When iconic Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai (August 21, 1915-October 24, 1991) wrote ‘Lihaaf’ (quilt) and made waves by portraying alternative sex in 1941, second-wave feminism was still around two decades away. Her feminist subversion of patriarchy with the portrayal of a woman’s conditioning vis-à-vis her body had no parallels in the West then. ‘Lihaaf’ predated Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex by five years. Chughtai’s journey to becoming South Asia’s top feminist writers began in Aligarh where she had her literary grounding at a school affiliated with the prestigious Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). The school was upgraded to a college in 1937, nineteen years before Delhi’s premier Lady Shri Ram College was founded and when the literacy rate among women was just three per cent in India.
The AMU Women’s College was the labour of love and realisation of the dream of its founders, Sheikh Abdullah and his wife, Wahid Jahan, of educating and empowering women in a dusty inland town while western education had just begun to flourish in far off coastal centers. It was not an easy task for them. Both Hindus and Muslims opposed Abdullah’s movement to educate women, fearing it would lead to ‘immorality’. Many years later, he told the students of the college with a sense of triumph and pride: “When, after innumerable odds, we came out of the darkness, it was found that education had the same bright effect on them as silver polish has on pots and pans. Educated girls have illuminated our society.”
The movement for educating women in Aligarh started during the lifetime of AMU founder Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, who, in celebrated historian Ramachandra Guha’s words, ‘propagated liberal values and rational outlook to oppose blind adherence to traditional values’. As a result, the Muslim Educational Conference formed a separate department for women’s education in 1898. It promoted the idea through Aligarh Institute Gazette. Abdullah, who was close to Khan, was appointed to look into the women’s educational project in December 1902. A special ‘Aligarh Monthly’ issue was published in November 1903 for the purpose. Abdullah, who was educated at AMU after migrating from Poonch in Jammu and Kashmir, later started a dedicated journal Khatoon (woman) for the promotion of women’s education in 1904. He simultaneously founded Female Education Association in 1904 to promote his cause and provide support to institutions working for it. Abdullah got a shot in the arm when Bhopal’s ruler, Begum Sultan Jahan, offered him a grant. Thus Aligarh Girls School took off with five students and a teacher on October 19, 1906. Science and social science were part of the initial syllabus.
The school was the first for Muslim girls in north India, where Abdullah’s daughter Rashid Jahan honed her rebellious streak. Rashid was trained as a doctor, who chose a radical path of a communist and a rebel. She went on to study at Lucknow’s Isabella Thoburn College after her schooling in Aligarh. Rashid was among the first Muslim women to be trained as a doctor at Delhi’s Lady Hardinge Medical College. She was a woman ahead of her times — both in personal life and the literature she produced. Rashid was unusual in the choice of her profession of a gynaecologist, her dress — a khaddar sari with sleeveless blouse — and style — short hair. She travelled to far-off places to treat the needy and the poor. All this was rare for any woman of her generation particularly in Uttar Pradesh in the first half of the 20th century before independence.
Rashid was one of the four authors of a polemical collection of stories, Angaarey (embers), which provoked outrage in 1932 with its attack on religious conservatism and British colonialism. The collection was banned in March 1933. But it led to the formation of the Progressive Writers’ Association, which attracted the likes of Kaifi Azmi, Ali Sardar Jafri, and Chughtai and revolutionised Urdu literature. Rashid wrote about female bodies with the exactness that only a doctor with intricate knowledge of human anatomy would. She attacked purdah, patriarchy, and misogyny. Rashid influenced Faiz Ahmed Faiz with Marxist ideas along with her husband Mahmuduzzafar, while the latter was Amritsar’s Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College principal while the poet taught English there.
Besides Faiz, Rashid influenced successive generations of Indian and Pakistan feminist Urdu writers and inspired them to explore forbidden subjects such as love and sex. This included her junior at school, Ismat Chughtai. Like‘Angaarey’, ‘Lihaaf’triggered a storm as it humorously dealt with lesbianism and sexual desires of women. The British colonialists charged Chughtai with pornography and she was summoned before a court over it. Yet years after her death her legacy lives on. According to Chughtai’s translator Tahira Naqvi, in nearly every department where South Asian Studies, Women’s Studies, Feminist/Gender Studies, and South Asian literature are taught, her work draws as much attention as her Western peers. Chughtai is often described as one of Urdu fiction’s pillars. She has deeply influenced the likes of Khadija Mastur, Hajira Masroor, Bano Qudsia, etc. Naqvi believes Pakistani poets like Kishwar Naheed and Fehmida Riaz have ‘derived inspiration from her bold, uninhibited style of writing’. Other notable alumni of AMU Women’s College included artist Zarina Hashmi, Pakistani film actor Nayyar Sultana, and writer Kusum Ansal, etc.
Many AMU Women’s College alumni may not have realised their full potential had not it taken its present shape in 1937 when India’s female literacy rate was less than three per cent. This is up to 65% now. Much credit for this goes to the pioneers of female education in India. Among them, Abdullah would be in the same league as the founders of India’s first women’s college, Calcutta’s Bethune College, in 1879 and Lucknow’s Isabella Thoburn College (1886). Abdullah’s efforts were recognised in 1964 when he was awarded the country’s third-highest civilian award — Padma Bhushan.
This is a slightly edited version of a piece published in The Times of India, the author’s former employer, in 2014. And then republished in his blog. Republished with permission of the author.
Ratnottama Sengupta, who has edited an encyclopaedia on culture and is a renowned arts journalist, gives us the role ‘kanthas’ (hand-embroidered mats, made of old rags) played in India’s freedom struggle
“Chhenra kanthay shuey, sinhasaner swapna?!”
(Sleeping on a rag, and dreaming of the throne?!)
Sarcasm dripped from every word when the Bengali proverb was missiled at a person who might have ignored his limited means when planning a revolution. But revolution indeed was wrought by the womenfolk of Bengal in the late 1890s and early 1900s when they discarded the brightly coloured drapes from factories across the seas and opted for the desi taant or handloom cotton saris that were less vibrant, even coarse. They were rising in response to Chaaran Kavi Mukunda Das, the itinerant singer who appealed to them through ballads such as “Chhere dao reshmi churi, aar poro na Banga nari (Leave behind silken threads, do not wear these on Bengali women)”. On the streets, in response to Gandhi’s call for Non-cooperation, men were burning clothes from the mills of Britain. The womenfolk, though confined to the inner courtyard, were not to be left behind in the struggle for the dignity that is freedom.
Jnanpith winner Ashapurna Devi, in Subarnalata – the second part of her timeless trilogy on women’s struggle for empowerment which begins with Pratham Pratishruti (The First Undertaking) — records Haridasi, the housemaid who washed dishes round the clock in the wealthy joint family, bring back the expensive vilaiyati (foreign) sari she’d been given for the Durga Pujas. “Here, even if you can’t replace it, please take this back as this is an absolute no-no in our basti (colony) now,” she tells the karta, head of the tradition-bound family. Muktakeshi is stung by this insolence and threatens to sack Haridasi. But her daughter-in-law Subarnalata uses the incident as an excuse to make a bonfire on the terrace, with all the foreign made clothes the family elders and children had been gifted. If she’s chastised for this, so be it! When even little boys were submitting to police atrocities and men were sacrificing their all to sing Vande Mataram (Salute Motherland, authored by Bankim), how could the walls lock out the liberation cry?
Subarnalata, born and raised in the City of Palaces, is not alone in the silent war. Phuleswari, an elderly aunt-in-law she visits in the countryside, asks her if she has the borders of discarded saris. She needs two colours, black and red, to complete a kantha she has worked on. “But make sure these are not from vilaiyati saris,” she tells Subarna. “Those are far more attractive. The desi (Indian) ones are not half as shiny. But if I fall for the shine, my son Ambika will be offended. He told me, ‘It’s only because you have embroidered Yashoda-Krishna, else I would have fed this half-done kantha to fire!’” Subarna, who has not come armed with worn out saris, takes out her newly acquired hand-woven saris, tears off the desi borders and gives them to Phuleswari.
Yashoda chastising Krishna, gopinis (women friends or the milkmaids) pleading for their clothes, or dancing the Raas with Krishna, Duryodhan disrobing Draupadi, Durga slaying Mahishasura, Jagannath on the Rath with brother Balaram and sister Subhadra, Dasarath in a forest, Rama hunting the golden deer, Royal Bengal tiger, alligator, rows of elephants, horses, peacocks… Legends and icons were the major themes tackled by the ladies who inherited the evolved art of the needle from their mothers and aunts and grand aunts in the Hindu families. But these intricate lores were for the especially worked ‘lep’ kathas or sujnis – bedspreads primarily meant to be quilts or perhaps light wraps. Since these were given at marriages or at childbirth, soon ‘secular’ motifs such as boats and palanquins too entered the rectangular ‘playfield’, as did jewellery and ornaments like bajubandh which lent itself to the snake motif, and paati-haar or mat-patterned necklace.
But what kept the womenfolk busy round the year was the khoka (baby) kanthas used in the days when diapers were unknown, and every branch of the family tree became proud parents several times over. These small sized kanthas widely used the central motif of lotus and water lilies that were seen all around in the land of rivers, ponds, jheels or lakes. Surrounding the flora would be vines, the betel leaf, hand fans, fish, parrots, sparrows or some other small birds.
Then, there were the Aasan or carpet-like spreads meant for sitting on the floor. If they were to be used at mealtime, they would be patterned with kitchen utensils like ladle, kadhai, boti – the Bengali all-purpose knife, sickle or kaita, coconut dessicator, and fish that spells prosperity. The ones meant for daily pujas in the prayer room were adorned with floral motifs, leafs from nature, the paisley off a mango or recurrent curvilinear swastikas to ward off the evil eye. Such kanthas also served as covers for the mirror, on pillows, or even as rumal (kerchiefs).
In households that would spread out the jainamaza (prayer rug), dastarkhan (for mealtime spread) or gilaf to cover the Quran, the running stitch — mostly in red and black or green and blue thread drawn from worn out clothes — would conjure the tree of life, the pond laden with lotus, or simply abstract the rippling effect of water and of chatai, the mat in every Bengal home. In short, the craftsperson’s aesthetics built upon utilitarian objects of every shape from the landscape of everyday life. In this respect, kantha shared a kinship with Alpana, the art of drawing patterns on the earthen floor with rice powder.
The coming of the British changed the age-old tradition that is believed to have originated with the famished Buddha lying in the open, covered by patchwork rags or quilted cloth. Until, roughly, the 1800s the rag and the needle accounted for only the material half of the kantha: the hand that stitched and the imagination that determined the pattern to be embroidered spelt the other half. Both, the material and the motif were altered, subtly and gradually, by the historical and social metamorphosis that set in with the advent of the Europeans. For, with the imperialists came the tapestry inspired art and the needlework on matte cloth that relied upon the cross-stitch for its staple.
Now, this form of crafting spreads – be it for the bed, the table, or the floor – used designs that were published in books that came from England, France, Germany, and depicted European floral bouquets, pups and kittens, girls in bonnet or with umbrella, fairytale cottages, Greek warriors, even Zodiac signs. These mirrored the social reality of the landscape in which the rulers had grown up and left behind when they set out to conquer and rule. So, for the ‘natives’ this was as remote geographically as it was historically or in terms of tradition.
When the British rulers set up schools for girls and colleges for ladies, the students naturally took to crafting cross-stitch tablecloths and napkins, hand towels, tray cloth and tea cozy that were a part of the colonial lifestyle. The more enterprising ones even stitched the yardage together to make bedspreads and wraps but the amount of labour that went into it was immense. More importantly, the kantha was a unique, creative way of recycling that simultaneously conveyed the love of the elders who would make them in their minimal spare hours. Their kanthas may not have been autographed – though some were, but they certainly were ‘Stay Happy’ blessings even when the words ‘Sukhey Thako’ were not embroidered in by the unlettered grand aunts when the monsoon showers forced them to cut down on the outdoor rituals of preparing vadi, papad, achaar(pickle), kashundi(sauce) and sundry items for consumption round the year, or by widowed aunts with little wherewithal.
In later years, the creatively endowed craftswomen who could stitch layers of cloth without using a single knot, would also start stitching Radha Krishna, Shiv Parvati or Ram Sita on the matte. But by this time the Kantha had also come to grips with the social upheaval and had started depicting guns and cannons on the quilt! By this time, the Bengal Partition of 1905 had been reversed and the Nationalist movement had surged. Durga slaying the Bull Demon had acquired a renewed meaning as Sarbajanin Durgotsab – people’s celebration – took on a nationalist fervour. At the same time Khudiram, Netaji and Tagore gained wide popularity as icons to be mounted on the wall or even to be gifted as swaddle cloth for newborn to signify such blessings as “May you be like them!” or “May you live in a Free Country”. Gandhi’s charkha (spinning wheel) also gained popularity as a motif along the border of the kantha – this was another quiet way of joining the bandwagon of khadi that was spreading the unarmed war against the rulers into the interiors of the land.
As collections in some Museums of Folk Art such as Gurusaday Dutta’s show, the change in motif also saw the head to toe ‘Gora Sahib’ – a white-skinned European, as Bengal had also gone through periods of French domination – make his appearance in kanthas. This was not unique to the needlework art, though. The coveted Balucharis of Bishnupur and Murshidabad that were conventionally identified by their depiction of battle scenes from Kurukshetra or nawab-begums smoking hookahs or driving horse carriages were now sporting Europeans – suited booted and donning hat, and sometimes along with their automobiles!
This change carried itself into the terracotta tiles too: the terracotta temples of Bankura and Birbhum that stand to this day, singing paeans to the heroism of the Devatas who vanquished the Asuras, or of Radha Krishna, Shiv Parvati and Sri Chaitanya, now showed Bengali Babus wearing ‘chapkan’ like the ones we see on social reformer Raja Rammohan Roy or litterateur Bankim Chandra.
There is another, more subversive side to the use of motifs on kanthas. At the peak of the Nationalist movement, when almost every house in Bengal Province was proud to see their youngsters follow Shahid Khudiram’s way, when Master-Da Surya Sen and Binoy-Badal-Dinesh were inspiring the curbs to join organisations like the Bengal Volunteers, and when women like Bina Das, Kalpana Dutta and Pritilata Wadedar too were picking up guns and bhojalis (daggers), the preteen girls played messengers and couriers. Often, when they could not openly send out a message, the revolutionaries would code it through the motifs on the innocuous kanthas that would be draped on babies in arm.
This last bit of history comes from my personal family. My father-in-law Kshiti Prasanna Sengupta, first cousin of Shahid Dinesh Gupta and active member of Bengal Volunteers, was jailed in 1933 right after his Matriculation Examination to be released only at the crack of 1947. His incarceration followed the bombing of three consecutive District Magistrates in Midnapore – of James Peddie in 1931, Robert Douglas in 1932, and B E J Burge in 1933. His sister Rama, then in her pre-teens, was often one such unaware courier as she was asked to reach innocuous objects to one or the other household – among them, baby kanthas.
Kantha, as mentioned before, were crafted by women in their moments of leisure carved out of a daily household routine that enjoyed little assistance from mechanical tools and kitchen gadgets. Stitching together three, five or seven layers of saris or dhotis was an arduous pastime to say the least. Yet they took pride in this pastime as the result was their very own creation, not only putting to good use what would otherwise be considered waste but also adding to the wellness of family members, many of whom would not even have the comfort of sleeping on a charpoy. Away from any thought of carrying forward a heritage, our grandmas were not even doing it for economic benefit or ‘self-help.’
Then came the generation of my mother Kanaklata, mother-in-law Aparna and aunt Smritikana, who had gone to schools where they mastered the art of cross-stitch on matte and knitting woolens that would then be sent off to British soldiers on the Burma border of 1944. They were game for the simple art of running stitch; they were adept at crotchet and could weave silken laces by using the hook that interlocked yarns or thread. No longer were they confined to the inner courtyard although they did not have the compulsion to go out to earn their bread. Neither did they crave for an identity in the world out there save by preparing their offspring to usher a brave new world. For these mothers and aunts, the needlework creations were a matter of self-dignity alone: they took pride in preparing the trousseau of their daughters and daughters-in-law with the labour of their own nimble fingers.
The turbulences in the outer world are the stuff of history. The luminescence and crevices, the glories and betrayals of those events mould the rock bed of idealism for the generations that follow. But do we realise how the hand that rocked the cradle helped us rule our own nation? Until recent times we failed to take note of the demolitions and reinventions witnessed within the inner courtyard. The turmoils our mothers and aunts lived through changed the complexion of society, of their age, of the way people of their times thought. So much has changed since, too. But women like Ashapurna Devi started relating the story of Subarnalatas, we too were indifferent to the significance of such restructuring. It is time to celebrate those brave women who fought with bare needles and midwifed liberation in the dark quarters where maids would lose their jobs for refusing to wear foreign clothes.
Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award.
(This essay will be published in Traditional & Contemporary Kantha, edited by Jasleen Dhamija, made possible by the effort of Siddharth Tagore. It has been shared by the author with permission of the editor and publisher.)
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John Herlihy takes us through more of Myanmar with his companion, Peter, in the third part of his travelogue through this land of mystic pagodas
Our new guide, Lyme, took up the slack where Swan had left off. The boat drifted away from the shore out into the open waters as Peter and I settled in for a two-hour ride downriver, heading south to the next city on our itinerary called Bagan. The guide Lyme struggled to talk to us over the loud noise of the boat’s engine; but eventually gave up when he realised that he was actually losing his voice. There would be time enough to get to know each other over the next few days of travel. So, I settled in to enjoy the afternoon’s leisurely ride downriver, with the countryside of Burma spread out on either side of the river with its exotic landscape of trees and stupas and golden tipped pagodas that specked the countryside as far as the eye could see. One could never hope for a more peaceful setting.
The next morning, having slept contentedly in the Sincere Smile Hotel, a comfortable, unpretentious three-star hotel that was perfectly adequate to our needs, Lyme met us punctually in the hotel lobby after we finished our sumptuous buffet breakfast. “Pagoda hopping for today,” Lyme joked, a handsome young man who spoke fluent English with an air of an impish, street-taking cavalier. Where and how he was able to pick up such fluency, like a New York street urchin, I would never know. “But not to worry, you will be taken through the grounds of a temple at the end of day in a horse-drawn cart. That should loosen up your bones,” he said to me affectionately at me as he took my arm.
First stop along the way was the Shwezigon Pagoda, a prototype of Burmese stupas, that consisted of a gold-leafed circular stupa surrounded by smaller temples and shrines, gleaming the sheer essence of gold in the sunlight. Built amazingly enough at the end of the 11th century, this pagoda has especial religious significance because it is said to enshrine a bone and tooth of Gautama Buddha.
From there, Lyme took us to the Manuha Temple, also built in the late 11th century by the captive Mon King Manuha and one of the oldest temples outside of Bagan. The king had colossal Buddha images built at Myinpagan while he was held in captivity. Stricken with remorse, according to the Glass Palace Chronicle, he built a colossal Buddha with legs crossed, and also a dying Buddha, saying: “Whithersoever I migrate in samsara, may I never be conquered by another.” As I visited these pagodas and temples and heard the stories about these kings from our dutiful guide Lyme, I couldn’t help but marvel at the rich and enduring events that took place in the past and the legacy that these people of ancient times left behind for us twenty-first century travelers. Nearly a millennium into their future, we still wander about to gaze upon the wonders they created.
The short, horse drawn cart ride that we were promised turned out to be an ordeal as we were taken through a pot-marked and rutted pathway through the landscape of these gleaming golden temples. Peter mounted the cart up front with the driver, but the guide Lyme and I were tucked into the narrow confines of the open carriage on the back seat. As the horse, trotted along, I was tossed and turned in every direction, holding on for dear life so as not to slip down out of the back of the carriage. It made for a charming picture, but was a most uncomfortable experience, bone-rattling indeed. We also saw the Myingaba Gu Byaukgyi temple, known for its spectacular mural paintings on the walls and ceilings, a true marvel to behold considering the ancient time when they were created. Another spectacular day ended on a cliff at the end of the carriage ride overlooking the grand Ayeyarwaddy, Myanmar’s largest river that now in the dry season as half the size of itself with elaborate sandbars, but still a magnificent sight as its waters cut through the exotic landscape speckled with gleaming pagodas in the twilight.
The next morning, expectant of another day of adventure, I told Lyme, our faithful guide and newly found brother, that we needed to change money. Peter and I exchanged turns changing money to share, changing $50 first one of us that we would spend for a few days, and then another $50 from the other. An odd situation did arise when it came to the bills. Peter was very proud of his dollars (in Germany where he lives, he usually deals in euros), but when it came to changing the money into Burmese kyat, they wouldn’t accept his bills. “Why not?” Peter shouted in outrage as he clutched his precious dollars.
Peter must have been a formidable sight to these diminutive and demur peoples as he towered over them with his close-cropped hair and colossal bulk. We came to learn that the Burmese wanted (and would exchange) only crisp new bills and held firm on this point as they smiled at us sweetly. Having lived abroad for many years and travelled extensively to such places, I quickly understood that they would not budge on this point and that we would have to scramble to find suitable bills among our stashes. Fortunately, I was able to find a few suitable bills that managed to service our needs for the rest of the trip down to Yangon, the former capital known until recently as Rangoon.
The stately and knowledgeable Swan was now a distant memory as the impish and talkative Lyme saw to our every need. We had grown accustomed to his presence with us as we travelled along, like a newfound brother we didn’t know existed. There is no doubt that travelling brings people closer together than would otherwise be experienced. On that particular morning, Peter and I were sitting in the back seat of the car, while Lyme sat up front as we waited for the driver to take care of some business. Like all people these days, he fiddled a while with his phone, searching, surfing, and more searching, for what I know not. Then he put the phone down. Lyme began chit chatting about himself, telling us a little about his experiences as a guide. Upon questioning, it wasn’t long before he opened up and confessed that he had a travel company that he was managing with a partner. They had gotten involved in some kind of student exchange program, he told us dreamily; they had contracts with some high schools in European countries and Lyme’s company facilitated their entry into Burma where he served as their guide. “It was a thriving business,” he told us, “Until my partner cheated on me and ran away with $10,000. I couldn’t pay the bills and couldn’t cover the costs of the hotels and other things.” How many times have I heard that story from friends of mine and others who were cheated somehow by their ‘friends’.
I sat there in the back seat feeling moody; but continued to listen to Lyme as he told us about his family. He came from a big family, and he was the last in line of many children. All of his siblings were married with children of their own. He was the only single son left to take care of his father when he suddenly came down with a serious illness. “My father was my responsibility, that’s our tradition here in Myanmar, as the only son still left at home.” He went on to explain that his father was getting weaker and weaker. Lyme was out on a tour with some high school kids away from home and while he was gone one of those nights, his father had passed away.
As he told us the story, he began to quietly sob. Peter and I sat there stunned as we sat listening to Lyme’s sad tale. He blamed himself apparently for his father death and said that if he had been with him, and had taken better care of him, he would still be alive. “I can never forgive myself,” he told us from the front seat of the car. He continued to sob now, his story ended, and I made a few sympathetic remarks hoping to console him. “You don’t have to forgive yourself, Lyme,” I told him. “I am sure your father looks down upon you now as the faithful son that you always were.”
About a minute of silence passed that morning in the car as we waited for the driver to return. Lyme shook himself like a bird refreshing his feathers as the driver approached the car. “Let’s go,” he said, as if wishing to snap out of it. “We have a full day ahead of us.” Indeed, I thought to myself. We never know the sorrows that other people carry around with them, nor do we know the courage that they bring to bear in meeting life’s moments with the dignity they deserve. I was moved in the way Lyme shared his story with us and his willingness to show the extent of his emotions as well, as an extension, a gift in fact, of a special trust among strangers.
As it happened, I had my own mountain to climb later that day. We headed further south on our way to Mt Popa, an extinct volcano located in Central Myanmar southeast of Bagan. Down through history, it was known as a pilgrimage site with numerous Nat temples and relic sites atop the mountain. Southwest of Mount Popa lies Taung Kalat or pedestal hill that rises 660 meters into the sky. A monastery lies atop of the mountain pedestal that can be reach only by climbing the nearly 800 steps. “Are you up to the task,” Lyme asked, and Peter answered the question for me, “Of course he is, John is like the Duracell battery,” he quipped. I recalled the over 200 steps I had to climb with Peter to reach the Heidelberg Castle several summers earlier, so the thought of nearly 800 steps or nearly 4 times the climb seemed daunting indeed.
The passageway lead through the base of the cliff where an elaborate marketplace sold their wares to the locals and the tourists alike. Many of the tourists were locals from other parts of Myanmar. The crowds on pilgrimage were vast and the steps making their sinuous way up the mountainside were narrow and deep; but fortunately, there were railings to cling to along the side of the passageway that aided in my ascent. We were an unlikely threesome, Peter, the guide and myself taking up the rear. The ever-present monkeys along the mountainside tried to intrude into our midst looking for food. We had been warned not to let down our guard with these rude, insinuating creatures who like to steal things and make their great escape. Smart phones were their specialty. “Is that red powder or paint smeared upon their asses,” Peter asked naively. “No, Peter,” I chided him. “That is completely natural.” “It can’t be,” he insisted. “Oh, but it is,” I confirmed. Upon reaching the top, where the monastery lay amid the rocky crags, we were treated to yet another fabulous view of the surrounding countryside awash in the clarity of the harsh winter light, clear to the horizon.
After making our way back down to Earth from the heights of the hilltop monastery with its clear view to Bagan, we now had a 7 to 8 hours drive through the countryside heading further south to a city called Kalaw, in the Shan State of Myanmar. When we finally arrived at the hotel after the long trek on the windy roads, we were tucked safely into our hotel, called the Royal Inle Hotel, by our faithful guide Lyme. Goodbyes are never easy, particularly when you know you will never see that person again, and we had come to know and value the kind-hearted Lyme. He will always hold a special place in my heart in the way he extended his friendship and trust by giving the true sentiments of his heart away in the telling of his tale of sorrow and woe. Lyme embraced me warmly, like a son to a grandfather, and then he was gone, another gentle breeze to be lost in the wind.
Meenakshi Malhotra demystifies the autumnal celebration of Durga Puja as a time of homecoming for married daughters through folk songs that are associated with the festival
It is that time of the year again… a time of magic and enchantment when the air comes wafting with the fragrance of shiuli flowers, a species of night-flowering coral jasmine also known as the parijat. Legend has it that this flower is from a heavenly tree that was brought to Earth by Lord Krishna, one of the central gods in the Hindu pantheon. Interestingly, in a somewhat unusual twist, this tree is considered so sacred that its flowers picked up from the ground are also deemed appropriate for worship, to make sacred offerings. This is rare, given that flowers offered for worship are usually to be plucked from the tree and not picked up from the ground.
In Hindu mythology, the parijat tree is the tree of the universe which is owned by Indrani, the consort of Indra or the king of the Gods in Hindu mythology. Apparently Krishna stole it from Indra’s consort, Indrani and planted it in a region located between heaven and earth. The tree, also known as “kalpa-taru” or wishing tree, is one which grants all objects of desire.
From the sacred texts like Bhagawat Purana, the Vishnu Purana and the Mahabharata, we learn that the elaborate process of samudra manthan (churning of the ocean of milk) yielded the parijattree as one of the three valuables. This tree is said to have blossomed atop Mount Meru, the garden of paradise. It was claimed by Indra when it rose to the surface and emitted its fragrance.
This is only one of the many gifts of nature, the exquisitely fragrant flowering tree which sheds blossoms and carpets the Earth around it. Autumn, that season so famously invoked as the time of “mellow fruitfulness”, carries hints of ripening and a mature fecundity. For many sections of Indians, it is the time of the goddess, a time that a lot of us associate with the advent of the goddess Durga, who signifies the triumph of good over evil. In Durga, we have the divine represented both in terms of mythic abstractions and the material everyday, as power and poetry, as divine and human, as mother and daughter. Similarly the goddess Durga’s descent on Earth for the days of the festival, is also the advent of the daughter to the house of the mother, a moment which overflows with affection, feelings and emotions.
The event happens at a certain time in the Hindu calendar and participates in linear time, as well as being a part of time imagined as part of a larger ongoing cycle of temporality. Similarly, it participates in mythic and magical time or eternity as it were. For the daughter, longing to be enfolded in the mother’s arms, who counts the days till she can go back to her natal home, albeit for a few days, this is also a special time indeed.
It is this note of longing, dispossession and exile that is captured in the folk songs in the Bengali or Bangla language, which were documented in the 18th century. These songs are called Aagamoni which translates into advent, here referring to one who arrives. Why this gains a certain poignancy is that girlhood in Indian and many traditional cultures was viewed as a fleeting and fugitive time, haunted by transience. Female children were in the past often regarded as temporary occupants in their natal homes and were characterised as ones who do not belong or belong to someone else, whose real home is with their in-laws.
In the Hindu pantheon, Durga, Uma or Parvati is a prominent mother goddess, the consort of Shiva. Her names refer to split roles of the feminine imaginary. As Durga she is the fiery slayer of demons. But– and this is the central theme here– she is also the gentle daughter Uma. It is in her form of the daughter who is separated from her parents, that the songs of Aagomoni and Bijoya emphasise. Bijoya translates as victory and starts with the return of the Goddess to her spouse, Shiva. Aagomoni and Bijoya are genres of Bengali folk songs celebrating the return of the Goddess Durga/Parvati to the home of her parents on the eve of the autumn festival of Durga Puja. The Aagomani songs describe the return of Parvati to her home in rural Bengal, not as Goddess but as daughter, and are followed by Bijoya songs which describe the sorrow of parting three days later as Parvati returns to her husband Shiva. Aagomoni songs can be interpreted as an expression of collective feelings, experiences and aspirations, another way of rethinking or reimagining the self-inscription of a collectivity.
In one of the best known and common Aagomoni songs, ‘Ogo amar agomoni’ (‘The Advent of Durga’):
The Advent of Durga
I herald the advent of the Goddess
With the lighting of my lamps
During the autumn whirlwinds.
At the end of night, the sun bursts forth.
In the swirling storm,
At the end of the night,
The light in my path is turned off.
The beacon of my life has turned off.
I herald the advent of my Goddess.
The lamp that reveals my path,
Brightens my life by pouring
The nectar of your presence.
I am lost in the blackness of fear.
When you come in your radiant chariot,
Your refulgence will shatter the
Deep darkness in all directions.
Play the aubade of aurora.
It will all be divine.
I herald the advent of my Goddess
With the lighting of my lamps.
I herald the advent of our Goddess.
(Translated by Mitali Chakravarty)
The song is full of the imagery of light and refulgence. My goddess “light of my life’’ could be both a reference to the divine mother, as well as to a daughter, who was very often referred to as ‘Ma’ as a term of affection. While this song maps the emotional link between the mother and the daughter and can be seen in terms of affect, the focus is on her refulgence and divinity. The reference to the goddess in terms of the mother/ daughter trope is much more evident in other songs, which narrates the saga of dispossession — the fair princess who has to live in disorderliness and poverty.
Go Get Gouri
Go, go Giriraj
To fetch your daughter Gauri
Uma is in deep sorrow
Uma has cried for her mother
Living in misery
Bhang consuming Shiv
Ash-smeared and wild
Sold off her finery
All her jewellery
To fund his addiction
Bhola revels in intoxication
He has collected hashish from
The three realms….heaven, hell and earth.
Bhola put the intoxicant, bhang
Made with crushed
Datura seed on my Uma’s face.
Go lord of the mountains go
Go to fetch Gouri
Uma has cried herself hoarse.
(Translated by Mitali Chakravarty)
In another evocative song, the mother cries –“Ebaar Uma ele/Aar pathabo naa ( This time when Uma comes/ I will not send her back)”.
When My Uma Returns…
This time when my Uma comes,
I will not send her back.
If people call me bad, let them.
I will not listen to anyone.
This time when my Uma returns,
I will not send her back,
This time when my Uma comes.
If the conqueror of death comes
To talk of taking Uma back,
If Mritunjaya comes
To talk of taking her back,
We, mother and daughter,
together will quarrel with him.
I will not agree because
he is my son-in -law
This time when my Uma returns,
I will not send her back,
This time when my Uma comes...
The poet says
Can life tolerate such wounds?
Shiva roams the cremation grounds,
And does not think of his own home.
This time when my Uma comes,
I will not send her back.
If people call me bad, let them.
I will not listen to anyone.
This time when my Uma returns,
I will not send her back,
This time when my Uma comes...
(Translated by Mitali Chakravarty)
Here, the mother vows not to send Uma back to her wild and undomesticated husband when she comes visiting. This articulates a resolve uttered by the mother not to jeopardize or endanger her daughter by ‘giving’ her to an undeserving husband. The anxiety, insecurity and fear for the daughter’s safety is clearly evident in these lines. Maternity and maternality is here described as a tortuous and beleaguered state. In all these lines, we see a shift from the narrative account of arming and empowerment of the goddess to a more human and humble register. Begging, cajoling, importuning-the mother’s pain and anxiety for the daughter, married to that strange and alien figure, the untamed and undomesticated God Shiva, is evident in every line.
The narrative of mother and daughter pining for each other, appears to have similarities with the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone. In some, the daughter is imagined as asking her husband for permission to visit her mother: “It has been so many days since I went home and saw my mother face to face ceaselessly… she weeps for me…” (Bhattacharya, in Mc Dermott 2001:132). The men ( both father Giriraj and husband Shiva ) emerge as emotionally unreceptive. (Kaul 2022:9) We hear Menaka bemoaning an emotionally unresponsive husband who won’t fetch the daughter:
“Whom can I tell
the way I feel for Uma?"
Thus the story of the festival of Durga embraces not only the radiant, refulgent and resplendent image of the goddess; behind it lurks the secret sorrows of generations of mothers and daughters caught in the inevitable dance of life as they play out sagas of dispossession. As autumn is the season of liminality poised between summer and on the cusp of winter, the goddess visiting her natal home, is poised between humanity and divinity, both as a daughter in exile and as a slayer of demons. From this paradox, this spectacle that hovers between the majestic and the everyday, a sublime beauty is born.
Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor of English Literature at Hansraj College, University of Delhi, and has been involved in teaching and curriculum development in several universities. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition to numerous published articles on gender, literature and feminist theory.
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Generally, a Westerner shouldn’t try to dabble in writing about Indian great men because it’s that kind of appropriate-ism that caused so much misunderstanding and damage to begin with. The idea the West had all the answers, which clearly it does not. The idea someone whose country used to be a colonialist-force, had the right anymore to discuss countries that were colonized, can smack deeply of appropriate-ism or worse. However, there are also ways we can appreciate what we know and transmit that without being patronizing or culturally insensitive.
I choose to consider Gandhi and his impact on the world, to remain in the middle ground. Neither applauding Gandhi without reservation, nor ignoring his incredible impact and influence on India and beyond. I don’t always do this, in the case of someone like Woody Allen or Charles Bukowski (hardly comparable) I cut them off immediately because despite being talented, their talent simply doesn’t measure against the harm they caused. With someone like Friedrich Nietzsche I would say, he has some brilliant perspectives, but his over-all views were too harmful for me to support him. Revisionist thinking is necessary, but sometimes like anything else, it can go too far and condemn significant people based on modern thinking that doesn’t take into account the mores of the time.
One of the hardest things in the world is when your heroes appear to fall. But in this case, there is so much positive about Gandhi I believe (and this is a personal belief), that his goodness encourages us to retain his relevance and enduring impact.
Firstly, Satyagraha – belief in using truth to resist evils with non-violence. Not the same as simply ‘truth’ or ‘verité’ as I would say in French. But more the ideal of believing in truth rather than being deceived or unable to believe. This is not just valuing truth, but believing in truth and thus, through that belief, knowing what is true (and reasonably, what is not).
I find this very interesting because whilst we all ‘think’ we know truth, obviously most of us do not. When does opinion and truth come together? Really holding an opinion has nothing to do with truth but with multiple versions of truth, how do we ever know which one is right? This is a discussion I have had many times in my life with friends of differing views. For a time, I wanted to be a Christian because I needed to believe in something and so many whom I knew were Christian would try to persuade me that was the ‘right’ (true) path. I was not convinced, despite my own attempts to be and it did not strike me as ‘truthful’ or ‘the truth.’ But the question is if people ‘doubt’ another’s truth then where does that end up?
I think of what Gandhi might have said; that truth is beyond conjecture, difference and trying to be ‘right’ the truth is there all along, it is immutable, transformative and fluid at the same time. And by truth he is not speaking purely of a particular faith, or a particular creed, but a universal truth. That is pretty esoteric for Westerners, I think overall Western thinking is prescribed, it feels comfortable having absolutes to follow and only demurs when it’s considered socially ‘trendy’ to disagree. While there may appear to be diverse thinking in the West, I would say it’s no more diverse than closed societies like China, the propaganda is just less obvious. After all, it’s not a societal dictate that has people unquestioning, it’s the mandate of the individual which links with the concept of Swaraj – self-rule which ultimately led to home rule, the idea that led to an independent India.
If I think of his ideals today, how many of us believe in truth by considering how this lies within us and then without us. Isn’t it more common for us to be spoon fed a ‘truism’ from our respective societies, and even if we question that truth, we do so with groupthink, subscribing to a ‘truth’ without considering what believing in truth means in relation to ultimate truth? Thus, without individual self-policing (or by proxy, the questioning of something outside ourselves) and perhaps by being so busy, we take the easy road because to question everything can be an exhausting enterprise, and as Marx would say, we’re distracted by how busy we are in the machine of work. Leading to at times, mass delusion, or mass indifference, but definitely not an understanding or questioning of how to cultivate a belief in truth.
In fact, how important is truth to us? We bandy around the words, paying lip service to the idea, but without going further to consider the idea at a more personal and then social level. Truly believing in truth would be almost like letting go of everything and beginning over (as one could say Gandhi did) and as you rebuild, doing so with belief in truth in a pure sense of the word. I believe in truth and therefore reject attempts of subterfuge in favour of increasing my belief in the existence of truth. In many ways this is like believing in God without it becoming all about the details (scripture, deity, icons etc). It seems to have a lot in common with the pure heart of Buddhism too,
This leads to another principal of Gandhi’s — simplicity. Simplicity of an idea clears the clutter to reach at the truth. That simple. Practice simplicity and you will see more clearly. How many of us truly practice simplicity? I may try, but I fail, as most of us do, with this increasingly complicated pull and push of modern society, where I might rail against absurdities because I’ve been sucked into thinking they matter. Maybe some of us don’t have the luxury of opting out and going back to basics, maybe our lives are too interwoven with an unnecessarily complicated society that ‘demands’ we brush our hair, shine our shoes, iron our clothes, wipe our faces and face the world a certain way.
The perennial question has always been: is this the only way to live? And as we lose more and more of our simplicity, we may no longer care about other options, in favour of following the status quo. Furthermore, we may believe a complicated life with stress and demands, is the only way we can live, the only way things can work. I would think Gandhi could see, by giving things up, you gain more than by taking on more, and whilst his message may seem inapplicable to many, we can all learn something by doing less, wanting less, needing less.
After all, we cannot take what we accumulate with us, so the ideals of physical wealth seem less important than spiritual health. Many of us may brag about the car we drive, the house or neighborhood we live in, where our kids go to school or university, what they do for a living and so it goes on. Even in India, this is true, as the upper and middle classes seek to emulate what they have seen dominate the rest of the world and define themselves by those status markers that mean so much (and conversely, may mean so little). It is easy to get caught up in it.
I was never an acolyte of the materialistic world, but like most people, I had my insecurities and wanted to jump through few hoops that I felt defined you as a success in society. When I became sick, it really showed me in a shocking way, how little those things mattered. I recall one day in hospital, my hair matted from throwing up, I just reached for my ponytail and cut half of it off. I had always been vain of my hair as it was thick and long and yet, it felt absurd to hold onto something for vanities sake when I was so sick and bereft of any normalcy. Likewise, when I went out into the common area of the hospital, I saw people sicker than me, and as we talked, I saw they were friendly irrespective of my not wearing make-up, or shoes (!) and in a gown with a green face. They saw ‘me’ and it felt like being a child again, liked for being ‘me’ instead of the ‘me’ I had become used to showing the world which was a counterfeit version. This principle then applies also to the notion of truth, and self-policing. Without an inflexible doctrine like religions, Gandhi’s philosophy was free to consider the whole rather than the individual steps toward being whole.
9/11 has just passed here in America my adopted country, and at its 20-year anniversary there has been much made of our withdrawal from Afghanistan, the country America invaded after 9/11 for sheltering the terrorists who were involved in the murder of so many people. Whether you are a Democrat, or Republican, many Americans believed someone had to pay for the atrocities committed on American soil. I recall at the time understanding both perspectives: the felt need for revenge or justice, and also, the need to lean towards understanding the how and the why of the incident to prevent it from recurring again.
When America withdrew from its longest and unsuccessful war against the Taliban, only to find the Taliban and Isis took over Afghanistan as if America had never been there, it did strike many as being a truly futile war (and we can argue, all wars are futile to some degree). How blatant was the takeover of a country America had wrongly thought was tamed from its former ‘enemies’. Over time, it had just felt a lot like other wars (Vietnam etc.) where so much death, destruction and expense wrought no change, certainly not as Americans had visualised. Furthermore, did the taxpayer really want to leave behind US$ 2.26 trillion of their hard-earned money to equip Afghanistan? Yet that is exactly what happened along with the providing a free access to the very latest technology in the abandoned US embassy.
Why doesn’t America learn this lesson? That going to war doesn’t really change the ideology of an invaded country, that small bandit terror cells continue to thrive and even increase, because the promotion of American ideals isn’t always universal or accepted, and promoting them whilst invading a country, breeds as much resentment as it does thankfulness. By this I am not suggesting everything America did was negative, they truly tried to help the Afghani people, but at what cost? And did it work? I would say it did not. That’s perhaps because it is not the role of any one nation to police another or dictate to another.
But what do you do if you are a military person, and your country is attacked? It’s hard to imagine sitting there and debating how to have a non-violent discussion with the enemy. Yet that is exactly what Gandhi is most famous for. Satyagraha may seem a very outdated term, or it may appeal as a modern notion, either way it’s so laden with symbolism we hardly understand its core anymore. On the one hand, there is the Old-Testament idea of ‘an eye for an eye’ and then as Gandhi followed ‘An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind’.
Personally, I find truth in both, maybe truth can have a duality or not be as black and white as we often want it to be, but either way, non-violence is erasing the option for any kind of vengeance or payback, not an easy thing to accomplish when your enemy is being deeply unfair, as was the case with Gandhi watching the treatment of Indians in South Africa and then again with the colonial invading forces of the British in India. Gandhi founded the Natal Indian Congress in 1894, where he campaigned for the rights of indentured labourers in South Africa and protested against the system of requiring passes for Indians. Gandhi went on to organise the local Indian community, of all income brackets, into a passive resistance against this inequality. With these early eye-openers, Gandhi began his first experiences of community building into protest, utilizing peaceful means, against entrenched inequality and racism.
But every situation is different and 9/11 did not happen out of the blue, it came about as a result of decades of fighting between Christian and Muslim extremists on both sides. It also came about because the West wanted the Muslim world to accept some things, they found unacceptable. When asked why he caused the 9/11 attacks, Osama Bin Laden said because Saudi Arabia, his homeland, was in bed with America in going after Saddam Husain and others in Iraq. Why did he find this so offensive? In part because he didn’t like American military in his country, especially women soldiers. His brand of extremist Islam did not believe women equal to men and found that an abomination.
What is ironic about this extremist thinking, which can be found in all faiths, is how hypocritical those who believe it seem to be. All the terrorists who came to America to attack on 9/11 visited brothels and took full advantage of the Western ‘evils’ they preached against. They would argue that they had no respect for those people because they were ‘evil’ – in essence justifying their behavior based on a greater sin. But who are we to dictate who is more ‘sinful’ than another, and surely, if we believe in truth, we don’t break it when tempted by the very thing we condemn? Going back to Gandhi’s ideal of belief in truth, one who does, would not be hypocritical.
Yet so many humans are. Some people who condemn homosexuals have secretly practiced homosexuality. People who condemn women might be profiting from their exploitation. Those kinds of hypocrites negate the truth of their original argument. If we simplify the argument, we have no legs to stand on. Oppression of others goes against all religions but is practiced by all religions. I think Gandhi saw this palpably and was trying to redirect us to see how absurd this was. And what greater way than to practice non-violence against a violent oppressor? It literally was an act of faith, and incorporated belief in truth, and political self-policing. Is this not the ultimate reality? ‘Ahimsa’ isn’t just ‘non-violence’ because no one principle exists in isolation from ‘other’ in this case, love. Without love there is no mercy, there is no wish for non-violence. It is the connection between the intension and the outcome that produces Gandhi’s ‘Ahimsa’ (non-violence).
If all life is one, then all violence perpetrated against self or other is experienced as a whole, the welfare of human beings at the core. The very opposite of the competitive consumerism of Capitalism, which America is known for. And with this, Gandhi predicted the future, a practical need to eat less meat, (vegetarianism) or to respect life (by not consuming animals or exposing animals to suffering) relating back to the idea all living things are connected. I recall as a child being deeply impressed with this concept and it was one reason I myself became a vegetarian at a very young age. To many in the West, vegetarianism is considered the purview of the privileged, and I now understand that, because if you live a very simple life, it’s often very hard to be vegetarian and consume enough calories. To an extent, being vegetarian is abstinence. Many people with eating disorders become vegetarian or vegan as a form of orthorexia. Many middle-class kids have the ‘fad’ of vegetarianism. But the core behind Gandhi’s form vegetarianism or veganism is more in line with Hindu/Buddhist perspectives of respecting living things and causing no suffering.
The hardest principle of Gandhism I have encountered is faith. For some, this is the easiest as they already possess faith, as Gandhi did. He said: “I must confess that the observance of the law of continence is impossible without a living faith in God, which is living Truth. It is the fashion nowadays to dismiss God altogether and insist on the possibility of reaching the highest kind of life without the necessity of a living faith in a living God. I must confess my inability to drive the truth of the law home to those who have no faith in and no need for a Power infinitely higher than themselves. My own experience has led me to the knowledge that fullest life is impossible without an immovable belief in a living law in obedience to which the whole universe moves.”But unlike the shaming faith separating gender and men and women, Gandhi didn’t impose those divisions: “It is not woman whose touch defiles man, but he is often himself too impure to touch her ……” As a woman who disliked the inferior status given women in most mainstream religions, I found Gandhi’s perspective on this, refreshing and egalitarian. I cannot speak on faith as I do not possess it adequately, but I can see its place in Gandhi’s principles and understand it didn’t come to him all at once, but through the experience in part of the other values he lived with. They built into on one another and are interconnected.
Gandhi’s belief included celibacy. “Brahmacharya … means control in thought, word and action, of all the senses at all times and in all places.” The conclusion in some ways to the fulfilment of all the other principles. Those who find ways to condemn Gandhi, point to the potential for scandal by Gandhi’s relationship with Sarla Devi Chaudharani, daughter of Rabindranath Tagore’s elder sister owing to materials where Gandhi called Sarla Devi his ‘spiritual wife’. Yet in Gandhi’s letters to his friends, Gandhi explained that he called Sarla Devi his ‘spiritual wife’ because theirs’ was a ‘wedding based on knowledge.’ Why this matters, is Brahmacharya is related to celibacy and people often question whether any man is capable of celibacy or whether it was just the outward appearance of.
Personally, I’m not sure it’s as important as others feel it is, to discern whether Gandhi remained celibate, because I do not place importance on celibacy, but I understand if you are literally reading Gandhi, you would hope he did what he said he did. I wonder why this matters so much and why sex with a woman (or man) would be such an issue for those who love Gandhi (or for that matter Jesus, because many thought, he had a wife and this idea alone, scandalized others). Perhaps when it doesn’t matter if a spiritual leader has sex or not, we’ll really be free of all shame attached to sexual relations. Although for Gandhi it was more about control over impulses that could sway him from his path. Gandhi wrote in a letter on the subject; “I have reached a definition of a spiritual marriage. It is the partnership between two people of the opposite sex where the physical is wholly absent. It is therefore possible between brother and sister, father and daughter. It is possible only between two brahmacharis in thought, word and deed.”
I understand for him, perhaps passion was an inflammation of sense and morality, and this would distract him. Gandhi was thought to have developed his perspectives on carnal passions by concluding a person cannot selflessly serve humanity without accepting poverty and chastity. This seems an enduring theme among many holy men and I’m not one to dispute it, although I think it’s different for a woman. When Gandhi said: “physical union for the sake of carnal satisfaction is reversion to animality,” he may have set himself up to be perceived as unrealistically idealist and unrealistically puritanical.
On the other hand, like anything, we have to take the influences of the time-period into account; what Gandhi was responding to, what he witnessed, what he saw occur, how those played into his striving for inner-strength. I see it like trying to translate what a great painter meant by their painting, hundreds of years later. Ultimately, we do, but that painter if alive today, may say; ‘oh no you got it all wrong.’ So, when people point to the strange things Gandhi did in his Brahmacharya experiments, they could be very right, or it could be one piece of a much larger puzzle. We are all twisted by our life experiences, but we expect Gandhi to be free of this, even as he said he wasn’t. Perhaps the shame of not being with his father during his last moments as he went to his bedroom to have sex with his wife, was among some of the reasons he embraced Brahmacharya, Gandhi was after-all, human.
Trying to understand the motives of someone born in another era involves taking into account their worldview as influenced by that era. Gandhi was from a middle-class family, and we know those born into higher classes are often received differently to those from other classes. This isn’t right, but it’s the way the world has operated and blaming the person born into that family is blaming the wrong person. It is the system that perpetuates this, just as now, most ‘notable’ people come from some degree of privilege than obscurity (with significant exceptions). Gandhi was a product of that privilege but that’s not quite the same as being privileged in thought. Likewise, it’s easy to say, he got married at 13 and had 4 kids, so it was relatively easy to become celibate, but without experiencing that personally, that’s an assumption based on reaction, not fact.
I can understand the unease of revisiting historically important figures, the desire to applaud them but also the need to criticize their failings. I think if Gandhi were alive today, he would say ‘have at it’ and be open to criticism, although possibly he would find today’s world untenable, for who really knows how a historical figure would greet the future? We become the future by evolving. Only 20 years ago, the idea of gay-marriage would be abhorrent to most, so much transforms with acceptance and shifting of ideas. Some of that actually comes from thinkers like Gandhi who perhaps paved the way in some form, for the future, even if that future is quick to criticize him. But just as we must respect our grandparents view things differently from us, often through no fault or hate on their part but their upbringing, we cannot always realistically expect people, however smart, to transform on par with our own insights; that’s just not realistic or how we work as humans.
Either way, whether you are successful in incorporating the principles of Gandhi-ism in your life, or not, value lies in taking a leaf out of some of his philosophies. I don’t agree with everything I have read of Gandhi’s beliefs, but he was the first one to say, we contradict ourselves, as we grow, and nothing we do is set in stone. He was continually questioning and evolving, and that to me seems far more realistic than to be a static deity demanding fealty without question.
I remember buying my Goddaughter the kids book; The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe and worrying that her generation may not find it as bewitching as mine did. Some things don’t age well. Others endure. But on average, there are always parts that last the test of time. Instead of being precious about Gandhi, we should be open to questioning his perspectives without rancor, because he would have wanted us to. At the same time, dismissing him because he held some views that at the time were considered normal but are now unfashionable, is to dismiss the value he brought to the table when we discuss faith and philosophy. If we demand perfection, we’ll not find anyone to be inspired by, at the same time it is not wrong to want to redefine norms as we evolve as a society, just the way Gandhi hoped we would.
Candice Louisa Daquin is 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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John Herlihy takes us through more of Myanmar with his companion, Peter, in the second part of his travelogue through this land of mystic Buddhas
My friend Peter had slept poorly, the reason being that he had spent much of the night visiting the inner sanctum of the toilet. Alas, the revenge of the spices from last night’s adventure was finally exacting its heavy toll. While I remained free of any stomach trouble, poor Peter had fallen victim to the age-old trials and tribulations of those with no experience with the culinary delights of Asia. We had gone to “the best restaurant in town” according to our Google advisory and indeed, it had turned out to meet our expectations when compared to the mosquito-infested nightmare that Peter had experienced the night before; the swarms of mosquitoes hadn’t condescended to touch, much less bite me. For the cost of about $6 or 9,000 kyat (a tidy sum if you live on the local economy), we were wined and dined with an array of fabulous foods.
The restaurant actually employed a system that I quite liked, namely, that the diner ordered a main course, and an array of side dishes was brought to table, including soups, breads and spicy sauces. I ordered lamb casserole in a creamy, curried dahl (lentils) stew baked in a pewter pot that was utterly delicious and Peter followed my lead in figuring out the best selection from local menus letting me order for both of us. The waiter brought on a dazzling array of sides dishes and a delectable soup that we both wolfed down in various gulps, being hungry after the long day’s trek and the far distance of the hotel breakfast. We tasted everything from curried chickpeas to braised eggplant seasoned with garlic, tomatoes and pine nuts. We need more, I thought to myself as Peter and I fought for the meager remains, but there was no need. The waiter quickly refurbished the little bowls with ample tidbits to last a lifetime, much less the evening meal. Peter, of course, had ordered an extra bowl of rice, two bowls in fact, in addition to the one he had. I had warned Peter about the little sauces served up in small dishes that were intended to be added drop by precious drop to the food to enhance the flavor with a hint of hot chilli. But Peter, in his traditional style, put heaping teaspoons into his food as if he would never taste these things again and needed to remember their flavour. I noted he begrudgingly scooped up the last remaining kernels, the fieriest part of the hot pepper, on his plate at the end of the meal. Indeed, now he was recalling their exotic flavours in unexpected ways.
The next day on our busy tour, we were scheduled to visit the Mahagandayon Monastery, but first we made a quick stop at the local market to find a remedy for the gentle giant’s diarrhea and dehydration problem. “Sticky rice,” Swun immediately said when I mentioned the problem to him. These local remedies can be quite effective; I knew from my own past experience on other trips. I had recommended doses of fresh lemon juice that had worked for me; but Peter wasn’t having it. When Swun suggested the sticky rice by saying, “I know just the place where we can get it,” I thought, yes, the perfect solution. Peter trudged along behind at a reduced pace through the hectic market until we found Swan’s contact standing before a large vat of sticky rice, nearly empty at that hour of the morning. The woman dolloped out several heaping spoonfuls of the steaming mass of rice in a plastic bag sealed with an elastic band. Not exactly pharmaceutical splendour, but it promised to do the job. Swun’s smile concurred as I laughed myself content. We returned to the car and insisted that Peter swallow the heaping brew which he gulped down quickly making grimacing faces that would scare the hand-carved gargoyles we saw earlier in some of the temples.
Our first stop was the Mahagandayon Monastery where more than a thousand monks live and study. A large group of tourists had gathered under the morning sun to see hundreds of monks return from their morning trek through the village with their begging bowls seeking food for the main meal of the day. Security police and a few senior monks, curiously chubby looking, created order of the disarray of Chinese tourists of every size, shape and colour behind police barriers, clear of the roadway where the returning monks would be walking. A hush and then a rumble of whispers announced that the monks were approaching down the street from the distance of the nearby village, walking briskly in a single file, holding their begging bowls, now filled or filling up fast with the charity offered to them. People from the sidelines approached with fruits, packages of biscuits, and the like, and even money, a thousand khat here and there which actually represents less than a dollar, but in local terms meant something; and given the size of the crowd could add up to a reasonable hoard. I took note of the soft, youthful faces of the young monks, their heads shaved clear and wearing the traditional orange wrap-around robes that we have become familiar with in Thailand. Some of the monks were very young indeed, children, eyeing the onlookers impishly and seemingly ready for flight. My friend Peter had a clear advantage as his giant stature afforded him the luxury of towering over everyone in sight to have an unimpeded view of the procession of the monks into the monastic enclosure. The monks soon disappeared into the surrounding buildings where they would have their one and only late morning meal of the day.
A short, pleasant drive down lush tree-lined streets soon brought Swan, Peter and I to our next destination, the more than 100-year-old U Bein teak bridge, built in 1850, the oldest and longest teak-wood bridge in the world. The 1.2 km bridge spans the Taungthamam Lake near the ancient royal capital not far from Mandalay to an island nearby that could service the local villagers who wanted to get to the mainland across the broad lake to sell their crops. It features 1,086 pillars that stretch out of the water. Though the bridge largely remains intact, there are fears that an increasing number of pillars are becoming dangerously decayed. Damage to these supports have been caused by flooding as well as a fish breeding program introduced into the lake which has caused the water to become stagnant.
Of course, the old kilometer long bridge represented a challenge to Peter who was anxious to “make tracks” across the waters in his traditional swaggering style, leaving nothing behind in the wake of his hurried footsteps but a gentle wind. I also valiantly followed in his footsteps; but soon lost him as he made his way ahead into the thickening crowd. The local Burmese, many of them villagers and many of them in groups of families who were tourists, were making their way across the bridge as they have done for hundreds of years. I was prepared to put up a brave front and make my way across without complaint under the cool winter sun, but as I tripped my way forward across the creaking wooden planks, I became increasingly more uncomfortable. A kind of phobia took hold, as one might experience in confined spaces or riding shaky elevators. The truth was the bridge looked none too stable. The wooden planks were aged, chipped and broken throughout; gaping holes yawned where planks had broken through.
I took note of the fact that the bridge itself was fairly narrow, wide enough for three or four people, but there were no guard rails, just a gaping chasm on either side and a sizeable drop several hundred meters down to the murky waters below. I made my way forward nearly to the halfway point, where I saw Peter up ahead towering over the crowds of people, waiting for me under a make-shift wooden structure with the traditional pointed roof that marked the halfway point. Other elderly people had the same idea as I had; time to rest and take stock. “You go on ahead and make it to the other side,” I told Peter. “You can tell me about it when you come back. I’ll wait for you here.” And my valiant companion was off without further coaxing.
I tucked myself into a shady corner of the narrow bridge, which at that point was extended a little to accommodate the wooden structure marked there as a resting point in the river crossing. It was time to rest, to be alone for a few minutes, to gather myself into my own space and reconstruct the blessings of solitude as the crowds of people made their determined way back and forth across the age-old bridge. It was a cool mid-morning with a gentle breeze under the warming light of the winter sun. At my feet sat a local Burmese woman, with her jet-black hair collected into a wooden hair clip and adorned with a cluster of wildflowers. Her pudgy face held an eternal smile that matched the smile she held in her eyes. At her feet were the goods she was selling to the tourists and other local travelers crossing the bridge, as women have probably done for the last several centuries since the bridge was built. She had a good business for all that, seasoned sticky rice, spicy noodles, and a variety of fruits, all sold for pennies and packed into a little plastic sack and tied with an elastic band for safe keeping. I wished I could understand her chatter; but contended myself with the bird sounds that the Burmese language sounded to me as I listened.
A little boy, probably about one-and-a-half years old, sat at her sandaled feet. He sucked contentedly on a tangerine rind and half dozed with heavy eyelids as if he sat on the fringes of heaven and not on the fold of the wrap-around longyi (the Malays call it sarong famed for its batik cloth) of his young mother. I watched the child as he sat in dreamy splendour without a care in the world as if woken up by the breeze, or perhaps the chatter of the passers-by sounding like river stones. He now looked around as if interested in everything. It wasn’t long before his infant gaze fell upon me, an old man on a journey, lost in his own trance. Children are like cats; one doesn’t like to intrude on their space without alarming them; but leave them to their own devices and they will make their own way. I sat there contentedly; it was enough to rest my weary bones and take in the colour of the local life. I do love children, especially infants, and can sit and watch them for hours, their antics, their inventiveness, their curiosity, their sweet, angelic innocence remind me of another time and another place. I also wonder from where they have come and where they might be going.
When suddenly, the infant’s random glances fell upon me as I sat on the bridge resting. I pretended not to notice, not wishing to interrupt the rhythm or the intensity of his gaze. Indeed, children can come to us uninvited, as if they have known or are wanting to know. They do not bring with them all the excess baggage that we carry around as adults, who seldom look into the eyes of another, and if or when we do, we feel uncomfortable. The child looked at me with intense interest, as if he were remembering something and was still lost in thought. I smiled at him, and he immediately smiled back. I scowled backed him and he immediately scowled back. We seemed to be on the same wavelength. Some inner harmony had struck its chord. The years dissolved and the miles between disappeared as he threw the tangerine rind aside and began to crawl on all fours. His mother was distracted by a sale and was stuffing mango cubes and their sweet juice into a plastic container, selling the pulp for pennies to the taste.
The determined little fellow made his way over as I sat on a low stool. When he reached my legs, he extended his arms as if reaching for the open sky. No doubt, I looked to him like a grand patriarch with my thick mustache and bone-white beard. He soon found his way onto my lap, where he again sat content as if lost in reverie to the surrounding lake and countryside just as I was lost in sweet reverie, so unfamiliar to me, so familiar to him. “Found a friend, did you,” my companion Peter asked with a broad smile. “Children sometimes like me,” I mumbled embarrassed. The mood was broken, the happy child returned to his mother with a longing, backward glance and this is my backward glance to him in the only way a writer knows how, in the love and beauty of words written down on the page in sweet remembrance that will never die.
We met our guide Swan after breakfast the next morning. Oh yes, a word (or two) should be written about our delightful buffet breakfasts that both Peter and I had come to look forward to. We had established a routine of a solid breakfast, followed by a full day of activity and touring the countryside, but no lunch or snacks of any kind, until evening time, when we took pains to find a nice place for dinner. By now, Peter was well over his stomach trouble, the sticky rice acting effectively as a sealant that put him to rights. We knew he was feeling much better at breakfast the next day. We would rise early, to get the jump on the waves of Chinese tourists that seemed to appear, especially in the breakfast room to lay waste the buffet table like hungry locusts.
I usually went to the egg station as soon as possible to get my order in. “Two eggs,” I whispered timidly, “Over easy,” I said, showing with an upside-down wave of the hand what I wanted, and then sliced down dramatically, “and cut the yoke.” The last thing I wanted were runny, undercooked eggs. The eggs were made in buttered splendor – they actually tasted like real eggs – and not the tasteless fare that we usually get in most modern metropolises. I skipped over with my plate of eggs to another table to pick up my freshly made toasted brown bread awash in melted cheese and butter.
“That should take care of me for the day,” I thought happily, when suddenly I heard a booming voice from the egg station. “Six eggs, please,” Peter cried, holding up a handful of fingers, plus one, to make sure the cook knew how many he meant. He returned to our table with a stack of untoasted bread to wash down the eggs in great gulps. Not to be outdone, I tiptoed back to the cooking station and asked for a crepe. I had seen the cook making a feather-light and thin pancake served up with Burmese honey and fresh cream that was cooked to perfection; but Peter had the final word with his stack of six pancakes dripping in honey and assorted jellies.
After breakfast, we met up with our beloved guide Swan again in the hotel lobby. “Not another pagoda,” I cried out in mock dismay, but Swan was now attuned to my humour and took up the slack by affirming that indeed we would be visiting another remarkable pagoda surrounded by 845 small stupas as though in deferent tribute to the richly decorated central pagoda. Work began on the pagoda in 1939 at the start of the Second World War and was finally completed in the March of 1952. There are many buddha statues row upon row in niches along the walls, all coloured gold, a truly sublime sight filled with religious nostalgia. The entrance is protected, not by the traditional mythical lions, but by the statues of the magnificent white elephants that are sacred and auspicious in Buddhist symbolism. Thereafter, we took a short walk through the nearby banyan tree grove Boddhitataung, where a thousand Buddha images lie at rest among the sprouting banyan trees. Ah, walking through the aged banyan trees is like walking through an ancient grove associated with the mythic gods of Greece. One half expects a centaur or unicorn to come trolling through the corridors of trees in this mystical setting. The banyan trees is considered sacred in places like India and Burma and is well known for the mercy of its abundant shade. In fact, in India, the leaf of the banyan is said to be the resting place of the Lord Krishna.
But even the shade of the banyan tree faded into darkness, and it was time for us to move on, even if we did feel most welcome in the the banyan tree’s embrace. We were scheduled to go down to the river and bid goodbye to our guide Swan, as we would be making our way by riverboat down to a town further south called Bagan. We were to meet the new guide on the boat who would escort us there. It was a little sad to bid goodbye to Swan. He was such a charming little fellow, a student who would complete his university studies soon. He worked on the side as a guide and had done this for the last few years. It doesn’t take long under these circumstances to get to know and like the guide, so it was with a heavy heart that both Peter and I bid him farewell.
However, Swan was to help me through one last challenge. After bidding me goodbye, he helped me down the side of the dusty hill to a steep embankment at the edge of which lay the river boat that would take us south to Bagan. When I saw the wooden plank that I had to walk across to get onto the boat, I stopped dead in my tracks. I can’t do this, I immediately said to myself. At my age, I now know what I can and cannot do, and crossing that narrow, wooden plank sagging perilously in the middle and crossing a no-man’s-land muddy cliffs and water about 50 meters seemed an impossible task.
Swan took me by the hand and coaxed me on, not wishing perhaps to have his charge stranded along the way without any option of moving forward. Peter, of course, was already up ahead on the plank himself with his usual bravado, but he also almost slipped and was standing on one leg before balancing himself once again, preventing himself from falling unceremoniously down in the muddy waters below. I took a deep breath and mounted the plank. Mercifully, two people stood nearby, a woman on the riverbank’s edge and her husband perhaps on the boat itself holding a lengthy bamboo pole that I was able to hold onto as a kind of makeshift handrail as I perilously crossed the narrow wooden plank like an infant learning how to walk in his new toddler shoes. Once on the boat and tucked into the lounge chair, I breathed a sigh of relief that I hadn’t made a fool of myself.
In his book Every Man His Own Detective (1887) former Police Inspector R. Reid describes a case that was a cause célèbre in its time and is largely responsible for the formation of the Detective Department of the Calcutta Police. At 3 o’clock in the morning of 1st April, 1868, an Indian constable patrolling his beat in Amherst Street saw by the light of his bull’s eye lamp “something resembling a heap of female wearing apparel lying on the west side of the main street.” On closer observation, he found it to be the corpse of an Indian woman, recently murdered. A gas lamp was burning across the road opposite the spot where the body was found. The constable had passed the spot just an hour earlier finding the space clear and during his patrol through the adjoining lanes and by-lanes had not heard any voices or any sounds of carriages. The Inspector of the local thanna (police station) arrived at the scene just as the clock of the Trinity Church on Amherst Street was striking 4 a.m. Reid’s description is gripping for the almost tangible sense of atmosphere and topography it evokes.
The body was duly examined by the Police Surgeon and lay unidentified at the dead-house of the Medical College Hospital for four days before being buried, but it had been photographed by M/s Saché and Westfield on 2nd April. Copies of the photograph were circulated throughout Kolkata and the suburbs and a reward of 100 rupees was announced “by beat of tom-tom” for any relevant information. This proved to be the first case in India where photography was successfully used by the police for the identification of a victim. Dr. Norman Chevers, Principal of the Calcutta Medical College, includes the photograph of the cadaver in his learned volume A Manual for Medical Jurisprudence in India (1870). He notes that the body was identified based on “the presence of a small pointed supernumerary tooth, between the middle incisors of the upper jaw.”
The deceased was revealed to be one Rose Brown, an Indian Christian woman. Further investigation led to the arrest of her paramours, named Kingsley and Madhub Chunder Dutt. Reid relates in detail Madhub’s statement, describing his stroll with the victim on the fateful night along gas-lit streets of central Calcutta, from Baithakkhana Lane through Bow Bazar Street, Wellington Street, College Street, Colootollah Street, Chitpore Road, Lall Bazar and back to Bow Bazar. Madhub reported that they had been surprised by Kingsley during their promenade and he ran away for his dear life. Hidden in an alley, he watched Kingsley and Rose walk slowly towards Amherst Street.
After this tremendous build-up, Reid brings his story to an abrupt halt. He tantalizingly decides to “leave the solution of the problem, which of these two men, Kingsley or Madhub, murdered Rose Brown? [sic] to the intelligent police officer.” As if this was not frustrating enough, one learns from Dr. Chevers’s book that “the accused escaped”. Chevers discusses in detail the report of Dr. Colles, who had conducted the autopsy, and supports the court’s decision that Rose Brown was not murdered but committed suicide. As for Reid’s account of the case in his book, he not only omits the official verdict on the case but also withholds his own judgment. His agenda is to provide a do-it-yourself lesson in detection and not to serve a whodunit on a platter.
Reid’s account appears like an unfinished Victorian mystery, falling just a bit shy of supplying the requisite number of clues. Reid advises his pupils that the procedure to be followed for cracking the Rose Brown case is that of the previous case described in the book and analyzed by himself clause by clause for their benefit. The previous case is incidentally that of Leah Judah of 5 Pollock Street, wife of a Jewish opium merchant, who was murdered by her paramour Nasseem Shallome Gubboy and his accomplice Ezekiel Shurbanee in the wee hours of 30 September 1868.
The Detective Department of the Calcutta Police came into existence on 28 November 1868, in the same year as the Rose Brown and Pollock Street murder cases. It was the first time that a permanent and designated elite contingent of specialised investigators was formed in India, a decade before an equivalent body, the Criminal Investigation Department, was set up at the heart of the empire in Scotland Yard. Reid rose to the position of the Superintendent of the Detective Department and was also appointed as the Prince of Wales’s personal bodyguard during his sojourn in Calcutta in 1875-76. Reid published Every Man His Own Detective eight years after he had resigned from the post of the Superintendent of the Detective Department of the Calcutta Police. His other publications including Romance of Indian Crime (1885), Revelation of an Indian Detective (1885), Reminiscences of an Indian Detective (1886) attest to his continuing sense of vocation.
Reid in this book deals with various types of swindling and theft, apart from murder. A common motif set by Reid’s accounts is that criminals exploit Calcutta’s status as the hub of administrative and commercial networks and the detective chases them beyond the city’s limits to bring them back to the colonial capital for their trial and punishment. For example, Reid narrates the case of a Dunbar who swindled several leading firms of Calcutta and absconded, constantly changing his location and adopting new identities as he went on cheating more people. At one point he impersonates one Mr. Reid of the Calcutta Detective Police, and causes Reid to be briefly detained as Dunbar himself. Reid follows his scent to Allahabad, Muzaffarnagar, Roorkee, Jabalpur and Shapore, before arresting him in Bhopal.
In another case, Reid and his team sail in a luxurious boat to Chandernagore, then a French colony about 45 kilometres north of Calcutta, in order to capture an absconding swindler. The criminal is lured aboard with dance and music, and the arrest is made just as the pleasure boat is drifting away from the French soil. Reid also reports an ingenious case of salt smuggling on the Hooghly River and an illegal sale of postage stamps carried out by a Jewish merchant in Howrah just off the city limits.
A notable feature of Reid’s accounts is their cross-cultural or multi-ethnic ambit. The peculiarity of his vocation provided the detective a unique vantage of Calcutta, cutting across ethnic and class boundaries. Reid, for example, interacts with a wide range of people from Indian servants and gentlemen to the movers and shakers of the colonial administration.
Reid sets great store by “physiognomy,” the then-fashionable art of judging characters from facial expressions, although it has long been discredited as a pseudo-science. He devotes an entire section of his book to physiognomy and smugly observes that almost every face in “the opium dens and gambling hells of Calcutta” shows a “grotesquely hideous mixture of imbecility with low cunning, greed, and cruelty”. He hastens to add with what seems to be the literary equivalent of a knowing chuckle, “If a man is wanted for the murder of a child for the sake of a silver ornament worth, perhaps, only a few annas, you find him here.”
Reid has hardly any qualms about the ingrained racism of his outlook. While discussing the Pollock Street murder, he observes, “The phlegmatic Englishman may seek satisfaction in the Divorce Court, and the susceptible Frenchman secure it at the point of his rapier, but the Hebrew will be satisfied with nothing less than the life” of the disloyal woman. Besides, Reid is irritated by the deceptive stupidity of Indian domestics and does not think much of Indian policemen either. He uses the term “native” for the Indians throughout. Nevertheless, he is quick to honour merit when he sees it. Once, a lost child of two and a half years was placed at the police station and was seen arranging a handful of grams like the breaking and distribution of type in a printing press. An Indian constable came to the decision that the child’s father was a compositor, which was subsequently found to be true. Reid recommended the constable to be attached to the detective department, and felt thoroughly insulted when his suggestion was brushed aside by the higher authorities.
Reid’s narratives refuse to grant the upper hand to crime. If they accept crime to be integral to life in the bustling, chaotic second city of the empire, they also project the detection of crime to be an equally remarkable part of the less-than-perfect urban experience. A Bengali translation of the book, Engrej Detectiver Chokhe Prachin Kolkata (Old Calcutta in the Eyes of an English Detective, 1966) by the journalist and belle-lettrist Parimal Goswami did not find much favour in its time and its reissue in the new millennium has gone equally unnoticed. Reid’s wise saws, avuncular attitude and readymade formulae for investigation may appear quite off-putting, but Every Man His Own Detective has a fair share of thrill and old world charm to make for a memorable read.
Abhishek Sarkar teaches at the Department of English, Jadavpur University. His research interests are the literatures and cultures of early modern England and colonial Bengal.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
Have you ever heard that happiness is much like a drug? This can be seen as a positive (euphoria) or a negative (addiction to) and like with most things, there are differing ways to consider the concept of happiness, which I will examine here, ultimately concluding, the value lies in reframing the concept of happiness, rather than abandoning it or over-emphasizing it.
The myth of happiness is simple. Our society pressures us to be happy all the time. Anything less is failure. Obviously if someone we love dies, we are ‘allowed’ a period of mourning and then we’re supposed to move on. We pay lip service to mental health and familial dysfunction and abuse and rape and other factors that can cause/worsen depression, but we mostly minimize them. The approach is — get on with it, be strong, anything less is weak.
This only builds up inside of us, a feeling of shame, and failure, even before we’re out of our teen years. Like a felt fulfilling prophecy, we lunge toward extremes as a way of coping when we cannot cope, and often this is why vulnerable at-risk teens get into risky behavior that leaves indelible scars. Again, many do not receive counseling or help, but are stigmatized as ‘bad kids’ and most of what has caused this behavior is ignored.
The dysfunction if it goes on, can wreck futures. Kids can grow up to be filled with shame and self-loathing, the health consequences are obvious, but the mental health consequences usually considered a ‘choice’ instead of being seen as the result of years of shaming and judging. What do we do with these then adults who cannot function in our society? We blame them for not being happy!
For the first five years of my life, I grew up with two parents. One happy. One deeply unhappy. My father had a brain injury from a road accident as a child that gave him a degree of brain damage that caused many life-long troubles. My mother grew up with trauma in her life but decided to be a positive person who would not let anything stop her and truly she lived up to that. As an only child I watched them closely and was deeply influenced by them. Perhaps because they were so busy with work I over compensated and had more vested interest in them than is normal.
I tried to take my cue from my mother. To be excellent at everything I did, to be unfailingly happy and sociable and forward thinking. I was afraid of inheriting depression. I thought childishly I was doing relatively well but looking back I can see how being an only child without siblings or extended family and at the age of six, living with a single parent (my father) I spent too much time alone and had too much time to go inside myself. Whilst I was outwardly happy, I think those years of isolation were internalized and not healthy. Also seeing my father’s depression whilst I was the perennial ‘fixer’ was hard.
In my teen years I developed depression, which is typically when it hits, if it’s going to. I began to have catastrophizing thinking and felt lost. This is when therapy would have been helpful, but nobody knew I was experiencing this, not even myself. You can hide things you are deeply ashamed of for years and people don’t know. Instead, I chose non prescribed means of coping, which weren’t of course, the best choices, but were instinctively a way to cope with what I wasn’t yet sharing with anyone. Only my closest friends knew I struggled, and many of them struggled too, in secret.
I was fortunate that the level of depression I had allowed me to continue functioning. This gave me the financial stability and confidence to keep trying to find ways to improve my life. In some ways, being less mentally ill than say, someone with Schizophrenia or Bipolar, I was able to function with depression and continue to keep it secret. Eventually though everything catches up with you and intermittently I struggled severely with it. I had no one to turn to, because I had kept it secret, but I explored therapy and found it did help me. More than medication, which only works on around 35 percent of people and doesn’t consider the causes of depression just how to change your brain chemicals. Along the way I saw a few of my friends commit suicide and end up as drug addicts or worse, because of undiagnosed or untreated mental illness. I became after that, an advocate for mental illness.
My mother believed not being happy was a weakness of character, a choice. My father opted out of life to a large extent and shut down and retreated. The levels of dysfunction in my small family were staggering and yet, after years of practicing as a psychotherapist I cannot say my story is unusual in any way, but really quite typical. Not only that, but we must also separate the idea that those who are not happy are always mentally ill. Sometimes they’re just unable to easily be happy. Equally, of my two parents, my father was the most compassionate and loving, because happiness does not guarantee someone will be kind and loving just as not being happy doesn’t mean someone is uncaring. Often those who suffer the most are the kindest. From this, I learned the value of compassion and to this day believe those who are kind, benefit this world more than the most popular happy person can.
I’m no success story, I have been held back by whatever it is that doesn’t work in my brain. I try to cope by helping others, as that gives my life a meaning I would not otherwise find. But happiness? Frequent happiness has been very elusive. I cannot say I have been happy very much in my life. At times I feel a massive ingrate because comparatively speaking I am fortunate. I may have had a bad childhood, and have no family to turn to, but I live in a Western country, I have a home, I can earn a wage, I can eat and clothe myself, I feel that I have a lot to be thankful for.
This may shock some, who subsist in relatively regular happy states, but studies show it’s not as uncommon as we think. Maybe admitting it just too hard. After all, who wants to admit they are not happy or that they do not live in a happy state? Most of us want to be happy and most of us do not want the vulnerability of admitting we are not. But maybe, just maybe, we put too much pressure on those of us who are not able to be easily happy, instead of shaming us for our inability to appreciate life and be as happy as is prescribed, we should revisit the notion of happiness.
For some happiness is simple. They find happiness in their gardens, their children’s faces, looking after their ageing parents, eating their favorite meals. But for others, happiness just isn’t a daily or even weekly occurrence. Is this a linguistic misinterpretation, a cultural one? Or just differences in people? I think the answer is multi-facetted, we’re all different, so our reason(s) vary.
Take Jane* a former client of mine. She is unhappy most of the time. Her parents died of dementia a decade ago. She lost her brother in her teens. Her grandparents are dead. She feels her life is empty of people, she tries to make friends but with her experiences, making deep friendships in adulthood is no easy task. Jane doesn’t have children because her husband divorced her and went off with another woman. Jane has a great job, she earns a lot of money, she works long hours, she has a great house and three dogs. But Jane is by her own account, rarely happy. She often questions ‘what’s the point?’ and chides herself for putting all her meaning into work and status, when she has no friends or family and feels very lonely and unfulfilled.
Take Luis* another former client, who lost his young wife to breast cancer, and cannot bear to re-marry. He felt she was ‘the one’ and doesn’t want to tarnish that faith in ‘one love’ by being with anyone else. He is only in his early 40s. He has a large family but does not feel he can relate to them. He describes them as ‘family focused and positive’ whilst he feels depressed most of the time. He was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder and has been on medication and in counseling for five years. He says he doesn’t feel he will be happy again.
These two examples illustrate why some people do not experience regular happiness. The shame felt by such persons, is obvious in all clients I work with who struggle with unfulfillment. They feel guilty, ashamed, embarrassed, ungrateful. Most of all they feel they are the only people in the world who feel this way. Being in group therapy can be useful for this, as it shows individuals that they are not alone, that their suffering is not unique, which can take the focus off them and help them see many people experience this.
But our society here in America doesn’t really help with that. Our society shames and belittles those who don’t feel happy ‘enough’ and there is definitely a happiness cult, which might be a great idea, where it not for the statistics that show America is one of the least happy countries on earth. So, we have the dichotomy of a happiness cult, and drive to be happy, set against the outcomes, which speak for themselves, American’s are over worked, under paid, underappreciated (at work) in debt, without savings, without access to (affordable) reliable health care, and generally less happy than they are ‘told’ to be.
Despite this, or because of this, American’s perpetuate the myth that happiness will ‘cure everything’ and anything less than happiness is failure. It’s clear why things aren’t working but not so clear what can be done about it. Coming from Europe originally, I didn’t feel as much pressure in Europe to be ‘happy all the time’. In fact, you could say, the Europeans, on the whole, have a more realistic idea of life. They strive for happiness but do not expect it all the time. They don’t reject people who are unable to be happy as readily. In fact, if you watch European TV, it’s almost ‘a thing’ (the grumpy detective, the dysfunctional police officer, the maudlin mother, the mad scientist genres etc.).
This is changing, as social media homogenises the world, Europe has within a very short time, embraced so many of the American ideals that it’s hardly recognisable from when I lived there. Now England has ‘Prom’ which was exclusively an American ideal, and you see far more women getting plastic surgery than ever before. There are of course, good things about cross pollination, but it can be argued that changing a culture loses more than it gains. When we emulate someone who is different to us, and invariably don’t succeed because we are different, instead of accepting that difference, we can feel inferior or worthless, without understanding difference is normal and we’re not all going to respond the same way to the same thing. Hence the Prom Queen and the Emo.
In this case the cult of happiness has swept the world. For some, it works, being positive, focusing only on the good, ignoring any negativity etc. For others, it’s a way of being stifled, obviated, alienated. After all, mental illness isn’t going to go away. Neither are the other reasons for not feeling happy. For some, tragedy and abuse can inspire and cultivate a positive attitude despite everything, and they are considered ‘the winners’ whilst for others, those same things cause a loss of happiness that doesn’t come back easily. Are they really less than those who find ways seemingly easier? Or just different?
For those like myself who find happiness relatively illusive, therapists may have explanations, but not answers. Those with very difficult childhoods, often with abuse, can struggle to find happiness as adults. They often try harder than you can believe, but onlookers wouldn’t know it, and only comment on their apparent failure to be (happy). Psychiatrists believe an extreme lack of happiness, (known as Anhedonia, from the Greek, ‘Without Pleasure’) is actually quite complicated. It can be the result of a deficiency of brain chemicals or misfiring in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, which can sometimes be corrected, but often not) it can be inherited (a trait, a learned behavior or just DNA) or it can be learned through epigenetic experiences. It’s not always persistent depressive disorder (or Dysthymia) but can often be a trait within an individual that doesn’t meet a mental health diagnosis. After all, why pathologize everything? In addition, Psychiatrists think some people are just unable to find joy in life, even if they try twice as hard as ‘normal’ people, or as some suggest, stop trying and try to embrace it. Even the labeling of ‘abnormal’ versus ‘normal’ has a shaming effect.
We don’t have exact figures on how many people don’t experience joy or happiness, and of course, like with anyone who has a chronic illness, there will be days of apparent normalcy or feelings of happiness, whether real or faked, giving the impression to others, that there are no such things as a lack of happiness. The degree to which you feel a lack of happiness is one measure of whether you fit a mental health criterion or not. This can be useful in knowing whether treatment is necessary. The average person does experience happiness and doesn’t have to endure a total absence of happiness, but they may still feel a pressure to be happy more than is realistic. After all, happiness is a modern term, it’s something you could almost say was privileged, if you consider how life was in the past, where happiness was less common, tragedy more common and survival and endurance, the norm.
Perhaps, herein we find the real answer. Let us sometimes strive less for total happiness and more for peace of mind, or contentment or being ‘okay’ and not feel that we have to be on cloud nine to be all right. Being all right is quieter than happiness, it’s less dramatic, and maybe by striving to be happy 24/7 the pressure we put on ourselves, causes us to feel it less, and feel more that we miss our target. By changing our target to being all right, we have a better chance of being content, which may not sound very sexy, but it’s a heck of an improvement on feeling you failed to be happy.
This is what I have learnt in my time on this planet thus far. I realise that I am capable of happiness but not usually if I seek it. I seek instead, contentment, peace, and to be all right. Being all right is actually very understated! As you get older and you have health concerns, and losses in your life, you realise that being all right is sometimes really hard because of all the pressures and unexpected things that can occur, and when you are all right it’s such a sense of relief!
For me, I have grown to accept my limitations, that’s not very American of me I know, because it sounds defeatist. However, it’s been anything but that. I am more realistic, less aspirant, which wasn’t working for me, and less focused on proving myself as being true to myself. Maybe I won’t win a prize for this relatively non-competitive approach to life, but I may find peace of mind and for me that’s invaluable. This is why I think happiness is more a myth than a daily occurrence and for some of us, the attainment of ‘all right’ status, is what gives us the energy to keep going, even when the going gets tough. And for what it’s worth I do feel happy, sometimes, and when I do it’s all the more a miracle, because it’s not the norm and this to me, seems a good balance.
In other words, happiness can be found, when we stop prescribing what it is, and allow ourselves to feel it in less obvious, socially constructed ways, by putting pressure on ourselves to be a certain way that’s inauthentic to us. Your happiness may not be like your neighbors or even seem like happiness, but maybe in its illusiveness, there is a whole new idea of what happiness actually means and how to locate it within our lived experience. Let’s shrug the label and the social pressure to conform to a narrow ideal and embrace authenticity and diversity of experience, whilst retaining what really matters most, compassion for others and ourselves.
(*names and pertinent details changed to protect anonymity and abide by the confidential client/patient agreement).
Candice Louisa Daquin is 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
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.
Anasuya Bhar explores the history of the National Anthem of India, composed by Tagore in Bengali and translated only by the poet himself and by Aruna Chakravarti. Both the translations are featured here.
The national anthem and the national song of India are both parts of a post-colonial narrative and did not originate prior to the British colonisation of the country, which happened effectively, from the middle of the eighteenth century. India has been broadly classified as a civilisation and a cultural phenomenon, rather than a race or a territorial presence prior to the British colonisation.
India has remained an idea ever since the ancient times, perhaps even prior to the advent of the Classical Graeco-Roman civilisation of the west. The historicisation of India’s past has been a much debatable issue, with European historians representing India from their perspective. Much damage was done, for instance, by James Mill’s The History of British India (1817), which rubbished the country as thoroughly debased and wanting the civilisational touch of the European west. The reality of India, or more correctly Bharat, inhered in the local and regional historical specificities, its literature, culture, myths and legends. The historical perspective of our inhabitants was that of the Puranic history whose chronology, order and narrativity depended on a time scale different from the idea of time in the western rationale for chronology. In other words, the European west’s rationale consequent of the enlightenment, and the enlightened concept of history, was a later addition to the Indian consciousness.
The concept of a distinct nation, and as an individual entity in the consciousness of a socio-political presence in the history of the world, was also, a comparatively belated concept in our country. In fact, it was not earlier than the Mughals that the country was conceptualised as a unified entity from the North to the South, from the East to the West. The Indian sub-continent is strategically guarded by the geographical presence of the Himalayan range, the Indian ocean, the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. Hence, the territorial boundaries which become crucial in determining the political borders of the European or the American west are not of much consequence over here. The borders that are present in the former continents are a result of political aggression and imperialism. The borders that ensued in the Indian subcontinent and eventually created Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Burma, Bangladesh and also Sri Lanka, are, however, a result of the European and, particularly, British intervention.
The consciousness of India’s nationalism was, as mentioned in the beginning, a later one and quite clearly a colonial aftermath. Among the first to mention the lack of an indigenous history was Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay (1838 – 94), the celebrated novelist and intellectual of nineteenth century Bengal, who himself attempted to write, through his various essays, a historical consciousness for his country. The writer of our national song ‘Bande Mataram’ (in Anandamath, 1882), Bankimchandra was also the first to think of a ‘jatiyo’ or a nationalist consciousness, and attempted to take a fresh look at the puranic history based on myths and legends. He rewrote the narrative of Krishna, and also looked afresh at the fundamentals of the Hindu religion.
The nationalist consciousness was given a fresh lease through the several attempts for promoting indigenous products and enterprises by the Tagores of Jorasanko in Kolkata. The Hindu Mela (Hindu fair), begun since the mid-1860s by Dwijendranath Tagore (1840 – 1926) was among the first to strike concepts of an indigenous nationhood, by giving impetus through homespun fabrics, cultivation of rural handicrafts and traditional food items like pickles or ‘bori’, such that a space could be created independent of the parameters used by the colonial masters. Rabindranath (1861 – 1941) also refers to several attempts of his elder brother Jyotirindranath (1849 – 1925), in creating the matchstick factory or even striking a competition in the ship trade with their English counterparts in the waters of Bengal in his autobiographical Jibansmriti (My Reminiscences, 1911). He also mentions the latter’s attempt at designing a national dress for the country, trying to fuse various drapes of traditional clothing. This is again very interesting because, a distinctive sartorial appearance would help in identifying the Indian from the European, even externally. The sari as we wear it now, was first conceptualised by Jnanadanandini Devi (1850 – 1941) of the Tagore household. She gave the Indian women a dignified attire by fusing the styles of Parsis and Gujaratis, and also by improvising on the styles of the European gown to give us the blouse-jacket. The unification of various styles automatically veered towards a oneness in the same territorial boundaries and the nationalistic consciousness came first through cultural means.
The Tagores of Bengal were also among the first, after Rammohan Roy (1772 – 1833), to venture beyond their homes. Dwarakanath (1794 -1846), grandfather of Rabindranath, not only stayed in England for a substantial period of time, but also endeared himself to Queen Victoria as the ‘Prince’. Debendranath (1817 – 1905), his son, was in the habit of touring the Himalayas extensively, and even took his youngest son Rabi along with him. Satyendranath (1842 – 1923), another of his sons, was the first Indian to qualify in the Indian Civil Service; he too, extensively toured several parts of India and abroad. Rabindranath was a frequent traveller from a very early age. The women of the Tagore household, beginning with Jnanadanandini Devi also moved out of their antarmahal (inner quarters) and into the other parts of their country and even the world. Indira, Mrinalini, Sarala, Pratima along with Jnanada were frequent travellers both within and outside the country. Hence, the country and the ideology of India as a nation were familiar concepts to the members of this remarkable family from Bengal. Of course, there were other influential households in nineteenth century Bengal, but none so extensively influential.
The formation of the Indian National Congress (INC) in 1885, marked the culmination of several isolated and scattered attempts at nurturing a nationalist consciousness. I have, however, given a few instances from Bengal. I am sure similar attempts were made in other states as well. Even in the formation of the INC, we see the pivotal role played by Janakinath Ghosal (1840 – 1913), husband of the well-known litterateur Swarnakumari Devi (1855 – 1932), elder sister of Rabindranath. According to the memoirs of his elder daughter Hiranmayee, Janakinath was a key presence at the time of the formation of the Congress. Later, Sarala (1872 – 1945), their younger daughter, not only became a part of the Congress, but was also among the foremost figures in Bengal to enthuse young men into the national struggle through cultivation of physical fitness programs. Sarala also worked closely with Swami Vivekananda and Sister Nivedita in some of their philanthropic programs.
Jana Gana Mana, now venerated as our National Anthem, was most possibly first composed as a hymn, by Rabindranath Tagore. This hymn was first recited on the second day of the annual session of the Indian National Congress on 27th December 1911, by none other than Rabindranath himself. This was followed by a second performance of it in January 1912, in the annual event of the ‘Adi Brahmo Samaj’ or the Brahmo Congregation, and then it was published, for the first time in the January edition of the Tattwabodhini Patrika, which was the official journal of the ‘Adi Brahmo Samaj’, with the title ‘Bharata Bhagya Bidhata’ or ‘the determinant of Bharat’s destiny’. The journal was, at that time, edited by Rabindranath himself. The original song, composed in Bengali, has five stanzas. The Anthem makes use of only the first of the five and usually covers an average time of 52 seconds when sung. The original language has been retained, although its intonation is Devanagiri.
The song is a hymn to the all-pervasive, almighty, and the maker of the country’s destiny, the power of whom presides over her natural boundaries of the Himalayas and other mountains and the rivers, and where resides individuals of all races, cultures and religions. It has been the benefactor, through thick and thin, assimilating the good with the bad, and when the country has been lying destitute in trouble and pain, has extended its hand in empathetic wonder. The sun of Bharat’s destiny will rise again and the pall of darkness shall be drowned in the light of a new dawn – a new beginning and a new hope. Rabindranath did not live to see this dawn, but his visions were realised and honoured by the makers of the Constitution of the Republic of India.
The hymn that originated in the poet’s fiftieth year, perhaps had its germs planted in him through his entire life as the beginning of this essay tries to elaborate. It was only time and the political needs of the country that expedited its utterance in the year 1911. The poet’s vision found embodiment in other and similar creations as well. His Gitanjali (1912) contains the well-known poem, ‘Where the mind is without fear’ (XXXV) –
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action —
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father let my country awake.
The year in which he composed and first presented Jana Gana Mana, that is 1911, was in many ways a very crucial year in his personal history. As mentioned earlier it was his fiftieth birth-year, and he was gradually beginning to be acknowledged for his poetic greatness in his own land. The following year, that is 1912, he would go to England, with some of his own translations into English, and which would, introduce him to the world as a major poet, among other poets. 1911, was also the year which marked the coronation of King George V and the transfer of the British capital from Calcutta to Delhi. In fact, Rabindranath’s hymn was initially mistaken to be sung in honour of the new Emperor of the British dominions, but was later clarified to be otherwise, and was acknowledged to be a ‘prayer’ for his own native land and independent of such intentions.
The period that we are considering is also a very significant one in Rabindranath’s own consciousness of the nation and his concept of nationalism. In 1910, he published his novel Gora where he underlined the irony inherent in religious exclusivity and bigotry. His protagonist, a staunch votary of Hindu values and virtues, ironically emerges to be an Irish foundling reared in a Hindu home. Through him Rabindranath proves the efficacy of such conservative religious bigotry. His song ‘Bharata Bhagya Bidhata’ pledges to go beyond external divisions of religion and politics, and endorses the value of humanity; nor does it discount the importance of the west, but believes in the fruitful coming together of the best of all worlds. His school at Santiniketan, later to be identified as Visva-Bharati, exemplifies this coming together of the best of all the worlds. In 1919, he delivered a series of lectures on nationalism, which came together in a single volume called Nationalism, and further endorsed his beliefs in finding the nation through culture, history and habits rather than through and in territorial, narrow parochial walls. In Ghare Baire (The Home and the World, 1916), published around the same time, he offers us a critique of the Swadeshi Movement that dominated colonial politics in the first decade of the twentieth century in Bengal. He subtly interweaves a tale of the ‘personal’ with the ‘political’ in the triangular narrative structure of Bimala, Nikhil and Sandip, only to expose the petty hypocrisies that inhere within the grand narratives of ‘nationalism’, ‘patriotism’ and even ‘swadeshi’ at the cost of the common good and humanity at large.
Jana Gana Mana was sung by Sarala Devi Chaudhuri, Rabindranath’s niece and daughter of Janakinath, in 1912, and who had distinguished herself as one of the earliest women nationalists of the country. The song was, then, performed in front of veteran Congress leaders. Outside Bengal, the song was perhaps performed for the first time by Rabindranath in the annual session of Besant Theosophical College in Madanapalle, Andhra Pradesh, on 28th February 1919. The Vice-Principal of the college, Margaret Cousins, was so enthralled by the song that she asked the poet to translate it for her. This Tagore did, and the translation is called ‘The Morning Song of India’. A facsimile image of the same is shown here.
‘Jana Gana Mana’ has been translated into English by noted writer, academic and translator, Aruna Chakravarti. She is perhaps the only person to accomplish this beside the poet himself. The following is the translation made by her, along with the English transliteration of the Bengali original (Songs of Tagore, Niyogi Books):
Leader of the masses.
Lord of the minds of men.
Arbiter of India’s destiny.
Hail to you! All hail!
Your name resounds through her sea and land
waking countless sleeping souls
from Punjab, Sindh, Gurarat, Maratha
to Dravid, Utkal, Banga.
Her mighty mountains—Himachal, Vindhya,
her rivers—Yamuna, Ganga,
the blue green sea with which she is girdled;
her waves, her peaks, her rippling air
seek your blessing, carry your echoes.
Oh boundless good! Oh merciful!
Hail to you! All hail!
At the sound of your call the people assemble
from myriad streams of life.
Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jain.
Christian, Parsee and Sikh.
East and West stand by your throne
hands held in amity,
weaving a wreath of fraternal love;
of empathy, unity.
Oh you who bring us all together!
Hail to you! All hail!
Nations rise and nations fall
on the perilous path of history.
And you Eternal Charioteer
guide the world’s destiny.
Through day, through night, your wheels are heard
renting the air with sound,
dispelling terror, banishing pain;
blowing the conch of peace.
Oh true arbiter of India’s fate!
Hail to you! All hail!
In the deep dark of a turbulent night,
when our swooning, suffering land
lifted her eyes to your face in hope,
she saw your unwavering gaze
raining blessings, alight with love,
banishing evil dreams.
Like a loving mother you held out your arms
and changed her destiny.
Oh you who wipe out the pain of the masses!
Hail to you! All hail!
A new day dawns; a new sun rises
from the mountains of the east.
Song birds trill; new sap of life
is borne on the holy breeze.
India awakes from aeons of slumber
to the strains of your lofty song.
Head bowed to your feet oh King of kings!
Hail to you! All hail!
(Republished with permission from Songs of Tagore, Niyogi Books)
Outside of the country, the song was also performed as the ‘national anthem’ of independent India, under the leadership of Subhas Chandra Bose on the occasion of the founding meeting of the German Indian Society on the 11th of September 1942, in Hamburg, Germany. The Indian Constituent Assembly allowed the performance of Jana Gana Mana on the midnight of 14th August 1947, marking the close of the historical session in the Parliament. It was on the 24th of January, 1950 that only the first stanza of the song was accepted as the National Anthem of independent India. The paeans of a land millennia old, perhaps heading the dawn of all human civilisation alone, is sung through glory to the world over, till date, bearing the torch of an all tolerant, enduring land, by the name of Bharat. Perhaps we still need to be in quest of its philosophy of oneness.
Dr. Anasuya Bhar is Associate Professor of English and Dean of Postgraduate Studies, at St. Paul’s Cathedral Mission College Kolkata, India. She has many publications, both academic and creative, to her credit.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
John Herlihy explores the magnificent sites of Mandalay in company of a Slovenian friend in the first episode of his quartet on his Myanmar
Exotic journeys to far distant climes begin to take shape in the realm of the imagination. We roam verdant savannas, cut our way through savage jungles, climb into eagle’s nests on mountain crags, cross parched Mongolian deserts, and ply on ancient vessels across vast oceans, all in search of new sights and sounds, new pathways into the unknown, new visions into the future, anything that will take us far from our humdrum lives. Ah, how the imagination works overtime and takes us there, takes us where we want to go, offers up an experience we would not have savoured otherwise. The imagination opens doors for travelers to pack their bags and see other worlds not of their making, worlds that become a reality with the first step taken along the road of a fresh journey into the realm of the unknown.
A recent trip to Myanmar, formerly the much beloved and written about country of Burma of the 19th century, ended up fulfilling my wayward dreams of an adventure and experience that would take me out of myself and into another time and place. Indeed, the title of this adventure says it all, once upon a time in Burma, a country that once entered, will not leave us alone and will wrap the traveler up in its loving embrace. With all geo-political interests and concerns put aside for a moment, it is the people, the culture, the craftsmanship, the ancient land that we wish to know and experience, the lapping of lazy rivers, the sky-mirrored brilliance of expansive lakes, the shadowy curves of rugged mountains, the lush and verdant plains and paddy fields that fill the soul of the traveler to such exotic lands with the peace and serenity of its ancient way of life. Regimes, corruption, injustice, indeed political leaders come and go; it is the land that endures and the spirit of a people that will never die.
Whose heart will not be stirred by the name of Mandalay, immortalized by the British poet, Rudyard Kipling, whose poem, “Mandalay” still echoes resoundingly down through the corridors of time with its lush verses of charm and enchantment. It is this memory that leads me bravely onward as I plan my well-earned winter holiday in a brief respite from my duties as a writing professor at a new university on the outskirts of Kuwait, a city of sky-scraping towers wishing to be iconic and smoky oil fields wishing to be productive. I am now, in the world of Rudyard Kipling, “on the road to Mandalay // where the flyin’-fishes play // an’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘cross the bay.”
I never tire of flying into a new country that is totally unknown to me and yet soon to be less of a mystery, soon to be known. As I gaze down upon the scene below my comfortable perch on the plane, I see that we are entering a land seemingly lost to time. The blackened highlands turn to rugged mountains with nary a tree to see. The mountains themselves seem to cradle the surrounding land like a mother cradles her child, and a sense of balance and harmony prevails as I gaze upon this landscape of primordial nature, as if lifted from some remote paradise from another planet, captured out of time for the 21st century traveler such as myself to see. Already my expectant heart begins to stir as I eagerly await our arrival.
I am once again travelling with my Slovenian friend, Peter, and a better traveling companion one could never hope for. They say that if you want to really get to know people, you have only to take a trip with them to find out what they are really like. No truer words were ever spoken. My smart, brave, thoughtful, selfless friend would never let me down, brought his own unique approach to travelling with him, took delight in planning and doing background research about a place, and was able to monitor the number of steps (my three to his two giant strides) on our daily trails with his fashionable Garnett geo-watch (when it worked!).
We entered the subdued arrivals hall in Mandalay only to realise a half-hour time difference from Bangkok where we had met up from our different locations the night before.
“That can’t be right,” Peter knowingly quipped. “But it is,” I quickly responded, knowing how he liked to impose his will on things.
“Goa, on the west coast of the Indian Subcontinent is an hour and a half ahead of Dubai.” I added as supporting evidence of what I said.
We had easily arranged e-visas done online beforehand and quickly passed through customs control without a hitch. “Let’s change money,” I suggested. “But you get a better rate in town,” Peter countered. “We won’t get into town without local money,” I murmured, knowing he couldn’t counter-argue that. Indeed, at roughly 1,500 kyat to the dollar, after changing a mere $100, we walked away with 150,000 kyat. Hmm, that should get us into town, I thought to myself.
I won’t belabour the point, but the exchange rate of the currency turned out to be an interesting element in our economic calculations. When you are dealing in the thousands of any currency, it can be confusing. We all know what a dollar or euro values at, but what about 150,000 kyat and how much would it buy locally. Seems like a lot, yet it is only ten dollars in value, about the price of a sandwich and a zero coke on the streets of Manhattan. Now through immigration and customs and with local money in hand, the ever-intrepid researcher, Peter, marched over to the information booth to inform himself about getting into the town center where we had booked our hotel. While there were traditional taxis available for about 15,000 kyat (roughly $10), we learned that we could take a local bus outside the airport terminal that would take us directly to our hotel for about 3,000 kyat for the two of us (roughly a dollar each!). That won’t break the bank, I chirped to Peter. He agreed with a toothy grin and off we went on our great adventure.
The ride into town was uneventful, but long, leisurely and fascinating. I was beginning to experience the sense of laid-back calm and serenity that would follow me throughout my days of travel through this exotic, ancient land. In the distance, through the myriad lush and wind-blown trees that lined the side of the make-shift highway into town, a rough patch of roadway if there ever was one, we could glimpse the golden spires of pagodas upon hilltops extended clear to the horizon, a vision that would become the iconic characteristic to mark the bucolic setting of this rural landscape with its timely sense of spirituality.
“The trees,” I kept remarking to my friend Peter, “look at the variety and lushness of the grand, old trees. Have you ever seen the like of them?” Over an hour later in a place where time really had no meaning but that it could be filled with miracle and wonder, we were deposited at our more than adequate three-star hotel where we were greeted with timid smiles, folded hands and a humble bow.
Once unpacked and his geo-watch turned on, Peter exulted, “Let’s explore the town, the old palace isn’t far off.” I have traveled before with Peter and have come to realise that “not far off” doesn’t mean the same to him as it does to most other people. Nevertheless, I was game and still do my own 8-km run three times a week to keep fit and, in the running, as it were. Once outside, Peter tends to walk ahead in great strides, and I follow three steps to his two; but I didn’t mind. He faced the brunt of the chaotic traffic that came up, down and toward him in every which way, including the ever-present motorbikes that never follow the rules and seem to have license to come and go as they please. “Remember Peter,” I shouted to him over the din of dust and horns, “they drive British-style here, on the other side of the road, so take care where you look to cross.” Yet Peter strode confidently onward, like a giant amid pygmies, ready to brush aside any vehicle or motorbike that may dare to come his way. Indeed, the traffic seemed to have a rhythm of its own, despite the noise, and flowed like a river around his colossal bulk.
Well forward at the end of the main street of the town, again lined amid the grand cacophony of shops and workshops with multiple trees blocking the pathway along the side of the road and forcing us time and again out onto the perilous danger of the streets, we beheld the inner sanctum of a walled palace surrounded by an extensive, medieval moat. Up close, when we finally arrived at the historic premises, we gazed across the extensive mote nearly a half kilometer in width at the heightened red brick wall, periodically adorned with brick latticework and towers featuring ferocious fang-filled mouths of animals out of which lotuses hung out like tongues. On the Google map, the palace walls that now house the military Myanmar government formed a perfect square. From where we stood, we could hardly see to the end of the first line of wall that we stood before. Undaunted, Peter started to walk the outside of the moat for about a kilometer until we found a little embellished wooden 19th century bridge that led across the extensive moat up to the face of the outer wall of the former palace that now up close towered over us, even over Peter.
The Mandalay Palace itself was constructed between the years 1857 and 1859 and housed the last Burmese monarchy, in honor of King Mindon’s founding of the new royal capital city of Mandalay. The palace itself was the center of the citadel and faced East. Built of teak wood in the traditional Burmese design, it rested inside a walled fort surrounded by a moat. The complex ceased to be a royal residence and seat of government in 1885 when, during the third Anglo-Burmese War, the British entered the palace and captured the royal family. To this day, the Mandalay Palace stands as the primary symbol of the once enchanted city of Mandalay, in another time and in another place now gone by.
As we perilously neared the gate to the military enclosure, a guard slumped on a metal chair in the shade of an awning looked up at Peter towering over him as he pointed his finger in the opposite direction and shook his fist to make his point. “Oh hello, my little friend,” Peter said ingratiatingly in a sugar-sweet ironic tone that the poor fellow would never pick up, even if Peter thought he might. I cringed and headed in the direction where the soldier was pointing, so as not to offend. The guy was smiling and trying to be friendly. “But I want to go there,” Peter asserted glancing in the opposite direction, as if looking at a tidbit. “We need to go this way,” I shouted back to Peter over my shoulder, “Where the restaurants were indicated on the map.” That did the trick and at the thought of food, Peter was soon striding far in front of me, like a giant panda intent on his destination, his money (and mobile) belt tightly secured around his waist. No one was going to come near that!
Peter finally found a young, presentable fellow who looked like he knew something, especially English, to ask about a restaurant. “Yes, yes,” the fellow obliged. It turned out he was actually from India but had lived in Myanmar many years. “Restaurant very good,” he affirmed. “I will be going there later with my family.”
Indeed, I thought. What a strange coincidence. Peter soon tracked the restaurant down on the map on his mobile (I still don’t have one, I am waiting for the hand-held technology to give way to something more sophisticated), a small place open to the street with tables spilling invitingly out onto the sidewalk. This promised to be our first meal in Mandalay and Peter was not taking any changes on eating unhealthy and/or getting sick with stomach trouble.
“We will eat here,” he announced although I wasn’t especially impressed and it was a little early, just around sunset, to be eating to my taste. When one travels alone, one may feel lonely, but if travelling with a companion, one has to make compromises. I did the menu test and with a quick scrutiny found little that inspired me. Also, the stools at the tables had no backs. Not exactly the leisurely environment I was anticipating for evening dinner, our one main meal of the day when travelling.
I grumbled and mumbled to no avail. Peter had already ensconced himself on the tiny stool with a big grin on his face, looking forward to eating. He expected me to extract the best of the savoury delights from the menu, and after some time was able to come up with various curry and vegetables dishes that seemed promising from the little photos that accompanied the text. The prices were also note-worthy, 2,000 to 3,000 kyat for the main courses (let me remind my readers that 1,500 kyat equals one dollar at the time of our visit!). We can afford that I chuckled to myself. As we waited in the open-air restaurant in the dust and heat sipping our cool fruit drinks, the cars and motorcycles made their mad dashes to God knows where in such a hurry, and the mosquitoes suddenly came alive in the twilight hush!
I sat there feeling tired and dreamy after the long day and the long walk around the palace walls, but Peter suddenly seemed uncomfortable and agitated. “What’s the matter, Peter,” I asked, as he swatted his hands in front of his face and slapped his naked legs. “Mosquitoes,” he cried, “they are biting me.” Welcome to the tropics, I thought, but kept quiet until I couldn’t help but launch into the story of dengue fever that some mosquitoes can transmit. Admittedly, it’s a long shot, but I couldn’t help but make fun of my friend who had been so insistent about eating in this restaurant at this time. From then on, we took much more care in planning our evening meals as we travelled throughout the country heading south from Mandalay to Yangon (formerly Rangoon).
The next morning, we were promptly met by out little guide whose name was Swan. We would later come to know that Burmese names were different and unique. Peter in particular always got a kick out of asking Swan questions, but always addressing him by name. “Swan, why do the women wear powder on their faces (a natural product to protect against the sun)? Swan, how many motorbikes are there in this town (far too many to my reckoning)? Swan do you have brothers and sisters (he had a younger brother that he spoke fondly of)?” True enough, when you travel with a guide, the guide, if you are lucky, becomes a kind of father, brother, son. They are there as a font of knowledge, the shipmaster on a voyage into the unknown, a protector and a stranger turned friend in a stranger than strange land. Swan was all of those things and much more. When we came to learn that as we moved south, he would be replaced by another guide. Both Peter and I felt disappointed and when eventually we did say goodbye to him, knowing we would never see him again, we felt sad and at a loss. When I shook his hand, the thousands of kyat I left behind didn’t seem enough.
For the time being, Swan was with us at every temple, stupa and pagoda. “What’s the difference?” Peter wondered aloud, giving voice to my own question.
“You can enter a temple,” Swan patiently replied, as if he had never been asked that question before. Indeed, the trick of a new guide leads the tourists in his charge to believe that everything is fresh and new, questions, statements, explanations that had never been uttered before and may never be uttered again. “The pagoda is there in commemoration and as a gift or charity that could bring merit and blessing. But you cannot enter inside as it is a solid structure pointing heavenward. A stupa is a domed or bell-shaped monument traditionally used to store religious relics of the Buddha.” Whether temple of worship, stupa or pagoda, to enter its confines, we were required to take off our shoes and socks. In the land of a thousand pagodas/stupas, tourists end up taking off their shoes perhaps more than they would like. I kept silent, but Peter grumbled and complained as we wandered in and around these sacred places during our 10-day tour, Peter meticulously cleaning off his sizable feet with the moist wipes provided every time by the guide. I simply brushed off the sand and grit and re-socked my feet until it was time to enter the next temple, thinking that traveler dust is well earned.
After ambling through the chaotic fruit and vegetables markets of Mandalay, we made our way with our guide, Swan, to our first memorable site, the Shwenandaw Monastery, located at the foot of the Mandalay Hill overlooking the city and countryside. The monastery was speckled with trees, golden domes and bell-shaped towers gleaming in the winter sunlight. The intrepid guide explained everything in great detail, and perfect English I might add. I remember asking Swan how he had learned English, but never got a satisfactory answer to account for the ease with which he spoke.
The monastery was built in 1878 by King Thibaw Min, who dismantled and rebuilt the inner apartments formerly occupied by his father, King Mindon Min, believing the premises to be haunted by the spirit of his dead father. The entire structure was made of teak wood in the traditional style and heavily gilded with gold and glass mosaic work. The monastery is also known for its teak carvings of Buddhist myths, which adorn the walls and roofs in all their intricate, exquisite detail. As we roamed around the eerie premises, we came to see the commemorative preservation of a former royal way of life, particularly the colossal inner room where the king was known to have performed ritual meditation. We were even able to observe the meditation couch upon which he sat, creating in my mind dreamy reflections of a world I would never know, but had come to learn about in my travels.
The time of sunset was not far off. We made our way in the car midway up the Mandalay Hills into a parking lot and from there were able to take a series of escalators to the top of the hillside that provided fabulous views in every direction of the once enchanted city of Mandalay below, now a bustling metropolis that from the distance still held its mystical lure although up close, the 21st century left its mark of noise and pollution. The rolling hills and flattened plain leading to the city below provided the perfect backdrop for the flaming sunset that soon followed, bestowing upon the fabled city below the streaming golden light of twilight.
John Herlihy, travel writer and poet, has published two collections of travel essays, Journeys with Soul and his more recent Distant Islands and Sealight, available at online booksellers and Amazon.
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