943) — left for Bombay in 1950 to make a film for Bombay talkies, Nabendu Ghosh joined his unit. However, in Bombay he found that his kind of writing did not have as much of a prospect in films which were made primarily for the entertainment of an amorphous mass. So, he decided to write scripts based on other people’s stories, and his own thought-provoking stories — which he described as ‘fingers pointing at what ails society’ — he continued to write as pure literature, in Bengali, and send to publishers in Kolkata.

This oeuvre bears the distinct stamp of his outlook towards life, society, or state. As a critic wrote, “There is deep empathy for human emotions, layers of meaning that add to the depth of the spoken words, subtle symbolism, description of unbearable life paired with flight in the open sky of imagination.” But this aspect of the writer got buried under the glamour of screen writing, and even in Bengal people thought of him only as the screen writer of successful films. Small wonder, since he wrote more than eighty scripts, for directors like Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Bhattacharya, Vijay Bhatt, Sultan Ahmed, Dulal Guha, Lekh Tandon, Phani Majumdar, Satyen Bose, Shakti Samanta, Sushil Mazumdar, among others. Most of them are considered classics of the Indian screen: Sujata, Bandini, Devdas, Parineeta, Aar Paar, Majhli Didi, Teesri Kasam, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Ganga Ki Saugandh, Khan Dost, Baadbaan, Insaan Jaag Utha, Lal Patthar …

But Baba was saddened that even his colleagues in the filmdom did not know his literary pouring as only a handful were translated into Hindi and none into English. This is what I have tried to rectify through Chuninda Kahaniyaan (2009), Me and I (2017), and That Bird Called Happiness (2017). Mistress of Melodies (2020) you could say is a part of a continuum that started with River of Flesh (2016) and comes after That Bird Called Happiness. Nabendu Ghosh would read up volumes — books, news items, dictionaries and encyclopedia — when he fleshed out his characters. Perhaps that is why they play out their lives before you, like moving images. It was no different when he was writing Song of a Sarangi/ Ekti Sarengir Sur, included in Chaand Dekhechhilo that won him the Bankim Puraskar.

But above all, the reason for putting my energy in this art is to take a part of my heritage to the world. Because, as the celebrated Bengali writer Shirshendu Mukherjee said about Nabendu Ghosh, he is a writer who deserves to be read. Allow me to finish with a quote from him as he talked about his senior’s continuing relevance, to readers of Bengali literature and outside.

“Nabendu Da’s use of language was remarkable. He starts one of his stories with the word ‘Bhabchhi / (I’m) Thinking.’ It is a single word, that is also a complete sentence, and it has been used as a para in itself. One of his stories, Khumuchis, explores the secret language used by pickpockets. Bichitra Ek Prem Gatha (A Wondrous Love) – published to mark 2550th year of the Buddha — uses a vocabulary that is devoid of any word that would not have existed before the advent of Islam.

“He had an amazing sense of the optimum in this matter — he never overdid it. Not many writers of his time were into such experiments. Nabendu Ghosh did. He stood apart from his contemporaries in this respect. A part of his mind always ticked away, thinking of how his characters would speak. This added to the readability of his novels and stories. It quickened the pace of unfolding the narrative. They were all so racy! So fast paced, so real, so full of conflict and its resolution… Exceptional is the only word to describe it.

“And this was because of his language/ vocabulary. He was always pushing the boundaries of the language. His ‘throw’ was such that it turns into an eternal emotion which continues to cast its spell.

The same focused development of a plot shorn of every trivial and expendable branch, razor sharp emotions, whirlwind passion — I feel writing itself was a passion for him. He did not write with his head alone, his heart bled for the human condition.

“And this is why he never dated. His writing is the stuff that makes a story universal, eternal. For today’s readers he is a lesson in how to write — they can master how to write a narrative that flows like a boat down a rapid stream. In terms of language, structure, characters and situation, he is a writer who would be relevant to the young readers of not only Bengal but worldwide.”

Ratnottama Senguptaformerly 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. 

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Type, Stereo, Stereotype

Devraj Singh Kalsi gives a unique perspective on the Farmer’s Protest in India

Farmers’ protest in India, December 2020. Photo courtesy: Wiki

The nation knows them as truck-drivers, transporters, dhaba-owners (eatery-owners), soldiers, and farmers who made the nation green with revolution (and envy) half a century ago. They perform these jobs so well that nobody in India wants them to do anything else. It would be a waste of time and resources if they show interest in other pursuits. Alerts and friendly suggestions include forget creative gigs and focus on down-to-earth digs. Get back to the fields and grow some figs instead of falling in love with trance – to transplant figments of imagination. Talk about reap, forget repeal. Focus on harvest, forget unrest. Don’t care two hoots? Return to the roots.

If you know a Sardarji in the bulb with malice towards one and all, consider it an exception instead of the changing trend in their professional choices. The Sardarji in the bulb failed to inspire and light up the brains of his community that is perfectly okay with intellectual poverty so long as material prosperity comes their way. Sardar (Sikh) and Kirdaar (character) make an uncharacteristic pair. Pen in his grip looks weak while the sword is mightier even today.  

Crack silly, vulgar Sardar jokes and stereotype them the way you like, but the fact remains that Bhangra, banter and bass show their swag. You enjoy full freedom of expression to hurt the sentiments of the Sikh community and get away with it. With a big heart they always love to give and forgive. Even if you find no art in their dance form, you raise the legs to lift the spirits and feel energised.  

Instead of banking on education to seek greener pastures abroad, they are ready to grab the steering wheel, to steer their future in the direction of prosperity. If diligence is the seed of success, they are ready to toil in the farms as sons of the soil under extreme weather conditions – whether it is about growing sarson (mustard) here or strawberries there. The enthusiasm to feed humanity takes them to the fields, to grow food for all, or set up eateries along the highways to serve truckers and travellers with good food.

The farm protests, spearheaded by the Sikhs, made the entire nation suspect whether they have the brains to understand the farm laws or the misled battalion simply marched ahead with tractors and trolleys under the influence of opposition leaders and alcohol. This narrative was fairly convincing on TV screens as Sikhs have yet to showcase their logical quotient. With no Nobel Laureate to amplify their pedigree, pegging the idea of a Sardarji winning it for science, economics, literature or peace turns out to be a hilarious joke.  

From fibre to fibre optics, they have made significant contribution but the world looks reluctant to recognise their talent in diverse fields. These warriors who break barriers are the carriers of chutzpah and they deliver the impossible. While the national average income struggles to reach a decent level, they have taken agriculture to a new level. So much so that they earn enough to buy jeans on account of hard work in their genes.   

Starving farmers wearing torn clothes and banging empty utensils is the stereotyped image of protesters in India. This is perhaps the first time that the entire nation witnessed stereos playing full blast at the protest site, with a feast of delicacies served to all, with book launches and motivational songs to keep the spirits high. From pizza to pinni (sweet), from badam (almond) sherbet to gajar ka halwa (carrot halwa), from foot massagers to geysers, the visuals emerging from Delhi borders have awakened the collective imagination and consciousness of the people in their heated drawing rooms. The hordes of protesters including elderly citizens, women, and children looking cool, calm and resilient even in biting cold conditions reminds people of Chhardi Di Kala – the expression to convey their buoyant attitude and will power.

When farmers look healthy and well-fed, they weaken their bargaining position as the authorities tend to think they are already prosperous and the new farm laws are sure to double their income. No sympathy or empathy comes their way. Seek repealing of laws and they keep appealing to soften the stand. The deaths and suicides of fellow farmers in this chilling cold do not generate the fear of death. Call it determination, tenacity, or moronic display of obdurate behaviour, they stand united to treat with love and care but never ready to retreat.

Farmers eating stuffed parathas, paneer (cottage cheese), kheer (sweetened and thickened milk), fruits, dry fruits, and jalebis(sweet) make prime time news. The image of struggling, bare-bodied farmers ploughing the fields, surviving on porridge, mashed potato, and boiled rice disappears from the screens. With simmering anger inside and langar (community kitchen) outside, they sit and wage a crowded struggle for their rights, sleeping under tractors and trolleys, waiting for the withdrawal of draconian and now drag-on-ian farm laws.

A diet meal plan sanctioned for healthy living is likely to win more sympathy from the masses and the authorities. Do not jeopardize the mission to bring the farmers of the nation at par with the Punjabi brethren. This scheme is for them, to double their income, to reduce income equality between marginal farmers and march-in-al farmers first. Do not behave like a big brother and a bigger fool. Your doubling of income has to wait till the farmers of India achieve your level first. In the meanwhile, continue serving mankind and feel a surge of collective pride, serve the poor and those in distress, reduce the level of stress, go back, and buy new dress for the next music video. The festivals are all lined up, get ready for Baisakhi (Punjabi new year) and balle-balle, and say cheers to the good life.

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Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short stories and essays have been published in Deccan Herald, Tehelka, Kitaab, Earthen Lamp Journal, Assam Tribune, and The Statesman. Pal Motors is his first novel.  

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Neither Tranquil Mandarins, Nor Yellow Devils

While the impasse over the McMahon Line continues and the outgoing POTUS rages over not only the election results but also the Yellow Peril, John Drew gives us an interesting perspective on the perception of both these giants, US & China. 

Credits: Collage by Sohana Manzoor

Many centuries ago, Chinese pilgrims came up the Bay of Bengal on their way to Buddhist sites in the Subcontinent. We have no record of their conversations with the people of Bengal but it was the accurate accounts of early Chinese travellers that enabled archaeologists in the 19th century to rediscover the lost Buddhist sites like that inside a hill at Paharpur (Bangladesh).

A more modern Chinese settlement in Bengal that has left us the word chini for sugar was largely curtailed sixty years ago by the dispute over the Himalayan border, the McMahon Line above Bengal, a remnant of aggressive British imperialism earlier in the 20th century.

Today, Bangladesh, like other sub-continental countries, has its Chinese neighbours within the gates, driving the building of the prodigious rail bridge across the Padma, developing a port hub at Chattogram and proposing a rail link across Myanmar. The Celestial Empire is once again a superpower but this time expanding as never before to the Indian, and perhaps every other, ocean.

The people of the Bengal delta have suffered greatly from empires, whether Persian, Portuguese, British or Pakistani: empires are not a win-win situation and never will be. But while it is as well to be wary of empire-building, also important is to be wary of the stereotypes that invariably accompany it.

When the Japanese were at the gates of Imphal in 1944, they presented themselves as liberators, a clever, ingenious people who were successfully freeing Asia from European rule. The British rulers of India pictured them as cunning and cruel. Both images were stereotypes that served the purposes of those producing the propaganda for or against.

What images does Bangladesh have of the Chinese? No doubt, given the colonial legacy, some of these have, willy-nilly, been bequeathed to us by the West. It is instructive to see how the stereotypes change with the times.

Mandarins

For Europe unlike India, China remained off the map until the 13th century when Marco Polo, among others, made his epic journey to Cathay and reported on a China full of marvels. This report chimed nicely with a superstitious, religious European culture already given to believing in the miraculous and fantastic.

The European Enlightenment in the 18th century ridiculed this farrago, offering a very different view. Leibniz, Voltaire and Quesnay, most notably, canvassed the idea of China as an ideal Confucian state where civil harmony and stability prevailed. Ironically relying on the researches of their opponents, the Jesuit missionaries, rationalist European thinkers used this image to show that a society did not need any religious sanction to be ethical.

Oliver Goldsmith wrote his Letters of a Citizen of the World (1760-1) in the guise of a Chinese visitor, satirizing Europeans for preferring to acquire Chinese frippery rather than to try and understand China. He mocked the way that even the uses of fashionable trinkets, including the pots for infusing a popular new herb, tea, were generally misunderstood.

The idealised view of Chinese civilisation was never uncontested. Moreover, the older images often resurfaced. Coleridge, famously, in his poem “Kubla Khan” returned to the medieval travellers’ image of China as a marvellous place: “It was a miracle of rare device/  A sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice”.

Likewise in the 20th century, Lowes Dickinson, following Goldsmith’s epistolary method with his Letters of John Chinaman (1901) adopted the 18th century Enlightenment outlook on China. So did Vikram Seth in his mannered sonnet sequence, The Humble Administrator’s Garden (1985).

Peasants

Less happily, in the 19th century as European capitalism and imperialism destroyed the old feudal order at home, feudal China was increasingly dismissed as decadent and backward, its largely symbolic fleet destroyed by the British. Bangladeshis need no reminding of the wretched history of the cross-border trade in tea and opium.

Thereafter the dominant image of China that emerged was of the cunning peasant, especially following the “Boxer” uprising against the foreign imperialists and missionaries. Chinese labourers came to be used as cheap labour across the world, building the American railroads, for instance, and, after being conveyed secretly in sealed trains across Canada, providing labour battalions for the Allies in World War I.

Masters have a way of blaming slaves for their own condition and so was born the ugly racial concept of the Chinese as a Yellow Peril, perhaps a subconscious fear that the roles of masters and slaves might one day be reversed. In one frequently reproduced lithograph, even the meditating Buddha was enrolled as the Peril’s presiding genius!

The peasant figure that displaced the mandarin still belonged to the same feudal order. Ah Sin, a comic stereotype created on page (1870) and stage (1877) by America’s most celebrated writers, Bret Harte and Mark Twain, was shown as debased and thievish. Whatever the intention of the writers, the effect, at a time of anti-Chinese rioting on the West Coast, was pernicious.

Jack London’s portrait of the peasant Ah Cho in The Chinago (1909) was something of an exception to the general run. The French colonial authorities in Tahiti are exposed for the racism that hangs a man even when they find he is the wrong one, so cheap is the life of a Chinese coolie.

That the image of a sly Chinese peasant is not necessarily untrue can be determined from the way it was also used by Lu Xun, China’s foremost short story writer in the 20th century. Ah Q (1921) tells the story of a bully and coward who prevaricates in the face of, among other things, revolutionary change. For Lu Xun, a peasant uprising in China would not be successful until the peasantry was properly educated and genuinely spirited.

Fu Manchu

In the 20th century, while China underwent almost permanent revolution in an attempt to free itself from feudalism and foreign domination, the single most influential and lasting image Western culture threw up in response was that of Dr Fu Manchu who, with the manners of a mandarin and the craftiness of a peasant, was a perfect fusion of the two previous stock figures.

For almost the entire century Dr Fu Manchu filled the minds of first book and comic-reading and then film-going and television-watching public. Urbane and fiendish, he was involved in gambling and drugs as part of a plan to bring Europe and America under Chinese control. Historically, of course, the opposite had been true.

As Sax Rohmer admitted, he made his name as the creator of Fu Manchu because he “knew nothing about the Chinese” (depicted in his books as “the most mysterious and most cunning people in the world”). He got no closer to China than the East End of London but his fevered imagination has proved as contagious as any virus.

It is indicative, and also ironical given the British treatment of China in the Opium Wars, that such virulent dreams of a racist, imperialist China seem to have originated in the drug-fuelled nightmares of Thomas De Quincey, the English Opium-Eater.

Pretty Much Alike

When the incumbent President of the USA describes the racially-indiscriminate Covid-19 as the Chinese virus he is evidently trading on the 19th century image of the Yellow Peril, updated as that became in the 20th century to the Red Peril. It is an old trick to deflect attention from your own shortcomings by blaming somebody else.

The images of China they elaborate tell us as much about Western culture as about China. As we saw with the stock image of the peasant, the image is not necessarily untrue: it is that it is inadequate, incomplete. The real problem is that a stereotype essentializes a vast and various place. People and places are diverse.

Timothy Mo, in his novel Sour Sweet (1982), parodies the silly prejudice that “all Chinese look alike” by having his Chinese protagonist Lily complain that all the “bland, roseate occidental faces” look the same to her compared with “the infinite variety of interesting Cantonese physiognomies: rascally, venerable, pretty, raffish, bumpkin, scholarly.”

In the 21st century we could do worse than let an 18th century English mandarin have the last word. Lord Macartney, Britain’s first Envoy to China (1793-4), wrote: “The Chinese, it is true, are a singular people, but they are men formed of the same material and governed by the same passions as ourselves.”

Goldsmith, in the introduction to his Letters, had written: “The truth is, the Chinese and we are pretty much alike. Different degrees of refinement, and not of distance, mark the distinctions among mankind.”

But Macartney went further. He suggested that before we looked at others we had better take a good look at ourselves. If the English found the Chinese proud of themselves and contemptuous of others, it was because these were the characteristics the English themselves displayed when travelling the globe.

The world we see mirrors us. The first place to look for the Yellow Peril – and the Red and the Black – is in Whitehall and in the White House.

John Drew has been a university teacher on both sides of the Himalaya and of the Atlantic.

First published in the literary page of  Daily Star, Bangladesh.

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The Syncretic Lore of Guru Nanak’s Legacy

While skirmishes continue to line the borders of India, Sameer Arshad Khatlani, author of The Other Side of the Divide, explores the deeply embedded syncretic elements in the heritage left behind by the founder of Sikhism. Part of his legacy still lives on in Pakistan.

‘Beating of Retreat’ Ceremony at International Border at Wagha. Photo Courtesy: Wiki

Poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal’s ‘tremendous work’, wrote German writer Hermann Hesse (1877–1962), belonged to the world of Islam apart from two other domains of the worlds of India, and of Western thought. In his book Incarnations, academic Sunil Khilnani echoes Hesse and notes that Iqbal (1877-1938) was “deeply engaged with the histories, themes, and conflicts embedded in Islamic thought and in literary traditions that fired his imagination.” 

Islam was certainly an important theme of Iqbal’s poetry. But he also wrote about important figures of other religions glowingly in the spirit of his famous couplet: “Mazhab nahin sikhata aapas mei bair rakhna, Hindi hai ham vatan hai Hindustan hamara (religion does not teach us animosity, we are Indians and India is our country).” “Hai Ram ke vajud pe Hindustan ko naaz, ahl-e-nazar samajhte hain is ko imam-e-hind (while India is proud of Ram, priests also teach us about Allah),’’ wrote Iqbal, highlighting the reverence that a vast majority of Indians felt for Lord Ram.

Of all the non-Islamic religious icons, Iqbal perhaps wrote most admiringly about Sikhism founder Guru Nanak, whom he hailed as “mard-e kaamil (perfect man)”. His poem titled Nanak starts with a lament that “our people paid no heed to the message of Gautam [Buddha]”; did not recognise the worth of that “jewel of supreme wisdom”. It then refers to Nanak and says the perfect man “awakened India from a deep slumber”. In another poem, Iqbal pairs Nanak with Muslim saint Moinuddin Chishti, who was a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. “The land (India) in which Chishti delivered the message of truth; the garden in which Nanak sang the song of oneness that homeland is mine, that homeland is mine.” 

Iqbal was born, raised, and died in pre-partition Punjab, the land of Nanak, which was divided between India and Pakistan in 1947. The division triggered violence, left tens of thousands of dead, and led to a virtual exchange of populations between the two parts of Punjab. It tore apart the region’s centuries-old milieu of co-existence imbibed in Nanak’s philosophy.

Nanak remains a unifier even as the vivisection continues to take a heavy toll on the subcontinent. India and Pakistan have fought three wars over Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), where conflict remains a legacy of the Partition. The two countries were on the verge of another war in February 2019 when India carried out a retaliatory airstrike in Pakistan following a car bomb attack in J&K.

Relations between India-Pakistan worsened in August 2019 following the stripping of J&K’s special status that prompted Islamabad to take steps like the downgrading of diplomatic ties. The upheavals had no impact on the Kartarpur Corridor that provides visa-free access for Indian pilgrims to Gurdwara Darbar Sahib built at Nanak’s last resting place in Pakistan. The corridor was completed and opened within a year on November 9, 2019, three days before Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary.

Gurdwara Darbar Sahib remains an enduring symbol of Nanak’s legacy, which is more relevant today when divisive political leaders rule the roost and all pillars of democracy appear to be succumbing to majoritarianism. It is built at a place where a group of Hindus and Muslims are believed to have found flowers underneath a white sheet when they performed Nanak’s last rites. The two sides agreed to divide the sheet and flowers among themselves. Muslims buried their share and built a mazaar or mausoleum in Nanak’s memory. The Hindus put their piece of the sheet and flowers in an urn and buried it.

Nanak and Sikhism’s association with Muslims has been far deeper than what is generally known. His Muslim teacher was the first to point out how blessed Nanak was as a child. He called Nanak gifted and understood before anyone else could that the Guru’s vastly superior intelligence was because of the blessing. Rai Bular, a Muslim landlord, prevailed on Nanak’s father, Mehta Kalu, to be patient with his son’s otherworldly pursuits. Kalu was worried as Nanak wandered with holy men. Kalu wanted Nanak to study. Bular convinced Kalu to let Nanak be and reported miracles associated with the Guru which convinced him of Nanak’s holiness. 

Bular is known as Nanak’s first devotee outside his family. Janam-sakhis, or Nanak’s life stories, and the Sikh scripture Guru Granth Sahib have several references to Bular. Bular is believed to have reported a hooded cobra shielding the Guru from the sun when he lay asleep under the open sky as another sign of Nanak’s spiritualism. Bular is also the one who is said to have noticed that a tree’s shade remained on a sleeping Nanak even as the sun’s position changed. He is reported to have rushed to tell Kalu that his son was an exalted being upon observing this.  Bular convinced Kalu that Nanak was ‘a gem, a man of God‘ and dedicated large tracts of land to the Guru. Much of the modern-day Nankana Sahib, including Gurdwara Janam Asthan, built at the place of Nanak’s birth, is located on the land Bular bequeathed to the Guru.

Bular’s descendants lead annual processions to celebrate Nanak’s birthday in Nankana Sahib.  Rai Hadayat, Bular’s 17th generation descendant, had the honour of leading Nanak’s 500th birth celebration. Bular’s descendants have been the custodians of Nanak’s estate.  Rai Mohammad Saleem Akram, Bular’s descendant, now manages the estate. The revenue generated from the estate is spent on the welfare of the local Sikh community and the upkeep of gurdwaras in Nankana Sahib. 

Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Sikh Empire founder who came from the same Bhatti Rajput heritage as Bular, recognised his contribution to Sikhism. He bestowed the title of Rai Bhadur on his descendant, Rai Issa Khan, and made him a revenue collector.  More recently, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak (management) Committee (SGPC) acknowledged Bular’s “immense contribution” to Sikh history in May 2018 by putting up his portrait at Amritsar’s Central Sikh Museum. 

Another Muslim, Nawab Rai Kahla, made it to the Sikh hall of fame in July 2017. The SGPC unveiled his portrait at the museum in recognition of the courage he showed in sheltering Guru Gobind Singh, one of Nanak’s nine spiritual successors, in 1705. Kahla, a vassal of Aurangzeb who ruled a small principality in present-day Indian Punjab, offered Guru Gobind refuge in defiance of a Mughal decree to hunt down the 10th Sikh master, who was at war with the Mughal Emperor.

Kahla’s descendants are the custodians of Guru Gobind’s holy pitcher called ganga sagar which he was given as a token of gratitude along with a sword for sheltering the guru. Ganga sagar is believed to hold water despite its asymmetrical holes. Former Pakistani lawmaker Rai Azizullah Khan is the relic’s current custodian. He inherited it in 1975 from his family, which managed to carry the prized relic with them when they fled to Pakistan at the time of the Partition.

In 1705, the goodwill generated by the Malerkotla ruler, Nawab Sher Mohammad Khan, for speaking up against the execution of Guru Gobind’s sons, Zorawar and Fateh, has held his successors and principality in good stead since. The small kingdom in India was an island of calm; a Muslim sanctuary in East Punjab when the neighbouring areas were emptied of Muslims in 1947. Malerkotla continues to be East Punjab’s only Muslim pocket.

Folk history attributes Guru Gobind’s blessings to Malerkotla’s unique history. He is said to have blessed the nawab when he learnt about his letter to Aurangzeb protesting the un-Islamic execution of Zorawar and Fateh. By the time the nawab stirred the Mughal consciousness over the injustice, it was too late. But his gesture was not lost on Guru Gobind. He is said to have declared “his roots shall forever remain green”. 

The rubabi tradition of performing devotional songs, kirtans, at gurdwaras is associated with the descendants of Nanak’s Muslim companion, Bhai Mardana. Guru Nanak sang his poetry to the tunes of a lute-like musical instrument, rubab, that Mardana played. Mardana’s descendants came to be known as the rubabis. The rubabis had performed kirtans at the Golden Temple for seven generations since Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Sikh Guru, roped in Mardana’s descendants, Bhai Sadha and Madha, for the job until the Partition ended the tradition. Only baptized Sikhs can now perform kirtans

The Partition weakened the syncretic links, but the ties are inseverable. They are enshrined in Sikhism. Guru Granth Sahib is the anthology of sacred writing of Sikh gurus and saints, including Muslims such as Baba Farid.  It is revered as a collection of revealed words—Gurbani (literally from the Guru’s mouth). Guru Arjan compiled the first edition of the scripture then known as Adi Granth. He had it installed in 1604 at the Golden Temple, which he declared Ath Sath Tirath (shrine of sixty-eight pilgrimages). Guru Arjan is widely believed to have invited a Muslim saint from Lahore, Mian Mir, to lay the foundation of the most exalted Sikh shrine. Muslim saints such as Mian Mir and Farid are highly revered figures in Sikhism. Farid’s picture at the entrance of Gurdwara Janamasthan underlines his importance in Sikhism.

Muslim saints like Baba Bulleh Shah and Waris Shah also contributed to unifying literature that bound people together. Waris Shah gave full shape to Heer-Ranjha, which remains popular on both sides. He followed in the tradition of Baba Farid, the pioneer of Punjabi literature. The syncretic message cut across the religious divide and bound Punjabis together. 

Things began to change in the 19th century when, according to writer Ian Talbot, revivalists began to peddle “the myth of a golden age when their faith was pristine and unsullied by syncretic traditions”. The myth weakened the shared cultural values of the rural population and replaced blurry community identities and replaced them with defined boundaries. Even Punjabi became a language of contention. The Muslim and Hindu revivalists increasingly began identifying Urdu and Hindi as their mother tongues. The Sikh-Mughal conflict was used to exacerbate religious fault lines. Emperor Aurangzeb’s high-handedness in dealing with the Sikhs was highlighted. The spiritual Muslim leader Bulleh Shah’s (1680) moral stand was conveniently forgotten. Shah, a Syed and the Prophet Muhammad’s direct descendant, hailed his friend, the ninth Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur, as a ‘holy warrior’ when he was put to death. He earlier dissuaded the guru from seeking revenge on Muslims “for the cruelty that the emperor Aurangzeb had inflicted upon his (Sikh) people”. 

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Sameer Arshad Khatlani has been a Senior Assistant Editor with Hindustan Times, India’s second-biggest English newspaper with a circulation of 10 million daily, since July 2018. He has worked in a similar capacity with both The Indian Express and the Times of India. Khatlani has reported from Iraq and Pakistan and covered elections and national disasters. He has a book, with Penguin, On the other Side of the Divide, published in February 2020. Read one of the reviews here.

First published in Sameer Arshad Khatlani’s blog.

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