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In a Land Far From Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan

Title: In a Land Far From Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan

Author: Syed Mujtaba Ali

Translator: Nazes Afroz

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

Over the noise, you could hear the shout that ‘Bacha-e- Saqao is coming, Bacha-e-Saqao has arrived.’ Then we heard the bang of a rifle and the crowd lost all sense of reason. Throwing aside everything they were carrying, people started running for their lives, some landed in the roadside ditch, some slipped time and again while trying to run over the ice on the Kabul river. The blind beggar who used to sit by the road, stood up trying to find his way with his hands in the air.

I somehow managed to leave the road, crossed the ditch and stood on the front porch of a shop. I decided that I would rather die from the bullet on which my name was written rather than be trampled by mad horses or in the stampede of the crowd.

Within a minute another man appeared and stood next to me. An Italian colonello or colonel, aged about sixty, with a long corrugated beard.

He was the first person whom I could ask something cogently. I said to him, ‘I heard that the bandit leader Bacha-e-Saqao was coming to fight for Amanullah. But what is really happening?’

The colonello said, ‘Seems like wrong news. He’s coming to take over the city.’

If that was the case, then why were Amanullah’s soldiers not going to the north of the city to fight him? How did Bacha-e-Saqao arrive in Kabul so suddenly? How many men did he have? Were they carrying only rifles or did they have cannons? The colonello could not answer these questions; he only kept saying, ‘What an odd experience!’

I said, ‘I can understand why the ordinary Kabulis are afraid, but why have the foreigners joined them? Where are they going?’

The colonello replied, ‘To their own embassies or legations—for shelter.’

The sound of rifle shots was drawing closer. By then the crowd was moving in waves rather than in a stream. In between two such waves I told the colonello, ‘Let’s go home.’ He said he would not leave without seeing the last act. Military whim—there was no point in arguing.

Abdur Rahman was waiting for me at the door. His worries disappeared at the sight of me. As soon as I entered the house, he closed the door and started to fortify it with heavy rocks. Intelligent man. He had made all the arrangements for fortification when I was out. I asked, ‘Where is Benoit?’ Abdur Rahman informed me that Benoit had left for the French Legation in a tonga carrying only one suitcase.

By that time the sound of the gunfire had been overpowered by the heavy sound of machine guns. Abdur Rahman brought tea. Listening to the sounds carefully, he said, ‘The king’s soldiers have now attacked. From where would Bacha have gotten hold of machine guns?’

I asked him, ‘The king’s soldiers are facing Bacha this late? How could he reach Kabul so easily?’

Abdur Rahman said, ‘I asked many people while waiting for you at the door, but nobody could say anything clearly. It seems he has arrived without any resistance. He comes from the north of the country; my place is also in the north—Panjshir. I would have got some news of troop mobilisation in that region from my fellow Panjshiris in the bazaar, but there was none. The king’s troops have gone to the east under the command of Ali Ahmad Khan to fight the Shinwaris.’

The exchange of fire continued. Abdur Rahman served me dinner early that evening and then he sat down to tend to the fire in the fireplace. From our chat I could make out that he was worried about my well-being in case Bacha won, which would be followed by anarchy and looting. But clearly he was highly excited and curious—much like a small child when the circus came to town.

But who was this Bacha-e-Saqao? I did not have to ask Abdur Rahman, he told me many stories about him of his own accord. I realised that Abdur Rahman had many qualities—a jeweller of snow, a doctor of frostbite, chef-decuisine—but he certainly was no Boswell. You could have constructed an image of a Robin Hood from what he said about Bacha, but much of it was certainly a figment of imagination and myth.

After filtering through all the stories carefully, I had a glimpse of the life of Bacha; he was the leader of a gang of about three hundred bandits; lived in Kohistan, north of Kabul; he looted the rich and distributed a portion of his booty to the poor. When Amanullah was away in Europe, he became so powerful that he started to collect tax from the traders of Kohistan. After coming back, Amanullah proclaimed a price on his head, ‘Five hundred rupees reward on the head of bandit Bacha-e-Saqao.’ Bacha removed all the posters and put up his own proclamation, ‘One thousand rupees reward on the head of Kafir Amanullah.’

Abdur Rahman asked me, ‘But Sahib, help me solve a riddle. The colonel’s son asked me, if I cut off Bacha’s head and my brother cuts off Amanullah’s, then how much money would we make together? I said, one and a half thousand. He nearly rolled on the floor with laughter; he said, “You won’t get a penny.” Please Sahib, explain why wouldn’t we get any money?’

I consoled him, ‘Because neither of them will be alive to give you the rewards. But you can tell the colonel’s son that the throne of Afghanistan will then be bestowed upon your family.’

I had also heard that only a few days earlier Bacha suddenly turned up in front of some high-ranking officials and swore his allegiance to the king in the fights against the Shinwaris by touching the Koran. By doing so he managed to get hold of about a hundred rifles and then disappeared.

Did he turn those rifles against Amanullah?

About the Book

An intrepid traveller and a true cosmopolitan, the legendary Bengali writer Syed Mujtaba Ali from Sylhet (in erstwhile East Bengal, now Bangladesh) spent a year and a half teaching in Kabul from 1927 to 1929. Drawing on this experience, he later wrote Deshe Bideshe which was published in 1948. Ali’s young mind was curious to explore the Afghan society of the time and, with his impressive language skills, he had access to a cross-section of Kabul’s population, whose ideas and experiences he chronicles with a keen eye and a wicked sense of humour. His account provides a fascinating first-hand insight into events at a critical point in Afghanistan’s history, when the reformist King Amanullah tried to steer his country towards modernity by encouraging education for girls and giving them the choice of removing the burqa. Branded a ‘kafir’, Amanullah was overthrown by the bandit leader Bacha-e-Saqao. Deshe Bideshe is the only published eyewitness account of that tumultuous period by a non-Afghan, brought to life by the contact that Ali enjoyed with a colourful cast of characters at all levels of society—from the garrulous Pathan Dost Muhammed and the gentle Russian giant Bolshov, to his servant, Abdur Rahman and his partner in tennis, the Crown Prince Enayatullah.

About the Author

Born in 1904, Syed Mujtaba Ali was a prominent literary figure in Bengali literature. A polyglot, a scholar of Islamic studies and a traveller, Mujtaba Ali taught in Baroda and at Visva-Bharati University in Shantiniketan. Deshe Bideshe was his first published book (1948). By the time he died in 1974, he had more than two dozen books—fiction and non-fiction—to his credit.

About the Translator

A journalist for over three decades, Nazes Afroz has worked in both print and broadcasting in Kolkata and in London. He joined the BBC in London in 1998 and spent close to fifteen years with the organisation. As a senior editor in the BBC, Nazes was in charge of South and Central Asia for a number of years. He has visited Afghanistan, Central Asia and West Asia regularly for over a decade. A passionate photographer and a compulsive traveller, Nazes quit his job in the BBC and moved back to India in 2013 where he is based in Delhi. Currently he writes in English and Bengali for various newspapers and magazines and is working on a few photography projects.

(Excerpted from In a Land Far From Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan by Syed Mujtaba Ali, translated by Nazes Afroz. Published by Speaking Tiger Books)

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Excerpt Tagore Translations

Kobi & Rani: Letters from Japan, Europe and America

Rabindranath Tagore’s selected letters to Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis had been published in 1938 under the title Pathe-O-Pather Prante. The sixty letters included in this volume had been personally selected by him from among the five hundred plus letters he had written to her. This volume was translated by Somdatta Mandal and included in the book ‘Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore (Bolpur: Birutjatio Sahitya Sammilani, 2020). Selections from some of these letters had been included in borderless journal in its September 2021 issue. A few more letters have been selected here for the benefit of the readers.

Letter 33

Yesterday I reached the Japanese port named Moji. Tomorrow I will reach Kobe. A bird builds its nest with straw and twigs; it does not take long for it to leave that nest and go away. We build our nests mainly with things of the mind, with work, studies and thoughts and an invisible shelter starts growing around us. Just as the seat of the plane moulds itself according to the pressure and shape of the body, the mind while moving along also creates differently shaped holes, and when it sits in that hole it gets stuck there. Later when it has to leave it does not like that at all. Something like that happened to me on this ship. In this cabin there is a writing desk on one side, and a bed on the other. Apart from this, there is a chest of drawers with a mirror, a cupboard to hang clothes and an attached bathroom. After crossing these, there is another cabin where my boxes, trunks etc. are kept. Within this my mind has arranged its own furniture. Because there is little space, my shelter is very intense and every necessary item is within my reach. After getting down from here, I was in Hsu’s house[1] in Shanghai for two days; I did not like it, it made me very tired. The main reason was that the mind did not get the measurements of the body in a new place; it was being hit on all sides and to add to that there was hospitality, welcome and chaos day in and out.

There is newness of thought and imagination everyday but the external newness tries to prevent them. We have imbibed new substances of life in their entirety and have understood that the newness exists within them. I have known for a long time that we do not have to leave them to look for something new. Like other valuable things one has to mediate to seek the new.  This means you have to make it old and then attain it. If you think that you have suddenly found something, then that is not true because within a few days its actual emaciated state is revealed. Nowadays man is engrossed in securing this cheap newness and that is why he wants change at every moment. Science is helping him in this obsession for change, so he does not get the time to sink deep and search for the forever new. This is why a base knowledge from text-books has spread everywhere in the education system. No one has the time to seek the ultimate truth in its real form. This is why obscenities that affect the mind in a strong way are being found in literature. Those who lack the time and have less power find this to be a cheap means of getting quick entertainment. The mind that has grown inert and has had its life strength reduced requires strong stimulation – its roots are starving.

                                                                                    Yours,

                                                                                    9 Chaitra, 1335( B.S.)

You will be surprised to know that when I was writing this letter I was feeling very sleepy. I was warding it off and progressing with my writing. Even now I have not overcome that drowsiness. But it is morning now, it is eleven o’clock – let me go and take my bath.

Letter 34

I have come to Tokyo last night and have put up in a famous hotel. It is not that less famous hotels are cheap or unsuitable for relaxation, but since it is my misfortune that I am also famous, I have to tolerate an equal amount of oppression. It is easy to hide in a small place, but the places to hide in this world are closed for me. Once upon a time I could not even imagine that it would be essential for me to hide from the public for self-defence. Those were the days when I was alone in the boat on the shoals of the Padma. So I haven’t developed the habit of warding off people and anyone can come and keep on pulling me. This morning when I was tired and was sitting down someone came and convinced me with a lot of words. He made me sit in a car and took me to their house inside the lane. In the end I realized that all this excitement was because they wanted to be photographed with me.

In our house we were first born amidst a simple lifestyle and were encircled by love and care from our own people. Then I was a totally private person and there was a very personal thing called a barrier. Gradually with age the relationship with the outside world started to increase. But however much it increased it had a simple measure and there was a balance between the private and the public self. Ultimately through the hands of fate my fame as an exceptional person began to grow and I became more public than I was private. The barrier which I was entitled to became insufficient now. Like an extremely ripe fruit the hard upper shell of my body has split up into seven pieces, and now any kind of bird with any sort of motive can come and peck at me and there is no one to prevent them. There is no harm if they really benefit from it. If they want to satiate their own greed through me, let them do it; but if you think about it, this creates a serious harm not only for me but also for their own selves. My heart is upset by the little demands, and I waste my strength available for doing sufficient work. Moreover, when I realize that I have become the vehicle of other people’s interests, and that those interests are trivial, then I feel reproached. I keep on wishing to return to my traditional and non-famous small house and take shelter among people who are willing to pay a price just for my existence. But at the same time I often meet people who are unknown to me, but who have accepted me within their heart even from a distance. They do not ask anything from me, do not judge me according to my fame, but accept me out of their own happiness. There is nothing more fortunate than this. This time when I was being tortured by my fellow countrymen with a cheap reception in the city of Kobe, then the wife of the English consul here came to meet me. After speaking to her a lot of my sorrow disappeared. I realized that for some people my work has been deeply successful and they do not want anything more than whatever they have received from me without my knowledge.

Today I have three invitations in Tokyo and it will extend from one o’clock in the afternoon till dinner at night. I will then travel to Yokohama by car. After that tomorrow I will have lunch with the Indians who invited me and then leave for Canada at three o’clock. After that I don’t know.

                                                                                                              Yours,

27 March, 1929.

Letter 43

Throughout my life I had to inwardly keep hold of a pursuit. That pursuit is to remove the veil, to keep myself far away from everything. It is the pursuit of releasing me from myself as a person. Stationing myself at one place, I often try to realize that each day this person is troubled with both sad and happy thoughts of work, which is equivalent to letting myself drift within an uncountable flow into another sphere without any fixed destination. This can be seen clearly when it is identified as an independent object, but if we try to associate and become one with it then that knowledge becomes false. I desperately need this realization and that is why I desire it so much. My mind is situated at the crossroads and all its doors are open, so all kinds of winds reach it and all kinds of guests enter the inner chambers. There is a place within man’s life which is that of pain, and all the feelings are located there. That is why only intimacy can enter it. Part of our domestic existence is to spend life with them both in pleasure and pain. Everything has to be tolerated within its limits. But my God, my jeevandebata, decided to make me a poet and that is why has kept my inner chambers unguarded. I don’t have a back door and there are main entrances on all sides. That is why both invited and uninvited people keep coming and going within my inner chambers. Therefore, the chords of the instrument of pain are always tuned to the highest pitch. If the music stops, then my own work would be left undone. I have to know the world through painful experiences; otherwise, what should I express? Unlike scientists and philosophers I do not have vast knowledge and my expression is that of my heart. Though these feelings are the tools of expression for a writer, it is necessary to leave them behind and move away. This is because if we don’t move to a distance, we are unable to perceive the whole at once and reveal it. Being too much engrossed in the world gives rise to blindness and guards the object that is to be seen. Besides this, the small object becomes large and the large one is lost. The great advantage of the domestic world is that it carries its own weight, but the small objects do become a burden. They are the most meaningless things but they create the greatest pressure. The main reason is that their weight rests upon falsehood. When the mind seems to be overwhelmed by bad dreams, it is also an illusion. If we encircle the world with that little ‘me’, then in that small world the small wears the mask of the great and creates anxiety in the mind. If whatever is really great, meaning that its boundaries cross that little ‘me’, is brought in front of the small, then the smaller one’s false intensity is dismissed and shrinks into littleness. Then one feels like laughing at what causes one to cry. That is why removing the big ‘me’ from my life becomes the greatest thing to pursue; and if that is done, the greatest insult to our existence is lost. The humiliation of existence is to live in a small cage that befits birds and animals. In this cage called ‘myself’ we are tied and beaten up, and that becomes a useless burden. That is why it is essential for Rabindranath to seat Rabindranath Tagore at least at a distance: otherwise, he gets to be humiliated by himself at every step. The sorrow of death brings in stoicism, and I have felt the freedom of stoicism several times, but the real stoicism is brought about by accepting the great truth. There is greatness within me and he is the observer; what is small within me is the consumer.  If both of them are combined, then the pleasure of vision is destroyed and the happiness of consummation is spoilt. If you keep pushing your work externally like a pushcart then it moves smoothly, but if you carry that pushcart on your shoulders then you get exhausted. I have taken up a work called Visva-Bharati, and it becomes simpler if I don’t bear the burden and dissociate it from myself. A work is either a success or a failure depending upon the circumstances but if it does not touch ‘myself’ then that work brings in freedom for itself and also for me. Our greatest prayer to the one who is the greatest is asato ma sadgamayo (take me away from whatever is false and lead me towards eternal truth). How will this prayer be successful? If His arrival within me is complete, if I see Him truly within me, then the torture of that ‘me’ can also be pacified.

I don’t know when you will receive this letter. I will be happy if you receive it on your birthday. If you don’t get it there will not be much harm in stretching your birthday by another day. It is not possible always to express all the innermost thoughts but they have to be spoken for the sake of myself.  That is why I wrote this letter on the occasion of your birthday; because freedom is the main mantra of every birth, and it is freedom from darkness to light.

                                                                                                                Yours,

                                           6 Kartick, 1336 (B.S.) 

Letter 48

I am writing this letter to you from Copenhagen, after having fallen into a whirlwind that does not let me pause even for a while. I am moving along garnering knowledge about strangers, but there is no time to store that knowledge. Moreover, I have a forgetful mind, and there is no lock and key in the storehouse of my memory. As soon as something accumulates, instantly something else comes and replaces it. Some just sink in, some get distorted and become hazy. I do not of course consider this to be a complete loss – if you cannot discard then you cannot earn; if you have to store it then you will have to sit firmly without any movement. For a long time, I have constantly ridden the chariot of my mind from one road to another and did not have the time to lock it up in the garage. Instead of fame, I would have found a lot of things if I had gone and sat firmly at the entrance of the museum. Just think of this simple fact: If I had the intelligence to remember everything then at least I would have passed all my examinations and could have left with pride by saluting the world and by gathering accolades. If I want to speak about something, I cannot quote references and so in intellectual gatherings I try to overcome the deficiencies of my education by covering them up naively with my own talk. Since I cannot think of paraphrases and parallel passages in seminars where poetry is being discussed, I try to retain my prestige by composing poems myself. I can clearly visualize that you are reading this and laughing out loudly both physically and also in your mind. You are saying that it is just empty politeness, a bundle of pride. There is no way out. Due to societal norms one can truly praise others but not oneself. So one has to praise oneself in the mind and instead of reduction it leads to more sin. The fact is that once you come abroad from your homeland your self-glorification becomes enhanced a great deal. Someone who doesn’t even have the fortune of having cold water is suddenly given champagne. Then I feel like calling your professors and telling them, ‘O, you masters! Don’t make the sudden mistake of considering me as your student. Don’t mark the papers that I have written in the same way as you mark your examination scripts, because they are demanded by the professors here.’ You know that by nature I am very polite but my tutors at home have beaten me to make me feel proud. This is why I often feel ashamed in my mind. But let me tell you the truth. I have received a lot of fame and respect, but even then my mind always looks across the Indian Ocean. Khuku[2] has written from Santiniketan, “Yesterday there were heavy showers and this morning the sunshine is like liquid gold.” These words were like the sudden touch of a golden wand. My mind became agitated; it said, all right, this is acceptable. I will go to those teachers again. If they make me stand up on the bench, then at least that ray of sunlight like liquid gold will come in through the open window and fall upon my brow and that will be my prize. In the meantime the letters of Bhanusingha[3] have been published once again and I have received them. The letters are full of the monsoon clouds and autumn sunshine of Santiniketan. Reading the letters in such a far off country makes them even clearer. For a brief while I forgot where I was. What a vast difference! The difference between what is good here and what is good there is like the difference between the music here and there. European music is big and strong and varied. It emanates from the victory of men; its sound resonates from all sides and creates a great impact on the heart. We have to congratulate it. But the raga that comes out from the flute of the shepherd in our country, it calls my lone mind to accompany him on the path which is full of shadows from bamboo groves, where the village belle walks with a pitcher full of water at her waist, the doves call from the branches of the mango trees and from a distance the special song of the boatman can be heard. All these excite the mind and blur the vision with a few unnecessary teardrops. They are extremely ordinary and that is why they can easily find a place in our minds. The letter which I wrote on that day seems to be written for today. But there is no way for me to revoke my reply. That day’s post office is closed. So let me end this letter with a deep sigh. I have several engagements and many other things before me.

                                                                                                            Yours,

8 August, 1930.

Letter 49

There is a word prevalent in Bengali called ‘Samoyik Patra’ that means periodicals. But there is no way by which we can hold back time and send them through letters. I do not know when the news of my painting exhibition in Germany reached you and now I got to know from your letter that all of you did not get the news at all. So probably the time for receiving the news is also over. On the other hand, my trip to Germany will be over today and I will go to Geneva tomorrow. Even before you receive this letter you must have already heard the news that my paintings have been received quite well in Germany. The National Gallery in Berlin has taken five of my paintings. I hope you understand the impact of this news. If Lord Indra suddenly sent his horse Ucchaishraba to take me to heaven, then I could compete with my own pictures. But I don’t know why I am not excited about discussing these things. Maybe there is some hidden hostility in my mind, and so there is almost no relation between my country and my paintings. When I write poems then an emotional link is automatically created with the message of Bengal. But when I paint the lines or the colours, they do not come with the identity of any particular state. So they belong to those who like them. Just because I am a Bengali does not automatically turn it into a Bengali thing. This is why I have eagerly donated these pictures to the West. The people of my country probably have come to know that I am not a special category of a human being and so in their mind they have been antagonized towards me. They do not feel any qualms of conscience about saying bad things about me. Let my paintings prove that I am not a hundred percent Bengali but belong equally to Europe as well.

I visited many places which I had known earlier and also delivered lectures there. But unlike my last trip, this time I have entered the inner spirit of Germany. I have come closer to them. Not that they have sufficient love for nationalism in the world, but by being rejected by other races of Europe, they have become strong nationalists in their hearts. Of course I cannot understand why they have a special liking for me. Whatever it might be, they have extraordinary strength, great intelligence and also the capacity to make all things equal. I feel that no other European race has so much strength in all aspects. I understand why France cannot get over the terror of Germany. These people are extremely irascible. After the nudge of poverty their strength has increased many-fold.

The enthusiasm for world nationalism has been brought forward in Geneva. The right tune has not been played in the League of Nations – it may not be played at all – but on its own that city has become the epicentre of the whole world. Those who believe in the unity of the world will automatically come and get united here. In that case I believe that a great power for the welfare of the world has been inaugurated here.

                                                                                                          Yours,

                                                                                           18August, 1930.

Letter 50

After planning to leave for quite some time, the day of my departure has ultimately come near. It has been almost one year. I liked it as long as I was in Europe. After reaching America my mind got suppressed and my health was also affected. The external world in America is too bold, aggressive and restless and so after being continuously shaken up, a sort of stoicism creeps in. I am in that condition now, and for quite some time have become eager to get some shelter within my inner self. After many incidents my mind had become outward-oriented, and the truth of the self was growing rusty without use. It was during this period that I came to America and saw how man has tried to develop his society with unnecessary failures. They have decorated rubbish with the glamour of wealth and spend their days and night behind them, thus creating an indecent burden upon the world. Within all this crass materialism, when the mind becomes restless the eternal longings within man express themselves. Just as cows are herded together to be taken back to their shelter in the evening, in a similar way I am calling my scattered self to return to the deep recesses of the mind. Maybe a shadow of the evening has descended on the late afternoon of my life and the strength of my mind, which had disseminated my endeavours in different kinds of work to the outside world, is also coming to an end. The guard at the entrance of the mansion has already rung the bell signalling that the main door will be closed, and so we cannot do without lighting a lamp in the andarmahal – the inner chambers.

         I haven’t written anything for a long time and I don’t feel the urge to do so. This means that the power of expression has also reached the end; it doesn’t have any extra portion in its coffers and therefore easily stop all dues from the outside world. I am not feeling bad about it. If the fruit starts growing inside, then there is no loss if the petals of the flower fall down.

         I shall begin my journey on the 9th of January in the ship called Narkanda (P&O) and will reach home at the end of the month.

                                                                                                           Yours,

                                                                                 29 December, 1930.


[1] Hsu-Tse Mu, Professor of Literature at the National University, Peking. In 1924 he had accompanied the poet during his China tour as an interpreter. [Mukhopadhyay, Rabindrajiboni, Vol.III, p. 166].

[2] Khuku was the nickname of Amita Sen, a noted Rabindrasangeet singer; Rabindranath adored her. She joined Sangeet Bhavan as a teacher but died very young.

[3] Rabindranath wrote a series of letters to a young girl called Ranu Adhikari. He signed the letters as ‘Robi Dada’ or sometimes as ‘Bhanu Dada’ which was the penname of the poet as Bhanusingha.

About the book:   Pathe O Pather Prante (On the Road and Beyond It) included in ‘Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore.

Rabindranath Tagore was a prolific letter writer and Rani Mahalanobis is the only person to whom he wrote more than five hundred letters, the maximum number written to any individual person. In 1938, in the third volume of the series entitled “Patradhara”[5], Rabindranath selected sixty letters written at different periods of time to her. This he titled Pathe O Pather Prante and it was published from Visva-Bharati Publications Department in Kolkata.

Incidentally, we find the first ten letters of this series as a supplement to the narrative where Rani’s memoir Kobir Shonge Europey ends in 1926. Since it was published much later, Rani has also included some of these letters in her memoir. The rest of the letters selected from those written up to 1938 describe various moods of the Poet for a period of twelve years. They include philosophical musings, his observations on the changing of seasons, news about the incidents and functions taking place in Santiniketan during Rani’s absence, and especially his views on his new-found interest in sketching and painting. In other words, unlike those written to Indira Devi and Ranu Adhikari, these letters are interesting because they cover multifarious topics and issues and reveal the Poet’s tone of intimacy with Rani. As per Prashantakumar Pal’s biography,

Rani Mahalanobis used to suffer from a sort of non-infectious tuberculosis, so for her fever was almost a regular affair. Naturally Rabindranath would get worried – he would suggest different medicines – and write innumerable long letters, which according to him would help Rani forget some of her physical ailments. (Rabijibani, vol.IX, p.297. Translation mine)

The sixty letters included in this volume also vary in length. Some are quite short, while others are lengthy. Again some of the letters are dated with the Bengali month and year, whereas others are dated according to the English calendar. A few of the letters do not have any dates at all. Also some of them seem quite sketchy, and do not have the usual beginning, middle or end. The reason for this becomes clear when we get to know that Tagore had drastically edited several sections of these letters, especially places which revealed his innermost self.

About the author:

Rabindranath Tagore (1861 to 1941) was a brilliant poet, writer, musician, artist, educator – a polymath. He was the first Nobel Laureate from Asia. His writing spanned across genres, across global issues and across the world. His works remains relevant to this day.

About the translator:

Somdatta Mandal is Former Professor of English at Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan, India. A recipient of several prestigious fellowships and awards, her areas of interest are American Literature, contemporary fiction, film and culture studies, Diaspora studies and translation. She has edited three volumes of travel writing —Indian Travel Narratives(2010), Journeys: Indian Travel Writing (2013), and Indian Travel Narratives: New Perspectives (2021) and has translated from Bengali to English different kinds of Indian travelogues, with special focus on men and women in colonial times. Among them are: The Westward Traveller by Durgabati Ghose (2010), Wanderlust: Travels of the Tagore Family (2014), which records vignettes of travel by nineteen members of the Tagore family spanning more than 150 years, A Bengali Lady in England by Krishnabhabini Das, which is the first woman’s travel narrative from Bengal published in 1885(2015), Crossing Many Seas(2018) by Chitrita Devi, Gleanings of the Road (2018) by Rabindranath Tagore, and The Journey of a Bengali Woman to Japan and Other Essays (2019) by Hariprabha Takeda. Two other translated volumes on Rabindranath Tagore have been published recently, ‘Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore (2020) and The Last Days of Rabindranath Tagore in Memoirs (2021).

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Excerpt Tagore Translations

Letters From Tagore

Rabindranath’s introduction to his correspondence with Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and a few letters dealing with death, his sense of loss on the death of a favourite and about his encounter with a German anthropologist, translated by Somdatta Mandal and included as a part of Kobi &Rani

Title: ‘Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore

Translator: Somdatta Mandal

Publisher: Birutjatio Sahitya Sammilani, Bolpur, W.B., 2021

On the Road and Beyond It

Introduction by Tagore

The earth expresses itself by moving in two ways. One is by rotating by itself, and the other through a larger movement by going around the sun. In the earth’s yearly cycle, we see the change of seasons, and different kinds of fruits and crops fill up the granary of man. Its diurnal course results in the play of light and shade on land and water, the change of nature’s moods in the sky, the play of colours every morning and evening on the horizon; different tones of voices between waking up and going to sleep.

These two different movements can be compared with two kinds of literature – first the ordinary one meant for the general public and the other, more intimate, one, that of letters. Usually ordinary literature draws a huge reading public, and moves far away from the limits of personal life to distant countries. By contrast, the literature of letters reveals the close periphery of a world known to the writer that includes shades of daily experience, its sights and sounds, and along with it, its instantaneous moods and feelings. At least, this is more or less true of the letters published in this series called ‘Patradhara.’

 Most of the letters published under the title Chinnapatra in this ‘Patradhara’ series have been selected from the letters I wrote to my niece Indira. At that time, I was wandering around the villages of Bengal; every second different village scenes were startling my wayfaring mind with their new appearances, and these were getting reflected in the letters. Those who have the habit of always speaking quickly open their mouths whenever they find anything funny and interesting. Once we try to package and express within the form of literature, the emotions that arise within and change their nature. We are constantly confronting different things from all parts of the world but it is not worth broadcasting them through loudspeakers. The easiest way to retain them is by confronting known people behind the crowd.

The second set of letters in ‘Patradhara’ was written to a young girl. Most of them were written from Santiniketan so the moving pictures of life there constantly flow through them. In these letters we do not have any grave news; the childishness of that girl, who is innocent about domestic affairs, is reflected through a jovial atmosphere; and along with this is the writer’s jocular benevolence. There is no way in which a mature writer can express permanently all that can be said in an ordinary light-hearted way.

 The third section of ‘Patradhara’ has been named Pathe O PatherPrante (On the Road and Beyond It). There is a story behind it. When I went to travel in Europe in 1926, I received invitations from various countries. During that period Rathindranath was sick and confined in a hospital in Berlin. So the responsibility for accompanying me fell on Prasanta Mahalanobis and his wife Rani who was also with him. Sometimes without speaking a single word and sometimes speaking too much, she took the entire responsibility upon her shoulders. She had to rectify all the problems that two inexperienced male travellers created while making proper arrangements for travel. Packing all our things, arranging them, keeping a count of the luggage and moving with them safely during our travels, coping with the sometimes careless and sometimes appropriate demands of the foreign authorities in those few months, Rani handled everything exceptionally well. I had been travelling in new railway coaches, ship’s cabins, living in hotel rooms, and at every step during these repeatedly changing situations, had been interacting with new people. By submitting all the unexpected problems to be resolved by her, I had shamelessly spent my days in peace while receiving a lot of care and nursing from her. At the end, when we completed our European tour and boarded a ship from a Greek port to go home, they kept on staying abroad. As I moved towards my homeland, I continued to keep our companionship alive through letters. Some of those letters, and also those written later, have now been collected here as the third series of ‘Patradhara.’ The constant debates going on all around regarding new experiences have also been expressed through these letters. But the value of narrating our European tour, which has not been published anywhere, is enormous.

 All the thoughts that go on within the mind and want to be expressed in our writings remain alive till death. But in our mental life the flow of ideas that are expressed in perpetual motion reach a saturation point at a certain period of time. When the mind is full, then apart from the essential words, a lot is left as excess. Those who love to socialize express those excess words in gatherings, those who are introverted express their feelings in their diaries, and people like me who like to write express their thoughts to someone for whom the road to writing is easily open through letters. In the end as one keeps on moving in time, the excess of emotions reaches its nadir and the mind reaches such a state that the urge to write dies. Today I have reached that point of time in my life when I am silent. I have crossed that stage when I wrote letters voluntarily, with some of them strewn about unnecessarily like multi-coloured shells and snails on a sea beach. I see them from a distance just like the inquisitive vision of external readers. The present mind which rarely speaks now is feeling envious of those times when emotions would rush out incessantly; of course some joyous moments also accompanied them. When grains ripen, it becomes time to gather them and put them inside the barn. Today I could like to gather the harvest from that season which was full of words.

                                                                                                  Rabindranath Tagore

                                                                                                  May/June 1938

Letter 4

I had thought that I would post your letter when the ship halted at Aden. Now I received the news that the ship will not halt anywhere between Suez and Colombo. So I am thinking of writing a little more.

The thought of death is not leaving my mind. In our world we are somehow connected to one another through our different selves, sometimes deeply and sometimes lightly. All of those are included in my life. I am not reluctant regarding anything in this world; this means I live quite intensively. But the more life is extended, the more happiness and sorrow also occur. The arrows of death find greater space to come and hurt you if your heart is extended. The true worship of life is immortality, which means living in a way that is beyond death. On many occasions the indifference that arises upon the death of someone you love means that the soul is hurt: it then wants to desert everything and live within something that does not erode or dissolve. I find this same message in the first chapter of my father’s life story. When death confronts life, it asks this question: “Is there anything left inside after what I have taken away? If nothing is left, then you are completely befooled.” Life wants life; it does not want to be cheated by death in any way. Once it clearly understands that it has been cheated, in an instant it eagerly states, “Something that cannot fetch me immortality is of no use to me.” Man says this so many times and forgets it so often.

                                                                                                            Yours,

                                                                                                            7 December 1926.

Letter 6

I cannot forget Santosh[1]. I think of my own life – I have been living for such a long time – how I have experienced sadness and happiness, hopes and desires, trials and pursuits, and how I have passed through so much difficult historical terrain. Compared to this, Santosh’s life was so limited. His life ended just after he had completed his youth. Even then, the picture of his life is clearly expressed. It is without any excitement but not meaningless. There are so many people all around us who are in service, who are running a household, but all of that is meaningless. Their days pass by in a heap – one upon the other. But taken together they don’t form a clear shape. Santosh’s life was not as formless as that. I remember how he came back some time ago after completing his education in America. He came and created his own space at Santiniketan. There are many other teachers working here. They work just as they would do elsewhere and some work maybe a little bit more than that. But with all the respect in his young heart, Santosh established himself with his entire life. Of course there was the necessity of earning his livelihood but his spiritual connection was stronger. The work we do every day for our personal necessities does not have any excess; it gets absorbed within itself and ends there. But Santosh associated his own life with a mission that was beyond his personal needs. I had very clearly seen the results of it because he led a simple, transparent and respectful life without excesses. But if I knew Santosh only from the work he did, then I would be mistaken. I knew him with my entire vision. It is not that the entire vision is sometimes deformed by love: it achieves a wholeness as well. My intelligence does not disregard the proofs, but my strength of vision also respects his direct sense of responsibility. Sometimes there is a conflict between these two and then the mystery becomes very difficult and sad. This dichotomy is present in the idea of death itself – our heart simply does not want to accept it as the extreme. But there is no end to the opposite proofs– the tug of war between the two makes this so extremely painful. My poem “Jete nahi dibo” (“I won’t let you go”) is one of such pain.

Today on behalf of all the middle class passengers of the ship, a white man had come to me with a request. They want to hear something from me this afternoon. I would not have suddenly agreed to this request if they had been first class passengers, but the egos of the second class passengers are much lighter. We can see human beings in them. Now it is almost time to go there.

Letter 7

Today is our fourth day on the ocean. We will reach Colombo on the morning of the 16th. But I will not have the peace of returning home. The long train journey is divided into many sections. Also, what Pupe[2] has now learnt to call “malpatro” (luggage), is great in number. They are large in volume and the containers are in a pitiable condition. There are some boxes which right from the beginning of the journey have permanently lost contact with their keys and there is no way out except to be tied up with strings. There are some boxes which have had their whole bodies damaged by being hit constantly; some other boxes look like patients who have eaten too much and are waiting to vomit and feel relieved. But Rathi is sympathetic towards them – he treats them like patients in a hospital on the battlefield. Whatever it may be, we are still travelling towards our country, and dark and deep greenery seems to be visible on the last leg our journey. Here the sky is full of beneficial sunshine just as it is in our own country. The moon is growing fuller day by day; I can visualize it swinging through the leaves of the sal trees murmuring in the wind. I imagine depositing the entire load of my stay abroad at the entrance of Uttarayan[3] and then quickly resuming the willing sojourns of my mind. But alas, I also know for sure that we do not reside in heaven and that wherever I go, after pushing my way forth after the desires of many other people, I have only a narrow path left for fulfilling my own desires. The only minor advantage is that, in spite of the path being narrow, I have trodden on it for a long time and have become used to it. In spite of the crowd, it is somewhat possible to walk there on your own.

Among our fellow passengers, there is a German anthropologist who is going to India along with his wife.[4] He has heard the name of our professor. He told me, “I have heard that he is a professor of physics. So I understand that he researches the mathematical side of anthropology; we are working on the human side.” What he means by the human side can be understood by his diligence. He is going to collect information about the wild and tribal communities in south and central India. Much of their lifestyle is still unknown and difficult to know; I have not even heard their names. They live discreetly in very difficult terrain. He wants to enter their territory in a latent or concealed manner in case they are afraid and suspect him. He does not want to live in a tent and instead has taken a sack to spend the nights in. There are snakes, wild animals, and the chance of falling sick due to an irregular routine and unhealthy food. In other words, he is taking a risk with his life. They have left their small child under the care of relatives. His wife has accompanied him on this trip in case he falls sick in the jungle. In the meantime, in order to expedite her husband’s work, she is preparing notes throughout the day with the help of maps and books. The people for whom they are willingly prepared to undergo hardship and to overlook all sorts of danger are not their relatives, nor are they civilized. Except for information about the human race there is no precious object to be recovered from them. These people have ventured to open the doors of information of the whole world, and we are rolling ourselves on torn mats by lying down on the mud floor of the earth. It is best to leave this space for them — God has sent many messengers to clear it up.

About the book:   Pathe O Pather Prante (On the Road and Beyond It) included in ‘Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore.

Rabindranath Tagore was a prolific letter writer and Rani Mahalanobis is the only person to whom he wrote more than five hundred letters, the maximum number written to any individual person. In 1938, in the third volume of the series entitled “Patradhara”[5], Rabindranath selected sixty letters written at different periods of time to her. This he titled Pathe O Pather Prante and it was published from Visva-Bharati Publications Department in Kolkata.

Incidentally, we find the first ten letters of this series as a supplement to the narrative where Rani’s memoir Kobir Shonge Europey ends in 1926. Since it was published much later, Rani has also included some of these letters in her memoir. The rest of the letters selected from those written up to 1938 describe various moods of the Poet for a period of twelve years. They include philosophical musings, his observations on the changing of seasons, news about the incidents and functions taking place in Santiniketan during Rani’s absence, and especially his views on his new-found interest in sketching and painting. In other words, unlike those written to Indira Devi and Ranu Adhikari, these letters are interesting because they cover multifarious topics and issues and reveal the Poet’s tone of intimacy with Rani. As per Prashantakumar Pal’s biography,

Rani Mahalanobis used to suffer from a sort of non-infectious tuberculosis, so for her fever was almost a regular affair. Naturally Rabindranath would get worried – he would suggest different medicines – and write innumerable long letters, which according to him would help Rani forget some of her physical ailments. (Rabijibani, vol.IX, p.297. Translation mine)

The sixty letters included in this volume also vary in length. Some are quite short, while others are lengthy. Again some of the letters are dated with the Bengali month and year, whereas others are dated according to the English calendar. A few of the letters do not have any dates at all. Also some of them seem quite sketchy, and do not have the usual beginning, middle or end. The reason for this becomes clear when we get to know that Tagore had drastically edited several sections of these letters, especially places which revealed his innermost self.

About the Author

Rabindranath Tagore (1861 to 1941) was a brilliant poet, writer, musician, artist, educator – a polymath. He was the first Nobel Laureate from Asia. His writing spanned across genres, across global issues and across the world. His works remains relevant to this day.

About the translator

Somdatta Mandal is Former Professor of English at Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan, India. A recipient of several prestigious fellowships and awards, her areas of interest are American Literature, contemporary fiction, film and culture studies, Diaspora studies and translation. She has edited three volumes of travel writing —Indian Travel Narratives (2010), Journeys: Indian Travel Writing (2013), and Indian Travel Narratives: New Perspectives (2021) and has translated from Bengali to English different kinds of Indian travelogues, with special focus on men and women in colonial times. Among them are: The Westward Traveller by Durgabati Ghose (2010), Wanderlust: Travels of the Tagore Family (2014), which records vignettes of travel by nineteen members of the Tagore family spanning more than 150 years, A Bengali Lady in England by Krishnabhabini Das, which is the first woman’s travel narrative from Bengal published in 1885(2015), Crossing Many Seas(2018) by Chitrita Devi, Gleanings of the Road (2018) by Rabindranath Tagore, and The Journey of a Bengali Woman to Japan and Other Essays (2019) by Hariprabha Takeda. Two other translated volumes on Rabindranath Tagore have been published recently, ‘Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore (2020) and The Last Days of Rabindranath Tagore in Memoirs (2021).


[1] Santosh Chandra Majumdar was the eldest son of Rabindranath Tagore’s friend Shrish Chandra Majumdar. After passing his entrance examination along with Rathindranath, he went to America and upon returning in 1910 joined the Brahmacharyashram in Santiniketan on a monthly salary of two hundred Rupees. He actively took part in teaching, sports arrangements and hospitality of the guests. He served both Tagore and his institution wholeheartedly till his death in October 1926.  Rabindranath received the news of Santosh’s untimely death after reaching Aden.

[2]Pupe or Pupu was the pet name of Nandini, the adopted daughter of Rathindranath.

[3]One of the houses in which the poet lived at Santiniketan.

[4]The name of this anthropologist was Christoph Von Furer Heimendorf. He stayed in Hyderabad and South India for a long time to carry out research on remote backward tribes. Later he became famous for it.  See Prabhat Kumar Mukhopadhyay, Rabindrajiboni Vol.III, p. 293.

[5]The first volume consisted of selected letters written to his niece Indira Devi when he was wandering around the villages of Bengal and was titled “Chinnapatra”. The second set of letters was written from Santiniketan to a young girl named Ranu Adhikari.

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Excerpt Independence Day

Beyond The Himalayas by Goutam Ghose

Title: Beyond the Himalayas: Journeying Through the Silk Route

Author: Goutam Ghose

Publisher: Niyogi Books

Major Hari Ahluwalia was a young officer in the Indian Army when he climbed Everest in 1965. He was a member of the first Indian expedition to successfully scale the mountain and one of the first to reach the summit. Our then prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, awarded him India’s coveted Arjuna Award and India had a new national hero. But within two months of receiving the award, he was wounded in combat along the India-Pakistan border and permanently disabled. Despite the setback, Hari continued organizing mountaineering expeditions and writing books about his life and travels.

It was as the chairman of the Youth Exploring Society of India that he invited me to film an expedition he was planning along an ancient trade route connecting India with Central Asia and Tibet. But most of the route lay within modern China. This would be the first time any group was being allowed to make a journey with its own vehicles – a diplomatic breakthrough and a personal triumph for Hari.

In 1962, a border dispute between India and China had erupted into a brief war which left the two countries estranged  for the next thirty years. In the two most populous nations of the world, a generation of young people had grown up, knowing little or nothing about one another.

Hari’s idea was to encourage peaceful dialogue between India and her northern neighbour through new cultural exchanges. In Beijing, he met with the president of the Disabled Federation, who, like Hari, is confined to a wheelchair. As it happened, he is also the son of China’s leader, Chairman Deng Xiaoping, and is thus perfectly placed to help Hari fulfil his dream.

I live in Calcutta and I make films about India. My country was run by the British for 200 years, yet it preserves an ancient culture that conditions every aspect of its daily life. Because we live in a world of our own, separated from the north by politics and geography, I have always wanted to see what lay just a few hundred miles from me on the other side of the mountains. Excited about Hari’s proposal, I abandoned my new idea for a feature film and began to think about journeying along the ancient Silk Road.

The first place I decided to visit was The Asiatic Society. Founded by Sir William Jones in 1784, the society pioneered the rediscovery of Asia and its past. All the early expeditions were organized and monitored from here. I was suddenly filled with curiosity and an impetuous desire to delve into all the rare books and manuscripts on its shelves. The Travels of Marco Polo describe the wonders of the Silk Road – cities far greater than his own and a world more magnificent than anything imagined by the insular backward Europe of the thirteenth century. But he was a late traveller. The Silk Route was one of the greatest trade routes in history and men had already been travelling there for four thousand years. Before sea routes were discovered in the fifteenth century, this trans-Asian highway was the sole link between the east and the west. It ran from Xi’an in China all the way to the Mediterranean. There were, moreover, many tributaries to the mighty river, not least of which were caravan routes across the Himalayan mountain range between India and Central Asia.

A facsimile of Hari’s letter to me –

Dear Goutam,

You will be delighted to know that we now have all our permissions. Because of the current turmoil in Afghanistan, we cannot drive through the Khyber Pass into the Central Asia as planned. All the members of the expedition including the jeeps and equipment will be flown from Delhi to Uzbekistan on the 18th of May.

I believe I told you about my London-based friend Michael, who is a filmmaker with a longstanding interest in Buddhism. He has wanted to make this trip for a long time and I’m sure he will be immensely helpful to you. Do please get in touch with him.

As per Hari’s suggestion I met Michael Haggiag in his London home. Michael was preparing for the trip with great excitement. I filmed him and his wife there.

A conversation between Michael and his wife Katherine in London –

Katherine – ‘Want some tea?’

Michael thanks her. ‘This is what Marco Polo had to say about the women of Hami and their very nice customs.

‘I give you my word – when a stranger comes to a house here to seek hospitality, he receives a very warm welcome.

The host makes his wife do everything the guest wishes and he leaves the house and goes about his own business and stays away for two or three days. Meanwhile, the guest stays with his wife in the house and does what he will with her – lying with her in one bed, just as if she was his own wife, and they lead a gay life together. The women are beautiful and vivacious and always ready to oblige.

‘I am not sending you there.’

‘No? It’s also very hot. It’s 40˚C in the shade – that’s over 100˚F. They also have the largest cockroaches.’

‘Sounds like it’s terrible out there!’

‘Anyway, I’m preparing for the trip. Look at these wonderful books here … this is Bukhara and this, Samarkand … these are some really old pictures of the way it was in the 1890s!’

‘Beautiful places!’

‘Do you realize how long Hari had to wait for permission for this? He started organizing his expedition eight years ago and he just got confirmation now. And if we don’t go within the next three weeks, we can’t go at all.’

The Armada starts on its journey. Courtesy: Extracted with permission from Beyond The Himalayas: Journeying Through The Silk Route, by Goutam Ghose (published by Niyogi Books)
Guri Amir mausoleum, Samarkand.Courtesy: Extracted with permission from Beyond The Himalayas: Journeying Through The Silk Route, by Goutam Ghose (published by Niyogi Books)
Goutam Ghose with the two Chinese. Courtesy: Extracted with permission from Beyond The Himalayas: Journeying Through The Silk Route, by Goutam Ghose (published by Niyogi Books)

About the Book: Filmmaker Goutam Ghose was part of the Central Asian expedition organised by Major H.P.S. Ahluwalia in 1994, the first of its kind. They undertook an arduous 14,000 km journey through Central Asia, China and Tibet tracing the ancient trade route. Ghose captured this once-in-a-lifetime adventure as a five-part series in his film Beyond the Himalayas (1996). This film book is a pictorial chronicle of Ghose’s incredible experience on the Silk Route. Much of the text is the narration of the original soundtrack of the series which has been adapted for the benefit of book readers. His lens captures breathtaking visuals of a less travelled road. The tapestry of history, travel anecdotes, local legends and titanic characters lend a cinematic quality to the whole narrative. The fabled past and the present are intercut by cinematic jumps in this fascinating record of an enduring memory in the collective consciousness of the history of mankind.

Goutam Ghose launched into documentaries, group theatre and photo journalism in 1973. His documentary, Hungry Autumn won him the main award at the Oberhausen Film Festival. Since then Ghose has produced several documentaries on personalities like Ustad Bismillah Khan, Satyajit Ray and HH Dalai Lama, in addition to ten feature films and a number of advertisement, corporate and short films. He has won fifteen National Awards, besides Filmfare Awards and a number of international awards like Silver Balloon, Nantes Film Festival, UNESCO Award at Venice, Golden Semurg at Tashkent, Fipresci Award and Red Cross Award at Verna Film Festival. He is the only Indian to win the coveted Vittori Di Sica Award and was awarded the Knighthood of the Star of Italian Solidarity in 2008.

Click here to read Goutam Ghose’s interview.

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Excerpt

Our Home in Myanmar – Four years in Yangon

Title: Our Home in Myanmar – Four years in Yangon

Author: Jessica Mudditt

Publisher: Hembury Press, 2021

Prologue

June 2016

The tide was out. But when it came back in, the waves would lap at Daw Myint Shwe’s house. Pointing towards the ocean, she told me the erosion was so bad that she’d been forced to move her bamboo shack four times, but could only ever move it a little further inland. She had lived in the area her entire life and was now in her sixties, but even so, she wished that she could start again in a safer place. The problem was that she didn’t have the money. And every year, the Bay of Bengal crept closer in.

As my translator asked Daw Myint Shwe another question on my behalf, my eyes strained to make out the horizon behind her, so muted were the colours of the landscape. The hazy sky seemed to melt into the taupe mud flats, where shallow pools of water looked like shards of broken glass. Debris was scattered across the soggy sand on which the three of us stood: a ripped blue tarpaulin, cracked ceramic bowls, coconut husks and discarded fishing nets.

The next person the United Nations had lined up for me to interview was U Myint Swe, who lived slightly further inland. Raising his voice to be heard over a noisy gust of wind, he told us that his main worry was for his three young children, who had to cross a river in a small boat to get to school.

‘During the wet season, when the waters are high and rough, U Myint Swe worries that the boat will capsize,’ my translator said. ‘He says that no one in the fishing village can afford life jackets – not even if they all chipped in together to buy them.’

U Myint Swe’s family was stuck in Labutta Township in the southern, low-lying Ayeyarwady Delta: the only jobs were there, near the coast. Even so, he only made about two American dollars a day as a fisherman.

‘Nowadays the weather is often too foul to go out in – and on those days he earns nothing,’ my translator said. ‘But he says he is grateful for the weather warnings that are broadcast through speakers at the local monastery.’

In 2008, there had been no warning before Cyclone Nargis swept through the 115 villages in U Myint Swe’s township and left 85,000 people dead in its wake. He told us several times that he was still haunted by the death and destruction he had seen, and I suspected that his current worries about his children were exacerbated by previous trauma.

But as arresting and poignant as these stories were, I was struggling to focus. My attention kept wandering from the people the United Nations had sent me to interview for a series of articles on climate change to my husband’s visa situation. Sherpa is from Bangladesh and getting a visa for Myanmar – or anywhere, for that matter – had never been straightforward. But in the four years we had been living in Yangon and working as journalists, it had never taken as long as it was taking this time around. He had submitted his passport to the immigration department three months ago, but when his go-between, Aye Chan Wynn, started calling to find out whether the visa was ready, his contact at the department wouldn’t return his calls. I was worried that Sherpa’s passport had been lost, as nothing else seemed to explain the delay.

I spent the next day in a village on an island so remote that accessing it required a two-hour journey by longboat. I was anxiously hoping for an update on the visa, but my phone lost reception soon after we set off through the mangroves. The island had no electricity and supplies of clean water were limited. Stagnant water, however, was abundant: it pooled under the residents’ shacks on stilts, so the mosquitoes bred incessantly. Later, I suspected it was our lunch in the village that gave me a painful and lasting bout of colitis.

While I was on the island, I met a young woman called May Thazin who worked at a prawn farm for fourteen hours a day. The work was seasonal, so she and her husband scavenged for crabs to get by in the off-months. She said that most of her friends had moved several hundred kilometres away to Yangon in search of a better life, but she was deterred by the bad stories she’d heard from those who couldn’t make a go of it and were forced to return. Her only fun was watching Korean soap operas on a solar-powered television.

When I got back to the bare bones guesthouse at dusk, there was still no news on Sherpa’s visa. He said that Aye Chan Wynn would keep trying to make contact and would go to the department in person if he had to. I lay in bed that night with an aching stomach, morosely thinking of my husband’s uncertain visa situation and how vulnerable Myanmar was to climate change. The United Nations was working with the government to boost resilience in places like Labutta Township – including practical courses on what to do in an emergency situation – but I could see that the challenge was immense. Everyone I had met depended on agriculture for a livelihood, and the need to take out high-interest loans to rebuild homes and farmland following a natural disaster trapped them in a continuous cycle of poverty. The UN had hired me as a sort of in-house journalist to draw attention to the need for urgent action.

After doing an interview at a government department in the morning, I farewelled my translator and hopped back in the UN’s oversized 4WD. With my completely silent driver at the wheel, I continued on to the drought-ravaged plains of Magway region in central Myanmar, where I heard harrowing stories of how a particularly terrible flood in 2010 swept entire families away in their beds one night. In the late afternoon, a surprise storm caused flash-flooding that almost made the road impassable on our way out. From there it was only a few hours to the capital city of Nay Pyi Taw, where I was scheduled to interview members of the environment ministry and work from the UN’s office. I was on the tail end of a ten-day mission, and my loneliness was compounded by Nay Pyi Taw being a bizarre place without a heart or soul. A visit there always left me feeling blue.

The junta abruptly moved Myanmar’s capital city to Nay Pyi Taw in 2006 and it was built in secret, possibly using slave labour. Nay Pyi Taw is the only place in Myanmar with 24-hour electricity and decent internet speeds. It is flat, deserted and massive: New York City is just a sixth of its size. But it wasn’t a case of ‘build it and they will come,’ as not even the embassies could be convinced to move to the purpose-built city, which is nothing short of dystopian. It is divided into ‘zones’ for retail, government, hotels and so forth, and it has a zoo that cost a fortune to build but scarcely sees any children pass through its gates. There are also oddities like the restaurant in an aeroplane that is parked out the front of a palatial hotel.

As we sped along an empty twenty-lane highway, my phone pinged with a text message from Sherpa.

‘Hey babe. Great news. My passport is ready to be collected. Aye Chan Wynn will go to the immigration department now to pick it up.’

I was so relieved that I wanted to cheer. We pulled up at an enormous hotel that looked like a wedding cake. I checked in at the vast, empty lobby, then unpacked my things and took a shower, humming all the while.

I’d been enjoying the warm water for a couple of minutes when someone started violently banging on the door of my room.

‘I’m in the—!’ I began to shout, but was drowned out by a deafening roar. It sounded as if artillery was hitting the building, so my first instinct was to crouch. As the ground beneath me gave way, I realised it was an earthquake. I tried to grab the bath rail but missed: my hands were covered in soap suds and wet hair covered my face.

The shaking lasted maybe a minute, and it was the most terrifying minute of my life. When it stopped, I stood there dripping wet and praying that it wouldn’t start again. With trembling hands, I wrapped a towel around me, then I went online and discovered that the epicentre of the 6.8 magnitude earthquake was 250 kilometres away in Magway region, where I’d just been. Photos were appearing on social media of the moment the earthquake struck Bagan’s thousand-year-old temples, leaving dozens of the ancient structures lying in the dust. One person was killed.

Still frightened, I called Sherpa. He listened to me recount the experience and said how sorry he was that he wasn’t there to comfort me. And then he said he had something to tell me. I could tell from his tone that something was amiss.

‘Aye Chan Wynn picked up my passport,’ he said quietly.  ‘There was no visa inside. They wouldn’t say why they didn’t give me one.’

I felt unsteady on my feet all over again.

* * *

Three days later, I was back in Yangon and Sherpa and I were heading to the airport in a taxi through torrential rain. His plan was to get a visa from the embassy in Bangkok, while I would stay put in Yangon with our cat, Butters. But we were worried that he wouldn’t make it out of Myanmar at all – and that he may even be arrested at the airport. Overstaying a visa by several months could be considered a crime under local laws. It didn’t matter that it had been impossible for Sherpa to leave because the immigration department had his passport. We were scared and hadn’t slept.

The taxi ride through the rain seemed to take forever, but we eventually pulled up out the front of the new international terminal. It had opened just the previous week after years of hype about its refurbishment. A small group of taxi drivers in grotty white singlets and longyis, a long sarong tied at the waist, stood out the front and spat red daubs of betel nut onto the freshly laid cement as they waited for a fare. One fanned himself with a newspaper as he stood there shooting the breeze with the others, his gut protruding like a balloon and his singlet rolled up above his nipples. It looked like he was wearing a cut-off sports bra.

Sherpa handed over 6000 kyat to our driver, which was about US$5, and we leapt out of the taxi. He hadn’t any luggage, apart from the small backpack he took to work every day, into which he’d tossed a couple of t-shirts and his shaving gear. If he got out okay, it was only going to be a quickie visa run to Bangkok and back.

I shivered as a shot of icy air met us as we walked inside the terminal. The carpet was a sickly green with mustard-coloured swirls, but there was no denying that the place looked a lot more modern than it used to – the previous incarnation was more of a shed. The airport’s bigger size made it seem emptier than usual, but I took the upgrade as a reassuring sign that Myanmar was eager to be part of the global community after decades of self-imposed isolation. I hoped that perhaps it wouldn’t be heavy-handed in its treatment of outgoing foreigners like my husband.

Please just let him leave.

I squeezed Sherpa’s hand one last time before reluctantly letting go. He looked edgy and unsure of himself, which I knew wouldn’t bode well when he fronted up to the immigration counter. Our eyes locked for a second and we mouthed a quick ‘I love you’ – the most affection it was appropriate to show in the conservative Buddhist country. I wanted to run my hand through his mop of curly black hair but he was already walking away from me.

I crossed both my fingers behind my back and whispered ‘please, please, please’ under my breath as Sherpa approached the counter. Please let luck come our way. After all the time we’d spent in Myanmar, it was probably inevitable that its superstitious ways had rubbed off on me.

I watched on from behind a set of glass doors as Sherpa held up his green passport to the immigration officer, whom he was speaking to deferentially in Burmese. I held my breath. A minute passed, then two. Sherpa had his back to me and I couldn’t read the officer’s unchanging facial expression. He called another officer over. Another couple of minutes passed as they conversed. Just when I couldn’t bear to watch on any longer, I saw Sherpa reach for his wallet to retrieve the wad of US dollars he had ready to pay in overstay fees. As he was waved through to passport control I breathed an enormous sigh of relief. The months of worry were over.

Sherpa turned back to look at me from where I stood in the departures’ hall. His large brown eyes were lit up with happiness. I grinned back and made a stupid thumbs-up gesture, feeling giddy with relief.

I had no idea that this was the last time I’d ever see my husband in Myanmar.

About the Book:

After a whirlwind romance in Bangladesh, Australian journalist Jessica Mudditt and her Bangladeshi husband Sherpa arrive in Yangon in 2012 – just as the military junta is beginning to relax its ironclad grip on power. It is a high-risk atmosphere; a life riddled with chaos and confusion as much as it is with wonder and excitement.

Jessica joins a small team of old-hand expat editors at The Myanmar Times, whose Burmese editor is still languishing in prison. Whether she is covering a speech by Aung San Suu Kyi, getting dangerously close to cobras, directing cover shoots with Burmese models, or scaling Bagan’s thousand-year-old temples, Jessica is entranced and challenged by a country undergoing rapid change.

But as the historic elections of 2015 draw near, it becomes evident that the road to democracy is full of twists, turns and false starts. The couple is blindsided when a rise in militant Buddhism takes a personal turn and challenges their belief that they have found a home in Myanmar. (Read the book review by clicking here.)

About the Author:

Jessica Mudditt is a freelance journalist whose articles have been published by The Economist, BBC, CNN, GQ, The Telegraph and Marie Claire. In the lead up to the general election of 2015, she became the first foreign journalist to be appointed on staff at Myanmar’s state-run newspaper, The Global New Light of Myanmar. She also worked as a consultant for the United Nations and the British Embassy.

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

Categories
Excerpt Tagore Translations

The Parrot’s Tale by Tagore

Title: Rabindranth Tagore. The Land of Cards: Stories, Poems and Plays for Children.

Translator: Radha Chakravarty

Publishers: Penguin India: Puffin Classics.

The Parrot’s Tale

Once there was a bird.  He was uneducated.  He sang, but did not read the shastras.  He hopped about and flew, but didn’t know good manners.

“Such a bird is of no use,” declared the king, “but he harms the sale of fruit in the royal market by eating up the wild fruits in the forest.”

He sent for the minister. “Educate this bird,” he ordered.

2

The king’s nephews were given the responsibility of educating the bird.

The pundits assembled and considered the matter at length.  The question was: “What is the reason for this creature’s lack of education?”

They concluded that there was not much room for learning in the bird’s nest, made from a few humble straws and twigs.  Hence it was necessary, first of all, to make him a proper cage.

Receiving their dues, the royal pundits went home happily.

3

The goldsmith now set about making a golden cage.  So marvelous was the cage he made, people from far-off lands came there to admire it.  Some said, “It is the height of education.”  “Even if he doesn’t get an education, at least he has a cage,” declared others.  “What a lucky bird!”

The goldsmith was rewarded with a bagful of money as bakshish.  He went home happily.

The pundits got down to the business of educating the bird.  “This is not a task to be achieved with just a few books,” they declared, inhaling snuff.

Now the royal nephews summoned all the scribes.  Copying many textbooks and making copies of copies, they produced a mountain-high pile of books.  Anyone who saw it exclaimed:  “Shabash – congratulations!  This heap of knowledge is full to bursting!”

Loading a bullock with all the money they received as payment, the scribes rushed home.  They no longer had any trouble making both ends meet.

There was no end to the royal nephews’ fussing over the very expensive cage.  There was no end to all the repair and maintenance, either.  And there was such a to-do about dusting, wiping and polishing, that the sight made everyone declare:  “These are signs of progress.”

The work required a lot of manpower, and to keep an eye on the workers, even more men had to be deployed.  Month by month, they collected their payments by the fistful and stuffed the money in their safes.

These men, and all their maternal and paternal cousins, settled happily in palatial brick-built mansions.

4

Many other things are lacking in this world, but there is no dearth of fault-finders.  “The cage is improving,” they said, “but nobody asks after the bird.”

The matter reached the king’s ears.  He sent for the nephews and demanded:  “O nephews, what’s this I hear?”

“Maharaj,” said the nephews, “if you want to hear the truth, summon the goldsmiths, pundits, scribes, the maintenance workers and their supervisors.  It’s because the fault-finders don’t get enough to eat that they say such evil things.”

From this reply, the situation became clear to the king.  Golden necklaces were ordered at once, to adorn the nephews’ necks.

5

The king wanted to see for himself the tremendous pace at which the bird’s education was progressing.

At once, the area near the portico began to resound with the noise of conchs, bells, dhak, dhol, kada, nakada, turi, bheri, damama, kanshi, flutes, gongs, khol, cymbals, mridanga and jagajhampa.  With full-throated abandon, shaking the unshaven locks of their tikis, the pundits began to chant mantras.  The masons, workmen, goldsmith, scribes, supervisors and their maternal and paternal cousins, sang to the king’s glory.

“Maharaj, can you see what a to-do there is!” observed a nephew.

“Amazing!  The noise is quite extraordinary,” observed the Maharaja.

“It’s not just the noise; the money that’s gone into it is not inconsiderable either,” the nephew pointed out.

Delighted, the Maharaja crossed the portico and was about to mount his elephant when a fault-finder concealed in the bushes called out: “Maharaj, have you had a look at the bird?”

The king was startled.  “Oh no!” he exclaimed.  “I had clean forgotten.  I haven’t seen the bird.”

He went back and told the pundit, “I need to observe your technique for training the bird.”

He was duly shown the technique.  What he saw pleased him greatly. The method was so much more important than the bird, that the bird could not be seen at all; it seemed needless to see him at all.  The king realized that the arrangements lacked nothing.  There was no grain in the cage, no water, just a mass of pages torn from a mass of books, being stuffed down the bird’s throat by the end of a quill pen.  The bird’s song could not be heard of course, for it was too stifled even to scream.  It was a thrilling sight, enough to give one goose-pimples.

Now, while mounting his elephant, the king instructed the Chief Ear-puller to tweak the fault-finder thoroughly by the ears.

6

Day by day, the bird arrived at a half-dead state, in a civilized fashion.  His guardians saw this as a hopeful sign.  But still, by natural instinct, the bird would gaze at the morning light and flutter his wings in a way that was unacceptable.  In fact, one day he was seen struggling to cut through the bars of his cage with his fragile beak.

“What audacity!” cried the Kotwal, the law-maker.

Now the blacksmith appeared in the training quarters, armed with bellows, hammer and fire.  How hard he beat the iron!  Iron shackles were forged, and the bird’s wings were clipped.

Gravely shaking their heads, the king’s associates declared: “In this kingdom, the birds lack not only brains, but gratitude as well.”

Now, armed with pen in one hand and rod in the other, the pundits accomplished the dramatic feat called education.

The blacksmiths gained so much importance, their wives bedecked themselves with ornaments, and seeing the alertness of the Kotwal, the king bestowed him with a shiropa, a turban of honour.

7

The parrot died.  Nobody could say when.

The wretched fault-finder spread the word: “The bird is dead.”

“Nephews, what is this I hear?” demanded the king.

“Maharaj, the bird’s training is complete,” declared the nephews.

“Does he hop about anymore” the king enquired.

“Arre Rama! No,” demurred the nephew.

“Does he fly anymore?”

“No.”

“Does he sing anymore?”

“No.”

“Does he scream if he does not receive grain for his feed?”

“No.”

“Bring the bird to me once,” the king ordered.  “Let me see him.”

The bird was brought.  Along with the bird came the Kotwal, paiks, and horsemen.

The king prodded the bird.  But the bird neither opened his beak, nor made any sound.  Only the dry pages torn from books rustled and sighed in his belly.

Outside, stirred by the fresh spring breeze blowing in from the south, the sighing of new leaves spread anguish in the sky, above the newly blossoming woods.

 (Published with permission from Penguin Random House India.)

About the Book:

Poet, novelist, painter, musician and Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore was one of modern India’s greatest literary figures. This collection brings together some of his best works—poems, short stories and plays—in one volume for today’s young readers.

Be it the wit, magic and lyricism of his poetry or the vividly etched social milieu of his stories, or the sheer power and vibrancy of his plays, Tagore’s versatility and unceasing creativity come alive in these writings. The title play ‘The Land of Cards’ is a satire against the bondage of orthodox rules, while in ‘The Post Office’, a child suffocated by his confined existence dreams of freedom in the world outside. From a son’s cherished desire to protect his mother in the poem ‘Hero’ to a fruit-seller’s sentiments for his faraway daughter in the story ‘Kabuliwala’, Tagore’s works convey his broad humanism and his deep awareness of the poignancy of human relationships.

Radha Chakravarty’s lucid translation captures the sheer genius of Tagore’s evocative language, making these works accessible to contemporary readers.

About the Translator: Radha Chakravarty is a writer, critic and translator. She has co-edited The Essential Tagore (Harvard and Visva Bharati), nominated Book of the Year 2011 by Martha Nussbaum, and edited Shades of Difference: Selected Writings of Rabindranath Tagore (Social Science Press, 2015). She is the author of Feminism and Contemporary Women Writers (Routledge, 2008) and Novelist Tagore: Gender and Modernity in Selected Texts (Routledge, 2013). Her translations of Tagore include Gora, Chokher Bali, Boyhood Days, Farewell Song: Shesher Kabita and The Land of Cards: Stories, Poems and Plays for Children.  Other works in translation are Bankimchandra Chatterjee’s Kapalkundala, In the Name of the Mother by Mahasweta Devi (nominated for the Crossword Translation Award, 2004), Vermillion Clouds: Stories by Bengali Women,and Crossings: Stories from Bangladesh and India. She has edited Bodymaps: Stories by South Asian Women and co-edited Writing Feminism: South Asian Voices and Writing Freedom: South Asian Voices. Her poems have appeared in Journal of the Poetry Society of India, Contemporary Major Indian Women Poets, The Poet, Hakara, Narrow Road Journal, Krishna in Indian Thought, Literature and Music, The Fib Review, The Skinny Poetry Journal and Indian Poetry through the Passage of Time. Forthcoming books include Our Santiniketan (translation of Mahasweta Devi’s memoirs; Seagull Publishers); The Tagore Phenomenon (Allen Lane), Kazi Nazrul Islam: Selected Essays (Nazrul Centre for Social and Cultural Studies) and Mahasweta Devi: Writer, Activist, Visionary (Routledge, UK).  She is Professor of Comparative Literature & Translation Studies at Ambedkar University Delhi.

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

Categories
Excerpt

Satyajit Ray, Bibhuti Bhushan & Nabendu Ghosh and a Famous Triology

Pather Panchali (Song of the Road) by Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay was a classic immortalised further by Satyajit Ray’s films, also known know as the Apu Triology. Here is a translation from Nabendu Ghosh’s autobiography which introduces how the film came to be. This portion has been excerpted from Eka Naukar Jatri (Journey of a Lonesome Boat) and translated by Ratnottama Sengupta as a celebration of the Satyajit Ray Centenary.

Pather Panchali : Unprecedented

The year, in all probability, was 1938. (This was the year of the Prabasi Bengali Sahitya Sammelan in Guwahati. Nabendu met Bibhuti Bhushan later, probably in 1942 or 1943, when the Bengal Famine was on.) Nabendu Ghosh talks of his meeting with Bibhuti Bhushan, reading whose novel, he was transported to Nischindipur, where the narrative was set. When he met Bibhuti Bhushan, he felt he had met Apu. When he saw Song of the Road, he could only chant, ‘Apurbo!’

The Prabasi Banga Sahitya Sammelan ( Bengla festival of expatriate writers) was being held in Guwahati. Delegates from all over the country were to meet and discuss Bengali authors, novelists and poets, enjoy cultural evenings, and to tour the city in between the sessions. From Patna we – five of us – set out with printed copies of the annual number of our magazine, Prabhati. The chairman that year was Anurupa Devi (1882-1958), one of the most reputed women novelist in the British colonial era. This eminent writer was the younger sister of Surupa Devi who also wrote under the pseudonym of Indira Devi. Anurupa Devi’s Poshya Putra (Adopted Son), when staged as a play, had become a super hit. I had read two of her major novels, Mahanisha (1919) and Mantra Shakti (1915), which were made into films in 1954 with a star-studded cast. Finally I was face to face with the formidable personality. To me, to this day Anurupa Devi tops the list of women writers.

The other name that made a deep impression was Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay. Everyone was talking about his Pather Panchali – apparently it was “mesmerizing.” At the end of the session, as soon as I reached Patna, I visited the city’s biggest bookseller, Burman Company. The owner Bidyut Burman hailed from Madhya Pradesh but spoke flawless Bengali. The minute I mentioned Pather Panchali, he brought out two copies. I bought one for myself.

I finished reading it in three days. Every night I was supposed to switch off at 11 pm but, on the pretext of writing an important tutorial for my college, I stayed up all night to finish it. Three days later I shook my head and shouted at the top of my voice, “Apurbo!” (That is the name of the protagonist, and it means ‘unprecedented.’)

Maa heard me shout and came running, “What is the matter? Why did you scream?”

“For the heck of it, Maa,” I assured her, “in sheer delight.”

“Delighted? By what?” – Maa asked me.

“This book Maa,” I pointed to the copy of Pather Panchali.

“Put it on my table,” Maa said. “Let me read it.” 

Morning till evening Maa had so much work, it took her two weeks to read the book. When she finished reading she returned it to me with these words, “What a lovely reading re! Soaked in sadness, yet it enriches you from within. In fact, it loyally reflects reality – life is such! Reading this book purifies the soul.”

The way Maa put it, my admiration for the greatness of the work went up manifold. Truly, Pather Panchali is a vivid chronicle of the journey of life. Simple in its language, unadorned but poetic in its descriptions. I learnt to look at Nature anew. I got acquainted with many a tree that I had only heard about. I discovered many that I was not even aware of. The names of many creepers brought me the story of a world so far unseen. Now I was in communion with Benibabur bagan, the widespread garden that surrounded the rented house we lived in.

Bankim Chandra was my first guru in literature but honestly speaking, I could not identify with many of his characters. Sarat Chandra evoked a world much closer to the one we inhabit. I could understand the motivations of his characters who were of my age. But Pather Panchali revealed one hundred percent the inner world of my childhood. Particularly in my case. I was raised in the happy environs of our house and yet, even in my young life I had witnessed extreme unhappiness too. In every station of life innocent children with their sinless minds are drawn to happiness. The way they raid the natural world to seek out the bare minimum quota of joy from nature, what they dream of — all this is stuff this novel is made of. When I finished reading it, I felt I AM Apu — Apurbo Kishore, the protagonist of Pather Panchali: timid, faultless,  ever keen to drink of the honey of life – much like a butterfly. Apu who is not ‘smart’ or clever, Apu whose constant hunger is for flowers and fruits and dreams…

After reading Pather Panchali my attachment with Benibabur bagan grew manifold. I felt that it was the abode of Nischindipur (where the novel unfolds). In the hazy light of morning, in the stillness of sun scorched noon, in the lazy twilight of sundown and the stifled darkness when night has swallowed day, I would be transported to Nischindipur.

Many many days have passed since then. I was a youth who was knocking on the doors of manhood, thereon I have advanced towards super annuation — but that little boy Apu still resides within me. The Apu of Pather Panchali who grew up into the teenaged Aparajito, Unvanquished, and then the young man who marries and sets up Apur Sansar — Apu’s household — and travels into fatherhood, stands frozen in time there. But he sets out on a new journey into childhood through his son Kaajal. This child breathes life anew into Nischindipur.

To me, Nischindipur equates the land of No-Worry. I am reminded of W B Yates’s ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ :

And I shall have some peace there, for

Peace comes dropping slow 

Dropping from the veils of the morning

To where the cricket sings…

***

Without prior notice I got an opportunity to go to Calcutta. The occasion was the wedding of my paternal aunt’s son Radha Gobinda Ghosh, who had just completed his Master in Arts studies with distinction and secured a government job.

Let me confess here that the wedding was but a pretext to go to Calcutta.  My real intention was to meet the author of Pather Panchali — Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay.

Mani Bhushan Da, the editor of our magazine, Prabhati, had provided me with his address on Mirzapur Street. He lived in Paradise Lodge, next door to the famous sweetmeat shop Putiram. It was a seven minute walk from Sagar Dutta Lane where my cousin Radha Gobinda Da lived.

The day after I reached Calcutta I told my aunt that I was going for a stroll up to College Square. “Don’t stray too far,” she cautioned me. “No, I won’t,” I assured her and set out.

I walked down Kalutola Street and across College Street, the hub of books and publishing industry in Bengal. There, on my right was Putiram, beckoning me with its array of sweets. I ignored them all and turned into the three-storeyed structure next door. The dominating signboard at the gate read ‘Paradise Lodge’.

I entered and asked for Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay. An elderly person directed me, “Climb non-stop upto the terrace and walk into the room there.”

It was like a chilekotha – a garret. It had the touch of middle class living all over it: a table with chair, a cot, the floor covered with a sheetalpati woven out of mat, an almirah full of books.

Clad in a cotton banyan a gentleman seated on the chair was reading a book. The minute I showed up at the door he looked up with a question in his eyes, “Yes?”

“I would like to meet Bibhuti Bhushan, Sir.”

“I am that very person. Where are you from?”

“Sir I am from Patna. I am carrying a letter from Manindra Chandra Samaddar of Prabhati Sangha.” I touched his feet before handing him the letter.

“May you prosper,” he blessed me with a raised palm. Then, before opening the letter he said, “Come, sit — you have come all the way from Patna!”

He smiled after reading the letter. “So you are in Mani’s team. Well well, I know Mani — a splendid person with matchless character and breathing idealism. I have gone through the last annual number of Prabhati. Very good effort. Mani mentions that you also write.”

He called out a name.

“Yes sir, here I c-o-m-e –” the name replied. He was one of the attendants at Paradise Lodge. “Get some sweets, and tea for my guest — he has come from Patna,” Bibhuti Bhushan looked at me. Then he started asking me for details about me and my writing. It was his way of getting acquainted with Nabendu.

When he paused, I ventured to speak, “I am charmed by your Pather Panchali.”

He smiled at me. “I am happy to hear that.”

Out of the blue I popped my query, “Tell me, are you Apu?”

He smiled as he nodded, ” Sure I am there in Apu. Actually every writer blends himself in with what he has seen and heard to create his characters. They see the people around them, their joys and sorrows, they laugh and cry with them, they get involved with the problems and crises in their lives and then they adapt them to their novels and stories. You are also penning stories — be a bit more aware, observe more carefully, objectively, and you will find that you are also doing the same.”

Until that moment I was not aware that such a process was at work behind what I wrote. After I heard Bibhuti Bhushan I realised the truth of his words.

The tea and sweets didn’t take too long to appear in the chilekotha room. I decided that they must be from Putiram.

As I made to take leave, he said, “Read a lot. Read the established writers. As you keep writing you will yourself realise where to start and where to stop, how much to tell and how much to leave out.”

When I left I was convinced that I was leaving Apu of Nischindipur. By this time he had become an elderly relative of mine — a well-wisher.

***

Years later. Could be 1952. 

Puffing on his Chesterfield in between the sips from his teacup, Bimalda said, “Now that Maa is complete, What next? We need new work. Bombay Talkies is in a precarious state now – in case Maa is not a hit, we will be like bad penny to them. So, before Maa is released in the theatres, we must get a new contract. And for that to happen we need a stock of stories. Hiten Chaudhuri is talking to two possible producers, two others have got in touch with me. But without a story none of these will work out.”

So we needed stories. But what kind of stories? The kind that wins over viewers when it is reflected on the silver screen in a darkened theatre. One that compels them to repeat, “And then? What now? What will happen?” But what will happen to whom? To the problems and crises in the lives of the characters. If the problems are pregnant with drama, that will blend with the skill of unfolding the narrative and keep pumping the adrenaline of the viewer and raise his blood pressure higher and higher and they will wonder, “And then? What now? What will happen?” In unison with the persona, seeking a resolution of their conflicts, they will wordlessly demand, “And then? What now? What will happen to them?” 

In our country most people gravitate to stories that revolve around the crisis called ‘love’, perhaps because desire to love is universal and to be loved is eternal. So love is a safe bet, especially in cinema. We have just completed Maa for Bombay Talkies, but that does not revolve around love between a man and a woman — it is structured around a mother’s love, for her husband and her sons. It is a family drama. We will know the power of this love only when the film releases.

So what kind of stories shall we narrate to the producers? Which stories will assure them that their investment will be secure and prompt them to say, “Yes sir! We will film this very story!” Because, no matter which story you decide on, to make it into a film means investing lakhs of lakhs — and every producer prays that he should recover his investment if not make a profit.

Over the next five-six days, we discussed and narrowed down the list to a few ideas. We listed some stories and novels from Bengali literature.  Bas – done — we were equipped for one more round of chess with success. 

The problem with cinema as a mode of livelihood lies in this: the success or failure of each film decides the film you will get to do or not do next. The director’s team is engaged to constantly come up with ideas, concepts, narration that will appeal, first, to a producer and then to a financier.

That is the first stage. And, in the final stage, the viewer will give his verdict, “Waah!” “Lovely!” Only then will the moneybags be willing to hear your next story. There is only one problem: What if the aesthetics of the moneybag is not evolved? Or, sometimes, for the sake of livelihood you bow to his ego and settle for a story idea he supplies, then all your effort might go waste like a falling kite. In short, the art form we have embraced as our mode of eking a living is a dicey form — we are constantly walking the razor’s edge.

***

Suddenly I remembered the novel that had mesmerized me. I went up to Bimalda and said, “I want to remind you of this classic novel which you must have read…”

“Which novel?” Bimalda was curious.

“It can translate into a spellbinding movie. I am talking about Bibhuti Bhushan’s Pather Panchali.”

For a few seconds Bimalda gazed fixedly at me. Then, slowly, pondering over every word he said, “Yes, it is an amazing novel. But in this Hindi film industry nobody will be able to appreciate its innate rasa. No Nabendu Babu, there will be no taker for it in this market.”

End of story. But I could not forget Pather Panchali. That very evening I met Phani Da (Majumdar) in his office and, in the course of our conversation, I mentioned it to him. I did not stop there: for almost an hour I narrated the highlights of the novel to him.

Phani Da also responded, “It will be extremely difficult to sell this in Bombay. But,” he went on, “there is no doubt that it has the possibility to become a movie of an entirely different flavour. Let’s do this: Let’s buy the rights to the story. You please write the letter.”

Write to whom? In 1950, at the age of 56, Bibhuti Bhushan had left for his heavenly abode. I did not know where his son lived. So, the next day I wrote to the publisher, the noted writer Gajendra Kumar Mitra. His company, Mitra & Ghosh had published Pather Panchali and I was lucky to claim his affection. So he would certainly guide me in the matter.

A week or so later I heard from Gajen Da. The movie rights of the novel have been purchased by the art director of the established advertising firm, D J Keemer, Mr Satyajit Ray. Initially the name was not significant to me but then, within brackets Gajen Da had written “He is the son of Sukumar Ray, the author of HaJaBaRaLa (Habber Jabber Lawand Pagla Dashu (Mad Dashu).” The name acquired a certain significance then. 

At the same time I felt a sense of loss. For three years after that the sense of loss would surface like a bubble, at unguarded moments.

One day all of a sudden I learnt that Pather Panchali will be screened for a private gathering. Along with Bimalda we made a beeline for the show. By then Bimalda had become an international celebrity thanks to Do Bigha Zamin (Two Acres of Land).

During the interval, lighting up his Chesterfield, Bimalda said, “You can do justice to a classic of Bengali literature only in Bengali. West Bengal government has sponsored the making of this film — that is a rare happening in the history of cinema worldwide. Director Satyajit Ray deserves congratulations.”

***

Indeed everything about Pather Panchali was unprecedented. The casting of characters, the creation of environment, the re-creation of Nischindipur where the actions unfold, the cinematography, and — finally — the background score: I repeat, every single aspect of the film was unprecedented. Apurbo!

Since that evening the sense of loss has never surfaced to torment me. After watching the film I was convinced that the Good Lord had created Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay to write Pather Panchali, and that very Lord had created Satyajit Ray to transcreate the novel on screen.

Nabendu Ghosh and his daughter, Ratnottama Sengupta

Nabendu Ghosh (1917-2007) was a dancer, novelist, short-story writer, film director, actor and screenwriter. His oeuvre of work includes thirty novels and fifteen collections of short stories. As part of a team of iconic film directors and actors, he was instrumental in shaping an entire age of Indian cinema. He was the recipient of numerous literary and film awards, including the Bankim Puraskar, the Bibhuti Bhushan Sahitya Arghya, the Filmfare Best Screenplay Award and the National Film Award for Best First Film of a Director.

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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. 

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Feisal Alkazi’s Enter Stage Right

Title: Enter Stage Right: The Alkazi Padamsee Family Memoir

Author: Feisal Alkazi

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books, 2021

The tremendous vitality and ferment in the Western music scene was very much a part of our growing up. From the Beatles to the Rolling Stones, from Janis Joplin to Joan Baez, from The Who to Santana, lyrics of protest set to unforgettable melodies and dense instrumental tracks were to be heard, absorbed and danced to.

And did we dance! Every Saturday night a bunch of my friends and I could be found ‘grooving’ for at least four hours at the newly opened The Cellar in CP (as Connaught Place was known) or Wheels at the Ambassador Hotel. The Cellar was the beginning of the discotheque culture in Delhi, and we were among its first patrons, adorning the ceiling with our names etched in smoke! Foreign hippies in their lungis and tee-shirts, high on ganja or whatever else, brought an edge of curious excitement to our Saturday nights. After all, we were the Dum maro dum generation! The Cellar was situated in the basement of Regal building and the excitement and apprehension of being in Connaught Place at night lent its own thrill to every visit.

 Wheels near Khan Market drew a different, older, more sedate crowd, the yuppie professionals of south Delhi, whom we could elbow off the floor with our vigorous dance moves. In a Gadda da Vida and Hotel California were our favourite dance tracks. We did this from the ages of seventeen to twenty-three. Seven years on the dance floor every Saturday night! Talk of Saturday Night Fever? The phrase could have been coined for us.

All four of us were children of practicing artists and performers. Books lined the walls in all our homes, divans were draped with handloom bedspreads and the walls covered with contemporary art, arresting photographs, classical sculpture or an occasional African mask. Food was often a Burmese dish of noodles and soup called Mahmi, or a detectable Bohri mince pie or best of all, hot chicken patties from Wengers.

Our parents were friends, part of a large and growing circle of artists, who had chosen to gravitate to Delhi and to live in or around Nizamuddin. Gaitonde, Ram Kumar, M.F. Husain among others were part of this charmed circle.

 The ‘younger’ lot of artists, somewhere in age between our parents and us, were Eruch Hakim and Nasreen Mohamedi. We would occasionally drop in at their barsati-cum-studio apartments, to watch them create their black-and-white drawings. Nasreen introduced us to green tea, Eruch was always ready to roll a joint.

There was an amazing camaraderie and willingness to help one another within the artist community. They were beyond friends, they were family. When the Mehtas relocated from London to Delhi, they stayed with us for the initial month. When Pablo’s parents travelled to the US for a year, as Richard won the prestigious Rockefeller scholarship, Pablo stayed with us. Going out of your way to help a friend in a very tangible way was an integral part of my mother’s personality.

Husain was already an icon in Indian art, an artist who stood apart with his characteristic white beard, long paintbrush and bare feet. Tyeb was more quiet, the ‘intellectual’ of the group who had recently returned from several years spent in London, Krishen had only just given up his regular job in a bank to become a ‘full-time’ artist.

Husain enjoyed gathering many of these families together, bundling us into his Fiat with his iconic horse painted on it, and dragging us off to see Helen dancing in Inteqam at Golcha Cinema in Old Delhi, followed by a meal at Flora in Jama Masjid. He knew exactly what time Helen’s dance sequence was, so a large group of us would walk into the hall minutes before the dance, and exit immediately after it was over. A compliant management and Husain, the charming smooth-talker, made such a privilege possible.

It was my first encounter with Old Delhi at night with its crowded lanes, women in burqas, the smell of frying kababs, the flavours of dum pukht biryani and the call of the azaan. I wondered if this was similar to Mohammed Ali Road in Bombay where my father grew up. It was an alien, exotic world aeons away from my Westernized, though bohemian, childhood in south Bombay. Little did I know at the time that I would soon spend ten years working in Old Delhi!

About the Book:

Bombay, 1943. The young Parsi actress who was playing Salome in the newly founded Theatre Group’s production of Oscar Wilde’s eponymously titled play drew the line at performing the Dance of the Seven Veils, a sort of ‘Biblical striptease’. So director Sultan Padamsee’s 19-year-old sister Roshen stepped in. And met the handsome, intense Arab who played the male lead-Ebrahim Alkazi. In 1946, they were married. Thus was forged one of the greatest alliances in the world of theatre and art in post-Independence India.

Ebrahim Alkazi took English theatre from its early beginnings in Bombay to national and even international acclaim as he directed and acted in more than a hundred plays, ranging from Oedipus Rex, Murder in the Cathedral and Macbeth in the 1950s, to Ashadh Ka Ek Din, Andha Yug and Tughlaq in the ’60s and ’70s. As director of the fabled National School of Drama from 1962 to 1977, he launched some of the finest actors of our times, including Om Shivpuri, Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, Rohini Hattangadi, Manohar Singh and Uttara Baokar. The chief costume designer and seamstress for all his productions was Roshen Alkazi. In 1977, when Ebrahim and Roshen decided to open Art Heritage in Delhi, it gave a new dimension to the world of art, as the leading artists of the day, including M.F. Husain, Krishen Khanna, F.N. Souza, Tyeb Mehta, K.G. Subramanyam and Laxma Goud, flocked to this space that was not just a ‘commercial’ gallery, but a foundation for documenting and preserving the arts. With more than 50 rare photographs, Enter Stage Right is the story of theatre in India as it has never been told before…to be treasured by theatre buffs, and savoured by anyone who loves a good story.

Author Bio:

Educationist, theatre director and activist, Feisal Alkazi has carved out his own niche with his group, Ruchika. He has directed over 200 plays with adults in Hindi, English and Urdu. He has also directed over 100 productions for schools all over India, and in the field of disability, he has directed 30 documentary films and produced several plays.


Photo credits: Ram Rahman:15-Feisal Alkazi and friends in The Cellar, a discotheque in Delhi 1975

Alkazi Theatre Archives: Jaffer Padamsee and Kulsum with Sultan_Bobby (standing right), Roshen (standing left), Bapsi (seated centre), Zarine (seated right)

Excerpted from Enter Stage Right: The Alkazi/Padamsee Family Memoir by Feisal Alkazi. Speaking Tiger Books, 2021.

Click here to read the book review.

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The First Travelogue by a Bengali Lady from England in 1885

Excerpted from A Bengali Lady in England: Annotated Translation with Critical Introduction to Krishnabhabini Das’ Englandey Bangamahila. Translated by Nabanita Sengupta: Published by Shambhabi, 2020.

From the Introduction

Englandey Bangamahila is an important text that highlights the socio-cultural history of that period and conforms to the dominant ideologies of the nineteenth century. But beyond all these, there is a distinctive woman’s voice, sympathetic to her fellow sufferers. In fact, her concern about other Bengali women, trapped in the traditional Bengali society is the driving force behind this text. Krishnabhabini Das’ overwhelming concern about the fate of the Bengali women visible in the issues she chose to represent in her text makes her narrative one about the subjugated women of Bengal. The persona of Krishnabhabini is built up through the way she perceives the existence of her fellow sisters as opposed to the relatively free women of England. The author becomes inseparable from other women of India who faced the doubly bonded life at every moment of their existence. It reminds us of Rowbotham’s concept of ‘collective consciousness’ that goes into the making of a woman’s self, as discussed in Susan Friedman’s essay, “Women’s autobiographical selves: Theory and Practice”. It is this collective consciousness which constitutes Krishnabhabini’s psyche and identity.

In Friedman’s words it is actually a “sense of shared identity with other women, an aspect of identity that exists in tension with a sense of [her] own uniqueness” (44). It is this tension between the individual identity and the shared identity which adds to the complexities of women’s life writings. The individual identity of Krishnabhabini as a woman enjoying relatively greater freedom compared to her fellow sisters contradicts the identity that she gains in solidarity with them. These issues together make Krishnabhabini’s work more complex than a mere travelogue.

Nationalism and travel writing being two important concerns of the nineteenth century Englandey Bangamahila has often been examined under these lenses. As pointed out by Simonti Sen, “Krishnabhabini clearly resided with her co-travellers in the space constitutive of the nation. Her travel account is cast in the usual frame that separates the ‘backward East from the ‘progressive West’ and engages with all the stock-in-trade nationalist questions” (Travels to Europe 23). But what has been ignored under the impact of these more dominant concerns is the effort that underlies the making of this travel narrative. It is more than evident that for a lady with her background and situation it was not possible to have access to all the places and details she describes in the text. She must have had recourse to other texts on England. The question is how did she use them? Does her use of such text add a special dimension to her narrative?

British Woman

Among the affluent there are many women who are completely given to luxury. They leave their home and children to their servants’ care and spend their time indulging in music, fashion or reading novels. But how can I blame them for this? In almost every country it is seen that the rich women are lazy. Everywhere, surfeit of wealth is the root cause of a luxurious living. Women build the foundation of a family. So if the women in general had been lazy here, then the British household could not have run efficiently and England too would not have developed so much. I feel that they are the true counterparts of their men. The way these women help their men and at times even do men’s work are things that we almost never see in our country. Apart from their own work, these women can also execute men’s jobs efficiently. They often run shops, work as clerks, teachers, write books and contribute in newspapers, arrange meetings and accomplish much more. Women constitute half of a country’s population: their aversion to work and inclination towards laziness harm the whole nation. British women have not restricted themselves to just household chores. They cooperate with men in many other works; great tasks are being accomplished here and there is so much of progress.

British women who live in India are extremely lazy because everything they need, including servants, come quite cheap in this country. Also, they do not care much about money as their husbands earn a high salary. Food, fashion, gossiping, music and strolling in the open air are their chief preoccupations. Taking these women as models, the Indians consider all British women to be babu[i]. There was a time when I too believed that all British women were lazy, but after seeing everything here, that impression has changed. I have been greatly surprised to see them capable of as much hard work, tolerance and diligence as men. Instead of just aping the manners of these women if we can imbibe their virtues, then perhaps we shall be truly benefitted.

England provides a lot of opportunity for women’s education. There is no dearth of good schools or colleges for girls in cities here. In almost every neighbourhood in London there are two to three girls’ schools. Nowadays in the universities of London, Oxford and Cambridge, women can get the same education as men. In the University of London[ii], women receive education together with men, attending the same classes and under the same professors. They pass the same examinations and receive the same degrees. Though the examinations here are tougher than the B.A and M.A examinations of our country, many women competing with men pass these and often score much higher marks. In London, there is no dearth of women who hold university degrees like men.  One can often hear names such as Miss Smith, B.A, Misses Jones, M.A, etc. Now women do not hesitate to participate even in those tough examinations which few men take up. This proves that women are not inferior to men in terms of intelligence; the fact that they have achieved as much as men in spite of all the hurdles they face actually prove their superiority. I have heard that in North America, women can attain the high posts of judge, barrister etc, and preside over legal cases as men do. All the upper-class women are quite well-educated! The British women yet do not take part in professions that might require higher degrees of efficiency than teaching or practicing medicine. But here too, there is such a progress in the field of education that it seems quite soon the British women will surpass the American ones in this regard.

I cannot express the extent of happiness that I feel when I see girls and young women going to schools and colleges in groups like the boys and young men. Here the girls too go to school from the age of six or seven till they are twenty to twenty-five. Many women are not satisfied even with this. Like the educated British men, they continue their pursuit of education till the end of their life. Here there are many women who are authors, scholars and scientists. In certain aspects the women dominate men.  Best of the novels of recent times have come from women authors[iii].

In the provinces girls not only study but also learn stitching, knitting, music, physical exercises and at times even cooking. British parents take good care so that their daughters can learn all these skills. They take equal care to impart education to both their sons and daughters. There is no lack of female teachers here and that is why while appointing teachers for their sons they do the same for their daughters as well, spending almost an equal amount of money for both. Not just in the rich households, but even the daughters of middle class houses pursue education and learn music and other necessary art forms till they are eighteen or nineteen. Parents spend liberally till their daughters become skilled enough in all these subjects. They feel happy to have done their duties towards their daughters. Compared to India, here the girls belonging to lower classes are much better educated and more intelligent than their counterparts in India. In this country, barring the lowest strata of society, almost everybody’s daughters and wives can read, write and play on the piano. Almost everyone is skilled in household chores and dress making etc.

Along with their intellect, British women take adequate care of their health. In almost every girl’s school there are facilities for physical exercises and games. In many cases, women are as expert as men in games like gymnastics which require physical stamina. They are also at par with men in walking, horse riding, running, and lawn tennis.  I have often seen many such women who are stronger than many Bengali men in terms of both physical and mental strength. I doubt whether an Indian man would be able to walk as much as an upper class British woman does. Also, the women here are stronger and more industrious than the women of other European races. It is said that an Italian lady does not walk as much in a year as a British lady walks in a day. So it is not surprising that such strong and industrious mothers will bear healthy and strong children who, will later grow up to be brave, spirited and hard-working British men.


[i] The word babu discussed earlier, refers to those nineteenth century men who spent their time and money in luxury and foppery. But  interestingly, though it is used for men in Bengali society, Krishnabhabini confers this on the rich and idle English women given to laziness.

[ii] Though the author presents an almost utopian view of women’s education, it was not until 1878 that the University of London opened its doors to women. According to the brief history of the institution provided in their official website “in 1880, four women passed the BA examination and in 1881 two women obtained a BSc.”

[iii] Victorian novels were dominated by women authors, many of whom have obliviated from public memory in the later years. Nineteenth century saw prolific novelists like Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835-1915), also known as the “queen of circulating libraries” who authored about eighty books; George Eliot (1819-1880), one of the most learned and scholarly writers of her times, whose chief concern was the contemporary society and women; Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865), immensely popular in her times though not remembered much by posterity, her most popular work was Mary Barton, her contribution to the ‘condition of England’ novels along with Dickens, Disraeli and others. There were many more women novelists in this period, the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Fanny Burney to name a few.

About the Book

Englandey Bangamahila is the first travel writing by a Bengali woman in England, published in 1885. This book is a documentation of the 19th century England—its strength and prejudices, as seen through the eyes of a twenty-year-old woman, Krishnabhabini Das, a housewife belonging to an orthodox Hindu family. Krishnabhabini did not believe in social taboos and went against quite a number of them like travelling abroad, educating herself, not adhering to the 19th century views of motherhood. Her book too was iconoclastic in a number of ways, including its bold criticism of British imperialism and other aspects of British culture. Written from the perspective of a doubly marginalised individual, this book is a rich study of ethnography, culture studies, postcolonial studies, 19th century nationalism and gender studies.

Author’s Bio:

Born in 1864, Krishnabhabini Das was an iconoclast woman who, in spite of being married into an orthodox Hindu family, worked for the development of women throughout her life. She travelled to England in the 1880s with her husband, leaving behind her nine-year-old daughter. Though the trip enriched her in various ways, it also led to a long separation from her daughter who was married off at a very early age. She, being far away in another country, could not stop her child’s marriage. Krishnabhabini wrote a detailed account of the British lifestyle during her stay in England in her book Englandey Bangamahila and after returning to India continued with her social work and writings in the leading periodicals of her times. She died in 1919 leaving behind a lifetime of work regarding upliftment of women.

Translator’s Bio:

A translator and creative writer by choice and teacher by profession, Dr. Nabanita Sengupta is presently employed as assistant professor in English at Sarsuna College, affiliated to the University of Calcutta. She is also associated with two literary societies – Intercultural Poetry and Performance Library and Kolkata Translators’ Forum. Her poetry, fiction and non-fiction have been variously published at places like SETU, Borderless Journal, Muse India, Coldnoon, Café Dissensus, NewsMinute.in, News18.com, Kitaab.org and Different Truths. She also has a number of critical writings to her name and has presented papers at various national and international seminars and webinars. Her latest publication is A Bengali Lady in England: Annotated Translation with a critical Introduction to Krishnabhabini Das’ Englandey Bangamahila.

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Parenting Children

Title: Raising a Humanist; Conscious Parenting in an Increasingly Fragmented World

Authors: Dr. Manisha Pathak-Shelat & Kiran Vinod Bhatia

Publisher: Sage, 2021

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Chapter 1: What Is Your Child’s World View?

The Big Three: How Family, School and Media Shape Our Children

Family, school and media are the three most important building blocks constituting children’s world view. While families and schools allow children to learn and practise norms and codes of conduct acceptable to the communities and countries in which they live, the media is a channel that connects children’s local environments and the outside world. Children’s perceptions of how power and politics work in the world, how to make sense of realities which they cannot experience first-hand, their mental images of people and places and their perception of their own place in the world are largely influenced by the media.

Let us look at an example. Young girls learn about gender roles dominant in their immediate communities from family members, teachers, friends and peers through routine interactions.

Many families and communities in India, for instance, want their girls to be fair because only fair skin is considered to be beautiful.

Fair becomes synonymous with lovely. In many schools, fair girls often act as female protagonists in theatre activities and other school programmes, such as cultural dance performances and video making. Many young girls are raised on a staple diet of the following aspirations.

Fair is lovely!

• You must try to make your skin look fair.

• If you have a dark skin, you must resort to chemical treatments/facials/and other cosmetic procedures to lighten your skin colour.

• Girls should not play sports because exposure to the sun will darken their skin and make them look ugly.

• Girls who have a dark skin shouldn’t wear certain colours because those colours will make their skin look darker.

• For matrimony, only fair girls are in demand. If your daughter has dark skin, it will be difficult to find a match for her.

As is evident, families and communities instil in children the obsession for fair skin through daily communication and practices.

Gradually, it also translates into discrimination against dark-skinned people, that is, considering them less valuable or beautiful.

This obsession over fair skin is then reinforced through media narratives where famous celebrities endorse beauty products designed to make girls look fair and lovely. The media acts as a bridge between children’s local experiences and the trends and practices dominant in the outside world. It is, however, important to realize that popular culture in the outside world of children and everyday experiences in their immediate surroundings happen simultaneously and constantly feed off each other.

Children are socialized on the basis of an interaction between what they observe and practise at home, in schools and communities and how these patterns of thoughts and actions are normalized and justified through media and popular culture. What is significant in this spiral of socialization is the interdependence of these two worlds.

Media: Constructing Social Realities

The media often acts as a lens through which children witness and participate in the outside world. It performs two critical functions in socializing children. First, it informs and influences the aspirations of children in relation to how they should position themselves in their societies. Second, it legitimizes several social practices and interactions. For instance, young children who have been raised on the staple diet of item numbers often sing, dance and appreciate these songs in their routines. We observe that many child contestants on children’s talent shows in India such as ‘Dance India Dance’, ‘India’s Got Talent’ and others are encouraged to perform seductively on item number songs to become more popular and get more votes. Repeated and continuous exposure to such TV content normalizes the act of sexualizing children’s bodies and encourages children to look at themselves using the same lens. They may also develop the fear that if they do not do this, the attention and love they are receiving will be withdrawn.

It is important to note that the role of the media is not limited to just representing the society as it is. It not only selects trending issues of popular interest but also encourages individuals to understand these issues in specific ways. For instance, for years, item number songs in Bollywood movies were not criticized for sexualizing and objectifying female bodies in harmful ways.

Also, the portrayals of protagonists or female leads in Bollywood movies as fair and thin reinforce the stereotype that a girl must be fair and thin to be successful in life. In many movies, their role and character are ornamental; that is, they provide diversion and comic-relief through extremely sexualized songs and dances. Media portrayals thus compel us to think of beauty among women in a limited sense—fair, thin, unquestioning and yielding, and to believe that their role in the society is limited to ‘serving the men’.

Media often represents a selected part of reality and what they want to show. For instance, during a religious conflict, voices that are strident, violent and radical always draw the maximum attention from the media, thus skewing our perception of a community. In each religious community, there are fringe voices and there are people who are working hard to initiate interfaith dialogue and to establish peace between different communal factions. These voices are never heard on prime-time news channels because voicing of moderate opinions seldom boosts their TRPs*. On the contrary, sensationalizing issues help news channels sustain and/or increase their viewership and revenue earned from advertisements, sponsorships, partnerships and other forms of economic and political alliances. When children and adults consume media stories that sensationalize differences between religious communities, individuals start believing that their religion will ultimately decide their fate in the world. Constant exposure to and consumption of such biased media stories can influence children’s everyday interactions with those from different religious communities.

When all that children can see and hear in their families, schools and media is discrimination and stereotyping, how will they find the resources to imagine a different reality?

Of course, the media has a great potential to present new possibilities and to enable individuals to reimagine ways of being in the world, but mainstream media companies are more driven by revenue generation than by democratic morals and values. If they make their audience uncomfortable, they risk losing their viewership and so they prefer to align their coverage with the dominant thoughts, practices and values in the society. When children consume media uncritically, they reproduce in their routines the aspirations and lifestyle choices projected by the media. This is how the media socializes children to behave within religious, gender, class and caste norms that benefit powerful groups in the society.

*Target Rating Points

About the Book

The world is immensely divided and broken. We have lost the art of having conversations with those who are different from us. While we cannot change the world, we can take small remedial steps starting with our homes and communities.

The authors—communication scholars—with a vast experience of working with parents, teachers and youth engage you in a conversation that is bound to leave a lasting impression on you, your children, and our world. Using critical questions, pragmatic tips and interesting anecdotes, they touch upon the deep divisive issues of our society and provide fascinating ways to use art, technology and media to provide our children with a nurturing community.

Bold and provocative at times, this empowering book is your companion in raising a humanist.

About the Authors

Dr. Manisha Pathak-Shelat is a Professor, Communication & Digital Platforms and Strategies, and Chair, Centre for Development Management and Communication, MICA, Ahmedabad. A widely published scholar, Manisha has taught and worked as a media consultant, communication trainer, and researcher in India, Thailand, and U.S.A. Manisha believes in scholarship that is socially engaged and accessible for making meaningful contribution towards a better world.

Kiran Vinod Bhatia is a doctoral candidate at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Bhatia has published widely in journals of international repute and has co-authored a book on media education and critical literacy. Bhatia believes that critical education and thinking have the potential to change the ways in which we engage with others in our societies.

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